We’re Already Living in a Tree: My Winding Path to Environmental Activism (Part 9/10)

We’re Already Living in a Tree: My Winding Path to Environmental Activism (Part 9/10) May 21, 2016

Julia “Butterfly” Hill

There were other experiences too that fall that contributed to this transformation, quotidian but no less significant. There was the smell of burning leaves on the crisp autumn air one day in particular. There was the taste of raspberries from my backyard and the last tomatoes from my garden when I came from work. There was the sound of wild geese flying south, “announcing my place in the family of things,” as Mary Oliver says.

All of this culminated in my attempt to explain this shift to my wife. “If you want to go live in a tree, just let me know,” she said. I didn’t know how to respond at the time. Later, as I reflected on it, I thought, “We are already living in a tree.” I think that insight might sum up the shift in perspective I was experiencing.

A person might take that statement metaphorically, as a reference to our interconnectedness with nature. But it occurred to me that it was quite literally true. We are already living in a tree. Not in the way Julia “Butterfly” Hill lived in a tree, but in another, no less literal sense, I think. Our house is made of wood … and thus, of trees. The floors we stand on are made from trees. The walls are framed by wood from trees. The roof built of wooden beams and planks from trees. In a very real sense, I am living inside of trees.

That statement may seem pedestrian, pedantic even. But to me it seemed profound, because it really isn’t obvious to me, not in the course of my day-to-day life at least. I live in the illusion of separateness from nature … an illusion created by artifice. I am surrounded by “artificial” objects and structures that don’t seem to be a part of “nature” — even though they are. Wood from trees, metal from the earth, even the ubiquitous plastics ultimately originate from organic sources. All of this is nature … even me. Even my body. Even my thoughts and feelings are grounded in the electrochemical reactions of my brain, heart and gut.

But that is not my ordinary way of perceiving reality. My everyday experience of the world is still that of a “ghost in a machine,” interacting with a collection of objects “outside” of me. I am coming to understand that this illusion of separateness is crafted and maintained — not by a cabal of Illuminati in smoke-filled rooms, but by all of us collectively — and by me individually, in an effort to avoid in ineluctable fact that I am going to die someday. I hide from myself my immersion in nature so successfully that I can forget that I am already living in a structure made of trees. Just as I eat prepackaged food and forget that something died to sustain me. I do this so can bury a little deeper the knowledge that I myself will die and become someone else’s food — and perhaps millions of years from now be a part of someone else’s house.

But I have seen the other side, the other world that is this world. The trick is to keep this knowledge — this feeling — in the forefront of my mind, to resist the inertia of existence which forces it into the background. I struggle to resist the draw of distractions which place invisible barriers between me and that experience of participation. And then when I do manage to hold on that awareness, I still have to answer the really hard question … how to live with this knowledge? What does this mean for my day to day life? — that’s what my wife wanted to know  when she asked me if I wanted to go live in a tree.

To be continued …

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