He Likes to Watch the Trees

According to Barry Boyce, if you start to look at trees more, you start to notice things. Their lordly, meditative pace can slow you down and stop you.

Barry Boyce
1 September 1998

According to Barry Boyce, if you start to look at trees more, you start to notice things. Their lordly, meditative pace can slow you down and stop you.

Remember Chauncey Gardner?

Chauncey was the automaton-like nature freak masterfully portrayed by Peter Sellers in the 1979 movie Being There (from a Jerzy Koscinski novel and screenplay). He was actually Chance the Gardener, a middle-aged man whose entire life had consisted of gardening, channel-surfing, and gracious manners.

Let loose on the world, he quickly became a phenom. A walking I Ching, he enthralled the president and millions of TV viewers with his simple horticultural pronouncements: “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well in the garden…. In a garden, growth has its season. First comes spring and summer, then we have fall and winter, and then we get spring and summer again. There will be growth in the spring.”

We often think of this kind of easy profundity as silly, like bad ad copy, or the president’s speech in Being There: “We must appreciate when the trees are bare as well as the time when we pick the fruit.” Yeah, right. Let’s leave nature as the backdrop that it should be and not go around trying to learn things from it, shall we?

So, I began to feel insufficiently serious as winter made its way into spring and summer and I became so captivated by trees, stopping in mid-stride during a perfectly good business day to gaze at them from top to bottom. As sentences containing seasonal shifts formed in my head, the specter of Chauncey Gardener loomed, but I couldn’t help myself. I went to the nature store, and there it was: the Eyewitness Handbook of Trees.

As I read about the ten basic leaf shapes, the parts of a flower, the varieties of fruit, and the types of bark, it occurred to me that the last time I had looked at anything like this was eighth grade or so. It didn’t make it in eighth grade, but now it was captivating. I discovered that a good stand of trees can be an amusement park, if you’re in the right frame of mind.

You start to look at trees more, you start to notice things. They are always reaching out. They tenaciously seek to anchor their roots, no matter how precarious their position. They will uproot sidewalks and fenceposts if necessary. Once those roots are there, the trunk and branches will reach and reach. They’re adaptableÑwhen they can’t reach in one direction, they’ll go in another. A whole forest is like a tug-of-war between earth and sky.

If you want to see diversity at work, look at the trees. Some trees are bulbous, like lollipops, while others are slim and conical, and still others free-form and wind-swept. They provide great relief. They shade us from a punishing sun and breathe out fresh air. Their lordly, meditative pace can slow you down and stop you. They’re dancing to the music of the spheres.

While their taller counterparts, buildings, are so inefficient, trees are the picture of efficiency, with a two-way nutritional system of light, water and gasses that is an engineering marvel. The flowers, fruits, burrs, cones, nuts and pods “devised” to communicate the seed combine utility and beauty in a way that practically defines creativity. And given the chance, they’ll cover the earth with it. They are an organic “art in the streets” program.

If the substructure of a tree is chaotic, its overall look is always of order. The wild fashion it presents to the world by way of the needles, ovals, hearts, and lances on its surface defeats any attempts to impose conformity, and yet each tree has its complete integrity. Trees are democratic in their chaos and imperial in their orderliness.

When an old tree dies, much like a good person, its trunk and branches remain for a while, as a monument and reminder of what they were, until even that falls and they become nutriment for a future generation.

The story of trees in the twentieth century, of course, is that they get in the way and when you cut them down you can do things with them. We live in clearings and we use tree products on a daily basis. Is that all that trees are good for?

As usual, Arbor Day came and went this year without much ballyhoo, a silly, Chauncey Gardner-like thing, not even worthy to be called a “holiday.” Next year, though, I’m taking the day off and going to the woods.

Barry Boyce

Barry Boyce

A longtime meditation practitioner and teacher, as well as a professional writer and editor, Barry Boyce is the editor of and a primary contributor to the book The Mindfulness Revolution: Leading Psychologists, Scientists, Artists, and Meditation Teachers on the Power of Mindfulness in Daily Life. He also worked with Congressman Tim Ryan on his books A Mindful Nation and The Real Food Revolution. Barry is also co-author of The Rules of Victory, a commentary on the strategic principles that underlie Sun Tzu’s Art of War.