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Archive for July, 2005

(Note: FOR AN IDENTICAL PRESENTATION WHICH INCLUDES SOME PHOTOS, PLEASE SEE THE FOLLOWING: link )

On trees, deep ecology and poetry

1. Introduction

Most of us, if not all of us, have a particular fondness for and connection to living things. And since each of us is unique, we have greater connections to some living beings over others. This connection is very difficult to articulate. For example, some people have a fondness for dogs; still others for tarantulas. Dali was fond of flies, though most of us aren’t. I myself have always had a particular fondness for trees. I cannot tell you why exactly; I can only say that my adolescence was close to them. I was lucky, I got to know MANY diverse trees. But many other living beings were also close to me, and yet my fondness for trees stands out. This journal tries to articulate this connection.

But, fortunately, I am not the only one. Here at dA many people are fond of trees and flowers. One need only check out the photography category Nature to find thousands upon thousands of photographs being uploaded constantly. And I ask myself, what are all these deviants trying to say? Of course, not all such deviations are artistic, but they DO show that artists and non-artists have a strong and deep connection with the living.

But for some, it is poetry which is THE privileged art that opens this connection with the living more primordially than any other. This journal is also about this connection with poetry, with a poem that tells about our connection to trees. Once, one such poem came to me. It is a poem about trees. I am sorry, I must correct myself. It is a poem about A very unique tree. These are the opening lines of this poem entitled A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds:

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow. ”

(Salvatore Quasimodo; Nobel Prize, 1959.)

Poetry uses such deceptively simple words! I mean, I am sure most of us know each and every single word just read. So much so, that we think we have understood these few lines. But then I wonder, why would Quasimodo receive the NOBEL prize if things are as simple as they appear? Surely there is a mystery brewing here. Perhaps our complex modern lives have made us a bit hasty. We know too much and rarely pause.

Instead, I propose we listen “intently” again to the poem as this peculiar pine listens intently to the abyss. But this is not easy; for I am not sure if our capacity to listen is at its best. How could we listen being surrounded, as we are, by so much noise pollution? How could we listen if we are always talking? Have we forgotten to listen in our hectic age?

But much more importantly, and these are the VERY difficult questions which guide this journal: if indeed we CAN listen to the world of living things —–if we can listen to their Being— what would it mean to be able to listen TO them? I mean something not too complex. I mean, in part, this; the latest I heard, trees just DO NOT speak. Or, more to the point, how exactly can a poem speak for trees in an age in which trees are becoming extinct because of our technological encroachment? How can we humans –specially artists and philosophers— let trees speak? Or, can/should we just shed our technological understanding of the world, an understanding in which trees have lost their symbolic enchantment? How, indeed, to let them speak without Imposing our anthropocentric voice unto them?

This journal attempts to be a very incomplete preparation towards new types of encounters. Mainly, it is shared so that together we can listen more clearly to our fondness for trees and other living beings. But like the twisted pine in Quasimodo’s poem, before getting to the poem itself, we must —unfortunately— make some preparatory twists.

2. A puzzle

The previous questions carry with them a very perplexing puzzle; it is a puzzle which is of particular interest to us modern Westerners for we alone have brought about the demise of a mythological understanding of the universe and the beings which inhabit it. To this we shall return; but for now, how to express better this puzzle which I feel so intensely?

In one of the most beautiful Platonic dialogues –—the Phaedrus, which deals with erotic discourse— Socrates says something altogether puzzling to us moderns. Phaedrus teases Socrates by telling him that he rarely leaves the city of Athens for the countryside. In the countryside Socrates seems to be totally lost. Socrates seems to not be much of a hiker, as we modern city dwellers in our polluted cities have become. To this teasing, Socrates responds:

Forgive me, best of men. For I am a lover of learning (philomathes). Now then, the country places and the trees are not willing to teach me anything, but the human beings in town are. But you ….” (230d; Translated by James H. Nichols; Ithaca, Cornell University, 1998) ” (on the web a lesser translation, see:
[link]

(In this regard see the striking lack of reference by Xenophon’s Memorabilia (Ithaca, Cornell University, 1994) to Socrates’ studies in natural philosophy, a silence which points to the puzzling relation, to say the least, between “natural philosophy” and “political philosophy”.)

