The Spinning Tree
The tree and the sun spun gold out of
as if straw was too easy
or nonsense, imagine —
from nothing, or at least
something less —
that’s fodder for fools
or a children’s tale.
That’s where you’re wrong
sang the tree, who cast ice motes
like barn dust
to whirl in the light
from its spinning wheel hands
and curious, you leaned closer
do you mean?
And as bell ice and glitter snow
its answer unwound:
A difference perceived
does not translate to
nor has anything ever been
but is instead key
for the lock
from which we all spin —
whether you see difference
or as everything.
I spoke with a tree last week. I realize this is an odd thing to say… but there was no mistaking her message. A graceful birch, standing apart from the nearby spruce and hemlocks, was quite firm with me.
But this story begins not with an expressive tree; it starts with something my daughter said. She’s eleven, and was wondering out loud why humans tend to think that animals aren’t as clever as people, even though they have their own languages and survival strategies. “They’re just different from us,” she said. “but we think we’re so smart.”
Our human intelligence — or lack of it — is on her mind a lot these days. I often wonder what it must be like to grow up knowing that your home planet is threatened by your culture’s choices. I wasn’t introduced to the concept of climate change until college. My girls learned about it in kindergarten.
As I walked through the woods later that day, I saw how her words describe more than just our interactions with animals. They reveal how we relate to other humans too, and our penchant for power and privilege. We tend to devalue what we don’t understand — to the point of dehumanizing those who are different from us.
There’s so much to feel here. By the time I stumbled through a snowdrift and into the birch tree’s clearing I was angry, sad, and frightened, primed to judge anything in my way.
This is why, when I saw ice crystals falling from the birch’s frosted branches, catching the sunlight to look like glittery dust, and my imagination saw twiggy fingers spinning gold from snow, I scoffed. I had remembered the old fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin, in which a miller’s daughter spins straw into gold to save her life. How silly, I thought. These are real problems that need real solutions, not magic.
The tree had something to say about that. I won’t try to explain this part, except that as I was fondly chastised by the birch tree, my assumptions turned into questions: Is gold always more valuable than straw? Has anything ever truly been nothing? And, what if there is more truth in what I can’t understand — than in what I think I know?
As I walked home, feeling both foolish and steeped in the affectionate acceptance of a wise mentor, I recognized that I had done more mind-clearing than problem solving. But the tree’s message has stayed with me, so I pass it on, one human to another:
Perhaps the solutions we seek lie in the differences that divide us.