Trees, Literature & Life

photo of the group taken by Roy Willman

by Ed Davis on August 31, 2012

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.”
—Herman Hesse

tree identification photo by Roy WillmanTree School

As we went around the circle and introduced ourselves, explaining what we were doing here at the Arc of Appalachia’s Forest School’s week-long Tree Identification Workshop, I suspected I was in the right place. But when the soft-spoken young naturalist from Cleveland said, “I believe trees are sentient,” then I knew I was. You see, the protagonist of Heartwood, my novel-in-progress, has been trying to convince me for some time of the possibility that trees not only can feel but communicate. And now here’s a young believer with whom I’d spend the week saying the same thing? Coincidence, synchronicity . . . or literature and life meeting head-on? I guess I’d soon see . . .

The Great Forest

First, I’ve got to tell you about the mythic place out of time that comprises the Arc of Appalachia. When I mention the name to locals, I mostly get blank looks, even though the Highlands Nature Sanctuary, the heart of the Arc, is only an hour and a half away from my home in Yellow Springs, Ohio, between the lovely towns of Hillsboro and Bainbridge, off Route 50 on Cave Road. Some that never heard of the Arc will brighten upon hearing “The Seven Caves,” the name of the former tourist attraction that became the first property purchased seventeen years ago by the non-profit grassroots organization. The Arc now seeks to preserve the remnants of our moderate broad-leaf forest biome by buying land and removing it from the economy, preserving the home of incredible species diversity.

According to, the Arc currently comprises fourteen pieces of land, “between the Scioto and the Ohio Rivers on the Ohio-Kentucky border [where] the forest-clad Appalachian foothills wash up like an emerald sea against the shores of the highly developed farmlands covering the Midwest, where the forest has mostly vanished.” The Arc recently even took over the management of legendary Serpent Mound from the Ohio Historical Society. You haven’t lived till you’ve hiked to the top of Barrier Ridge, right off the parking lot at Highlands Nature Sanctuary, one of many great hikes among the preserves prairies, wetlands and woodlands.

Woman on a Mission

Arc founder and director Nancy Stranahan taught our tree workshop. To my mind, she’s as much poet as naturalist and teacher; Nancy counts trees among her best friends, allowing a great many of them, including lots of tree “babies,” to inhabit her own nearby property. I met Nancy a couple of years ago at a Tecumseh Land Trust-sponsored event at Antioch University Midwest, when she presented her mesmerizing slide show on the once-great world forest biome, parts of which still exist in Europe and China . . . and the eastern United States! The latter includes something like 100,000 wildlife species and Nancy is absolutely dedicated to saving as many as possible from extinction. Immediately, she converted me to the Arc’s mission, since preserving land for future generations has also been my cause for a long time, too.

Into the Woods

For five glorious days in late August, we trekked through forest and field, meeting Nancy’s friends: towering, ropey-barked black locusts; carved-clay-sculptured chestnut oaks; shagbark, shellbark and bitternut hickories; tulips and leatherwoods; even a Kentucky coffeetree. But for me the workshop’s ultimate value lay in the complete package of being with the most like-minded, yet diverse (age, gender and race) bunch of folks I’ve ever had the pleasure to spend a week with. After our first day together, I decided I could easily spend a year with them in Beechcliff Lodge, even if we had to fix our own meals! Mastering the minutiae of tree identification mattered less to me than being in the woods INTERACTING with both trees and people simultaneously. I discovered that it’s the psychological and spiritual characteristics of trees which most interest me rather than leaf and bark structure.

Tree Talk

Returning to our circle on that first day and my colleague’s startling remark, I find myself pondering: what is “sentience” anyway? According to the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, it is “that which has sensation or feeling, a person or thing capable of perception by the senses; susceptibility to sensation, consciousness.” Trees? Consciousness? Preposterous! But if you hang out with them, really be still and listen, as empty as the wind, they will share the consciousness they possess: not human consciousness and not in sentences but in language that is composed more of silent witness than words.

Admittedly, I’m no expert at listening, much less hearing what trees have to say. However, some of our best writers have claimed to hear the subtle voice of trees. Herman Hesse, author of Steppenwolf, Siddhartha and one of my personal favorites, Narcissus and Goldmund, wrote in Wandering (the source of the quote with which I began): “When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: ‘Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from your mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.’”

These days, our endangered trees, under fire from human interference due to commercial development and globalization, are probably saying what my protagonist Maggie Absher thinks she hears them say (though of course she might be crazy): Save us.

P.S.—If you’d like to know more about the tree workshop or the Arc in general, don’t hesitate to ask. Maybe we could meet in the Sanctuary parking lot some Saturday morning and hike to the top of Barrier Ridge together—or walk the path from the Museum into the Valley of the Ancients to see some really old sycamores, hear what these wise elders have to say.

All photos by Roy Willman

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Cyndi September 2, 2012 at 4:16 pm

What a lovely experience! Thanks for sharing –


Nancy Watrous September 2, 2012 at 9:48 pm

Hello Ed,
My freind Kim, shared this blog with me Thank you so much for your thoughts. I, too, have felt this pull of connection, and gift of grace, while hiking among trees, or sitting each morning on my front porch. I took a half day course in identifying trees many years ago. This course i would love to take.
I read a poem by Kabir ,”The Swan”, early this week, and a part of it describes another level of what I feel in the forest.

It’s morning, swan, wake up, climb in the air, follow me!
I know of a country that spiritual flatness does not control,
nor contant depression,
and those alive are not afraid to die.
There wildflowers come up through the leafy floor,
and the frangrance of “I am he” floats on the wind.



Ann Merrill September 2, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Ed: Lovely. What a great way to stay in touch with each other and the trees!!


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