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hirakismail's picture

      I walked it at night. This big, aesthetically beautiful place becomes something entirely different when it's travelled in the latter part of the day. For days I had been trying to "schedule" the walk, thinking I'll do it between such and such class, before dinner, and so on. But this didn't work at all, because while beginning the walk, all I could think about was how I might be late to work, or late to some other obligation. I wasn't able to clear my mind and just amble. So I finally hit upon it at the time when I usually feel most relaxed and clear-headed: night. It was one of those long days, and after dinner, I just did not want to go back inside my room, I had been inside too much all day, and the spontaneity I had been trying to find in my choice to do the walk was finally in front of me, as I walked straight past Rock Arch into an amble up the curve of the hill near Thomas Great Hall.

      Thomas for me has always been my idea of the center of campus. When I used to live in Brecon, the dorm farthest from campus, I wouldn't consider myself arrived at main campus until I'd seen Thomas Hall. It looks even more brilliant and dazzling at night than it does in the day.

     Because it had rained practically all day, the atmosphere was full of mist and fog, amplified ten times by the lamp posts which added to the blur. I could scarcely see the path I was walking except in a blur, and the campus around me had transformed. I continued to step, deciding on a whim to travel toward English House, because the pathway there looked quite foggy. I saw a couple of students speaking to each other quietly and continued on my way. The grass was very wet, and I felt moved to walk on it instead of the sidewalk. Since I was wearing flip-flops, this caused my feet to be dabbed in the droplets too, a feeling I appreciate. It helps me feel I am a part of my surroundings, am being affected by the earth instead of always being in opposition to it, as people complain humans always are. Making it to English House up the stairs, I was immediately struck by the enormity of the tree under which we as a class usually sit. I don't know the name of the tree, but I was shocked by my own earlier lack of observation. How could I have not noticed it's sheer height before? It is so entirely taller than anything else in the vicinity, its trunk is never-ending. Perhaps I've always been too busy thinking of other things on my way to class, making sure not to be late, setting my notebooks and backpack down. Now, somehow, seeing it in the night, carrying nothing in my hands, it became the most apparent being in the entire vicinity. I couldn't take my eyes off it. There is a saying that Edgar Allen Poe's Dupin says in The Purloined Letter:

"If it is any point requiring reflection," observed Dupin, as he forbore to enkindle the wick, "we shall examine it to better purpose in the dark."

     This observation seemed entirely appropriate for the night as I was shocked how I could have put something like that in the back ground in my mind earlier. Because now it had all my attention. In comparison to the tree, the arrangement of the chairs on the grass seemed puny, insignificant, almost silly. I remember thinking that the chairs were so haphazardly spread around the tree in the night, that they looked almost pathetic or pointless. In front of the tree, they looked like a vain attempt at something, I couldn't quite wrap my mind around what. It was around this point that I became aware of a certain uneasiness I was starting to feel. As I walked around the fog-blurred trees, I couldn't help but remember superstitions surrounding them in my culture. The idea that trees are homes to the Jinn, or other spiritual beings at night and should not be disturbed became part of my recollection. I had always been quite skeptical of this claim, and my theory had always been that as long as I'm not hurting the tree, or being disruptive, it should be fine. But I couldn't help but tread carefully, as I walked under the trees surrounding English House. With the awe at the height and the shade these beings provided came a sense of fear. I continued walking and didn't let the fear stop me from exploring, however. The shade these provided in the day just made everything darker and harder to see in the night. I was walking without a flashlight and was dependent mostly on the moon and the surrounding lamp posts. But as I walked I became happier and happier that there was this entire other world at night on campus; these strong, powerful trees that I might only glance at during a busy class day became the center of my focus. I spent most of the first half of my walk just looking up at these instead of at the pathway-they became what constituted campus for me in a way they aren't usually. It became harder to say that trees don't have thoughts of their own when I saw them in the night. It was dazzling. I felt humbled.

