The sound of leaves in a wind is my earliest memory.
When I was strolled in a pram, the branches above, bursting with leaves, were my first gift: consciousness. I emerged from this moment, long before recognising my mother or sister’s touch or my father’s voice. The moment was electric, a drawn-out hiss as gunpowder kegs of leaves were lit by a thrust of wind, exploding with marvellous sound.
The leaves, in memory, went from stillness to a Guy Fawkes merry whistle of life. Life! They blew over me in a ritual of stems, buds and serrations, sprinkling over the pram and my baby bedclothes. To this day it is as if those leaves were on fire because that crackling foliage has burnt itself so deep in me.
It took me half a lifetime to realise that, as they rolled and tumbled over my pram, those leaves came from places deeper than any memory. People say we come from the sea. We also come from these shepherds, these earth mothers, these trees. I know this because they told me so that day in the pram.
And learning to walk? That early childhood business of learning to get up and face life? My first memory of that is bumbling across my mother’s picnic blanket, arms outstretched to hug a trunk which was wider than my dad’s legs. It was a bole that stood tall and firm, its barky curve a smile warming my heart, whacking it open like a door.
To this day that door of my heart is open, always letting trees in.
Forests and woods are cathedrals. How can one not walk away from vast organ pipes of pines or firs without a secret smile, without a sense of solemnity, a slowness that comes from having sat among the great? Buddhists robe trees, ordaining them as monks.
Take a break from gardening, from digging, lifting and weeding. Drift into a copse of woods nearby. Sit on a crumbling branch in the woods near a beach here in North Shore, Auckland. Around you the trees get even quieter as they slowly eye you, take you in. Their branches are hands reaching out, rain-washed, aching to heal.
Sit and learn to be. Then they will circle around you, gather you in. Ancient wives and young women, they nod at you, twigs and leaves steadily knitting from the first dim beginning of seeds.
What are seeds? What else can they be (the trees say, only in this deeper silence), except that from which they come — the glisten in the eyes of the gods or the stars. The trees say we come from the sea, but they also say we were borne from there to land in their woody laps. See how their limbs lift up from the mysterious place of that great, pregnant belly: the earth, the earth, the birthing, fragrant earth.
See how each grass blade, each leaf, has the same curve which first dimpled your face in a smile in that pram, uplifting. This is where smiles come from, the trees say. Listen carefully, and you can hear the laughter among the trees, feel it as little teeth teasing and nibbling down your spine. Then the wind stops and the trees are flasks graven into stillness.
Those acorn trees sway, deep in a game of make believe. Their acorns chuckle to the ground, with mischievous caps, hands over eyes. They cry, We’re coming out, ready or not!
Over there, the rose bushes dream of Van Gogh. Daffodils, tulips, pansies, sweet-smelling stocks, azaleas … they don’t know what to do with their rainbow-box of finger-paints so they’ve tossed them in the air. There they float, among the crib-sized roots, and tease at the edges of words we call petals, stamens, blooms. They wait for fingerprints to come so they can be lifted up and have the look of blossoms that are looked at.
See among the roots all the mushrooms? They are trails of breadcrumbs leading to many homes. Peeping up from the earth, mushrooms also have curves. Little grinning darlings of bridal white, toast-brown and dove-grey. Tiny cats let out the bag. If you listen carefully, they murmur, We got here. We got here somehow. Does it matter how? “The role of objects is to inform us of the silence.”
I misremember. “To restore silence is the role of objects” — that’s what Beckett wrote. The trees and their friends tell me that that writer also misremembered. The silence never needed to be restored. You do.
I smile. After a long pause, the trees rustle, smooth out their skirts, leaf through small children’s storybooks again to speak in a language I can understand.
Turn back to my gardening. It’s a long walk down the road from the woods. I see tree fellers nearby have arrived. When they see me they wave me away, adjusting their earmuffs as they stand near their huge chipper on a trailer. Two are dragging trees into the chipper. The branches and roots are fingers clawing at the ground. “This is going to be very loud,” they say. “You might want to walk away.”
The chipper shudders, then screeches as it gobbles wood. I shove my hands over my ears, wincing. The howling of the chipper and the ground-up trees burst in my ears, drive me back up the hill. I would do anything to get away from what is being done to those trees. It is the deafening sound that tears at me, gets to me the most. The chipper is turning those beings into sawdust, vomiting them out of a long pipe into the stream nearby.
The trees are screaming. They are trapped animals in a slaughterhouse. They are being ground up and spat out. Can we hear them?
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