The Silence of Trees
It had been a long time since humans had been at peace with the earth. By the time my mother was born, the trees only chose to speak to a select few people. By the time she’d birthed me, they’d stopped talking altogether. The humans at large didn’t react to this silence. Most even came to believe that trees never talked in the first place.
People would laugh and scorn when I told them the sad story of the trees’ voices going mute, when our earthly friends turned to silent strangers. You see, the trees were displeased with how few of us took care of them. It seemed that humans were no longer interested in protecting the earth that had blessed them with so much. The trees saw a future where we turned against them, wiping them out entirely. Obviously, this frightened them, and they began to look on us in fear rather than comradeship. And by the time I was five, their ghastly vision had nearly come true.
Most trees were chewed up by Forest-Herding Robots to make room for new virtual placement wiring, and the others were choked out from the toxins used to exterminate the artists and elderly. The only place one could be sure to find a tree anymore was high on mountaintops, like near the town where I lived.
There were not many towns left like the one I grew up in. We were one of the last remaining towns that had real vegetables out of the ground and a library that had actual books. Looking back, I imagine the only reason we got away with that for as long as we did was because we were careful. Nobody was allowed to speak of books if we ever went travelling, and if any official wandered into town, we shrouded the library with a hologram tent, or hid the books underneath the computer floorboards.
As a child, I never really understood how wrong the world was. I didn’t understand why, even in a place like our little town, people still favored virtual reality over picnics and laughed at me when I said I wanted to teach the trees to talk again.
As a child, one only knows the things that are given to them. And what my mother gave to me was hope.
She always told me stories about a world that she and I hadn’t been born in time to see. She explained to me that, not only did the trees used to talk, but they used to dance as well. The trees would dance, birds would sing, and animals were allowed to roam free instead of being trapped in intensive breeding centers. What wonderful portraits she painted for me; images of grazing cattle and bright, green grass, and the trees with their long, healthy limbs and gentle wisdom; that was the thing that fascinated me most.
More than anything, I wanted the trees to talk to me.
Of course, everyone but my mother told me I was silly, always trying to find magic behind the most senseless, pointless things. When I would come home after being teased, tears stinging my cheeks like fire bolts, my mother would do nothing but pinch my chin, kiss my head and say,
"Trees die, but hope doesn’t."
I soon learned that trees were not the only thing that died. When our library was discovered and my mother was fingered as the mastermind behind the deception, she was taken away from me by faceless men all dressed in red. I kept crying, grabbing at their knees, begging them to tell me where they were taking her, but they never even looked at me.
My uncle, a quiet, gentle man who would stare coldly at strangers, was the one set to take care of me. Unbeknownst to him or any others, I had ensured that my mother’s legacy lived on through the floorboards of our old house. Every day, when everyone was caught up watching their solar spaces and dosing themselves with government-sponsored hallucinogens, I went to our old house, gently pried away the wooden flooring, and would choose a book to read.
By the time I was ten, I had memorized every novel I’d managed to salvage, and my longing for a conversation with the trees hadn’t withered. By that point I knew enough to keep such musings to myself, and one night I snuck out into the forest beside our little town, nothing with me but a naive anticipation in my heart.
I remember quite clearly how the leaves of the trees glistened, as if winking at the stars above. The night sky would leave gusts of silvery blue against the natural pallet of the forest, acting as a veil for the trees as they slept. Puffs of mist lingered here and there, dancing with the moisture of the breath that was churned in and out all around me. I knew then without a doubt that a forest was not just a senseless clump of land, but a living, breathing thing. As if I was standing at the centre of its body, I could feel the ground thrum with its own lovely heartbeat, every root and string of green connecting within the ground.
Blown away by beauty, I fell to my knees, content.
"I would like to talk to you," my voice seemed so feeble, unworthy of acknowledging such magnificent creatures.
The wind stirred, but no other life was heard. I thought my eye caught a creature scurrying through the wet grass, but I knew that was unlikely. There was nothing that encouraged my persistence, but I continued.
"I would like to talk to you, the trees."
No one offered a word in return.
"My mother... when she was around... she said you used to talk. And now that she’s gone... that memory is all I have left of her."
A scuttle, a sharp movement in the grass, then nothing. I looked to the ground, gently pressing my palm against it, trying to feel the heat inside the earth.
"I’d like to know that I’m not alone."
But the trees refused to open themselves to me. Confused and dejected, my child-like eagerness swiftly punctured, I crawled home, feeling empty.
Perhaps another child would have given up right then, and allowed the dreams of talking trees and free animals to become comfortable among other unreachable fairytales. I could have easily withdrawn from my dreams, and accepted what everyone but my mother had always told me: that there was no room for magic in real life. For some reason though, despair didn’t hold its sway. I opted for hope instead, as if certain that persistence up to the point of obsession would wake the trees from their vow of speechlessness.
