…books in formation: 1 to 5

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1. Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande

Brande taught you how to think into your stories.  She explained the strange alchemy between movement and creativity, a cocktail of circumstance that is both individual and universal, and, if the measurements are right, as potent as morning light on a sunflower. 

Still now you think while washing up, while driving, while soaking prune-like in the bath (also a favourite with Douglas Adams, planning the next turn of events in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, draining the bath and refilling when the water went cold).  Movement and thought… movement and thought… as inextricable as love and longing.

2. Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

A student recommended this book to you, and you were astonished by the fluidity of Strout’s sentences, like rivers of rhythmic words that capture the heart of her characters and the people and places they love.  She moves like a spell, into and around her people, slipping through time from past to present to future, collecting and polishing meaning and insight along the way.  For similar reasons you fell in love with the writing of Vladimir Nabokov and Laurie Lee, all practitioners in the art of fluid punctuation.

3. Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury

Bradbury loved to write.  LOVED to write.  In this flaming burn of a book he shares his experience of writing and advice for writers:—

‘… the first thing a writer should be is — excited.  He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms.’

‘Run fast, stand still… the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are.’

‘We all need someone higher, wiser, older to tell use we’re not crazy after all, that what we’re doing is all right.  All right, hell, fine!’

If you are feeling tired of writing or unsure of your path, all your need to do is read his chapter titled The Joy of Writing, and you are back there, pen in hand, lost in the white heat of creation.

4. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

Isolation, repressed emotion, fires of destruction and the shame of insanity all combine to create, for you, the perfect novel.  These ideas and themes you revisit again and again in your own fiction and nonfiction, and you secretly hanker to live in an old house on the moors, the wind howling at the walls and windows while you write by candlelight. 

5. The Pillow Book, by Sei Shonagon. 

Shonagon, a 14th century Japanese noblewoman, wrote her memoir in the form of a list.  It is wise and funny, poignant and articulate, and there is a simplicity to list-making that you will be forever drawn to.  You will write essays this way, and you will write your blog this way, leaving space for the reader to make her own connections between seemingly disparate items.  That space, you have come to understand, is where meaning lies.

* * *

Next time: …books in formation: 6 to 10

…apophenia: an experiment

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apophenia • noun
the tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things (such as objects or ideas)

Experiment:  To take a selection of random words, phrases or ideas and find a meaningful connection between them (meaningful to you, that is).

Method
Take 1x novel, 1x textbook and 1x catalogue and choose items at random.  Write them down and stare at them.  Stare out your window until thoughts begin to unravel from each item.  Wait until these unravellings begin to find one other.

Materials
Novel — Pine, by Francine Toon
Textbook — Teaching Today, by Geoff Petty
Catalogue — Crystal & Gem, by Dr R. F. Symes & Dr R. R. Harding
Pilot G-2 07 pen + Leuchtturm Notebook + several hours of lockdown isolation

Experiment 1
Base materials:  ‘driving home’ + ‘student interest’ + Abrasive behaviour
Observations: This one is easy, coincidental even. You barely even need to stare out the window as the words come at you already unraveled and connected into the story of a student you taught several years ago.  She had an abrasive character, a mature student whose interest was in lodging a litany of complaints against you, as she had done with almost all her tutors.  You were called in to talk it over with your manager, and on your drive home you were glad you sent certain emails to this student that proved your innocence.  You also reflected on how you should really learn how to use the classroom technology, as this was one complaint that stuck. 
This story comes to you so effortlessly that you wonder if your base materials were tinged with an excess of serendipity, so that you haven’t experienced apophenia at all.
Result: Inconclusive

Experiment 2
Base materials:  ‘hungry’ + ‘discipline’ + Lenticular
Observations: You begin by discovering that lenticular means ‘shaped like a lentil or lens, from the latin, lenticula, a lentil’, and according to Crystal & Gem, the shape of gypsum crystals.  You are struck again by the coincidence (related to serendipity) of this word being placed alongside ‘hungry’.  The main character in the novel Pine, ten year-old Lauren, is hungry a lot, her father not neglectful but distracted by grief.  He never gives her lentils to eat.  You, on the other hand, would smuggle lentils and all manor of pulses and vegetables into your children’s food, but on the whole, discipline was not present at family dinners.  You discovered in your own childhood that conflict at the dinner table does not make for happy children.
You imagine that taking three disparate words and finding yourself at your childhood dinner table constitutes ‘meaningful connection’.
Result: Observable evidence recorded