Socrates is of the city, rather than of the countryside. What could Socrates be getting at? But, is this true? Don’t we have anything to learn from trees? Isn’t Socrates absolutely wrong here? We might think about this possibility: Socrates just simply did not foresee an age in which the very existence of the Earth would come into play because of the powers we have harnessed as humans caught in our technological grids. Of course, Socrates knew VERY WELL the Greeks could destroy themselves. But for US humans to destroy the Earth, that, I think, was a situation Socrates could not have foreseen.

And yet, might not there be some truth to Socrates’ important point? To see what might be behind his point just consider a very simple question once again: when was the last time you actually spoke to a tree, and it actually answered back? By the same token, recall the opening lines of the poem above. The tree in Quasimodo‘s poem is NOT the tree which I see through my window. I bet you, the tree outside does not actually listen to anything, for it just does not have ears! So after all, it seems, Socrates has a point. Trees cannot teach us much. But, is this true?

It is this ambivalent questioning which moves me to try to listen more carefully to what trees might say to us humans in an age in which trees are continuously fallen and seen as standing reserve ready to be cut, rather than as the wilderness of which we are an integral part. This is why, in contrast to Socrates’ words, I must let you listen to Tolkien’s words. In particular, we listen with deep gratitude to how Pippin tried to describe his encounter with the Ents, the oldest inhabitants of Tolkien’s symbolically rich world:

“One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking, but their surface was sparkling with the present; like sun shimmering on the outer leagues of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know but it felt as if something that grew in the ground –asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.” (BOOK II; ‘Treebeard’, pg. 77)

How could we not learn from such creatures? How could we not wish to become like them? I mean ; “enormous wells with ages of memory of slow thought and a sparkling present as surface”, who does not seek something like this before death arrives? We moderns in particular; how could we not learn from beings whose motto, Tolkien tells us, is “do not be hasty”?

It is the pull of these two views, summed up in the contrasting words of Socrates and Tolkien, that move me to write this journal. I am extremely fond of trees, but I do not want to simply project my fears upon them. If they do indeed have nothing to teach me, I prefer to know.

3. Two understandings of trees; secular biology and sacred wisdom.

To better understand this puzzle, which I myself find difficult to grasp and even to share with you, one can bring to memory certain stories. Think of the role trees play in two very important events in human history. One concerns the origins of Buddhism; the other, the origins of our modern scientific approach.

It is said that Siddhartha, at the age of 29, was forever transformed when he came upon the sight of four very special humans: an old crippled man, a sick man, a decaying corpse, and finally a wandering holy man. The sight of suffering and the search for a meaning to such suffering, became the meaning of his life. Years later, it is said that while sitting in meditation under a bodhi tree Siddhartha reached enlightenment and became a Buddha.

“But, what does all this have to do with trees?,” impatiently you ask. Very much. The Bodhi tree plays a central role in the story; Siddhartha could just as well have been meditating in the shower when he reached Nirvana. Or under an orange tree. But that is not how the story goes. Instead, there is something in trees, specially THIS tree, which brings us closer to certain fundamental and sacred truths about ourselves and the universe. No wonder in Buddhism the bodhi tree is considered to be THE tree of wisdom; it is both sacred and its name literally means “supreme knowledge”. ([link] ) Scientific nomenclature itself has been so struck by this that it calls the tree, using its binomial categorization, ficus religiosa! [link]

(If you come from a Christian background, as many of us do in the West, you might ponder about our very own initial myth, that of the tree of life and the tree of knowledge: “And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 2; 9; For a consideration see Thomas Pangle Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham[link] )

