Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Under the Sweet Chestnut Tree

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;

So begins H. D. Longfellow's poem 'The Village Blacksmith' one oft-remembered by people of a certain age in the UK as a poem they've learnt in school. While the poem is more about impressing the fact that "at the flaming forge of life/ Our fortunes must be wrought;", for me it ends at the first line itself. For when one begins to contemplate the spreading chestnut-tree neither fortunes nor the flaming forges of life manage to get a look in. The tree with its gnarled, twisted, sinewy trunk, big enough to hold a handful of people, is a world in itself– far-removed and well-beyond our clamour for fortune or our desire for happiness that's dependent on (if not a prisoner to) a certain definition of fortune. Now if only children in school were taught a poem about that.

Alfred Joyce Kilmer rightly observed, "I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree", so lets speak of poems no more. Instead here are two poignant quotes about trees: the first in which the tree is I and the second in which the tree is the other.

"I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet."
— Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar 

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves...

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life... 

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts...

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness." 
Excerpts from Hermann Hesse, Bäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte (Trees: Reflections and Poems)
And here you can join Asha in 'A November Evening Prayer' – a benediction to trees. The tree in the first two photographs is the oldest tree residing in Kew Gardens.

No comments: