As I putter around the land surrounding my house, I talk. A passerby—if we had any passersby here—would probably think I was muttering to myself. I’m not. I’m talking to the tomato plants growing in our garden, the peach tree recently planted on our back deck, the oak trees sheltering us from the hot southern California sun, or the early morning fog obscuring our view of the San Gabriel mountains across the valley.
I don’t just do this around my home. When Scott and I go hiking, I talk to the rocks thrust so violently out of the ground thousands of years ago, now softened by a blanket of lichen; the breeze, heavily perfumed with the delicious scent of buckeye or sweet broom blossoms, and the breathtakingly cold creeks, in such a hurry to rush down the mountain to the valley below. In short, I am talking to the earth, and all that “earth” encompasses and entails.
I’m not alone in doing this. In Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology,* author David Abram argues that wind and rock, mountain and stream, oak and lichen, have much to say, if we would only take the time to learn their language. Learning to talk and listen to every being, animate or inanimate, in our environment “subverts the long isolation of the thinking self from the perceptual world that it ponders, suggesting that we and the sensorial surroundings are woven of the same fabric, indeed that we are palpably entwined with all that we see, and hear, and touch—entirely a part of the living biosphere.”
I like that thought, that we are woven of the same fabric as the trees and the rock, as the frigid mountain water that cools my tired feet after a long hike. I like not simply going to a place of exquisite beauty and wonder and observing it, but knowing that I am a part of it, and it a part of me. We are one and the same. It’s a feeling I don’t get when walking the concrete streets of LA or Chicago. I am nature, and nature is me.
The idea that we can talk to the rocks or mountains, and they to us—at one time would have sounded far-fetched to me. But about a decade or so ago, my son Steven and I were camping in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. We’d taken a picnic lunch and hiked to a nearby stream, where I became enchanted with a particular rock in the water. He offered to put it in the car for me, so I could take it home to put in my garden. We were just outside the borders of the national park, so taking a stone would have been legal. But as soon as he lifted the stone from the water, I clearly heard an anguished screaming, “No, no! Don’t take me!” It wasn’t so much that I heard it as I felt it in every pore of my body. My son did not feel or hear it, but I did. I had him put the stone back in the water. The screaming stopped.
I was shaken to my core by that experience, but since that time I’ve not doubted objects we think of as inanimate have voices. And I have taken the time to at least try to learn the language of the rock and tree, the creek and the mountain. I may not always understand what they are saying to me, but I make the effort to listen. Not just hear … but to listen. Now, if a rock catches my fancy, I ask permission to take her home. Sometimes, they say yes. More often, they say no. I respect what they say.
The phenomenon of being able to hear what nature is saying is probably more evident to some of you than you realize. I have severe peripheral neuropathy in my left arm, a holdover gift from when I was struck by lightning 22 years ago. It is ever-present, but within hours of the marine layer moving in, or a rare California rainstorm opening up the skies, it flares up. The low pressure blowing in on the wind is speaking to me, telling me to prepare for damp weather. This isn’t an uncommon experience for people with neuropathy or arthritis. What is uncommon is for people to realize this is nature speaking to them.
When Scott and I took our beautiful hike to Mt. Baldy a few days ago, we were gifted with a fabulous example of just how alive a piece of granite can be when we came upon these beautiful succulents growing right out of the rock.
I believe they are some variety of Dudleya, or also known as Live-Forevers, for some plants in this family have been know to live up to 100 years. They were not in soil. They were firmly anchored to the rock, getting nourishment from the rock, the air surrounding them, and what rain fell upon them. Nourishment from what most would consider lifeless, inanimate “objects.”
The giant Douglas firs and black oaks that together form the forest on Mt. Baldy spring from cones and acorns that root in the fertile ground. A mule deer fawn grows in its mother’s womb, and once born, suckles at her teats until it is big enough to begin fending for itself. These are obvious examples of life springing from life.
Life nourishes life. And living things communicate with one another. The ground squirrel sounds an alarm call when the red-shouldered hawk swoops into a nearby tree, and squirrels and rabbits and songbirds all take heed, hiding from their enemy. The catbird mewls when a hiker enters the forest, and suddenly, all birdsong is quieted.
Nature will not speak to you unless you learn to listen. It requires you open your ears and your heart, that you drop your inhibitions and doubts, that you move quietly through the woods or desert or prairie, or sit quietly in your garden, and listen. Speak quietly to the wind, the soil, the beans growing on the vine. Thank the ladybug who hunts the aphids on your squash plants. Thank the tree for its cooling shade.
Who knows? With practice, you just might find they talk back.
* To read a review of David Abrams’ new book, please click the “Smoky Talks Books” link to the right.
(Smoky is an ardent outdoorswoman with a deep reverence for nature. She lives in California with her husband, daughter, and a menagerie of animals, both domestic and wild, in a ramshackle cottage in the woods. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time hiking in the mountains, camping in the Sierras, splashing in tidepools, and resisting the urge to speak in haiku.