The tree itself

This weekend’s full moon marks the minor Jewish holiday Tu biShvat, the New Year of the Trees. This is one of four New Years in the Jewish calendar. Rachel Barenblat over at Velveteen Rabbi has a good essay on the origin and meaning of this celebration, which seems to be gaining more significance with the spread of ecotheology. (See Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s site for more on ecotheology’s Rabbinic and Kabbalistic precedents and its call for healing and renewal.) Barenblat points out that

Trees are a potent symbol within Judaism. In Genesis, Adam and Eve get themselves exiled from Eden by eating the fruit of the wrong tree. According to the Zohar, that tree (the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) was merely a branch of the Tree of Life until the first humans ate the forbidden fruit, at which point the branch split off and became a tree unto itself. In this teaching, tikkun olam (the healing of the world) means re-unifying the two trees into their initial, singular, state. In Deuteronomy, man is likened to a tree; in Proverbs, the Torah is likened to a tree of life. The Kabbalists of medieval years had a variety of ways of conceptualizing God, including the “sefirotic tree,” an arboreal diagram of divine spheres through which holy emanations flowed into creation.

So this seems like a fitting point to input the passage from Martin Buber alluded to yesterday. I and Thou is my favorite single work of philosophy or religion, and has been a huge influence on me (as on so many other artist- and poet-types) since I first read it in my mid-teens. If you haven’t read it, used copies are not hard to come by . . . but be sure to get the authorized translation by Walter Kaufmann, published by Scribner’s in 1970.

I read somewhere that Buber caught hell from some of his more traditional co-religionists for this passage, which occurs quite early in the book as the first real fleshing-out of his thesis. Why didn’t he use a human being, they wanted to know? I guess to such people the tree-imagery of the Bible is so much empty symbolism, or something. (One wonders what they make of the Song of Songs!) At any rate, here’s the offending passage:

I contemplate a tree.

I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air – and the growing itself in its darkness.

I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.

I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law – those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.

I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.

Throughout all this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. the power of exclusiveness has seized me.

This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation. There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused.

Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars – all this in its entirety.

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it – only differently.

One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.

Does then the tree have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.

Finally, it’s worth noting for those of us who live within the boundaries of the traditional homeland of the Iroquois Confederacy – or in a frontier region where they exercised sovereignty, in my case – that we are only a couple weeks away from their first big holiday after the New Year: the Blessing of the Maples (time varies according to when the sap rises).

Here’s the liturgy from the Longhouse Religion of Handsome Lake, as recorded and translated by Arthur Parker:

The address to the maple, the chief of trees and the prayer to the Creator
A Seneca ceremony

The priest stands at the roots of a [sugar] maple. A fire is burning and the priest casts tobacco in the fire and as its smoke arises he says:

To the tree:
O partake of this incense,
You the forests!
We implore you
To continue as before,
The flowing waters of the maple.

To the Creator and the tree:
It is the will of the Creator
That [from] a certain tree
Should flow such water.
Now may no accidents occur
To children roaming in the forests.
Now this day is yours
May you enjoy it, this day.

To the Creator:
We give thanks, oh God, to you,
You who dwell in heaven.
We have done our duty
You have seen us do it.
So it is done.”

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