“i am a tree” – guided by voices (1997)


Despite the threat of rain over the weekend, there was an opportunity for me to get out into nature and enjoy the lingering joys of late summer. Late summer is a great time. Despite hints of fall’s arrival, it is still very much warm, and I get to still do all the summery things that I like to do.  While the beginning of summer gives me some anxiety about the best way to use my time after a long winter, I have a deep feeling of satisfaction at the end of summer because I feel like I have accomplished everything I wanted in the sunshine and then some. It is a time where I san still appreciate the gifts of summer, but I am ready to move on.

Though today is the fall equinox, it is still a bit on the warmer side for me to consider the weather autumnal.  So, in my mind, it is not quite fall. And since I do not consider it fall yet, I still seek opportunities to have summer fun.  And this past weekend was a great way for me to say goodbye to summer.

A friend picked me up in his car and we drove out to the Skokie lagoons to walk the trails there.  Though there was the satisfying crunch of leaves beneath our shoes and the hints of auburn in the trees, this was still an embrace and appreciation of summer.  We smelled the flowers, watched the wind rustling through the trees, and observed the deer and geese drink from the water.  Tranquil and wonderful.

After we walked several of the trails in the lagoon, we headed to the Chicago Botanical Garden and enjoyed the prairies lands by the water.  Sitting on a bench, we talked about life; goals, interests, hopes, and concerns. After some time talking about such things, we just watched the water in quiet reflection.

During the few hours we spent walking around the lagoons, we spent periods of time in reflection we referred to as “nature walks.” During this time, we would be quiet, walk, and try being more present; letting go of the things in the human world that bring us down.

On one of these nature walks, we both stopped by a tree.  For some reason, I wanted to touch it. When I rest my hand on the bark, there was a soft warmness that was soothing. After a few minutes, we left the tree.  Breaking the silence of the nature walk, I said to my friend “the tree was warm.”  In response, he told me to think about what that meant and then we walked together in silence until we got back to the car.

During that time, I did think about the tree’s warmth. Not just what the warmth may have represented, but what about brought the tree and me together.

I thought deeply about my intentions first.  Specifically, what motivated me to touch that tree.  It became clear that I wanted something from the tree.  I had to touch it, to feel it for whatever reason.  Breaking it down, I realized there was something I wanted from that tree. I cannot say for certain what exactly I wanted, but just thinking about the concept of approaching the tree was all that mattered. It was the act of me, a mobile organic consumer, approaching a deeply rooted being and insisting myself upon it.

As for the warmth, I had a few thoughts about the sensation I experienced when I pressed my palm against the bark. Thinking about the intent that initially had, where I encroached on the tree, I thought about the warmth representing a selfish desire; a symbol of me taking something from the tree or, by invading the space around it, asserting some sort of dominance over it in the natural hierarchy.

While that line of thought presented a significant amount of self-awareness, I do not believe it is the truth. That tree represents something much older, wiser, and stronger than me. How arrogant I must be for thinking that my selfish desire, represented by my need to touch, could somehow overpower something so majestic.

Instead, I think that warmth was a gift.  A message from the tree telling me that I do not need to insist. That I do not need to feel like I must take. That I do not need to exude a dominance or authority.  That warmth is a gift, a reminder of the benevolent side of nature.

Reflecting on this experience with the tree, I thought deeply about my interactions with other people whether they be friends, family, or lovers.  I thought a lot about my interactions with people and concluded that I needed to be less egocentric in my thinking.  That is not to say I am an egotistical person, but that I am the center of my own world.  And while it is okay to be the center of one’s own world and to embrace selfishness, I was thinking about that the best way to approach relationships with people is to not be so transactional.  In this competitive, patriarchal world, it is easily to fall into that trap.

In the car, I shared my thoughts with my friend.  We talked about self-awareness and the role nature can play in helping to achieve self-awareness. With all the distractions, the noise and endless notifications, it can easy to overlook the lessons that nature can offer. It can almost be an act of subversion to stop and smell the roses or, in my case, touch the trees. Especially in a society that demands more from you every day.

In 1997, Guided by Voices released their studio album Mag Earwig! Track three, “I Am a Tree,” written by the band’s guitar Doug Gillard, is about a tree and its relationship to a bird that has taken flight.  Fans of the band speculate that the song is about a relationship ending and perhaps it is.  However, the imagery is striking and reflects the experience I had this weekend. In the song, the tree is telling the bird they can build a nest and get the sap out of it.  Proclaiming it is fruitless and free, the tree urges the bird to touch it and see.

While “I Am a Tree” may be about a specific relationship, the song feels relatable enough to cover a wide arras of relationships. And when I think about this song, I find it a bit funny that I focused so much about relationships when I was thinking about the tree’s warmth.  Not the potential narrative of a romantic relationship as in the song, but the way I develop relationships with anyone.  We cannot be transactional in our interaction with other people.  We must touch eachother and see.  In our hearts and minds.

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