Hermann Hesse on Trees and the Meaning of Life

“It was the great and eternal made visible: a confluence of opposites, their fusing together in the fire of reality. It meant nothing… or, rather, it meant everything… and it was beautiful, it was happiness and meaning… like an earful of Bach or an eyeful of Cézanne.”

Hermann Hesse on Trees and the Meaning of Life

“Whoever has learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) wrote in what remains one of humanity’s most beautiful love letters to trees, “no longer wants to be a tree. He* wants to be nothing except what he is. This is where you are at home. That is happiness.”

But this century-old classic, part meditation and part manifesto, is far from Hesse’s only contribution to the reliquary of our species’ tender kinship with trees — those “slim sentinels” watching over our existence, recalibrating our sense of time, fomenting our richest metaphors and our finest poems, speaking deeply to every deep-thinking, deep-feeling person and enchanting every noticer (which is the other word for artist). Trees strew Hesse’s novels and essays, his letters and diaries, his poems and paintings — all that survives of a life so clearly and mirthfully animated by them, from his Black Forest childhood to the Swiss mountain village of his old age.

Hermann Hesse

After the heroism of editing the first-ever complete edition of Hesse’s writings writings, scholar Volker Michels has culled the finest sylvan musings from this immense body of work and curated thirty of Hesse’s own drawings to illustrate them in the slender gem of a book Trees: An Anthology of Writings and Paintings (public library).

In a piece penned in the spring of 1905 — the year Hesse formulated his timeless prescription for living with presence — Hesse recounts a visit to a long narrow park in the city, full of sunny lawns and prim flower beds. Standing apart from the copse of young fir trees, apart from the “stately elm, maple, and plane trees,” he notices two trees “rising in the warm and cheerful freedom of the grass, conspicuous and alone” — a weeping willow and a “mighty copper,” both of which he serenades with the full force of his luscious prose. The willow is his favorite tree.

It [willow’s]The delicate, silky branches were so thick and dense that they felt like being in a temple or tent. There was a constant shade of twilight and an endless warmth.


Distance [the copper] looked dark brown, almost black. But when you got closer, or stood under it and looked up, all the leaves on the outer branches, penetrated by the sunlight, burned with a low warm purple fire shining with a solemnly subdued glow like a church’s stained-glass windows.

Hermann Hesse, Aquarelle no. 319, 1936.

Hesse is able to enter a world of fundamental truth through the portal of beauty. Science would need to keep up with it for two additional human generations. Nearly a century before Canadian forester Suzanne Simard’s epoch-making discovery of how trees communicate demonstrated the ecological reality beneath the poetic truth of Hesse’s existential reckoning, he considers our ambivalent relationship with nature — its punitive history and its possible future — through the lens of the urban park:

Once upon a time the meticulously maintained pleasure garden was a work of art. The time passed when everyone grew tired of the tedious waiting, tending, and pruning. No one was interested in maintaining these beautiful gardens and they were allowed to flourish. The two of them had formed friendships, had lost their roles as artificially separated, and had remembered their forest home in times of crisis. They leaned on each other, supported one another with their arms. With their thick, grasping roots they had covered all the pathways with dense foliage, turning them into the forest floor. They saw a growing population of eagerly-aspiring trees, filled with new leaves and smoother trunks, creating a rich, dark soil that allowed for mosses, grass, and small shrubs to thrive.

Hermann Hesse, Grottos in the Forest, 1924.

It was long before we had the idea of RewildingHe also added:

[Now] the people whose grandfathers had planted the plane trees in ramrod-straight lines, and pruned and shaped them with judgment and discretion, now visited those trees with their own children and were happy that the long period of desolation had turned the allées into a forest, where sun and wind could linger and birds could sing and people could indulge in their thoughts and dreams and desires.

Being human means to be able to see the beauty of the world around us, not just what it is, but who we really are. If we are lucky enough, if we are wakeful enough, we might see both — but never only reality unselved. Because we are the seeing, we are also the seen — this is the price of consciousness. In another piece penned in another spring nearly half a century and a Nobel Prize later, in the winter of his life, Hesse sees in trees an analogue for his own experience of the final life-stage, looks to them for a model of the stubborn dignity he yearns for — we all yearn for — in facing death.

Hermann Hesse, The beginning of spring, 1925.