I ducked and dodged among the social propriety of my peers during the day, only to find myself treading that dark little path into the woods once more. Once the cruel sun had fallen into the horizon, leaving nothing behind it but a world of gentle illumination and midnight-kissed fantasies, I snuck out, crawling underneath my uncle’s dreary snores, and didn’t feel at home again until my hands were covered in grass. That night, I decided that the trees would not respond to my blatant conversational attack; instead, I would have to get them to be comfortable with my presence first. So I nuzzled up to one of the more spiny Birches, petting its trunk, and allowed myself to fall asleep.
No prophetic or inspiring dreams came to me that night, nor did the trees make the faintest peep, yet when I awoke I felt so rested that it seemed as if my mother had never been taken from me. I covered up the grass stains and ignored the questions of my teachers, and held my little secret close to my heart. My hope was slowly morphing into faith- a faith that one day, the trees would hear me.
But I didn’t yet know how long it would take for them to wake up to me, or if there were some special phrase that needed to be uttered before they revealed their souls. Then I reasoned that the most efficient way of communicating to them was not through my own words, but someone else’s. Humbly, and rightfully so, I knew the great speakers and writers before my time would do far better in warming the trees’ hearts than my simple imploring ever could.
I decided it would be best to start them off with something to remind them of the endearing, child-like sensibilities that still had a chance to survive, and read them Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Caroll. By the time I fell to the whims of sleep with the book clutched tight in my hand, I felt that the air had grown warmer since I started reading, but noticed no other change.
"Your hands look guilty," my uncle said to me that morning. I could tell from his eyes that he’d already had several doses with his morning coffee.
"They are not guilty, dear uncle. In fact, they are more pure than they have ever been."
"Don’t you go talking like your mother, little one; I’d hate to lose you too, you hear me?"
"Yes, uncle, I hear you."
"Take care of yourself."
"Which means no books!"
"Yes, no books."
"And no strange questions."
Seeming satisfied, he slumped back in his chair, reaching for his remote viewing 3-D goggles.
"Good, child. Anything to study before you set off to school?"
"No, uncle. They teach us the same thing every day."
"Like that! No talking like that, alright? It makes it sound like you’re thinking too much."
I knew that it seemed like I was thinking too much, when really the problem was no one else was thinking enough. But there was no point in arguing this and bringing attention to myself. For the sake of my mother and her memory, and for the sake of the trees, I had to pretend that, even though I was odd, I was still deep down just like everyone else. I had to pretend that there wasn’t a scrap of wonder left inside of me, because, as they told us in school, ‘Imagination is dangerous’.
I remembered when those teachings were spoken out against, when we had the library. Yet even though that was only a few years ago, people acted as if such enlightenment had never touched us. They looked at me as if my mother had never existed.
As a matter of defense, I trained myself to speak up in class just enough to be recognized, but not enough to be honored. I would spend my free time staring out the window, trying to weave my way through our little row of houses into the daring pieces of green and brown of the trees. I hoped that perhaps the trees were anxious to hear what happened next in the story that I’d been reading them. Perhaps they would stay up just to make sure they heard the next part. Perhaps they would get so drawn in to the literary world that they would start talking to me.
I was too excited to wait for darkness, and it was just reaching dusk when I snuck out of the house, book tucked securely into my arm, to be greeted by the silence of the trees. Even in their sullenness, their gentle, wispy movements, I found them more comforting and humane then humans themselves. Without knowing these trees, I already felt very affectionate towards them, and was glad to be by their side.
"Now, where were we?" I cuddled next to what had quickly become my favorite Birch tree. "Ah, yes... Alice just met the Cheshire cat! What do you think will happen next?"
For a moment, I could have sworn I heard a purr come from my tree friend as I touched a nook in his branches. Even the wind quieted enough so that my little whisper could be carried into the farthest patches in the small forest. It seemed that every leaf was slightly curled towards my resting place, tentatively letting the information seep in.
After Alice found her way back out of the rabbit hole, I decided to brace them with something a little more intellectual, and managed to dig up my mother’s favorite: The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton. Being only ten I couldn’t understand it completely myself, but I assumed the trees could, and that was enough for me. It also seemed to say a lot about God, and I figured that if He was real, the trees would like hearing about Him.
That thought took me next to reading them parts of The Bible. I jumped from verse to verse, psalm to psalm, always avoiding the segments regarding sin, hell and death. My reasoning was that the trees already knew far too well the fruits us humans had labored, and needed no reminding of it through my recitation.
