I like trees because they seem more resigned to
the way they have to live than other things do.
Here the oak and silver-breasted birches
Stand in their sweet familiarity
While underground, as in a black mirror,
They have concealed their tangled grievances,
Identical to the branching calm above
But there ensnared, each with the others’ hold
On what gives life to which is brutal enough.
Still, in the air, none tries to keep company
Or change its fortune. They seem to lean
On the light, unconcerned with what the world
Makes of their decencies, and will not show
A jealous purchase on their length of days.
To never having been loved as they wanted
Or deserved, to anyone’s sudden infatuation
Gouged into their sides, to all they are forced
To shelter and to hide, they have resigned themselves.
It is not clear if these trees are ensnared by their branching calm or their tangled grievances. Neither, the poet would suggest. The former ensnarement is focused on agreement and compromise, the latter by conflict. These are also the two ways of dealing with the winds of life and the wounding of others (compromise versus conflict), especially when all those labile aspects of the self are being blown hither and thither: our various twiggy thoughts, and emotional branches; that thick, and mostly unyielding trunk of Ego.
The trees appear to be non-dualistic beings when we see them in their natural habitat, each tree a living part of the whole, but perhaps because they are being experienced through the inherent duality of the human mind (good/bad, right/wrong, lovable/hateful). We see at first a kind of irresolvable duality or duplicity, one which we all are familiar with. This duality is expressed in the poem as the trees “having concealed their tangled grievances, / Identical to the branching calm above”, just as I will often sit with a patient, all branching calm and compliance, but only five minutes before I had readied this branching, calm self to meet them, my entangled grievances were just as alive as theirs are for both of us now.
Money buys silence and compliance. But in every other relationship, this trick doesn’t work. What to do? Maybe we have no other option but to play the game of concealment for and with each other. Maybe its the only way to keep the peace, to get the best out of language, to get the best out of our selves, keeping our connection to “what gives life”, our relationship with the world and the human animals who inhabit it, believing we are in control of our selves and it.
The word duplicity comes from the Latin duplicitas, meaning “doubleness,” which in Medieval times takes on the meaning of “ambiguity” the ambiguity in this case being the bilateral, and so always twofold human mind. We externalise our demeanour through words in order to create a “branching calm” which appears to exist so as to make make ourselves amenable to others as well as ourselves, versus the tangled grievances of our unconscious or semi-conscious roots, which only cause pain. We have the Greeks, as usual, to thank for reminding us that this “state of being double” must perforce emerge as a schism as well as a kind of trick. The Greek version of this doubling is diploos which means, like the Latin, “twofold, double”, but also has a sense which has pushed its way through to the modern English word duplicity, suggesting something “treacherous”, untrustworthy, prone to betrayal. I love you and I will care for your fundamental well-being, as I do for mine, all lovers vow to each other after becoming “ensnared”, to use the words of this poem, “each with the other’s hold on what gives life”.
The brutality of this set-up, which seems a curious word to use after the preceding description of indivisibility, mutuality, and connection, the brutality here presumably refers to the ensnarement as it is played out by Eros or some other kind of energy. Each tree, each life form, the poem suggests, is driven to get what it needs by entering into relationship with another, and when this entanglement becomes personal, as it were, becomes a focus on what you are giving me so that I can flourish, and what I am giving you so that you can flourish, it becomes, as it does for most human relationships, this often becomes a contentious, brutal affair. Most relationships end long before death separates one partner from another. How could it otherwise if you consider all the expectations we bring to our being with others.
A black mirror cannot reflect the self back to itself. Some poems are like this, others offer us their acumen and tree-like meanings. Stand in front of a black mirror, and all you will experience is the feeling of being there in the room, in the self, in a somewhat dull, unfocused way. That slight ache in your chest. The calming familiarity of fingers finding letters on a keyboard without having to direct them. A coolness around the ankles. The toes and soul of each human foot held in a somewhat strained, non-ergonomic way against the steel feet of our swivel chairs.
How might a tree want to be loved? Are trees more lovable than we are? Do they receive more love than we do by dint of being without language and the ways that this language can demand or find fault with another? Their requirements are more simple than ours (space, light, water). What would it feel like to be a tree? I often try and imagine myself as one, I use Rilke’s seeing or feeling into practice with the trees I meet, but I can get no closer to them than J.D. Mclatchy in this poem, who in some way recognises the ways in which we are like trees, but not where it matters, which perhaps could be summarised as our wholly personal, and person-focused concern: concerned with what the world makes of us, of whether we have access to the love or not, concerned with how we perceive others or life itself gouging out bits of us, or branding our being with their concerns. This is the stuff we go to therapy to talk about. Trees don’t have therapists. We seem to be the only creatures on this planet who need them. Why is that?