     I would say something similar about seeing the dorm Merion upon returning up hill. The very building seemed to take on a life of its own. I guess seeing it as a whole from the back made me think about how all these different people lived inside, half of whom probably didn't quite know each other. I found myself thinking about how each room must house people doing so many different things at the same time. It made me think of how I felt when I looked at a beehive in my backyard and just wondered what each bee must be doing at that time, how hard they must be working, or sleeping, or eating, and so on. The dorm became a city for me in that moment, and it also looked much bigger and imposing in the night. I made my way past Merion to walk in front of the Campus Center, down toward the Park Science Building, all the way to Brecon, and back. On the way past the gym, the smell changed from a strange petrol scent to a slightly chlorinated one. It was interesting; I was able to smell the place before I actually reached the pool. I walked past to go to Cambrian Row and noticed with surprise the hedge surrounding it. All the bushes were blooming with flowers, and the scent was amazing. It was one of those situations in which I really wanted to be surrounded by the flowers, but I could only play observer. There was no space for me to step without hurting the hedges or myself, so I had to content myself by standing at a distance to admire. Throughout this walk I had the inner desire to really just become a part of my surroundings, and the closest I got to that was walking under the trees near English House. The result? Many mixed feelings. It caused a spiritual connection within me too; I felt full of praise and awe for God as a result of my experience. The realization that I revisit whenever I'm outside and paying attention is how there are beings outside of me and humanity that are just plodding along, just living, and surviving on a larger scale than I am. This thought is very strangely consoling for me, that I am just a small part in the great scheme of things. This helps me step out of the rushed lifestyle I live, and reconsider my seemingly large problems against the earth as a system, and my problems start not seeming as impossible when I think this way. This walk brought about that reminder for me again.


Anne Dalke's picture

Thinking like a tree (?)

Reading your Thoreauvian ramble several weeks after those of your classmates, I noticed how hard it was for you "to clear your mind and just amble," to "find spontaneity"--so much labor to create some undirected time!

You're already gotten some wonderfully perceptive questions from Nan, so I'll step out of the way and let you focus on answering these….

...saying only that I'm most struck by the spiritual consolation you took from this walk: your own problems shrinking as you realized the "larger scale of being," yourself "just a small part in the great scheme," a grateful "observer." The most compelling part of the narrative, for me, was how much your perceptions were revised in the dark: particularly, how the relative importance of trees and chairs shifted @ night: the first, "only glanced @ during a busy class day," then became "strong, powerful," "the center of your focus," while the latter were much reduced in importance, " looking like a vain attempt at something."

I also noticed your saying that "It became harder to say that trees don't have thoughts of their own when I saw them in the night." Can you tell me more about this perception? What does it mean to say that trees "think"? What might it mean, to "think like a tree"?  Here's something a good friend of mine, a neurobiologist, once wrote on this theme:

Here's the thing. Trees are. And they don't "think"…..Like us, trees grow, trees take in nutrients, trees respond to changes in their environment, trees retain traces of prior occurrences in their lives, and so on. And they do all of those things (and more) without thinking. What that suggests is that much of what we do we probably do the same way trees do them, without thinking….Much of our lives reflects a whole host of things going on of which we are largely or totally unaware, just as a tree is.

Nan's picture

Hira, many thanks for this

Hira, many thanks for this beautiful posting of your night walk!  I like very much your description of the wet grass and how it allows you to be "affected by the earth" rather than "always being in opposition to it." It is also wonderful to hear about the Jinn and how they and other spiritual beings at night should not be disturbed.  In your culture, is it thought that these beings are more present in the human realm at night because they reside in the trees, and thus are potentially more likely to cross paths with people at those times, and are also then more vulnerable to being disturbed? I love that you are exploring new trees with new spirits in our culture.  Do you think that our American trees and bushes have spirits, like Jinn, even if most Americans are too daft to be aware of them?  That is, does our skepticism as a people, affect the actual presence of spiritual beings, or just our ability to perceive them?

Your experience reminds me very much of the years I lived at the edge of the Monkey Forest in Bali and I spent a lot of time in the forest and the forest temple at night. I too felt very small and awestruck under the huge banyans, a feeling I treasured and carried with me out of the Balinese forest and back, somewhat altered, to my American home and some trees in the States.

Sometimes I wonder if it helps or hinders when we name things. Does it categorize and limit, erode and attempt to define the undefinable? Or does it help identify, draw attention, and potentially garner support to the green canopy and all its beings?