”Listen to the trees as they sway in the wind.
Their leaves are telling secrets. Their bark sings songs of olden days as it grows around the trunks. And their roots give names to all things.
Their language has been lost.
But not the gestures.”
Autumn is my favorite time of the year. It seems like the advent of autumn occurred overnight this year. It was such a hot, humid summer and I have longed for the days when I could sit at water’s edge outside my back window, without dripping in sweat. Well, it’s here and I’m filled with joy! Cool, ocean breezes blow up the channel and the pine needles carpet my deck and backyard. I couldn’t wait to don my new garden gloves and sun hat and tackle my autumn garden challenge. I have a new stone, garden path in my backyard and I am transplanting a couple of dozen perennials from pots into the ground along the path. So, with great zeal, I started digging. Almost immediately, I hit something hard in the hole. Roots! Lots and lots of pine tree roots!
One of the reasons we bought our Gray Goose Cottage three years ago was the canopy of pine trees in our backyard. They are majestic, reaching up several hundred feet into the sky and spreading wide, pine cone-laden braches over the yard and ocean channel. We love hearing the breezes rustle through the branches and watching the glistening sunlight reflect off the water onto the pine needles. Not only are the trees beautiful but they provide shelter and rest for squirrels and many different species of birds. It’s been fascinating to watch the power struggle for space on the bird feeder and how doves and rabbits share the ground underneath. These nature scenes are not unusual; they occur in millions of backyards every day. The difference is, as Jim reminds me ten times a day, “We’re retired!” and we can now witness and appreciate nature’s miracles. It’s a mindful opportunity that brings new insights to us every day.
When my shovel hit the tree roots, I felt a pang of guilt. Was I harming the trees that had become so important to me? When I kept hitting more roots, my pang became real concern. Maybe my planting wasn’t such a great idea after all. Maybe one cut root wouldn’t do any harm but twenty-five roots? This didn’t seem like good karma and maybe I should look for guidance.
Do trees feel pain when their roots are cut? According to Peter Wohlleben, a German forest ranger and author of the best-seller, The Hidden Life of Trees, trees have a social life.
“They (trees) can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.”
While Wohlleben’s views are certainly controversial, my intuition tells me that he is on to something, something that tells me that if I want to live mindfully, I should show compassion to all living beings, including trees.
Two Buddhist concepts come to mind in my contemplation of how I can mindfully relate to all living beings, including plants and trees – harmlessness (Do No Harm) and compassion. The commitment to being harmless is central to Buddhist religious life. The Buddhist word for non-harming is ahimsa, the same word Mahatma Gandhi translated as “non-violence.” Compassion alludes to our intentions – do we intend to hurt others in order to benefit ourselves? In The Essence of the Heart Sutra, His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote,
“According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s not passive — it’s not empathy alone — but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering. Genuine compassion must have both wisdom and lovingkindness. That is to say, one must understand the nature of the suffering from which we wish to free others (this is wisdom), and one must experience deep intimacy and empathy with other sentient beings (this is lovingkindness).”
In addition to considering the spiritual implications of cutting some tree roots, I did some internet research on the do’s and don’ts of tree root cutting. I found several articles that said pine trees are tolerant of root severance. More importantly, I was planting outside the trees’ “protected root zone.” Phew! Armed with my new knowledge and insights, I went to my backyard to continue my planting. I walked down my new garden path and looked up at the giants who have called this land their home far longer than I have. I thanked them for their strength, their service, and for making my life so very happy. I promised them that I would always honor them and never intentionally hurt them. When I sat down in my lawn chair, a pine cone dropped to the ground six inches in front of me. Yes, autumn has arrived!