The Philosophy of Trees
The story I have to tell you today is not the story I wished to tell. In fact, I am loath to repeat much of it. I pray antiquity and modernity alike judge me not as an author, nor even as editor, but as a trembling witness. Reluctant to confess what he has seen, yet compelled by his conscience to reveal the devilry that took place at the autumn equinox on the outskirts of a great Carolina wilderness.
Whether it benefit you or not, reader, I must explain what innocent circumstances brought me upon this mystery. I cannot countenance anyone to think I would search out such thought or deed. If I had known what would occur, I would have fled those ancient and crooked pines.
My ill-fated venture began six days before the equinox when my local chapter of ornithology began circulating reports that were of the utmost interest to me. Locals of a certain mountain town were reporting signs of both Dryocopus Pileatus and Alcedinidae. Both rare species that I have long sought to observe. Upon hearing these rumors, and admittedly without ascertaining their veracity, I promptly notified my employer of my immediate absence until the following week. Securing a little cash and transportation, of which my benefactor surely would have rejected had she known the bedeviled thoughts her charity would unleash upon the world, I set out to find lodging near the reported sightings.
Half a day later I drove through the foggy conifers into a town near the fabled Clingmans Dome. Upon entering the town, the eldritch forest–as I would later come to think of it–cleared. In its place stood several dozen houses, a postal office, as well as a grocers and general store. It was evident none of this construction was from the current century, bespeaking the simpler architecture of another time.
Despite my conspicuous arrival in a town that, as I took it, saw few visitors, I was warmly welcomed by a man exiting the post office with a small brown package. Since I had not been sure where to go, I was driving slowly with my window rolled down. After a moment of obvious confusion, he adjusted his demeanor and hailed me to pull the old station wagon onto a dirt patch in front of the ancient building. After a brief introduction I declared my intention and my credentials, the latter of which he seemed to take no notice of, whereby he directed me to the only person in town who might possibly have any interest in communicating with ornithologists. Rather, I should say, he directed me several miles out of town, to a small estate known to belong to an eccentric writer and discredited scientist.
If only I could have known what that fateful advice would bring about, I could have thanked the man, turned around my mother’s old station wagon, and driven back east. As it stands, I was overcome with no such foresight and set out in earnest search of my host.
Even though the distance was but a few miles, it took several hours to find my destination. The roads at this point were merely dirt and gravel, if that. On one occasion I became so tired of driving that I pulled the car over to what one might call the side of the road. Fetching my binoculars, pencils, and notebook, I attempted to find some recuperation in my profession. Unfortunately, there was nothing in sight except common Mimus Polyglottos. However, I knew that a bit of rest would do wonders for my aching legs, so I resigned myself to illustrating the diving form of these common and brilliant creatures.
Once complete, I found my feet and legs rejuvenated and ready to continue the journey. It also reminded me of the simple beauty that I often overlook in everyday things. One with my experience and reputation might not incline to focus on something so familiar as Mimus Polyglottos, but the exercise revealed several things about the creatures I never before noticed. I took a note to publish a few thoughts about this in the university’s publication upon my return; a thought that would soon cease to be of any importance.
I arrived at my unexpecting host just as the sun fell below the trees. Finding the property surprisingly without a gate and unprotected by hounds, I parked a reasonable distance away. If the recluse should warn me off with a shotgun I would be safe, but if he watched my approach, he would hopefully see my friendly and hopeful demeanor. Just to be safe, I gave the horn a few taps and shouted a greeting.
Given the unusual hour for callers and my unexpected visit, I was surprised when my host opened his door. He greeted me with warranted apprehension, but without aggression. My assumption about a mountain recluse led me to expect a gruff and standoffish eccentric; I quickly realized my mistake. The gentleman who greeted me was of similar age and stature as myself. He was well-groomed and his manner of dress was oddly formal for the setting. I, without forsaking the safety of my vehicle, while he remained within a calculated distance of the door, began to explain this abnormal visit.
“Hello, I am calling after a doctor Miles Thales. Might that be you?”
Allow me to assure you: I was equally surprised at the following events as you will surely be. To be perfectly forthcoming, I had spent the drive fortifying my mind to the possibility that I would sleep the night in the cold back seat of this station wagon. Instead, and to my great delight, I was, within a few minutes, reclining in a comfortable chair by a low-crackling fireplace. A steaming cup of tea placed in my hands by a host that shew no signs of reclusivity nor eccentricism. Indeed, all evidence pointed to the contrary. The room I found myself in was undoubtedly equipped for entertaining. Furnished with comfortable arm chairs and even a fauteuil, encircling a warm fireplace, there was no doubt that I sat in a gathering space. But for what mysterious or scholarly pursuits, I could not say.
Across the fireplace sat my host. The young doctor Thales. Not a disheveled old man but well-groomed and young. He was certainly not a recluse, but was in fact positively excited to have a visitor.
