When The Trees Say Nothing by Thomas Merton

“I am free, free, a wild being, and that is all I can ever really be.”

I came across the name Thomas Merton when reading Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence and it is a name I logged in my mind as one to come back to. Merton was Trappist Monk, most famous for his book The Seven Storey Mountain which describes his conversion from an ordinary, perhaps conventionally successful, life to that of a silent monk in a Trappist order. Well, kind of silent. Perhaps he exercised the power of non-speaking, but he certainly wrote prodigiously, which is good for us because it has resulted in this legacy of material to read.

When The Trees Say Nothing is a collection of Merton’s writings about nature. It appears to have been pulled together after his death, pulled from his other writings elsewhere and it is collected into themes: Seasons, Elements, Firmaments, Creatures, Festivals, Presences. Each observation is a small snippet, an observation of birds or bees or a moment caught in a thunderstorm, and Merton describes these things with simplicity and reverence, not surprising, perhaps, given his vocation. It has, as you might expect, religious overtures, but these are not overly intrusive and describe, I think, something which I might describe in a slightly different way – a moment of transcendence or connection. I think what I’m saying here is that even without a religious expectation or desire, his emotional response is recognisable and whilst I do not share his philosophy I can share his joy. It is a simple book, nothing flashy or ambitious and yet it is strangely beautiful and compelling. I found myself wondering why it is that we do not revere the kind of simplicity he describes, or the simple reverence with which he expresses it. There is space in literature for every kind of transgression or drama – crime, violence, manipulation, cruelty – yet little space, or recognition for books of simple joy and love. If more of us could live like Merton – quietly, minimally, joyfully – perhaps we would have more joy and respect in the world, perhaps we would think about poverty differently, not as material absence but an absence of contentment and connection. But these thoughts, perhaps, are too discontented in themselves to explore further. If Merton tells us anything it is that we can only fix the world by first fixing ourselves, by learning how to be filled with joy and care and love.

Image result for when the trees say nothing

I realised that there is both little I can say about this book, and yet also a great deal. But I thought, too, that perhaps the best way to both describe and pay homage to Merton’s writing is by emulation. I decided to keep a Merton-esque diary alongside my week of reading, so that I, too, can learn to observe and explore and revere our beautiful world. As Merton describes: “… it is absurd to inquire after my function in the world, or whether I have one, as long as I am not first of all alive and awake.” I chose to be alive and awake for one ordinary week. This is the result.

30th April

On the way back from the cinema, on the slip road down towards the motorway, I saw a group of deer leaping across the fields. A brown flash against the brown humps of the field, turned for cultivation. They were small, females I think, and I watched them for the second they were visible, their dun bodies flecked with white, their limber leaping, a flash of graceful wildness, and I felt privileged that such wildness is still accessible even as I sped down the concrete road onto a larger concrete road where I was carried away, the moment a mere memory.

1st May

It is a bright day. The blue sky is washed white here and there with cirrus clouds and the light has turned the higher branches of the eucalyptus tree a vivid green. I see the occasional butterfly. The Mexican Orange is in bloom – bright white clusters of flowers against a light green foliage contrasted against the darker green of the recently painted fence. It is peaceful to sit in the library watching the world evolve outside. I can hear the bubbling of my wine fermenting, the faint odour of sweet alcohol like a boozy breath in the air. Outside there is birdsong, intermittent and fleeting. The garden is in shadow, but the sun’s light is vivid on the houses backing onto our garden. The bricks grow orange and ochre and on the roof there is a blackbird, all glossy and singing loud. Spring can be such light and vivid luminosity. Who needs more than this?

2nd May

The beech tree has now come fully into leaf and it is bright and green and the leaves, which drape from the white branches, dangle down like fronds of thick, green hair. The fronds dance in the wind, though the tree itself, whilst leaning at the trunk, is sturdy. This lean is a legacy of the high winds we experienced in the early days of the village, a combination of the flat landscape and the lack of anything to interrupt it, but building work has gentled the flow and the new trees planted grow straight. The tree looks as though someone has pushed it down as it grew. It is convenient for the neighbourhood cats who compete for its ownership, dominance over its branches filled with the potential of birds which they are too ungainly to catch. The bark on the trunk is gnarled and cracked, like it has been burned and what remains is the charred remnants of bark; it makes easy climbing for the be-clawed cats. I love this tree. It has grown house height, but I have known it since it was a mere sapling and it is lush and healthy and strong and it supports the birds and insects and even the bickering cats and it will be there when I am not, reaching its branches towards the stars.

3rd May

It is another gorgeous morning. The sun hangs bright and fat over the dewy fields; fields that speed by my window too fast to register; fields full of cows that would not be there if it wasn’t for the fact that we exploit them. It makes me sad to know that I will never see a field of wild cows, that the environment I love is shaped entirely by its utility to us, that the grassy hillocks exist because we desire it and the stream flows where it is most useful, that there is so little which is truly wild and that which is ekes out an existence on the fringes of all we have claimed and I think, then, of the wonder of the flash of birds’ wings, of butterflies and bees and wasps and all the flying crawling things that we ignore and so flourish until we see them as vermin and exterminate them. It is so arrogant this idea that we can own or claim anything, that we have ‘rights’ over the land. The land exists without us. It will grow over our bones, over the ashes of our bones. The glorious sun will warm it long into the future. Maybe there will be herds of wild cows after all. It is a comfort to think it is possible, even if I shall never experience it.

