Matt Dickerson: Hunting and slowing down

This is the time of year when a significant number of Vermonters disappear into the woods for hours on end and just sit. Quietly. Listening. I’m often one of those Vermonters. We are out there, of course, because it is the annual 16-day rifle season for whitetail deer.
To the casual observer — the chickadee pausing on a nearby branch, the squirrel skittering through the leaves on the nearby slope, the three crows flying noisily overhead, the barred owl that has decided to stay awake late into the morning hours and now glides past much more quietly than the crows, the big fir tree I’m leaning against that is quieter still — it may appear that I’m doing nothing. But it’s not true. I’m doing something. I’m hunting.
Hunting slows me down. It slows me down not in the way that I’m slowed down by eating a huge Thanksgiving meal, or catching a cold, or pulling a muscle; but it slows me down in a good way.
One of the most interesting books I read this summer was “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate ? Discoveries from a Secret World.” In the book, author Peter Wohlleben shares some of the results of recent scientific study of trees as well as observations from 20 years of his life and research as a forester in Germany. A central observation of the book is that trees appear to have their own nervous system. They communicate with one another and in fact are very social creatures. The reason we humans might not be aware of this is that trees “live on a different time scale.” The nerve impulses that travel along the branches, up and down the trunks, through the roots, may move only inches per minute. It might take many hours for a signal to pass up or down the height and breadth of a large old tree.
I recently re-watched the last half hour of the classic 1999 science fiction film “The Matrix” starring Keanu Reeves as Mr. Anderson, or Neo as he preferred to be called. Among other things, the film was responsible for making popular the concept (and special effect) of “bullet time.” A key moment in the story is when the hero Neo acquires this ability to think and move at the speed of bullets, and thus also the ability to dodge bullets being shot at him by his antagonists: Agent Smith and the other artificial intelligence agents of the computers that are warring against humans.
Thinking about that scene, it dawned on me that if Neo’s consciousness really were permanently sped up to bullet speed, it would make it very difficult for him to interact with other human beings. Indeed, a character moving through the world at bullet speed might not even recognize humans as conscious creatures. When Neo (or Agent Smith) is in bullet time, other humans appear to be just frozen statues. There could be no meaningful communication between Neo in his bullet time consciousness and another person living in normal human consciousness; it would take what seemed to Neo like hours for another person to utter even a single syllable of a word. Fortunately, when he isn’t fighting Agent Smith, Neo usually lives and moves in the much slower time scale of normal humans.
I wonder if the difference between humans and trees is something akin to the difference between Neo in bullet time and other humans. What if we are just living in the equivalent of what to a tree would be “bullet time?” If we could slow ourselves down dramatically, might we recognize in trees something akin to our own consciousness?
There is a moment in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” when something like that happens to his main protagonist, Frodo Baggins. Frodo and his company have entered Galadriel’s forested realm of Lothlórien. Time also moves at a different scale in this forest. Compared with the pace of the world around him, Frodo’s time slows down. He is in Lothlórien for what seems to him like only a few days, but when he departs the forest and reenters the outside world, a whole month has passed. The other important element is that Frodo stops his urgent quest racing across Middle-earth, and takes the time to just sit and lean against a tree.
Frodo, blindfolded, “found his hearing and other senses sharpened. He could smell the trees and the trodden grass. He could hear many different notes in the rustle of the leaves overhead, the river murmuring away on his right, and the thin voices of birds in the sky.” And when Frodo places his hand on the trunk of one of the trees of that forest, the narrator tells us, “never before had he been so suddenly and so keenly aware of the feel and texture of a tree’s skin and of the life within it. He felt a delight in wood and the touch of it, neither as forester nor as carpenter; it was the delight of the living tree itself.”
Hunting does something like that for me. It slows me down. The slowing is not enough to put my consciousness on the same time scale as a big maple tree that has been sitting on my hillside since before the world wars of the 20th century. But at least it is a step in that direction. I am suddenly much more aware of the smells of decaying leaves, the rustling of a single oak leaf caught in the wind, the flutter of the wings of a nuthatch.
That, as much as the oft-unrealized possibility of free-range, locally grown venison in my freezer, is what keeps me coming back to the woods. Maybe one day I’ll slow down enough to hear the trees talking with one another.

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