By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Two years ago I moved into a Victorian house in Teaneck, New Jersey. On three sides my home was surrounded by forest: the Matthew Feldman Nature Preserve. On the fourth side was a four-lane highway (known in New Jersey as an “avenue”). Soon after I moved in, I went for a walk and had the uncanny sensation of being watched. As I approached the nearby trees, the feeling intensified and became a buoyant wave of beneficence.
I was at a point in my life where I needed direction. I was living in the suburbs for the first time, after ten years in the Catskill Mountains and, before that, thirty-five years in Manhattan. Silently I received this invisible touch. It’s difficult to explain, but I felt as if I were wearing a crown.
After a few days I located the source of this feeling: a young Norway maple. Every morning I’d have an audience with my tree. I always began by saying, “Namaskar,” which is Sanskrit for “I salute the divine within you with my entire mind and heart.” Standing before the tree, I’d hear words in my head that weren’t my own. I suspected the tree was actually speaking to me, and I began a journal of our conversations.
The whole road.
I believe the tree means: “Walk the whole road, not just a piece of the road.”
The phrase is like a mantra. One could spend an entire day repeating: “The whole road. The whole road. The whole road.” And that day would be an auspicious one.
Humans believe trees have no ambition, but that is untrue. Trees have one great desire: to grow. (Of course, they must be patient during winter.)
Today the tree said, Teach yourself.
Only the greatest instructors encourage students to seek their own answers.
Do I worry that I am going insane? Certainly. On the other hand, it’s a fortunate type of insanity. My tree is not pursuing me with a dagger but merely offering gentle, oblique soul counsel.
Today, for the first time, I looked up at the top of my tree — about seventeen feet in the air. It was a gentle spring day, and her upper leaves were sunny and elegant. My arboreal friend is gorgeous. She reminds me of a young Gwyneth Paltrow.
I use the female pronoun for my tree merely as an approximation. My tree doesn’t strike me as male or female, but certainly not as a lifeless “it” either. “She” suggests my companion’s delicacy and intimacy.
Why would my tree talk to me? Perhaps she decided I was ready. Trees know when people can suddenly hear them.
Why doesn’t every tree confide in me? I’m not sure, but I’m relieved they don’t. A hubbub of tree voices would be maddening.
Berry-tickling, said the tree.
I’m not sure what this means, but it seems like a tree’s idea of a joke.
How long does a Norway maple live? How tall does it grow? Is it really from Norway?
A Norway maple is “not a particularly long-lived tree,” says Wikipedia. Its maximum life span is 250 years. Its greatest height will be about thirty meters (ninety-eight feet six inches). Yes, the Norway maple is originally from Norway, but it’s also found in the rest of northern Europe.
Why don’t trees have faces? Because a face is essentially a covering for a brain. The intelligence of a tree is not centralized but circulates liberally through its entire body.
If trees did have faces, people would love them more. Stores would sell calendars of cute trees next to ones of baby Labrador retrievers.
I have not taken a poll, but I believe few New Jerseyites speak to trees.
In 1973, while flunking out of Cornell University, I was given a battery of psychology tests. I scored 100 percent in only two areas: “heterosexuality” and “adventure.” But my counselor did not direct me toward a career of talking to trees. In fact, he suggested I become a member of the clergy.
Perhaps we all have numerous invisible allies. Clocks, can openers, and vines might shower us with wisdom if only we asked.
My tree friend is at the edge of the woods facing our house. Perhaps that’s why she speaks to me: she lives on the border between the human and plant realms. Deep in the forest, I suspect, trees cannot even understand English.
Today I asked my tree if she objected to my writing about her. Of course not! she replied. Perhaps my maple wants to be famous — which is difficult to accomplish without a name.
It suddenly occurred to me that I can name my tree. I will call her “Ellia.”
“May I call you Ellia?” I asked the tree.
Yes! she shouted — if a tree can shout.
I wonder what Ellia means?
According to thinkbabynames.com, Ellia is from Old German, a variant of Ella, meaning “other, foreign.” The website also indicates that Ellia has never been in the top one thousand American names for girls (not exactly a startling discovery).
Many hearts, Ellia said today. That’s another good mantra to spend a day repeating: “Many hearts. Many hearts. Many hearts.”
I am the beneficiary of many hearts.
Yes, Ellia talks like a hippie at times, but she doesn’t act like a hippie. She is responsible, grounded, more realistic than a lawyer.
Is this tree really talking to me? Probably not. Most likely I’m hearing a combination of my intuition, my unconscious, and the High Exultant Mind of the Universe, which I’ve come to associate with this tall piece of vegetation.
Maybe I should ask my tree if I’m really hearing her.
“Are you really talking,” I asked Ellia, “or is it my imagination?”
She was silent.
Today I went to Prospect Park in Brooklyn and watched a softball game. During the third inning rain started falling, so I took out a half-broken umbrella. Then I noticed a man standing under an oak nearby, and I joined him.
The oak tree was just as effective as my umbrella. A tree is an umbrella, really.
My message for the day was Instruction. That’s all Ellia said.
“What instruction?” I asked. “And who is being instructed? Me? Or am I instructing someone else?”
The tree just repeated, Instruction, in such a precise way that I suspected I should seek out the derivation of the word.
The Latin instructio literally means “to build within.”
So my tree wants me to build within. But what do I build? A playground? A split-level house? A pyramid?
Today Ellia said, Wome.
I’m not sure exactly how to spell it, but it rhymes with home and is quite similar to womb. This is the answer to yesterday’s question. I should build a womb-home. Men are deficient biologically; we have no uterus. Therefore we must build one within, to house our inner fetus.
