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Consider the Tree: Philosopher Martin Buber on the Discipline of Not Objectifying and the Difficult Art of Seeing Others as They Are, Not as They Are to Us

“Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: relation is mutual.”

Consider the Tree: Philosopher Martin Buber on the Discipline of Not Objectifying and the Difficult Art of Seeing Others as They Are, Not as They Are to Us

When Walt Whitman contemplated the wisdom of trees, he saw in them qualities “almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic,” and found in their resolute being a counterpoint to the human charade of seeming. “When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse rhapsodized in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.” A century and a half earlier, William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.”

But to truly see and listen to a tree — or to any being beyond ourselves — as more than a teaching, more than an object of envy or worship or desire, more than a metaphor for our own lives, requires a special kind of regard — the kind to which Ursula K. Le Guin alluded in contemplating the difference between objectifying and subjectifying the universe.

This unsolipsistic orientation to another’s reality does not come easily to us, being such colonizers of the experience and essence of others as we are. What it takes to cultivate it is what philosopher Martin Buber (February 8, 1878–June 13, 1965) explores in poignant passage from I and Thou (public library) — his 1923 existentialist masterpiece, laying out Buber’s visionary lens on what makes us real to one another and extracting from it abiding insight into the meaning of love and presence.

Martin Buber

Buber illustrates the distinction between I-It and I-Thou relationships — the redignifying shift of perspective at the heart of his philosophy — with the example of how one regards a tree:

I consider a tree.

I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background.

I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air—and the obscure growth itself.

I can classify it in a species and study it as a type in its structure and mode of life.

I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognise it only as an expression of law — of the laws in accordance with which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or of those in accordance with which the component substances mingle and separate.

I can dissipate it and perpetuate it in number, in pure numerical relation.

In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and constitution.

It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is now no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness.

To effect this it is not necessary for me to give up any of the ways in which I consider the tree. There is nothing from which I would have to turn my eyes away in order to see, and no knowledge that I would have to forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and type, law and number, indivisibly united in this event.

Everything belonging to the tree is in this: its form and structure, its colours and chemical composition, its intercourse with the elements and with the stars, are all present in a single whole.

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no value depending on my mood; but it is bodied over against me and has to do with me, as I with it — only in a different way.

Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: relation is mutual.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Decades before scientists came to uncover what trees feel and how they communicate, Buber adds:

The tree will have a consciousness, then, similar to our own? Of that I have no experience. But do you wish, through seeming to succeed in it with yourself, once again to disintegrate that which cannot be disintegrated? I encounter no soul or dryad of the tree, but the tree itself.

Complement this particular fragment of I and Thou with Henry David Thoreau on the language of trees and biologist David George Haskell on what a dozen of the world’s most unusual trees taught him about the art of relationship, then revisit bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer on how to regard non-human life with dignity.


Toni Morrison on the Deepest Meaning of Freedom

In praise of loving anything and anyone you choose to love.

“Everything can be taken from a man,” Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his timeless treatise on the human search for meaning, “but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Fourteen years later, at the apogee of the civil rights movement, James Baldwin observed: “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given, freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be.” It is a sentiment of piercing insight in Baldwin’s original context and one which Kanye West would echo in a completely different, completely inappropriate context half a century later — a difference both subtle and unsubtle, assaulting the meaning of freedom.

Four decades after Frankl, and midway in time between Baldwin and West, Toni Morrison examined the question of what freedom means for a human being in her 1987 novel Beloved (public library) — the book that became the cornerstone of Morrison’s Nobel Prize, making her the first African American woman to win the accolade — inspired by the true story of a woman’s escape from slavery and the unfathomable cost she had to pay for her freedom.

Toni Morrison illustrated by Katy Horan from Literary Witches — a celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

Painting the state of being unlatched in her protagonist after escaping from enslavement, Morrison considers the deepest meaning of freedom:

Listening to the doves in Alfred, Georgia, and having neither the right nor the permission to enjoy it because in that place mist, doves, sunlight, copper dirt, moon — everything belonged to the men who had the guns. Little men, some of them, big men too, each one of whom he could snap like a twig if he wanted to. Men who knew their manhood lay in their guns and were not even embarrassed by the knowledge that without gunshot fox would laugh at them. And these “men” who made even vixen laugh could, if you let them, stop you from hearing doves or loving moonlight. So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept. Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. Grass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn’t do. A woman, a child, a brother — a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia. He knew exactly what she meant: to get to a place where you could love anything you chose — not to need permission for desire — well now, that was freedom.

Complement this passage from Beloved, which remains one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking books I have ever read, with Simone de Beauvoir on what freedom really means, then revisit Morrison on the artist’s task in troubled times, how to be your own story, and her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the power of language.


The Woman Who Smashed Codes: The Untold Story of Cryptography Pioneer Elizebeth Friedman

How an unsung heroine established a new field of science and helped defeat the Nazis with pencil, paper, and perseverance.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: The Untold Story of Cryptography Pioneer Elizebeth Friedman

While computing pioneer Alan Turing was breaking Nazi communication in England, eleven thousand women, unbeknownst to their contemporaries and to most of us who constitute their posterity, were breaking enemy code in America — unsung heroines who helped defeat the Nazis and win WWII.

