“On Encounters with Trees,” by R. Joseph Capet

Oct 26th, 2011 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

I have, for some years now, been accustomed to take a short walk in the evenings. During many of these I have had uncomfortable encounters with trees. Indeed, all encounters with trees are uncomfortable, if we are honest with ourselves. Such honesty is, however, rare and it is much more common that we choose to be oblivious to our own ineptitude in arboreal society. This merely compounds the problem.

Our troubles begin because, whether or not we will admit to it, all of us instinctively acknowledge trees. Most of us, not unjustly fearing the madhouse, generally refrain from verbalizing this acknowledgement and even stop ourselves from making gestures but behind the unmoving dignity of an apparently sane brow, silent small talk with a tree is nonetheless beginning. Perhaps, as the Norse claimed, we are descended from trees and so feel it would be rude to snub our cousins. I think it likelier, however, that we are simply apt to categorize trees with the elderly. Both have been around much longer than have we and so we believe them to have seen a large quantity of things which, for no sound reason, we imagine must have been marvellously more interesting than the things we have witnessed. In both cases there is also a macabre fascination which secretly wonders what secrets of longevity they will reward us with for what we patronizingly regard as the kindness of paying attention to them.

So it is that we begin to address trees. At first, we attempt to make ourselves feel less silly about starting this absurd conversation—born, like our conversations with the elderly, at best out of prurient historical curiosity and at worst out of our vampiric thirst for immortality—by trivializing it in our minds. It is simply an idle intellectual exercise—a bit of poetic whimsy and nothing more. This, we imagine, will throw God and telepaths off our trail before we get down to the real interrogation. Before long, we have abandoned this cover altogether and are earnestly trying to estimate the age of the tree and hence the cross-section of history about which it might be able to inform us. Then come the questions, invariably chosen without regard to the fact that trees are probably no more concerned with our comings and goings than they are with the comings and goings of squirrels. How long have you been here? Who planted you? Do you remember any great battles fought here? Hunts that passed by? Secret trysts of lovers beneath your boughs? (This last we throw in hurriedly, as though it is not the question that has interested us most all along.)

It is here that things begin to go downhill and the first faux pas is invariably our own: we like to imagine that trees enjoy our company. Just as with the elderly, we flatter ourselves that the highlight of their day must be our interlocution. Indeed, given their advanced age and reduced mobility, they must simply sit there and wait for someone with a more interesting life to come by and strike up a conversation. (The fact that we started this conversation, in part, because we hoped that their experiences had been more interesting than our own somehow gets shoved to the back of our minds.) Unbeknownst to us, their frustration is rapidly growing even as we are patting ourselves on the back for doing them this unbelievable favour.

The falsity of this concept should be much more obvious with trees. The elderly, being sentient, are apt to play the game along with us and pretend that we have not simply barged in upon a pleasant and contemplative solitude like a particularly gregarious dog might intrude on someone’s leg’s restful afternoon at the park. Trees, on the other hand, have no concern for our feelings whatever and invariably give us the cold shoulder. Despite this, most people will continue to pester them at length. Poets, in particular, are apt to cluelessly seat themselves by a gnarled root and begin to compose markedly uninspired verse about the poor tree’s many life experiences. Girls with books are hardly any better, however, (especially when the books contain poetry) in imagining that the supposedly relaxing silence while they are reading is anything less than unutterably awkward for the local flora.

No, I am afraid that trees, no less than the elderly, actually do lead meaningful lives of their own. Their existences are not merely calendars which record the passage of meaningless time in between the stops of young people to gab at them and they are certainly not such fools as to share the secrets of longevity with boors. This being so, it is time we learned the tremendous courtesy of not acknowledging them. For all that we pride ourselves on having legs, the fact of the matter is that most of us never go very far and the trees will know just where to find us should they ever want to talk. Moreover, when that day does come, I imagine we will learn much more if we have left them the time to think. Perhaps, by then, we will even have something worth saying of our own.


R. Joseph Capet is a poet, playwright, and essayist from the West Coast whose work,
in English and Esperanto, has appeared in a variety of magazines on both sides of the Pacific, including decomP, Taj Mahal Review, and ITCH.

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