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Hermann Hesse on What Trees Teach Us About Belonging and Life

“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.”

Hermann Hesse on What Trees Teach Us About Belonging and Life

I woke up this morning to discover a tiny birch tree rising amidst my city quasi-garden, having overcome unthinkable odds to float its seed over heaps of concrete and glass, and begin a life in a meager oasis of soil. And I thought, my god*, what a miracle. What magic. What a reminder that life does not await permission to be lived.

This little wonder reminded me of a beautiful passage by Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) — one of the most beautiful I’ve ever read — from his 1920 collection of fragments, Wandering: Notes and Sketches (public library).

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 fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

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. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

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. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

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.

Artwork by Bryan Nash Gill from his book Woodcut.

* As Anaïs Nin wrote in her correspondence with Henry Miller, “I spell ‘god’ with a small ‘g’ because I do not believe in him, but I love to swear by him.”

BP

The Tree in Me: A Tender Painted Poem About Growing Our Capacity for Joy, Strength, and Love

What trees can teach us about more closely and loving ourselves, each other, and the world more deeply.

The Tree in Me: A Tender Painted Poem About Growing Our Capacity for Joy, Strength, and Love

Walt Whitman, who considered trees the profoundest teachers in how to best be human, remembered the woman he loved and respected above all others as that rare person who was “entirely herself; as simple as nature; true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free — is a tree.”

At the outset of what was to become the most challenging year of my life, and the most challenging for the totality of the world in our shared lifetime, I resolved to face it like a tree — a resolution blind to that unfathomable future, as all resolutions and all futures tend to be, but one that made it infinitely more survivable. I was not the only one. Humans, after all, have a long history of learning resilience from trees and fathoming our own nature through theirs: Hesse saw in them the paragon of self-actualization, Thoreau reverenced them as cathedrals that consecrate our lives, Dylan Thomas entrusted them with humbling us into the essence of our humanity, ancient mythology placed them at its spiritual center, and science used them as an organizing principle for knowledge.

Artist and author Corinna Luyken draws on this intimate connection between the sylvan and the human in The Tree in Me (public library) — a lyrical meditation on the root of creativity, strength, and connection, with a spirit and sensibility kindred to her earlier emotional intelligence primer in the form of a painted poem.

Inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s timeless and transformative mindfulness teachings, which she first encountered long ago in the character-kiln of adolescence and which profoundly influenced her worldview as she matured, Luyken considers the book “a seedling off the tree” from the great Zen teacher’s classic tangerine meditation — the fruition of her longtime desire to make something beautiful and tender that invites the young (and not only the young) to look more deeply into the nature of the world, into their own nature and its magnificent interconnectedness to all of nature. After years of incubation, after many trials that landed far from her vision, a spare poem came to her. Paintings grew out of the words. A book blossomed.

The tree in me
is seed and blossom,
bark and stump…
part shade,
and part sun.

The singsong verses follow the protagonist — an everychild of ambiguous age, gender, and ethnicity — along a joyful journey of self-discovery, self-understanding, and self-appreciation through warm identification with various aspects of a tree: its irrepressible lushness, the effortless grace with which it bends without breaking, how it is constantly negotiating darkness and light, how it exists in exquisite interdependence with the rest of the living world.

There is a lovely visual nod to one of the most revelatory and paradigm-shifting scientific discoveries in our lifetime — the astonishing mycelial web by which trees communicate with each other underground, a discovery that may be nature’s loveliest metaphor for the secret of love.

As the child looks up to face a young woman — who could be a mother or a sister or a first love or the school janitor or the Vice President — the book ends with a subtle affirmation of William Blake’s timeless tree-tinted insistence that we see not what we look at but what we are.

Because there is
a tree,
and a sky,
and a sun
in me,
I can see
that there is also
a tree
in you.

Couple The Tree in Me with The Day I Became a Bird — a kindred illustrated meditation on learning to let ourselves be seen — then revisit D.H. Lawrence on trees, solitude, and how we root ourselves when relationships collapse and Mary Oliver’s short, shimmering poem “When I Am Among the Trees.”

Illustrations by Corinna Luyken; book photographs by Maria Popova

BP

A Cenotaph for Newton: The Poetry of Public Spaces, the Architecture of Shadow, and How Trees Inspired the World’s First Planetarium Design

How a forgotten visionary’s futuristic dream dared generations to reimagine the relationship between nature and human creativity.

