When I was a boy I read a story, the name and details of which I have long ago forgotten. But the message always stuck with me. I’ve written a new story that I hope gets to the heart of that message, even if it is different. And if anyone knows the name of the story I can’t remember (more details below), please let me know in a comment!
One morning on the way to the market, along a stretch of road that bordered a dense wood, a girl caught sight of a tree just beyond the wall that bordered the road—a tree that looked troubled. It almost seemed to be calling to her for help. But that seemed silly and she was nearly late for her apprenticeship and that would mean a whipping so she shrugged her shoulders and hurried on.
Not long passed before another boy sensed something not right with the tree. Almost a whispered cry. Looking at the tree, he could almost see its agony. But he thought, ‘there are hundreds of sick trees in this old forest. I don’t have time to save every one. And besides, what’s in it for me?’ So he shook off the feeling and continued on down the road to the market to sell his master’s wares.
Later, as the sun rose higher and the road emptied of people, one girl rushed along, very late for her job as a servant. For her mother was sick and she had been tending her. She, too, heard the anguish of the tree. She stopped and looked at it. A Sycamore. And the Sycamore pleaded to her to stop and help it. She knew she shouldn’t. If she was any later, she’d risk losing her job, and while it didn’t pay well, without it she could not afford food for her family, or medicine for her mother. But she could not ignore the tree’s distress either.
The girl approached the tree and listened to it and touched its bark and her hands felt like they were being steadily pulled down its trunk. And as she looked, she could see something must be bothering the tree’s roots. At one especially gnarled root, she knelt down and started to scoop out soil, dirtying her hands and knees, knowing this was only going to make the lady of the house more unkind when she finally arrived for work.
Without digging very far she found something hard and the further she dug the larger it became. ‘I must remove this,’ she thought, realizing this must be the cause of the Sycamore’s suffering. But the more she dug, the deeper and wider the object seemed to spread. Suddenly, the girl remembered the time and, worrying, stood up. But before leaving, she said, “Dear tree, I cannot help you right now, but I promise I will return this evening after my work is done.”
But the girl returned sooner, for when her mistress saw the state she was in, and the lateness of her arrival, she did not even give her a chance to explain but dismissed her on the spot. Weeping, the girl returned toward her home, almost forgetting her promise to the tree, for she was so distraught. But again, as she approached where the tree stood, she lost sense of her own fear and hurt, and could only feel the tree’s torment. And almost in a trance she walked back and finished the arduous task of digging out whatever was paining the Sycamore so greatly. And finally she was able to pull it out.
While the girl thought it must be a large stone, in reality it was a small locked chest, covered in thick dirt and clay and clearly dozens of years old—quite possibly even older than this longstanding tree. The girl easily pulled the lock off, the clasp having rusted away. And opening the chest, she found it full of gold coins. She looked up, expecting someone to have seen her but she was fully covered by the wall, and at this hour, few were on road anyway. She closed the chest and wrapped it in her shawl. And then filled in the hole with soil. “Oh Thank you tree, for sharing this with me. You have saved me and my mother.” The tree called to her no longer.
The original story I remember is about a boy who wanted things for himself and when offered those things never took them as those things (like a chest of gold) were embedded in a task to help another. (Anyone know that story?) So, if the boy had helped the tree, he would have found the gold he desired. If he had helped the hurt animal, some other good thing would have happened. This version distills this point: that by stopping to help others we truly help ourselves. In fact, there is a long psychological literature on that. Helping others improves one’s own well-being. It increases feelings of life satisfaction while reducing social isolation. It builds community and friendships, and helps cultivate a network that you, too, can rely on when in need.
But the fact that it was a tree also stuck with me all these years. What is not noted in the story above is that hundreds of others walked by the suffering Sycamore that day and never heard its cries. For trees do not speak with words, but with signs. If one looks closely, there are signs of how a tree is faring. Suckers shooting up from its base. Withering leaves, diseased limbs or scars from poorly broken branches.
Indeed, this week, I went for a hike and saw a sassafras seedling, which was too close to the trail to grow into a big tree, so I asked if it would allow me to harvest it. I then harvested it, and only after I pulled it out of the soil and saw the rot at the base of its root did I realize it had said no. Not with words, but I did see—but did not comprehend—a dead little trunk growing parallel to it less than an inch away. It had a double trunk, one long dead. If I had attended to that, I would have known it was not in a condition to offer itself up. But I was only thinking about myself and my desire for sassafras tea. But after that, I was more careful to listen, finding a sassafras who was willing to give itself.
In the story, on that day, many people walked by the tree, but only a few were able to hear the tree, to notice its need. And only one of those actually stopped to show kindness to that tree. And was thus rewarded. Not with gold, though she found that too, but with a means to free herself to better care for her family and to serve Gaia and Gaia’s many creatures without the stress of earning her daily bread.