To Awaken Soulfulness in the Human Voice

Poetic Medicine

THE INSTITUTE FOR

Writing Our Relationship With Trees

IPM Partner: Brian R. W. Sunset


Brian Sunset  holds an MA in Transformative Language TArts from Goddard College, in VT, and a certification in poetry therapy. Raised in Oregon's Willamette Valley, he facilitates Healing Landscapes, Writing Our Relationship with Trees, and other groups exploring the connections between the expressive arts and deep ecology. He also facilitates Poetic Pathways and Journal to Wholeness at the Pathways Learning Center, in Eugene, and developmental writing groups at the University District, Johnson Unit, of Eugene's Sacred Heart Medical Center.  Brian is the founder and director of the Cascadia Arts and Healing Center,  also in Eugene/

Writing Our Relationship With Trees —  Overview

In Writing Our Relationship with Trees, we listened to the stories of trees, past and present, of our lives and dreams.   Using the palette of imagination, ritual, and expressive writing, we will activate the relationship between tree and self, self and tree.

Participants

Participants in this project in this project are people with PTSD, and schizophrenia, who were interested in exploring personal growth opportunities through poetry as well as their connections with trees.

The workshop took place at Pathways Learning Center, part of Laurel Hill Center, which is a non-profit organization "committed to helping people with psychiatric disabilities make choices and acquire skills that increase their self-reliance and ability to live and work in the community." (From the Laurel Hill Center vision and mission statement.)

  • Purpose and Goals

    In Writing Our Relationship with Trees, our goal was to restore a more harmonious relationship with trees, becoming open to the possibility that trees too have their own way of being in the world, and they have a great deal to offer us, if we could but learn to listen.

    Our quest was spiritual in nature, and we ventured down several avenues.  We shared our own memories of trees, through story telling and poems, and by connecting with trees at an emotional, rather than intellectual, level.  In light of these memories, we examined our own attitudes and philosophies about trees, reflecting upon what we have been taught to believe about them and considering other possibilities.  We considered what it means to be in relationship with trees in the first place and explored new ways of relating with them.  Also, we sought encounters with trees in the physical realm, allowing ourselves to be moved as deeply as possible by them.

    In Writing Our Relationship with Trees, we deepened our connections with trees, and, by extension, with humans and other living things; we cultivated attitudes that are less exploitative, and more spiritual and restorative; we increased our capacity to listen deeply, maintaining a sense of openness, respect, and sacred connection; and we restored our sense of belongingness as part of the human, as well as the broader ecological community.

    This recognition that we all belong–i.e. that we all are part of the sacred circle–helped move us forward, if even in a small way, toward the adoption of attitudes and ways that are more life-sustaining for all beings:  human, other-than-human, and trees.

    Project Description

    The workshop consisted of six two-hour sessions, two half-day sessions, and a culminating event.  As part of the culminating event, individuals participated in a tree planting.  This was done as part of a beautification project at Laurel Hill Center.  An anthology of poems was published as a way of honoring workshop participants and their creative efforts.  This anthology was sold locally, for a set cost or for donations, to help support future workshops.

    Allowing for ten participants, the workshop moved through several stages, each including writing practices, rituals, group discussions, and poems.  These stages, outlined below, I drew in part from the book, The Attentive Heart: Conversations with Trees, by Stephanie Kaza.

    Meeting trees and establishing contact;

    • Uncovering more complete history of individual trees and looking past first impressions;
    • Entering the tangle of human-tree relationships, hearing the stories carried by trees, including fear, killing, unconsciousness, and objectification;
    • Ways of responding to this tangle in ways that are heartfelt and genuine;
    • Restoring the spiritual as well as biological relationships with trees;
    • Engaging and sustaining our renewed relationship.

     

  • Description

    Listen with your heart and soul.

    Read from your past to show what you really are.

    I'm a tree.  Hear what I say.

    Hear what I am.

    Hear what I'm about.

    —Goddess F., workshop participant

     

    The poem, above, written from the perspective of "tree" is an invitation to listen with our heart and soul to the hearts and souls of Trees and other living things.  It is an invitation to put aside mechanistic notions about the nature of existence and to hear the stories of other living beings from their own perspective.  It is about making space to listen deeply as part of this process.

