Many years ago an anthropology student was doing his fieldwork among the Yurok people, living with them on the border between California and Oregon, along the Klamath River. The student later wrote that the Yurok people educated him in a similar way as they would educate their own children—that is, offering almost no direct teaching whatsoever. He said the Yurok people expect children to observe carefully and then do their own thinking. The Yurok say that teaching someone directly is a form of stealing because it takes away a person’s chance to learn for themselves. A young person needs to learn without a doubt what is true and what works, and they do this by watching and testing and working it out until they know it for themselves. This is the only way to become a self-confident adult.
But, the anthropologist wrote, one night an older Yurok man did something unusual: he shared a direct teaching. After dinner that night the student was sitting with him beside the fire when the older man held up a piece of wood they had gathered and asked what it was. The student replied, “A piece of firewood.” The Yurok man turned away and fell silent, looking disgusted. It was clear this was not a good answer at all.
So the student tried again: “It’s wood, a piece of a tree.” The older man’s face brightened a little; this was better.
“And what’s a tree?” the older man prodded. He was probably hoping the student would do his own thinking about this. They fell silent together.
But later that night, as they were getting ready to turn in, the Yurok man gave a direct teaching.
When you can see each leaf as a separate thing [he said,] you can see the tree. When you can see the tree, you can see the spirit of the tree. When you can see the spirit of the tree, you can talk to it and maybe begin to learn something. Good night.
I first read this story many years ago, and it spoke to me right away because I was going through a similar education—learning to connect with nature, learning to listen to trees. I’ve told the story many times of how, when I was a child, I loved the birch tree that grew in my family’s yard. And how, decades later, when I was living far away from it and the tree was nearing the end of its life, the birch came to visit me in spirit and say goodbye.
(If you haven’t heard the story, I tell it in Episode 4 of this podcast series, the episode titled “Listening to Nature.”)
But I find myself coming back, over and over again, to these sentences from the Yurok man because they help me understand that experience with the birch tree. A tree coming to talk with you in spirit? This doesn’t have a place among my people. The story of the Yurok man gives it a place, a place where I have company in figuring out what it means. So I return again to the Yurok man’s words.
When you can see each leaf as a separate thing, you can see the tree. When you can see the tree, you can see the spirit of the tree. When you can see the spirit of the tree, you can talk to it and maybe begin to learn something.
Three simple sentences. But the more I live with them, the more I learn.
One thing I learn from them is a rather different view of spirits than the one I grew up with. Most people today don’t think much about spirits. And when we do, it tends to be in the fall, around Halloween, with putting together costumes, and ghosts and goblins always ranking high on the spooky list.
It reminds me every year that in my culture, people tend to equate spirits with ghosts. Spirits are the spooky things left over after people die. No need to pay much attention to them unless they hang around or cause trouble by haunting a house. Or unless you have the problem of being able to see them, like the little boy in the movie The Sixth Sense, who tells a therapist, “I see dead people.”
But when I listen to the Yurok man, I hear a different view of spirits. In his world, trees as well as humans have spirits, and the spirit is present in the living being. And learning from trees is critical to becoming a wise human being. But to learn from them you have to talk to them. So this is what he’s laying out for the listener: how to learn from the spirit of a tree.
Here, again, is his first sentence:
When you can see each leaf as a separate thing, you can see the tree.
What an assignment! Seeing each leaf? How is that even possible? It is said that a mature oak tree has around a quarter million leaves. Can anyone even see that many?
So, to understand, I go back to my relationship with the birch tree in my childhood. I watched it in every season, in all kinds of weather. I knew how its small leaves turned bright gold in autumn and sparkled in the sunshine against the white trunk. I knew how they curled at the edges and dropped to the ground, and I knew their crisp sound when I walked on them—a different sound from the noisy crunches of the big maple leaves in the next block. I also knew the precise shade of delicate yellow-green that the new leaves would wear the following spring, and I knew how, on one spring day—maybe only for a few hours on that day—those half-sprouted leaves would shimmer on their threads of stems so that each branch of the tree was draped in green gauze, all of the threads together flowing in the breeze like the gentle billowing of a silky, tree-sized drape of the sheerest spring green.
I knew the tree, in other words, like we know each of our loved ones. We know their quirks, their special qualities—the sound of their step on the stairs or the way they hold their shoulders when they walk. When we can see all these individual characteristics in a person, we can see the person.
And that’s when a real relationship can begin, when we can see someone clearly—respecting who they want to be, apart from who we want them to be. It’s a rigorous process, and it can take years—maybe as long as seeing each of the quarter million leaves of an oak tree. Seeing clearly is a discipline and a practice. And the Yurok man recommends doing it with a tree because true learning begins right here, in the careful discipline of simply observing. Sitting with a tree. Getting to know each of its leaves. It might take a lifetime.
And maybe it goes without saying—this practice takes place in the physical world. It starts with information from the senses. A Yurok view of knowledge and a Western view agree right here: knowing starts with observing the physical world, and observing it closely.
And because Western knowing finds its roots in the ancient Mediterranean world, I’ve been doing some reading in the Roman world, especially about Pliny the Elder, who was a commander in the Roman navy during the first century of the common era. Pliny eventually died in the year 79, in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
When he wasn’t commanding a navy fleet, Pliny wrote more than thirty volumes of natural history. It was a massive encyclopedia of everything he could find about all the plants, animals, and minerals known to the Roman world. But for the most part he didn’t collect his information by going out to observe nature. He collected everything people had said about various plants and animals and minerals—everything from the writings of ancient philosophers to the folklore and superstitions of his time. And in some cases very little of it was factual.
Take, for example, his chapter on bears. Pliny first repeated what Aristotle had said four hundred years earlier: that bears mate by hugging each other face-to-face, like humans, and then the female gives birth to “incomplete offspring.” None of this was true, but Pliny repeated it because the authority Aristotle had written it. Then Pliny added that what the mother bear gives birth to are “shapeless masses of white flesh,” which the mother then “licks … into the proper shape.”
These nuggets of misinformation were bad enough, but then Pliny inserted a huge value judgment. He wrote, “In its idiocy, no other animal is more adroit in wrongdoing [than the bear].” It was a terrible opinion, made all the more terrible because most of Europe believed it for the next fifteen hundred years—because Pliny in the first century had said it, and Pliny was the authority, so every writer after that copied Pliny into their manuscripts.
This was a method of building knowledge by receiving it from prior authorities—in other words, an authoritarian model of repeating the ideas and opinions handed down from earlier experts. It paralleled the hierarchical and authoritarian styles of governance that organized society during both the Roman Empire and the centuries of feudalism that followed. In a medieval European village, all good things were bestowed by those higher up: land came from feudal lords; social order and laws came from princes and kings; spiritual grace came through priests. And it was dangerous to depart from those official channels. So acceptable knowledge of nature, too, was the knowledge that came through sanctioned authorities, and it was copied verbatim from century to century.
To pull back a moment for a broader look, it’s hard to imagine a more different system of learning from that of modern Yurok people. In medieval Europe, instead of each person preparing for adulthood by doing their own thinking, people were considered mature when they could accept the thinking and the authority of others.
Which is why the scientific revolution in Europe, beginning in the 1600s, accompanied and spurred such huge and volatile social changes at the same time. Not until the 1600s did people challenge Pliny’s misinformation about nature by actually beginning to go out to observe nature with their own eyes and ears. This was the era when firsthand observing became the starting point of Western knowing, and it helped to subvert the authority of kings and priests. In this way the scientific revolution offered a tremendous gift, for it turned the practice of knowing away from simply repeating the opinions of revered authorities and toward the practice of observing the natural world directly to find out what is actually true.
I also notice that it brought Western knowing into parallel with Yurok knowing. Both methods start by observing the natural world. Paying close attention to all the parts. Or, in the words of the Yurok man, “When you can see each leaf, you can see the tree.”
The Yurok man’s next sentence also sounds simple but holds a universe of meaning:
When you can see the tree, you can see the spirit of the tree.
I hear him talking, again, about relationship. After you’ve invested a great deal of time learning to know another—seeing all their separate parts, all their complexity and contradictions—you have a much better chance of seeing the whole person. You can see who they are—their wholeness of being. Their unique potential and path. Or in other words, their spirit.
In this way of looking at the world, the spirit is not so much a ghostly thing that is attached to a person and then pulls away after death as it is a person’s whole way of being. It’s more like their personality—how life sparkles in unique ways through each individual. Spirit in this sense is the gift of life itself flowing through us; it is the heart of our beating heart, the breath filling our lungs, the blood coursing through our veins. Spirit is life, and spirit is also each person’s unique way of showing off that life.
I notice too that in this second sentence, Yurok science takes a different turn from Western science. Though both ways of knowing start by observing the parts, Western science for the most part remains there, drilling deeper and deeper into the parts rather than moving outward toward knowledge of the whole. But Yurok science asks what all those parts add up to. In Yurok knowing, the parts lead toward seeing something whole and alive—a whole being, a living person. In other words, a spirit.
