David Bentley Hart tells the story of a tree that he saw shaking with laughter and that sent him running away in fear as a boy of about seventeen. This is from “A Conversation Between Salley Vickers and David Bentley Hart” posted to Leaves in the Wind on November 7, 2022 (between minutes 52:38 and 56:31 on the YouTube version).
Risking the censure and the mockery of the virtual world out there, when I was very young, I had an experience that has left me, ever since, unable not to believe in nature spirits of some sense. So this is my great confessional moment. I’ve never told this story before, but I feel I can tell it to you, and, at this point, if anyone’s listening in, I just hope they’ll be discreet.
It was, um, in my late teens, 18, 19, I think it was. Well, I have to get this right, because I went to university early, so I would have been 17. It was my last year in high school, um, winter, and I lived near a lake, actually, an artificial lake, really. It was called Wild Lake. At that time in Howard County, where I grew up, it was still a rather thickly forested, still largely rural county that’s positioned between Baltimore and Washington. None of it exists anymore. It’s all been overdeveloped. So if I actually did encounter any spirits of the woodland there, they’ve since been evicted, and I don’t think there are any native spirits of housing developments.
But near Wild Lake, there was, above it, a rise in the woods where I often went with friends, and I was out late at night on my own in the early snowfall. It was really a late autumn, moon bright night—full moon, and I went up the hill into a clearing in the woods, and there in the middle of it, in the snow, was a witch hazel tree. And I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a witch hazel tree in blossom, but they blossomed very late in the autumn, even lingering on into the winter. So it’s a very strange thing, and their blossoms are like these little golden tassels.
This tree was within, you know, just a perfectly vertical shaft of the moonlight. The snow was, you know, glistening all around it, and the gold of the blossoms was remarkably vivid. It must have been one in the morning, and I said something, I have no idea what I said, I said something to the tree. I don’t remember what it was, but it was just a sort of, a casual something, like, you know, “you’re looking dapper” or something. And I swear, you know, again risking mockery, the tree began to tremble and to shake the blossoms. It was about ten feet from me, and there was laughter. And I wasn’t drunk. I wasn’t on drugs. Then perhaps I was in a dream state which doesn’t mean that the experience wasn’t perfectly real at the same time, but nonetheless there was, sort of, this very clear laughter. I looked around, could it be coming from the tree? Was it an illusion that it was coming from that tree? But then it happened again, and there was no question. And the blossoms actually were trembling. There was no breeze. It was just the tree shook and laughed. And I ran like hell. I shouldn’t have. I’d like to say that, you know, it was a moment of just pure transport, I came into close communion with the deep mystery at the heart of things.