    It was out of my desire to cultivate deeper connections between human beings and other living things that I conceived the workshop Writing Our Relationship with Trees.  I also wanted to provide an ecological-oriented expressive arts experience to individuals often under-served on the personal-growth workshop circuit.

    My goal was not to facilitate an intellectual discussion of trees, as one might do in a science class, but to provide a context in which to consider the possibility that trees, as well as other living things, have their own way of being in the world and have something valuable to share with us when we make the time to listen.

    Some people might feel uncomfortable with the notion that we can listen to trees in the same way that we listen to human beings.  But listening may be more than hearing with the ears.  It may be running your hand over the bark of a tree and feeling its texture. It may be hearing the sound of the leaves as the wind brushes through them.  It may be noticing the tree's limbs - the way they crisscross and intersect, or embrace the sky.  Or it might be sitting silently at the foot of a tree paying attention to the thoughts, words, and images arising in your mind.  We listen with our whole being.

    Pathways Learning Center offers a variety of health and wellness classes as well as job skills training and activities designed to enhance people's leisure, creativity, and spirituality.  My trees workshop consisted of nine two-hour sessions, plus a culminating reading and tree planting ceremony.  There were an average of ten participants per session.

    To my knowledge, there is currently no writing workshop similar to Writing Our Relationship with Trees.  Other workshops exist in which participants write about trees from an objective perspective, consider their symbolic value, or share memories of them.  In our workshop, we did approach trees from these perspectives, but we took it one step further, moving from an objective-symbolic way of way of relating to a way of mutual respect, in which other beings are recognized for their inherent worth and value and are approached in this fashion.

    In other words, we do not approach Trees as objective other, upon whom we seek to impose our own agenda, but as honored other, to whom we offer dignity and respect, allowing them to exist purely and simply as they are.  It was also the way we sought to treat other workshop participants.

    In Writing Our Relationship with Trees, one of my main goals was to use poetry as a pathway to help people explore the possibility that we can relate with trees as sacred beings in and of themselves.  Processes supporting this goal included great and liberal use of the imagination. Participants could, for example, step into the "bark" of a tree and write a poem describing the world from its perspective.

    In tree adoption, participants were to select a tree, with whom they would spend time on a regular basis throughout the duration of the workshop.  As part of this process, they were to observe it, listen to it, "speak to it" through the imagination, reflect upon their connection with it, and write poems reflecting upon that connection.  Participants selected a variety of trees for this task.  Trees included an ash tree near a bus stop; an oak tree outside an apartment window; and a magnolia tree in a back yard:

    from The Magnolia Tree

    I'm not sure when I planted my roots here.

    I'm guessing thirty or so years ago.

    In the Spring I have such beautiful large blossoms

             that are so fragrant.

    The smell kisses you in the face when you get near.

    When the blossoms fall, the leaves remain,

    covering the naked arms and fingers

    protruding from my body...

     —Rebecca L., workshop participant

    Another process that I found to be quite useful was what I call tree movements.  This process developed as an outgrowth of one participant's outpouring of emotion.  Expressing extreme frustration about the ill treatment of trees by human beings, the participant, whom I shall call "Lydia," leaped up from her chair during the second workshop session and cried, "Why are we treating trees this way?  What can we do to help them?"  She began moving her arms as she imagined the tree might do if given the opportunity to defend itself from people seeking to harm it.

    Acting on instinct, when Lydia had finished moving like her tree, I invited the other group members to stand up, and with Lydia's permission, I invited them to imitate her tree movements.  Then I asked if anyone else had a tree movement they wanted the group to imitate.  Many people took the opportunity, and in subsequent sessions it became part of our opening ritual to imitate the movements of trees.  I have since employed this practice in other writing groups that I facilitate.  It is a wonderful way to release tension; to encourage spontaneity; to build a sense of openness and trust amongst group members; and help people identify in a sensuous way with the branchy beings whom we call Trees.

    Benefits to participants were numerous.  For example, over the nine weeks of the workshop, people began opening up more; sharing more honestly and authentically, listening more attentively; and caring more deeply for one another.  A beautiful example of the latter benefit occurred during the celebratory reading and tree planting ceremony.  One participant, whom I shall call "Val" was anxious about reading her poem in public.  When it came her turn to read, she began having problems with her glasses, making it difficult to share her poems.  Visibly frustrated, she said, "Oh, I don't think I can do this!"