“It’s certainly odd these reports would lead you here. I haven’t communicated with a university colleague in at least three years. However, I don’t expect you’ll find your journey was in vain.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, renewing hope that the elusive species I sought did indeed nestle in this quiet forest.
“Well, I admit I don’t know of the creatures you’re seeking. But there are many excellent foot trails beyond this property. I cannot quite describe the sensations, but I often feel that, when I walk through these trees, they speak to me. You said you have a few days, yes? So I entreat you, stay a while, and see what comes of it.”
I woke in the night to the reverberant melody of the majestic Bubo Virginianus. Not another sound was to be heard. But, I must admit, the hospitable manner of my reception was not enough to prevent me from creeping to my bedroom door, ensuring the lock was still securely fastened.
The house was empty the next morning. On the stove sat a kettle, the tea still hot. On the table, a few breakfast items and a note.
Help yourself to this breakfast as well as
anything else you find in the storage closet.
If you like, there is a hiking trail behind the house.
After eating what was set out, I regrettably found myself to still be quite hungry. With a tinge of regret, I foraged my host’s storage closet to find enough sustenance. His letter was no lie. The remaining supplies were meager, but as he was resupplying, and I felt it would not be wise to traverse a strange mountain on an empty stomach, I almost depleted the remainder of his store.
I now set out for what I hoped to be a fine morning of hiking; bringing, as always, my binoculars, notebook, and pencils. Oddly, at this late morning hour, the sun scarcely peeked over the hills and through the trees. Perhaps due to this, there was a late-hanging morning fog and refreshing dew suspended from each leaf. One might expect a wood such as this to teem with life, but to the contrary I found it almost eerily silent. I was neither able to glimpse the movement of a squirrel in a tree nor even the gentle glide of a cherry millipede, so common on a Carolina trail floor.
And with that, you know. I have explained myself, and you may plainly see how it is I arrived on that trail. You can also understand why there was no witness but myself, and why my own witness, due to an underprovisioning of food, may not hold up under scrutiny.
It happened only a couple hours later–shortly after the sun reached its zenith. Not long before I had run out of food and water, resolving to turn back only at the top of the next hill.
I have laid my regrets before you many times now. I shall lay them before you only once more. Had I only turned back, heeded the ire I felt in those trees, we should not now be speaking of what happened next. As it stands, I pray for your mercy.
He stood in the direct center of the path. An old man, with light skin and lighter hair. If I remember correctly, both hair and beard were long, falling below the shoulders. He was dressed unusually. Not in hiking attire like one might expect, although he was equipped with a walking stick, but something more akin to a desert nomad; a long tan robe and thick black boots.
After overcoming my shock at seeing another, I raised my hand in greeting, but no sound ever left my throat. Instead, I stood frozen in place, for it was evident something was amiss. The man, if that is indeed what he was, also stood frozen in place, staring intently at the nearest tree.
For a long while I watched him, wondering what he might see. As for my own profession, I was accustomed to staring for long periods in order to be absolutely sure of even the most minute detail. Yet, there was something different about his stare. As I mentioned before there was a foreboding absence of wildlife in this forest. Something I eventually attributed to a strange aspect of Hangman’s Dome. Perhaps he was not an Ornithologist like myself, but instead an Arborist who had just discovered some vital peculiarity in a species of his own interest.
It was only after a long and frankly loud growl of my own stomach that I woke from the trance. The two of us had stood for I know not how long; the man staring at the tree, me, at him. At this point my worry overcame my fear. I approached him, offering a tentative call. Do you guess the result? Of course. He did not move. Indeed, he shew not a sign of having heard me. At this I began to worry with increasing urgency. Had he been struck dead and yet remained standing by some devilish miracle? Was he frozen by some predator's venom? Would I soon be the next victim?
As I grew closer, I detected the slight movement of breathing. This discovery ruled out death, but not venom. A braver man might have run right up to this poor fellow, shaking him and calling for him to awake. I, however, now understand that I am not that kind of man. My steps were slow, cautious, even fearful. After my first call, I let out only a small, “Hello?” and later, “Sir?”
Finally, there was no option left. I was standing but a foot away from him–my whispers having no effect. It happened only when I grew the courage to touch his shoulder.
“There is no such thing as a tree.”
He had not moved a single inch, except his mouth as he spoke. In hindsight, I do not believe I saw his mouth move but I refuse to accept the alternative.
“There is no such thing. Look, what do you see?”
“You want me to look at the tree?”
“Look at what?”
Could it be some sort of jest? Had he seen or heard my trek behind him? Perhaps he planned this ruse to frighten me.
But I tell you the truth and I beg you believe me. Throughout what I have told and will tell, this man–this thing–moved not a single muscle, not a millimeter. I confess, previously I said he moved his mouth to speak but if I recall in all honesty, I cannot be certain he did.
