“Finding the words is another step in learning to see.”
By Maria Popova
To name a thing is to acknowledge its existence as separate from everything else that has a name; to confer upon it the dignity of autonomy while at the same time affirming its belonging with the rest of the namable world; to transform its strangeness into familiarity, which is the root of empathy. To name is to pay attention; to name is to love. Parents name their babies as a first nonbiological marker of individuality amid the human lot; lovers give each other private nicknames that sanctify their intimacy; it is only when we began naming domesticated animals that they stopped being animals and became pets. (T.S. Eliot made a playful case for the profound potency of this act in “The Naming of Cats.”)
As a scientist who studies the 22,000 known species of moss — so diverse yet so unfamiliar to the general public that most are known solely by their Latin names rather than the colloquial names we have for trees and flowers — Kimmerer sees the power of naming as an intimate mode of knowing. As the progeny of a long lineage of Native American storytellers, she sees the power of naming as a mode of sacramental communion with the world.
Reflecting on a peculiarity of the Adirondack mountains she calls home, where most rocks have been named — “Chair Rock,” “Elephant Rock,” “Burnt Rock” — and people use them as reference points in navigating the land around the lake, Kimmerer writes:
The names we use for rocks and other beings depends on our perspective, whether we are speaking form the inside or the outside of the circle. The name on our lips reveals the knowledge we have of each other, hence the sweet secret names we have for the ones we love. The names we give ourselves are a powerful form of self-determination, of declaring ourselves sovereign territory. Outside the circle, scientific names for mosses may suffice, but inside the circle, what do they call themselves?
I find strength and comfort in this physical intimacy with the land, a sense of knowing the names of the rocks and knowing my place in the world.
A gift comes with responsibility. I had no will at all to name the mosses in this place, to assign their Linnean epithets. I think the task given to me is to carry out the message that mosses have their own names. Their way of being in the world cannot be told by data alone. They remind me to remember that there are mysteries for which a measuring tape has no meaning, questions and answers that have no place in the truth about rocks and mosses.
Still, Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating the aesthetics of silence, “human beings are so ‘fallen’ that they must start with the simplest linguistic act: the naming of things.” Naming is an act of redemption and a special form of paying attention, which Kimmerer captures beautifully:
Having words for these forms makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.
Having words also creates an intimacy with the plant that speaks of careful observation.
What is true of mosses is also true of every element of the world upon which we choose to confer the dignity of recognition. Drawing on her heritage — her family comes from the Bear Clan of the Potawatomi — Kimmerer adds:
In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationships, not only with each other, but also with plants.
Intimate connection allows recognition in an all-too-often anonymous world… Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing.
Four centuries before Hermann Hesse proclaimed trees “the most penetrating of preachers,” the English author Ralph Austen, who wrote in great detail and with great beauty about various aspects of gardening, explored just that in a peculiar pamphlet titled The Spiritual Use of an Orchard or Garden of Fruit Trees (public library) — the companion to his 1653 book A Treatise on Fruit-trees, showing the manner of grafting, setting, pruning, and ordering of them in all respects. Beneath the highly religious language of the era and the highly esoteric subject of the book lie unexpectedly elegant metaphors for human concerns of eternal resonance to secular life — from the secret of lasting relationships to the true test of character.
The book was republished nearly two centuries later, with this disarming note to the reader from the editor and publisher, a T. Pettit from London’s Soho, making the modern reader — this modern reader, at least — wistfully wishful that publishers today had such courtesy and warmth for their audiences:
Come, now learn a parable of the Fig tree — and (believe it) there are but two things requisite to enable you to learn to profit or profitably:
first, a heart to receive instruction;
second, The Great Teacher for your instructor;
and then, I am sure you will get heavenly lessons by heart.
I leave the worthy Author to tell his own story, and so bid you heartily welcome to a participation of some of the Fruits to be gather’d from this Orchard.
