Every Tree Wants to Make a Forest: Choice, Togetherness, and the Maternal Gift Economy

I’vI’ve been writing this piece, without knowing it, for more than twenty years, since the first inkling I had that seeing autonomy and connection as pulling in opposite directions is a reflection of either/or thinking, not of some elemental truth. Back then, I was working with couples, where this issue came up so much that I could see why it felt like an intrinsic human challenge. I am often stubborn in my insistence on vision, on a narrative that makes us, and life, look like love and possibility. So I refused to accept the standard approach and its inevitable conclusion: compromise. Words are not abstract for me. They are sources of energy and meaning, sustenance for my heart, water for my soul. It’s often words I remember from Marshall Rosenberg that support me in staying with the more “charitable” story. “Needs are never in conflict,” said Marshall, “only strategies are.” There’s no reason to compromise; only to look for a strategy that meets both needs.

"Needs are never in conflict", said Marshall, "only strategies are." There is no reason to compromise; only to look for a strategy that meets both needs.

From conflict to co-held dilemma

Step one in my liberated thinking: neither partner had to give up on their needs. It was entirely possible for them to find strategies that would meet one partner’s need for connection and the other partner’s need for autonomy. Sometimes we were able to find that strategy during a session with a couple. Sometimes they found it later, on their own. Sometimes no new strategy arose, just more spaciousness, acceptance, mourning what my late sister Inbal called “crisis of imagination” in finding new strategies. That in itself was enough to dissolve the tension, to co-hold the dilemma.

Slowly, it began to dawn on me that needs being shared by all humans means, simply, that we all have both needs. I then saw the autonomy-connection perennial conflict as sometimes being a question of timing. Yes, I want autonomy, and maybe not in this moment. Yes, you want connection, and maybe not in this moment. This blends with the phenomenon of polarization: I may want both, I may even want them both now. If you insist on your autonomy, I will forget my own desire for that, and clutch on to wanting connection, now, regardless of what you want. And if you insist on connection, I will no longer want it, because I can’t find my own autonomy within your insistence. That’s also when I realized that we often judge people, unconsciously, for wanting more or less of a particular need than I do. You want more connection than me? Then you’re needy. You want less? Then you’re aloof. Understanding this, laughing about it, seeing how relaxing the one relaxes the other, supports couples in caring for both needs, within both of them, even when they have no idea what to do.

From dilemma to full interdependence

Then came step two, going well beyond not seeing autonomy and connection as pulling in opposite directions. Once I saw it, the simplicity was totally obvious: we can’t have one without the other. If my autonomy depends on moving away from connection, it’s too weak; it isn’t really autonomy, which word, etymologically, includes “self” and “law” in Greek, and from there: having my own rules, or, as I would now say it, choosing from within. If the presence of another, of connection, of other needs in the field, takes away from my choice, then, truly, is it really choice? If connection depends on someone else, or me, giving up autonomy, is it really connection? Who would be the one connecting, or who would I be connecting with if autonomy – the precious and sacred expression of life unfolding in an organism, any organism – is foregone? Or, in a similar vein, if I give up my authentic expression in order to have belonging and acceptance, is it really me who belongs, who is accepted?

There is a step three to this journey that is about a deeper look at autonomy and connection; why I like talking about choice and togetherness rather than autonomy and connection; and what scarcity and capacity have to do with it all. And, before that, a little side trip into trees that will turn out to be a main road.

