Of Pine Trees and Merit Badges
I tried to walk today. Despite the fact that the humidity was 87 per cent and the temperature was 74 degrees and the sky was gray and low. I tried to walk, but I didn’t get far.
I was no more than half a mile from home when the pine trees on either side of the road began singing. They sing a lot, these trees so tall that on a sunny day I have to squint my eyes to see their tops. They catch the breeze in their topmost branches and begin swaying like young girls on the edge of the dance floor sending their needles swishing like taffeta ballgowns.
On clear days, they sing in the high-pitched voice of schoolchildren inviting me to sing along. On cold days, they run the scales of a baritone, in a range I can not reach. On days like today, warm and humid, they tend to be silent, as though the moisture in the air is too thick to penetrate with their voices.
Unless rain is on its way. And when it is, the singing begins at the edge of the woods and builds as it sweeps across the forest, down the fire breaks and across the hills. It swells like an aria, seductive at the start and then frightening in its passion as it reaches the final notes.
That’s what I heard today, the beginning notes of the aria.
I called for Owen and turned to head back home. “I know your voice,” I said to the woods. “I have lived here long enough to recognize that song.”
It was 47 years ago this month that we moved to the farm. I was 17 and, despite a sash full of Girl Scout badges, woefully unprepared for farm life – the acrid smells of animals and diesel fuel, the rules of the road on meeting a tractor pulling a twelve-row plow, how to drive on dirt roads after a three-day rain. I had never seen a field being burned off, flaming tongues of orange and red reaching halfway up the sky. I had never gotten a pick-up truck stuck in a plowed over field and walked home two miles in the dark. I had never heard a fawn crying for its mother.
And I didn’t know that pine trees sing.
There have been hundreds of lessons in those 47 years, but just a handful of truths: The closer you live to the earth, to the seasons, to the sky, the smaller you become. The smaller you become, the bigger becomes the world. The bigger becomes the world, the clearer becomes your perspective. And with perspective comes freedom. Freedom to and freedom from.
I don’t always remember that. Sometimes those truths are drowned out by angry politicians, each of whom espouses the faulty idea that he or she alone is the guardian of civilization. Sometimes they are overshadowed by my own arrogance in thinking that if I work, argue, pray hard enough I can overpower another’s free will. Sometimes they are buried under fear and duty and laziness because it’s just easier to give in.
But when I do remember I find myself gasping at the grace of a ladybug dangling from my fingertip, crying over a full moon pulsing almost within reach, stopping my stride to listen to woodpecker’s telegraphing far above my head.
When I remember I can hear the pine trees sing.