Thomas Nydahl: The great pathos of Trees

The tree is mentioned in Swedish lyrics and prose. Per Helge has published a
whole book about a single tree. Lennart Sjögren has written a poem about a tree in Per
Helge’s yard. Björn Berglund’s new book is entitled Mama in the woods and Kerstin.
Ekman’s voluminous catalogue of Swedish nature and culture is entitled The Masters of
the Wood. In Anne-Marie Berglund’s collection of poems, I want to be a tree now, she
says: “I must be a tree now. I will break down if I am not allowed to be a tree now” and
“Of course the wood remains. We are the ones who are embezzled.”
In the country where I live, the Swedish province of Scania, there is a sharp divide
between north and south; in the north begin the forests of Göinge, the forests of
freedom, the forests of the former partisans who fought the Swedes. These woods are
crossing the borders of the province of Småland, where they continue. The tree has an
important role in my life. Mythological and concrete as the two big birch-trees outside
the window of my study. Without those tress the blue sky would only have been an
empty scene without any connection to my imagination. But with the play of the
sunlight between the branches of the birches the blue background becomes an
inhabited world, a world of interacting elements.
When I read Trees, Béla Hamvas’ beautiful little collection of essays, translated
into English, I am struck by the same unusual feeling as when I read John Berger, an
insight that the relation to the individual tree in nature could be personified, as if that
tree with its characteristics could have had a soul, and thereby had a direct and
personal relation to the viewer.
John Berger wrote that a tree looked back at him, when he watched it. That kind
of stillness, that kind of presence, is very unusual outside an urban room nowadays.
Because of that I return to this text by the Hungarian writer Béla Hamvas
Trees is very different from another of his important books, A Philosophy of wine.
It does not have at all the religious tone of the wine-book, it is very close to its subject:
The great pathos of trees is their great ecstasy. This is the undulating swell of
their brim-fullness, their subconscious pulsation, their suffering of the swell,
their warm, black velvet snake embrace. They do what life, this fever, does with
them; but more: this is no mere fever, it is not an increase in something that is
already there; it is a decrease. Something cooler, more deliquescent, more
quiet, more simple, less demanding, more satisfying and more enduring.
What will I emphasize when I read these lines that both contain warmth and cold,
pathos and endurance? What strikes me first is that Hamvas’ language always contains
its own dialectics. The poetic beauty is embedded in the affirmation of the
contradictions, the opposite poles, because they could be both objective and
subjectively human. Hamvas says on one hand that there is ecstasy in the trees, and on
the other hand that they are “less demanding”. The pendulum goes forth and back and
the language includes both the subconscious pulse and the acceptance of what life
itself does to them, the trees. Do I forget that he is talking about trees? Then I go to the
‘black velvet snake embrace’. Is it the Garden of Eden we are visiting? If there is no
answer to such a question I am content with the fact that the whole of trees, their
families and species, is a paradise reflection of something forgotten, something in a
long-distance past that we have to re-create, not least as memory and image. Because
that is the way Hamvas looks at trees:
It is in unceasing contact with its nutriment. Its growth is unceasing. It is
nourished by the earth. The tree ingests the earth, reaching even more deeply
into its soil. Yet the tree is no parasite.
The tree stands where it stands. It is impossible for it to stand somewhere else. It grows
where it was planted. In that sense the tree is the opposite of mankind, and also its bad
conscience. Modern man does everything possible to cut off his relation to the earth.
The place is no longer its basis, he chose the breaking up, the departure, the travelling.
Its restless wandering puts it in instant contradiction to the tree, whose non-parasiting
system of roots is one with earth, offers it:
the chance to make a gift of itself. The binding tie is mutual: the roots drill deep
into the soil for gain, while the earth draw the roots into itself, so that it may
Hamvas makes the image of the tree and man clear at the same time. Because of it
being rootless and restless, mankind is very much a parasite. Its exploitation of the
earth is in strong contradiction with the related on-spot-existence of the tree. In his
rootless life man is burning all the fossil fuel underneath it, in the belief that earth
never will see what it means. But like flood-waves and hurricanes, the past is
confronting mankind. The tree, the one which has been living in a mutual system with
earth, is swept away at the same time as mankind’s restless life is evident. Or, as Anne-
Marie Berglund said:
Of course the wood remains. We are the ones who are embezzled.

Thomas Nydahl

Béla Hamvas,Trees, translated by Peter Sherwood, Editio M, Hungary, 2006
Article published in the Swedish newspaper Kristianstadsbladet, 6 July 2007

[The Trees essay was written at the end of the thirties or early 1940's. It is an
essay of the "Baberligetkonyv" which, translated, would be “The Book of the
garden of laurels”. This book wasn't published until mid 1990's. (Only one of
his books was published in his lifetime. Sad thing.) ] Zoltan Danyi

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