Trees

I only read one page from Colin Tudge’s The Secret Life of Trees. What I found there has since been confirmed more than once by other things I read and watched. In the simplest words possible: trees take care of other trees. They do not compete with each other. When a tree is weak or ill, other trees transfer nutrients its way. They do it for collective well-being: the denser the canopy, the better they all are. They do it through an invisible “wood-wide web” of mycelium, underground fungi that transfer nutrients, chemicals, and information from tree to tree, in a regenerative flow that continues for hundreds and thousands of years. That’s not just a form of speech. Mycelia form extensive webs that can live for thousands of years and can grow to very large sizes. The largest in the world covers 3.8 kilometers in Oregon and is estimated to be up to 8,650 years old. The mycelia and the trees of the forest form an interconnected web of immense strength and resilience. It’s a deep and embodied togetherness. The trees nurture the mycelia just as much as the mycelia support the trees, all within a thriving environment of density and slowness. When a forest is clear-cut and a single tree species is planted, a monocrop organized into lines and angles, similar to the way only domesticated humans function, all of them are weaker because they are separated from each other. In such environments, the trees grow faster, which supports the extractive predation on all of life that capitalism is, and which weakens the trees even more.

Ireland, where I am based for some weeks and where I am writing this piece, is not particularly known for its forests, though, like all of Europe, it used to be covered with trees. Luckily for us, there is a tiny forest near where we are staying. I’ve been going for walks there now almost daily for several weeks. This little place, and the one-minute drive there from where we are staying (too dangerous to walk, sadly), has given me two images that are feeding this piece, a gift from the trees.

One is the drive itself. There’s really nothing unusual about it. It’s a classic tree tunnel. Why this time I saw this and not in any of the hundreds of them I have driven through over the course of my life remains a mystery only the trees would know. What I see, and what I invite anyone reading this to look for, is that tree tunnels are the result of every tree wanting to make a forest. Perhaps my growing willingness to demote us, humans, from the seat of the only creatures that have volition, is what made it possible for me to see it. Now that I do, it’s evident, and deepens the sense of beauty and awe that tree tunnels stir up in so many of us. The trees in the tunnel, which I now see in all tree-tunnel pictures, are asymmetrical in their growth. They grow towards each other, and the tunnel is the result. Look at some pictures of tree tunnels (one included here). I find it striking, and I am curious why I couldn’t find much about the “why” of it other than my own intuition. The only words I found were “nature-made” (though some are made or groomed by humans), or that “The trees somehow form a canopy overhead.”

That “somehow,” I maintain, is tree volition. It’s choice. It’s choice towards togetherness. The formation of tree tunnels completely matches what I learned about the trees gravitating to density and being close to each other. It fits like a glove with the work of people like Suzanne Simard, who talks about “mother trees” while using fully scientific methods interspersed with leaning on her heart experience; Peter Wohlleben, who wrote the bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees;and Stephen Harrod Buhner, whose thoughts about the intelligence of plants really sent me deeply into a new way of looking at life around me.

The other image is one I chanced on myself, and which was taken, at my request, by Emma Quayle while we were walking in that little forest. The rest of this section is an unpacking of the meaning I made of this image, which I now see almost daily.

The main feature that grabbed my attention in the first place was this almost horizontal branch that is at the center of this image. Why would a tree do that? It’s so clearly not its preference. All the branches growing from that big branch are growing upwards, as are all the other trees in that part of the picture, except for the one branch coming from across the other side of the road, to which I come back in a moment. There is no doubt that going upwards is what the tree, what all these trees, prefer within their flow. And yet this tree made this astonishing choice, however many years ago, to grow almost horizontally. Then I put it together with the tree tunnels, what I was reading over time, writing buddy Tamara Catharina’s “Living like the trees” article, and my explorations of choice and togetherness, and it just made sense.

From an individualist, narrow perspective, you could say that the tree is sacrificing itself. From my perspective, the tree is making a choice within togetherness, finding a creative pathway for the benefit of the whole, sending a big branch across the largest gap in that patch of trees. This is no doubt a stretch, very literally, and it’s in full choice. Within that choice, the tree is also finding ways to follow its simple flow upwards, by creating all these branches that go upwards from the oddly shaped horizontal branch. It’s creating a better environment for all the trees, including self. And, from the other side of the road, it is joined by another tree sending a branch. It is supported in its stretch, held within a silent, slow, patient, centuries-wise togetherness. “Tree friendship” is what Peter Wohlleben calls it. Above and below ground, the trees are weaving something, with the mycelium, that we, modern humans, are just learning about, even as our ancestors lived within it.

