Engage in the Great Conversation — with a tree

Author Belden Lane befriended a cottonwood tree near his home in St. Louis, nicknaming it Grandfather. — illustration by Blair Gauntt

Over two weekend days in March — during which we experienced the gamut of weather from cold to warmth to rain to ice to snow to frost to fog to sunshine — I joined a group of fellow travelers in a remarkable retreat at Prairiewoods in Hiawatha: “The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul” with Belden Lane, Professor Emeritus of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University and author of Backpacking with the Saints, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, and Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality.

At no time in human history has there been a more urgent need for human conversation with nature. The devastating effects of climate change accelerate, poisons destroy nature’s gifts of life, species continue to decline and disappear at alarming rates — all due to humanity’s hubris and rampant consumption. When war occurs in the human world, the first step toward peace is always talking with each other. Even though the destruction of the natural world is a one-sided war, conversation is still essential. In our country’s polarized culture, some few people are beginning to converse as a way of healing divided communities. We need to extend the same efforts to the natural world.

At first it may sound a bit kooky to talk about “conversing” with nature. But the oddness of that idea is really due to the inadequacy of our words, even our human conceptions. What happens when entering the Great Conversation is much more profound than trading mere words, or even human ideas. When conversing with nature, trees and flowers and animals don’t actually say human words to you, though you may hear them in your mind if it helps your understanding. We speak with the natural world through intuition, feeling and sensing. The Great Conversation is about becoming more aware, of opening yourself to the understanding that Wordsworth’s world of “getting and spending” is too much with us, that we see little in nature that is ours, that we have given our hearts away, that we are out of tune, that what we need to do is open ourselves to what the natural world is saying.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty in conversing with nature is that we must come in humility, even vulnerability. As Lane shared with us at Prairiewoods, “Communication in its deepest form is always rooted in a shared vulnerability, a mutual convergence of vulnerabilities.” Those aren’t ideas that most Americans cater to. But to hear both the wisdom and wounds of nature — and to realize we are the perpetrators of those wounds and that we need to be the students of that wisdom — we need to take that very difficult first step in conversation: to listen.

This is not an entirely mystical or New Age idea. Listening to plants is what earned cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983. As Linda Hogan says in Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World regarding McClintock’s work on gene transposition in corn plants, “Her method was to listen to what corn had to say, to translate what the plants spoke into a human tongue.” McClintock “came to know each plant intimately. She watched the daily green journeys of their growth from earth toward sky and sun … Her approach to her science was alive, intuitive, and humane … Her respect for life allowed for a vision expanded enough, and sharp enough, to see more deeply into the mysteries of matter than did other geneticists who were at work on the same … She saw an alive world, a fire of life inside plants.” McClintock herself said that we must “hear what the material has to say to you. One must have a feeling for the organism.”

The first step in entering the Great Conversation is to find a teacher, as Belden Lane says. For Lane, aside from the fierce landscapes where he has sought to find wilderness teachers in his backpacking trips, the most important wise elder has been an old cottonwood tree in a city park across the street from his home in St. Louis. Lane calls the cottonwood Grandfather, and they have been conversing for 25 years. Lane has shared life tragedies with Grandfather, who has suffered a huge gash in his trunk thanks to a lightning strike, huddled in the hollow of his wound. He has slept in his highest branches, learned all he can about the family of cottonwoods and talked with him every day. The most important teacher is right here at home. As Lane often says, referencing the saints and other world spiritual sages he admires and studies, mystery is embedded in the ordinary.

Prairiewoods Savanna — photo by Thomas Dean

In our retreat, one of our most important tasks was to find a teacher — to explore the prairies and woods of this home for eco-spirituality at the edge of Cedar Rapids and to listen for an invitation. For me, that teacher was a small oak savanna — a council of six white swamp oaks residing on a slight rise on the prairie. I was not surprised. I am inevitably drawn to this family of trees whenever I visit Prairiewoods and always leave with photographs of it. The prairie had been burned this spring, so approaching and entering the circle of oaks was easy. More difficult was humbling myself to this family of beings, listening to them attentively and understanding what they were trying to tell me.

It was barely a start at a conversation, but in the span of an hour, I heard gratitude for the life-giving fire Prairiewoods’ staff had given to the oaks’ companions — oil and plants beneath and beyond its canopy of branches. I heard an invitation to touch one of the tree’s rough, hard trunk, to close my eyes and to feel the turning of the earth. I heard the trees’ message of grounded family and relationships. I heard their plea to stop cutting and poisoning, which has made the oak savanna an even more endangered landscape in our state than the prairie itself. And I heard an invitation to return, with the savanna’s promise to always be there.

The deeper we enter the world’s mystery and the more profoundly we engage in the Great Conversation, the deeper our relationship with nature grows, and the more we are open to the teachings we need from it and the more we comprehend its needs from us. For Lane, that is what love is, and it is only this love that will save the world. As April brings the cycle of new life sprouting from the soil, it is a perfect time to seek an invitation to the Great Conversation.

Thomas Dean thanks Belden Lane, the remarkable staff and sisters of Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center, his fellow retreatants and the prairie and woods of Prairiewoods for a Great Conversation. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 240.