Tapping: A Meditation on Unseeing

Tapping: A Meditation on Unseeing

Tapping: A Meditation on Unseeing 1021 782 Robyn Earhart

(CW: Domestic Violence/Intimate Partner Violence)

From my open living room window, I can hear it again: the cling clang of metal hitting metal. My neighbor, with a hammer in his big hands, is tapping a metal spile into the base of his maple tree. From what I can see from my chair, just several blunt thrusts of his Pendletoned-elbow to force the spile through bark before he attaches a bucket. Now it is time to wait. And wait and wait, because, as someone once told me, it takes patience to collect enough sap to make even the tiniest amount of syrup to drown a pillowy stack of pancakes.

It’s a big maple tree; in one hour already three covered buckets hang from her collecting her slow unspooling of sap. I can tap the maple in my backyard too, but I don’t. Instead each spring I sweep up piles of samaras from the deck. The ones I miss slip under planter boxes and furniture to live on. A crack in the shell, a new shoot wiggles out still holding onto the paper blade, like a tornado of regeneration.

Here in Minnesota, my neighbor is practicing a tradition of the Ojibwe and Dakota peoples who first collected sap for syrup production. I know there’s nothing wrong with tapping a maple tree, but something in the process looks violent. To watch as this man strikes a living being with a series of blows in quick succession, to take what doesn’t belong to him.


There is a reason I can’t separate the concept of violence from watching someone tap a tree. I’ve seen this type of violence before. Once we see something, we can’t unsee it. This has something to do with how the mind processes perception and interprets visual stimuli. From the retina in the eye, the brain’s cortex sends a signal through the thalamus and into our consciousness. The brain sends signals rapid-fire, and the consciousness retrieves them and even modulates them while information is changing. What we see is influenced by what we know. In this way, our brains play tricks on us. It will make a prediction of the image the eye sees, based on expectations from prior knowledge, even if that image is not truly accurate, yet. In other words, if you know to look for something, you’ll see it. And you’ll continue to see it until you can’t unsee it.

While my neighbor hammers spiles into his tree, I want something more tender. I’d rather  have the tapping of my index finger to my husband’s hipbone. I want the smell of hazelnut and peppery coffee beans when I tap the grinder’s cup against our cheap Formica countertops. The tapping of curved beak to metal feeder, the taking of smooth safflower seeds that slide down a cardinal’s throat. We all have hunkered down long enough from a brutally cold winter. Endured months of slurping pulpy butternut squash soup. The fresh relief of Vaseline on rough wintered elbows and knees. Mornings watching a lemon sun from the vantagepoint of this corner cognac-leather chair, the one with fine licks of dog-nailed scratches, the one that shushes the back of my thighs after hours of reading books on a hot summer day. I want all of this instead of what I’m seeing today: that a person can take what he wants.


The snow has receded from the base of the maple. That’s how he knows it’s time to tap her. Look to the tree to tell you. Take your cues from the living. Run your hands along the base, feel those worn rivulets of bark (the skin of the tree, if you can imagine). She is still standing, decorated by smoothed-over holes now filled in with new bark (like she’s trying to cover up her wounds with makeup). The holes tell us that this tree has been tapped before. New bark is one way her body says she’s a survivor. Like Lia Purpura wrote, a thing grows into the light available to it. This is not just a metaphor.

When I turn my head, I see two buckets hanging from a different maple down the street. All these people tapping, taking from a living being. As humans we are hardwired to take from those that give, perhaps because we need something to feed our desire for power. Or anger. One of my sisters gave her ex-husband so much; I know that now. I can’t unsee the words she wrote in her affidavit to the court requesting protection.

The maple tree makes requests to no one but herself. We don’t see this, how she caches sugar starches tapped from the earth, and creates a water-sugar stream that reaches the tops and bottoms of her limbs and roots. It’s this internalized survival system that fascinates me most. How a tree is not merely a tree.


Now I hear it: That sweet tinny cheer cheer cheer. As Robin Wall Kimmer wrote, this is spring’s music as surely as the cardinal’s insistent whistle. And there, a flutter and swoop, my head turns toward my neighbor’s dying pine tree. I spot the softness of muted pink perched among brittle needles. My mother’s words a tiny earworm: seeing a cardinal is a sign that someone who loves you is thinking of you.

