Talking about Trees in “Dark Times”. Re-Reading Brecht and Rich

One more war makes all the difference, yet, I am not going to write about war or Ukraine or Russia or how many more wars there are. I am still going to write about trees. How can I? How can I talk about trees when the world is burning, when bombs are falling on people, when thousands are forced to flee their homes and try to get where you are, sitting in safety, writing about trees?

What times are these, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it entails a silence about so many misdeeds!

Quoting Brecht has become a cliché and still, it is the reference that came to my head immediately when Russia invaded Ukraine and war came so painfully close to my home. I am saying “I” and “my”, because I do not possess and I don’t want to assume the ability to universalize my thoughts. But I do want to connect them to trees and, yes, that means I am reassuring myself what I am doing, writing about trees “in dark times”. This is not an analysis or an interpretation, this is me finding my way to trees through texts, this is what I do, this is the only way I know how.

I don’t want this to be another postcard or a meme with an inspirational quote on it. But I also don’t want this to be an academic text either. This is personal and so is my work. So I invite you to read with me.

To those born after

by Bertolt Brecht (1939)

Truly, I live in dark times!

A trusting word is folly. A smooth brow
A sign of insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet heard
The terrifying news

What times are these, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it entails a silence about so many misdeeds!
That man calmly crossing the street
Is he not beyond the reach of his friends
Who are in need?

It is true: I still earn a living
But believe me: that is just good fortune. Nothing
That I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
By chance I am spared. (If my luck runs out
I am lost.)

They say to me: eat and drink! Be glad that you have the means!
But how can I eat and drink when
It is from the starving that I wrest my food and
My glass of water is snatched from the thirsty
Yet I do eat and I drink.

I would like to be wise
In ancient books it says what it means to be wise:
To hold yourself above the strife of the wolrd and to live out
That brief compass without fear
And to make your way without violence
To repay evil with good
Not to fulfil your desires, but to forget them
Such things are accounted wise.
But all of this I cannot do:
Truly I live in dark times!

This is the first of three parts of a poem in which the tree verse is only a tiny part in a much larger attempt to address “those born after”. The German “Nachgeborenen” is a peculiar word that is not really in use (at least to my knowledge) but immediately produces a temporal relationship which you cannot escape. For this first part to be set in the present of the lyrical I generates some friction with the title addressing future beings. It creates a feeling of witnessing someone experiencing the very things they talk about, thus, a feeling of immediacy that has the potential to hurt. And it should. While the second part reflects on the lyrical I’s own involvement in “the dark times” in the (injust) fight for justice and the third ends in a plea to look with forbearance (Nachsicht) on those who succumbed to meanness and hatred in the very attempt “to prepare the land for friendliness”, this first part could as well say “you” where it says “I”. At least, that is what it sounds like to me.

I have read this poem often and wondered about it – there are answers to it and myriads of interpretations – because it neither excuses nor accuses itself or its reader of ignorance, but it complicates the relationship between presence and past by pulling the latter so much closer.

I don’t live in dark times, I want to reply – the sun is shining, the buds on the branches of the tree in front of my window are almost bursting into leaf and bloom, I am warm and sheltered, my family and I are healthy and can expect help should we not be – but I live in dark times, because people around me are dying of a disease that we are close to forgetting, the leafs on the trees are too early because of a warming climate and the warmth I enjoy in my home and my office comes from fossil fuels that finance a war, right now (and they have financed war and injustice for too long) – “Yet I do eat and drink” and I enjoy sunshine and birthday cake and playing with my kid. 

It feels presumptuous to even compare “my” dark times to Brecht’s or, for that matter, to those who have to flee, who starve, who don’t know what tomorrow look like. So, am I the “man calmly crossing the street”? Probably, but so is the I in this poem. Again, there is no excuse, no accusation, but many question marks. So what about the conversation about trees? 

Sure, I am practiced enough in what I do, to connect to the thread that I have laid out in the last paragraph – the tree buds, the gas, global heating – to a by now equally familiar argument, that it would be just as criminal NOT to talk about trees. Look at what is happening to them – where the forests aren’t outright burning, trees are in peril of pests and drought, dangers with which they would be able to deal, would we not continue to burn fossilized beings on an almost unimaginable scale. But how on earth can you even make such an argument? Can you really weigh humans against trees? I’m not going into the moral argument here. I am not a deep ecologist. Instead, I not only “eat and I drink”, I heat my home and I enjoy the pleasures of fossil fuelled life. So why talk about trees if that makes you look even worse? Is it a case of “virtue signalling” (a problematic concept in itself), that is, plain hypocrisy – me filling my blog with thoughts about difficulty that is virtually non-existent? While I hope not, I am not sure. And I shouldn’t be. 

