Philosophising in the Shadow of Trees

When gathering his students outside the Academy, did Plato urge them to sit in the shade of (already) ancestral olive trees or did he urge them to stand in-between the shadow of its imposing columns? Apart from the Buddha, longing for spiritual experience under a Bodhi tree, philosophers do not seem to lift their heads to admire these mute witnesses of historical events and by-gone generations. And yet, the first (possibly philosophical) conversations of our remote ancestors took place in front of a fire and it is difficult to picture the origins of tool-making, sheltering or cooking without the existence of wood and trees. 

Today, the systematic destruction of primeval woodlands and forests is threatening our very survival. Trees mean oxygen and oxygen means life. Deserts are places of psychological challenge and spiritual revelation: the three religions of the Book emphasise the dangers of natural wilderness while highlighting their special relation with the One. If Socrates, and by implication Plato, appeared insensitive to what nature had to teach them, Aristotle, for his part, anticipated the scientific relation between man and his environment. His detailed study of the rich fauna and flora of a lagoon on the island of Lesbos, is a most remarkable attempt at understanding the interconnected and symbiotic nature of the living world. However, if it took so long for man to respect all living organisms, it is undoubtedly because of the Cartesian syndrome of ‘the human conquest and mastery of nature’ prevailing among Western intellectual circles well until Charles Darwin’s days. 

Paradoxically, so-called ‘primitive’ societies such as Aboriginal or Amerindian ones, ascribe ‘intelligence’ and ‘design’ to all living creatures, including trees, mountains and even clouds. Claude Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological studies have contributed to a radically new understanding of nature via his structuralist interpretations of pre-agrarian mythologies. A classic Taoist text, attributed to Zhuangzi (369–286 BCE), encourages a spontaneous accord with our natural environment, away from the constant demands of social life. Zhuangzi’s ‘playful wanderer’ evinces serenity and equanimity as he adapts his lifestyle to the cyclical rhythms of nature. In the parable of the useless tree, a friend of the Chinese philosopher complains about a big tree which is so distorted and so knotted that its wood is of no use to anyone. Zhuangzi retorts that the best course of action is to replant the tree and enjoy it for its sheltering foliage and mere presence in its new location. 

Henry David Thoreau’s philosophy was not far away from Zhuangsi’s preoccupations. A life-long lover of trees, Emerson’s transcendentalist friend showed a Taoist patience at capturing the trembling beauty of the Maine woods before his long acquaintance with the trees of Walden. He saw in them a divine presence which nurtured his soul and strengthened his faith in the healing power of nature. Trees were immortal and symbolised, for him, nature’s insatiable appetite for life.

In his 1957 novel The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino portrays a rebellious twelve-year old aristocrat who takes refuge in the trees of the Ligurian forest before deciding to spend the rest of his life, perched like a bird, forever estranged from the trivial daily trials of his fellow-beings. This Voltairian ‘conte philosophique’ shows how civilised man has lost his primeval contact with nature and by doing so, has sacrificed an essential dimension of his true identity.

And what about Hegel’s ‘owl of Minerva’? Let’s imagine this nocturnal bird taking its flight from the highest branch of its verdant observation post before gliding majestically above a world in need of spiritual elevation.

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