Light(s) and trees

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  1. Light(s)

Light is on my mind today. It’s overdetermined. The sky is grey, reminding me of a comment my Michigan alum daughter made after she had served her time. Although she loves her alma mater, she had the impression that in four Ann Arbor winters the sun was present for a total of eight days. That takes a toll on the psyche.

And here I’ve stumbled into the other factor in that overdetermination: It’s Chanukah week. I’ve always been intrigued that Christmas, Chanukah and Diwali all center light in their celebrations. It’s hardly a surprise as we approach the shortest days of the year. My assumption is that for all three faiths, the current historical/religious justifications for the holidays are overlaid on much earlier celebrations designed to coax back the return of the light from its winter hiding place. Absent the knowledge we now have of the predictable movements of the planets, how frightening it must have been to wonder whether the sun would ever return in all its glory, increasing the urgency to do everything possible to lure it back.

For that reason, I continue to honor the myth of the miraculous long-burning oil, while really celebrating the power of light in our lives. My wife and I were out for a short walk through the neighborhood last week when we came upon some grand homes we had never noticed before. After admiring the architecture, she commented, as she often does, “Couldn’t live there. Not enough light.” I concur, even though her comment reflects a borderline diagnosis of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) while mine is a straight up aesthetic preference. When we were in Alaska years ago, it was clear that she would not be able to stand up against the strain of their two hours of daylight in this season. How fortunate we were to land in a Chicago apartment where the light streams in from many directions, so that even on a gloomy day like today there is still enough light to keep the demons at bay.

I realized the other evening how much pleasure I derive from the ritual of turning on the lights in our apartment as the sky darkens. Each room we’ll be passing through between then and bedtime feels safe and warm when that ritual is completed. Reversing the process at the end of the evening in preparation for sleep has its own rewards. As I read over these lines, I realize I’m under the sway of Proust. I’ve begun reading – I should say re-reading him after sixty years — and I can hear, though never replicate, the incredibly detailed and nuanced way in which he would describe every step of this journey through the house, stopping to marvel at each candle and gas light he passes.

Finally, I paused my writing of this piece to order Sabbath candles, as our supply has run low. Only afterward did I realize how the theme of my piece had nudged me unaware to take care of this task at this moment.  The mind is a wonder.Trees

        2. Trees

The cover story of Sunday New York Times Magazine on December 6th is called “The Social Life of Forests.”  Its premise is sure to change your views about the natural world in fundamental ways. The article presents the considerable and growing evidence that trees, indeed the whole forest ecosystem, is in constant communication. This feat is accomplished mainly through an enormous underground web of fungi, not unlike the purposeful tangle of neurons that keeps all parts of the human body interconnected. The forest network is capable of transmitting danger signals. It can coordinate the transfer of nutrients from healthier trees to ones that are stressed. The existence of this network poses significant challenges to traditional Darwinian beliefs about the battle for survival because it suggests that different species of trees are willing to come to each other’s aid, often at the expense of their own well-being. These actions of kindness and concern, if we choose to anthropomorphize them, may ultimately prove to serve some more long-term selfish interest, but it definitely presents a more benign picture of the universe than Social Darwinism’s blood and talons world.

This is my second encounter in the past year with the mind-bending idea of trees that communicate. The first came from reading Richard Powers’s amazing novel The Overstory, which is a fictional rendering of the work described in the New York Times article. For lovers of fiction like me, the novel may be the better way to encounter these radical new ideas. Now I’m left to wonder whether the stones around us are also busy commenting on our activities as we pass through their neighborhood.

Trees have been an important part of our pandemic experience. I’ve written about the weekly excursions to green places around the city which have become a welcome part of our routine even as winter approaches. On these walks, as well as on our shorter daily excursions, we’ve found ourselves drawn to the trees around us which in the past were too often barely noticed background props. Part of it is driven by a colonialist impulse to master our world by naming and labeling it — matching leaves and bark to photos in the tree guide in my backpack. This soon gave way to purely aesthetic pleasure that comes from admiring the beauty of the bark that seems to be weeping down the trunks of some trees or the grandeur of the stately first-growth trees that tower over their still struggling young neighbors. On a recent walk to a familiar area near the lake where the trees are now leafless, we were able to notice for the first time the beautiful web-like patterns made by the bare branches outlined against the cloudless afternoon sky. As with the house we had never noticed before, we were opening up to sights that have been there for the taking all along but were waiting for us to be ready to receive them. Although we didn’t need scientific reports to validate our practice, recent studies have actually confirmed that subjects’ mental health benefitted from walking with instructions to find something new that inspired in them awe.

As a Jew, Christmas trees have carried a message for me different from the one my Christian neighbors draw. A dear friend, recently deceased, managed to look past his Jewishness to express his delight at the sight of the illuminated Christmas trees in his neighbors’ windows. Although I respect the pleasure that lighted and decorated trees evoke for those who can connect them to warm family memories, for me they signal differentness, exclusion. My preference is to leave the lights inside and the trees outside.

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Marv Hoffman

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