He describes a beech sapling that had somehow planted itself in the thorny hedge bordering his garden some years earlier — at first “a little shrub from a seed flown over from the woods,” intruding on his ideas about garden design, now a thriving young tree that brings him immense delight — delight now bittersweet as he realizes that the “old mighty beech” from which the seed most likely flew, his most beloved tree in the nearby forest, had been cut down.Heartache drips from his words — a heartache Thoreau too knew, and I have known, in seeing a beloved tree cut down — as he reflects on the fate of the mother-tree: “Massive segments of its trunk, sawn apart, still lie there heavy and oversized like rubble from an ancient column.”

Yet, he still loves the tree even more after the loss.

An epoch before we understood the poetic science of why leaves change color and fall — itself a metaphor for how every loss reveals what we are made of — Hesse writes:

I was always impressed by how my beech tree held onto its little leaves. When everything else was long since bare, it still stood clad in its withered leaves — through December, January, February; storms tore at it, snow fell on it and dripped off again, and the dry leaves, at first dark brown, grew ever paler, thinner, silkier, but still the tree would not let them go, they were needed to shield the young buds. Then at some point or another every spring — and every time it was later than you expected — the tree would one day have changed. It would have shed the old leaves, and it would instead produce tender buds that were moistened with water. The transformation was witnessed by me this time. The hour was mid-April and it was just after the rain made the landscape green again. I hadn’t heard any cuckoos that year, nor seen any daffodils growing in the meadow. A few days before, I stood there, shaking from the north wind and raising my collar. Then, as it blew, the beech stood still, not dropping a single leaf. It was brave and strong, and it held onto its bleached leaves.

And now, today, as I broke pieces of wood by my fire in the gentle calm warm air, I saw it happen: a soft breeze blew up, just a breath really, and the leaves saved for so long simply drifted off, by the hundreds and thousands — noiselessly, easily, willingly, tired from their long perseverance, tired of their stubbornness and fortitude. After five to six months of resistance and endurance, what was once a formidable force for survival gave way to an air bubble. Their furious perseverance had no purpose. The little leaves flew off, smiling and ready, in no time. They were too small to lift the tiny leaves, no matter their lightness or thinness, so the wind poured down and covered the ground and grass near the tree.

Hermann Hesse, Easter Monday, 1924.

Intuiting what we now know — that trees are Earth’s emissaries of immortality, and that their wintering is our blueprint of resilience — he sees in the little tree the same lens on the meaning of life that Rachel Carson saw in the ocean, and adds:

Was there anything surprising or touching about this performance? Is it death? The easy and willingly accepted death of winter leaves Or was it life? The urgently striving and celebratory youth that the buds created for themselves by suddenly being woken up. Did the crowd cheer or were they sad? It was a signal to me, as an elderly man, that I should not let myself fall and flutter. A warning that I may be taking up too much space for the stronger and younger men. Or was it a call to hold on, like the beech leaves — to stay on my feet and brace myself and defend myself as tenaciously and as long as I could, because then, at the right moment, my farewell would be easy, serene, and joyful? Like everything else, it was not the big and eternal, but a convergence of opposites that fuses together to create the reality we live in. It meant nothing, was a call to nothing; or, rather, it meant everything — it meant the mystery of existence and it was beautiful, it was happiness and meaning, a gift and a discovery for anyone who saw it, like an earful of Bach or an eyeful of Cézanne. The experience was not complete without these names or interpretations.

He realizes then that he has only just redescoped a truth he discovered years ago in one of his poems from the summer before he died.


We are always this or that.
The wind blows the flowering branches.
Continuously moving up or down
My heart flails like a child
You can choose between bright or dark days
There is no difference between wanting to renounce and wanting.
So long as the flowers aren’t gone
The branch has fruit on it.
You can’t stop the childhood from filling your heart.
Is it its rest?
It was full of joy, and not just for nothing.
It is a never-ending game.

Hermann Hesse, Flowers after a Storm, 1934.

Complement the cover-to-cover delight that is Trees: An Anthology of Writings and Paintings with some defiantly delightful photographs of women in trees across Hesse’s homeland in the final years of his life, his compatriot Paul Klee on how an artist is like a tree, their no less visionary yet forgotten American contemporary Anna Botsford Comstock on winter trees as a portal to aliveness, and the Harlem Renaissance prodigy Helene Johnson’s poem “Trees at Night” read by Rebecca Solnit, then revisit Hesse on the wisdom of the inner voice and solitude, the value of hardship, and the courage to be yourself.

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