Thinking like a forest: a participant's reflection

The teachings of the Inverted Tree explain how we come to see ourselves as material beings. How can thinking like a forest help to reclaim the parts of ourselves that are lost in this narrow-minded worldview? Beatrice Stewart, a participant in the course Tree of Life, reflects with the wisened Oak.

“Trees have long been trying to reach us. But they speak in frequencies too low for people to hear”, writes Richard Powers in The Overstory. At our current juncture, it feels pertinent - perhaps more than ever - that we find ways to listen to these subtle tones. How might thinking like a forest enable us to do so?

This line of inquiry dates back to antiquity. In various yogic texts we find the symbolism of the Inverted Tree that explains the journey of the soul into existence. The roots represent the interconnectedness of infinite consciousness, the state of Moksha. As the soul descends - through its trunk, branches and into the leaves - it comes into materialisation. Here the mind experiences Maya, the illusion of the material world, full of attachments, expectations and suffering. To grapple with this the ego constructs a fortress, the lonely reality of the separate Self. Through practicing conscious awareness and detachment to our thoughts, we begin to reclaim our sense of interdependence and ascend the Inverted Tree.

Recognising these entanglements enables us to see the forest from the trees. We step tentatively towards an arboreal worldview. But listening to the forest speak - these “frequencies too low” to hear - requires a deeper shift; towards relations founded upon kinship and intuition, feelings rather than thought. One of the thematic threads weaving advaya’s Tree of Life course was the way ritual enables the integration of knowledge into embodied wisdom. This process involves the detachment from thoughts and an opening of avenues for communing with the sacred.

A practice gifted by one of the teachers, Isis Indriya, involved the ritual of slowing down and listening to the music of the world in relationship to particular tree. To experiment with this I visited Buckle Grove, a local sanctuary of ancient woodland. Spaces like these dissolve linear time, affording us the opportunity to become intimate with our surroundings. I am perennially struck by the way history is written into the Grove. Coppiced Hazels, Oaks felled for timber, planted Box Hedge and Yews; Buckle Grove is a story-place that speaks to the relationships between humans and the lived environment. Each tree is a character in the vast story of time. They act as waypoints signalling how disenchanted and deforested Western ways of knowing have become.

In Pollution is Colonialism, Max Liboiron explains how referring to land is to think of the individual, mechanical components of nature-as-noun. When we speak of Land, we see Nature-as-verb and the relational community between humans, ancestors and their ecosystems. From this subtle linguistic distinction unfold radically different ways of relating to the world around us. Land-as-noun objectifies and separates, whereas Land-as-verb explains the co-constitution, the magic of becoming, that occurs between people and place. Names act “as portals into the more-than-human world”, explains Robert Macfarlane; “Good names open onto mystery, grow knowledge, and summon wonder. And wonder is an essential survival skill for the Anthropocene”.

This ability for language to alchemically enchant is inherent to Indigenous ways of knowing. During the Tree of Life course, Nina Gualingua explained the Kichwa cosmovision of “Kawsak Sacha”, the Living Forest. The term is both a philosophy and praxis that “recognises that the forest is made up entirely of living selves and the communicative relations they have with each other”. It serves as way of understanding the world and building relationships to the greater community of all living beings. This wisdom has been shared in the Living Forest Declaration which calls upon the global community “to learn once again to feel this reality in their very being”. The proposal reminds us that such a “metamorphosis will only be possible once we learn to listen to and dialogue with these other beings, who are part of a cosmic conversation that goes well beyond the dialogue […] until now carried out exclusively among us humans”.

I reflect upon this as I’m stood in Buckle Grove. It’s a stormy day, the Land certainly wants to be heard. Cocooned by an ancient Oak, I attempt to attune my ears to the music of the world. The Celtic “King of the Forest”, its name etymologically branches from the Sanskrit word “Duir”, also the origin of the English for “door”. Indeed this particular tree is a doorway, a liminal place, caught between life and death. Under half the once-colossal trunk remains, yet branches continue to sprout leaves. This phenomenon of hollowing is common amongst ancient trees. Using stored nutrients allows them to live longer, a shedding of material form that enables spirit to grow.

As I listen, crashing waves of tempestuous wind engulf the forest, dissolving the space between the trees and me. The canopy groans and creaks as branches of young trees joust in the wind. These vibrations distort my surroundings; the sky weighs heavily upon the liquid earth. Suddenly the wind calms and this silence creates a void. I wander off along the well-trodden pathway of my thoughts. As a distant pitter-patter becomes louder, the sensation of raindrops returns me home to my body. To avoid getting soaked I nestle into the Oak. How uncanny that such a constituent element of my being, something so intimate, can feel so foreign. Intuitively I feel the Oak wants me to venture out, to let these boundaries come undone. Becoming one with the rain is liberating. The separation, Maya, washes away. Submerged in these elemental conversations, the music of creation, I am humbled. With this ability to constantly meditate upon these songs, it’s no wonder the Tree of Life serves as a cosmological blueprint throughout human cultures.

Through attuning to these sounds “our senses learn the language of belonging”, and over time “this embodied knowledge of place tells us what is changing, what is gained, and what is lost”, writes David G. Haskell. A part of me belongs to this beloved Oak. Each visit involves a hollowing; a growing sadness that one day this majestic form will no longer remain. Attachment roots me to the material realm, a place of impermanence and great suffering. Yet also where beauty and reverence are expressed, where the seeds of ethical care are sown. Within this dialectic of co-growing and co-shedding there is liberation, a re-rooting and returning home.

If the wisened Oak has taught me anything, it’s that thinking like a forest invites us to dissolve the duality between embodiment and spirit. To cultivate places of liminality where these co-exist. To allow the music of the Earth to permeate our bodies and feel the bonds of kinship etched by these primordial rhythms. To immerse ourselves in Land-as-verb, Kawsak Sacha, and become doorways that open into the mystery of these cosmic conversations.


 Beatrice Stewart

Beatrice (she/her) is a writer and climate justice activist based in London. Her interests range from ecology, law and technology to decolonial theory.

Learn more