Grace be with you, and farewell,
so says your Servant,
September 26, 1847
In the original 1653 “Preface to the Reader,” Austen vows to “endeavour to make some spiritual use, and improvement of [fruit trees]” and writes:
When we have gone through all the works and labours to be performed in the orchard, and have received thereby a rich recompense of temporal profits and pleasures in the use of the trees and fruits, we may (besides all that) make a spiritual use of them, and receive more and greater profits and pleasures thereby. Men are not wont to stint themselves at worldly profits, but why are they not willing to receive all kinds of profits, or why are they not willing to receive the greatest, and the best? … How much more foolish and unwise, is he that seeks after temporal profits, and neglects spiritual, and eternal? Therefore be careful to make a spiritual improvement of fruit trees.
But while Austen’s text bears the deep religiosity of his era, at its heart is a deeper, timeless wisdom that speaks to those of us who are nonreligious but invested in attaining a sense of secular spirituality — for who can deny that trees teach us to belong to our own lives? Trees, he assures us, contain great gospels of truth:
The world is a great library, and fruit trees are some of the books wherein we may read and see plainly the attributes of God, his power, wisdom, goodness &c. … for as trees (in a metaphorical sense)* are books, so like-wise in the same sense they have a voice, and speak plainly to us, and teach us many good lessons.
Fruit trees, though they are dumb companions, yet (in a sense) we may discourse with them… We may read divine truths in them, as in a book consisting of words and sentences… Not only rational and irrational, but even inanimate creatures have a voice, and speak loudly to men, and it is our duty to learn their language, and hearken to them.
To do this, Austen argues, requires that we begin seeing other creatures as more than mere means to our practical ends — a remarkably prescient case, given that half a millennium later, we still struggle to stop operationalizing creatures far closer to us on the evolutionary chain than trees. Beneath his religious language, a hallmark of his era, is a deeper message about how we commune with the universe by attending to all of its life forms so we can glean what Mary Oliver memorably called “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.” Austen writes:
If we make use of creatures to serve our turn only in reference to our toward man, we make not half that use of them as we ought, we should study the creatures and learn from them, to bring us nearer the Creator, climbing up by them, as by step, or stairs, till we ascend to the highest good.
How much of the goodness and excellencies of God do fruit trees show forth when they (in their seasons) flourish with leaves, blossoms and fruits; especially considered not only as they appear beautiful to the eye, but also with all their inward beauties and perfections, their virtues, and uses in the life of man?
Centuries before tree-hugging became a cultural trope, Austen extols the rewards of tree-whispering as a form of contemplative practice and intimacy with our own minds:
Fruit trees discover many things of God, and many things of ourselves, and concerning our duty to God. We enquire of, and discourse with fruit trees when we consider, and meditate of them, when we search out their virtues and perfections… when we pry into their natures, and properties, that is speaking to them.
And when we (after a serious search) do make some use and result of what we see in them, when we collect something from them concerning the power, wisdom, goodness, and perfections of God, or our duty to God, that is the answer of the fruit trees; then fruit trees speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons.
Our considerations of them are the questions we put to them, and the inferences or conclusions, are their answers. Those are the lessons they teach us… Fruit trees are a Text from which may be raised many profitable doctrines… Many things may be learned from fruit trees for spiritual profit… Fruits of faith, love, joy, peace, and other fruits of the spirit, bunches of grapes, for the feeding, and refreshing of our souls…
Austen, who was only forty-one at the time of this treatise and by that point had already planted more than a thousand fruit trees with his own hands, draws on his experience with these silent sages to offer a number of apt metaphors for the central concerns of human life. In one passage, he explores what the grafting of fruit trees teaches us about compatibility in human relationships. Half a millennium before modern psychologists and relationship gurus began pointing to shared values as the single most important factor in lasting relationships — that is, relationships in which the partners nurture each other’s continual growth — Austen writes:
Grafts and stocks joined together of contrary, or much different natures, will not grow, nor thrive together; if they be joined in grafting, either the graft grows not at all, or else very poorly and weakly, and in a few years decays and dies; but if the kinds of trees are joined together according to rules of nature and art, then they thrive together vigorously, and bear fruits plentifully… Persons joined in any relation, they have comfort or affliction together according to their natures.
Likeness is both the cause and the bond of love.
