Jacob Gerow

What Is the Tree Thinking? 

By Jacob Gerow

Writing 212: The Art of the Essay

The sun was shining down hard, a massage of vitality. I could feel its warmth, a pleasure and energy felt throughout my body. The sun was familiar but exciting, beating down constant and full. But as the sun gives energy, it also takes it away. I could feel a solar weight dragging down my body, beads of sweat starting to swell on my skin. But then it all changed, and I first felt coolness. The energy had been drained and replaced with a calm emptiness. I felt as if I were sinking down into the cool dirt, the massive load of the sun being taken out of my pack. And then I looked up, and saw an expansive, beautiful oak, its long limbs stretching into the sky, its broad leaves soaking in the burden of the sun. And I asked myself: “I wonder, what is the tree thinking about?”

This is the type of thought that crosses my mind while I’m hiking. It’s actually an excerpt from my journal, written during a break from my long hike. I love to hike, and just be in the woods period. I feel a unique mix of contentment and excitement when I’m surrounded by trees and creeks and squirrels. As to why I like hiking and what it is about the woods that makes me happy, that’s a very interesting question. Although hiking is an activity I love, I really have no idea why I love it. It’s odd—walking around in the woods for no particular reason. Hiking serves no functional purpose in our lives, and yet it is one of the things that brings me the most joy. I was determined to find a description, a definition of the beauty of nature and my enjoyment of hiking. To do this, I went out to the woods and recorded my thoughts and experiences in hopes of finding some clarity. Here are some moments in my journal from that day:

All of this nature has been here, and nobody has watched it. Does that mean it did not exist? Or is that just me being selfish?


Am I reconnecting with my roots, fulfilling some sort of natural life cycle by returning to what I emerged from?


When I’m in the woods I feel secret and alone. Or is this just hiding from my fears?


The size and depth of this existence is truly incomprehensible. Yet I am torn between rationally dissecting every inch of this spot, and empirically exploring everything I can.


Hiking is phenomenologically engaging but cognitively numbing.


I am tired. My head hurts. I just want to fall asleep right here.

I was not satisfied with these meditations; they did not feel complete. While some of them are interesting questions and thoughts, they are dense and cluttered. But most importantly, they do not have anything to do with why I enjoy hiking. They are all human questions that I was trying to apply to an activity that is at its very essence an escape from humanity. I was trying to think deeply of a broad idea that encompasses some sort of truth about what hiking is. The futility of this was clearly exhausting, as I ended with “I am tired. My head hurts.” Although I wanted to fall asleep, I forced myself to stay awake and think about hiking and nature. What I was trying to do was define it, measure it, and relate it to human concepts. But if I really wanted to understand hiking, the woods, and what makes it great, I had to think on a different level. I had to think not like a person, but a tree.

The Japanese realized long ago that that there is a beauty that could not be defined, and they referred to it as Yūgen. Often translated as “dim” or “mysterious,” it points towards a beauty without demanding it explain itself. Yūgen transcends words, not worlds, in that it is not an allusion to the beauty of another reality, but one so deeply immersed in our own that language does not suffice. Japanese poet Zeami Motokiyo once said he experienced Yūgen in “wandering on in a huge forest without thought of return” (qtd. in Tsubaki). In the West, and especially in an academic setting, we are not so comfortable with the ambiguity expressed in Yūgen, but rather disposed to defining and quantifying everything we come across. And it’s not just in the fields of science and mathematics, as the humanities and arts study and explain concepts, ideas, movements, and themes. These are not bad things, but rather valuable tools to help us process and understand the world. The problem is when a definition does not aid in understanding, but instead limits it. It is when we try to define our feelings of a hike with a word, or fit the beauty of a forest into a phrase, that we lose the power and allure. And we, in turn, shape our thoughts and feelings towards something based on its definition. It’s not only that an inappropriate definition can limit our ability to share experiences, it can prevent us from experiencing the beauty ourselves. I experienced this in my meditations above, my task to understand how I can enjoy something as pointlessly beautiful as hiking.

Being in the woods is a different kind of pleasure. It’s not one that can be neatly described and quantified: it can’t even be honestly defined. Being lost in the woods is not the same as being lost in Shakespeare. When it comes to nature, I can’t write a six- page essay with a thesis statement and three to five pieces of supporting evidence about how the iambic pentameter contributed to the meaning of the work as a whole. When trying to define the woods, I can’t talk about themes or ideas. These are human concepts—the tree doesn’t give a shit about a theme. When I’m writing about nature, it’s got to be about nature itself. It’s got to be from the perspective of a tree.

