The trees I love the most are the ones I know the names of. I’m not sure which came first: the name or the love. There is certainly a relationship there between knowing and loving. It’s not always a direct and straightforward relationship: an AIDS researcher might not love the virus she is studying, and a homicide detective likely does not think lovingly of the suspects he is pursuing – though each may have a grudging admiration for their quarry and its twists and turns.
Outside these kinds of situations, though, there does seem to be a correspondence between knowing and loving. When we love something or someone, we want to know more. If it is a food, we want to learn to prepare it. If it is an animal, we want to learn to care for it. If it is a person, we want to learn what she likes, how he thinks, what she does, what he believes and wants. To love is to want to know.
The trees I don’t know are a faceless green crowd in spring and summer, part of the grey multitude in winter. Background.
The trees I do know catch and hold my eye; these are the ones I know by name, by heart. That’s a pine. That’s a dogwood. Those are sycamores. Poplars. Walnut. Sugar maple. Silverleaf maple. Juniper. Mesquite. Pin oak, live oak. Cypress. Willow. And so on. I see these trees differently: more distinctly and with greater appreciation, even love. Which means there’s a relationship between knowing and seeing, too.
Thomas Kuhn, historian of science, talks about how a given paradigm of knowing will shape our perceptions, such that there are things we are conditioned to see or not see depending on what we already know, or the ways we are accustomed to knowing. This means that the clarity of our perception affects what we can know; and it is equally true that what we know affects what we can see.
This is proven to me when I realize that I don’t really see the trees I don’t know – I don’t appreciate them, I can’t care for them, and they don’t enhance my life any more than I enhance theirs.
And trees can and do hold a special place in the world of my heart. Let me speak of pines, in particular, because I am surrounded by them these days and they are on my mind and in my vision. Pines were not native to the South Texas of my childhood, but my father planted three pine trees in our large side yard (he called them Norwegian pines). A hard afternoon would find me hiding out under one of those trees, calmed by the sound of the wind combed out of the air by the long, bending pine needles. I loved the Breath I heard whispering in the wind.
Over Christmas M and I drove to Texas; since we were headed to Bay City – a small town two hours south of Houston – we took an even more southerly route than usual: west to Charlotte, south to Atlanta and Mobile, west to Baton Rouge and into Texas at Orange, a refinery town on the state line. The pines accompanied us all the way, to my surprise.
In the 20 years I lived in Dallas, East Texas was a frequent destination, to spend time in the cool pines of Tyler’s State Park. But I didn’t realize those pines stretched all the way from the Carolinas along the Gulf Coast states into East Texas. Their presence on the road south was a comfort, almost as though the trees of home were standing sentinel to our journey, providing shelter and promising a return home.
“Pine” is a big four-letter word. I knew I was seeing several different kinds of pines along the way, but I felt frustrated at not knowing what kind of pines I was looking at. The Internet tells me there were loblolly pines and longleaf pine, pitch pine and slash pine, among others; but that’s not knowing. That’s just information. I need to go to school at the foot of the tree. Feel the bark, see the pine needle pattern, look at the pine cones. How tall is the pine? Is the trunk straight or a little gnarly? And then I need to know what I have seen. I want a tree teacher to walk with me, and tell me what kind of trees I am looking at, and to show me the differences that distinguish each.
Love of pines has created a virtuous circle: in loving these trees – the iridescent brilliance of each needle reflecting sunlight, the fine spray of needles and bundles of cones against a gray sky, the tall straight reach for the sun, the steady ranks and families of trees, the tender faith of new sproutlings – I want to know more; and then, the more I know, the more there is to love. It’s like an expanding balloon: the expanding field of what is known increases what is available to love, and therefore the loving that can and does happen.
I wonder, does this virtuous circle exist with God? When it comes to the Creator, is there still a connection between learning and knowing and seeing and loving? Too often we sever the ties when our learning and knowing and seeing concerns God: we stop learning when we quit Sunday school or catechism, which may leave us with a childish fear of judgment that has us making deals and performing when we think God’s watching. We might want to reconsider. Might we love God more if we learned more about God? Try this … think of the names of God, as you know them or have heard them; see how many you can find, or imagine. What do your names for God tell you?
(Geek note: I remember being tickled to find a connection between knowing and loving in the biblical Hebrew. If I remember right, the verb yada means both knowing and the knowing that is loving, where “to know in the biblical sense” is something like making love. [I wonder if somehow this verb found its way into Jerry Seinfeld’s repertoire – in that case, what exactly might “yada yada yada” mean?])
When I think of how I feel about a tree when I know its name – how that enhances its particularity to me, how much more clearly I see that tree, how much more likely I am to love it – then I am glad God knows my name. And yours. And everyone else’s. That God knows us this completely means God can love us this completely, too. And I believe God does. (Maybe that’s the story behind the story of God inviting the humans in the garden to name the other creatures – so that they would look, and see, truly enough to name well, and in so doing begin not only to know but to love.)
We are known, and loved. And we are not alone in being this loved. There is a saying I have heard, now and again, and lately I find it sourced from the Talmud, a rabbinic commentary on Jewish law, ethics and customs. “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’” Surely that angel knows the blade of grass intimately – knows it by name. (Johnson. Bluestem. Sideoats grama. Zoysia. ) Comfort is not hard to come by: if each blade of grass has its angel bending over it, whispering to it by name, then surely each of us has an angel whispering encouragement, too.
I am quite sure I heard my angel whispering to me through the needles of my childhood pines; perhaps she is perched in a pine near me, even now, with more to say than I can hear. I would do well to listen. Thinking of the grasses and their angels reminded me of another beautiful collection of words: these are from my favorite poet, Mary Oliver, in a poem from her book Evidence:
“About Angels and About Trees”
Where do angels
fly in the firmament,
and how many can dance
on the head of a pin?
Well, I don’t care
about that pin dance,
what I know is that
they rest, sometimes,
in the tops of the trees
and you can see them
or almost see them,
or anyway, think: what a
I have lost as you and
others have possibly lost a
and wonder, where are they now?
The trees, anyway, are
miraculous, full of
angels (ideas); even
empty they are a
good place to look, to put
the heart at rest—all those
leaves breathing the air, so
peaceful and diligent, and certainly
ready to be
the resting place of
strange winged creatures
that we, in this world, have loved.
Each morning I wake to an invitation, the still or swaying pine trunks crowned with needle-spray and cone-cluster, awaiting my attention, inviting a deeper walk in the world whose infinite detail tells me of God’s love for difference, God’s preference for variety, God’s interest in the tiniest detail. Each blade of grass with its own angel, each tree topped with a whispering multitude of attendant spirits, wishing we would and tempting us to look more closely, know more deeply, live more lovingly.