And we oughtn’t to be contrasting the imaginative, dreamy outlook of children with the realism and objectivity of adults. It is children who are the true realists: they never proceed from generalities. The adult recognizes the general form in a particular example, a representative of the species, dismisses everything else and states: that’s lilac, there’s an ash tree, an apple tree. The child perceives individuals, personalities. He sees the unique form, and doesn’t mask it with a common name or function. When you walk with children, they enable you to see the fabulous beasts in tree foliage, to smell the sweetness of blossoms. It isn’t a triumph of the imagination, but an unprejudiced, total realism. And Nature becomes instantly poetic. These outings are the absolute reign of childhood: You lose its charm in growing up, because you end by acquiring ideas and certainties about everything, and no longer want to know more of things than their objective representation (sadly called their ‘truth’).
— Fréderic Gros, A Philosophy of Walking
In his 1951 essay “The Negative Way,” Alan Watts also wrote about trees — specifically, the difference between our conceptual and linguistic ideas about them, and their immediate, mysterious reality:
Yet this world, this reality that we experience at every moment is Brahman. For example, I point to a tree and say, ”This is a tree.” Obviously this and tree are not actually the same thing. Tree is a word, a noise. It is not this experienced reality to which I am pointing. To be accurate, I should have said, “This (pointing to a tree) is symbolized by the noise tree.”
If, then, the real tree is not the word or the idea tree, what is it? If I say that it is an impression on my senses, a vegetable structure, or a complex of electrons, I am merely putting new sets of words and symbols in place of the original noise tree. I have not said what it is at all. I have also raised other questions: “What are my senses?” “What is a structure?” “What are electrons?” We can never say what these things are. We can symbolize them by sundry noises and patterns of thought. We can in turn, symbolize these noises by other noises — “Tree is a word,” or “A pattern of thought is an idea” — but this does not really explain anything. We still do not know what a tree, a word, a noise or an idea actually is. And yet we have experienced mysterious “somethings” which we have arbitrarily paired off with each other — the sight of the tree with the noise tree, the process of thinking with the noise idea, and the noises tree and idea with the noise words.
Human beings are very much bewitched by words and ideas. They forget that they are mere symbols. They tend to confuse them seriously with the real world that they only represent. The reason for this confusion is that the world of words and ideas seems to be relatively fixed and rational, whereas the real world is not fixed at all. Thus the world of words and ideas seems to be so much safer, so much more comprehensible than the real world. The word and idea tree has remained fixed currency for many centuries, but real trees have behaved in a very odd way. I can try to describe their behavior by saying that they have appeared and disappeared, that they have been in a constant state of change and that they flow in and out of their surroundings. But this does not really say what they have done, because disappear, change, flow, and surroundings are still noises representing something utterly mysterious.
Many rigorous thinkers would impatiently brush this off as pointless mysticism. Yes, yes, it’s all very strange, but humans are a tool-using animal, language and concepts are our most effective tools, and they don’t have to be perfect in order to be effective, they might harrumph. It doesn’t matter what it ultimately is, what matters is what we can do with it. And true enough, it’s impractical to try to inhabit this outlook for more than a few minutes at a time. But during those few minutes, I’ll be attentive toward this red-bellied woodpecker at my feeder. Like Stephen Pentz’s robin, I’ll reflect on this woodpecker as an individual, not a representative of a species. Like Brad Warner’s crow, I’ll contemplate how the same intelligence that looks out at the world through my eyes also looks back at me through the eyes of this woodpecker. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” may be the oldest philosophical question of all. “How wonderful that this, whatever it is, should be happening right now,” is only a slightly younger relative, I think. Watts sometimes called this, in a lighthearted manner, “the which than which there is no whicher.” Whatever it is, words would be the wrong tool for this job.