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  • Writer's pictureevviemarin

If You Give A Mouse A Tree Falls In A Forest

Snapshot of the artist's studio with a framed poster of old tree roots growing over a skeleton, surrounded by fiddle bows, sticks, deer antlers, and a decorative journal.

Oh hey there, it's been a minute. My public blogs have been on hiatus while I built a Patreon blog, wrote a book, prepped two tarot decks to Kickstart in February, and took some quiet time to deal with pandemic angst and grief away from The Whole Internet. (We'll talk about that more lyrically as we go.) I've had my head down for the last few years, cranking out long-form work in relative solitude. It's time to rip the bandaid off and start sharing again. Now that I'm out of book purgatory, I finally have a minute to edit the backlog of essay drafts that piled up in the quiet. Let's have one about art philosophy, impermanence, and creative longevity right now:


If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

When I first heard the question sometime in childhood, I interpreted it as an existential one, though I didn’t know the word for existential at the time.

Art blooms in deserts. For so many queer, odd, and nerdy kids, the desert is one of translation. The quiet ones, tongue-tied by something we don’t have a word for, like culture shock in the natal culture, grasp at creative media for surrogate voices.

There’s a tradeoff for people who start down artistic paths early, even self-directed. You get a head start on a ceaseless learning curve that loves fine motor skills. You also get all the solace of art and craft in a no-stakes environment. But you don’t need a stage mom or some militant, fun-sucking tutor to miss important stuff while you, a nine year old, burn your downtime tryna teach yourself stuff like calligraphy, natural history illustration, and lyricism. (I was crap at calligraphy, alas. Slunk on back to penmanship in half-assed defeat.)

Nerdery nourishes and soothes, and also it exercises the feedback loop of understanding complex things precociously while completely missing the obvious.

So when some adult or other asked, “if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” I thought yes-of-course because I thought they were asking,

To what degree would we still be living, still be happening, if unwitnessed?

I was genuinely surprised to discover only recently, while listening to some audiobook about audio stuff (Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia maybe?), that the question was meant to be a semantic trick about the definition of sound.

Technically, a sound is something that is heard—a ripple through a medium like air or water, received by sensory organs evolved to process auditory vibrations. When sound gets defined as the vibration through the medium, the tree makes a sound whether witnessed or not. But when defined as the perception received by the listener, there’s no such thing as a sound unheard, so the answer must be no.

That’s its own kind of interesting—I’m a geek for sense & perception stuff. But the setup could only hatch from an anthropocentric, materialist society—from people who view human intelligence as the default, and sort other life by what may or may not be reduced to human use. The types who claim objectivity while designing fanciful questions to catch literal-minded answers.

If we want to be pedantic like we really mean it, how we can we ignore that ears surround, scale, and burrow into every tree in the forest? A patch of woods could be un-trafficked by us, but not by all the life required to count as a woods. A tree couldn’t fall in a forest with no one there to hear it, unless we radically redefined the concept of forest to something with no basis in nature. Nor could a tree fall on a hill-top, in a meadow, or off a mountainside cliff without anyone there to hear it. The loneliest trees are still habitats. Vulnerable trees cling to and harbor life as they decay. Even if you did manage to get one alone, plants have their own ways of processing sounds.

The tree is a being; it hears itself fall.

The sound received by one requires no other witness.

The tree is more than one of a thing.

The being that falls as an ecosystem carries its own community of witnesses.

To question whether a creature falls in silence only makes sense as the scrap of poetry, the existential metaphor, and not at all as the classroom gotcha game, unless you’re happy to accept as a logical given that no perception counts but the human bystander’s. (As for centuries, people have.)

So I took it for granted that the tree must be the querent, the fall must be mortality, the question of sound their fear of some combination of impermanence, loneliness, or insignificance. Again, I wouldn’t have worded any of this with adult sophistication, but I thought the gist of it, and carried the assumption far into adulthood. I was more aware than maybe kids should be that many teachers were disappointed, under-witnessed people, and wistful in secret.

I thought the takeaway was supposed to be some kind of pushback against (sub)urban solipsism. A multi-stranded lesson in resilience, natural sovereignty, unobserved truths, or at the very least, object permanence:

What happens happens whether or not we’re there to see it. The tree neither minds nor requires our audience. Nature’s highest-stake dramas unfold constantly, everywhere, and very often, quietly. Not everything impactful is noticed. Not everything noticed is noticed by us.

Applied inward:

We do not need an audience to happen ourselves, though we may crave one. We are noticed. We are witnessed, if not always by our peers. Life hears us, but we don’t always control which life hears us, nor what it makes of us on reception. Perhaps nothing at all. Perception and impact are two different beasts. And yet, we happen with or without the grace of either, as eventually, we fall.

(Not that any of this ever stopped me from seeking attention, then hiding from it, in turns.)

But the tree is not supposed to be a seeker or a teacher, nor the fall a danse macabre. The tree is a tree. The fall is an excuse to ripple the air. The sound only poses as a question to pointedly not exist without the observer. The field is not philosophy, but acoustics. The takeaway is that the vibration doesn’t need us, but the sensory impression does. Huh.

Well, this is why I’m an artist type, not a scientist. If you want to be a scientist, it helps first to notice when the science is even happening. And second, stop churning the science into metaphors for something creeping and ineffable.

I have discovered, over the years, that I’ve taken a few things as metaphors that were not meant to be metaphors as such, and I wonder what else I’m still mistaking for poetry.

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