Can we unchop a tree?

Sumana Roy | Updated on January 10, 2018 Published on September 15, 2017
Heal thee well: In Unchopping a Tree, poet WS Merwin urges readers to become plant nurses and surgeons, and attach what was once together and alive. Photo: K R Deepak

Heal thee well: In Unchopping a Tree, poet WS Merwin urges readers to become plant nurses and surgeons, and attach what was once together and alive. Photo: K R Deepak   -  The Hindu

The process of setting a Benjamin Button equivalent in the non-human world makes you question the creature comforts you take for granted

Unchopping a Tree is a slim book that is the result of a collaboration between the poet WS Merwin and the artist Liz Ward. Subtitled ‘The Interior Life of a Tree’, the text and artwork move in symphony, but always backwards in time and space to reconstruct what once was. What these illustrations of the tree’s intestines — its xylem, phloem, the conglomeration of cells in their various geometries — do is to create an interiority that makes life look like a well-planned conspiracy.

Start with the leaves, the small twigs, and the nest that has been shaken, ripped, or broken off by the fall; these must be gathered and attached once again to their respective places. It is not arduous work, unless major limbs have been smashed or mutilated.

What Merwin is asking us to do is to become plant nurses and surgeons — attach what was once together. There is violence in that too, in this back-to-origin impulse, but Merwin softens its edges when he tells us that such labour cannot be performed by “the universe of ants, the empire of mice, or ... a local tribe of squirrels”. “This is men’s work.” Everything must be put back to how it once was, he instructs. As I read on, it seems like he is trying to create a Benjamin Button equivalent in a tree, make it age backwards as in the Scott Fitzgerald story. “The contents will have to be repaired where necessary, and reassembled, insofar as possible, in their original order, including the shells of nuts already opened.” I am stumped by the imaginative leap in the last phrase for it had never struck me, while shelling peanuts or walnuts, that I was committing an act of violence, that not just the breaking of shells but the consequent chewing of the nuts was actually an appendix on the subject of death.

Like a sick patient is gradually made to sit up on his bed after surgery, and then taken on a walk inside his hospital cabin to find out if all that has been sewed is holding well, the tree trunk must be made to stand up: “At last the time comes for the erecting of the trunk... Every motion of the tackle, every slight upward heave of the trunk, the branches, their elaborately reassembled panoply of leaves (now dead) will draw from you an involuntary gasp... The raising itself is no small enterprise, from the moment when the chains tighten around the old bandages until the bole hangs vertical above the stump, splinter above splinter.” Merwin’s words convey the force of physical hardship pushing them, the way I imagine a group of men sighing and heaving while coaxing and pushing up a prostrate tree — hai ho hai ho hai ho. But all that energy is an oxymoron. It is necessary to make the trunk stand erect, but it is also useless because no matter how much of energy is drained from men into the tree, the tree won’t come to life.

Merwin drags me back to the dead tree now being resuscitated to life, the actions of the human agents a version of mouth-to-mouth, as it were. Humans might pretend, they might praise this recreation of life as a fine exposition of didactic art, but is it possible that other forms of life, plants and animals that made a home in such a tree wouldn’t be able to spot the difference? “The day comes when it is all restored, even to the moss (now dead) over the wound.” Moss would even grow on walls; that is no test, I contest in silence.

Merwin’s men have restored the tree to its vertical grandiosity and there is celebration: “Finally the moment arrives when the last sustaining piece is removed and the tree stands again on its own. It is as though its weight for a moment stood on your heart.” Merwin has placed his bet on life by investing in the position — verticality is for those alive, horizontality for the dead. It is perhaps this that scares us most about a child’s fall. I see that same fear in Merwin: “How long will it stand there now? ... You are afraid the motion of the clouds will be enough to push it over.”

And so the book ends with the timid, even scared, hopefulness of the second-time mother. One dead tree resurrected to life, or at least its visual formula, but there are so many more. I’m surrounded by the pleading opacity of wooden furniture in my bedroom as I close this prayer-like book. Which trees did all these chairs and tables and beds come from?

The urgency of the book’s last line has left me permanently dislodged. “Everything is going to have to be put back.”

Everything is going to have to be put back.

Sumana Roy, author of How I Became a Tree, writes from Siliguri; @SumanaSiliguri

Published on September 15, 2017
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