And yet, Austen admonishes in a remarkably modern sentiment, this similarity shouldn’t be of the superficial kind — much like one wouldn’t graft two trees that have similar leaves but thrive in wholly different conditions, one shouldn’t seek a mate merely on the basis of appearance or alignment of demographic variables like class or income. He counsels:
Likeness in natures, manners, customs, begets love, and distance in these causeth dislike, and sometimes hatred… This should teach all who intend to enter into the stage of marriage, to look well into their choice, that it be upon good grounds , and not for worldly advantages in the first place, as most do, and match a soul to the earth, between which there’s no likeness, nor proportion: neither are they to look so much at likeness in the more low, and inferior respects, as person, age, birth, friends, riches, &c. (though care is to be had in these) as to that great likeness, in natures, manners, habits, and principles of the mind, for these are the springs and the ties of love, therefore “be not unequally yoked together.”
In a sentiment rather ominous given its proximity in time to Henry VIII historic break with the Catholic Church in order to get the first true divorce, Austen adds:
The sad experience of many thousands may be a sufficient warning to others.
If that love flows according to that likeness of natures, then let this teach us to strive for increase of grace…
Austen seems to remind us, too, that lasting, nourishing relationships are daily work:
Every act of grace adds something to the habit, so that the habits of grace are mightily confirmed by their frequent operations.
Austen also admonishes against mistaking appearances from true grace, arguing that — like trees — the people most obsessed with the shape and style of their persona are most vacant in the substance of their personhood:
Fruit trees that bring forth the fairest and most beautiful blossoms, leaves, and shoots, they (usually) bring forth the fewest, and least fruits; because where nature is intent, and vigorously pressing to do one work (spending its strength there) it is at the same time, weak about other works; but distinct, and several works of nature, in moderate and remiss degree, are all promoted at the same time… Generally those persons who are excessive, and most curious about the forms of duties have least of the power of godliness.
The true test of character, Austen suggests through his arboreal metaphor, is in the fruits of our personhood — our motives, the actions they produce, and the aftertaste those leave in others — rather than in the appearance of our persona:
The fruits of trees discover plainly of what kind the trees are: the leaves and blossoms … may deceive us, but the fruits cannot deceive us, but discover manifestly of what nature the trees are… The ways, and conversations of men discover what their natures are: If men of discerning judgments will but exactly observe, and try the actions of others, they may (by degrees) conclude from what principles they act [but] from the actions and ways of some persons, a man cannot easily conclude this; vices in some are clothed in the habits of virtues.
One tree did precisely that for Ensler. She paints the backdrop of her lifelong resistance to the transformation to follow:
I have been afraid of trees. I have felt the Earth as my enemy. I did not live in the forests. I lived in the concrete city where I could not see the sky or sunset or stars. I moved at the pace of engines and it was faster than my own breath. I became a stranger to myself and to the rhythms of the Earth. I aggrandized my alien identity and wore black and felt superior. My body was a burden. I saw it as something that unfortunately had to be maintained. I had little patience for its needs.
She recounts the curious, almost mystical effect of a particular tree outside her hospital room as she lay fighting for life after a monstrous cancer had ravaged her body:
What I hadn’t anticipated was the tree. I was too weak to think or write or call or even watch a movie. All I could do was stare at the tree, which was the only thing in my view. At first it annoyed me and I thought I would go mad from boredom. But after the first days and many hours, I began to see the tree.
On Tuesday I meditated on bark; on Friday, the green leaves shimmering in late afternoon light. For hours I lost myself, my body, my being dissolving into tree.
The tree became an antidote to all the habitual ways in which we escape from ourselves — from the gentle aliveness of the world, both inner and outer — and launch into a deadening trot on the hedonic treadmill, placing our fragile sense of worth on doing rather than being. Ensler writes:
I was raised in America. All value lies in the future, in the dream, in production. There is no present tense. There is no value in what is, only in what might be made or exploited from what already exists. Of course the same was true for me. I had no inherent value. Without work or effort, without making myself into something significant, without proving my worth, I had no right or reason to be here. Life itself was inconsequential unless it led to something. Unless the tree would be wood, would be house, would be table, what value was there to tree? So to actually lie in my hospital bed and see tree, enter the tree, to find the green life inherent in tree, this was the awakening. Each morning I opened my eyes. I could not wait to focus on tree. I would let the tree take me. Each day it was different, based on the light or wind or rain. The tree was a tonic and a cure, a guru and a teaching.