Experiment 3
Base materials: ‘the traffic vanishes’ + Scheme of Work + moonstone
Observations: A relative once told you that she saw her thoughts as traffic passing through her brain, the good and the bad coming and going, all vanishing eventually. A scheme of work in teaching circles is a long term plan over a semester or a year, which surely requires the traffic to stick around for long enough for you to at least see what’s in the boot or lying around in the glove compartment. If you found The Moonstone in the boot, for example, you would seriously consider it as a teaching resource. You regularly teach The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, so why not Wilkie Collins’ seminal detective novel? You are someone who likes to plan (note ‘plan’ rather than ‘scheme’), so your mind is regularly a car park with book-filled cars just hanging around waiting for you to root around inside them. Only then do you let them vanish, while enjoying what remain of the humming vibration of their engines.
You initially felt this would be the most taxing experiment, but with enough strong black coffee it seems that anything can be achieved (although reference should be made to the ‘balony’ phenomena referenced below)
Result: Conclusive and catagorical evidence recorded

Conclusion: All available evidence points to you having a convincingly severe case of apophenia, which you suspected from the outset.  You have always believed it was a natural way of being, looking for the truth between the gaps, the light within the darkness.  Why are we here if not to connect to each other and everything around us?

Further research informs you that it was the German neurologist, Klaus Conrad, who first coined the word apophenia for seeing connections in random or meaningless data.  He deduced it was a form of psychotic thought that could lead to schizophrenia, but luckily for you, and the human race at large, the science historian Michael Shermer later explained that this need to plug ourselves and everything together is merely because our brains do not contain the necessary ‘baloney-detection network’ that would tell us if we’re looking at a true or false pattern. 

You are happy to be accused of baloney if you can continue to seek out those things that connect together, things that give meaning to the precarious randomness of our daily lives.

And while you think about it, surely there are many stories to be found in Symes & Harding’s Crystal & Gem, so perhaps you won’t put that book back in the boot, not just yet…

…the collective thought of snow

Gentrle Street, Frome circa 1918

48.

You live in a town that likes to festival.  Back in 1861 the first was founded, an agriculture and cheese show that celebrated country life.  For a long time it was held in the small show ground within the town, its gentle slopes filled with stalls to supply all your country needs, cattle and sheep paraded around the ring to win rosettes and admiration.  In recent times this festival has become so big it has moved out to the true countryside, where the vast fields are carpeted with people and stalls and machinery and creatures of many kinds.

Other festivites include a lantern procession through the streets before the Christmas tree is illuminated in the market square. Then there is the Chocolate Festival, the Vegan Festival, the Steam Punk Festival.  The summer festival sees the town busy with writers working in shop windows, poets reciting their work on a soap-box, musicians singing and playing in pubs and cafes, houses opened up to exhibit art or reveal their hidden gardens.

There is a market every Wednesday and Saturday, but it is the monthly Sunday market that has grown like a living breathing being, the veins of the town filled with stalls selling jewellery and ceramics and glassware and sumptuous knitwear and food from Africa and Greece and Thailand and Korea and the West Country.  And cheese of course, and things that go with cheese, such as chutneys and pickles and chilli jams.  And the townspeople and the townsvisitors browse and buy and eat, pause to talk to strangers or long-found friends, and sing or sway to the live music playing at the centre of it all.

You wonder if this instinct to gather is a throwback to the days of the carpet factories, wool mills and printers that kept your town alive, vast spaces of noise and industry where everyone arrived together, worked together, left together, so that together felt like the natural order of things.   But then, at the turn of the nineteenth century, togetherness was disrupted like a slice through the vein. A photograph of Gentle Street circa 1918 shows the cobbled street and roofs thick with snow, not a single person to be seen, and you wonder, are all the mill workers at home staying snug from the cold, or have they locked their doors for fear of the Spanish flu?

And now, over a century later, the streets are quiet again.  Instead there is a slow flow of existence through the roads and side streets and interlocking pathways.  There is more walking than driving, more pausing to watch a water rat swimming across the river, more smiling at unfamiliar faces, more cakes delivered to your door, more spending your money in independent shops and cafes on take-away anything in the hope they will stay open.

And the snow falls again.  You walk with your lover around the old cheese show ground, watching the children and adults build snow men and women, throwing powdering snow balls at each other’s backs or rolling snow into giant shapes like plinths waiting for a sculpture.  You watch children and adults slide down the slopes on brightly coloured sledges or re-commissioned plastic bags.  And there is a sound in the air, both muffled by the crystal carpet and sharp from the sky-blue clarity of the day, the sound of people drawing together in one place, the sound of collective purpose, collective thought, a collective way of being.

You live in a town that likes to festival.  In whatever way they can.

…a bed of many things

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Then here again are two lovers, flesh pressed to flesh … their bed heaves as with the swell of the sea, whispers and sways, as if it were itself alive and joyful because it was seeing the consummation of the rapturous mystery of love.’
from Le Lit, by Guy de Maupassant

47.
The bed is a place of many things.  Of love and motherhood, of rest and illness, of tranquility and turmoil.  You know people who write and study here, who watch films, who don a suit and go to work on their laptops here, who meditate, who read books or listen to music, who argue and make peace here.  Some count the number of sleeps until escape or joy or adventure, and some resist the count when the only escape is sleep.

When your son acquired chicken pox at four months old, he was so jarred with discomfort that you brought him into your bed and laid him on your body, chest to chest, skin to skin.  He slept and woke sporadically at the itch and the sore, and you placed your hand on his back or stroked the soft down of his hair until he slept again.  You didn’t sleep that night, but you knew that this state of wakeful bliss was what it meant to be a mother.

A bed of carved ebony was found in the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tut-Ankh-Amen, in Thebes. The legs of the bed were shaped like a cat’s, and the foot-panel was overlaid with gold and garlanded with petals, fruits, papyrus and sedge. 

There was a time when you lived nomadically, the bed of each surrogate home the anchor of your nocturnal life.  There was the hard mattress and cool sheets of your friend’s spare room, where your restless nights were filled with longing and confusion after your relationship ended.  There was the sofa-bed at your daughter’s house, so nubbed with raw springs that you had to unroll memory foam onto its surface, transforming it into a soft and yielding burrow, a respite from the turmoil of your emotions.

Frida Kahlo began her artistic career by painting the surgical corset that encased her bed-bound body while she recovered from a horrific accident.  It is said that Winston Churchill dictated much of his six volumes of The Second World War from his bed.  Other bed-nestling writers include Voltair, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain and John Milton. Composers of opera have also been reluctant to leave their beds, including Paisiello, Rossini, Donizetti and Puccini.  Rossini once dropped a new aria on the floor, but instead of leaving the warmth of his bed to retrieve it, he stayed where he was and wrote another.  

Maupassant’s sea-swell lovers ‘mingle in this divine kiss—this kiss which opens the gate to heaven on earth, this kiss which sings of human delights, promising all…’.  You have recently come to know this mingling, absorbed in the moment of not knowing the end or beginning of yourself, your lover or the bed itself, all one thing and fully part of the world within and without the warm hold of time and place.

In Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting The Bed, you see a couple burrowed deep under the covers with just their heads showing, nested into shimmering white pillows.  They seem to be thick with sleep, hair mussed, but their eyes are open and they hold each other in a steady gaze, taking in the features of the face that shapes the mood of each day and night.  You imagine them to be a long-married couple, but then you discover they are prostitutes, this the most famous painting in Lautrec’s series depicting the inhabitants of a Parisian brothel in the late nineteenth century.  You are reminded again that you can never truly know a couple’s reality, even when viewing them at their most vulnerable and intimate.

