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If a tree falls in a forest, and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Arriving at Vanaprastha in the evening last weekend, we saw a tree lying across the driveway turnaround. In our headlights, the yellow-tinted leaves looked like a maple’s, but in morning light, we saw the single and 3-pronged mittens characteristic of deciduous sassafras. Other fallen branches and debris indicated that quite a storm had passed through last week. When trees and branches fall in the forest and nobody is there, do they make a sound?

I’ve always thought that this was a silly question because the forest is alive and trees “hear” other trees when they die. At the time that the sassafras hit the ground, perhaps the older trees shook their leaves in compassion and thought, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” I suspect that the younger trees said, “Good riddance, now all the more for me,” like younger siblings when the older goes off to college. In the forest, every living thing seems to reach for the sun. The competition for resources is fierce and unforgiving.

Upon further investigation, we noticed that the sassafras’ trunk had a previous crack from some time ago. The opening provided entrance to a variety of insects for which the tree had become shelter and food. Although only middle-aged, the tree brought down by the storm was diseased and struggling. So it is with nature. Other vegetation will fill in quickly. The insects will have no trouble finding another home in the forest. And this winter, the hard sassafras wood will burn in our stoves. When a tree falls in the forest, we say thank you and hear warmth.

What do you hear?