I want us to learn from the trees.

The Maternal Gift Economy

It is no accident that Suzanne Simard speaks of “mother trees,” even as she is getting tremendous pushback from other researchers, with concerns about both her methods and her findings. On the smallest scale possible, I also got pushback about this piece. The person who expressed concerns is worried that people with a scientific worldview might reject what I am saying precisely because I am attributing volition and compassion to trees as if it’s truth. From that person’s perspective, there is no need to bring into the picture such notions, which aren’t at present widely considered to be scientific truth, in order to recreate a world with free flows of resources.

If it looks to anyone like I am saying that what I write here is scientific truth, I am not making that claim. Others are, in their work that gets the pushback, and I am not authority to evaluate. I can only say that what I am reading is making sense to me and fits with my experience. Everything that I believe and speak about I have arrived at in the same way: I read a fair amount, I engage in conversations, I think about things, and, in the end, I subject everything to the test of whether it makes sense to me. Everything I’ve written about, including my Ph.D. dissertation, which parted ways seriously from common ways of thinking within the academic discipline of sociology, derives from the same place. I also change my mind and perspective, about many things. I used to be fully immersed within scientific materialism, and it’s only gradually and with great difficulty that I have stepped back from that perspective, still with great hesitation. I am a thinking person, and I don’t have any claim to knowledgeabout any of what I am saying here or anywhere else other than the rigor with which I investigate everything before reaching conclusions.

In this context, I find it fascinating to look at other forms of pushback that have happened in other areas, both within the physical sciences and within thinking about our human past, and then see what happened after some time. Barbara McClintock was another scientist who received significant pushback about her work because she used language such as having “a feeling for the organism” or saying that all she learned came to her from the corn. It may be one reason why it took 33 years before she was awarded the Nobel Prize.

This is also the same pushback that Lithuanian scholar Marija Gimbutas received from fellow archeologists. She was the main person to revive the focus on matriarchal societies and to trace how, at least in Europe, the shift to patriarchy occurred as invading tribes from the steppes to the east dislodged indigenous matriarchal societies. She is reputed to have presciently said that it would take decades before she would be proven right. This is a rare and amazing case in which her prediction actually happened, 23 years after her death. In 2017, her colleague and archenemy, Colin Renfrew, conceded publicly the truth of her findings even though it still didn’t make sense to him by his own account, because the modern technology of deciphering DNA from bones showed the very arc of invasions from the east that she uncovered using her methods of listening closely to archeological remains. I found it illuminating to watch his utter discomfort, which like a well-bred reserved British man he tried to conceal. The discomfort is clearly a form of what Scottish philosopher Alasdair McIntyre calls an “epistemological crisis:” a newly discovered truth that calls into question everything we think we know and thus requires a restructuring of our belief system. Some version of such a crisis is necessary for any break with normative beliefs. Not all of us can walk through it and find a new belief system on the other side.

What’s important to me about seeing Renfrew’s discomfort is how common it is, how big and uphill is the struggle of gaining credibility for anything that challenges accepted views. In this case: that we are selfish, isolated individuals competing for scarce resources in a hostile world; that humans are superior to the rest of life, and trees, for example, are not able to feel nor do they have intelligence and simply exist to be a resource to humans; that life cannot be trusted and we must control it to survive, which by extension means controlling women, children, and most men; and that it is both possible and desirable to ignore our emotions when we investigate reality.

For all these reasons, I also want us to learn from the remaining pre-patriarchal, indigenous societies, and from all that we still know and continue to discover about how they functioned and how the ones that remain function still. Although I am unable to trace where this quote came from, it was given to me as coming from an indigenous person: “When belonging is not in question, all choice is within togetherness.” The tree, when separated from the other trees, has less, not more choice. This is true, also, for a human, separated from other humans, like so many of us are in Western, capitalist societies.

