Where the path I take to reach the pond meets the edge of the woods, a great-pine tree stands, the last of its generation. Whether it was left as a boundary marker for hikers to use as a reference point, no one can say, but, personally, I prefer a little bit of mystery. I have always wanted to ask the owners of the property its rotund trunk just barely nudges if they know of its true origin story, but my fear of confrontation has always gotten the better of me. The woodchoppers who felled its neighbors left a long time ago, and, in their place, a whole wooded ecosystem full of sturdy pines, oaks, and maples now flourishes. However, the majestic head of this particular pine tree towers high above all the rest, serving as a landmark for any and all to see as they wade into the woods in search of who they are.
In my seventeen years of living just seconds away from the wood’s edge, I have come to know this tree well. I have always believed that whoever can climb to the top of it will be able to see the Hudson River, hell, maybe even the Long Island Sound given the clearness of that day’s sky. Oftentimes, I lay my hand on its great rough trunk and look up wistfully towards its dark boughs, the ones the wind always stirs, no matter how hot and still the air might be below. Yet, today felt different, entirely different. As I approached the tree, I felt more and more determined to climb it. And climb it I soon did.
With the utmost bravery, I began my ascension, branch by branch, my every movement pushed forward by the tingling, eager blood coursing through my every vein. As my fingers lay bare, my boots covered in fraying tree bark and fallen pine needles, I pinched and held the monstrous tower of wood like how an eagle clutches a mouse. Oddly enough, the tree seemed to lengthen itself out as I progressed further and further up. As I straddled its trunk, a great main mast to a voyaging Earth, I couldn’t help but ponder what the tree itself might be thinking. It must have been amazed, awestruck indeed, as it felt this determined spark of a human spirit weaving his way from branch to branch. More than all the birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and ants was the brave, beating heart of a solitary blue-eyed boy, eager to reach a view that he knew would be nothing short of heavenly, or so he hoped.
As I closed in towards the pine tree’s canopy, the early morning sun, soft and diffuse in nature, gave way to the day’s first true rays of sunlight, the ones that provide warmth to the woods and all who inhabit it. From the treetop, I could see the stagnant blues and greens of the pond’s surface begin to evaporate into the air above in slow waves, waves that eddied gracefully upwards towards white-puffed clouds. Quickly, I realized that it was only here, only amidst the tops of the trees, could I observe this phenomenon, one that an average passerby would not be able to see back down on the ground. All it took was a shift in perspective.
Since entering the environmental humanities realm, perspective shifting, at least for me, has seemed to be the only syllabus requirement. From learning about the true history of the Indigenous people who first settled the continent to the conflation between non-white skin and filth, uncovering the real, unidistrubed truths buried underneath altered historical narratives requires the use of a new vantage point. A vantage point that allows the viewer to see everything at once. Recently, Rauol Peck’s docuseries “Exterminate All the Brutes” became that new vantage point, that view from the pine tree. By gathering a set of historical atrocities of vast geographical and historical scope, like the imperial conquest of Africa by Europe and the Holocaust, he is able to map out the inextricable connections they each have with one another, connections formed out of commitments to white supremacy. As he presents each narrative to his viewer, all within the span of an hour, he instills within us the ability to see our world in a new light, a world that, for far too long, has used white skin as an excuse to murder, kill, and indoctrinate. “[We] already know enough…what is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”