Seeing the forest or the tree?

Is a forest properly represented by each of the trees that comprise it? On the other hand, can the forest be comprehended without experiencing the trees that together constitute it?

The first verse of Dante’s Comedy reads – in translation..

“Midway upon the journey of our life

I found myself within a forest dark

For the straightforward pathway had been lost”

 

I don’t speak Italian, but the cadence of language matters I believe. If you read aloud the original, even without understanding, you get a musical sense of the meaning..

“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

mi ritrovai per una selva oscure

che’ la diritta via era smarrita”

A part, possibly the majority, of the meaning has been lost in the translation. But for those who don’t read Italian – you need that translation to understand the intellectual sense.

It happens that I have first hand experience, not just of Dante’s mid-life crisis, but of different understanding through language. My family moved to Germany in 1958 when I was tiny. I learned German at kindergarten, and moved back to England when I was 4 years old. Now I can’t understand the books I read or wrote as a 3 year old. I don’t speak or understand German “intellectually”. However strangely I do “get” the meaning of much of German that is spoken even though I don’t have the vocabulary. I know this because much of my working life has dealt with German companies. I suppose I am understanding the language as a 3 year old would. I understand, but emotionally, not rationally.

Which leads me, circuitously, to my point. An idea, person, place – anything and everything – can be understood on many levels and in many ways. The meaning does not lie wholly, or even mainly, in the intellectual rational plane.

We need to be intensely careful of judgement. Very often we do not understand that which we judge, but instead project out our own concerns and meanings to clothe the outward idea or person – and then utter condemnation or approval.

Returning to the theme of trees. Here is a stanza from Buber’s Ich und Du…

 

“I consider a tree.

I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background.

I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air – and the obscure growth itself.

I can classify it in a species and study it as a type in its structure and mode of life.

I can subdue its actual presence and form so sternly that I recognise it only as an expression of law – of the laws in accordance with which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or of those in accordance with which the component substances mingle and separate.

I can dissipate it and perpetuate it in number, in pure numerical relation.

In all this the tree remains my object, occupies space and time, and has its nature and constitution.

It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is now no longer IT. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness.”

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