“Can’t see the forest for the trees” is an idiomatic expression that conveys an experience familiar to us all: there are times when we become so overwhelmed by details and other minutia we are no longer able to focus on or assess the overall situation. However, the reverse iteration, that we cannot see the trees for the forest, seems to me equally reflective despite having never been validated by popular usage. It refers to a kind of perceptual blindness in which we engage, in part willingly and in part unknowingly: we filter out distraction, which is to say everything we deem irrelevant. We see it, our eyes take it in, but we do not consciously acknowledge it; thus, a vast segment of our environment is rendered invisible to us. We don’t notice this, and we don’t notice what we don’t notice until we do.
We live in a world of white noise, and we have made it so. White noise has a flat spectral density throughout the audible frequency range. That is the technobabblist’s way of saying that it is monotonous, which is really the point: it is the incessant uniformity of white noise that not only effectively drowns out all the sounds we do not want to hear but actually incorporates them into itself, making it analogous to white light, which consists of all visible wavelengths of light. The term has also passed into the popular lexicon as a description of all the stuff that exists below the threshold of consciousness for us because either it is unable to sufficiently distinguish itself from the achromatic ambient continuum we have made of the perceptual world or due to the choices we daily make to tune it out.
“Nature’s silence,” Annie Dillard writes, “is its one remark, and every flake of world is a chip off that old mute and immutable block. The Chinese say that we live in the world of the ten thousand things. Each of the ten thousand cries out to us precisely nothing.” [i]
Nature never used to be so deafeningly silent.
Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing, and every humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap that runs through the trees carries the memories of the red-skinned man…. The sparkling water that runs in the rivers and streams is not only water; it is the blood of our ancestors … every ghostly reflection in the clear waters of the lakes speaks of the lives and memories of the life of my people. The murmur of the stream is the voice of my father’s father.[ii]
The primal peoples of this earth could say such things in a way we never can, for we do not believe it enough to speak with conviction and without the self-consciousness that renders the words ridiculous in our own ears. Each of the ten thousand things was, for them, an articulation of the mystery of being, opening myriad wondrous reverberations. In the 1970s, James Lovelock, a British scientist, formulated what he called the Gaia Paradigm suggesting that living creatures coevolve with their environment, and the earth, far from being a dead rock upon which life was posited four billion years ago (or a bit over six thousand years ago by Biblical reckoning) is very much alive, a planetary organism. If this is so, it has achieved self-awareness through us.
The idea has been around for a couple of generations now, but it has not gained widespread acceptance either in the scientific community or among the majority of people in the West. We have too well learned the lessons of the patriarchal religions that arose thousands of years ago in what we today call the Middle East: the world is inherently chaotic; order and meaning must be imposed from without, and man was placed upon the earth with the specific purpose of bringing the discordant strings, so to speak, into accord with the musica universalis, the universal music, composed by a creator-God who exists Himself apart from and independently of his Magnum Opus. Even for those who do not subscribe to such beliefs, the foundational idea underscores our relationship with nature.
The world awaits to be what we tell it to be, and we tell it to be a reflection of our values and beliefs; thus, we “discover” in the white noise patterns to reaffirm for us the existence of a teleological agency capable of imbuing our lives with relevance.
Which brings me to the picture above. I found it on the internet; it is a pine tree on Malta, an island in the Mediterranean, south of Sicily, in a fortified city established nearly three thousand years ago by the Semitic sea-faring traders known to the Greeks as “the purple people” or Phoenicians, so called because they made the royal purple dye favored by Mesopotamian kings to color their robes, and the manufacturing process left the workers’ skins stained. The Phoenicians called their city Maleth and established it as the capital of the island.
In order to appreciate the significance of the tree, it is important to understand historical context. Malta’s strategic position made it an increasingly vital trading post within the Carthaginian Empire twenty-five hundred years ago. In 264 B.C., Rome and Carthage were drawn into a dispute on the island of Sicily which rapidly escalated; the First Punic War lasted more than twenty years and ended with Rome becoming the dominant power in the Mediterranean. In the year 257 B.C., Roman troops ravaged Malta; forty years later, during the Second Punic War, they captured the island and renamed the Phoenician capital city Melite.