The female songbird rarely sings but the cardinal is an exception. Those whorls of hi-lo syncopation emitting from her throat sound more like here here here. A sad song. A male will sing to mark his territory—this here here here is my pine, this here here here is my house and these are my children and you are my wife that I can do with what I want. But the female sings for mating, for family, for existence. I am here here here.

Perhaps someone is thinking of me, but really, I am the one who is thinking of someone I love. More than one person: my father, my oldest sister, my older sister in the middle. The sight of that maple tree with its buckets just does that to me. I keep using this cliched metaphor in my life: roots as lineage, the body of the tree as familial structure, the branches as subsets of the growing family. I am guilty of overusing it, but sometimes I’d rather live in the margins of someone else’s words, no matter how overused they are, as if I can dip my toes into and out of the coolness of water quick before a ripple blurs. It’s safer that way, to hide in metaphorical spaces, because to say the words ‘domestic violence’ means to witness it. To see it and to know.


My father told me it took a friend of his seven years to recover. He said this to me as my two-year-old nephew was screaming into my ear. I wanted for my nephew to walk on his own; he was too heavy for me to carry, but each time I tried to make him place his rubber rain boots on the pavement, he kicked his legs and wailed “No, no, no!” Shook his head and kicked until finally I stopped trying.

“Seven years,” my father repeated, “for her to see herself as more than just a victim.” We were walking on the back roads by my parents’ house, my father pushing my baby niece in her stroller. The muscles in my forearms throbbed; I shifted my nephew from one hip to the other every few minutes. I had wanted to take him on our walk to give my oldest sister a break from her children. The weekend before, we had scrapped together a hasty plan to move her and her two small children out of their home 170 southern miles away. The next weekend when I visited, laundry totes and garbage bags of clothes, shoes, and toys were strewn around my parents’ dining and living rooms.

I didn’t ask my father how long he thinks it might take for this sister to recover. I never asked this same question to my other sister, the one in the middle, not wanting to know if years after her mouth healed from surgery and all the numerous follow-up trips to the dentist, she felt like a victim or a survivor each time her replacement tooth fell out.

Two donkeys brayed as we walked past them. This made the scowl on my nephew’s face transpose to a tiny smile. His furrowed brows shot up to the top of his knitted gray-and-yellow winter hat. He pointed to the metal pen in the neighbor’s yard. In there, a mini metal slide, some balls that hung from rope, a giant hollowed tube. Bales of hay and a blue water bucket. Around the pen, several free-range chickens pecked at the ground. A sheep still wearing her dirty winter coat, slowly chewed on something, raised her head as we walked by.

“Look!” I said. “Hee haw, hee haw.” His ear was soft against my lips, and to my relief, he laughed.

“Ro ro,” he smiled at me, his take on my name. I walked us closer to the edge of the ditch as a car approached. There was no breeze, no rustle to the leaves or the tall blonde ditch grass. I stepped on a crushed Grain Belt beer can by a post that marked the house’s fire response number. If not for the occasional car that drove around the bend, the four of us would have wandered on our own as the donkeys and chickens and sheep watched us. If not for the truth, the four of us wouldn’t have been out here at all.

“Your sisters don’t think I understand them,” my father said, “but I do.”

“You do what?” I shifted my nephew to my other hip.

“Understand them. You know, my first wife…she was a tough woman.”

“You never talk to us about her. I don’t really know anything.”

“No? Well there’s not much to say.” He shook his head just as my nephew lowered his to my shoulder, his breath warm on my bare neck. Milky. He still clenched his tiny fingers around a half-nibbled animal cracker. Lately my nephew struggled to sleep. He woke often at night, sweaty, and crying until he gagged.

“She was an alcoholic. And she could get pretty mean when she was drunk.” He told me in fragments of a time when this woman threw bottles and cans at him and his car, screaming. How she raged at him in front of his friends. I stared down at the road as my father struggled to maneuver the stroller over a patch of loose sand.

“I always thought I would wake up with a knife in my back.”


