Tree whisperer

Omega grows some of the vegetables and herbs that it serves in its delicious, mostly vegetarian meals. All photos by Janey Winchell.

Omega grows some of the vegetables and herbs that it serves in its delicious, mostly vegetarian meals. Photo by Janey Winchell

I recently found my way to the Omega Institute in New York’s Hudson Valley to take part in a weekend workshop to learn about Tree Whispering.  As the curator of the upcoming exhibition Branching Out: Trees as Art, which opens this September, I decided it was a good time to do some branching out myself.  This workshop offered a unique opportunity to explore trees while opening my mind to new ideas.  It also gave me a chance to see a beloved friend who works seasonally at Omega.  And then there’s Omega’s reputation for serving great food and offering fun enrichment sessions, such as group meditation, Tai Chi and African dance, all of which served as an extra motivation to make the long drive to Rhinebeck.

Twenty-five of us gathered from across the country to work with plant pathologist Jim Conroy, Ph.D. (The Tree Whisperer®) and his colleague Basia Alexander. We ranged from professional arborists to amateur tree enthusiasts, from retired couples to recent college grads.  I was the only museum professional in a diverse group  that included an architect and a flight attendant.  Several of the folks had been to previous workshops with “Dr. Jim” and Basia, who co-founded the Institute for Cooperative BioBalance out of New Jersey. Dr. Jim and Basia let us know that their mission is to help restore ecosystems by collaborating as equal partners with the living beings that make up an ecosystem.

Soon after getting started on Friday evening, Dr. Jim and Basia explained that “whispers” are messages, spoken from the heart, in support of trees or plants. They then asked us to do a warm-up meditation with a plant seedling at our seats.  If anyone had thought this request a bit awkward, they didn’t say so.  Instead, we all acted as if it was the most natural thing in the world to try and connect with a plant’s energy field and ask it what it needed.  Though, admittedly, some of us found this exercise challenging to actually do.

Later, when we went outside to do a similar exercise with trees on Omega’s grounds, participants shared some wonderful messages they received from the trees during the “whispering” exercise.  One of the arborists said the message he got during the meditation was, “So, where have you been?”  It turned out he was one of the returning participants, and the maples here at Omega had not forgotten him.  My own experience was not a verbal message but a memorable sensation of living energy emanating through the bark of each tree that I touched in this unique meditation.

The following morning, I arose with the sun to walk around the nearby lake.  I passed my “meditation” trees from the night before and soon was wondering what the trees along the rest of my early morning walk were experiencing as live beings, rooted to a single spot for their entire existence.

an oak with early morning mist rising off Long Pond Lake.

An oak with early morning mist rising off Long Pond Lake. Photo by Janey Winchell

The path leading to Omega’s Sanctuary where I participated in a multi-sensory guided nature meditation.

The path leading to Omega’s Sanctuary where I participated in a multi-sensory guided nature meditation. Photo by Janey Winchell

After my walk, and an energizing hour-long guided meditation led by my friend Riva May in The Sanctuary, I joined a retired couple participating in the workshop at breakfast.  While I was savoring a hearty breakfast of local eggs, fresh baked bread and homemade raspberry jam, the husband of the couple remarked that he considers Basia and Jim to be “heralds of the future,” because of the way they interact with other species.

Soon we were back in session, and Dr. Jim and Basia reviewed some of their ground rules of tree whispering, which included:

  • Always ask permission of the plant or tree you want to interact with.
  • Stop long enough to really listen to what the tree has to say.
  • Tap on your heart (chest) to help get your ego out of the way.
  • Remember to breathe.

While these directions may have been offered as guidelines for communing with trees, they were equally applicable as reminders of how to be fully present in life.  Then Basia remarked, “When it comes right down to it,” the effectiveness of our interactions with trees is really “all about our intentions in the matter.”

Yreating ash trees under Dr. Jim’s guidance (far right).  Photo courtesy of Andrew Schwarz

Treating ash trees under Dr. Jim’s guidance (far right). Photo courtesy of Andrew Schwarz

We got lots of tree whispering practice on Saturday, including an evening meditation with some white ash trees on the Omega property that are particularly at risk of infestation by emerald ash-borer beetles.