You once had to choose between two people, what seemed like an intractable decision that felt jagged in the vessels of your mind and heart.  One night you went to bed and lay staring at the ceiling, preparing to ask a question in the hope that your dreams or the simple nocturnal passing of time would provide the answer, knowing that truths lay in the hours spent in the shadow of the earth.  You raised the words in your mind and let the question mark hang, let yourself open up to sleep, but instead you felt a swift rush of imagination and there you were, standing with another, the two of you as solid and definitive as the pillow beneath your head.  The question was answered. You understand now that the soft warm of the bed, the familiar scent of yourself and the enveloping darkness had all loosened the coils of your mind to present the future that had always been there, as surprising as it was inevitable.

(Maupassant quotes & historic information sourced from The Philosophy of the Bed, by Mary Eden & Richard Carrington)

…fishing for books

46.
Today the river that runs through your town is high after days of rain, a fine mist rising from the weir.  Her water is brown and thick, the currents and eddies rippling the surface as she seeks out a favourable path, finding pleasure in her intimate relationship with the land.

You and your sister have both lost shoes to this river.  Your sister, many years ago when her then boyfriend swept her up on the bridge, lifting her from her feet and swinging her around, a shoe flying over the edge and into the water to be taken away by the current.  You, many years later, walking across the same bridge in sandals, the leather snapping and the sandal skittering across to the edge where it slipped between the bars and dropped into the water like a gift.  You stood for a moment, none of your life lessons preparing you for this moment, one foot shod, the other foot bare.  Finally you knew what to do.  You took off the remaining sandal and put it in your bag, continuing your shopping barefoot.  Your sister went on to marry her shoe-hoisting boyfriend, and perhaps somewhere downriver your shoes dwell together too.

Today the river feels like the heart of the town, walkers gloved and hatted, talking together or walking apart, children laughing and running along the mulch-strewn path, the crows cawing from tree crowns, the ivy curling around branches or trailing into the water, feeling her flow and giving thanks for the continual provision of nourishment.

In To the River, Olivia Laing writes: ‘I am haunted by water . . . I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby.’  Her river of ease is the Ouse, where Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself, and Laing goes on to quote from the poet Czeslaw Milosz: ‘When it hurts, we return to the banks of certain rivers.’  Perhaps it is the constant shifting of water that we find so comforting, a reflection of our emotions that ebb and flow beneath the shimmering surface of our eyes.

Today a girl paddles in her canoe, her fists and cheeks red with cold, her breath billowing white.  Sometimes she feels the pleasure of flowing with the current, sometimes she turns and forces her will upstream, testing her other perceptions with questions of how? or why? or when?, the press of water against her paddle gauging how much she listens to the answers.

Your copy of Laing’s book has wrinkled pages that are stiff with grit, as though it has been brought up from the riverbed itself.  You bought it second-hand and it arrived in the post this way.  You imagine someone receiving your order, going down to the river to fish for a copy, carefully drying it before parceling it up with your address.  You imagine a river that is teeming with books, their covers shimmering in the dappled sunlight, a whole ecosystem of thought waiting to be fished.  By now we would surely have overfished, the scarcity of wild books making them a prized commodity on anyone’s bookshelf.  Or we will have found to way to farm them, feeding the ready market to those who can tolerate a thinner version that may or may not be infected with page mite.

In the summer you see the river rats scuttling across the path or swimming in the water.  A woodpecker has bored a nest into the tree and you sit listening to the cheep cheep cheep of her chicks, their mother flitting back and forth and occasionally hammering on the trunk in annoyance at their impatience.  Be quiet, she tells them, I’m here now.  There are swans and ducks, dragonflies and bees, and the stirring movement of fish beneath the surface.  Sometimes there is pollution too, icebergs of brown foam that send the wildlife into the ragged edges of undergrowth.

You walk along the river nearly every day and every day her character changes depending on the weather and the wildlife, the growth of trees and bushes and brambles, the events that happen upstream.  But always she flows strong and smooth, feeling the riverbed as her closest friend.  You feel the continuity of your own surface but know that you are still mutable, your friends, your family, your lover, your home, all forming the riverbank and riverbed for your own freedom of flow.

…a hole in the wall

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45.