A Cenotaph for Newton: The Poetry of Public Spaces, the Architecture of Shadow, and How Trees Inspired the World’s First Planetarium Design

Nineteen years after the publication of Isaac Newton’s epoch-making Principia — in England, in Latin — the prodigy mathematician Émilie du Châtelet set out to translate his ideas into her native French, making them more comprehensible in the process. Her more-than-translation — which includes several of her mathematical corrections and clarifications of Newton’s imprecisions, and which remains the only comprehensive edition in French to this day — popularized his ideas in France and, from this epicenter of the Enlightenment, spread them centripetally throughout the rest of the Continent, rendering Newton himself an emblem of the Enlightenment the sweep of which he never lived to see.

Newton by William Blake (Tate Britain)

Not long after Du Châtelet’s untimely death, her legacy reached one of her most gifted compatriots — the visionary architect Étienne-Louis Boullée (February 12, 1728–February 4, 1799), who fell under Newton’s spell. Determined to honor Newton with a worthy cenotaph — a memorial tomb for a person buried elsewhere — he designed a sphere 500 feet in diameter, taller than the Pyramids of Giza, nested into a colossal pedestal and encircled by hundreds of cypress trees, giving it the transfixing illusion of being both half-buried into the Earth and hovering unmoored from gravity. It was also, in essence, the world’s first domed planetarium design.

Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The cenotaph was a touching gesture in the first place — a Frenchman honoring a genius born of and interred in England, a nation with which Boullée’s own had been in near-ceaseless war for centuries, with those tensions at an all-time high at the time of his design, thanks to the American Revolutionary War. Doubly touching was his choice of a sphere: One of Newton’s most revolutionary contributions — the mathematical inference that because gravity is weaker at the equator, the shape of the Earth must be spherical — had defied France’s greatest son, René Descartes, who maintained that the Earth was egg-shaped. When Boullée was still a boy, a young Frenchman — Émilie du Châtelet’s mathematics tutor — had joined a perilous Arctic expedition to prove Newton correct. Two centuries later, in the wake of the world’s grimmest war yet, a queer Quaker Englishman would do the same, risking his life to defend the epoch-making theory of a German Jew — the theory of relativity that ultimately subverted Newton. Another world war later, Einstein himself would appeal to what he called “the common language of science” — that truth-seeking contact with nature and reality that transcends all borders and all nationalisms, the impulse that animated Boullée’s bold homage to Newton.

Cenotaph side cross-section. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

While governed by the credo that “our buildings — and our public buildings in particular — should be to some extent poems,” Boullée also believed that science could magnify the poetry of public spaces, which must at bottom reflect the principles of the grand designer: Nature. A century before the teenage Virginia Woolf wrote that “all the Arts… imitate as far as they can the one great truth that all can see,” Boullée insisted:

No idea exists that does not derive from nature… It is impossible to create architectural imagery without a profound knowledge of nature: the Poetry of architecture lies in natural effects. That is what makes architecture an art and that art sublime.

Architecture in the modern sense was then a young art, because the art-science of perspective was so novel. Newton’s optics, derived directly from the laws of nature, had revolutionized it all. Boullée came to define architecture as “the art of creating perspectives by the arrangement of volumes,” but a highly poetic art:

The real talent of an architect lies in incorporating in his work the sublime attraction of Poetry.

The poetry of architecture, he argued, resides in using perspective and light in such a way that “our senses are reminded of nature.” He interpreted the laws of nature, as clarified by Newton’s optics and mathematics, to intimate that no shape embodies this serenade to the senses with greater power and precision than the sphere:

A sphere is, in all respects, the image of perfection. It combines strict symmetry with the most perfect regularity and the greatest possible variety; its form is developed to the fullest extent and is the simplest that exists; its shape is outlined by the most agreeable contour and, finally, the light effects that it produces are so beautifully graduated that they could not possibly be softer, more agreeable or more varied. These unique advantages, which the sphere derives from nature, have an immeasurable hold over our senses.

Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

And so Boullée predicated his cenotaph for Newton on an enormous sphere that would convey his ultimate intent for the temple — to arouse in the visitor’s soul “feelings in keeping with religious ceremonies,” a sense of grandeur leaving them “moved by such an excess of sensibility… that all the faculties of our soul are disturbed to such an extent that we feel it is departing from our body” — an effect always best achieved not by an enormity of sheer size and space but by a considered contrast of scales. No building, he observed, “calls for the Poetry of architecture” more than a memorial to the dead. Believing that architecture, like all art, should ultimately serve to enlarge our sense of aliveness, and that we are never more alive than when we are rooted in our creaturely senses, Boullée insisted that the key to this sense of grandeur lies in applying the principles of nature’s mathematics with poetic subtlety — the principles laid bare in the Principia, the principles that “derive from order, the symbol of wisdom.” He wrote:

Symmetry… is what results from the order that extends in every direction and multiplies them at our glance until we can no longer count them. By extending the sweep of an avenue so that its end is out of sight, the laws of optics and the effects of perspective given an impression of immensity; at each step, the objects appear in a new guise and our pleasure is renewed by a succession of different vistas. Finally, by some miracle which in fact is the result of our own movement but which we attribute to the objects around us, the latter seem to move with us, as if we had imparted Life to them.

Aerial cross-section. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

But my favorite part of the story is that Boullée found his formative inspiration, not only for the Newton cenotaph and but for his entire creative philosophy, in an unusual encounter with trees — those profoundest of teachers.

One evening, heavy with grief, Boullée went for a walk along the edge of a forest. Under the moonlight, he noticed his shadow. He had seen his shadow a thousand times before, but the peculiar lens of his psychic state rendered it entirely new — a living artwork of “extreme melancholy.” Looking around, he saw the shadows of the trees in this new light, too, etching onto the ground the profound drama of life. The entire scene was suddenly awash in “all that is sombre in nature.” He had seen the state of his soul mirrored back by the natural world, as we so often do in those rawest moments when we are stripped to the base of our being, grounded into our creaturely senses.

This was the moment of Boullée’s artistic awakening — that moment of revelation when, as Virginia Woolf wrote in her exquisite account of her own artistic awakening, something lifts “the cotton wool of daily life” and we see the familiar world afresh. Boullée recounted:

The mass of objects stood out in black against the extreme wanness of the light. Nature offered itself to my gaze in mourning. I was struck by the sensations I was experiencing and immediately began to wonder how to apply this, especially to architecture. I tried to find a composition made up of the effect of shadows. To achieve this, I imagined the light (as I had observed it in nature) giving back to me all that my imagination could think of. That was how I proceeded when I was seeking to discover this new type of architecture.

He called this new architecture “the architecture of shadow.” His vision for Newton’s cenotaph was its grand testament:

I attempted to create the greatest of all effects, that of immensity; for that is what gives us lofty thoughts as we contemplate the Creator and give us celestial sensations.

He attempted, more than that, to honor Newton on his own terms, by the essence of his genius:

O Newton! With the range of your intelligence and the sublime nature of your Genius, you have defined the shape of the earth; I have conceived the idea of enveloping you with your discovery… your own self. How can I find outside you anything worthy of you?

Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In a further homage to Newton’s legacy, with Boullée regarded as a “divine system” of laws, he chose to suspend a sole spherical lamp over the tomb as the only decoration in the entire monument — anything else, he felt, would be “committing sacrilege.” The contrast of scales — the smaller sphere of the lamp inside the enormous sphere of the building — would dramatize the contrast of light and shadow, just as the moonlight had done that fateful night of artistic revelation by the trees. This would give the visitor the sense that they are “as if by magic floating in the air, borne in the wake of images in the immensity of space.” Boullée considered the play of light the vital element in this enchantment:

It is light that produces impressions which arouse in us various contradictory sensations depending on whether they are brilliant or sombre. If I could manage to diffuse in my temple magnificent light effects I would fill the onlooker with joy; but if, on the contrary, my temple had only sombre effects, I would fill him with sadness. If I could avoid direct light and arrange for its presence without the onlooker being aware of its source, the ensuing effect of mysterious daylight would produce inconceivable impression and, in a sense, a truly enchanting magic quality.

At a time long before readily available electric light and light-projection, he leaned on Newton’s optics to envision something that was part Stonehenge and part Hayden Planetarium. A century and a half before the first modern planetarium dome, Boullée dotted the black interior of his dome with an intricate arrangement of tiny holes reflecting the positions of the constellations and the planets, streaming in daylight to create an enchanting nightscape inside. But unlike the modern counterpart, Boullée’s was a reversible planetarium — at night, the sole spherical light would irradiate the tiny holes from the other direction, making the dome appear as a self-contained universe if viewed from above. This, lest we forget, was the golden age of aeronautics, when hot-air balloons first defied gravity to lift the human animal into the sky.