In the Disney animated film Pocahontas, the heroine speaks to Grandmother Willow — a tree with an elderly woman’s face on its trunk. Through the magic of YouTube, I can relive the Indian maiden’s mystical experiences.
I can’t be crazy if I’m imitating a Disney heroine.
Many people assume Disney movies are deeply Christian, but really they are animist. Animism is the belief that the natural world is full of mystic force, that rivers, trees, and even rocks have spirits. Cartoons can make anything come alive. Animism and animation are almost the same word.
Kilt, the tree said.
I saw myself clad in a Scottish kilt on a windy hillside, a hero-warrior fighting . . . who? The British? A rival clan? I felt fearless, muscled, and wise, though I could still hear cars speeding by on Roemer Avenue.
Maybe I should buy a kilt. I imagine the conversation at the Scottish men’s store:
Salesclerk (wrapping up kilt): So, are you of Scottish heritage?
Sparrow: No, a Norway maple told me to buy this.
Salesclerk (wrapping up kilt): So, are you of Scottish heritage?
Sparrow: No, a Norway maple told me to buy this.
I typed in “cheapest kilts” on Google, and the best price I found was $76.80 for an “8 Yard Men’s Kilt, Polyviscose, Black.” (Isn’t “Men’s Kilt” redundant? Or are there female kilts?) All kilt prices are eccentric. For example, the “Men’s Kilt, 13 oz, 5 Yard, 100% Wool, Traditional Hand Made” is $332.02.
I typed in “female kilts,” and not only do they exist, but sleazy Scottish entrepreneurs have invented the “mini-kilt.”
Today Ellia said, I❤ — as in “I❤NY.”
She’s right. Why declare, “I Love New York”? Why not just “I Love”?
I wonder if “I❤” would be a successful slogan? (Probably not in a world where people wear T-shirts saying, “Only A Vampire Will Love You Forever.”)
Ellia hasn’t said a word for several days. If she stops speaking, my journal will end! As a writer I have never been so dependent on another being.
Ellia startled me with this greeting. Does she know I am uncomfortable with cheery cowboy lingo? Maybe she’s making a point. She is an American tree, anchored in the American soil, just as I am an American citizen.
I must accept my Americanism.
Hola! said Ellia — clearly meaning: “Yes, you are an American, but don’t forget that the U.S.A. is now a bilingual nation.”
Today Ellia asked me to press my chest against her trunk. For the first time I noticed how narrow this trunk is. Though tall and philosophically wise, my maple friend is fragile. I felt (or imagined I felt) sap flowing through her as my “sap” flowed through me, powered by my heart. We are two liquid-filled beings within a sea of air, I rhapsodized.
No being can do everything. A whale, though huge, cannot fly. An eagle, though swift, cannot swim. My tree cannot walk. In this sense Ellia needs me. My legs are hers; her roots are mine. Together we compose one being, both mobile and patient — a man-maple.
Today I ate at a restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown. After the meal I took a toothpick. As I picked my teeth, I suddenly realized I was holding a piece of a tree. What kind of tree? Not a Norway maple, I hoped.
“American wooden toothpicks are cut from birch wood,” says Wikipedia.
I wonder what a birch tree might say.
I looked this phrase up on Google. Besides finding a bunch of massage studios, I discovered that it is the name of a sanctuary for golden retrievers.
Maybe I am destined to visit the Golden Hands Sanctuary for golden retrievers! I thought. But when I clicked on the link, I got an error message.
I may be the first person in history to combine tree divination with Google.
The tree said it that way, with the numeral 4 instead of for, just like Prince!
That’s a good question. What is it all for? Why am I talking to a tree?
I just remembered: Seven years ago I received a psychic reading. “Native American ancestors are surrounding you,” the medium said. “They want you to revive the old ways.”
Me? I thought. I’m a Jew from Manhattan. Can’t they find someone else to revive the old ways?
I’d forgotten about this prophecy until today. And now it’s being fulfilled.
Does Ellia produce maple syrup, I wonder, or are sugar maples the only source of this delicacy?
According to an article by Marcella Shaffer in Backwoods Home Magazine, a Norway maple may be tapped for syrup.
Imagine drinking the sweet blood of your spiritual advisor.
The Bible preserves traces of tree worship. The Garden of Eden is dominated by two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Nowadays we cut up trees and make them into IKEA bookshelves.
Ellia is right. Humming is a lost art, the musical equivalent of daydreaming. It’s been replaced by legions of iPods and crappy pop music in every supermarket.
Ellia is taller than any person I will ever meet. As a boy I lived in the Dyckman Projects in northern Manhattan with basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. At that time his name was Lew Alcindor, and everyone called him “Lewie Longlegs.” I remember eighteen-year-old Lewie walking across Dyckman Street, dwarfing a cop directing traffic.
I never spoke to Lewie — he was four years my senior and lived in a different building — but kids said he was gentle, not arrogant. As a youth I came to associate height with courtly greatness.
This is the first word the tree has spoken to me in French. It means “flight.”
I want to publish my journal, but it lacks an ending.
“I need an ending for my journal,” I told Ellia.
Love, she replied.
“But isn’t that a cliché?” I asked.
Not to me, said the tree.
The most important lessons in my life are ones I learned from trees. Starting at about the age of five, I left my body on a regular basis to hang out inside whatever tree friends I could find. What they taught me kept me sane (though there are those who would argue the point).
It was wonderful to see Sparrow [“Conversations with a Tree,” September 2011] give one of the world’s best teachers a little much-deserved publicity.