Practice 01

Befriending a Tree

by Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder

Emergence practices offer meaningful ways of connecting to the living world, inviting you to bring an element of one of our stories into your life. Inspired by the multimedia piece “Time to a Pin Oak,” this practice invites you to broaden your perspective of place through the simple practice of befriending a tree.

After moving to a new city, I decided to befriend a tree. What would it mean, I wondered, to spend time with a tree over a period of months, or even years? What could a tree teach me about being in a place?

I’ve read books about trees—books in which scientists and researchers parse trees apart, from apex to taproot, revealing what they’re made of and what they do. I’ve admired trees along walks in the woods, or through apartment windows. I’ve sat against them, climbed them, collected their leaves. But what, I thought, do I really know about trees? The answer to this question, it seemed, was not in a book or a scientific journal. It was not one search away on Google. I wanted to understand trees not as a broad category of ecology, but as living beings. So I set out to find a tree.

I thought it might take a week of exploring new neighborhoods and parks before I found a tree that seemed right. But when I set out from my apartment on a September morning, I somehow walked straight to the pin oak in Deering Oaks Park, standing tall and elegant in the late summer sun, endless leaves waving and whispering some ancient oak language.

I approached the tree until I was standing several feet from the trunk, the canopy above vastly greater than my field of vision. I admit to being a bit unsure of what to do next. How do you introduce yourself to a tree? I put a hand out to feel the gray-brown bark. “This is a living being,” I thought, and the thought surprised me. Trees are alive! I knew this, of course, but had never taken the time to think about what it meant. Here is a life.

I circled the trunk. I looked up into the branches, wondering how a tree could keep track of so many swoops and turns, twigs and acorns. I walked a hundred yards away, trying to see the whole tree at once, remembering that the roots beneath the mowed grass are invisible to my eyes. I walked back again.

I visited the tree for several months. I laid down in the grass and watched the birds alight on the highest branches and then take off into a blue sky. I leaned against the trunk as the squirrels scurried away with acorns. I saw the leaves turn brown and wrinkle, and one morning they were gone, fallen from the branches and already collected by park management. I checked the tree after wind storms. I researched pin oaks and learned that they drop their acorns only every two years. I invited the city arborist to meet me at the tree and tell me the history of the park. I introduced the tree to my husband and then to my father, brother, and mother. Some days, I brought my camera and took photos, some days I brought a notebook and pen, other days I brought only myself. Mostly, I tried not to do at all, though not-doing was hard. I tried to listen to the tree. I tried to feel the life beneath the bark. I tried to see the pin oak in the present moment, on this day, in this season.

I considered how being with the tree shifted my perspective of time. And I noted other shifts, some more subtle. Like any relationship, there was a slow, growing awareness and deepening familiarity that comes only with a long succession of shared moments. I began to see the tree differently, in some way that I couldn’t fully explain. And I began to see myself differently in relation to the tree. It was almost as though the practice of presence and attention was akin to that of a metalsmith forging a key. I still don’t know what it might unlock.

I invite you to befriend a tree. Sit against the trunk or lay beneath the leaves. Know that the tree’s branches above you welcome the changing sky; the roots below you are faithful and patient anchors to this place. Simply be. See what emerges.

One

Go outside and find a tree that you feel drawn to: perhaps in your front yard, growing in the park down the street, or newly met on a hike through the forest. Go out with the intention of dedicating time to spend with this tree. Set aside real, valuable time.

Two

Once you’ve found a tree that speaks to you in whatever way a tree may speak, introduce yourself. This could be a spoken introduction, or resting against the bark, or picking up a leaf from the ground and pressing it into the palm of your hand. Do what feels right to you.

Three

Try not to refer to the tree as “it.”

Four

Take a moment to quiet yourself. Let go of what is not here, in this moment. Here you are and here is the tree. Let that be enough for now.

Five

Sit or stand beneath the tree. Spend a couple of minutes simply observing the tree: notice colors, patterns in the bark, shapes of leaves, the smells around you.

Six

Now move away from observation and try to see the tree with fresh eyes. Let go of your ideas or expectations about what this tree is or should be. Allow it to enter into your imagination and surprise you. Where does this tree take you? What do you remember, feel, or think about? Consider the tree in the wider setting, the ecosystem.

Seven

After spending a few minutes with the tree, you may find that your mind begins to form questions for the tree. Some of them will seem silly and obvious; others won’t have words to go with them; others will be unanswerable. It doesn’t matter—go ahead and ask.
Questions such as: What is it like to be you? Are you cold? Can you feel those squirrels scurrying up and down? What are your roots doing? How do you experience time? How do you understand where you are? What does it feel like to be here?

Eight

You may already know—or choose to find out—the species of the tree, the age, the history, or you may not and prefer to simply be with the tree.

Nine

Make a point of returning to the tree three or four times over the course of a week or a month, or whenever you can. Spend a minimum of 30 minutes with the tree, simply being present. Notice what shifts in you—what you begin to see that you didn’t see before—as you get acquainted with this tree.

Ten

After returning to the tree again and again, you will begin to notice things you didn’t notice before. The tree will be more and more familiar to you, and you may begin to feel the seeds of a friendship forming. What does it mean to care for and befriend a tree? This is another question that need not have any definitive answers. You may, however, want to reflect on your experience and explore it through writing, photography, drawing, or another medium you feel drawn to.

Related Feature
Time to a Pin Oak
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Time to a Pin Oak

by Katie Holten & Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder

A Pin Oak tree in Portland, Maine, invites a writer and an artist into the deep mystery of time.

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