Like the trees growing in non-forest monocrop environments, when separated like this, and with the illusion of freedom that money gives us, we grow faster, very literally, and we are weaker and sicker. Looking at our CEOs and our politicians, it’s tragically clear to see that, in this context of such separation, people often rise to leadership positions, based on their capacity to reach their goals even with large impacts on others and life as a whole; the very opposite of the tree I spoke of before; the very opposite of what leadership means in the ways of matriarchal societies. There aren’t that many of those societies left, and they are struggling to survive in the context of patriarchal and capitalist encroachment on their ways. And even within that, they are still choosing their leaders on the basis of their capacity to care for the whole.

It's when we function in this full needs orientation, others as well as our own, that choice is within together.

Orienting to others’ needs alongside our own, like the tree, like a clan mother, is what makes us what Genevieve Vaughan refers to as a “mothering species.” It’s when we function in this full needs orientation, others’ as well as our own, that choice is within togetherness. Patriarchy, especially in its virulent, capitalist form, makes it near impossible. It is not human nature – selfish, aggressive, insatiable – that pits us against each other. The patriarchal turn means we fell from the grace of trust in life, from living in flow. Outside flow, the core separation that patriarchy created is separating choice from togetherness. Only then do we have to sacrifice our freedom in order to belong. Only then do we find orienting to others’ needs as impinging on our own being. In that tightness, creativity, like that of the tree reaching across the gap in the forest to care for all, disappears or is channeled towards ever more pathways for accumulating wealth and destroying the planet. Creativity of the kind I mean here is something those of us using Convergent Facilitation to reach collaborative decisions have experienced repeatedly. When all that is important and all the needs are known, and everyone is committed to a solution that works for all, this creates an organic and real pressure that leads to creative solutions. It’s not surprising to me that societies and communities that live in difficult conditions develop breathtaking resourcefulness. Access to the illusion of limitless resources that exists without the natural constraint of orienting to others’ needs as well as our own, limits and stunts creativity, making it all too easy to consume and destroy.

I used to believe, without ever thinking about it, that our early ancestors lived in societies that were quite monolithic, where everyone was expected to behave in certain ways. I now know this to be deeply internalized patriarchal either/or thinking: since these societies are not individualistic like the ones we have now, so the reasoning went, they must be the opposite. That a society could be embedded within reverence for life, deeply cohesive, and fully honoring of individuality was outside the realm of my imagination at the time. My own epistemological crisis was a gentle one, because I was never aligned with the existing social orders of our times. My encounter with feminism in the mid-1980s was a positive shock: I learned that something else was possible; that what I saw around me was not the inevitable unfolding of our species’ history and therefore proof of our selfish and aggressive nature.

Choice means there can be more spaciousness in the individual for togetherness with self and others to attend to more needs. Choice is then a gift to the collective capacity field.

Emma Quayle

Discovering the maternal gift economy and the rich field of matriarchal studies, both a gift to me from Genevieve Vaughan, continues to deepen my understanding of the possible. When we experience others’ needs as taking away our capacity to choose, we resist. When we live in social contexts where our choice is honored, where we are nurtured to unfold organically within the complex web of community within which all needs shape outcomes, we don’t split up choice and togetherness. We have both. Choice emerges within, is supported by togetherness, and is oriented towards togetherness. Choice, in its creative impulse towards life, to quote Emma Quayle, “means there can be more spaciousness in the individual for togetherness with self and others to attend to more needs. Choice is then a gift to the collective capacity field.”

Can we restore flow?

Life emerges from flow, functions in togetherness, and results in choice. Life is the constant rearranging of everything in continual integration of all volitions. Life cares for everything that lives through an endless flow of energy and resources.

This is what we left, traumatically, with the emergence of patriarchy. Patriarchy emerges from scarcity, functions in separation, and results in powerlessness. 

