Sunday, June 23, 2019

Creating Connection In A Previously Disconnected World

“Teacher Tom, that tree is peeking out from behind those other trees.“ He made his observation as we sat together at the top of the playground. He enjoys telling me his observations, usually of the most mundane things, but often made poetic by his instinctive use of metaphor.

For instance, he once said, “That boy is an island,” while referring to a classmate who was standing up to his ankles in a stream of water run down the hill of our sand pit. “The clouds are building snowmen.” “That music is hitting my ears.” “My hair is making curtains on the side of my face.” It’s as poetic as it is descriptive.

I’m currently reading Peter Wohlleben’s bestselling book, The Hidden Life of Trees. It’s a fascinating read. At one level it’s a fairly mundane popularization of the science of trees and forests, covering everything you might want to know from seed to nurse log. On another level, however, it is magnificent metaphor. Instead of sticking strictly with “facts,” Wohlleben tells the story of trees as having friends and enemies, mothers and families, as suffering pain and joy. He writes of trees that have their own characters, of being bold or timid, generous or stingy. Wohlleben’s trees seem to have brains, capable of retaining memory, learning lessons, telling time, and having an ability to communicate and cooperate with one another. While it’s possible to dismiss it all as sentimental anthropomorphizing, it’s also impossible to ignore the clear similarities between the behaviors of trees and those of humans. And whether or not trees actually possess these traits and capabilities, his metaphors connect trees to human behaviors in a way that makes the stories he’s telling more poignant.

Wohlleben’s use of the metaphor of “migration” to detail how various species come to populate different regions over time, for instance, creates a story in a way that the dry scientific language never could. And, of course, it is intriguing to consider that trees may indeed have a social and emotional life similar to our own because in considering it, either as metaphor or fact, one is lead to insight and understanding far beyond what is possible to gain from more prosaic language.

Humans can hardly think without metaphor and simile. They allow us to compare our experiences with previous ones, finding parallels and shedding light, creating connection in a previously disconnected world, often in wonderful and surprising ways. Trees that peek out from behind other ones, boys who become islands; this is how we create our world. It is uniquely human, or, as Wohlleben makes me wonder, perhaps not.

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