Among them was American cryptography pioneer Elizebeth Friedman (August 26, 1892–October 31, 1980). The subject of Jason Fagone’s excellent biography The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies (public library), Friedman triumphed over at least three Enigma machines and cracked dozens of different radio circuits to decipher more than four thousand Nazi messages that saved innumerable lives, only to have J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI take credit for her invisible, instrumental work.

Elizebeth Friedman in her twenties.

Fagone writes:

The modern-day universe of codes and ciphers began in a cottage on the prairie, with a pair of young lovers smiling at each other across a table and a rich man urging them to be spectacular.

The two young lovers were Elizebeth Smith and William Friedman, and the rich man, the eccentric textile tycoon George Fabyan.

The youngest of nine children raised in a modest Quaker home, Elizebeth was born in an era when fewer than four percent of American women graduated from college. Four years after earning her degree in Greek and English literature, she still felt like “a quivering, keenly alive, restless, mental question mark.” The following year, 1916, she began her improbable career at Riverbank Laboratories — Fabyan’s Wonderland-like estate, where the billionaire had hired Elizebeth to work on the cipher at the heart of a literary conspiracy theory claiming that Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s works. At Riverbank, she met William, a young geneticist living in a windmill — one of the many fanciful fixtures of Riverbank — and studying seeds in order to infuse crops with optimal properties as a kind of proto genetic engineering. Over long walks, animated by parallel intellectual voraciousness and shared skepticism of the Bacon cipher conspiracy, the two fell in love.

William and Elizebeth Friedman, circa 1920s (The George C. Marshall Foundation)

William and Elizebeth were married at Riverbank, where they had begun collaborating on cryptographic work. The papers on the subject they wrote together — though always published under William’s name alone — soon spread their reputation beyond Riverbank. Cryptography was new then, new and thrilling and full of unmined possibility for government intelligence, and so the U.S. Navy eventually recruited the Friedmans. Fagone writes:

The savaging of Nazis, the birth of a science: It begins on the day when a twenty-three-year-old American woman decides to trust her doubt and dig with her own mind.

The room is dark but her pencil is sharp. An envelope of puzzles arrives from Washington, sent by men who have the largest of responsibilities and the tiniest of clues. With William she examines the puzzles. He is game, he looks at her with eyes like little bonfires, he is in love with her. She is not in love yet but she would not be ashamed to fall in love with such a bright and kind person. She stares at the odd blocks of text and starts to flip and stack and rearrange them on a scratch pad, a kindling of letters, a friction of alphabets hot to the touch, and then a flame catches and then catches again, until she understands that she can ignite whenever she wants, that a power is there for the taking, for her and for anyone, and nothing will ever be the same. The ribs of a pattern shine through. Something rises at the nib of her pencil and her heart whomps away. The skeletons of words leap out and make her jump.

Elizebeth began working for the U.S. Coast Guard Intelligence Division, intercepting and deciphering the encrypted radio messages by which international and domestic smuggling operated. She fused her literary passion with formidable logic to do work hardly anyone else in the country knew how to do — work that didn’t yet have a proper name. Fagone writes:

All her life she had celebrated the improbable bigness of language, the long-lunged galaxy that exploded out from the small dense point of the alphabet, the twenty-six humble letters. In college she trained herself to hear the rhythms of playwrights and poets, the syllables that slip from the tongue in patterns. Tennyson:

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
There LIVES more FAITH in HON-est DOUBT,
Be-LIEVE me, than in HALF the CREEDS.

But before, she had gone no further than chopping lines into meters. She left the words in their boxes, intact. Codebreaking required more drastic measures. Now Elizebeth had to shake the words until they spilled their letters. To rip, rupture, puncture, chisel, scissor, smash, and scoop up the rubble in her arms. To chip off flakes from the smooth rock of the message and place them in piles and ask questions about them. It involved a kind of hard-hearted analytic violence that she had never contemplated before. It was reaching into the red body of the text until the hands dripped with blood… “The thrill of your life,” Elizebeth said later, describing how it felt to solve a message. “The skeletons of words leap out, and make you jump.”

Elizebeth and William Friedman, circa 1920s (The George C. Marshall Foundation)

Although William and Elizebeth worked side by side, often on different classified problems they didn’t share with each other, he always considered her his intellectual superior. More than that, Elizebeth was William’s unfaltering succor when he slipped into depression as World War II began darkening humanity’s horizons. He wrote to her in a letter:

I’ve known for a long time that you are the one in back of me and responsible for what little I’ve done. Had it not been for you I’d have been sunk long ago by unsolved infernal conflicts, by windy storms of emotion, by failure to keep up the fight when things seemed not worthwhile. . . . I know how much I owe to you — for love, for wisdom, for courage, and common sense.

