All I really need to know I learned in the forest


Plants don’t do balance. They over-reach, chronically. They strain as hard as they can for the sun. Sometimes the ground will get cut out from under their feet or washed away in a flood, or a logger or a happy child will come along and lop them off from the top.

The plant will not learn from this that it needs to be more careful. It will not plan, strategize, or compromise. It will go right back to over-reaching. Somehow, plants have learned something that humans have not: you cannot guarantee safety or success by bargaining with the universe and going after only part of what you want.

When a flood washes out the streambank and the tree already straining hard for the one gap in the canopy falls over, it does not lie on the ground and think, well, if only I’d put a little more effort into developing my other sides, if only I’d been more careful, I could have kept the flood away. No. It immediately puts out shoots as close to the sun as it can.

In fact nothing in the forest wastes time either lamenting or pining. No one asks the tadpole if it wants to be a frog or if it would rather stay in the puddle; the dragonfly (and, for that matter, the mosquito) just go ahead and metamorphose without drama or angst. When the maple seed lands in a crevice between rocks or on the stump of an old tree, even if it is the best and most perfect maple seed in the history of the earth, it just grows without shaking its fist at the injustice of fate or bewailing its lost potential. It will spend its life making dirt for another plant to grow in. Apparently, if you’re a tree, that’s a good living.

Sentience seems to muck up the works as often as not.

(Next week: Daddy Long Legs, and if the gods of time are kind, a review of Sobel’s Childhood and Nature.)

One thought on “All I really need to know I learned in the forest

  1. A few days after the calamity of 100-year flood at our home, I found no “pining” from nature either and wrote this:


    So what has happened?
    Morning rolls in again, magically brand-new once more;
    dew etching the edge of every leaf, dampening all
    ancillary sound so that each note is a fracture
    clearly silhouetted against the face-lit green holler.

    Your call is the same; not plaintive or apoplectic or sexy;
    just red and loud and anchoring – up there above the paddock,
    somewhere. That our white pony, old in her bones, is gone
    this week is of no matter to you. That our home, nearly
    wracked in the flood-washout sits stranded in a sea
    of bewildering boulders is beyond your notice, of no matter.

    It is another day at nature – where there is no
    cause and effect; only the sun and moon to live through.
    No promise, no remorse.
    No expectation, no might-have-been,
    No heartache, no hurt –
    where death rises each day like the sun, claims his crop,
    then withers in the compost.

    With your whistle, the sun breaks; neither
    happy nor sad, redeemed or forsaken –
    just here with the day.

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