But we modern westerns also have another, very different story about trees. It is the story of Sir Isaac Newton’s tree. ( [link] ) It is said that the apple that hit Newton on the head allowed him to think anew our relation to the universe and its fundamental laws. The privileged realm above in the heavens could now be understood by the very same laws which were applicable to the natural world right here in our Earth. Of course, this might not have happened exactly as the story goes, but the myth has greatly become part of our understanding. And I ask myself, can you sense how different roles the trees play in each of these two very important stories? What Newton discovers is not wisdom in the company of a wise tree, but his universal mathematical understanding over and above any tree. For ALL trees are covered by the laws of gravity. In contrast, in Buddhism, NOT ALL trees are wise trees. Newton and Siddhartha sought the comforting shadow of trees for two VERY different reasons. [link] .

What this story reveals then, if I am right, is that we can no longer safely move without reaching into BOTH stories. Trees, in the West particularly, have definitely lost the strong symbolic powers which once attached to them and linked them directly to the Gods. It would seem that this is simply a loss. But I do not think so. The story of yet another tree may help us to understand the necessity of both discourses. It is the story of the neem tree.

On the one hand, ayurvedic medicine has known for centuries of its multileveled benefits. They are so many that it is actually called the “village pharmacy”. So a pre-scientific understanding has already gained much. But the biological-scientific understanding seems to provide the possibility for this tree ‘s playing a central role in the defense of complex ecosystems themselves:

“Of primary interest to research scientists is its activity as an insecticide. Many of the tree’s secondary metabolites have biological activity, but azadirachtin is considered to be of the most ecological importance. It acts by breaking the insect’s lifecycle. Research has increased in the past few years as the desire for safe pest control methods increases and it becomes apparent that this tree will be able to play a role in integrated pest management systems.“
[link]

It seems, then, that both discourses have MUCH to gain from their interaction. And yet, at the same time, we are overly conscious of the destruction of trees and rainforests in our world. We no longer have the confidence we once had that the solution to our technologically generated dilemmas can be cured by the use of technology itself. We recognize that something has gone wrong with this scientific-instrumental view of nature. We fear, rightly, that it does not have the tools to pull itself out of the dangers it generates.

And the tension of our initial puzzle, which I hope has progressively become clearer, returns. On the one hand it is WE humans who are disrupting the planet and therefore humbly must take into consideration the symbolic relevance of other living beings. But on the other hand, we somehow sense that WE alone have consciousness of the world and know what it would actually mean to SAVE or DESTROY this living world of ours. Perhaps if we try to understand more closely the dangers of instrumental reason we can get clearer still on this difficult puzzle. Here, the aid of some philosophers is much required.

4. Instrumental reason and deep ecology

To see how deep we are into this scientific model of understanding nature, we can do an exercise in memory. Biology courses provide a great example. For, it seems, we moderns take it for granted that the way we classify nature and seek to understand it, is THE primary way of access to the world. A standard biological definition of a tree reads: “A tree can be defined as a large, perennial, woody plant. Though there is no set definition regarding minimum size, the term generally applies to plants at least 6 m (20 ft) high at maturity and, more importantly, having secondary branches supported on a single main stem or trunk.” [link]

That we do not feel any uneasiness at this view of trees, should indeed make us a bit uneasy. This understanding of trees is quite unique and problematic. Don’t you see something odd here? First of all, it is indeed odd to even try to define trees. Of course, biology requires it. But, is this mode of access the PRIMARY access to trees we must adopt? What this model emphasizes is not without problems. We classify, categorize, measure and analyze. Don’t you feel you are objectively being told what a tree is, as if the tree were being observed from above, rather than the tree being a participant in a complex ecosystem? And such definitions usually continue by telling us what we westerners seem to love, they proceed to speak of superlatives. We are immediately told about the tallest, the widest, the oldest, constantly seeking in reality what we can quantify analytically. However, as for the height of trees, it is interesting that we are told: “the heights of the tallest trees in the world have been the subject of considerable dispute and much (often wild) exaggeration.”. Trees serve our purposes for recognition by others; we want to have the tallest tree near US, so we can stand out much taller than we actually are.

