We are hiking up to the caldera rim in the Newberry Volcano. The trail begins as a dry, dusty slog through a stand of lodgepole pine. The understory looks like the aftermath of a wind storm, with trees toppled into random piles of large silvered toothpicks. This is natural downfall for a forest like this. Exposed shallow root systems of up-ended trees reveal the fragility of standing tall against wind and snow loads.
As the path steepens, we enter an area of old growth mountain hemlock and a few whitebark pine. The air noticeably changes with a bit more humidity from an increasing number of green plants in the understory. I hear a staccato-like cracking sound that I at first assume to be a woodpecker perched high in a hemlock, drumming to announce his territory. But I notice it is slightly different and come to realize it is more like noise associated with a splintering tree preparing to surrender to gravity.
The sound echoes through the forest and I cannot determine its location. Recalling stories of hikers who lost their lives after being crushed by falling trees, I am a little apprehensive. We quicken our pace and soon pass by the eerie sound, that is, until we hear the next one. We experience several episodes of creaks and groans—a veritable forest chorus. As we begin to climb through a series of switchbacks, the concert abates and only the wind echoes through.
Does a tree really make a sound if no one is there? Is the tree there at all? From the perspective of Buddhist teachings all phenomena are an expression of emptiness. They appear, but the appearance is dreamlike and ungraspable. Still, I am alive to have this inner reflection. Or am I? Maybe I am crushed by a falling tree. End of conversation. I remember receiving a teaching long ago in which the master holds up a tea cup and says, “This is already gone, broken to pieces then to dust, and is whisked away on the wind. But, in this moment, I will enjoy a cup of tea.”
I can drink in the delights of the tall old growth forest because it has already fallen.