So what was that tree thinking? Although scientists agree that plants do not have the neural capacity required to think in terms of cognition, research suggests that plants can see, smell, touch, and even hear. They do this very differently from humans and other animals, but it is undeniable that plants experience and react to visual, olfactory, tactile and audial stimuli (Chamovitz). They rely on sensory outlooks for their consciousness—the very basic methods of interacting with the outside world. So when it comes to appreciating nature, we have to think like a tree. That means to stop thinking, and start feeling. Feel the energy of the sun, the cool of the shade. Hear the chime of a bird, smell the deep forest leaves rotting sweetly into the earth. Taste the water in the air, jump into a crisp lake. We can feel the rush of climbing a steep mountain and soak in the expansive view from the towering peak. We stop trying to interpret our feelings and simply enjoy them.

A lot of this came to me, not surprisingly, on a hike. It was a beautiful Thursday afternoon, and having finished up classes and homework, I said aloud to myself, “I am going to go get lost!” I packed up my bag with my hammock, journal and an apple, and walked over to the hidden Reynolda Trails in hopes of finding some peace. The stress of university life had been weighing me down, and this particular difficulty with defining the enjoyment of hiking had been a large part of that. This not only troubled me from an academic standpoint (as I have to write six pages on something I could barely meditate on), but it bothered me on a personal level. I felt out of control over something I loved, the beauty becoming more difficult to understand. However, as the concrete sidewalks turned to dirt trails, the brick halls into open fields, the maintained magnolias into old-growth oaks, my thoughts started drifting away. I focused on the ground beneath my feet, the branches above my head. I wasn’t trying to make this forest something I could talk about in an essay, something it was not. I was letting it be, enjoying it for what it is. I thought about Yūgen and that thoughtless tree. After hiking for about a mile, I found a stream that a broad tree had fallen over, forming a natural bridge. I crossed the stream, set up my hammock far away from the trail, slipped off my shoes and drifted to sleep.

When I woke up, I wrote a second round of thoughts and meditations. Here are some excerpts:

The sun poured into my newly awoken eyes, setting a fire in my skull.


I took a small shoot of the trail without hesitation. I feel spontaneous joy, wandering about in no direction.


Looking up from my hammock, the trees are so tall. They pierce the sky.


A breeze somehow maneuvered its way through the dense trees to rock my hammock gently.


Walking around in socks, the ground is soft, a cushion of leaves and dirt that rivals a Tempurpedic.

To me, these meditations captured the experience of being in nature so completely. The simple process of transferring them from my journal to the keyboard brought me back to that moment in the woods. Although the sentences are brief and simple, they depict a grasp of the natural beauty that seemed so difficult to express on paper. They are about what I saw, what I heard, how I felt. They tell the story of the woods on its own terms, using its own language.

After a while the sun started to dim as it descended towards the tree line. This was my cue to head back to school, back to friends and dining halls and homework. I slipped on my shoes, packed up my hammock, and made my way back down the trail that got me here. As the trail wound along the edges of the park, I realized just how close this piece of nature was to the human world, as the hums of birds and bugs began to compete with the groaning of the interstate. My mindset is peaceful and light, but I know I will miss these woods. After this afternoon of letting go and giving way to my senses, I realized the answer to my initial question is much more powerful than a curious daydream: the beauty of the tree is that it doesn’t think—it feels—and perhaps sometimes we should too.

Works Cited

Chamovitz, Daniel. “Plants Exhibit the Same Senses as Humans.” Prevent Diseases. 7 Nov. 2013. preventdisease.com/news/13/110713_Plants-Exhibit-Same- Senses-As-Humans-See-Touch-Smell-Hear-Taste.shtml.

Tsubaki, Andrew A. “Zeami and the Transition of the Concept of Yugen: A Note on Japanese Aesthetics.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Critics. vol. 30, no. 1, Autumn, 1971, pp. 55-67. Jstor, doi: 10.2307/429574.

A Word from Jacob

Picture of Jacob Gerow

The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever received is from the author of Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott: write honestly.

In writing “What Is the Tree Thinking?” I tried to focus on honesty, as Lamott puts it, writing about what I actually experience—what I have the ability and authority to write about. I find writing most difficult and least rewarding when I don’t know what I’m writing about, so when I write honestly I don’t have to make any- thing up. In this piece, I tried to write about my experience in grappling with this huge question: why and how do we appreciate nature?

Beginning this essay, I had no clue what I was going to write about, besides the fact that I liked trees and didn’t know why. As is often the case, I experienced a great deal of difficulty and frustration in starting the writing process. Instead of being overwhelmed, intimidated or depressed by my lack of direction, I decided to write about it. And because it was genuine, real, and truthful, it made for a good start to the essay, from which I built off of as I gained understanding of my topic.

