For the last few years I have been nurturing a relationship with a red oak tree in my front yard. I call him Ralph, choosing a man’s name, as at seventy-five, my circle of male friends is dwindling.
While this behavior might seem strange, I have known Ralph longer than anyone I can think of with the possible exception of an old friend suffering from cirrhosis fifteen hundred miles away in south Florida.
Most days I walk by Ralph as I head down my driveway to pick up the morning paper. This affords me, or us, a few quiet moments to appreciate the world apart from the homo-centric universe that will likely dominate my day. No doubt it will be another day when, aside from political nonsense, news concerning human destruction and the exploitation of everything — plant, animal, mineral, solid or liquid — anything that does not walk on two legs (and many that do) will flood the news while remaining ignored by most: deforestation, species extinction, ground water depletion, over fishing, ocean acidification, a rising sea level, dead zones, etcetera.
But this is my time on earth, and I am grateful to have Ralph.
My wife and I built the house we now occupy at the tip of Long Island in Montauk, New York, twenty-eight years ago. Before we broke ground, our parcel had been part of a much larger, somewhat neglected 1920’s estate. My father purchased the property in the 50’s when I was a young boy. Off to one side was a mostly overgrown dirt road originally intended as a service entrance. As a child I wandered down the trail to pick blackberries. The best berry picking was on the opposite side of the path from a single skinny tree. No more than twenty feet tops, it was still much taller than the few bayberry bushes scattered across acres of grassy fields.
For decades prior to construction, my wife and I lived in what had once been a caretaker’s cottage on the opposite side of the estate. I would occasionally walk down the old path, but the patches of blackberries had gradually become overgrown as other dominant flora flourished. Many years later when our family subdivided the estate, I ended up with a few acres that included the old path and what had become a substantial oak.
Not long after, my wife and I settled on building plans that incorporated the old path as our driveway. We located the house up a slight rise with the tree bordering the right side. The result: what for half a century had been nothing more than a back of mind memory was now fifty feet tall, and greets us every time we look out an east-facing window or ride up the driveway. On Christmas mornings its towering trunk and skeletal branches stretch across the dawn sky and the rising sun.
Nevertheless, how is it that at age seventy-five I have come to bond with this tree? After all, lots of people have a tree in their front yard. When I think about it, which isn’t often, I credit countless childhood hours alone in forests or fishing in local ponds. My parents were over forty when I was born. Mother was busy with social obligations, and Father was running the family business. My only sibling, a brother, was almost nine years older, which seemed like a century to me at age six. He was born in the 1930’s, I arrived the next decade. By the time we both reached an age considered maturity, the nine years had become two distinct generations. His being Ayn Rand, mine Alan Watts. He was into cars; I was comforted by wilderness.
Decades later, when we had grown much closer, he died at age sixty-six in a crash while testing a vintage endurance racing car his company had restored. By then our parents had passed away, and while I am happily married — no children — and enjoy a warm relationship with my nieces and nephew, I have no immediate family.
One friendship has, however, endured: my bond with the land where I live.
If you ask someone about the plants, trees, and animal life around their home, I suspect most will envision a somewhat static setting. But when you inhabit the same land for what is now sixty-five years, as I have, the changes are remarkable. Not only are the trees many times taller, but fields of grasses have given way to a variety of dense shrubbery. The panoramic view of the ocean, Lake Montauk, and Long Island Sound that I recall from my childhood has been obscured by trees and has shrunk to a narrow glimpse of the south end of the lake. The dirt roads I hiked unsuccessfully hunting rabbits with bow and arrow, are paved.
The animal life has also dramatically changed. While both pheasant and quail have disappeared (not enough grassland), the white tail deer population has exploded, and the occasional dog tick has been joined by three or four different tick species and their associated diseases. Most alarming of all, the summer human population has increased even faster than the deer.
By earth time, it wasn’t long ago when Montauk was Native American territory. If you know where to look, there are still signs of their existence hidden in our wilderness. As my relationship with Ralph has developed, I have been thinking more about how Montauk’s original inhabitants might have lived. Did they also witness changes in only a matter of a few decades?
I doubt it, as our local history is unique. Today’s Montauk is land evolving from over a century when most of the area was cattle country. Herds were driven out each spring from up island, feeding along the way on any number of grasses, shrubbery, and who knows what. Montauk’s windswept landscape became the depository, seeds and all, at the end of the digestive process. As a result, our local flora is more diverse than any other part of Long Island, and surely unlike what the first inhabitants encountered.
But before the white man: no sailing ships, no horses, no cattle, not even wheels. Just wilderness, a few tiny settlements, burial grounds, a few hunting camps, perhaps small cultivated areas for squash and corn, some canoes, and one or two narrow trails leading to other native villages. Over generations the forests and lakes changed very little.
Conjuring up a picture of this time, it’s not hard to imagine how these original locals, along with other North American peoples, developed deep bonds with their environment. The wind, the rain, oceans and lakes, animals, fish, even trees.
This reverence is palpable in countless Native American prayers and poems. For example, from Central California, this Yoguts prayer:
My words are tied in one with the great mountains,
with the great rocks, with the great trees,
in one with my body and heart.
All of you see me, one with this world.
Or this Navajo chant:
The mountains, I become a part of it…
The herbs, the fir tree, I become a part of it.
The morning mists, the clouds, the gathering waters,
I become a part of it.
The wilderness, the dew drops, the pollen…
I become a part of it.
Reading these prayers I am overwhelmed by the compassion, respect, and love they reveal for the earth. I can’t help wondering how this connection was lost? How did we, “the civilized societies,” the “smart people,” evolve a consciousness that departs so dangerously from this awareness? This respect? This compassion? This love? Accelerating towards … what? All while we do our best to deny it.
Walking up my driveway one morning last week I wondered if I had gone bonkers: an elderly man with a respectable education who talks to trees; someone who has benefitted greatly from modern-day life, but who believes an ecological catastrophe is likely unavoidable.
There, under his arboreal arms, I asked Ralph, “What can we do?” And in a flash, centuries of answers erupted up through his roots, radiated from his bark, and rained down from his branches: “Pay Attention! Do Not Squander This Earth!”
Treat the earth well.
It was not given to you by your parents,
It was loaned to you by your children.
We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors,
We borrow it from our children.