Treating a Catalpa tree. Photo courtesy of Andrew Schwartz.

Treating a Catalpa tree. Photo courtesy of Andrew Schwartz

Catalpa tree

Catalpa tree, photo by Janey Winchell

For our final session Sunday morning, Dr. Jim and Basia invited us to join them in treating the grand old Catalpa tree that graces the front of Omega’s dining hall.  I was excited to work with this beautiful tree, having admired it every time I entered the hall at mealtime.  The Catalpa had suffered from the extreme weather conditions that hit Rhinebeck this past winter, and the new spring growth was thin with signs of significant winter die-off.  The director of Omega was worried about the tree’s condition, and had asked Jim and Basia if they would treat it while they were here.  When we first started, Dr. Jim said the tree was communicating to him that it was feeling very weak, but by the end of our treatment it was feeling re-energized.  (Photos shot several days later by Dr. Jim on a return site visit showed the tree covered in vibrant new foliage!)

Closing circle. Photo courtesy of Andrew Schwartz.

Closing circle. Photo courtesy of Andrew Schwartz

Tree whispering certificate. Photo courtesy of Omega.

Tree whispering certificate, photo courtesy of Omega

During the closing events of our workshop on Sunday, a participant from Texas looked at me with a wide grin and said, “Did you ever see such a group of characters?!”  I had to agree, we were an unusual collection of individuals, but we all shared a common passion for trees.  And I think we will all see trees a bit differently going forward.

Tree consciousness has not been scientifically proven, but it was not that long ago that most scientists considered the very idea of plant “intelligence” laughable.  More recently it has been emerging as a legitimate area of scientific study and investigation (called “plant neurobiology”), with evidence that plants can sense, learn, remember things and even react to certain stimuli. Is this truly “intelligence”?  At least some scientists insist that it is and argue that plants just have a very different way of processing information than animals, which have brains.  At the very least, plants have demonstrated that they have far more awareness than scientists ever thought possible before.

If you’d like to experience tree whispering yourself, Dr. Jim and Basia will be leading two mini Tree Whispering sessions as part of PEM’s opening day festival for Branching Out: Trees as Art on Saturday, September 27th.  Dr. Jim will also be talking about his experiences treating trees over the past 12 years in a program with featured artist David Yann Robert, whose digital art in the show interprets the bioelectrical signals (electrical activity) of a live beech tree.


  1. KAY BAKER says:

    What an interesting, thought provoking post. Think I’ll head to my yard and introduce myself
    to some very old oak trees.

  2. Janey says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Kay, and that it is prompting you to take a moment with some special trees in your yard!

  3. Judy Aleman says:

    What a lovely post, Janey. I’ve been fascinated with trees since childhood and your comments have rekindled my interest to interact with them. As a child I sat on the magnificent Live Oaks in New Orleans and felt gently comforted. My current home is surrounded by Dogwoods and Pines. It’s a delightful way to start and end the day. Thanks for bringing a heighten awareness to connecting with them.

  4. Janey says:

    Who knows what wisdom those Live Oaks passed on to you without you even knowing it, Judy! I appreciate that my post has raised your interest and appreciation of the trees around your home.

  5. Sylvia Belkin says:

    Jane, I loved your post. Just a few days ago we had several diseased trees cut down in our back yard which for years had been thick with foliage. It was a horrific experience because I have always believed the trees to be a living part of our lives. I was enthralled by your post because I know now that I am not alone. Thank you for sharing your fascinating experience with us. I can hardly wait for opening day at PEM

  6. Jane captured the essence of the profound and fun experiences that we have during our classes. We really enjoyed her participation at Omega and are so glad to see how beautifully she is sharing with others! We are looking forward to speaking at opening day of her exhibition at PEM.

  7. Wow – thanks for making it o.k. and dare I say, cool, to be a tree-hugger! Newport has some exceptional species, and Imma bust out so tree breathing this weekend!

  8. Rick Payer says:

    I can say in all seriousness, I have had trees talk to me once, in Vermont. I was not looking for it or expecting it. It was non verbal, of course. It had to do with they were all individuals, yet existed collectively, protecting each other from elements. It was life in this universe, and it was good.

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