It is the disease of not listening that I am troubled with

I only knew my grandfather when he was very old, but I was also very young then so most people seemed old to me at the time. He had been a carpenter in England before he emigrated to Canada with his young bride as the years turned into the twentieth century. After a long journey across Canada on one of the early trains they chose a site to build a house on a hill several miles from Vancouver where the area was mostly bush. He once told me he’d picked the area because it was in a grove of magnificently tall trees he could use for lumber, but I never suspected there was another reason until I was a little older.

My family lived on the other side of Canada from my grandfather, so I only became acquainted with him in bits and starts after three-day train journeys in summers when we could afford the trip. On those occasions, it was not only my grandfather, but the house itself that seemed old. The rooms smelled of aging trees decomposing on a leaf-strewn forest floor; the boards creaked with any pressure on them, and the walls no longer defied the wind; grandfather and house were evidently composting in tandem.

But I loved the house and the lush, untamed gardens that encircled it. Unlike the orderly neighbourhood that had grown up around it over the years, my grandparent’s house still hid in an unexplored jungle of trees and uncut bushes that defied random access. Its two little multicoloured transom windows over the front door sometimes reflected the evening sun and peered out through the leaves onto the street like the eyes of a stalking cat waiting for anyone who dared to breach the rotting fence that had once imprisoned the yard. My grandmother had managed to clear a meandering narrow trail to the ornate front door from the street through otherwise impenetrable blackberry bushes, but most of the traffic to the house was from the lane behind it through a vegetable garden and along a usually muddy path.  

My grandfather was old school, and a strict authoritarian; there were rules in the house: places I was not to go without permission; doors I was not allowed to open. The sanctum sanctorum, however, was the basement where he had his workshop; it was forever forbidden to little children like me, and so it was an ongoing challenge on each summer’s visit. Its only access was through a heavy locked wooden door in a particularly dense part of the wilderness on one side of the house. It was a Bluebeard’s Door, and by the time I was six or seven years old, it had become an obsession for me to see what was on the other side.

Late one afternoon, I decided to hide in the bushes near the door and wait for him to come out -he usually spent his afternoons there. But on that occasion I found the door unlocked and even open a crack, so I decided to sneak into the room. It was dark, and except for a tiny window on the opposite wall where the light was partly obscured by the trunk of a nearby tree, it seemed a shadow room. It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust, but the area was cluttered and I had to plan where to step. Strange shapes loomed in the corners and cluttered tables grew from the walls like stubby wooden fingers on the far sides of the room. The floor was a bumpy and chipped cement, so I tried not to trip as I slowly felt my way over to the little window. The ceiling was low -I could touch it by standing on my tiptoes -and I couldn’t understand why Grandpa spent so much time in a room that was more an unlit dungeon than a workshop.

The room was much cooler than the air outside, and had a musty smell to it that reminded me of the unfinished basement in our house in Winnipeg. But as I approached the tiny window I began to notice another odour: the faint smell of tobacco that clings to people.

I stopped and as I scanned the room once more, I noticed a vertical shadow close to the window. Grandpa was leaning quietly against a long heavy-looking table, and I could see that he was watching me. Studying me.

Then his unmistakably raspy voice: “I’m listening to the house, G. You must be very quiet…” Apart from his lips, nothing moved. “If you are really still, you can hear it, too… My father taught me how important it was to listen to what you’ve built,” he added. “Come over here and sit beside me.”

There was a little stool at the bench, so I sat on that.

“I come down here to listen to the wood each day,” he continued. He sent his eyes to sit on my cheek, and then recalled them to their usual roost when they were satisfied with their mission. “Do you hear it yet?” he asked, in an unusually kind voice.

I listened as hard as I could, but I could only hear the occasional groaning of the house, like the effort of an old man rising from a chair. “Is it the groaning I’m supposed to hear?” I asked, because I had never attached a name to it before, to tell the truth. But it was a familiar sound in the old house; perhaps it had just become a background noise for me, like the sound of wind ruffling the leaves in a forest.

I could see him smiling now and he nodded his head. “The groaning is just its age, G; the wood is telling us it’s alive,” he whispered. At first I thought he was just talking to himself, or maybe telling me a fairy story like my father used to when I was little. “But there are more than groans…”

I must have looked confused, or perhaps just doubtful, so he pointed at one of the joists inches above my head. “Put your hand on that wood and tell me what you feel.”

I touched the aging timber for a moment, but I could only feel it’s cool hardness.

“Did you feel the vibration?” he asked after I withdrew my hand. “Could you hear it whispering…?”

I shook my head, so he gently guided my hand so it actually grasped the wood. “You have to be patient with wood, you know. And you have to listen very carefully to hear it. Sometimes, you can only feel it whispering.”

“But…” I couldn’t understand what he meant; what he thought he could hear. I examined his face for a moment, and his eyes were alive with anticipation. “But it’s dead, Grandpa. Wood is dead; it can’t speak or anything…”

In the faint light coming through the little window, I could see his eyes twinkling. “Is a tree dead, G?”

I shook my head.

“When does it die then…?”

I thought about that for a moment. “When you cut it down, I guess.”

“Have you ever seen new trees growing out of the stumps of felled trees? Or fresh branches sprouting from older trees that have fallen to the ground?” He watched my face for an answer. “Does wood ever really die?”

I shrugged carefully -there weren’t many forests in Winnipeg, but I remembered my teachers that had told us about fallen ‘mother trees’ lying on forest floors that let new babies grow from their bodies. You could tell because all the new trees were lined up in a row where the mother’s trunk used to be.

“You have to listen very deeply to wood sometimes, G -listen and respect it. A carpenter has to hear what his wood has to say…” He sighed and glanced out of the little window at the large tree trunk that was gobbling up what light remained in the afternoon sky. “My father even picked the trees he used for his work.” His eyes wandered back to my face for a moment. “But sometimes he wondered if the trees picked him… He was a master cabinetmaker back in England.”

I have to say that I ‘d forgotten that episode with my grandpa until I happened to hear an archived Soul Search  program discussion on an Australian podcast hosted by Meredith Lake entitled ‘The wisdom of deep listening’. In it, she interviewed the  renowned Aboriginal elder and Senior Australian of the Year, Dr. Miriam Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann. The word for this type of listening in her language is dadirri: a quiet awareness that sums up a way of being in the world. A way of realizing and accepting that we are as much a part of Nature as Nature is a part of us.

My grandpa may never have known the word, but I think he heard more than most of us in the world to which he so patiently listened…

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