Rebecca Solnit on Trees and the Shape of Time

“Trees are an invitation to think about time and to travel in it the way they do, by standing still and reaching out and down.”

Rebecca Solnit on Trees and the Shape of Time

Two hundred and two years after Walt Whitman’s birth, I traveled to the granite emblem of his life and death. Standing sentinel across from the tomb’s entrance are two towering trees — something the poet, who likened his most beloved friend to a tree, would have appreciated. Saplings when the tomb was built, their granite-colored bark is now scarred with the names of generations of passing teenagers — human saplings already aware of their transience, already afflicted with that touching and terrible impulse to memorialize ourselves by any means.

The tomb itself — once considered grand, grandiose even: an extravagance of self-memorialization for which the poet laureate of earthy humility was indicted with self-contradiction — looks sad and small, hardly larger than my grandparents’ outhouse in the rural Bulgaria of my childhood, its onetime granite grandeur dwarfed by America’s ever-inflating size standards in the epochs since Whitman’s death. Yet, the trees continue to rise and remain tall, powerful yet humble, their grandeur unaffected over time.

Spring Moon on Ninomiya BeachHasui Kawase (1931). This book is also available as a print.

This aspect of trees — “the sense of steadfast continuity a tree can represent” — is what Rebecca Solnit celebrates in a sidewise trail of her lush book Orwell’s Roses. After visiting six majestic eucalyptus trees with a friend — living local legends, with deep roots in global history — she reflects:

There’s an Etruscan word, saeculumThe term refers to the time that an older person has lived, which can sometimes be around a hundred years. The term can also be used loosely to describe the time period during which something has been alive. Each event has its time, then it sunsets when someone who participated in the Spanish Civil War is dead or who last saw the passenger pigeon fly away. For us trees offered another form of saeculum. It was a deeper time-scaled and more consistent type that provided shelter from the ephemerality.

Art from Trees at Night, Art Young 1926. Prints available.

In consonance with the central poetic image in Ursula K. Le Guin’s love-poem to trees, Solnit considers the saeculum of these particular trees, planted in San Francisco by Mary Ellen Pleasant — an Underground Railroad heroine and pioneering civil rights activist, born into slavery in the early years of the 19th century:

Her death was more than 100 years ago. We stood beneath her eucalyptus tree, as though they were living witnesses to a past that is beyond our grasp. They were older than the mansion made of wood in which she had lived some of the dramatic events of her past. They were so large they buckled the sidewalk. Their grayish and brown bark spiraled around them, while their leaves, which were sickle-shaped and had a twisted shape, lay on the pavement. The wind blew through their crowns. In a way, the trees brought the past into reach: they were live things that were planted and maintained by someone who had died. However, the trees which had survived her life were ours. They changed time’s shape.

The paradox is that these portal trees, which open into time beyond our personal lifetimes, are also portals to our possibility-granted existence. Solnit agrees, keeping in mind this bidirectional illumination

Trees were reminders of both the fragility and endurance of their species, and stood taller than others in the natural landscape as witnesses and guardians.

Arthur Rackham’s art for the 1917 Brothers Grimm edition of fairy tales. Prints available.

Our eyes have been drawn to the trees, which mirrors us, in order to, as Hermann Hesse said, become our best teachers.

As Dylan Thomas understood, they tell us about the marvel of human nature.

As masters of improvisation and iteration serenading the dream of immortality, they model for us what poet Jane Hirshfield has called the “blind optimism” that makes life possible amid the ceaseless storm of negation — something Solnit captures with her own exquisite poetic precision:

The trees are a reminder to stop and think about time.

Thinking of Time and Trees. Available as a printed version.

Complement with Katherine May on how the science of trees illuminates the psychology of self-renewal and Robert Macfarlane on what trees teach us about the secret of lasting love, then revisit Italian artist and futurist Bruno Munari’s vintage existentialist tree-drawing exercise and these delightful, subversive vintage photographs of German women in trees.

Giving = Being Loving

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