My favorite thing about this essay is that most of it was written in my hammock in Reynolda Trails, just as I describe in the scene (although I wrote considerably more of it there then I let on in the essay). Surrounded by the beauty I was writing to understand, it was easy to convey honest and powerful observations about the question I was working with.

In addition to making an essay itself better, writing honestly makes the writing process more enjoyable. Sitting in my hammock with a journal and pen, hung up over a creek in the middle of a forest, I thought about nothing in the world but writing this piece, getting everything I was thinking and feeling on paper. It is one of my favorite writing memories because I didn’t feel the pressure to make my writing any better or different, it just was the honest truth I was experiencing, which turned out to be a decent essay. If there’s one thing we all know as Wake Forest students, it’s that writing sucks. But when I strive to write honestly, from time to time I stumble upon moments of blissful flow, which I find to be the most rewarding aspect of the process.

From Professor Elisabeth Whitehead


Narrative Advocacy

Writing the truth is a political act…If you write the truth you will change the world. If you write privately, you change your own inner world, and that changes the outer world. If you write publically, you give voice to what is, and that assists what is becoming.

-Pat Schneider

For your third paper, develop an argument built on the foundation of personal narrative on an issue of concern to you.

Narrative arguments make it possible for writers to illustrate a point by appealing to their audience, invoking experience, and creating a sense of identification with the controversy at hand. Key to creating an effective narrative argument is establishing credibility (your audience must believe you and trust your presentation) and establishing representativeness (the audience needs to understand that your narrative reflects a larger problem beyond the scope of its events).

Choose a subject that is tightly focused. You will want to keep your work balanced rhetorically by accompanying the emotional appeal of your story with strong credibility and with logical evidence (both anecdotal and researched) to support your claims.

Think in terms of an experience that made you realize that something was wrong or that something needed to be changed, and from which you gained essential knowledge about yourself and about the workings of the world around you. Tell a story that allows you to establish your position on the controversy and provide support for your claims. A well-told story often engages in vivid description. Create presence in your details. Your readers should really feel that they too, by reading your account, are there beside you, and can hear, see, smell, and touch those surroundings. Clean and vivid details can help set scene and tone. Therefore, be specific, descriptive, and engaging.

Successful papers will provide a rhetorically balanced narrative argument and will be clearly and engagingly written. You should conduct enough research to provide relevant, external support for your position. Your paper should include at least three sources (books, magazines, journals, newspapers, interviews, films, and/or texts from the academic databases), but use as many sources as you need. One of your sources can be from a credible website. At least one of your sources must be from the databases. If you choose to use more than three sources, you can use additional website sources.

Using MLA style, incorporate in-text parenthetical citations and include a works cited page. Papers should be 5-7 pages long. In your folders include: final paper, two drafts with your changes marked, and a copy of your sources with your annotations. (Or you can include a copy/paste document with the source material you used, rather than printing out all of your sources. But I want to see all of your source information in its original form.) Your final grade for the paper will be reduced one step for each element that is missing.

Professor Commentary

The final version of this essay is quite different from the original. In his ability to embrace the process of writing and its struggle, Jacob was able to bring both himself and his audience to a deeper, more complex understanding of the subject of this essay. Jacob accepted that writing is not always a straight arrow. Instead it takes time, some sweat, some questioning, but also the ability to trust in oneself.

He begins the essay by focusing on how important it was for him to define what hiking means to him. But it is actually when he is able to let go of the need to define, that he comes closer to comprehending the heart of his experiences. Not grasping, not clinging, not holding or fixing into place, its beauty is, in part, a product of how ungraspable it is. Jacob’s willingness to let go of the need to define, allows him to meditate on his subject in a deeper way.  We can even experience this difference in the essay as we compare the before and after journal excerpts. The final excerpts show a sharper clarity in perception and more authentic descriptions of his felt experience: “The sun poured into my newly awoken eyes, setting a fire in my skull.”

To embrace the writing process required him to not just communicate what he already knows, but to feel comfortable with what he doesn’t or can’t know. During the semester, after the students had completed their first full draft of this assignment, I asked them to pause: “You’ve told me what you know.  Now, tell me what you don’t know about your subject. How can you incorporate this experience of what you don’t know into how you open up your exploration of your subject and your essay?” Even though Jacob had already finished a complete draft, he incorporated his struggles and uncertainty into the essay. He used the process as a way to understand, explore, to sink further into the truth for which he was searching. Rather than stopping, or going around the difficulty, he worked through it, and came to a place of greater complexity and precision.

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