You, Me, and Useless Trees

Look up the trunk of a redwood and all along the bark are notches, round scars where before there were branches. The lost limbs fall to the forest floor, large and rounded, like the bows of giants in a fairy tale. And they bend to make fences, as if the memory of life still runs through them. Meanwhile, the trees from which these branches fall continue to grow tall, shedding parts in the name of growth. 

They do this for centuries, until the treetops become cities unto themselves, housing thousands of creatures and whole ecosystems, sustained by the sun and wind, living in the shade of the green. Observing the trees from down below, they seem majestic, solid, and complete. But just like you and me, they are always in motion and full of possibility — and as long as life runs through them, they must do the painful work of growing.

It’s not easy being green, however, as Kermit the Frog said. So what do we do to stay fresh headed even while it feels like our hearts are hardening? 

Surely the trees too must find the process unpleasant, shedding parts, lightening the load as they go ever upward. But they do it and probably the tops don’t concern themselves with the scars in the bark — they are too busy with the living parts. So this has got me thinking about detachment and what that truly means.    

We too are shedding, leaving notches in our skin, losing to gain and gaining to lose (for this is a game that cannot ultimately be won, only played), just like the redwoods. And like the trees, even as our bodies seem to harden, turn to bark, the lively mind is fresh and green, remains pliable with time. 

But how do you make a flexible mind? By being flexible. And how you stay young is by staying young. And how that is done precisely is your problem (perhaps best expressed as a no-problem).

The trees provide guidance, as do the mystics. Chuang Tzu’s “perfect” taoist fool is someone who does not cling to or resist what is, mind like a mirror, reflecting but not reacting. Alan Watts defines this as detachment and then spells it out in terms anyone can understand. Detachment is no regrets for the past, no fear for the future, letting life take its course without attempting to interfere with its changes and movements, neither clinging to the pleasant nor hastening the departure of difficult things.

Sounds hard? Well, it can’t be worse than what the trees endure, and they seem to do it with grace. Standing in their presence, I am inclined to want to put a good face on this shit show, so that I can continue to grow. But vanity and vexation. As Watts warns, desiring particular outcomes, clinging to notions of how things should go, is definitively not detachment. 

Instead, the fool delights in whatever arises, seeking no use for things, just experiencing. This does not mean the taoist comes to dinner expecting no meal, just that there are no feels about what will be in the bowl. When we stop doing things expecting a certain end, then we notice what is actually happening, and sometimes we find that with time, loss really is gain and we really do grow through pain. 

But my point is not to quantify and tie a pretty bow on what we don't know. Rather, it is to learn to see, and with any luck, even be a useless tree.

The Useless Tree -- Chuang Tzu

Hui Tzu said to Chuang, "I have a big tree, the kind they call a "stinktree." The trunk is so distorted, so full of knots, no one can get a straight plank out of it. The branches are so crooked you cannot cut them up in any way that makes sense."

"There it stands beside the road. No carpenter will even look at it. Such is your teaching - big and useless."

Chuang Tzu replied, "Have you ever watched the wildcat crouching, watching his prey. The prey leaps this way, and that way, high and low, and at last lands in the trap. And have you seen the Yak? Great as a thundercloud, he stands in his might. Big? Sure, but he can't catch mice!"

"So for your big tree, no use? Then plant it in the wasteland, in emptiness. Walk idly around it, rest under its shadow. No axe or bill prepares its end. No one will ever cut it down."

"Useless? You should worry!"

Thomas Merton
The Way of Chuang Tzu
Abbey of Gethsemani, 1965