Biologically, we appear to still emerge from the womb in flow, ready to receive, unilaterally. This last until we are capable enough of joining the flow of unilateral giving. Within deep and full interdependence, this is the human part of the flow of life. This is what it means to be a mothering species. It’s no coincidence that where humans collaborate freely and fully with each other, non-human life thrives as well. Our interdependence reaches beyond us.

In patriarchal social orders, we are socialized out of our biology, domesticated into a patriarchal existence of scarcity, separation, and powerlessness. Where control is a primary mode of functioning, mistrust is rampant, and generosity seems foolish.

We are far from flow. Matriarchal societies are often dismissed out of existence. The idea that trees have wisdom, intelligence, and volition is “hippie” or “woo-woo.” The depth of observation and study that has gone into making assertions about trees or about non-patriarchal societies, past and present, is rendered invisible or challenged in ways that frameworks that align with patriarchal narratives aren’t. Those of us who lean on such visionary principles are few. Our communication mechanisms are weak. We lack the resources that keep being syphoned to the ultra-accumulators.

Finding our way back to flow means walking back, upstream and uphill. This is the path of nonviolence: walking towards in the face of powerlessness, walking towards in the face of separation, walking towards in the face of scarcity. Courage, truth, and love, the three legs on which nonviolence stands, give us the strength, the vision, the conviction.

As we contemplate the latest IPCC report and the growing unease, globally, about our future, nonviolence means operating at all levels.

  • Some of us will join and initiate nonviolent mass mobilizations. Rivera Sun collects their stories from around the world and sends weekly updates via Nonviolence News. Any time I lose heart, these stories are one of my go-to places.
  • Some of us will aim to create policy changes, in this or that country, in the UN, through legislative changes.
  • Some of us will aim to change the way the overwhelming majority of corporations function or think up ways in which market economies can be modified so the escalating destruction of the planet slows down. One of them is John Fullerton who wrote “Regenerative Capitalism,” a paper that I thought pushes capitalism beyond its edges. There’s nothing in that paper’s recommendations I substantively disagreed with except the idea that they can be done within capitalism. Another example is the work of Donnie MacLurcan and Jen Hinton who wrote a manuscript that is yet to be published called “How on Earth: Flourishing in a Not-for-Profit World by 2050” that I had the good fortune of finding as a draft and which can be accessed through the link above. Their claim is that the economy can be completely transformed if accumulation is stopped and organizations, including businesses, move to the not-for-profit model. This one seems eminently doable, immediately, like many other pragmatic solutions that are not embraced for reasons going well beyond what I can speak of in this article.
  • Some of us will continue to unearth more stories and information about humans, past and present, threads and links that point beyond the common stories we have inherited from our patriarchal conditioning and institutions. The narrative of selfishness, including at the cellular level, is continually being challenged and is no longer the only story around. We now have interpersonal neurobiology; many within the field of evolutionary biology, as well as anthropology and archeology, are revising their premises; the new field of modern matriarchal studies is growing; and I hear of more and more evidence of spontaneous cooperative functioning within humans. The tide here may be turning.

This is not an exhaustive list, only examples. Despair is rampant in these days. And so I conclude with one final example: what we are doing, the “we” that I am part of, where it would be untrue and impossible to name it as what “I” am doing. Impossible because I can only do what I do now because I am not an “I” any longer. Both because everything is now co-held, and because experimentation within a group is qualitatively different from a one-person experiment. I write about some of the details of what we do in my newsletter which comes out every other month here.

The “we” has different intensities. The deepest layer of it, at present, is four of us who are the tiniest of experiments to see what happens when we aim to surrender the automatic assumption of individual autonomy to do what we want so long as it doesn’t harm another and replace it with making all decisions together, including about matters usually considered private. Choice within togetherness. Maybe a little like the trees, like non-patriarchal societies. We don’t know. We keep walking. The language that came from our exchanges with Tamera gave us something to stand on, to feel less crazy. Two phrases stand out: “communitarian being” and “de-privatizing everything.” One phrase came from one of us in that previous round, when we were six, from that same period: “mutual mothering.” It was a conscious choice to invoke our matriarchal past, as well as a visceral experience of the change we are living.