But how to quantify what for others is the sacredness of certain trees? The Bodhi tree does not seem to stand so much physically apart from all other trees as it does spiritually. To have been the one tree under which marvelous events occurred, what more could a tree wish for? A more comprehensive, a deeper, understanding of trees is required. Trees must be allowed a voice beyond their classification. Poetry, as we shall see, is such a possibility.

Many philosophers have likewise pointed out how strange this view of reason is; primarily because it begins its processing by severing our access to the world of living things. For it to work accurately and cleanly, it must begin by separating us form the world. This is a non-starter for many of us. This strangeness can be revealed as well in our modern maps. This type of reason is known in philosophical circles as “instrumental reason”: It has a complex history of its own connected to the rise of the new science defended by Bacon and Descartes. Among other things, when one speaks of instrumental rationality the idea is that we consider the means without thinking reflexively about the ends to which this means might lead us. Production must keep increasing even if there will in the end be nothing to produce with. We seem caught in this self-destructive dynamic. Underpinning this view of the world is the preponderance of a cost-benefit analysis and in general a utilitarian outlook to ourselves, others and nature. Taylor sums up the issue quite well:

“Instrumental reason has grown along with a disengaged model of the human subject, which has a great hold on our imagination. It offers an ideal picture of human thinking that has disengaged from its messy embedding in our bodily constitution, our dialogical situation, our emotions and our traditional forms of life in order to be pure, self-verifying rationality. This is one of the most prestigious forms of reason in our culture.“ (“The Ethics of Authenticity”, a MUST read for ANY artist, pg. 102)

Disengaging ourselves from trees, easily we topple them. We might say to ourselves: “They cannot engage in dialogue; so much the worse for them.”

To this position the Romantics, among many, revolted. They pointed out the dangers of this separation between humans and their natural world. Art became a way to bridge the disconnected parts which conformed a mechanical view of the universe. To make a very long story short, what has come out of such critiques is what is known as a stance called “Deep ecology”. This position stems from a reconsideration of what language reveals about ourselves and the world we inhabit. Under it, living things place a demand on us humans which moves us beyond our anthropocentrism into a view in which we “let things be”. In an article entitled “Heidegger, Buddhism and deep ecology”, Michael Zimmerman writes:

“Buddhism, Heidegger and Naess argue that puncturing the illusion of permanent selfhood would alleviate the infliction of such suffering by freeing one from the illusory quest for total control. Being liberated from the illusion of egocentrism also frees one from the spontaneous compassion towards other beings human and non-human alike. One ´lets things be´ not for any external goal, but instead simply from a profound sense of identification with all things” (pg 263-264)

It is not by chance that it is Buddhism which leads the way here. Siddhartha knew much about trees, or so it seems. Now, this perspective in itself is not without problems, but it stands as a powerful critique of the anthropocentric view which sees humans as dominators of nature, rather than as one of the highest expressive possibilities of the natural.

Deep ecology reconsiders seriously the role language plays in our relation to the world. Instead of using language to classify the world, words become the way to disclose things and allow them a voice beyond our own. Having language center exclusively on humans likewise makes it impossible to hear subtler languages which open humans to realities beyond their own anthropocentric paradigm. Our initial puzzle seems to have found a possible response. Although it is WE humans who have language, it is by changing the way we understand language, that we can hear the voice of the living things to which we belong. Something like this is what Taylor is trying to get at with the use of the term “epiphany”:
“what I want to capture with this term is just the notion of a work of art as the locus of a manifestation which brings us into the presence of something which is otherwise inaccessible, and which is of the highest moral or spiritual significance; a manifestation, moreover, which also defines or completes something, even as it reveals” (SotS pg 419)

Art in particular provides the human possibility in which epiphany can be realized. Perhaps now we are more prepared to listen to Quasimodo’s poem about a very unique tree.