My neighbor has started a fire. Sizzle-wet wood turns my head back to his yard. He cracks sticks with those big, big hands over his thighs. I’ve seen his two dogs climb up those thighs, him bending at the waist to ruffle their ears tenderly with those big hands. But this fire, this isn’t tenderness. Crack, throw, sizzle, repeat. Smoke funnels through the maple’s leaves. His wife slams a window in their office shut. That is how close our houses are in Saint Paul, when I know which room is their bedroom, their bathroom, their daughter’s bedroom. When I hear his wife shout “I’m fuckin’ sick and tired of it” to him, or maybe to their daughter or maybe to someone on the phone. What would I do without that stucco and brick shunting their vibrations, those bits of conversations I inadvertently overhear? Can they hear my husband and I too, those parts of our lives that we try to keep hidden? How do we know when a fight is just a fight and nothing more?

The wood he has thrown into the fire is not dead. Tiny pops of baby buds ricochet around his fire pit. I made this same error myself only weeks ago. Over-trimmed the buckthorn in our front yard, and when I burned the thin branches in my own fire pit, the saplings sizzled and popped. Little eruptions of fiery ash flying, landing on the circle of beaten-brown grass and wet leaves underfoot. In that ether of smoke, I had traveled into a recess of memory I repressed for so long. I saw a front bottom tooth dislodged from pink gums during an argument in a car. When he dropped her off at the emergency room, her tooth in cupped hand, he walked away as the nurse eyed him. In my yard, twice I needed to brush my arms of dime-sized embers. Did my sister’s boyfriend brush the blood of her mouth off his arm?

They say you can tap a maple incorrectly. When you force a metal spile you injure the tree, and creating a wound makes the tree vulnerable to a bevy of microorganisms. To tap a tree incorrectly means you can inflict decay, even death, upon her, but why do we even say there’s an incorrect way to do it? Is there ever a correct way to injure the living?

In truth, the wounds from being tapped never fully heal. The maple’s ring of cells will scuttle about and wall off section-by-section. More makeup, some big sunglasses, perhaps a smile to conceal or a lie told to dismiss suspicion. A tree is a compartmentalized being that can put up new defenses to stymy any rot spreading from root to branches. But the trauma embedded in her cells remains. Arboreal PTSD. We all are compartmentalized beings. A thing grows into the light available to it. This is not just a metaphor.

As I sit in my chair, I think of what my father revealed to me that day, all the weight he had carried in silence for years. For the number of times his own body endured unbridled violence. I’ve learned how a disease can spread from the roots of a tree through its limbic system, all the way through its branches to its baby buds. If the [family] tree is large enough, it is possible for it to be tapped two, three, or any number of times. Is this why I cannot see things for what they really are? That I can’t unsee what I’ve seen now because my mind accepts intrusive images as some vessel of, what? Of anger? Pain?

Of shame. Of not knowing but maybe questioning that something was off. The shame of really seeing those half-truths, those forced smiles and downturned eyes that hid what was going on behind the red door of my sister’s house. The shame of not seeing what was in front of me, once again, that I had seen before in my other sister with her boyfriend years ago. That I never knew about my father. Shame is a slippery emotion. It stems from feelings of low self-worth and guilt, a delusion we internalize that we are not good enough or somehow deserving of bad things. Shame often evades self-admission, so the one who experiences it, wallows in it without knowing. Somehow the cycle must end. My family tree has been tapped three times; what my father endured, my sisters have also. As we were loading the truck with her belongings, my oldest sister sobbed to anyone within earshot, “This, this stops with my children.”


The fire dies down to a smolder, more smoke than flame. I can’t see through the green Menards buckets hanging from the spiles to see how much the maple has given up of her sustenance to my neighbor. Probably not much at this point. He’ll boil the sap until a fair amount of water is cooked off, then he’ll pour in more collected sap and continue to boil it until the sugar darkens and the bubbles diffuse. He’ll strain it with cheesecloth or wool felt, pour it into mason jars. Perhaps he will share some with me. Perhaps he will keep it all. The female cardinal is still calling out from the pine tree. Yes, yes, yes, little songbird. I see you.

Photo by Madison Greathouse.

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  • What a terrific article! It shows how much domestic violence touches so
    many lives and the guilt that can affect people in some many ways. It brings a flood of memories but also makes one realize that through this, there is a place for enlightenment, entitlement, and a rebirth of sorts with the freedom that can come from removing the toxic abuser. Hopefully all can find strength and peace and encourage others. DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ROES NOT BELONG N ANY PERSON’S LIFE!!

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