The tree in this picture fell in the Tennessee forest at some point. The magnitude might not be apparent in the photo, but the tree is huge, and fell a great depth into the ravine. The photo, seemingly so peaceful, is really a representative after-image of what must have been a dramatic event.
But was it a dramatic event? The air-vibrations from rending wood, and the impact of massive objectivity hitting the earth, were quickly absorbed within the forest. I doubt any one was there. (Animal life might count, but will be ignored for the moment.) But even before absorption, it was simply vibrations, in themselves having no significance. The charm of the Lonely Tree example is that once we imagine a tree falling, we cannot avoid imagining its sound, thus negating the idea that no one is there to hear it.
The 18th Century philosopher George Berkeley is probably the best resource here. As an empiricist, he believed that we are only justified in claiming to know things if they are derived from sense experience. And since our sense experience has an unavoidable specificity, different from person to person, perspective to perspective, etc., it is impossible to make objective claims about things in the world. For example, I saw this Tennessee tree as very large. You are seeing a small image of it now, and even if you were seeing it with me on the same hike, you would be seeing it from a different place. It would be a different size to you, and since it is a contradiction to say that a tree is both large and not large, the size of a tree cannot be in the tree itself. The same goes, according to Berkeley, about all of our perceptions.
The Bishop Berkeley's Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous is hack literature, but good philosophy. He takes us through what amounts to a conversion experience for the character Hylas. Berkeley's ultimate point is that, to start from the premise of empiricism is to end up with the conclusion that God exists. This is not, as some might believe, just an extraneous assertion by a preacher, but rather the reasonable inference of a philosopher.
I confess to having a mild disdain for those who say that they find God in the forest, or within other places where there are surrounded by non-human nature. This seems to me kind of non-social, or even misanthropic. I have quipped that, on the contrary, I find God in awkward church potlucks, where I am challenged, for example, to find the inherent goodness of other people -- in all of their goody-goody, down-home, meat-saturated, plastic-fork essence.
But I think I have found a way of finding God in the forest. Berkeley's belief is that there must be a God that keeps everything in 'objective' existence through an omnipresent subjectivity. We live and breath and have our being in God. When the tree fell in the forest, it had to be an event with some significance. It had to have been at least a little awkward. It could not have been just a vibration of air, and neither could all of the conversations I've had in my life -- many gone and forgotten as quickly as a tree-crash in the forest -- could have been just the movement of vocal chords.
-- Tadd Ruetenik