The first time you lived alone was in an attic bedsit in Laura Place, Bath.  Your window overlooked the rugby field and you shared a cold bathroom with the woman across the hall.  You were nineteen years old, and for many years you’d longed for solitude and freedom, but now that it was here you had too much time and not enough wisdom to know what to do with it.

You were studying at catering college, back in the days when the Government paid young people to learn.  On the way home from class you bought your food for the week from the vegetable stall at the Guildhall market.  You practiced your new-found cooking skills on the two-ring stove, tortellini with white wine sauce a speciality.

Once, you invited your student friends around for a party; flame-haired Rachel from Liverpool who was quick as a whip; butch Martha who found an equally butch girlfriend by the end of the course; gentle James who was darkly handsome and in love with the blonde Melissa; the sullen Tom who dressed like he was homeless but whose parents were so wealthy they lived much of the year in the Cayman Islands. 

You wish now that this party had involved drinking games, dancing and kissing, but no, it was a decorating party, everyone invited to strip wallpaper from the crumbling Georgian walls with occasional breaks for scalding cups of tea and cheap biscuits. 

The wall beside your bed was cracked and crumbling and when everyone had left you began digging into it.  You kept on digging as though there was something to discover, but all you found was a giant hole and the panic of knowing you were truly lost and detached in this small attic room in the centre of the city.  You gave up trying to find the end of the hole and began filling it with fresh plaster, layer upon layer until the wall was bulging like a gently pregnant woman.

Eventually you moved out to live with your boyfriend, who you married after a few years.  You had two children and a collection of meaningless jobs, you went on holidays, celebrated Christmases and birthdays, you wrote novels and raised your children, you went to university and became a teacher.  At some point along the way you realized how the heft of your days were driven by the needs and wants of others, marriage and motherhood a secretive cage that was kept in plain sight, your children the prize that kept you blinded to the bars.  So you got divorced, you travelled, you met people, you loved and you lost people.

And now, thirty years after living alone for the first time, you finally live alone again.  Daily you relish your return home to find your water glass on the counter where you left it, still imprinted with the shape of your lip.  You dance before breakfast, light candles at the window, stay in your pajamas to write. You pause at your window to see the rooftops of your town, the smoke-curling chimney pots, the church spire, the greenhouses and gardens, the multitude of birds and trees and cumulus clouds.  You stand and wait for the setting sun.  You close your eyes and feel the room pulse to your own beat, knowing there are no holes in the wall you are trying to fill.

Now you have time and you choose how to use it.  At your window you feel apart from everything and a part of everything.  You stand and breathe, feeling time stretch wide and long before you. 

Here, anything is possible.

…spelling isn’t everything

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44.

you can’t help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn’t spell it right; but spelling isn’t everything.  There are days when spelling Tuesday simply doesn’t count…’
Rabbit, The House at Pooh Corner (A.A. Milne)

words you can’t spell
phy…psch…psychology; calander… calendar; consious… concious… conscious; contentious… contientious… conscientious

A baby begins to learn language in the womb, listening to the voice of her mother, the rhythms and inflections, the wonderings and discussions.  By the time she is born, these patterns are imprinted in her brain like a hand pressed into clay.

words that always raise a question
affect or effect?
focused or focussed?


breath or breathe?
custard or cream?

You don’t remember learning to read or to write, but you do remember the books.  The Aristocats, The Famous Five, the Bible. A novel about lost boys in the wilderness was the first novel you got lost in, all of you lost together. You read everything. The Beano, Jackie, cereal packets, the medical magazines your parents subscribed to. The Guinness Book of Records and books on ballet and birds were regular Christmas treats gifts.

words you dislike
treat, trope, gloat, moist
, Scrabble, sad, bleh, blah blah blah…

You love the feeling of reaching for a word just beyond your grasp, the moment when it drops into your mind to complete the sentence you are constructing – like a bird landing on a branch alongside her rightful family.

words you love to say
serendipity, rhododendron, peach, articulated, nourishing, bibliography, hattifatteners, vexed, vexing, murmuration, gloaming, backscattering, diaspora, anticipation, echo… echo… echo…

If a child is never spoken to, she will never learn to speak.  Hearing words is not enough, the TV or radio are merely passive sounds passing through the brain.  Eye contact, questions, repetition, smiling engagement, all give meaning to the words, and then meaning becomes learning.

