Kindness, I had been told by friends and therapists, was my hamartia, my fatal flaw. Were plants kind creatures? The moral biology of junior-school science teaches us to think of plants as altruistic creatures, who kindly gave us our oxygen and fruits and flowers and vegetables and shade and support for swings.
But this was to be my lesson – if I really wanted to become a tree, I would need to rev up my consciousness about self-love. The care of the self is a complicated concept, and I would never be sure if the French philosopher Michel Foucault meant to include trees in its fold. The Bengali idiom that came to me most often, from family no less, that unit which is usually most critical, was this: “awpatray daan”, I was putting my alms in the wrong bowl is what I was told.
So, are trees kind? Was it possible that the moral ecologists had got it all wrong, that trees were not really kind to others? That they survived only on self-interest? Biology tells us this, and yet men have turned trees into symbols of altruism. I was not interested in the quarrel between the two schools of thought. I was only curious to know whether trees too did what I had been accused of doing – donating alms to the wrong person?
A tree, because it does not – cannot – know the difference between a gardener and a woodcutter, would treat both equally and not keep its breath of oxygen, flower, fruit and fragrance from either. In refusing to make this moral distinction, the tree would cause itself harm the way I probably did. But there was no way the tree could change. How could I then?
Like most people of my social class and education, I like to flatter and indulge myself with illusions about my infinite reserves of tolerance. Like many others like me, I have seen the violence of intolerance destroying relationships; what it does to communities and countries is on the first pages of newspapers. Because of my disillusionment with the noise of this human intolerance, or perhaps because of my own intolerance of this intolerance, an acute lack in my estimate, I began to wonder whether the idea of tolerance played out in the plant world.
Free association with this concept brought with it other grudges that stoked my desire to flee to a plant life.
I felt repulsed by the mechanics of human historiography – think of the way in which a man’s quiet, possibly self-contented days are dismissed with a phrase like “an uneventful life”. Literature too, especially the novel, in mimicking history, had privileged a false notion of time and busyness, a fact that was brought home to me particularly when I was working on my doctoral dissertation on the writer and musician Amit Chaudhuri, whose writing derives so much of its beauty from an aesthetic in which, in Samuel Beckett’s half-jocular words, “nothing happens”.
Our dismissal of plant life comes from our inability to engage with nothing happening, with the Heraclitean “nature loves to hide”. Twentieth-century historians had tried to correct that impulse by bringing those whom they considered the “marginalised” into the frame of history. But they hadn’t been entirely able to escape from the domination of the “event” on history. Only those who had caused abrupt roadblocks in the onward notion of time and event had made their way into history books. But there was nothing climactic, path-bending or life-changing in the life history of plants and trees. And hence their banishment from history?
A neo-scientific colloquial phrase had been invented to trap the varied histories of all kinds of plant life – “life cycle” was drab compared to all the colourful and even artistic terminology reserved for humans. Plants and trees had therefore not made history. There was no record of plant behaviour apart from the bureaucratic note-taking of committed botanists.
Part of the reason behind this had to do with the privileging of creatures with eyes over those that didn’t have them. The dominance of the visual in our lives, the way we lived, ate, dressed, spoke, sneezed, coughed, walked, ran, laughed, cried, was exasperating. History, thus, had only been about the visible.
History textbooks are filled with stories of conquests because war results in graphic images. Or to relate what I am talking about to the everyday – a broken leg gets an employee medical leave but not a broken heart. It is this lopsided attitude that has made us indifferent to the invisible workings of plant life – we only see new leaves and flowers and fruits and make conclusions about a tree’s health, everything else being inconsequential to us.
And so the stress on the “secret” in the titles of books that aim to tell us about their inner lives – the secret life of plants, the secret life of seeds, and so on.
Secrets have never been given space or even footnoted in any history book, and so plants continue to remain ahistorical creatures.
But, of course, this is not about the visual element alone. It also has to do with movement. Take the circus, for instance, where animals and acrobats are put on show to display movements as evidence of the grand definition of life. Who has ever seen a tree or a plant in a circus? This explains their exclusion from the genre of children’s toys; and adult “toys” as well.
Sometimes, leaning against a tree, I think of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and wonder why that piece of human architecture has been valorised while trees, with their extraordinary ability to grow in all kinds of directions, horizontal, vertical, and all manner of odd angles and hybrid postures in between, have been ignored.
I was often chastised for my madness. This love, this juvenile desire to live like a tree, was escapism, I was told, from a world of human cruelty and bloodshed. Bertolt Brecht wrote, “You can’t write poems about trees when the woods are full of policemen.”
But I was unfazed by the criticism. I was tired of the world I lived in, with all the tricks and subterfuges that were necessary to succeed. Trees were not politically correct – apart from the stratagems to attract possible pollinators, they did not need to engage in any kind of camouflage; there was no gap between who they were and who they wanted to be.
Tired of making mistakes, I turned to the plant world for lessons. Where was the scope of making mistakes in the emotional economy of a tree’s life? “It has been said that trees are imperfect men, and seem to bemoan their imprisonment rooted in the ground. But they never seem so to me. I never saw a discontented tree,” wrote John Muir in 1890. That is what I wanted to be.
Excerpted with permission from How I Became a Tree, Sumana Roy, Aleph Book Company.