By the time the war engulfed the world, Elizebeth Friedman was America’s foremost mind decrypting Nazi communication, using the weapons she had always wielded with uncommon skill: pencil, paper, and perseverance. Fagone writes:


She was now the most famous codebreaker in the world, more famous even than Herbert Yardley, the impresario of the American Black Chamber. And she was more famous than her husband, too — a reversal from the longstanding pattern.

Elizebeth Friedman, circa 1940s, with her handwritten cryptanalysis.

And yet despite her formative contribution to cryptography as an instrument of military intelligence and the genius with which she operated the instrument to save incalculable lives, Elizebeth Friedman received no public recognition for her work in her lifetime. Part of it, no doubt, was due to the classified nature of the work — even Alan Turing, after all, died a tragic hero murdered by the very government he had served, his compatriots unaware of the millions of lives he had saved. But a big part of it, too, has to do with the long history of women in science being denied recognition for their landmark work — from Lise Meitner and the discovery of fission to Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the detection of pulsars to Vera Rubin and the confirmation of dark matter. Instead, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, unconstrained by the secrecy oaths Elizebeth had taken and unscrupulous about manipulating the press and the public, undertook an effort to erase her from history and take credit for her work. But the evidence Fagone and other scholars have uncovered in the decades since speaks for itself:

Three of the index cards in William’s collection contain brief, verifiably true comments about how J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI took credit for feats of spycatching actually performed by Elizebeth and the coast guard. These comments were obviously written by Elizebeth — William wasn’t in a position to know. Each card is a knife slipped between the ribs of Hoover, Elizebeth’s patient revenge.

She intended to use all of these archives to write her own story. She never got around to it. Maybe she lost hope. But the files are exactly where she left them, the fragments of an extraordinary life. The files have a weight to them, a texture. They can’t be erased any more than Elizebeth’s legacy can be erased, because her legacy is embedded in our lives today, in our smartphones and Web browsers, in the science that powers secure-messaging apps used by billions, in the clandestine procedures of corporations and intelligence agencies and in the mundane software loaded onto the iPhones in our pockets.

With an eye to this bittersweet redemption, Fagone considers Elizebeth Friedman’s unassailable legacy:

Secret communication is still a dance of codemakers and codebreakers, locks and lockpickers. The locks are different now, of course. With computation as an aid, everything has been massively sped up and mathematized beyond anything Elizebeth would have comfortably understood. But the game is still based in patterns. Someone designs a pattern that looks like mere clutter, and someone else tries to rearrange the clutter into a picture. Over and over again, gazing at what seemed random in the world, Elizebeth found a tiny spot of sense, and then she stood on that spot and invented a system to transform the rest of the landscape all the way out to the horizon, and this is still the process today. Codebreaking is work and patience and method and mind. And Elizebeth had more of these qualities than perhaps anyone else in her time.

Part fascinating cultural history, part homage to an unsung heroine, and part uncommon love story, The Woman Who Smashed Codes is a fascinating read in its entirety. Complement it with the story of the unheralded women astronomers who shaped our understanding of the universe long before they could vote, then revisit Alan Turing’s beautiful and heartbreaking letters on love and loss.


You Belong Here: An Illustrated Antidote to Our Existential Homelessness

Sweet consolation for the lifelong alienation that afflicts each of us at different times and in different measures.

You Belong Here: An Illustrated Antidote to Our Existential Homelessness

There is hardly a more elemental human need than our need for belonging — in a place, in a heart, in ourselves. Perhaps this is why we are so susceptible to that particular kind of loneliness that begins in childhood, as we try to master the “fertile solitude” necessary for self-esteem, and can so often morph into a kind of existential homelessness as we grow older and slip into continually narrowing landscapes of possibility. “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place,” Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their fantastic 1973 conversation about freedom.

That elusive, coveted locus of belonging is what poet and writer M.H. Clark explores in the spare and lovely You Belong Here (public library).

Illustrated by Isabel Arsenault — the artist behind such treasures as a picture-book about Louise Bourgeois, a graphic novel inspired by Jane Eyre, and the story of Virginia Woolf and her sister — the lyrical and almost songlike story meets different creatures in their habitats and homes: the whales in the sea, the deer in the forest, the frogs and the lilies in the lake, the lizard on the sunlit rock. Each creature belongs exactly where it is.

An invisible narrator addresses an invisible listener — perhaps a child, or the inner child that lives in each of us — with the assurance that the two belong together, no matter how far and across how many landscapes they may travel from one another.

The stars belong in the deep night sky
and the moon belongs there too,
and the winds belong in each place they blow by
and I belong here
with you.

Complement You Belong Here — sweet consolation for the lifelong alienation that afflicts each of us at different times and in different measures — with Derek Walcott’s timeless ode to being at home in ourselves, Carson Ellis’s lovely illustrated celebration of the many meanings of home, and Kurt Vonnegut on belonging in community, then revisit the beautiful and bittersweet Arsenault-illustrated story of how Paul Gauguin became an artist and Clark’s wonderful Tiny Perfect Things.


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