How to talk to a tree. And be sure they’re listening.
What does it mean to speak? To have a dialogue? To resonate with another human being. Or a plant. Or a brick. Is there anything like a dialogue possible with an entity that is not conventionally and conveniently structured in a rational way? And how would I interpret such a ‘thing’? In this text I will try to open up the common conception of dialogue. Of our understanding of thinking together. Which means I will move through murky waters, and try to filter out the shiny bits. The little pieces that still reflect our shared understanding of the understandable, of what we can grasp of our experiences together. All the rest is silence.
In her book ‘Bêtes et Hommes’ Vinciane Despret talks about the relation we have to animals, and how our understanding of animal behavior is largely due to our own cultural upbringing and the values we have embodied. Or in other words: “the way in which human beings organize their lives necessarily affects the way they think animals organize their lives.” This quote seems to suggest that us talking to animals (or other creatures for that matter) is largely a matter of projection, a case of a ‘live echo’ that just reinforces what we already know, and in that sense doesn’t produce anything.
But on the other hand the contact between animals and human beings also has a proven transformational character. Not only the behavior of a test group of aggressive chimpanzees changed progressively towards a more amicable and social attitude when researched by a group of kind-spirited women, but contact with animals also is used to treat depression in elderly people, juvenile delinquents, and sufferers of mental illness.
It is off course easier to speak about a ‘dialogue’ with an animal than with a piece of cardboard or a plant. Since we still adhere a certain faculty of intelligence to (some) animals, which we find increasingly difficult the more we climb ‘down’ the mental faculties ladder: from the zoological, into the organic, mineral, or – god forbid – the man-made. For to enter into a dialogue presumes a certain belief in the equality of the speaking partners, and belonging to the same species certainly seems to count as a definite advantage in these matters.
But what if we start thinking about the dialogue partners in another way. Not so much as two subjects entering into a dual confrontation, sharing information, and bolstering their conversation with rational arguments, but rather as a transformational process that affects both parties. As has been pointed out in numerous philosophical and scientific theories of communication, there is hardly anything rational about human communication. Body language, projection, emotional predispositions, context, history, inclinations, political, sexual or otherwise, all influence and trouble the communicative waters, until what is received ‘on the other side’ is often not much more than a vague resonance of the shared circumstances the interlocutors find themselves in. Much of our understanding of what the other one is saying is produced through our upbringing and the ‘programmed’ reaction to the circumstances (job interview, first date, public dialogue, political debate, …) of the dialogue in question. So, just like Despret concludes about our subjective interpretation of animal’s behavior, we could say the same thing about any kind of human dialogue, which is produced within a forest of cultural hang-ups and references, and hardly ever comes to an experience of the here and now in which the talk is actually taking place. In that sense any kind of communication is always fundamentally atemporal: instead of it taking place ‘live’, in the given moment of its utterance, it instead is woven through with threads of the past – not only the individual history of the speaker, but hundreds of years of cultural whispering – and the future projections or anticipations that direct the conversation.
In that sense the dialogue is always already contextual: it speaks of what cannot be said, what is not audible, what is not ‘present’ in the actual space but through reference and the ghosts from past and future that haunt our imagination and understanding.
Any kind of dialogue therefore is in dire need of emancipation. Or at least in an experimental context, we can try to free our understanding of what we say to each other, temporarily, from the hegemonic demand of a shared rationality between subjects. First of all, let’s forget about these subjects, and the subject-object distinction they imply, and let’s imagine our speaking partners as what they are: voluntary participants in a dialogue that might change them both. Where the subject is the one that beholds his environment, that creates distinctions as proof of its own existence, the speaking partners in this case are ‘aware’ of their likeness, although affected by their difference.
Let’s talk about trees for example. Or rather, about a specific tree, since every single one has a character of its own, a disposition to speak in a particular way, a voice of its own. When I was in the Peruvian rain forest a couple of months ago, taking part in the shamanic rituals of the Shipibo Indians, I was asked to go into the jungle and talk to 3 specific trees every day. One was called Remo Caspi: he is the ‘commissioner’ of the jungle, and your guide in finding the right information with the right tree. He is a wise figure that, if you talk to him ‘properly’ – that is, following certain procedures, and offering him a daily portion of lighted tobacco – will open your mind to hear some other trees that might be beneficial to your quest. Remo Caspi is tall and suavely elegant, with deeply grooved bark that grows an abundance of vibrant mosses. Chulla Chakhi is of a more robust kind, thicker and slower. In the shamanic stories he is a dwarfed creature that can change into the shape of people you know and entice you deep into the jungle, to leave you lost and a possible prey to the animals. The only thing that betrays his trickster appearance are his hooved feet, which he tries to hide in the undergrowth. But as a tree Chulla Chakhi is rather formal. His speech is more of the bureaucratic kind. As the gate-keeper of the jungle he is more interested in your disposition and your intentions. If he opens the gate, this means you will be able, during ceremonial sessions, to speak to the spirits of the jungle, both trees, animals, and ghosts from the past. Madre Tierra then again is a highly affective creature, the mother of the earth, she reconnects you to long-lost memories of family and loved-ones. And prepares you for your future family connection. Women go to see her when looking for a husband. But in my experience she is rather a ‘cleanser’ of emotional family ties or obstacles.
