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  • Kristy Johnsson

Talking to Trees, Allowing Ourselves to Listen


Mossy trees I walked through along the PCT in Oregon

It’s funny that I’m a licensed therapist and yet this title, in the more conservative circles of my profession, could land you with a not-so-light diagnosis. It would certainly get you a few referrals if you said such a thing in the ER.

Yet perhaps this experience is not an anomaly, but the historical and trans-cultural norm, as truly a universal human experience if there ever was one - at least where there are humans living among trees.

What are we saying about indigenous people all over the world, not to mention countless generations of our own ancestors, if we not only dismiss such an experience as signifying not just extreme delusion but mental illness requiring institutional intervention and medical treatment?

Have you ever noticed the raging white supremacy in that? This modern western hubris?

For those of us used to being on the fringes of mainstream perception, this is something that may feel basic, but the cultural narratives embedded in virtually all our bodies still resist and attempt to suppress it no matter how much we tell ourselves it’s okay. That I have to write what I just did is a testament to that. Almost all of the clients I’ve worked with outside have felt drawn to and experience a deep self-acceptance in the company of trees. Almost all of the clients I’ve worked with, regardless of whether we ever talked about or been in the company of trees together, felt frequently judged by and uncomfortable with other human beings. This was my experience, too. Trees were beings with whom we could allow ourselves to be fully as we are. No matter how ugly, hopeless, despairing, confused, or ashamed I was, there was a sense of being held by trees in a way that no human in my life could.

Perhaps that’s some of what I aim to offer in my work: the unwavering acceptance of a tree.

But our cultural narratives that declare only humans as conscious, only humans as offering any veritable intelligence, block the possibility of a deeper relationship, one that can flow both ways, that can transform one’s life as I’ve seen it happen not just in my own, but in my clients' as well.


some local tree family

When I first started inviting my clients to have sessions outside, I wasn’t confident enough to say this directly. I felt the need to frame it as a kind of extended “parts work,” some other aspect of ourselves that we were listening and speaking to. But I felt uncomfortable. It felt wrong. Not only was it at odds with my experience and what I knew to be true, it was also doing a disservice - even a great disrespect - to the only beings that were often there for me through many dark nights of the soul. And that’s nothing to say about the way that indirectly does a disservice to all other forms of non-human life. It keeps human beings at the center, it turns the world into a stage full of props supporting the drama of our unfolding consciousness and personal lives. As a matter of fact and of ethics, it IS wrong.

(And who’s to say we aren’t the props, subsidiary roles in the evolutionary drama of trees on this planet? I’ve often wondered if we’ll wake up one day to realize that we exist to be in service to their more mature and integrated intelligence and ecological role, and are only temporarily experiencing a moment of delusion.)

What shocked me, though, was that even as I struggled with how to present this, and even though I never front-loaded myself as a particularly unusual therapist, the number of clients who were willing to listen and speak to trees uninhibited was far beyond what I expected. It was as if it was a natural faculty that simply needed permission to be remembered and exercised, a timeless relationship that was always aching to be rekindled, revived. If I made sure there was no pressure or expectation, only invitation, that which came through was frequently magical.

One client, just recently, noticed a desire to connect with a tree she often came to sit with for sessions right as we started. I’d felt its pull at the start of the session too, and soon there was a river of tears punctuated by bubbling laughter, an expression of immense gratitude for this friend that had held her consistently through so many of her experiences, that had supported her and delivered wisdom to her, and again, in this time of transition, conveyed to her the extent to which she had both grown and the potential that lay before her. Another tree on the other side of the field then also came into her attention, and together they helped her feel a tremendous wave of joy, gratitude, and conviction about her future and work in the world. Her visual perception shifted dramatically and at one point she belted out: “I’ve never felt sober like this before!” We both laughed pretty hard. Trees, when we fully receive them as the autonomous brilliant beings they are, have the capacity to do anything from quietly hold and ground to radically transform us. And in turn we find ourselves committed to giving our gifts to the world in thanks.

But even western science is starting to get this. I think most of us have encountered some of the recent enthralling research into tree communities and relationships too, but I’ll name a few cool findings here: Trees have been shown to share nutrients with each other, keep the stumps of fallen comrades alive, warn each other of danger, nurture their young, have friendships, and more. Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, states that the Potawatomi recommend that a person might spend time with “the Standing People” if they need a certain type of insight or support. Trees are seen as valid persons in their own right, with their own wisdom to behold.


More local tree fam

And with what I’ve seen, as we sharpen our sensory and intuitive perception by meeting the trauma of our ancestors in our body-minds, us modern westerners can remember, can *experience*, that trees and all other beings are valid persons too. It is not our modern clarity that has eliminated that experience for a lot of us, that has denounced it in the collective consciousness, but our modern delusion caked on like layers of mud over our senses so that we can’t see or hear them anymore.

So in this climate chaos, among the clamor of war drums between superpowers, amidst the din of corporate hungry ghosts, go out and speak to a tree and dare to defy the rules of our sick society by allowing yourself to listen to them in turn.

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