Although my uncle was hardly lucid enough to know what day it was, I could tell he had an inkling as to why I always had such ruffled hair and sleepy eyes. Mercifully, he never said a word to anyone, but constantly lectured me about avoiding books and inquisitions.
Perhaps the reason I was never found out was because by that point, most people in my town didn’t care. After all, many had been in cahoots with my mother when she’d illegally run the library, and I imagine there would have been a select few who would have been proud to hear of my quest. The rest were too stilled by drugs or washed out by lies to search for a certain sparkle of levity that now lay in their midst.
For what reason I cannot tell you, but being near nature like that did something wholesome and cleansing to my spirit. It was as if my whole body would sigh every time I was reading to the trees, and would say, ‘This is how it’s meant to be’. Very swiftly, I became at peace, which was a feeling I had not held since they’d taken my mother from me. Perhaps as a child I felt that through talking to the trees, I was also managing to talk to her. Perhaps I felt that like a tree has its roots all spread through the ground, the world had similar roots as well; roots connecting the grass to the air, and the air to the trees, the trees to writing, and writing to humans. It seemed I was healing a long-broken chain that had never meant to be severed.
As I got older, my choices in books became more varied. I would read them the experimental fiction of Jonathan Safran-Foer, the chillingly accurate depictions of dystopia from Franz Kafka and George Orwell, the sensuality of D.H. Lawrence, and the epic tales of Homer. As every page turned, and every word danced and bumped into the trees, I felt closer and closer to the better parts of the world.
Then one night, when I was fifteen, and had been reading to the forest for five years, a tree finally decided to speak with me.
The night when silence was broken was chilly and damp. Though my body and mind were that of a young woman’s, I still tiptoed like a child with a wrinkled book in hand, excited to visit my ever-silent friends. It is strange that puberty never brought with it self-doubt and cynicism; in fact, as the years went on, my trust in the trees had grown more and more. Though no tree made more than a happy rumble at my presence, I was surer than ever that one day they would open themselves up again.
Of course, no epiphany ever comes when we expect it, and I had no idea that the barriers between man and tree would open up in front of me on that seemingly average evening.
"It’s cold out!" I told them, as if they didn’t know already, and huddled next to my Birch, hoping he would somehow transmit some warmth. "I thought such a night could use something with a lot of heart." I then revealed the book from under my arm, holding up the cover to them, though I knew that even if they could hear, they wouldn’t be able to see. "You’ll like it, I promise."
I heard a little whistle, which I first thought was the wind. Then I realized that it was short and low, like something attempting song. Most importantly, it was right next to my ear.
Very carefully, holding in my breath, I moved a little bit away from my favorite Birch tree. Something in its trunk wove itself into flexible material, and I heard its stiffness crack slowly away. It began to tremble gently; shaking things off its shoulders, and very shyly took one of its smaller branches and waved.
I had been reading and speaking to this forest for five years, and now it was my turn to finally listen.
A very small voice, hushed, sweet, and docile, reached my ears. The tentativeness and humility struck me.
Everything in my body clutched itself up at the witness of a miracle.
"You’re really here?" I asked, feeling a swell of unpasteurized joy.
"Yes. We’ve always been here. Just quiet", its now limber branches carefully wove around like long, natural locks. "We’ve gotten quiet, and humans have gotten louder."
I swallowed, ashamed of my own identity.
"Don’t be. It was you who came to find us again. Help us find our voices. It was you who were able to remind us that humans can make more than evil and strife. Humans do have the ability to make something good. Reading to us reminded us of that."
"Everyone told me it wasn’t real. But I just knew it was. I would look at you, and feel life, and know that at one point..."
I stopped myself, embarrassed that I’d begun to ramble. The tree breathed out what sounded like a smile, and completed my sentence for me,
"This is what it was meant to be."
I was not hesitant to walk up to the tree and hold him. For I knew quite well that our connection signified far more than a personal relationship, but a bond between two entire nationalities, and a bridge between two very different worlds. The Birch put its branches around me, holding me in with their soft-spoken leaves.
"Your world will always have its way. But I want you to hold on to what you’ve found here. If there’s anything you must remember it is this."
He squeezed me again, more tightly this time, as a father would hold a child who had been wandering for many years.
"It’s not so much that we stopped talking. It’s that people stopped taking the time to listen."
Most of the trees are long gone now, even around the little town that I’ve grown old in. I understand that things have not taken a turn for the better, and there may no longer be any child that once thought as I did- that once longed to hear the voices in the trees. My time is soon to be up, and in less than a year I will be exterminated. But I do not feel weary in my soul. Any time I feel bitter about the state of the world, I take a walk far out into the wilds where a few patches of trees still grow. Their leaves gently brush against my skin, their roots feeding things in the ground. I sit down, breathe deep, and listen as they whisper.