She traces the origin of her arboreal antagonism:
“I never want to see another tree,” I said with bravado at twenty-two as I was speeding down a turnpike away from the green hills of Vermont toward Manhattan. I think I said “fucking tree.” I never want to see another fucking tree. It was a joke, but it wasn’t a joke. I hated trees. They had come to mean small towns and small minds, isolation and gossip, long, freezing winters and endless, green, swallowing landscapes, skiing coeds and empty chatter, families and babies, marriage and life. Trees had everything to do with life. I drove that day out of the forests and hills and blue skies and nights of falling stars into concrete, after-hours joints, Mafia hit men, anonymous sex, anonymous despair, gin and bourbon, and an end to morning, let alone trees. I see now how much I wanted to die, or how much I did not want to live with the pain inside me.
A group therapist once said that if you want to understand your relationship to your mother, look at your relationship to groups, but I say, “Look at your relationship to the Earth.” The Earth was terrifying to me and separate, radically apart, foreign. I wanted it so much, I stopped wanting it.
This tree outside my room brought back other trees, trees I had seen without seeing, had loved without loving: the weeping willow at the bottom of my driveway in Scarsdale, madly shedding in the fall, making a shimmering bed of soft white lime leaves; the majestic pine trees in Croatia by the sea, filled with vociferous cicadas in late summer; the single tree in the middle of the Mara in Kenya, the lonely solitary tree that I first sat under with a beaded Masai mother who had stopped the practice of female genital mutilation on her daughter and kept playfully punching my arm with joy; the tree in Kabul, or I should say the stump of an ancient tree that had been cut down and burned by rebels, and the way the old, very wrinkled caretaker of the park cried when he talked about the hundred-year-old tree becoming firewood for some wild men for a few stupid nights.
The tree outside the hospital room window became an invitation to a special kind of silence — an opening to the third of Paul Goodman’s nine kinds of silence, “the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul.” Ensler recounts:
I had days of silence with my tree and my dear friend and Paris neighbor, MC, who came to stay with me in the hospital. She is Belgian and the quietest person I know. Her silence was new like the tree. At first it was disconcerting, then, over time, delicious. Her presence did not require me to do anything: not to explain or entertain or make sense. She did not ask for anything, and she did not invade the boundaries of my illness. There was a week of silence, of presence, of tree.
There was the tree. My tree. Not that I owned it. I had no desire for that. But it had come to be my friend, my point of connection and meditation, my new reason to live. I was not writing or producing or on the phone or making anything happen… I was not contributing much more than my appreciation of tree, my love of green, my commitment to trunk and bark, my celebration of branch, my insane delight over the gentle white May blossoms that were beginning to flower everywhere.
Ensler was eventually discharged from the hospital, but as chemo besieged her body, a complication returned her to that room and restrapped her to the IV bag. And then the tree performed its silent miracle:
I was back in the room with the tree. This time I felt lonely and sad, deeply sad. Some part of me didn’t want to cooperate or move forward.
The tree seemed to mock my self-pity. I was raging, I was totally exhausted by myself, exhausted by my desperate fear of vanishing into ordinary. I was at the end of my body’s road. Everything had stopped inside me, even tears. I passed out.
When I woke up my bag was full and life, it seemed, was coursing through me. The tree had worked its magic. What I didn’t know was that the tree was actually inside me and saving my life. It turns out that Taxol, one of my chemo chemicals, is found in the bark of the ancient yew tree. Even better, the Taxol is made from the needles of the tree, so the tree does not have to be destroyed. Taxol functions to stabilize the cell structure so solidly that killer cells cannot divide and multiply. It was a tree that was calming and protecting me, fortifying my cell structure so it was safe from attack.
I had finally found my mother.