5. A poem about a unique tree: “A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds”

Do forgive so many twists and turns. Now, finally, to Quasimodo’s complete poem. A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds, reads:

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.

A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.

Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”

Let’s listen to it a stanza at a time. We must remain open to see what poetry can reveal and transform as it reveals. It reveals complexities, even if made up of the simplest of words. As few other arts can, it reaches origins.
.
First Stanza

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.”

The poem opens by distancing us from what appears is its main character. High on a cliff, far away, one sees a tree. But this tree is not just any tree. It could have been a maple, or a eucalyptus. But no. It is a pine. “Why a pine?,” you might ask. Only later shall we see. We must be patient and not skip the lines of the poem. We must not be hasty as Tolkien’s trees remind us. But then we puzzle a bit. This pine is no ordinary pine; it is instead, twisted. But tell me: have you ever seen a twisted pine? Aren’t pines the straightest of trees? Why does Quasimodo do this?

Perhaps that this special pine is twisted tells us something. It is a pine which has undergone a transformation. Its nature is no longer what other trees of its species take for granted. It has mutated. It stands out. And we imagine all other pines blushing somewhat at the sight of such abnormality. In contrast, Siddhartha would not have mocked this tree. .

Having described the tree and its location, we are now told what it actually DOES. Trees aren’t really the most active of creatures. But this tree is special. It is a listening tree. It listens with its twisted trunk. How does it listen? This tree listen INTENTLY. It is an intense twisted tree. What does it listen to? It listens to the abyss. It listen to the depths; to the depths of time and the darkness of origins.

And through the magic of words Quasimodo suddenly transports us from the distance on the high cliff afar, to a certain closeness to this tree. We are moved , with a few words, to focus on the shape of its trunk. The tree trunk provides the solidity of a tree’s very existence. Just remember the biological definition of trees. It is the trunk which holds the branches, not the other way around. Surely a tree without a trunk is like a person without a spinal chord. And this tree’s trunk has a special form; that of a crossbow. And we puzzle at Quasimodo’s choice of words. A crossbow for what? This pine intently listening is both a pine and a crossbow. Now we suddenly understand why it MUST be a pine. For a pine has the form of an arrow. This pine listening intently projects itself ready for flight as an arrow thrown from its very own being towards itself. But how can this be so? Have you ever seen a tree move? How can it move while remaining in its place? Trees seem to have a certain magic to them.

Second Stanza

“A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.’

Quasimodo gives us pause to rethink what has happened. And while we do so, we return only to suffer a move towards the inside. This fantastic tree, shunned by other trees in their upright existence —–which does not mean this tree is not itself upright, only that it is so in a very different way— has a peculiar function. It is the tree chosen by the surrounding birds. It is a refuge for life. Bent, it can carry the birds which upright trees might not. These winged friends flock to it at night, when the light of day is gone and great perils arise. Waiting in time, probably remembering its own rings, suddenly this tree resounds in the darkest of moments. And we look carefully at Quasimodo’s choices upon the many which opened before him while writing. This tree “resounds”. Why not simply say that this tree “sounds”? Why emphasize that it RE-sounds. Perhaps because this tree has sounded before, and will sound again at midnight as long at it lives and there are humans to tell the story. Other trees seem soundless in comparison.

It resounds at a specific time; at the time in which much of night has gone by, and still much of night is still to come. One needs strength to survive until midnight and great hope to survive afterwards. For dusk is long past, and dawn is far away. How can we be sure dawn will in fact arrive? This tree has no songs of its own, though its rings have the memory of countless singing inhabitants it has outlasted. This unique tree resounds with the fluttering of wings. Swiftly the birds ——who take refuge in it as a home—– give it motion and musicality. Instead of simply lying asleep within the tree, they keep it close company. It is as if the birds —-in gratitude towards this special tree— want to take the crossbow which this twisted tree is, directly into flight. Unable to fly, this tree is now prepared, because of the presence of fluttering birds, to fly. For we are truly grateful to refuges; particularly to those refuges which took us in the midnight hours of our lives. Specially those refuges who gave us shelter based on the DIFFICULT maturity of true generosity. Grateful as Siddhartha must have been before he became another; a much better other.

