I often catch myself thinking of the tree as having a front and a back. It stands at the edge of the woods, and the side of the tree that faces outwards, across the lawn and toward the driveway, house and meadow, is, to me, its front. The side that faces away, toward the woods, is its back. When I am in the tree I often look back, into the woods, as I am climbing up, but when I have reached my spot I usually face to the front, out over the meadow and toward the hills.
It is impossible for me not to have this feeling, that the tree has a front and a back. This is to see the tree in human terms, of course, but then I am hopelessly human.
If the tree were in the middle of an open field I couldn’t sustain this illusion. It would stand like a kind of inside-out theater in the round. A thing that reaches out and exhales and eats and drinks in every direction equally. Is this one of the defining differences between plants and animals, that all animals are unidirectional, all plants pandirectional? That animals have a front and back, while plants face in every direction at once?
We critters are so directed along an axis. Almost everything we do, we do more easily forwards than backwards: reaching, bending, seeing, smelling and hearing, walking and running, embracing. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to engage—see, act, move, or think—equally in every direction of a full 360 degree surround. Would we think about progress differently if we had no front? Would we imagine a different God? Janus was the two-faced Roman god, and the Hindu god Shiva is often portrayed with three. But imagine an every-faced god! A deity in the round, with as many faces as the leaves on a tree.
But of course my tree is not in the middle of a field. It may not have a “front” and “back”—my human construction—but its two sides are in fact very different from one another, and engage with different worlds. I want a better way to refer to these two sides, one that acknowledges how different they are without anthropomorphizing them into ‘front’ and ‘back.’
I remember years ago reading an essay by Wendell Berry on margins, on the idea that wherever two domains meet there is a greater variety of life than there is within either domain alone. Shores are richer ecosystems than dunes or deep water. Hedgerows, and other meeting places between wood and field, are richer than either alone. The banks of streams are denser with life than the grassland beyond or the stream bed itself.
One side of my tree stands at the margin between wood and meadow (or, more immediately, lawn). It participates in and constitutes a transition, from dense branches to open space. It is a threshold between one kind of ecosystem and another. There is an abundance of sunlight and open air on this side of the tree. Birds alight in the tree more often from this direction. There is grass above its roots on this side, and the soil is probably poorer from decades of supporting a monoculture which gives back little. This side of the tree spans the forest and the lawn—a world of branches and a world of open air—reaching from one into the other. It exists in, and constitutes, this transition. What I used to call the front of my tree I would better call its margin side.
I think about the other side of the tree and decide to call it the matrix side. Here the tree is interwoven with others of its kind. Branches cross with branches, roots with roots, and sometimes it is hard to see which is own and which is other. Shade and sunlight mingle and dapple in a pattern that is irregular and uniform at once. (On the margin side of the tree, full sunlight and stark shadow form large and separate blocks.) The ground is richer from decaying leaves. Water approaches the tree from the matrix side, from upslope, and drains away from the margin side, downslope. Everything on this side of the tree is enmeshed with more of its own, with others of its kind, forming a rich connection of exchanges and interactions.
Matrix and margin. Web and threshold. Vastly more evocative, more encompassing, and more precise, than ‘front’ and ‘back.’ And less dependent on a human’s sense of what counts as the orienting features in the landscape (cleared areas, a house, the road). I wonder if the tree thinks of itself (if trees could think) as facing the wood—others of its kind—with its back to the lawn. Matrix in front and margin behind.
And then I wonder if matrix and margin are words that I could use to think about myself, and my relation to the world around me. Maybe it’s time to turn from anthropomorphizing the tree to dendromophizing myself. Which parts of me me open onto a web, and which constitute a threshold? Where do I engage with like, where do I open onto other?
Food for another day’s climb, and another day’s rumination.