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March 18, 2009

The Tall People: Reflections on Humans and Trees

By Andrew Schmookler

Thoughts from a walk in the woods.


My wife April and I are lovers of trees. In no small part, it is the love of trees that brought us back from the High Desert of New Mexico to the wooded mountains of Virginia. And making the most of our being here, the other day we went on a walk through our woods.

With us was our slim and slinky and silvery pussycat, Pitter. (Her sister, Patter, also used to walk these woods with us but, alas, she met her end on the same day as Senator Wellstone’s plane went down—a day that will live in sorrow.)

As we walked along the bed of leaves and amid the upright trunks of oaks and hickories and maples and pines, April said, “Do you think Pitter thinks of the trees as ‘the tall cats?’” I instantly recognized the joke, semi-private as it was: for April has long appreciated and often cited something she learned years ago from the book Hanta Yo, namely that some tribe or other of Native Americans called trees “the tall people.”

After giving a chortle of acknowledgment, I addressed the question as if serious: No, a cat would not identify with the trees as we people do, because they’re horizontal, spinally speaking, and what makes the trees the ‘tall people’ is that we and the trees share our upright stance in the world.”

It’s a lovely notion, this identification of us people with trees, because trees are such splendid creatures. April is of the opinion that trees are more likely to be God’s favorites than humans, and I can certainly see her point.

(She’s expressed beautifully one of her many appreciative takes on the trees in our world in a recent piece on her website entitled, “Trees on Winter Nights,” to be found at click here

Trees aren’t the only upright things in nature, but they may be the one’s we feel best to connect ourselves with. Tulips, lovely as they are, are too fragile, too slight, too fleeting. We like to think of ourselves as made of stronger stuff, of more substantial and enduring than such temporary upthrusts from the earth as the flowers of spring. Better the noble tree that towers above the land, that lasts through the years.

We see ourselves as tree-like, and we like the connection. Tall, dignified, enduring, a thing of beauty.

As my mind turned toward this likening of trees with humans, a phrase from Longfellow’s poem, Evangeline, came to my mind: he says of the trees that they “stand like Druids of old.”

He speaks of these trees as he conjures up “the forest primeval.”

THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic…

The Druids of old tell us of the solemnity of the trees. The dignity, the looming presence of a great force. The trees speak with the voices of prophets.

The trees represent an elevated, flattering view of human possibility.

I would be glad to think of us as ‘the short trees.’

Submitters Bio:
Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is WHAT WE'RE UP AGAINST. His previous books include The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, for which he was awarded the Erik H. Erikson prize by the International Society for Political Psychology.