Words move through your mind like restless rats trapped in a sack, nosing each other to see who they belong to and how they might behave together. When you spill them onto the page or the screen, your mind loosens and lightens, you feel a liberating auphoria. You like it when they form families, when they discover they belong together.

Then something new is born.

…things you find vexing

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43.

Fallen leaves that are mushy underfoot instead of crunchy.

Reaching the bottom of a bowl of popcorn to find a glut of unpopped kernels.  So much unfulfilled potential.

Coathangers and the tanglesome way they live.

The cat missing the litter tray, a small smile on her lips as she walks away.

The inner conflict of drinking red wine.  You love its robust flavor but your body pulses with the possibility of a migraine.  Is the pleasure/pain ratio worth it?  At what point should you take the tablet?  And when you have, can you carry on drinking red wine?

Arriving poolside in your swimming costume only to find that diving is not allowed.  You consider this to be the National Scandal that no-one is talking about.

A favourite vinyl record that jumps or CD that glitches (although strangely you find it satisfying to anticipate the jump or glitch… and then it happens).

Leaving the opticians crying luminous yellow tears (but no glaucoma for another year does give you a skip in your step).

Turning on the radio to hear the last few bars of ELO’s Mr Blue Sky.  Musical joy has been rhapsodic on the airwaves and you didn’t even know it.

A stapler that doesn’t staple even though it’s full of staples.

Thinking you are an easy-going person so a list of vexing things would be short, only to find you are easily vexed and your list is long.

…things that make you smile

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42.

Children when they’re far away.

The smell of a vinyl record as you slide it out of its sleeve, placing it on the turntable to watch the undulating grooves, the crackling moment when the needle touches down.

Worms (the earth variety, not tape or thread).

Beginning a new teaching semester, the promise of new students, new conversations, emanations and realizations.

The sound of the dishwasher.  The sound of the washing machine.  A roast dinner that someone else has cooked.  Sitting on a lawn someone else has mown.

Telling a class about House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski only to discover that someone has read it, both of you banding together to tell the class they MUST READ IT.

Holding a match to the wick of a new candle at dinner.

Ending a teaching semester, the promise of sleep, of absorption into your own reading and writing.

Pie – sweet or savoury, especially with a puff pastry crust (but not chicken with carrot lumps and short crust pastry – you once sat in the primary school canteen refusing to eat this pie, the thought of which still constricts your throat.  You can’t remember how the stand-off ended, but you imagine the dry chicken and pastry thudded as it hit the bottom of the bin).

Hattifatteners.

The rarity of new things (except for shoes, they usually make you regret you ever walked into a shoe shop).

A new pen that glides across the page with the lovely promise that it will make writing easy.

Stroking the hot fur of a black cat lying in the sun.

Ending a list with a cat, with sun and with bliss.

…the tree: in five parts (5)

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41.

Part 5

Growth of the whole

‘Most trees have spurts of growth to coincide with favourable climatic conditions. Typically, growth will stop when the weather becomes too cold or dry and the tree will enter an inactive period.  During this time, buds are formed to protect the tree’s internal tissues, and once favourable conditions return, growth will recommence and an expanding shoot will push out of the bud – forming new leaves and branches.’

You want to uncover the truth of the body, the mind and the soul, so you cut your thoughts into neat segments, parts 1 through to 5.  You catalogue, pinning these fragments to the board of your screen in the belief that separating the disparate clutter of your self will identify the core.

It takes time for you to realise that truth does not arrive in separate pieces, and however neat the display there will always be more lingering just out of sight, and more, and more.  And what of the unpinnable?  The unclassifiable?

And so you step back to look at this tree you’ve curated.  The roots, the bark, the sap, the crown.

A further step back to see the forest and the animals, the countryside and the cities, the land and the sea, the earth and the sky, the Earth and the Universe.

And there you find harmony in the whole, growth blossoming as favourable conditions return. 

(Tree quote sources from Resource Library at International Timber)