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Tree series, I: This is how nature thinks

[ by Charles Cameron — this one’s a companion piece for One bead for a rosary and the first of three more or less contemplative / creative posts on trees. ]



This is how nature thinks: this is one of nature’s thoughts, and it’s the kind of thought that comes late, after much else has been worn away and only essence remains, the kind we find in our elders and call by the name wisdom.

We don’t think of trees as thoughts, but perhaps we should: our idea of mind might broaden.


And rivers.

We spend a great deal of our time thinking and speaking in straight lines. One of the straight lines I tent to think along and speak about is the idea that we might want to think differently, to braid our linear ideas perhaps, to listen to the voices of others and join ours to theirs, making somehow a thought that is many-voiced, a thought stream that reflects on itself, echoes itself, has eddies of questioning, rapids, calm stretches, still ponds… “pondering”, my friend Derek suggests.

There are certain people who, I trust you’ll agree, are deliciously frank and frankly strange: we call them by affectionate negative names – he or she’s “an ornery old cuss” we say, perhaps – I suppose I may be one myself, and my language old-fangled, but I trust again that you get my drift.


Now there’s another word for them. It comes from the gnarls in wood, and the poet Hopkins applies it to the nails that tear the hands of Christ: With the gnarl of the nails in thee, niche of the lance…

A gnarly character has come to conclusions you probably don’t share, but you feel a grudging admiration for the forthrightness with which this character has pursued some intricate and personal logic to its unordinary conclusion.

I have presented various images for a kind of thinking that is many-braided, communal yet irrepressibly individualistic, including a railway marshaling yards after a bombing raid and the multiple complex paths of the Mississippi.


Please consider the tree above – seen in a photo by Rick Goldwasser of a Bristlecone Pine from the White Mountains in California – as exemplifying the gnarly, intensely personal, complexly braided thought of a Beethoven in the late quartets and sonatas, the Hammerklavier and Grosse Fuge – or the unfinished late masterworks of a Michelangelo.

A tree, a way of thinking – and appreciation for that which is bone-weary yet resolute, difficult yet rewarding, which swirls like water yet is almost as still as stone.

* * *

The Grosse Fuge, performed by the Takács Quartet:

The Hammerklavier, performed by Mitsuko Uchida:

These, also, are among nature’s thoughts.

Another magnificent example of which is GM Hopkins’ poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, from which that line about “the gnarl of the nails in thee” is drawn…

2 Responses to “Tree series, I: This is how nature thinks”

  1. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Charles,
    Nature is fractal. A couple years ago, I was dropping my son off at a train station and saw two trees standing in a marsh on the other side of the tracks. One was full of leaves and of about the same height as another adjacent tree that was had no leaves, resembling your lead photo…the leaves lent the appearance of symmetry to tree with leaves, but there was little symmetry in the other—it was, in your word “gnarly.” Nature is full of gnarly, as is our ability to apprehend. Good post.

  2. Matthew Bennett Says:

    A beautiful thought, Charles, well done.

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