That is, when we can see all the parts of another being, they come alive. Or, better, they come alive for us. The process has a subjective effect. It changes us. And the way it changes us is by opening the eyes of the heart so that we can see the aliveness of the other. It opens us to empathy. We become able to see others as persons in their own right, moving on their own independent trajectories. We can see them as subjects, like us; we can appreciate their spirit. “When you can see the tree, you can see the spirit of the tree.”
The Yurok man’s final sentence sums it all up:
When you can see the spirit of the tree, you can talk to it and maybe begin to learn something.
Which is to say, conversation only happens between persons. Objects do not talk; only subjects can speak. For conversation to take place, two persons have to be present. And when two beings recognize each other as subjects, they can enjoy communion with each other. In the memorable words of philosopher Thomas Berry, “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” By seeing the world as filled with subjects, we open the door to love.
The Yurok man says that talking to a tree in this way is the very starting point of knowledge. For opening our hearts to a tree is an act of humility; we open ourselves to learning from one who is so different from us. Communion can only happen with hearts that are humble. When we can appreciate another’s largeness of being—their spirit—we make ourselves ready to learn.
And this is exactly what the Yurok man pinpoints as the missing piece of the young anthropologist’s education: he is able to talk only with other human beings, so he hasn’t really learned very much at all. In fact, in the Yurok man’s eyes, the young man is ignorant in the most fundamental ways you can imagine. Because he’s been cut off from talking with trees, he is cut off from love and relationship. He hasn’t even started to learn anything.
One could see this as a humorous way of exaggerating the point to make the point, but I don’t think the Yurok man was intending to exaggerate or make a joke. I think he was putting his finger on exactly where a Western education does not prepare us for responsible adult living. By reducing every being to its parts, it takes away the whole personhood—the spirit—from other beings in the world. It closes our minds—and even more important, our hearts—to the living spirit flowing all around us, through every other creature and entity on Earth. It has cut us off from love. And being cut off from love, we are unable to respect and collaborate with our neighbors on Earth, because we view them only as objects for use.
This is a fundamental mistake in perception, a grievous error in knowing. We are misperceiving the basic condition of life on Earth.
In a world of things, we don’t converse, we calculate. By using others more than loving them, we have created vast disparities among ourselves and vast destruction among our more-than-human kin.
I think the Yurok man had it exactly right: the Western way of knowing raises up people who act as if we haven’t even started to learn. We need to take that final step of wisdom, the step that changes us: opening our hearts to the aliveness of others. Communing with them in love. Seeing their spirit. Because building loving relations is the only way to sustain life on Earth.
Wishing each one of us a heart open in humility and a life rich in communion and love.
For digging deeper
The anthropologist Thomas Buckley told the story of the Yurok man’s teaching in an essay published in Parabola in 1979. That essay was reprinted in a 1989 book: “Doing Your Own Thinking,” in I Become Part of It, edited by D. M. Dooling and Paul Jordan-Smith (HarperSanFrancisco, 1989), 36–52. We don’t know the name of the Yurok man because, as Buckley explained in his 1982 dissertation, though he lists his Yurok consultants by name, he does not link specific teachings with specific people because the people did not want to be named in this way. On Yurok education, Buckley reports in his dissertation that an old Yurok man said, “You shouldn’t throw things away on people who don’t understand them. That’s stealing their chance to learn, and stealing is against the Law” (3). Buckley later revised his dissertation into the book Standing Ground: Yurok Indian Spirituality, 1850–1990 (University of California Press, 2002); see 89–90 on the Yurok educational system.
For more understanding of the Yurok peoples’ intimate connection to the Klamath River and its salmon and the effects of colonization on their livelihoods and culture, see Brook Thompson, “The Familial Bond Between the Klamath River and the Yurok People,” High Country News, August 24, 2021.
Pliny the Elder’s Natural History appears online in an English translation by John Bostock (1855). The section on bears is 8.54.
The sentence on the “idiocy” of bears is translated by Eric Ziolkowski, in the entry “Bear” in The Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (de Gruyter, 2011), 3:633.
Pliny the Elder’s nephew, called Pliny the Younger, wrote a letter to the Roman historian Tacitus to tell the story of his uncle’s death during the volcano. In 2020 the Smithsonian magazine reported the results of DNA analysis of a skull that may have been Pliny’s, found among volcanic ruins next to a fortune of gold ornaments and jewelry, as a man of the Roman ruling class would have worn.
Thomas Berry wrote throughout his life that “the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” See the final collection of his essays, Evening Thoughts (Sierra Club Books, 2006), 17.