In a characteristically excellent conversation with On Being’s Krista Tippett, Ensler delves further into the details of how the devastating events and experiences of her life — childhood abuse, cancer, the horrific rape and violence she witnessed in the Congo — became her raw material for living:
When I was younger and went through so much violence, I separated myself from all the things that represented life because life was too painful. Beauty, nature, love, children — none of the things felt possible to me. I felt like I had been exiled from that world. And although I looked at it longingly from time to time, I also looked at it with bitterness and the kind of cynical bad-ass self which was, like, I’m on my way to the city and I’ll never see another tree again.
Every day, every hour, it was as if the tree began to reveal itself to me. Or I began to see the tree or both those things happened together. And I fell in love with that tree. I loved the bark, I loved the trunk, I loved the branches… It was just unbelievable. And by the end of my stay in the hospital, which was a few weeks, the tree actually blossomed these white blossoms and I felt like I was born back into nature somehow. Like I had been asleep, and I had awakened.
“All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.”
By Maria Popova
Tove Jansson (August 9, 1914–June 27, 2001) is among the most imaginative, important, and influential children’s book creators of all time, an artist and writer of unparalleled creative vision and great sensitivity to life’s ineffable nuances. A recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, she had the courage to turn down Walt Disney and build her own creative empire. From her beloved Moomins characters to her spectacular vintage illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit, her stories exude the metaphorical magic of Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh tales, the fanciful whimsy of Baum’s Oz world, the contemplative introspection of Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and the enchanting symbolism of Carroll’s Wonderland. Philip Pullman has aptly called her “a genius of a very subtle kind” and Neil Gaiman considers her work “a surrealist masterpiece.”
Jansson’s singular sensibility springs from her own unusual life. Born to an artistic and rather eccentric family from Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority, young Tove was raised by wildly creative parents — her father was one of Finland’s greatest sculptors and her mother designed books and postage stamps, illustrated book jackets, and created punchy political cartoons. Jansson completed her formal training in art and graphic design in various institutions across Sweden, Finland, and France, but the origin of her iconic Moomin characters was rooted in an affectionate family joke rather than in her formal training — while studying in Stockholm in her late teens and living with relatives there, Jansson would regularly sneak into the kitchen for treats; her uncle would tease her that a “Moomintroll” lived in the kitchen pantry, ready to breathe cold air down stealthy snackers’ necks.
Moominvalley’s main protagonist, Moomintroll, is thus a self-portrait of sorts, but perhaps Jansson’s most interesting character is also the one based on the most intimate part of her life. Too-ticky, the sage of Moominvalley who solves even the most existential of problems with equal parts practicality and wisdom, was inspired by the love of Jansson’s life — the great Finnish sculptor and graphic arts pioneer Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä, Jansson’s spouse. The two women met in art school during their twenties and remained together until Jansson’s death more than six decades later, collaborating on a lifetime of creative projects — all at a time when queer couples were straddling the impossible line between anguishing invisibility and dangerous visibility.
Although Too-ticky, clad in her signature red-and-white sweater, appears in a number of the Moomin books, her spirit blossoms most vibrantly in the 1957 gem Moominland Midwinter (public library), where “her common sense often restores order in the valley.” More than mere common sense, however, Too-ticky’s laconic sagacity and aphoristic reflections are full of invaluable wisdom on life.
The book tells the story of Moomintroll who, unlike his family that hibernated from November to April every year, wakes up early and decides to stay up through the harsh Scandinavian winter. He grows angry at the sun’s absence, angry at the raging blizzards, angry at those who seem able to enjoy rather than resent the season of snow and ice. It is a tale of learning to live with the vital discomfort of uncertainty, to get lost in order to find oneself, to surrender to the rhythms of life rather than agonizing in resistance.
Lost in the forest, Moomintroll comes upon a warm light emanating from a cozy hole someone had dug for shelter — “someone who lay looking up at the serene winter sky and whistling very softly to herself.” It is, of course, Too-ticky. When Moomintroll inquires about the song she is whistling, she replies, Whitman-like, with a wonderfully metaphorical answer:
It’s a song of myself… The refrain is about the things one can’t understand. I’m thinking about the aurora borealis. You can’t tell if it really does exist or if it just looks like existing. All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.