“Better to be an animal than a man or woman, an insect than an animal, a plant than an insect, and so on,” writes the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, making trees perhaps in this equation, the least conflicted manifestations of the life force, only second to rocks and stones. Why, we might ask, is it better to be a tree than an insect, or an animal, or one of us? To which Cioran responds with just one word: Salvation. Whatever diminishes the kingdom of egoic, self-driven consciousness and compromises its supremacy is a form of salvation, writes Emil. We are saved by becoming more like trees and less like human animals, but what does that even mean for those of us who live in our egoic, partial to this, impartial to that, operating systems.
Be more tree is how we might translate this poem into a simple Instagram meme. Cioran, I see, hasn’t made much of a splash on that platform, his most-liked post accruing only 3,630 finger taps to the screen for the message: “Memories vanish when we want to remember, but fix themselves permanently in the mind when we want to forget.”
Compare that to the 100,000 likes on the same platform for the next meme that comes up in my feed (“I am the Princess of my own fairy tale”), and you can see perhaps why he has failed to gain traction in 21st century social media.
Be more tree, is a good mantra to have to be sure, even if we can’t live up to it. Life teaches us, maybe even requires us to shelter and to hide almost all the aspects of self that present as psychic suffering, those twisted dark roots of our Being. For we are not fit for consumption by othrs, other than as Idealised projections which we take on board as developmental goals. But surely, you might say, a relationship with another human animal shouldn’t have to always follow the ethics of hassle-free consumerism? Indeed. But are we really much more than consumers, in every aspect of our lives? The cardinal feature of this egoic feeding or fueling, being the acquisition and absorption of pleasant or interesting experiences as a means of achieving contentment: the cult of the new; the democratisation of desire (all deserve to be fabulous, and have fairy tale lives); the acquisition of wealth, which in an emotional realm is registered through interpersonal gratification. Phenomenologically, but also in terms of motivational determinants and behaviours, this is how we (mostly) navigate our lives. Maybe it has always been this way. Maybe we have always been consumed by the very forces of life itself, whilst at the same time consuming, the lives of others, either materially or through an emotional channel.
Each of us carries within our selves a template for how we would like to be loved. Often this template is not communicated directly to others, sometimes it is. Often it comes out in the form of requests or suggestions. My last partner valued our relationship on the basis of physical as opposed to emotional acts of service. A headboard for the bed. A meal ready at a certain time. Being left alone when they were upset, even if this required days, or weeks of distance until they were ready to talk again. The word “serve” and “deserve” have an interesting relationship. Do we deserve the ways in which we expect others to serve us?
The word deserve comes from the Latin deservire “to serve well, to serve zealously”. I will serve you in the way you have stated or intuited that you deserve to be served, as long as you serve me in that way too. Is this what we mean by a romantic relationship? But what has this got to do with Love, romantic or otherwise? My love language, which is to say, what I appreciate the most from another, is not “acts of service” but so-called “words of affirmation”, especially if delivered in a way that feels authentic for both of us. In both cases though, the expectation or requirement, and the conflict or dissolution that follows when these expectations aren’t met, surely cannot help but make a mockery of all our human attempts at union with another. When I sit with a couple who are dissatisfied with each other and their relationship, it usually boils down to this. I expected you to serve me in the way I wanted, and in return I would serve you according to your preferences. That was the deal. We both deserve to be served as our egoic chambers require in some way to filled or furnished. Nothing comes of nothing. If you can’t do this, I will find someone in the supermarket of sex-and-love who can meet my needs in the way that these needs de-serve to be met. And so there they sit, in my therapy chambers, ensnared, each with the others’ hold/ On what gives life”, which they refer to as “love” or at least the presentation of it, and all three of us, feeling quite distinctly the brutality of this relationship deal based on an ideal. The display, staging and demonstration of love, which for me looking on, in my role as calm branching therapist, I experience as somewhat transactional, as it no doubt is. But perhaps it is no more brutal and transactional than the trees, and how they support each other. Perhaps they show us, that its not about the tangled roots of our being with each other, but more about maintaining that vision or even illusion if you want, of decency, calm, non-jealousy, and non-attachment that the trees purport to show, at least above ground where everyone can see them.