Third Stanza

“Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”

And we catch our breath for we are heading towards the end. We began far way, only to enter into the very branches which hold these birds within. But now, suddenly, WE appear to ourselves for the very first time. The twisted tree OUT there in the cliff, the birds OUT there in the twisted tree, becomes the tree IN which WE live. We are not the tree, but we are close. Have you ever been close to a tree? Quasimodo tells us that even our hearts have a nest here. But we KNOW we are not birds If you have doubts, try to fly into the abyss. And yet, a bit like birds, we create our nests from the twigs and small branches of our lives. Furthermore, for Quasimodo the nest is not primarily for our brains, or legs; though it is ALSO nest for them. It is primarily a refuge for our hearts. This twisted tree is a refuge for artists who value our emotional human existence as a privileged way of accessing the world which surrounds us in constant immediacy.

Quasimodo is grateful as well; even HIS heart has a nest. This is why he shares this poem with us. He does not simply want a nest for himself, but rather a nest for US. But this nest, we are told, lies suspended. It lacks a firm grounding which guarantees total safety. Total and firm grounding is not a possibility for us moderns, as it was possible for earlier times. Our access to nature as moderns cannot have the grounding we once knew in earlier mythologies which allowed for a direct connection between trees and gods. We know of science and its understanding. This is why our nest lies suspended in the darkness. .A strong and compassionate refuge is required precisely in such times. It is in darkness that the generosity of shelter becomes a gift. Suspended in the darkness and close to the abyss, Quasimodo’s poem allows us to reconsider ourselves and our relation to the world of trees.

And then the MOST puzzling aspect of the poem appears as a lightning bolt. Quasimodo briefly adds “and a voice”. Not the tree’s voice. Not the birds’ voices. Not Quasimodo’s voice, for he could just as well have said “my” voice. And yet it is A voice. This voice does not have the presumptions of possession, but rather discloses, in the darkness, the possibility itself of a language in which things are freed unto themselves for us to hear them. And what does it say? Nothing; for our human voice may perhaps have said too much. Instead, it is open to the difficult activity of listening beyond our own speech. This voice is open to the disclosure of nature in the very words of the poem we are reading together.

In contrast to so many voices, this voice lies speechless; it awaits the time to speak, to open itself in renewed speech. It listens, as once the twisted tree we knew at the beginning of the poem did. Awakened, it has allowed this tree access to language. Our consciousness –liberated from pure instrumentality – becomes itself a crossbow which projects the tree as an arrow into the abyss. This voice, the voice of the poem itself, resounds ever again as we feel the pull to return to the beginning, to its origin. Perhaps in it, awake at night, we might feel the echoes of a faint refuge for us humans, specially of us artists. Instrumentality has seen the possibility of a depth beyond its dangerous limitations.

6. Conclusion

This has been, once again, a long journey. I am grateful if you have been a refuge to my weak words. Perhaps now we are more prepared to listen for calls which we might otherwise miss. Perhaps at least this call must be heard; the tree of life must be heard before we continue climbing up the tree of knowledge. For it seems we know much, but live well little. Perhaps together we are now better prepared to listen to Quasimodo’s deceptively simple words. Let’s listen intently:

A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.

A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.

Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”

(RIFUGIO D’UCCELLI NOTTURNI

In alto c’è un pino distorto;
sta intento ed ascolta l’abisso
col fusto piegato a balestra.

Rifugio d’uccelli notturni,
nell’ora più alta risuona
d’un battere d’ali veloce.

Ha pure un suo nido il mio cuore
Sospeso nel buio, una voce;
sta pure in ascolto, la notte
. link )


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