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The Sermon of the Inanimate

“By a grace of sudden intuition, the normally unknowable makes itself known, and the knowledge is self-validating beyond the possibility of doubt.” - Aldous Huxley


The sun has just passed its zenith and I am drenched in sweat from working in the orchard since early this morning on this hot, humid day. There’s no real shade as the trees are still small. It’s now early afternoon and I have finished weeding and mulching around each sapling. I have also cleared a patch of ground to establish a wildflower meadow in support of the bee hives that sit in the back. You can’t just throw out a bunch of wildflower seeds to start a meadow. You must first reset Nature to zero by clearing the ground completely, eliminating competitive vegetation before you plant the seeds or plugs. Weeds are Nature’s salve for open wounds and few meadow plants can outcompete vigorous weeds. Done correctly, the meadow will become a source of beauty and will evolve over time in an intricate dance among plants, insects, and microorganisms. But most meadows are only a naturally occurring transitional stage and, if not properly maintained, will be succeeded by shrubs and trees. In short, the work doesn’t end after the initial planting.


In moments like these, I wish intention alone would suffice to carry a plan forward but, alas, that’s never the case. Turns out, the universe insists on demanding more than just positive aspirations. My intentions are the cute sparkly unicorns of productivity and effort is the grumpy yet dependable workhorse. Abracadabra simply doesn’t work!


As I work, I notice at least three praying mantis and more grasshoppers and other bugs than I have seen in many seasons. Insect life is thriving in this orchard and this is good. I have dragged a good number of bags of manure, leaves, ashes, and compost to this field, more than I care to recall, and the soil is beginning to improve. It will take years, but the effort has begun to show initial promising results.


There are worms almost everywhere I dig. Worms make for better drainage and a more stable soil structure, which helps increase nutrient availability. All of this as they feed on plant debris (dead roots, leaves, grasses). I am happy with the progress thus far and remind myself that the process of building topsoil is not measured in days, weeks, or months. It’s akin to my own personal growth as a farmer and a human being. It takes years of patient and attentive effort.

I’m tired and I need a break.


I head into the nearby woods in the spirit of what the Japanese call ‘Shinrin-Yoku’ or forest bathing. It’s not hiking or meditating, it’s simply being in nature and connecting with it through our sense of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. It’s forest medicine that calms body and mind which I desperately need after this morning labors. The woods are holy and I remind myself that souls are nourished by the holy, not the busy. The woods are always cooler by a few degrees thanks to the chilling effect of the transpiration of the trees and also, obviously, because their shade intercepts the sun’s rays. About twenty-five feet along the path, I veer left and walk through the brush toward the single red oak in these woods.

The red oak is the state tree of New Jersey and has been a favorite of both lumbermen and landscapers since colonial times. It's a popular choice for hardwood flooring and is also used for furniture, doors, moldings, and cabinets. It’s a rapidly growing, long-lived tree and can reproduce from both seeds and root sprouts. Root sprouts are a form of asexual reproduction. They are clones of the original tree and have a genome that is identical to that of the originating tree. Whatever the form of propagation, the seedlings do not tolerate shade well and require a gap in the canopy to grow to maturity. Perhaps that’s the reason there’s just this single red oak in these woods.


This red oak is approximately 141 years old which means it first sprouted in 1882. You can estimate the age of a living tree by measuring the circumference at chest level (about 4 1/2 feet from the ground) and then calculating the diameter by dividing it by pi (3.14). You then multiply the diameter (in inches) by the growth factor for the tree species growing in a woodland environment (Northern Red Oak is 4.0).[1] So for this tree the equation is: (111/3.14) * 4.0.


This red oak is my favorite tree in these woods and I have told her so many times. There’s a small bench at the base of the tree that I built years ago and, as I sit down, I pat the trunk to say hello. I set a timer on my phone for twenty minutes and gently lean back against the trunk and close my eyes.


It takes a few minutes and some deep breathing to cool off and slow down. I have been practicing meditation for years but it’s sometimes still a struggle to sit and let thoughts come and go and not cling to them. On this particular day, my tussle is exacerbated because there’s a fly buzzing around me disturbing my concentration. As if that distraction isn’t enough, I feel the almost imperceptible touch of a tiny spider fliting across my hand. I brush it off and close my eyes again. “I should find someplace else to meditate where there aren’t any bugs.” Just another thought that I let pass by.


Now I feel a breeze. I acknowledge this and let it go. That’s all well and good I tell myself, but there’s a pound of blackberries in the kitchen waiting to be turned into jam.


“Do I have enough sugar?”


“Pectin?”


“What’s the use?”


“Get up and get busy. There’s lots to do. Why do you waste your time in these woods? Do you honestly believe you can converse with the sprits in these woods and with this beautiful red oak in particular?”


I am the problem.


Until I have settled and quieted this incessant chatter, I won’t be able to get beyond conscious thought and tap into the nourishment that exists beyond thought. I am caught up in self and all the “projects” that are waiting my attention. “Just sit”, I tell myself.


It’s one thing to speak casually, in a New Age sort of way, about there being a living spirit in everything; trees, plants, rocks, water, dirt, people. It’s quite another to really believe this and attempt to commune with these spirits. And it’s not because they are recalcitrant, not by any means. In fact, I have always found them eager to engage. There is an amazing unseen abundance of complex activity going around us all the time that begs to be noticed. There is wonder and there is surprise. So often, I miss this because I am tangled up in thought or I am hesitant and fearful which creates a static-filled environment around me. But my belief in these spirits has been reinforced in beautiful moments where I have had the actual experience of sensing them. You get to the point where you just know they are nearby and that they are willing to connect with you.

Once I have settled my being and have become receptive and clear, I may hope to converse with these spirits. You can’t just “show up” in your everyday mental attire and imagine they will talk with you. They are sensitive beings and, just like us, wish to be accorded the respect due to them. Nevertheless, even if I can’t settle my mind, I am, at the very least, sitting on a bench under a tree daydreaming which is lovely.


I think it erroneous, perhaps even silly, to believe that the only intelligences in the universe are those connected with human beings and other animals. Countless accounts of experiences that transcend the confines of space, time, and matter strongly suggest the existence of other forms of intelligence. The metaphysical spirits that exist in nature are part of the cosmic energy in a way of which we are still largely ignorant. They have the power to remind us of the vastness of the universe and the intelligence that extends beyond our familiar realms.


I sit for twenty-eight minutes. I open my eyes and glance at the timer and realize I had mistakenly set the timer for twenty hours rather than twenty minutes. I immediately think that I am going to get some “spiritual reward” for the investment of an additional eight minutes. This is also part of the problem. Meditating in anticipation of some reward, whether it be Nirvana, enlightenment, or a good stock pick is not meditation and won’t achieve the desired result. In fact, the desiring of results is also part of the problem. In meditation, one must desire nothing but the moment.


I rise and gracefully head back to the house. My reservoir of silence, which I had drawn almost to its last drop, has been replenished. What I could not comprehend by rational thought, I became aware of in silence and awe. The spirits of the woods have graced me, leaving an impression that sustains. As I walk, I take in my surroundings and a refreshing coolness envelops me. I am blessed and very much alive.



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