My Relationship with Violence

One very cold morning in the winter of 1975 I heard trees scream as I set them alight.

After I abandoned my career in the food service industry, I worked as a labourer in a commercial tree nursery. I did not know which direction my life and my concern for animals were taking me.

As I watched the flames engulf the pile of trees I built, I heard a scream which was like no other sound I had ever heard before or since. There is, most likely, a scientific reason why the trees screamed. Perhaps it was to do with the tree sap burning on that cold morning. Regardless, I heard trees scream as they burned. Their cries forced me to ask myself if they were alive. Was I responsible for their murder? Even though, rationally, I knew that this was impossible. Even ridiculous. Trees may be living things but they are not sentient beings. Nevertheless, it was a profound experience that continues to haunt me. It was a personal transformative moment in my relationship with violence.

I have always opposed war and military action of any kind. They demonstrate human failure in diplomacy and our inability to live with each other compassionately, honestly and peacefully. I understand the case made for ‘just’ wars but I wonder how many were truly so. A just war is when military action is permissible with legal or moral reasons, including self-defence and assisting another. As with society so with the individual. The only morally acceptable violent behaviour for an individual is to act, including in self-defence, when no other options are available.

Burning a pile of trees is one of the very few occasions when I behaved violently. Although I did not think so at first. In my defence, I make the case that I would not have set the trees alight if I had not been told to do so. I am not a pyromaniac. The reason why I did not challenge my supervisor is because I saw nothing wrong with burning trees. My mind changed, however, when I heard the trees scream. Was I behaving violently, I wondered, by setting a stack of trees on fire?

Trees are objects. Yes, they grow and, in that sense, they are alive. But they are not subjects like humans. They do not suffer as we do. Any noise they make when they burn is no more than like the chiming of a clock. Screaming trees burning in a fire does not mean they are sentient. Yes, I like trees. My appreciation is because of their beauty, evocation and necessity. I am pleased to see in certain situations trees are protected by law. But they are not sentient like us. We grow trees. We cut them down. We use their wood. Trees are a crop, like other plants we grow and use and, in some cases, eat.

My anecdote about burning trees may appear ridiculous to some. It may resonate with others who experienced something similar. Regardless, it reminds me to be thoughtful (I admit to not being always successful) of how I handle all plants, including those I grow and harvest at the allotment I share near my home. Further, I appreciate particularly the majestic beauty of the wooded East Sussex countryside since I moved there to live in 2007. Certainly, I would not want to see any of it destroyed by fire.

Thinking about trees reminds me of two silly arguments I have encountered over the years when I have made the case for animal rights.

First, there is no point in worrying about animals because it leads to anxiety about whether plants feel pain. Second, what is the point in worrying about animals when plants also feel pain? On both counts, it is better to take no action. This is hypocritical nonsense and beyond any reason but needs to be considered briefly.

When I recall my thoughts and emotions about the burning trees, I feel guilty, distressed and confused. What if the trees I burnt did fee pain? Is not my assumption that trees are insensate akin to what people say about animals? That animals and trees do not have the capacity to feel and if they do it does not matter. Does all this somehow make animals and trees less important and more permissible to harm? Further, if we are to stop worrying about it, well, where would it lead us?

I do not know whether trees and other flora experience pain and capable of suffering. There is no evidence of a central nervous system to indicate such an ability. This does not mean, however, that we have licence to do whatever we want with the environment. The way I distinguish how I feel about animals and the environment, including trees, plants and all other flora, is that I give the former the benefit of the doubt as they are clearly sentient whereas the latter has the potential for sentiency. I believe we can use the environment but that this must be done in conjunction with my four key values of compassion, truth, nonviolence and an awareness and sensitivity to the interrelationships of the natural world.