    Perceiving Val's frustration, another workshop participant stood up, walked up beside her, and asked, "Would it help if I stood up here with you while you read your poems?"  "Yes it would," said Val, immediately more relaxed.  Then she read her beautiful poems before the audience. This exchange was an outgrowth of our effort to make building community part of the group writing process.

    Reflecting upon the benefits of the workshop, another participant said, "Writing Our Relationship with Trees... continues to be beneficial to me. It's helped me at times to get out of myself - and my head - and to look around me. I started noticing things more.  The more I look outside of myself, the less I get lost in my symptoms of depression..."

    Another participant shared that the workshop had given her the motivation to explore her thoughts and feelings about trees while listening to other peoples' beautiful poetry.

    Goddess F., a workshop participant who has a deep and abiding reverence for the earth, writes in one of her poems,

     Trees are Magical to Me

    "...You are magical to me in every way possible

    When I'm near you

    You cure me of my depression

    You turn my frown into a bright glowing smile

    You give me hope in every way possible

    You give me the courage not to give up on life

    Because you are here with me..."

     

    Participation in Writing Our Relationship with Trees was not a magic cure for people, nor was it intended to be.  Many of those who participated will go on living with their afflictions for the remainder of their lives.  But if through participation in this workshop people learned to better express feelings and emotions; if they learned to express themselves more authentically, honestly, and boldly; if they learned to appreciate themselves more deeply, not only as people connected with their peers as part of a writing community, but as part of a broader, ecological community of life on earth, then I think we have accomplished something.

    I hug the green leaf

    tree and feel

    a newness in me.

     —Lynne S., workshop participant

  • Participants response

    I'm a Mighty Douglas Fir...

    I feel rain drops gently touching my branches

    The sun rays make the rain glisten like tear drops

             on my branches

    I'm a Mighty Douglas Fir...

     

    I feel the birds building their nests

    As they sing out their beautiful songs..

    I'm a Mighty Douglas Fir...

     

    The crows bark...

    The squirrels scamper about

    Tickling my roots and making me happy...

    I'm a Mighty Douglas Fir...

     

    I live through winter after winter...

    When the wind howls and bends my branches

    And the snow fall weighs me down...

    Yet I Live on...

    —Karen J., workshop participant

     

    Transparent

    blue

             topaz

    the sky

    against

             whispers

    of your skin

             O holder

    of the ethereal ocean

             O keeper

    of the deepest soil

             O transformer

    of unknown

             dreams.

    The goddess

             of furrowed

    burls

    the fingers

             unfolding

      —Karen D., workshop participant

     

     

    Listen with your heart and soul.

    Read from your past to show what you really are.

    I'm a tree.  Hear what I say.

    Hear what I am.

    Hear what I'm about.

    —Goddess F., workshop participant

     

    From The Magnolia Tree

    I'm not sure when I planted my roots here.

    I'm guessing thirty or so years ago.

    In the Spring I have such beautiful large blossoms

             that are so fragrant.

    The smell kisses you in the face when you get near.

    When the blossoms fall, the leaves remain,

    covering the naked arms and fingers

    protruding from my body...

     —Rebecca L., workshop participant

     

    Trees are Magical to Me

    "...You are magical to me in every way possible

    When I'm near you

    You cure me of my depression

    You turn my frown into a bright glowing smile

    You give me hope in every way possible

    You give me the courage not to give up on life

    Because you are here with me..."

     

    Branches stretch to sky

    Tree of life

    Pulling heaven down

    Your roots grasp earth

    Feel the pulse

    Everlasting rhythm.

    —Cathy B., workshop participant

     

    I hug the green leaf

    tree and feel

    a newness in me.

     —Lynne S., workshop participant

     

Trees are Magical to Me

"...You are magical to me in every way possible

When I'm near you

You cure me of my depression

You turn my frown into a bright glowing smile

You give me hope in every way possible

You give me the courage not to give up on life

Because you are here with me..."

 

Branches stretch to sky

Tree of life

Pulling heaven down

Your roots grasp earth

Feel the pulse

Everlasting rhythm.

—Cathy B., workshop participant

 

 

 

 

 

 

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