“This is my discovery, this is their gift to me. Until this day we have seen through an abstract world that does not exist. Now, I understand. It begins with the trees. Do you understand that they do not exist?”
What other choice did I have but to respond? What is worse, to flee into the silent forest behind me, or to face the speaking terror before me?
“I am sorry. I do not understand. Certainly they must exist.” and at this, I walked over to the tree he stare so intently at, placing my hand upon the trunk. “Do you see? I rest my hand on the trunk of this tree. How could it not be real?”
“Oh blessed child. Oh deceived child. It is no tree that you rest your hand upon. A tree can only exist in your mind.”
Even in my famished and dehydrated state, I can assure you that my palm did sit upon the bark of a great pine tree. Not only that, but my feet stood and softly crunched its needles. There is no doubt in my mind what I beheld.
Changing my tactic, I asked, “Sir, are you well?”
For a long while he did not answer. Only, he continued to stare, as I wondered if he heard me.
Finally, he responded, “all my life I believed the truth to be out there, somewhere out in the universe. Perhaps even outside the universe. Now, I understand, at last, that it is only in myself.”
He paused, but I was intrigued and eager to hear more, so I remained silent and still.
“It was only at this spot, looking at this tree, that I woke from the dream. I lived in an abstract world, filled with ideas that could only ever exist in my head. Of course, my boy, you touch and see something that you call a tree. But what is a tree but an ordering of atoms in some particular way? What is an atom but an ordering of some even smaller element? There is no tree, only a blindness to reality. Only a shortcut to understanding.”
“You mean…”, I began, but did not finish.
“Which of these is the real tree? If it is not one of these, where is it? If I remove the leaves, does it cease to be a tree? What about the branches, the bark, the trunk, the roots? If I paint it red?”
At this, I began to feel the whole situation rather silly, if you can believe it. If it were not for the results of this encounter, I might indeed continue to think it so. For, although I was no trained philosopher, I had dabbled here and there during my days studying at the university. I remembered a thing or two about a rather fussy argument relating to the forms of ideas.
“Sir, of course the name of a tree is arbitrary, but that has no bearing on the reality of the thing I touch” – for I indeed still placed my hand upon the trunk, feeling rather awkward but unable to move – “we call them by some other name in each language and redefine and reclassify species all the time. You seem to be an educated man, surely you know this.”
At this, I felt my case was made, but his reply struck me down.
“How can I wake one from a dream who does not know he slumbers? You deceive yourself and allow your senses to do the same. It is not just the word that we have created for each other. The very form itself was created by our senses. Our perception is nothing short of a dream, a lie, made to represent a less oppressive reality.”
Our debate continued in this fashion for some time. Eventually, I was overcome with hunger and frightened by the sunken state of the sky. I bid this strange fellow come with me, but to this he did not reply. I then begged him to remain where he was, promising that I would return with help. I made my way back to the cabin as quickly as I could in my famished state.
Upon my arrival, it was now very dark indeed, the young doctor Thales greeted me with unmasked anxiety. Apparently, he had been quite worried at the late hour of my arrival, having understood that I had not returned home, due to my station wagon remaining in the driveway. As I explained the strange occurrence, he prepared me a meal. At my insistence, he and I ventured back out, bringing flashlights and extra water for the old man. However, upon our arrival at the top of that fateful hill, we found it empty.
Dear reader, do not mock me. You may wonder at the significance of this tale. To that, we now arrive. For, although my experience was rattling, it would not be worth recounting except to report a sick and missing person to the authorities.
No, it is what this tale has done to me, what it has unmade in me, that I must share.
The old man claimed that there was no such thing as a tree. He claimed perception to be a mask we place upon reality, a lie, a dream. I am afraid I have begun to awake from that dream, and I tremble at the thought of what that poor fellow experienced, if he did indeed burst forth into true reality.
For I now understand, I now experience that I walk around in an abstract world. What is it to walk? What is a world? What am I? All concepts, nothing real. Can you name a single thing that is not abstract? A single entity that is not packaged up by thought or perception because the human mind cannot comprehend what really takes place? You cannot. To name, to think itself, is to be abstract.
But, I am afraid, truly afraid, that I can no longer be abstract. The world around me slowly unravels. No, it is not unraveling, but for the first time it is becoming real.
The preceding letters were found among the few remaining possessions of one of my most interesting patients. The patient, who, for his privacy, will remain anonymous, was an accomplished scholar in his field. He was brought into my care at the behest of his mother, who reported strange behavior. This young man, still in his thirties, had become solemn and reclusive. He was no longer able to care for himself. Instead, he spent long hours staring at objects, often crying and whispering that it did not exist, that it was a lie. At first he and I would discuss these thoughts at great length. Eventually, he was no longer able to communicate. At the very end, it became clear that his mind had cleanly divorced reality.
His last words were, “Doctor, I do remember that is what you call yourselves, although I can no longer see you in such a singular form.” Shortly after, he died.