This theme of uncertainty and of finding joy in questioning reality is a recurring one for Too-ticky. Echoing the first of Bertrand Russell’s ten famous commandments of teaching, learning, and life — “Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.” — she offers comforting solidarity in Moomintroll’s lament that he doesn’t understand the snow:
I don’t either… You believe it’s cold, but if you build yourself a snowhouse it’s warm. You think it’s white, but at times it looks pink, and another time it’s blue. It can be softer than anything, and then again harder than stone. Nothing is certain.
In many ways, Too-ticky’s wisdom seems almost Zen Buddhist in nature. In addition to championing the ability to be at peace with uncertainty, she also advocates a minimalist approach to material possessions — when Moomintroll discovers, distraught and indignant, that someone is secretly smuggling things out of his sleeping family’s house, Too-ticky responds:
That’s nice, isn’t it? You’ve got too many things about you. As well as things you remember, and things you’re dreaming about.
Don’t be in such a hurry… Soon now. Sit down and wait.
When the sun does appear, it flits across the horizon for a fleeting moment, only to set back down. Moomintroll is even more frustrated, but Too-ticky assures him that the sun, like the myth of the overnight success, follows an incremental rise to brilliance:
He’ll return tomorrow… And then he’ll be a tiny bit bigger, about like a piece of cheese rind. Take it easy.
The story is also a gentle primer on evolution. When Moomintroll, against Too-ticky’s instruction, opens her secret cabinet and finds a strange creature living there, he tells her it was “only a sort of old rat,” but she corrects him:
That was no rat. It was a troll. A troll of the kind you were yourself before you became a Moomin. That was how you looked a thousand years ago.
Moomintroll is so unsettled by the notion that he is related to a mere rat — an elegant allegory for why some people are drawn to such defensive fancies as Young Earth creationism — he storms into the attic to look for an old family album. Janssen writes:
Page after page of dignified Moomins, most often reproduced standing in front of porcelain stoves, or on fret-worked verandahs. Not a single one of them resembled the cupboard troll. “Must be a mistake,” Moomintroll thought. “He can’t be any relation of mine.”
Slowly, Moomintroll makes peace with Too-ticky’s knowledge:
He went down and looked at his sleeping Pappa. Only the nose bore some resemblance to the troll’s. But possibly, a thousand years ago.
There is almost a cosmology element to this undercurrent — a reminder that, however discomfiting this too may be to most humans, we are indeed a cosmic accident. Janssen traces the evolution of Moomintroll’s understanding:
Suddenly he felt very proud of having an ancestor. And it cheered him no little to think that Little My [Moomintroll’s sister] had no pedigree at all, but rather had come into the world by chance.
But perhaps her most profound wisdom deals with our quintessential struggle to make peace with death, which stems from an inability to recognize the comforting interconnectedness of life. When the Lady of the Cold — the beautiful but formidable priestess of the Great Cold, capable of turning into an icicle any fool so bewitched as to look straight into her eyes — freezes the cheerful little squirrel Moomintroll had befriended, Too-ticky sighs:
It’s very hard to tell if people take any pleasure in their tails when they’re dead.
When one’s dead, then one’s dead. This squirrel will become earth all in his time. And later on still there’ll grow trees from him, with new squirrels skipping about in them. Do you think that’s so very sad?
Too-ticky’s greatest gift, it appears, is a certain quality of presence — the kind she cultivated in “her own private winter world that had followed its own strange rules year after year” — that allows her to feel one with the world. It is from that standpoint that, when spring finally arrives, she responds to Moomintroll’s accusation that she hadn’t comforted him during the long winter by offering assurance that spring will come, but instead focused on what the world had to offer right there and then. Too-ticky’s answer, emanating a kind of Emerson-like ideal of self-reliance, rings with extraordinary, if uncomfortable, poignancy:
One has to discover everything for oneself. And get over it all alone.
Moomintroll imbibes Too-ticky’s existential lesson. Soon, when his friend the Snork Maiden comes across “the first brave nose-tip of a crocus” shyly trying to push through snow, she suggests they put a glass over it to protect it from the frost at night. But Moomintroll objects:
No, don’t do that. Let it fight it out. I believe it’s going to do still better if things aren’t so easy.