Where I look for answers, or more precisely, for a language to even approximate the feelings of loss and lostness and their blatant a-synchronicity with my daily life, is literature. Poems especially, because they intensify the contradictions without necessarily offering an escape. Sure, there is escapist reading (and I want to stress that I do think that this is an absolutely legitimate form of engaging with text and not with the world for a while), but this is not ,I think, what “a conversation about trees” means. Again, it’s tempting and almost easy, now, to dwell on the “almost” in “almost a crime”, in order to defend conversations about trees. They don’t need defending, though. Because it’s not about the conversations or about the trees. It’s about the ways in which we judge them, conversations and trees and the people clinging to both.

So don’t be mean to people talking about trees, even now? Or don’t stop talking about trees, because they are still in peril? And it’s all connected? I really don’t know which of these things I want to suggest or ask or get on with. All of them, none of them. I don’t know.

To have you listen at all

If talking about trees means you are turning away from the world of humans and human suffering, it would, indeed, be hurtful. There are many claims that most people’s new found (or old) fondness of trees is nothing but puppy love. A caring for nonhumans that masks the carelessness with which we treat other humans. Gerbrand Bakker, for example, accuses forester Peter Wohlleben of fostering just this kind of infatuation and, thus, of diverting attention from the historic and present plight of humans by confusing them with trees. To me, this sounds a lot like what Michael Rothberg calls “competing memory” (2009). That is, the fight for a place in “collective memory” as if it were a case of “real-estate-development” with space for only one kind of attention, only one line of remembrance and, taking it further, only one species deserving of care. 

Put like this, it sounds even more ridiculous to me and, as Leila Essa has shown in her wonderful essay, this kind of thinking leads to even more exclusion (even where it means well). If we treat attention and memory, both forms of care, like scarce resources, we are engaging in a hypocrisy that is even worse than caring for trees instead of humans: after all, our collective track record of saving scarce resources is, to put it mildly, not great. Claiming that there is not enough attention or capacity to remember seems, at least in tendency, like a very convenient excuse.

Yet, it happens. You can turn to trees to turn away from humans. Sometimes you must, but sometimes that hurts trees as much as it neglects humans. In a sort of Midas-effect, everything we turn our attention to, turns to metaphor and symbol, if not to gold as in the myth of king Midas’s eternal punishment. There we go – that makes talking about trees even worse and poetry…no! Because these kinds of conversations, the poetic type that is, know how to grow metaphorical language into something that is both real and not, both about trees and about humans, both eating and not ignoring the hunger of others. 

What Kind of Times are These

by Adrienne Rich (1991)

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

The first time I read it, it seemed to me, Adrienne Rich was providing me with an optimistic call for attention to trees. We do have to talk about trees! People will listen, when we talk about trees! She (or the lyrical I) clearly loves them and the mushrooms with whom the trees grow, as did Brecht by the way. But this is not a poem about the love for trees. At least I am not sure it is (only) about that. There is so much silence entailed in that poem, it almost bursts at the seams. The sadness of that last stanza…”why do I tell you/ anything?” Because you might not listen to me, if I were talking about anything else. Because maybe there is a kernel of truth to the suspicion that we talk about trees to avoid other conversations. 

We can’t. A conversation about trees does, indeed, “entail a silence about so many misdeeds!” But it is getting harder to look past this fact. The silence might be all that is left if we do. So, “to have you listen at all, it’s necessary/ to talk about trees.” This need not be a purely sad statement. If trees retain the ability to make people listen that is a good thing. I am convinced of it. So turning to trees might mean turning away for a moment – but not for longer. The challenge lies in being happy (tree buds, spring!) and aware (global warming, war), in not letting the one outshine the other. We need to the silence to care for the unheard, one might say, if that didn’t sound too much like another damn inspirational quote. So, with the trees, I am heartbroken, yet, I try not to turn away for too long. They can’t and so can’t many humans right now.

This has no conclusion.


Brecht’s poem: To those born after, An die Nachgeborenen first published in Svendborger Gedichte (1939) in: Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4, pp. 722-25 (1967), here: The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht, translated and edited by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine. W.W. Norton 2019, pp. 734-736. Another translation as well as the German original in full can be found here.

Adrienne Rich, “What Kind of Times are These” from Collected Poems: 1950-2012, W.W. Norton 2018, p. 291. (The Dark Fields of the Republic 1991-1992).

Sitting on/like a Tree (Part II)

(To read part one, go to: Sitting like/on a Tree (Part I))

The Baron in the Trees 

Rory is in good company, many fictional and non-fictional humans seek refuge on and under trees. It is a special kind of refuge, though. Tree-sitters not necessarily seek shelter from rain and cold, persecution or outside threads, but one that creates space to think and to learn. Even if the interaction between the human who escapes an all-too human world to learn, study and think, and the tree isn’t reciprocal at first glance, I insist that trees cooperate in the endeavor. The question is: how and to what end? Can they “do” more than providing the support Rory Gilmore values so much? Isn’t it painfully obvious that trees are the victims of human ratio? Would they want to assist in actions that help wiping out even more of them?

Il Barone Rampante by Italo Calvino (Cover of the 1957 edition)

One of Rory Gilmore’s literary siblings, Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, the protagonist of Italo Calvino’s novel Baron in the Tree (Il Barone Rampante, 1957), radicalizes her notion of the study tree. Instead of sitting under the tree, that is, positioned firmly on the ground, Cosimo chooses the crowns of trees to position himself and think. While Rory sits on tree roots, shaded by the branches and leaves and thus not only remains visible, but does not leave the domain of humans, Cosimo moves a story up. He does so literally, by moving into the tree-tops and he does so figuratively by removing himself from the company and expectations of his family. He not only adds a layer to a story, he makes it worth telling a story at all. Climbing a tree and refusing to come down is indeed a radicalization in comparison to Rory’s claim to her study tree. In fact, Cosimo begins a new kind of thinking through his arboreal lifestyle.

One Story Up

What’s especially striking about Cosimo (and further connects him to Rory) is that he doesn’t really change for the trees. There is no planning, no thinking ahead or adjusting to tree life. Maybe because he is a teenager and uses his (last) opportunity to refuse the path that was chosen for him. 

Shortly afterward, through the windows, we saw him climbing up the holm oak. He was dressed and coiffed with great propriety, as our father wanted him to come to the table, though he was only twelve: hair powdered and ponytail tied with a ribbon, three-cornered hat, lace tie, green tailcoat, tight mauve trousers, sword, and long white leather gaiters that came to midthigh, the only concession to a way of dressing more suited to our country life. (I, being only eight, was exempted from the powder in my hair, except on gala occasions, and from the sword, which, however, I would have liked to carry.) So he climbed up into the gnarled tree, arms and legs moving through the branches with the assurance and speed gained from the long practice we’d done together.

Calvino, Italo (2019). The Baron in the Trees (Vintage Classics) . Random House. Kindle-Version.

Cosimo leaves the dinner table in a rebellious act (he disobeys his Father’s orders to eat his snails). Running off and climbing a tree might not be too outrageous for a teenager, even though slamming a door might be the more familiar option – but his refusal to come down that makes him different. Cosimo remains in a strange stage between the cultivated and the wild. He is obviously able to climb and stay in the trees, but he still bears the signs of a gentleman. The clothes – though ragged at later points – his tastes and communication style allow him to literally move between the worlds. He corresponds with Enlightenment scholars, designs his own treatises, converses about social contracts and communitarian ways of life (when he meets a group of refugees also living in trees) and, later on, manages his estate. He also joins a group of outlaws (never leaving his trees) and only towards the end of his life does he figure out that he can live more “comfortably” and has cushions and good food brought up to him. Although he succeeds at his goal to never set foot on the ground, he lives a life that is neither that of a hermit nor that of someone who is part of a (human) community. Even his community with the trees – and this is where this novel becomes important to my research – remains somewhat estranged. 

Vantage Point

Cosimos middle ground – not quite on the ground but also not quite above it all – allows him and the reader through him to take a different look at an important historical period. His position is in a way the embodied version of that of the Enlightenment scholars he corresponds with (and becomes part of). Not the ‘’objective’ Appolo’s Gaze (Denis Cosgrove) of someone looking down on earth from space, but a partially connected mid-distance that allows some participation. In the words of the narrator, Cosimo’s brother, the world becomes “an entertainment” to Cosimo:

COSIMO WAS IN the oak. The branches were waving, high bridges over the earth. A light wind was blowing; it was sunny. The sun shone among the leaves, and to see Cosimo we had to shield our eyes with our hands. Cosimo looked at the world from the tree: everything was different seen from up there, and that was already an entertainment. The avenue had a completely different prospect, as did the flower beds, the hydrangeas, the camellias, the small iron table where one could have coffee in the garden. Farther on, the foliage thinned out and the vegetable garden sloped down in small terraced fields supported by stone walls; the low hill was dark with olive groves, and behind, the built-up area of Ombrosa raised its roofs of faded brick and slate, and ships’ flags peeked out from the port below. In the background the sea extended, high on the horizon, and a slow sailboat passed by.

Calvino, Italo (2019). The Baron in the Trees (Vintage Classics) . Random House. Kindle-Version.

That is not least the vantage point of someone narrating the world or, like Cosimo, becoming the means or medium through which to narrate the world one is part of. Italo Calvino wouldn’t be Italo Calvino wouldn’t the Baron in the Trees be a meta-fictional text. But it’s not Cosimo who narrates or writes the world around, or rather, below him. It’s his brother who visits him in the trees but is mostly confined to imagining what it must be like to live like him. There is no authenticity-claim to his narrative. All the glory of being directly connected to the tree belongs to Cosimo. And yet, it is the narrator who thinks through trees as he does through his brother. 

Tree Texts

Meta fictionality – that is, the ways in which fictional texts design or envision how fictional texts work – and tree thinking combine to create a strangely beautiful set in this novel. It is a text about writing and even though the trees do not talk or move or do any of the exciting things they do in Richard Power’s overstory (which will feature in one of the next posts) or in Suzanne Simard’s Wood Wide Web, they do play a crucial role. With Cosimo withering away (rather spectacularly, but I don’t want to spoil the whole novel for you) the trees seem unable to resist the rationalized spirit of the 19th century. Himself an old man by now, the narrator reflects on the disappearance of the trees and, once again, bears witness to an almost magical act:

Every so often as I write I break off and go to the window. The sky is empty, and to us old people of Ombrosa, habituated to living under those green domes, it hurts the eyes to look at it. One would say that the trees didn’t bear up after my brother left, or that men were seized by the fury of the ax. […] That ornamentation of branches and leaves, forks, lobes, feathers, minute and without end, and the sky appearing only in irregular flashes and cutouts, maybe existed only because my brother passed there with the light step of a long-tailed tit, was an embroidery, made on nothing, that resembles this thread of ink, as I’ve let it run for pages and pages, full of erasures, of references, of nervous blots, of stains, of gaps, that at times crumbles into large pale grains, at times thickens into tiny marks resembling dotlike seeds, now twists on itself, now forks, now links knots of sentences with edges of leaves or clouds, and then stumbles, and then resumes twisting, and runs and runs and unrolls and wraps a last senseless cluster of words ideas dreams and is finished.

Calvino, Italo (2019). The Baron in the Trees (Vintage Classics) . Random House. Kindle-Version.

There is much to say about Calvino’s diligence in transforming the historical environmental transformation of Northern Italy (Giulia Pacini did it brilliantly in her article on the Arboreal and Historical Perspectives of the novel) and equally much to say about the alignment of light metaphors and Enlightenment with deforestation. The magical act I am interested in conclusion of this post, is that of trees into text. There are no physical trees in the biological sense of the word. Yet the empty sky is full of the memory of trees which transform very subtly into the blotched, smeared marks the narrator – turns out he is a writer – left in his notebook. While they become letters on a sheet of paper (ironically, a tree product) the trees could be mistaken as mere symbols. But they are, the narrative suggests, so much more. The uninterrupted gaze from the empty sky onto the written pages suggests a metonymical relationship. That is, the trees that disappeared on the surface (of the earth) reappear on the pages of the book. Seems like a sad replacement? Yes. But in a way it makes them more accessible, because we – such “Enlightened” people – are much more prone to notice the letters than the actual trees.

Tree Alphabet

It might be difficult to find hope in this ending. If we turn all wood into paper, all trees into letters, what would be left? However, this is the wrong question. Artist Katie Holten turns the tables once more and asks ‘Where can we go from here’? 

The tree alphabets she creates put the trees back into the cities. They are not to be sat on, but they not only show what’s missing they suggest it could grow back – we could help give the trees more room to grow. If only to lean against them and think…

I’ll stop here and begin anew when I take up Katie Holten’s cue and think some more About Trees. There will be more sitting and there will be (more) communication with and by the trees.

I want to thank everyone at today’s @dehypotheses “Bloggen experimentell” workshop for encouraging me to take time to write and tell you more about trees. It was a wonderful occasion – the not-often visible side of academia where we push each other in “friendly scholarship”. Thanks everyone! 

Sitting like/on a Tree (Part I)

I cannot believe it took me three months to even begin writing this post. I’ve been on an activity, alternating with phases of exhaustion, bringing the project along, writing new proposals (this is academia for you, while I’m happily announcing that I can finally write, all I do is plot new funding opportunities…) and trying to get a grip on the daunting mountain that is my to-write-list. What I have been doing, in other words, is behaving so anti-tree-ish that it feels like I haven’t learned anything at all. Shouldn’t studying trees bring me closer to them? And doesn’t getting close to trees mean at least trying to become a bit more like a tree? Well, this is what I claimed “arboreal poetics” does, but I am no writer and scholars need to disattach to gain knowledge. Or do they?

While I have not been writing this post, I have been thinking about it constantly. I even wrote a paper that deals with sitting under trees – yet, what I found (and what I did not put in the paper, because, you know, I try to look like a serious scholar sometimes) is that thinking about sitting under trees makes me nervous. Sitting on a tree even more and sitting like a tree outright terrifies me. Why is that? What does sitting under/on/like a tree do (to me) that causes feelings at all? If we look beyond a fear of falling off a tree – which is not my problem, I’m not a great climber, so I don’t –, there are two things that connect sitting and trees in ways that are more than prepositional. Or rather, they reveal that prepositional relationships are more that “just” grammatical.

The Study Tree

Let’s look at people sitting in, on, with, under and (maybe) like trees (I’ll get back to my own terror and eventual delight later). When I sat under a tree on a hike and tried to come up with scenes from literature and pop culture, I remembered one from Gilmore Girls that I liked very much, when I first watched it (Season 4, Episode 6). Rory is in college (YALE!) and having a bad day. Nothing works out the way she wanted it, there’s no way to study in peace and – shock! – now, someone is sitting under “her” tree. The outrage! 

(Thanks to everyone who helped me remember the episode!)

Well, it’s easy to dismiss this as a spoilt girl’s tantrum, but let’s look a little closer. While, yes, it is a little weird that a student at an Ivy League School (consider the tuition) who frettet about libraries all her life, can now not under any circumstances study unless she sits under a tree. It’s a decorative shot, too, but the tree does something for Rory that other “places” don’t. 30 minutes into the episode she encounters a guy sitting under the tree and tries to convince him, to leave:

Rory: Excuse me, you’re sitting under my tree

Guy: What?

Rory: My study tree. This is my study tree.

Guy: What the hell is a study tree?

Fair question! Rory cannot impress the tree occupier with her living situation (“I have roommates…” “So do I!”) and she certainly doesn’t help her case by sneering at his reading material (a magazine); when even her passionate speech doesn’t help, she first has to give up and later resorts to paying him off. Her speech, however, is what interests me, because it insists on a relationship that makes ONE tree special to one human:

Screenshot from a Buzzfeed article on “31 Things That Happened In “Gilmore Girls” That Make No Sense Now That I’m Older”

Rory: …but I finally found a great place to study and you’re sitting on it!

Guy: There’s a million trees on campus!

Rory: But this one fits my back perfectly, so I don’t get tired and the light is right and it’s just far enough away from anything busy. The noise level is perfect: it’s quiet but not Unabomber. And anyhow, I was just hoping that you would consider giving me back my tree!

Rory thinks her relationship to this tree – and it’s never mentioned what kind of tree it is – is so special that it simply must convince that guy to move. Well, it doesn’t and maybe it shouldn’t because this particular Goldilocks might be too used to everyone making room for her specific studying needs already. The reason this tree is special to her, though, makes it sound like office furniture: “this one fits my back perfectly, so I don’t get tired”. There you go, a tree aiding you in the neoliberal attempt to always be busy. But it’s also something about the light and the noise – the tiny world under the tree is different to the rest. (I resist going on about the Unabomber-Reference here – that leads into another forest on another day). Rory is on to something, but sadly she doesn’t leave the tree enough room to be more than a study tree. At least in her words she doesn’t. A part of me (the one that is immersed in the story, temporarily suspending disbelief and so on) wishes she would have put her book down and listened, or smelled or not do anything. Because with attention to the actual tree, she might have learned more about herself through the tree. I am speculating here, but the desire to be close to this tree might point to her own feeling of uprootedness – starting college, living apart from her mother, breaking up with her boyfriend – sitting with a tree might be a start. From this perspective, it does make very much sense, that she can study nowhere else…

If only she would study the tree…I will end here for now (realizing that I don’t have to write the whole thing all at once) and write more about people sitting on and under, even like trees another time. Not without telling you why it is, sometimes, terrifying for me to (have to) lean on a tree. It does take you out of (human) society and potentially makes you part of a different one. Not studying, not being “productive” in a human way – while it doesn’t make you go all “Unabomber” – isolates you from the ways of humans. It can help to concentrate, but it also changes the perspective on how life “usually” works. Most of all, it requires a kind of stillness, that makes me as nervous as it does Rory…

I’ll continue with Italo Calvino’s tree climber Cosimo to tell you why.

Seeing (like) a Tree: Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”

This is the first of a series of readings in which I explore texts that propose the possibility of encountering trees or encountering the world through trees. Like small reviews these readings are supposed to give hints to how human-tree-relationships form the core of what I call ‘the cultural poetics of trees’ in my book project “Making Kin with Trees” which I will officially start writing in March 2021. Each text features one exemplary perspective, book or author and leaves room for connections and comparisons. Look out for texts on seeing, smelling, sitting, writing and becoming (like) a tree in the near future.

What do you look for in a forest? Solace, stress relief, beauty or solitude? What can you bring back from the forest to your “real life”, from encounters with trees, other than cones, twigs and leaves? One answer might be: a new way of seeing. This is an acutely privileged thing to say, let alone write. But encounters with trees, in many parts of the Global North, and certainly most of the parts, which produce the majority of what is recognized as “Nature Writing”, have become less a necessity than a way of “tuning” (Morton) the senses. Indeed, forest dwelling activities like foraging, feeding pigs, collecting firewood and hunting have indeed past-times of the privileged rather than sustaining activities. I want to acknowledge the privilege of not needing to hunt, gather or forage in the forest, not because I’m interested in reinforcing the clichée of a need to “return to nature”, but because I want to draw attention to the no less existential ways in which (Nature) writers engage with trees. Learning to see with or even like trees aims at alienating the “I” from itself in order to see something else. What this “something else” might be and how it might be related (or not) to the desires of “returning to Nature” or, more specifically, to “becoming a tree” is a recurring question of this mini-series and probably the blog as a whole.

It’s tempting to go into the history of ‘seeing’ as a cultural practice, but let it suffice to say that after centuries of exploring the possibilities, conditions and media that make seeing im/possible, it is still mostly regarded as something that “just” happens. Think of how often you are asked to “just” look or open your eyes to see something that has been right in front of you all the time. Especially, if the context has anything to do with “Nature” the supposed immediacy of our senses is often romanticized in a way that makes it look like “culture” spoilt our vision entirely. With regards to plants the in/ability to see is especially striking. There are few texts on plants in recent years (including my own) which resist the temptation of beginning with the phenomenon of “plant blindness” (Wandersee/Schussler): the apparent human inability to see plants at all if there is virtually anything else to see. If for example, there is a picture of a forest and students are being asked to describe what they see, plants are barely noticed at all.

So, to make people see plants is at once a political and a rhetorical task. It’s political because you won’t protect what you don’t notice (presumably – though I do hope that we can manage to find ways to extend our idea of protection in that regard); and it’s a rhetorical feat because you can start your text with a revelation: Look, you are living in a vegetal world! Exposing something that is not exactly new but has been hidden from view is a powerful move that engages readers and listeners. No wonder “revelations” play such an important role in religious discourse. However, from the perspective of trees this is interesting because it complicates seeing further: So you cannot just go and see the trees. You might not see the forest for the trees, but maybe the opposite is true, too: are you not seeing the trees for the forest – that big, dark, meaningful image packed with cultural associations?

Again, culture seems to stand in the way of seeing (no cabin that’s not somehow Thoreauvian, no hut that doesn’t recall some witch or another), but – that’s the beauty of it – the rhetorical revelation is supposed to help you see. It’s weird, if you think about it: instead of going to the woods to see trees, you read a book first, to teach you how to see trees. It is gut-wrenchingly impossible to get around and the problem at the heart of “Nature Writing” and there might be no text rivalling Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek at laying the finger in that particular wound:

Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it. It is, as Ruskin says, “not merely unnoticed, but in the full, clear sense of the word, unseen.” […] I have to say the words, describe what I’m seeing. If Tinker Mountain erupted, I’d be likely to notice. But if I want to notice the lesser cataclysms of valley life, I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present. It’s not that I’m observant; it’s just that I talk too much. Otherwise, especially in a strange place, I’ll never know what’s happening. Like a blind man at the ball game, I need a radio.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974, 32.
Okko Pyykkö: Kuopio Forest, CC BY 2.0

I chose Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) because it is one of the most impressive texts of the Nature-mode, I know. See how I slipped in “Nature-mode” so casually? I will use it, because I am – like many Nature Writers by the way – not happy with the label Nature Writing. Like Science Fiction theorist Seo-Young Chu, “by mode I have in mind a category more expansive than ‘genre’ and less determinable.” You will notice with time, that I find Science Fiction and Nature Writing to be much closer related than usually assumed, but for now it is important to note that I understand it less as a genre (the convenient and very useful label you look for in the bookstore) than a mode (a set of practices and ways of relation to the “objects” of writing). 

This becomes particularly apparent in Annie Dillard’s writing. She has been named a “female Thoreau” and that is in as many ways true as it is besides the point. As Diana Saverin puts it, it’s not about the authenticity of wilderness experiences, but about writing choices: “Dillard had never left civilization. She’d simply left civilization out of the book.” That could be said for Thoreau’s Walden, too, but the pathos of Dillard’s Pilgrim is very different from Thoreau and other “great men” of Nature Writing. It is by no means more humble – after all – Dillard’s text is not afraid to ask the very big questions and it is absolutely sure of its artistic quality, but I’d claim that even though she did “leave out civilization”, she developed a keen eye and precise language for small wildernesses. That required learning how to see (anew).

Dillard took that task quite literally. In the beginning of the book, after she tells stories proving her to be an acute observer of what author Kelly Brenner so aptly calls “Nature obscura”, she writes about a surgical procedure that helps people regain their eyesight. Their experiences of seeing for the first time what is mostly an overwhelming “dazzle of color-patches” (29) serves Dillard as a model of describing her own. The description of one girl in particular impressed her:

When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw “the tree with the lights in it.” It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974 , 35.

The “tree with the lights in it” is a recurring phrase in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Just like the changed vision Dillard claims with this image, the phrase is at once plausible, convincing even, and vague. You know there is something to see – a tree that is not in the “foreground” while light is shining through her* branches, but a tree of which the lights are part, like fruit – but to describe it in the radio voice over that Dillard claims is needed to “really” see what goes on before your eyes. Seeing, as it were, must forge a pact with language and it does so in a truly poetic way. Dillard’s text layers observations and anecdotes from different discourses (personal experience, medicine, nature writing, religion and transcendence etc.) and condenses them (in German “to condense” means “verdichten” which is neatly close to poetry, “Dichtung”). The ensuing image is something that decidedly cannot be seen “for real” and yet it delivers a change in sight that makes sense to the reader. It reveals a world that has been there all along and burdens it with the profound experience of being able to see for the first time at all.

There is no doubt, that it can be a burden to “gain” sight. Where “a distheartening number of [patients] refuse to use their new vision” (29) because it is too overwhelming, Dillard has the ambivalent luck that “the vision comes and goes”. Writing about a “vision” (with many references to theological and transcendental discourses throughout the book) adds another layer that strengthens the poetic quality of the experience. It seems to be a transcendental experience that is, however, brilliantly held back by mundane failures. 

One of them is the attempt to not only see a tree, but see and look like a tree. Dillard encounters a “silly-looking coot”:

I froze stock-still, thinking that after all I really was, actually and at bottom, a tree, a dead tree perhaps, even a wobbly one, but a treeish creature nonetheless. The coot wouldn’t notice that a tree hadn’t grown in that spot the moment before; what did it know? It was new to the area, a mere dude. As tree I allowed myself only the luxury of keeping a wary eye on the coot’s eye. Nothing; it didn’t suspect a thing—unless, of course, it was just leading me on, beguiling me into scratching my nose, when the jig would be up once and for all, and I’d be left unmasked, untreed, with no itch and an empty creek. So.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974, 45.

This episode, reminiscent of Thoreau’s encounter with a loom at Walden Pond, seems to be a success story of tree-vision at first. Looking like a tree, i.e. convincing herself that “she really was, actually and at bottom, a tree […] a treeish creature”, enables Dillard to observe the bird that she deems too shy to let her observe him any other way. What a beautiful image to become a tree, or at least, tree-like in order to be able to really see what lives around ourselves. But Dillard – and this really makes her writing great – does not hold back in revealing the foolishness of thinking you finally “got” how “it” works:

At its next dive I made the Osage orange and looked around from its trunk while the coot fed from the pool behind the riffles. From there I ran downstream to the sycamore, getting treed in open ground again—and so forth for forty minutes, until it gradually began to light in my leafy brain that maybe the coot wasn’t shy after all. That all this subterfuge was unnecessary, that the bird was singularly stupid, or at least not of an analytical turn of mind, and that in fact I’d been making a perfect idiot of myself all alone in the snow. So from behind the trunk of a black walnut, which was my present blind, I stepped boldly into the open.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974, 46.

Nothing happens. The whole disguise, the effort of “getting treed” was a game Dillard played with herself. This is more than a funny episode, because it holds a potential for failure that is not re-claimed for the human experience by making it tragic. Absolutely mundane, the misinterpretation of the birds sensibilities, turn out to be no less important than a more sublime failure: there is in the end no way to really know “Nature”. But the attempt counts: “I had gotten, after all, a very good look at the coot.” (47) And, more than that, for a while at least the human in the picture attempted to assume another form, another way of seeing and being seen. Alas, the old practice of camouflage was not enough. It still stank of the human intention to get something, if only a “good lock” from a nonhuman nature. 

A tree, overexposed (Dresden, 2018 CC BY 4.0 Solvejg Nitzke)

To become more tree-like one has to find a way of not wanting, of seeing without intention and, tellingly, this can be only realized in writing. Tellingly, Dillard choses another arboreal image to illustrate what that means:

The broadleaf trees of the world’s forests have cast their various fruits: “Oak, a nut; Sycamore, achenes; California Laurel, a drupe; Maple, a samara; Locust, a legume; Pomegranate, a berry; Buckeye, a capsule; Apple, a pome.” Now the twin leaves of the seedling chestnut oak on the Carvin’s Cove path have dried, dropped, and blown; the acorn itself is shrunk and sere. But the sheath of the stem holds water and the white root still delicately sucks, porous and permeable, mute.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974, 261.

Seemingly dead, a winter tree is anything but lifeless. It just holds back until more favorable conditions arrive, it cannot force growth, but, then, it doesn’t help for writers to do so either. Like the bell that is being rung (passive!), Dillard discovers in her writing and being-outside that the winter tree knows something about building worlds that she has to learn: to be dead for a while is the condition of life/writing:

The death of the self of which the great writers speak is no violent act. It is merely the joining of the great rock heart of the earth in its roll. It is merely the slow cessation of the will’s sprints and the intellect’s chatter: it is waiting like a hollow bell with stilled tongue. Fuge, tace, quiesce. The waiting itself is the thing.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974, 261.

I spoke of Dillard’s “pathos” before. There it is. It is not one of control or dominance but neither is it a call for caution and humility – it is the insight that to see a tree means to stand back, to lose oneself and wait; it is the insight that to write a tree means to stand back to lose oneself and wait and not expect a profit. There will be none, but another occasion to wait.

*I tend to use personal pronouns when I know a tree by name. This one is a cedar and hence a “she”. “Hence” means, I decided it is, it could be different – trees are queer anyway, but I more and more refuse to think of them as “it”.

  1. Morton, Timothy. Being Ecological, The MIT Press, 2018.
  2. James Wandersee & Elizabeth Schussler: Preventing Plant Blindness, in: The American Biology Teacher 61 (2), 82-86.
  3. Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. [1975]: HarperCollins e-Books 2014.
  4. Seo-Young Chu: Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press 2010.
  5. I urge you to read the wonderful Article The Thoreau of the Suburbs by Diana Saverin (The Atlantic, 2015).

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