Side cross-section. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Too visionary for its era, the cenotaph was never built, but Boullée’s ink-and-wash drawings circulated widely in the final decade of his life, eliciting both gasping admiration and merciless derision — the fate of the true visionary. With the publication of his impassioned and insightful writings nearly two centuries after his death, translated by Helen Rosenau, his vision went on to inspire generations of modern artists and architects with a new way of thinking about the poetry of public spaces and the relationship between nature and human creativity.

In a sentiment evocative of another pioneer’s lamentation — Harriet Hosmer’s astute remark that “if one knew but one-half the difficulties an artist has to surmount… the public would be less ready to censure him for his shortcomings or slow advancement” — Boullée wrote of his critics:

No one is more exacting than a man who is not conversant with a given art for he is unable to imagine all the difficulties the artist has to overcome.

His ultimate satisfaction was not the reception or execution of his designs, but the inexhaustible source of their inspiration — the elemental wellspring of the creative impulse behind all art and all science, that richest and readiest reward of our aliveness:

The artist… is always making discoveries and spends his life observing nature.

BP

Proximity: A Meditative Visual Poem for Those Reaching for Something They Can’t Quite Grasp, Inspired by Trees

Soulful sylvan consolation partway between David Byrne, Bill T. Jones, and the Buddha.

Proximity: A Meditative Visual Poem for Those Reaching for Something They Can’t Quite Grasp, Inspired by Trees

When I am sad, I like to imagine myself becoming a tree. Branches that bend without breaking, fractal with possibility, reaching resolutely toward the light. Roots touching the web of belonging beneath the surface of the world, that majestic mycelial network succoring and nurturing and connecting tree to tree — connection so effortless, so imperturbable, so free from the fragility of human relationships.

After writing about wintering trees as supreme teachers in resilience, I received a lovely note from a reader in England — theater artist, movement director, and Hatha Yoga teacher Andrew Dawson, a former student of Merce Cunningham’s. He shared a kindred-spirited film he had made, in his words, “for those who are reaching for something more but can’t quite grasp it, for those on their journey, not yet at their destination.”

It salved me profoundly, this meditative visual poem — part David Byrne, part Bill T. Jones, and part Buddha — radiating Hermann Hesse’s century-old wisdom that “whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree [but] wants to be nothing except what he is.”

Commissioned by the London International Mime Festival, filmed by Dawson’s son, Roman Sheppard Dawson, and featuring music by composer Jonny Pilcher, the film was inspired by a line from a short lyrical essay titled “Close” from poet and philosopher David Whyte’s superb collection Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — a book of lyrical reanimations of language that touched me deeply when I first read it several years ago (and for the recent English edition of which I had the honor and joy of composing the introduction).

We live by unconsciously measuring the inverse distances of our proximity.

Here is Whyte’s original mycelium of inspiration for Dawson’s Proximity:

CLOSE

is what we almost always are: close to happiness, close to another, close to leaving, close to tears, close to God, close to losing faith, close to being done, close to saying something, or close to success, and even, with the greatest sense of satisfaction, close to giving the whole thing up.

Our human essence lies not in arrival, but in being almost there, we are creatures who are on the way, our journey a series of impending anticipated arrivals. We live by unconsciously measuring the inverse distances of our proximity: an intimacy calibrated by the vulnerability we feel in giving up our sense of separation.

To go beyond our normal identities and become closer than close is to lose our sense of self in temporary joy, a form of arrival that only opens us to deeper forms of intimacy that blur our fixed, controlling, surface identity.

To consciously become close is a courageous form of unilateral disarmament, a chancing of our arm and our love, a willingness to hazard our affections and an unconscious declaration that we might be equal to the inevitable loss that the vulnerability of being close will bring.

Human beings do not find their essence through fulfillment or eventual arrival but by staying close to the way they like to travel, to the way they hold the conversation between the ground on which they stand and the horizon to which they go. What makes the rainbow beautiful, is not the pot of gold at its end, but the arc of its journey between here and there, between now and then, between where we are now and where we want to go, illustrated above our unconscious heads in primary colour.

We are in effect, always, close; always close to the ultimate secret: that we are more real in our simple wish to find a way than any destination we could reach: the step between not understanding that and understanding that, is as close as we get to happiness.

Complement Dawson’s poetic short film with Dylan Thomas’s cinematic poem about how trees illuminate the wonder of our humanity and Robert Macfarlane’s reflection on how trees embody the secret to healthy relationships, then revisit Whyte’s lyrical rerooting of the meanings of courage, vulnerability, forgiveness, and love.

BP

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