Stillness with Trees, and Plurilocalism
Stillness is not a quality I associate with trees, or with the human body. Trees are naturally dynamic. They conduct lightning; they drop branches. Saman trees, or rain trees, are conspicuous for their huge canopies of fine, darkish leaves which muddle dusken skylines, easily being mistaken for a portion of hill or thundercloud. A saman tree used to grow next to the driveway of my parents’ house. It began to compete for upper airspace with the television aerial. Whenever hurricanes were in the area, we assessed the pitch of its tossing. Its root system ploughed up the driveway. We could see asphalt furrows radiating closer and closer towards the house and knew that roots were underneath.
Once, when I was out in the yard, the sky turned pale and the birds made a special, remote screeching as they flocked upward to the higher branches of the saman tree. The ground underfoot began to shake like thick split pea soup in an iron pot. I felt my legs being moved. I looked up and saw the tree being moved, just like me, but in a much bigger fashion. At that moment I was not checking for falling branches but looking for companionship. I was afraid of the tree, and sorry when it eventually was cut down. As for my body, it treats me to a continuous sound and light show: everything from migraine auras to tinnitus. An heroic effort to empty the mind is all very well, but what if one’s own body takes the side of distraction?
The fallacy, of course, is that quiet consists in selfforgetfulness, or in dissociation from one’s environment. Silence is one of the themes of my research for the next two years, and I am convinced that surround sound is one of the possible conditions that enable surround silence; in fact, surround silence and surround sound may be functionally the same. When deep in the right kind of noise, it is possible to enjoy drifting into a type of stillness, like the comparative weightlessness of a swimmer who allows themself to float.
I remember agreeing to go with a friend on a silent meditation walk in the grounds of an old house in Oxfordshire which had been converted into a retreat centre. I was curious about the house, and this was one way of getting to see it. Silence, and meditation, were too normal a part of my life for either of those to be the draw. The silent meditation walk was guided. It was a startling experience. The group could not speak, but the guide could. A mishmash of chatter fills my head as I try to bring the scene into focus in my memory: ‘Now look at this tree. Really look at the tree. Be with the tree. Be present to the tree. Look at the leaves. Are you looking at the leaves? Find a leaf. Look at the leaf. Do you ever stop to look at leaves? When was the last time you stopped to look at a leaf? Now keep on looking at that leaf…’ He was comfortable in the absence of answers. I was astounded that anyone could say versions of the same thing so many times. This is an unfair and selectively edited memory, but sometimes it comes up when I am standing silently with a tree, and I laugh… He was intent on calling our attention to being attentive, so it was impossible to tune him out and make him part of the surround sound; I tuned into neither inner silence nor surround silence.