Long ago, when the world was still quite young, the trees and plants ruled all living things. I say ‘ruled’ but there was no need then for rules; rather they were the caretakers of creation as it emerged out of that obscure and uncharted place from which what is called ‘creation’ emerges.

The birds were the first comers into the new world, that is to say, the world after the dinosaurs were done in and done for. Except, of course, those which survived in an aerial form and reinvented themselves as birds. Having had enough of being the ruling species – for they felt, maybe rightly, that to be so was to invite hubris – the birds abdicated their position to their gracious elders, the vegetable world of trees and plants.

In time, other creatures emerged: mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers, great apes, and finally humankind lumbered into existence.

Humankind took its time, moving from a low lolloping into a rolling walk, half hands and feet, to hunch over, almost upright, making tools and weapons. It found how to make fire and began to burn wood, only the dead wood, for that burned easiest. And the trees saw to it that this new creation did no real damage. True, it liked to feed on other creatures, as well as on the fruits and seeds of the plants and
trees. But it was not alone in this. The sabre-toothed tigers were also creatures of prey.

Now, the way the trees worked their benignant overseeing of the new world was through a patterning of subtle sounds that entered the spirits of the humans. One particular tree held the root and branch of this gift. If any violence was observed, beyond the ordinary necessities of living and feeding, this tree would sigh and sough and whisper so that the creatures were calmed. If any human creature wanted to kill more than it could eat, or fairly feed its family on, for instance, then this same tree let out a sigh which touched the heart of the malefactor and returned to it a sense of fellow-feeling with the other inhabitants of the world.

One day, a young female human creature was sitting by a river leaning against this tree. Across the way, she noticed a young male lifting his spear to throw at a running doe. The deer was heavily pregnant, and as the hunter raised his arm the female creature heard the sound of a great sigh very close to her ear. Behind her head, she felt the trunk of the tree shiver slightly and then begin to shake. The hunter’s arm stayed poised, the spear still straight in his hand, as the deer vanished swiftly into the undergrowth. ‘This is some magic,’ she thought.

Drawn by what she had witnessed, the female human creature came each day to the riverside, and more and more often heard the tree expelling its strange sound. After a time, growing bolder in her fascination, she addressed the tree, ‘Tell me, why do you sigh?’

Although the trees were then blessed with the means to speak, none ever did except in private to another. But surprised by this sudden question, the tree answered, ‘I sigh at the sight of humankind’s wrongdoings.’

‘What is “wrongdoings”?’ asked the young woman, who knew nothing of right or wrong.

‘Harm to other living creatures,’ the tree told her.

‘What is “harm”?’ she asked again.

‘Taking what you don’t need, giving pain or causing fear needlessly,’ said the tree, pleased to have encountered this eager-seeming pupil.

‘You sigh because you are . . . ?’

‘I sigh because I am sad,’ the tree told her. ‘But more than that, the sigh helps to stem the harm.’

The young woman went away and thought about this. It seemed to her a great magic and she began to want it for herself. When she next visited the tree she asked, ‘Will you teach me your gift? I could help maybe to do your work and stem the harm with my sighs too.’

The woman was young and slender, with wild brown hair. She looked not unlike the tree herself and the tree thought that it might do a great good by teaching her how to sigh and to calm her own species. So it bent down and whispered the secret in her ear. At that, all the magic flew from the tree but all that entered the woman’s heart was a great sorrowing at the apprehension of the harm humankind could do.

And from that time, some among humankind know right from wrong and sigh for the wrongdoings that are done. But the willow tree that lost its magic can only bend its head and weep.