These are the ‘characters’ the trees have gained through the shamanic tradition of mutual dialogue. The shamans claim they learn their medicine making (which often involves complicated chemical processes) through ‘listening to the paolo maestro’, the master trees. More than playing out a religious mythology, the relation between the tree and the shaman is one of respect and pragmatism. Interesting also is that the trees come back as spirits in different forms (like Chulla Chakhi becoming a hooved dwarf in the shamanic visions), but also sometimes, different genders or species.
In other words, in this dialogue situation, the trees as well as the people speaking with them seem to have emancipated themselves not only from the dictatorial imperative of rational dialogue situation, but also from the imaginative bias on considering any kind of knowledge provided by a non-human entity as worthless. In this setting the relation between the shaman and the tree is not one of subject-object – the shaman analytically discovering the beneficial chemical elements the tree contains, and using the tree as an ‘objective’ resource for exploitation – but of equal partners acknowledging their belonging to the same environmental fabric, made up of the same ‘DNA’ that keeps everything together.
To interpret the dialogue as a transformational process, possibly as an emancipatory one that (temporarily) liberates the speaking partners from the bounds of the hegemonic knowledge value structure, means that we interpret this shared speech act as performative rather than informative, or truth-based. What happens in this form of dialogue is a kind of ‘experience of mutuality through alienation’, rather than an sterile exchange of informations. Which, as we pointed out earlier, is not so different from any kind of conversation as we know it.
Speaking to a tree or an object is probably more about allowing yourself to be entered by another logics of thinking and experiencing. Being spoken to, or entered by a tree is about discovering the alienness, the otherness, within yourself. The part of you that answers to the ‘speaking’ of the tree. I am the tree, but I am also me. There is no absolute duality in this dialogue. Which doesn’t mean that there is nothing being said, but rather that we allow for unheard voices to get recognized in the conversation. There is no danger of relativity in this speech act, in coming to consider everything as made up of the same fabric, or to use another language game, the same ‘spirit of things’. Quite to the contrary, the state of attention needed to be able to ‘hear’ what is being said (through meditational or ritual practice, or simply through opening up your sensorial sensitivities) is relative in the sense that it opens up our awareness of the way things relate to each other. And how we are part of that ecology of distributions. Not only on the level of the nature-human dichotomy, which is artificial and misleading anyway, but on the much more pregnant level of the distribution of power, the repetition of colonial impulses, the inclusion of the voice of the unheard, the obliteration of a anthropocentric and limited view on the state of the world and our agency within it.
If we talk ethics or politics with a tree, we talk about the redistribution of what matters. Of what kind of ‘matters’ – materialities – matter. Or how. This is a dialogue that goes beyond easy dichotomies of true/false, good/bad, outspoken/mute, and the usual positive overvaluation of the first term of the couple. It is about queering up this value system, and the duality of the dialogue. Creating the space in-between what is said and what not. Between what is yours and what is mine. And what is the tree’s, or the dog’s, or the pot plant’s, or the fridge’s, for that matter. This dialogue situation probably depends less on what is being said as it gains value through what is being received. In this ‘queered’ situation, the political is not situated in the recognition of bureaucratized knowledge, or in the creation of a clear sense of cultural or national belonging or identity. But in the acknowledgment of the ‘other’ voices that play a role in the construction of a new WE. A we that for one goes beyond the simple split between ‘active’ human beings, and ‘passive’ others. In a recognition of the mutual transformational qualities of each entity that is part of the environmental set-up of our lives, in cities as well as in nature. Which is not a matter of choice, but of fact. The only choice here is to recognize these co-dependencies or not.
Entering into this broadened up political field, this other understanding of whom the speaking partners in the social dialogue are, is not a question of pure imagination. It is a question of recognition, of entering in another temporality than the one that is governing our current understanding of value and of the construction of another imaginary for our shared futures. It is clear that if we talk about speaking to a tree, that we enter into another temporal sensitivity. A tree has a completely different life expectancy than a human being. The dialogue therefore gets tinged by an awareness that goes beyond the human scope. So does the one of a plastic bucket, that probably won’t disintegrate in the next 200 years. Making these ‘things’ part of the dialogue means stepping in another logics of time and urgency. To tap into a source of knowledge that we usually refer to the spiritual or the artistic, namely intuition. I would say that the intuitive is simply the knowledge we didn’t know we had. The knowledge that has been filtered out through education, or the policing and restricting of the imaginative (not imaginary) strengths of our consciousness. Intuition is an awareness of what binds us, it is the picked up resonance of what surrounds us. Of the ‘things’, mineral, artificial, conceptual or otherwise, that make up our life space and that seep into our understanding, even if rationally or structurally prohibited to.
It is in this broadened up imaginaries of another we that there is maybe another breath to be found that could make us act up, act out, our positions of choice. Beyond the ‘factishes’ of acknowledged ‘scientific’ thought, or at least in a creative dialogue with them.