Here’s where autonomy and connection, what I started this piece with, no longer work for me well enough to capture the depth of integration we are talking about: for me, they both in some subtle way still imply separation. It may well be my own specific sensitivity, and still, I want to name it, for anyone who may find meaning in this subtlety. Choice is a move towards. In our current times, autonomy has a small move-away-from energetic field to it. Togetherness includes the whole of who are coming together. Connection, in that small subtle way, still sounds to me like it functions within the field of separation. Within that field, connection is a temporary break, a respite to our aloneness that doesn’t create something new within which we can all operate.

Part of what “we” the foursome are looking at, especially knowing that I won’t be here forever, is how to both honor and sustain people like me who are innovators with specific gifts that support the whole, while maintaining a full sense of simple togetherness, where no one is more special than anyone else, even when we have capacities that others may not. One of our core areas of exploration is what happens when we take capacity with full seriousness, supporting all of us not to exceed capacity while aiming to entrust ourselves to life, seeing limited capacity as an invitation to creative solutions that work for all rather than as scarcity, what we are habituated to. We are still learning.

And we are not alone. Within the Nonviolent Global Liberation (NGL) community and organization, there is a number of individuals who are actively co-holding our experiment with us or at least rooting for us, some who may want to join us in later phases, when we are settled, somewhere, on some land, if we manage to pull this off. There are various teams within NGL that are actively engaging in less intensive experimentation, most prominently in relation to agreements, systems, learning design, power and privilege, and resource flow. And many more people engaging in even less intensive experimentation, contributing as they can, exposing themselves within their own capacity to the radical implications of how we function, or just visiting and learning. We just reached our fourth anniversary in early September 2021. We have a major and painful two-year old conflict running through us, and we still manage to function, even within the conflict, with care for each other’s dignity and with continual attempts to restore togetherness. There are about 250 people engaged with NGL in one form or another. That, too, is a “we” where learning happens in multiple spots and is integrated. I may be the one doing most of the articulation and writing, and I am by far not the only one creating something new.

The widest circle of it is still oriented towards me as an individual: the people who read my newsletter and offer me places to stay (not realizing we are now a foursome); the people who download learning packets; the people who join the Circle of Support; and the people who sign up for the classes I offer at the NVC Academy.

All of these circles support us, the smallest “we,” and give us energy, increasing our own capacity to continue. We are four people within one year of commitment. We don’t know what comes next.

Choice and togetherness. We are on this path. Like the trees, we move towards each other, miss each other when any of us go on a short trip. Maybe we are learning something useful. Will we restore flow sufficiently to move something forward larger than ourselves, for the largest whole possible? We live within a micro-web of shared risk. We inch our way towards full sharing of resources, based on needs, capacity, and willingness. At present, three of us are choosing to cover the expenses of four of us, by our joyous choice, creating a context for the fourth person to engage with the edges of where scarcity sits within, creating, almost artificially, an experience of unilateral receiving for that person so that all of us can move, together, towards flow. We don’t track our expenses. We track almost everything else, collectively, both online and on the wall.

We are untethering from the existing economy, as far as four people without land can, which is not much materially and a lot more emotionally and spiritually. We are examining what happens as we do it. We are aiming to align with whatever we understand as the biology of love and the maternal gift economy, as well as the many principles I have extracted from my work over the years about what makes collaboration work, how we can liberate ourselves individually and collectively, and how to create systems that align with our largest visions. And we document and document what we do. And we talk about it and more becomes clear. And I then write about it. All of us sense this as sacred work, bit by bit discovering draft blueprints of what a future for humanity can look like, then giving it to others to see what can be applied, even now. In full surrender to the reality that there may not be a future. And in full reverence for life, and child-like joy in what we are living, now.

PHOTO CREDIT

A tree tunnel - Evelyn Simak on Geograph.org.uk

Leaning tree - Personnal photo by Emma Quayle

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