In this post, trees! Trees in philosophical musings, trees in songs, trees in books and poems. Trees all around. I guess this post is a forest.
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On December 21st 1962, Thich Nhat Hanh is in New York. It’s brutally cold and the streets are white with snow. His native Vietnam is further away than ever. Outside nothing but bare trees. He looks again, and then, a new perspective opens up:
Tenderness filled my heart. I understood deeply that, like animals, trees are sentient beings that need to prepare for their future. Not so long ago, the same trees offered cool shade to the rows of houses, but now they stood austere and stripped, ready to endure another long winter. Their bony arms printed stark patterns on the gray sky, the same sky that was hidden not so long ago, by their foliage.
When icy winter comes, it is unforgiving to all things young, tender, and insecure. One must grow beyond youthful uncertainty to survive. Maturity and determinations are necessary. Seeing the courageous, solid way that trees prepare for winter helps me appreciate the lessons I’ve learned. Our homeland is about to pass through a devastating storm. The oppressive regime, relying on force to satisfy its greed, has caused too many injustices. Discontent is increasing, driving many people to join the National Liberation Front. The regime’s injustice, oppression, and corruption feed the opposition every day. (…) The storm will break at any moment. We can’t hide our heads in the sand. We must be like the trees. We must dispel all indifference and uncertainty, and be ready to face the storm. We cannot remain attached to our youthful innocence. We must strengthen ourselves for the coming test.
A few things come to mind:
The final lines can be read as a counterpoint to the lines of Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming’:
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Yes, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and yes innocence is drowned. But Hanh flips the last lines: the best must strengthen themselves for this coming test; we must dispel all indifference and uncertainty, and be ready to face the storm - like old sturdy trees at the top of a mountain. We must be like trees.
To be fair to Yeats, in the second part of his poem he does write that ‘Surely some revelation is at hand’ - so hopeless, he was not. I think. Read and see for yourselves - the poem is right here.
When icy winter comes, it is unforgiving to all things young, tender, and insecure.
One could look at one’s life as seasonal: every 21 years counts as one season. First, spring, of course. A glorious 21 year long spring. Starting out as a supple but very tender sprout, slowly building towards a gangly teenager. Then, thank God, summer comes. Again, for some 21 years. More growth, sunnily building towards something resembling an adult. Time then, to come to fruition. You’re 42 and the leaves are beginning to turn, there’s no going back now: it’s autumn. If you’re lucky, it starts with an Indian Summer. Then, finally, the clock strikes 63, and after weathering many storms, you are ready for winter. However, it is no longer unforgiving, for you aren’t young, tender and insecure anymore. At least, that’s the theory. But. You have time. If you’re under 63 that is. Just look at the trees in winter and understand:
One must grow beyond youthful uncertainty to survive. Maturity and determinations are necessary. Seeing the courageous, solid way that trees prepare for winter helps me appreciate the lessons I’ve learned.
Time for an Irish poem:
BY JOYCE KILMER
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast; A tree that looks at God all day, And lifts her leafy arms to pray; A tree that may in Summer wear A nest of robins in her hair; Upon whose bosom snow has lain; Who intimately lives with rain. Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.
Lovely poem! But not quite as lovely as a tree. Let’s look at a lovely (Burmese) tree:
Here is some tree-inspired music.
To finish, read the Overstory by Richard Powers. I thought it was fantastic.
for these final musings
mirror both man and tree with who and which we started.
The man, this time, is Satish Kumar,
the words are from his book ‘no destination’,
written while on a pilgrimage:
(if you want to get to know Satish a bit more, I recorded a podcast with him once, listen here)
Sometimes I came across a tree that seemed like a Buddha or a Jesus: loving, compassionate, still, unambiguous, enlightened, in eternal meditation, giving pleasure to a pilgrim, shade to a cow, berries to a bird, beauty to its surroundings, health to its neighbors, branches for the fire, leaves to the soil, asking nothing in return, in total harmony with the wind and the rain. How much I can learn from a tree! The tree is my church, the tree is my temple, the tree is my mantra, the tree is my poem and my prayer.’