In 60 AD, Christianity came to Malta by way of a shipwreck. The Apostle Paul, who had been stirring up trouble for Jewish religious leaders, was on his way to Rome to stand trial when his ship was caught up in a violent storm near the Maltese coast, and everyone had to swim for safety. The people of Malta welcomed the survivors of the wreck and built a fire to warm them, but a viper hidden in some brushwood Paul had gathered, wakened by the flames, struck. The islanders believed the attack was a sign that the evangelist must be an evil man, for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice sent the serpent to enact divine retribution upon him. Paul, however, shook the snake off into the flames, and when he did not die, the people fell to their knees, for they knew he had to have the protection of a very great god to survive unharmed.
During his time on Malta, Paul performed many miracles, laying his hands upon the sick and curing them of their illnesses, including the father of Publius, the Roman head of the island. After this, Publius converted to the new religion and became the first Bishop of Malta, and Malta became the first Christian nation in the West. Publius was martyred in 125 A.D., under the Emperor Hadrian’s rule, and was declared to be a saint in the year 1634. The cathedral in the capital city of Melite is said to have been built on the site of his house.
After the Roman Empire was formally ended by Justinian in 554 A.D., Malta passed into the possession of the Byzantine Empire until the Arab-Muslim Aghlabids invaded in 870, besieged the capital city, which held out for several weeks before falling, and slaughtered the Christian population within. It was then that Melite became Mdina, which remains its name today, referring to its many narrow, labyrinthine streets and alleys.
For more than a century, the island was nearly uninhabited until Muslims from Sicily colonized it, and it remained under Muslim control until the Norman Conquest early in the 12th century. By the end of the 15th century, all Muslims living on Malta were forced to convert to Christianity, and one hundred years after that, the Knights Hospitaller (Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem), established their headquarters in Malta and became commonly known after that as the Knights of Malta and the Order of Malta.
The militant Catholic order was originally founded in the 11th century with the express mission to care for sick and poor pilgrims to Jerusalem; they set up many hospitals along the route to the Holy Land to further this end. However, eventually this original purpose to tend the infirm became mixed up with military aims to protect the lands and wealth they had gained over the years, and the Hospitallers, alongside the Knights Templar, became the most formidable and feared Christian fighting force during the Crusades.
In the 16th century, Süleyman the Magnificent, sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566, fought numerous battles against Christian forces in Central Europe and the Mediterranean. Belgrade fell in 1521 and five years later, his armies defeated Hungary. In 1523, the sultan warlord drove the Hospitallers from Rhodes, but he was ultimately unable to dislodge them from Malta, and his advance toward Western Europe was stopped.
The Hospitallers ruled Malta until the French invaded. France ruled for a very brief span; after Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, Malta became a protectorate of the British until 1974, when the island gained its independence.
And somewhere within the Medieval fortified city of Mdina, amidst all this history, grew a pine tree – nothing special by all accounts, until it was struck by lightning, a bolt from Heaven, that transfigured it into a living image of the crucified savior whose life, death, and teachings over two thousand years ago gave rise to what is today the most populous religion in the world, claiming as adherents nearly one third of the global population. Today, people from all over make a pilgrimage to this beautiful Mediterranean island to see this pine and to leave offerings of candles and flowers and prayers.
This isn’t the first time Jesus has presented himself to believers from the trunk of a tree. We had him for a short time in Rochester, New York, near where I live, though not too near, thankfully, for the image, like the real Jesus, seemed to prefer a less savoury environment; it appeared in the bark of an otherwise unremarkable silver maple in 2005, in a neighborhood known for its high rate of crime, and caused a bit of a stir for a while. It was discovered by a guy coming out of a pawn shop across the road; according to his account, he had seen the tree many times before, but never noticed anything out of the ordinary about it. However, on this particular day, the image was so clear to him that at first he thought someone must have spray-painted it onto the bark, but as he approached, he realized that it was the tree itself, and he called in the media. The local story went national, and people came to see and pray and find inspiration.