4th May

Another train journey, another few hours of speeding through countryside, towns, past wetlands and ploughed fields, bright acres awash with yellow flowers. I see cows, sheep, geese, a heavy-bodied heron flying in its ungainly fashion towards a body of water where it will land and transform into its usual, graceful form. Blue sky, washed white where the sun is moving towards the horizon. I enjoy the different gradations of blue, the white sweepings of cirrus clouds, a single contrail, bright and broken like a child’s attempt at drawing a line. Few trees. Dun stubble in a field not yet ready for planting. It is so quiet it is possible to imagine that I am not on a train, yet impossible to forget I am not alone.

5th May

I ‘ve been walking around Manchester thinking about Thomas Merton and how he says that we talk about the weather perhaps in order to truly feel the day and how if he hasn’t felt the day, felt like a part of it, then the day has been lost, and with the sun bright in the sky and the wind cool on my back, my hair rising like Medusa’s snakes, I feel like I have swallowed a nugget of pure truth. I realise this is what is missing from virtual space, from virtual interactions: the focus on the mind as pure reason, pure communication, by definition cuts out all of these other sensations which make it real. I can feel the blisters beginning to rise on my heels – a burning, ticklish sensation – my feet pressing against the base of my shoe with a slight grainy feeling, as though there is a layer of sand left over from a long-ago trip to the beach. My arms swing, the blood rushes to my fingers making them more sensitive except that my hands are cold. In spite of the brightness, the clear vivid blueness of the sky, it is chilly. But I don’t care. I have the one minute seventeen second brilliance of The OA main theme on repeat in my ears and I feel a sense of euphoria lifting my steps, my mouth, my mind, my eyes. I am happy. I am thinking of the power of healing, of nurturing, themes which resonate through The OA, which I finished watching for the second time yesterday, and through me. I am lifted, I am healed. I transcend, not through dance – though I can see how that would work – but through walking on this wonderful day feeling every second of it.

6th May

Clouds lie heavy in the sky today. It has been cool, thankfully. We have been painting the shed; it is therapeutic work and nice to work outside in the cool air. I watched the cat climb the buddleia and chew the grass. Paint splatters everywhere, under my nails and in my hair and the smell a little greasy and chalked. When I paint I notice little except the chill wind and the ache in my shoulder which I know will be worse later. Arm moving back and forth. The golden wood turns blue. It grows dark quickly, the clouds are a white stain on the sky but it will not rain. It hasn’t rained in some time, I’m not sure how long. The contrast in the weather is strangely welcome, though there is always something wonderful about blue skies and sunshine. I enjoy the oppressive sensation the clouds create, the threat of something dramatic.

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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6 Responses to When The Trees Say Nothing by Thomas Merton

  1. Anneontheshelf says:

    I don’t think you can claim to be ordinary after this beautifully written diary. How can you bear to stop though. You have inspired me to begin such a journal and read Thomas Merton. Thank you.

    • bookbii says:

      Thank you so much 🙂 I do plan to continue, Merton has inspired me to pay more attention to what is going on around me. I really hope you enjoy his writing; I think this book is a cobbling together from his other writings, but it is extremely beautiful all the same.

  2. SimplyMe says:

    I loved both your diary entries and this review. Merton was central to initiating inter-religious dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity in North America in the 1960’s. I have not read his writings on nature, but your question about why it is that little is written about simple joy in life made me think of haiku and also of Zen calligraphy, drawing and water brush paintings. In contrast to these forms of art, Western literature, fiction in particular, seems to me to be founded upon dualism, viz.,dependent upon a protagonist, an antagonist, conflict and resolution.

    Drawing upon the roots of Western civilization, when I think of simplicity of heart and mind, because I am predominantly a visual thinker, I see the various column forms of ancient Greece. There is a paring down to the core or essence.

    • bookbii says:

      Have you read anything else by Merton Jan? If so, would you have any recommendation? I think you’re right about hailu and zen caligraphy and the difference between the Western and Eastern philosophies which, I think, Merton draws on too. There are a few entries where he refers to ‘oneness’ and the sense of observing a scene which is not a collection of things – as in Western cultural view – but one thing, interconnected and interdependent.

  3. SimplyMe says:

    I’ve read The Seven Storey Mountain, The Desert Fathers (which is a compilation of key writings), Contemplative Prayer and Zen and the Birds of Appetite – all of them some time ago. Of these, I would recommend Zen and the Birds of Appetite, although as I say, it is some time ago when I last read this book and the others. I don’t connect with his Christian writings by and large.

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