We are continuing our series of posts that will profile the authors and artists featured in our latest volume, Trust. Learn more about the Trust volume here. Click this link to order Trust and previous volumes.
by Tammy Cloutier
Whole Terrain staff
“Trees think in centuries.” These four simple words drew me in to Clarisse Hart’s piece in Whole Terrain’s Trust volume, “Being There,” and resonated strongly with me, though I did not immediately understand why. By the end of her story, my appreciation and respect for these life forms had deepened as I acknowledged they have observed and felt more changes than we human beings can possibly know.
After a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and a masters of fine arts in nonfiction writing, Hart arrived at Harvard Forest in 2007 as a research assistant. She is now responsible for science communication and education as the Outreach & Education Manager. She teaches visitors about topics such as landscapes and ecology and encourages them to find their own personal meanings in the natural world.
In her creative writing, Hart allows time for her own reflection based on her time in the forest. “Being There” feels different from many of Hart’s other creative nonfiction because she rarely writes in the first person. The personal connections and experiences she shared in the Trust volume begged for a first person voice as she grappled with climate change, the imminent loss of her grandmother, and trusting a time scale that miniaturizes a human life.
The story pays homage to her grandmother, inspired by and written during the last year of her grandmother’s life, and also to other important beings in her life: trees. The trust theme, with an undercurrent of permanence, seemed particularly poignant to Hart at the time with the decline in her grandmother’s health and the loss of trees that had long been part of her daily life.
Hart explains, “Trusting in the idea of permanence is not something that comes naturally to me. Or, I didn’t think it did. But as my grandmother’s health began to slip away, and simultaneously, as I began to lose massive trees I cherish as part of my daily life, I realized how much stock I had put in their there-ness. The parallel between the personal and environmental stalwarts in my life was suddenly plain as day.”
Hart discusses the relationship humans have with trees, which she labels as “there-ness.” For many people, trees play the “roles of nanny and therapist.” They are “steadying…our anchors… [and] we expect them to be there.” While trees attempt to adapt to the changes we’ve imposed on this earth as best and as fast as they can, Hart states, “We’re changing the rules even faster.” When asked if she thought trees will continue to survive despite human actions, Hart replies, “I hope so. Some people get freaked out by post-apocalyptic stories where plants and trees have taken over big cities. But I’m like, hooray! Go trees!”
Although some may expect or assume trees will always be here in some shape or form, Hart explains how forests help with the idea of trust and permanence by redefining the meaning of destruction or loss. For example, “Just because a forest has been flattened by a tornado or an invasive insect doesn’t mean it’s not a forest anymore. New tree seedlings will pop up immediately, craning their necks for the light. It’s like they’re shouting, ‘I’m still here. I’m still me.’”
In addition to teaching others about the trees and ecology of Harvard Forest over the past nine years, Hart climbs trees recreationally, “arborist-style, with ropes.” Not a fan of heights, Hart nevertheless feels less fear when in a tree: “seeing how they can withstand wind and the weight of snow, I understand trees enough to really trust them. There’s something about the fact that they are alive that makes me feel like it’s teamwork. If I were climbing rocks or scaling the side of a building, I would be a lot more nervous.”
When not in a tree, or speaking with others about them, Hart works on other projects such as a feature story about firewood heating assistance programs. “I love writing about people who are good for the world.”
One image that stays with me from Hart’s story, “Being There,” is the symbol-ridden comparison between her grandmother and a beech tree. I asked her to expand on the idea.
“Climbing trees makes you aware that each type of tree has a different personality. Some are brittle and tenuous, others are lithe, almost rubbery. Beeches are rock solid, as if there’s a massively strong ladder beneath you saying: ‘I’ve got you; keep going.’ It’s a feeling I recognized as soon as I felt it. I used to call my grandmother every Sunday when she was alive. And those phone calls always made me feel the same way: ‘I’ve got you; keep going.’ She did that for our whole family, and frankly, probably for strangers she met in the street. So the parallel was very obvious: Grandmere the beech tree.
“You’re right about the additional symbolism there. Trees have got our backs, as humans. They’re constantly working on our behalf. I just hope we can be half as good to them as they are to us.”
Bio: Clarisse Hart is a scientist and writer in central Massachusetts, where she manages education and public relations at Harvard Forest, a long-term ecological research site. She has spent over a decade as a field ecologist studying spiders, carnivorous plants, and humpback whales (though never at the same time). She devotes most of her free time to weeding her vegetable garden, day-tripping around New England with her wife, paddle boarding, and volunteering for her small town’s Forest & Shade Tree Committee. She has a BA in environmental studies from Mount Holyoke College and an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Emerson College. Her writing can be found (now or shortly) in Orion, Worcester Living Magazine, Ecotone, the Harvard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor.