Is the sky falling, or do trees have spirits? I find out one day.

The huge silver maple in front of our house in the parking strip began shedding sections of trunk and branches. I might have thought the sky was falling, until I saw the entire road blocked by wood. These weren’t a small inconvenience. They blocked the entire road, smashed cars parked underneath, and required emergency (and expensive) removal by tree services.

Needless to say, the city forester told us the entire tree has to come down. We’ve adjusted to this order, but every time I look at the plant, my heart contracts. It’s got to be about 120 years old, 75 feet high, and 15 feet in diameter. It’s kept us cooler in the summer and served as home to birds, squirrels, probably other critters I don’t know.

What I didn’t realize was the amount of affection our neighbors held for our giant. I’ve never met so many residents as I have in the past few weeks. Without exception, they all bemoaned the pending loss. I began to hope the tree is able to receive some of these good feelings as it prepares for termination. It’s given us so much, it deserves to know of our appreciation.

So I began to wonder if trees have consciousness or spirits? When I was a child of about eight, I thought everything had a life-force. Small animals, bugs, flowers, trees, perhaps even rocks and earth. I later learned this is called animism, the belief that all objects and creatures possess a spiritual essence, common in primitive cultures. Little did I know I was dabbling with philosophy and anthropology, but I managed to outgrow the cumbersome compulsion to apologize to every ant I stepped on or insure all my dolls received their bottles. 

However, my animism reactivated toward my tree. I think of what the tree must have been like when it first started growing. Since I live on the plains, prairie was all around, not forests. Did it grow from natural seeding, or did a human coax a sapling into survival? How many parents and children stood in its shade as it grew, thankful for its shelter? Did it feel pain when branches broke in blizzards?

There are religions and spiritual values that believe in the consciousness of all things, or at least living things. Some people who believe plants can feel and react, have systems similar to nervous systems of animals.

One of these was poet Joyce Kilmer. “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree,” he wrote. This classic exposition about a tree contains in its simple lines the entire relationship of living things to one another. “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree,” he finished.*

So when the noisy, violent chainsaws start up outside my house and bite into my maple, I hope on some level it realizes how much it will be missed.

*An interesting aside, Kilmer died in battle during WW I, cutting short his outpouring of poetry and making him one of millions sacrificed throughout the centuries on the altar of human brutality. No tree would put a bullet through a living thing’s life-source.