A Tree Told Me Her Name...
Or At Least I Heard Something Marvelous
7 “But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
8 ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
9 Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
10 In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being."
Job 12:7-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
I don’t feel like I need a scripture to justify the story I’m about to tell. However, I recognize that by offering this poetic passage from a book depicting an audacious relationship between a man and his God, some may be more inclined to hear me. The story of Job, as told through the commentary of Liberation Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, is what saved my Christian faith and opened the door for my own anger, questions, and explorations of a new way to relate to God. The story I’m about to tell is also one of human and divine. I believe these are the kinds of stories we need to share with one another if we are looking for a new way forward, dismantling patriarchy, and leaning into other ways of knowing.
This morning I woke up early. I grabbed Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants off my nightstand and sat, clothed in my newly gifted "Love Your Mother" t-shirt, on the couch near the big front window, reading. This book is one that was recommended at the Mystic Soul Conference, an intentionally POC and queer-centered event I was grateful to attend in January. I was reading Robin Wall Kimmerer's wisdom on becoming indigenous to a place as immigrants, including the natural world. "Names are the way we humans build relations, not only with each other but with the living world," she writes.
I finished one chapter and remembered the male cardinal who had come by to the spot of the old bird feeder the previous owners had taken with them. I had hung ours there in hopes they would return, but it was nearly empty. I went out to fill it, and eventually ended up on the hammock hanging under my favorite tree in the backyard.
This tree is where I made my first offering to the land onto which my family moved recently. I offered tobacco that I removed from cigarettes - my entry point on attempting to offer something native and sacred back to the land as Kimmerer encourages and models throughout her writing.
I sat reading about Kimmerer’s field excursion with her students - how she struggled to balance the scientific with the wonder - how she spent so much time teaching the Latin names that she realized it was overshadowing the chance to be present to the natural world itself. (Ah, how the written word often obscures our relationship with other ways of knowing!) She writes, "I came to know that it wasn't naming the source of wonder that mattered, it was the wonder itself.....My job was just to lead them into the presence and ready them to hear."
I had been planning to ask the tree her name. I just hadn't found the right moment, where I was in the proper space to listen. With an orchestra of cicadas surrounding me, I leaned back in the hammock chair and placed my hand lovingly on her trunk. It was the right moment. I closed my eyes and listened. I expected to wait a long while, as if I had to start from a place of inadequacy - earning the right to know her name. (Patriarchal measures can seep into even these types of experiences if we are not careful to notice.) To my surprise, however, what I heard came very quickly - so clear and smooth. I wondered how long she had been waiting to be asked.
I opened my eyes and looked at my hand on her trunk. A line of ants was marching under my hand in both directions. Somehow this seemed important.
I came inside to look up the name meaning. Latin. "Marvelous." At that point, I realized I had listened well...or well enough to hear something communicated through Love.
Gutierrez, Gustavo, On Job: God Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (1987) Orbis Books.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2015) Milkweed Editions.