Today, I vow to myself that I am going to try and be more of a tree, leaning as they do on and into the light rather than on a phone call, or a text, or some attention from another. To lean on the light, is perhaps another way of connecting us to something the human animal might call God. I ask my clients who claim to be theists if they lean on the One they pray to. As we might on a partner or a friend. None of them do, which I find surprising, but maybe not. Because if they did, perhaps they would not need me, or the care and attention I give to their woes. My God-fearing clients lean on religion it would seem, more in the way that we all lean on the social constructs of work and play to provide us with a sense of meaning, but does this give them any access to God, to presence, to nondual awareness, to tree-like self-sufficiency? I can imagine that by reconfiguring their image of God, making their Gods more tree-like, they might be more inclined to seek some of the solace and shelter we are able to access when communing with trees rather than look for it in negotiating their needs with a deity, or another human being. We all might, in leaning on this Tree God, perhaps find ways to resign ourselves, as the trees appear to have in this poem, resigning themselves to inconclusiveness, to injury, and reproach, to lack and loss, and the endemic duplicity of the human heart. But these religious folk are not interested in tree Gods, otherwise they would talk of their faith as a kind of panpsychism rather than from the dualistic perspective of me and mine, thee and thine. Me and my Gods, me and my needs, me and my requirements versus yours.
Can we ever learn to be more like trees, or does there need to be something within a self that already has this capacity, which we can build on? Siddharta Gotama formed a lifestyle, which some might also call a spiritual practice around being a kind of tree: sitting, watching the self (its thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions), all its demands and expectations on us and others; sitting, watching, not getting involved in any of it. Detached. But this is also the Enneagram Five personality style, equally a Type Nine style, and so it is no surprise that almost all spiritual teachers seem to fall in line with these two ways of selfing. It comes naturally to them, we might say, as it comes naturally to the tree, and in this way of being, they are perhaps able to be hybrid in a way that other types cannot: half-human, half-tree is how Fives and Nines sometimes appear, even to themselves. Resigned in a way that other ego formations might wish to be, but struggle to attain. I would like to believe that the self-directed fruits of one’s spiritual or creative practice emerge fundamentally from the groundless substrate of presence and being. I’d like to see it in this way, but my experience of working with hundreds of egoic manifestations, all the clients who have invited me into the cage of Self in which they inhabit, these caged Selves have taught me otherwise. Some of us are trees, and some of us are the beasts who live near these trees, or shelter under them.
How might a tree want to be loved? How might a human want to be loved. I was once walking with someone who stopped in a clearing to admire the way a group of trees were moving against the autumn skyline. “It’s like they’re dancing,” they said, “maybe trying to tell us something.” And for a moment, I saw that indeed they were. What message are they broadcasting in their movements, I asked this half-human/half-tree being? They shrugged, took my hand, as if to say, all we have is this, us trees. I loved the feel of this person’s hand in mine. A hand made for holding. We stood for some time watching that flowing sway and leaf-shimmer in the sunlight before walking on
William Carlos Williams talks somewhere of wishing to draw, or perhaps write “the strange phosphorus of life, nameless under an old misappellation”. Misappelation. A word that sounds like apples, but really means calling one thing by the name of another. Like when we confer usage with care, or inspiration with auto-combustion. Or when we call someone a person (a person in the way that we understand personhood, in other words, our own personhood, our own ego) who is perhaps more like a tree than we can even fathom.
Trees invite us to sit in or under their namelessness, the green phosphorus of the tree, surrounded by impenetrable misappellations. It, this namelessness, lies beyond our science and our arts we might say because its secret is in being and seeing, not in saying. Its greatest value to us then is that it cannot be reproduced, can only be apprehended by another being. All experience of it arrives to us through surrogate and replica, through selected image, gardened words as in a poem, through other eyes and minds, betraying or banishing reality. This is the tree, as well as a poem’s consolation, its message, its own uncompromising world. For it can only really be known and entered by each, and in each now, not by you through me, or me through you, only by you through yourself, or me through myself. This is something we all are trying to learn and respect, about trees as well as each other; the inalienable otherness of each other, each object in the world: human, and non-human. In the deepest of those countless million metaphorical trees for which we cannot see the wood, maybe we find, as in this poem, a kind of justification, or redemption, two synonyms perhaps for resignation and acceptance.
Is there something inherently abject about this state of resignation, which seems to require the trees to shelter and hide from life, to accept a wholly passive response to what has been visited upon them? The poem leaves us with this feeling, I think. Abject, as with everything, is in the eye of beholder, but perhaps a better word for it might be humility. Why would a tree expect to be treated in any other way by the humans that use it for their purposes, not really caring about what the tree wants or needs. Why would we expect to be treated in any other way by the humans who use us for their purposes, putting their wants and needs first and foremost as all humans do.Perhaps this is the resignation which remains largely unmentionable in our positivist developmental space of psychotherapy and self-help. The resignation centred around a reality which is already perfect, in that spiritual sense of the word, meaning that it cannot be other than what it is. Why this refusal to live according to whatever is wholly alive and real in consciousness, rather than with our human preference for superlative experience, for utopias? Why this post-hoc resentment or pushback against the memory of “another’s sudden infatuation / Gouged into our sides”, or “of never having been loved as we wanted / Or deserved”? I have no answer for this, do you?