Can we draw parallels between humans and trees? Can humans ever be silent, mysterious and numinous like them? Our lives may be closer to plants than we realise
For many of us, O’Henry’s famous short story, The Last Leaf, has been a childhood favourite. Where the last leaf is not actually natural, but manmade—a human intervention to stop a sick girl from seeing her life through a tree shedding leaves in a winter storm. But it was not the first time when humans identified with a tree.
In every area of daily life—be it literature or science, sports or the arts—we compare ourselves to trees or use them to view ourselves. I have grown up with songs routinely using jhora paataa (fallen leaves), kusum (flowers), even shakh (branches). Our great leaders, teachers or family elders are like the banyan tree, an enduring symbol of knowledge and protection. Buddha acquired enlightenment under a fig (ficus) tree, now a famous pilgrimage; marriages are supposed to be held under a bower to portend strong, unbreakable ties. We always branch out into different occupations, or study different branches of knowledge. We have family trees; we are a speaking tree or a giving tree. Even in our cut-and-dried corporate careers, we have issue trees for problem solving. Trees are an essential part of not only our surroundings and vocabulary, but also our hearts and minds as we grow up.
Sumana Roy actually wanted to turn into a tree. She was always a gechho meye (tree girl), obsessed with plants, planting them, nurturing them, photographing them, carrying them around like children, using dead trees as sculptures. She wanted to live in “tree time”, in the moment, rejecting speed and excess. As time wears on, trees acquire girth, folds, rings, roots, and increased respect and dignity—not always the destiny of ageing humans.
People did use to live to tree time earlier, rising with the sun, creating food tirelessly just like the leaves, retiring at sunset. Even in this modern, urban age of glass and concrete, cities have made conscious efforts to welcome trees around the buildings, on roadside, creating parks and nurturing the woods. The city of Melbourne gave email addresses to trees for citizens to report problems with them. It triggered an outpouring of love for the trees. They became friends. One wrote, “Thank you for being so pretty. I don’t know where I’d be without you to extract my carbon dioxide… Stay strong, stand tall amongst the crowd. You are the gift that keeps on giving.” In Garhwal Himalayas, the pro-environment Chipko movement started as early in the 1970s, launched by people hugging a tree to highlight the criticality of forests to human survival, and went on to be a beacon for conservation around the world. Planting a tree is now an abiding symbol of nature love, caring for the environment. Jadav Payeng of Assam, the tree man of India, managed to cultivate an entire forest in a natural way, using insects and seeds. As naturalist Hal Borland said, “Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience. Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence.”
Is that why Indian women are more like trees? Folk tales abound with women as the soul of trees, living in trees, married to trees. Indeed, India still has the tradition of marrying off women or men who are fated to be faced with the death of a spouse to trees. The first marriage averts the evil, the second can then happen without any ill luck. Wonder if anyone has actually surveyed if the abandoned trees died sooner or later? They could die, naturally, withered by human treachery, used as lab rats!
That trees have feelings was a fact that needed scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose’s discovery, especially the machines he invented to record a plant’s living, getting hurt, or killed. He could read their minds, as it were. Is this why gods were routinely placed under a tree, where, in time, a temple would spring up, and soon a roaring business? For Budhha disciples, a tree cannot be cut because it is Budhha. You sit under the Bodhi tree, you may not have known Buddha, but you would feel him. In Buddhism, one can be reborn as a tree. Already, science is making it possible for us to store our ashes into a capsule for a plant to grow, so that we can remain forever on this earth, roots and all.
Our lives are closer to a plant’s than we realise. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum said, “…the human condition of the ethical life… is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.” Our vulnerability, our hope, our struggles are all akin to a plant’s. We are also reborn often, in spirit, like a plant. This charming, sweet, sensitive book captures trees in all their omnipresent beauty and takes the reader into their lives that are lived in front of our very eyes, yet silently, mysteriously and numinously.
Did Roy finally turn into a tree? To know, read this book.
Paromita Shastri is a former financial journalist