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).

Cite this article as: Solvejg Nitzke, "Talking about Trees in “Dark Times”. Re-Reading Brecht and Rich," in Ecological Imaginaries, 11/03/2022, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/279.

Trees, Stories, and Academia, or: What Literature has to do with Anything

In the very first session of the introduction to Comparative Literature at Ruhr-Uni Bochum, we were taught how to justify picking this subject to our parents. While I have told this anecdote a number of times as a funny twist on how my mother might have been the only person in the entire world who was actually relieved that her daughter decided to go for literature as her subject, I never quite lost the feeling of that first contact with what is now my profession. The feeling is an almost paranoid fear of being called out on doing what is actually a hobby (reading), a weird but all encompassing doubt about both the seriousness and relevance of my work. In short, it is the gut feeling that the “just” in “just fiction” might reflect more that a person’s attempt to discredit the capacity of literature to actually do stuff. 

By now I know that it is not just a feeling – it is the result of underfinanced humanities departments, expectations of “usefulness” and “applicability” that (being derived from engineering and, equally damaging for both cultures, from the natural sciences) have rarely anything to do with the work of a humanities scholar and almost never with the work of literary scholarship. It took me a while to get there, but the tip we were given in that introductory class followed those lines. While this is probably not the worst idea (even though I have doubts whether parents, who are not on board with you studying complit, will come around when the first thing you do is telling them about this French sociologist and cultural capital), I feel a growing sense of Bartleby-esque resistance to thinking of my work in these terms. So, if you came here to learn useful stuff about literature, I will disappoint you right away. This is not what I do. But what am I doing and why do I feel the need to do it despite constantly pointing out absurd conditions in academia and the need to tell people about it, who don’t even do what I do?

Looking for answers to these questions is part of the reason why I opened this blog. As with many things, there probably isn’t a straight response, but there might be more stories, and, as with many more things, for me, they have to do with trees. Not with roots, or branches, or leaves or all the single parts of a tree which lend themselves so well for (often all too heavy) metaphorization, but with the ways in which they require us to form words, stories and poetic texts in order to understand them. If I want answers to the question of why not only me but so many task themselves with writing about writing, talking about language and trying to find ways to put into text how texts become actors (many more meta-activities could be listed), then looking at trees, plants, symbioses and seemingly non-textual or -linguistic relationships might seem counterintuitive. But this is where – excuse the vegetal pun – the roots of the problem can be found.

A weed dinosaur, if you look (not too) closely, growing over human structures, not caring for what we think its species should be able to be

It would be all too easy to claim that it is literature’s job to make legible what otherwise remains incomprehensible. In novels, trees talk, in popular science, humans can read tree rings, in nature writing, humans follow tree roots everywhere – easy, isn’t it? Literary scholars, then, might be reproducing that job by making literature legible through analyzing, categorizing, historicizing. Too easy, indeed – what literary scholars do instead, or rather on top of that, is making things more complicated: Wohlleben tells you trees are friends and help each other? Here’s Johannes Wankhammer researching the different forms of Anthropomorphization and their pitfalls (Wankhammer). Ever heard of forest bathing? Here is Elisabeth Heyne showing you the different modes of perception (rain) forests induce (spoiler, not all are pleasant). And one more: You ask how trees become theme and motive in a text? Here am I telling you, they don’t, instead humans have to become tree-like to even see the giant plants. All of these texts and more are examples for how literary and cultural scholarship is much more than an explaining and archiving device. “We” don’t “just” communicate literature or other discipline’s results. Instead (or, again, on top of that) we find stories and keep telling them. We Reader poems and connect them to more poems, trees, (hi)stories. We excavate layers as much as we add new ones. The kind of knowledge this produces is actually very tree-like, because you can barely access it without becoming a little like it in the process. There is no writing about trees that isn’t making you a little bit arboreal while you’re reading. This might be special for the humanities and especially the Disziplinen dealing with literature. With us, you can see how we alienate ourselves from ourselves in order to melt into someone else and something else’s world (more on the barely hidden reference to hermeneutics and “Horizontverschmelzung” another time…).

In order to ‘see’ (read, hear, understand) the stories trees tell, you need to be able to connect them to other stories. This is what we do (I hereby claim): connect stories and provide a kind of guided tour through a jungle of texts and actors and things and more text, all the while leaving traces, changing the shrubs and producing more text. It sounds a little mysterious, doesn’t it? Well, it is and it is not. There is of course a way of learning how to do this, there are numerous ways of finding the benefit in studying literature…this is mine. Making things more complicated but also more exciting, making you understand less and being more adventurous with how you look around. Here’s to hoping you’ll join me…

Cite this article as: Solvejg Nitzke, "Trees, Stories, and Academia, or: What Literature has to do with Anything," in Ecological Imaginaries, 16/11/2020, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/37.