“It’s a sign from God that there should be peace,” a woman who lived in the neighborhood told a reporter. “There is a lot of crime here. People should have faith in God. This is God giving us a sign.” Someone else posted a letter to God on the fence surrounding the tree:
Dear God, I am not ashamed to believe this is a sign from You. If this is true or not, any appearance is welcome. My brothers and sisters in race, and my brothers and sisters as humans, have turned against each other, and we should all be ashamed. I hope this tree will open the eyes of everyone… The devil is walking the earth that You created and put Your people in a state of mind that life means nothing. People, God is real. The world won’t last long. Stop the killing… A hole appeared some time ago. I believe it was the devil. You appeared in the same area. People thought that is was just a hole in the street. It was an Entrance. The entrance of the devil.[iii]
It’s a lot to put on one tree, and the silver maple did not come through. Fifteen years later, the neighborhood still has a high rate of crime; I have no information about the pothole (presumably it was filled, though the devil has many such thresholds into our world); and as the tree continued to grow, the image of Jesus was stretched out of existence. No one visits the site any longer, which is, no doubt, a relief to the owners of the property who admitted they did not know what to do about the parade of the faithful all those years ago.
But this all begs the question, why. Why is it we see the face of a man who lived and died two thousand years ago in the bark of a tree – a man, we must add, whose face is unknown to us: there were no photographs of Jesus, or portraits, or even sculptures; and the gospels do not contain a description of him; his likeness was lost two millennia ago, yet that fact did not seem to concern anyone who traveled from however far they came to stand on a North Clinton Avenue sidewalk and look over a fence at a tree.
But this is what we do: we recognize patterns. If something is indefinite enough, we are able to fill in the gaps and manage to not see whatever doesn’t fit. We do not set out to do this, for that would defeat the purpose of discovering order in chaos, meaning in apparent aimlessness. We could walk through our neighborhoods, stop at every tree, peer into the bark until we find our chosen manna; however, unless we are convinced of its authenticity, it can provide no nourishment.
But why do we possess such a tendency?
Some scientists suggest our ability to perceive patterns gave our early ancestors an evolutionary advantage, and I suppose this must be true: reacting to dangers is fine as long as you are the fastest or strongest or most elusive, but humans have never been any of these; survival depended upon detecting threats before they became imminent. I believe it must go even further than this: at some point our proto-human forebears had to move away from their near complete reliance upon instinctual behavior in order to evolve. Our instincts developed over hundreds of thousands of years, allowing us to get by in a perilous world, but instinctual behavior is collective and conservative and would not lead to the kinds of advancements our ancestors needed in order to lift themselves out of pure survival existence. But something had to take the place of these diminished instincts, accomplishing to some extent what we so long relied exclusively on them to do, allowing our predecessors to distinguish between poisonous and edible plants, chart the passing of the seasons and successfully predict what the coming months would bring, so they could leave behind mere subsistence and start to flourish.
Even this, however, does not explain the phenomenon of “patternicity,” a term coined by professional skeptic Michael Shermer and defined by him as “finding meaningful patterns in meaningless noise,” for such a propensity would seem to be antithetical to survival, which depends upon correctly interpreting our surroundings, not upon seeing whatever it is that brings us the most comfort.
We orient ourselves through mythological narrative; if we are not discovering meaningful patterns all around us, if the narrative is not continually infused and reinforced with cosmological significance, we suffer an unendurable alienation not only from the world but from ourselves.
[i] Dillard, Annie. “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” Teaching a Stone to Talk. HarperPerennial, 1992, pp. 85-94.
[ii] The words of Chief Seattle, 1854.
[iii] I did shorten the note a little and cleaned up the spelling and grammar a bit (it is not my intention to embarrass anyone with punctuation errors, etc.,); however, I did not make any fundamental changes to the original.