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“If a tree is man’s life …”


“If a tree is man’s life (Deuteronomy 20.19) what is the nature of a tree? Not in and of itself, but from the human perspective.

“Through history and the changing imperatives of human societies, there have been many modes of viewing trees. ‘Hence, If a tree is man’s life …’ The perspective of time and social evolution changes the view; it did so in the past, and no doubt will do so in the future.

Tree-man's-life. Humans' changing perception of trees.

Photo: instagram @veeterzy. Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license

“It is easier to review the record in the New World than the Old. The human time-scale, in so far as it deals with superstition and exploitation, is compressed in the Americas into recent, and recorded, history.

“Michael Pollan, contemplating the ages of his New England farm at Cornwall, Connecticut, numbers several evolving stages in the human perception of trees.[1]

If a tree is man’s life

“First came North America’s aboriginal people, regular hunters in the forest that would become Cornwall. They took nothing but game, and left nothing behind but their trails. For the Indian, a tree was endowed with a soul, with senses; more than that, it had feelings as vital as those of any animal creature. That view of Nature is common to Animist peoples in all of the ages of man. We heard this voice before, in the essay supporting Verse 1: “God, or Manitou, might speak as clearly from a rock, a hill, a burning bush, or the freshly-killed carcass of a hunter’s caribou.” Suffice to say that the “Indian tree,” whether in Connecticut or Costa Rica, has sentient life, and its gatherings, its forests, are as thickly peopled by the spirits and ghosts of Animated Nature as any realm of the animal kingdom.

“For which reason it had to die. In Pollan’s progression, the Indian tree and its forests were followed by a Christian one, specifically, in New England, the “Puritan tree.” To these worthy folk, the Puritan tree in its forested vastness represented not the Promised Land per se, but the promise of it. For Puritans, as Pollan quotes them, the New World forest was “a hideous wilderness,” “wild and uncouth,” a “dismal thicket” where a body was liable to injury, ambush, death, or, what was worse, a falling away from Christ. To fell one tree, to fell an acre or to clear a township in the dark woods was a noble, Christian act.

“Though later colonists acted upon secular, commercial principles to clear the wilderness, the impact was the same. Throughout the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, the “Colonial tree” is either a commodity, providing barns, masts and barrel staves, or it is a nuisance, to be ripped out and cleared. If deforestation defined godliness for Puritans, to later colonists it represented progress, nay, a commercial imperative. Pollan records that when the land that is Cornwall was auctioned for settlement in 1738, the stipulation was that each settler must clear six acres or forfeit the title.

A shock of reaction

“The nineteenth century saw the first shock of reaction against the manifest horrors of the Industrial Revolution and its “dark satanic mills.” Romantics on both sides of the Atlantic rediscovered Nature, and redefined the tree. The “Romantic tree” has gone full circle, described by Emerson in English as it was surely thought of many ages before, in countless Aboriginal tongues: “In the woods, we return to faith and reason.”

The Angel Oak, Johns Island, South Carolina. Image: Poi Gallery.

The Angel Oak, Johns Island, South Carolina. Image: Poi Gallery.

“The Romantic tree”

“The Romantic tree is more than ever with us, given a new urgency as the totem of our time, the symbol of mankind’s treatment of the ecosystem. This symbolism is fiercely contested by commercial interests for whom trees remain a free good, to be exploited. The Colonial tree, you recall, was a nuisance, impeding agriculture. That role persists, in reckless clearance by cattle-barons and landless peasants alike. In other parts of the world the inexorable march of clear-cut forestry neither knows nor seeks justification. Its imperative, and the vested interest of its workers, is commercial exploitation pure and simple, and that is deemed motive enough.

“Pollan reminds us that our present debate over the role of “Tree” in the community of beings is not new; it was taking place in North America a century and more gone by. Only the voices and the stakes are higher. Should our generation celebrate, as Walt Whitman did in “The Song of the Broad-Axe,” the achievement of loggers and frontiersmen? Or will we elect to fall in behind Henry David Thoreau, writing an ode to a pine tree felled by a logger’s axe?

” ‘A plant which it has taken two centuries to perfect, rising by slow stages into the heavens, had this afternoon ceased to exist… Why does not the village bell sound a knell?’

“One of these points of view will prevail to determine the future for more than mankind. In all likelihood the planet itself awaits the result.”

• • •

Endnote [1] Putting Down Roots, by Michael Pollan, The New York Times Magazine, May 6 1990

Photo credit: instagram @veeterzy. Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license

‘If a Tree is Man’s Life’ comes from Let there be Life, © Robert Fripp, published by the HiddenSpring Imprint of The Paulist Press in 2001. The original edition was published in the U.K. as The Becoming, the author’s preferred title, John Hunt Publishing, 1998.

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