The Tree – an unofficial translation for the Munich exhibition


For any non-Germans visiting the Munich photographic exhibition “Über Bäume und Gestein. Albert Renger-Patzsche und Ernst Jünger“, here is an unofficial translation I found of “Der Baum”.

“Every language contains a wealth of words that constitute its being. Poetry lives by them. As if a bell had been rung, they awaken an aura of echoes in us. “Tree” is one of these words.

Albert Renger-Patzsch, Astwerk einer Solitärfichte, ca. 1960, Albert Renger-Patzsch Archiv | Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Pinakothek der Moderne © Ann und Jürgen Wilde, Zülpich / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The Tree is one of life’s great symbols, perhaps its greatest. And thus it has been admired, honored and also worshipped through the ages by men and by peoples. Its height and breadth, its many centuries of age, and its majestic, protective stature seemed worthy of veneration.

The Persian kings had old plane trees adorned with golden chains and appointed attendants to serve them. The Germanic tribes worshipped the World Father in ancient oaks, and they regarded the universe as an ash tree. From the crowns of sessile oaks, the druids cut mistletoe with which to adorn the horns of white bulls; as the tree of the dead, the yew protected the graves in Celtic cemeteries. And in the rustling trees of Dodona´s holy groves, the priestesses heard the voice and decrees of Highest Zeus.

Zeus was, Zeus is, Zeus always will be, o mighty Zeus!

Even in today’s godless world, we fright when we hear the wind rising and falling in the forest, at one moment hardly ruffling the leaves, in the next playing on the high trunks like on the strings of a Aeolian harp. Touched even more profoundly than by the sound of an organ, something old and long-forgotten awakens in us.

Over treetops gusting back and forth

It takes a breath, then swells and pushes

And moves along –

And calming –

Off it whooshes.

This is from Peter Hille, a homeless and long-forgotten poet who often turned for refuge to his “mossy dreamer”, the forest. In the course of life, like many before and after him, he sought consolation and freedom in the forest. Our brother Man has often deserted us, brother Tree has never.

What was it that comforted us in this rustling noise? When stillness has again fallen “over all peaks” and the song has faded away, we try vainly to recall its words of consolation. In the same way, we try fruitlessly to interpret our dreams in the light of day; we find no solution. We must descend again into the night, where it awaits us. The poet senses this:

Only wait: soon

you too will rest.

Does the Tree belong to the Father’s or to the Mother’s world? This cannot be answered in one short sentence. As we assign the heights to the Father, so we like to ascribe the depths to the Mother. We find protection under the treetops, but in the lattice of the roots there is security. The branches reach out like arms stretching up to Heaven, while the roots take hold in the realm of earth.

The eye sees what is breathing in the light, but what feeds on the juices of the earth is invisible. Yet both are the power of one and the same Being, which here attains height, there depth. What we glimpse in the heights and what is hidden from us in the depths has grown from a single point; they divide the day and the night between them as image and mirror image.

Image and mirror image wish to reveal a miracle in this development; they point to the essence that establishes these dimensions. When we walk through a forest, when we look at an old tree, there is always a third party present that unites the image with the eye, the heights with the depths.

From time immemorial, in thinking about his coming and his going, man has taken the Tree as a model. In reflecting on those who came before him, he descends in spirit to the roots. There lie his ancestors, whose names are soon lost in myth, and later in humus. Where the fathers and the ancestors are worshipped, the Tree is also cherished.

When a man first glimpses the light, a new bud is formed on the Tree of Life. Many came before him who now rest in the earth, and after him many others will reach for the light. Soon he too will retire to the ancestors, become an ancestor and a patriarch himself, because, as it is lamented in the Psalms, the individual life is like grass that is cut in the evening, or a grain of sand that falls through the hourglass. And yet, his ancestral table and his family tree find their intersection in him, as the roots and branches of the Great Succession that loses itself in the dark depths of the times.

Like the hourglass, the Tree of Life is a symbol of time intersecting with the timeless – there is the waist, the root crown. There is the point we call the instant; we see the past opening out beneath it, the future above it.

In the Tree, we venerate the power of an archetype. We sense that not only life but also the universe itself expands into time and space according to this cypher. Wherever we look the pattern repeats, down to the outlines of even the smallest leaf and to the lines on the hand. Also the rivers on their path from watershed to sea, the flow of blood in the light and dark vessels, the corals in reefs and crystals in fissures – all following this key.

In the archetype, something incomprehensible is sensed, which propagates into the phenomena. The instant contains and conceals the supra-temporal, very much like the way the material axis of a wheel conceals the mathematical one. The fullness of time is nourished by the timeless, its turning by the resting. Hence the development of the smallest seed is ultimately organized around a point of non-extension –not around a spermatic but around a pneumatic point. And only then do above and below, right and left, roots and branches, life and death exist. This is a miracle that can only be understood in parable, that of the mustard seed for instance.

Archetypally, the Tree therefore appears not only as the Tree of Life but also as the World Tree. We see it in all the elements, in stone, in rivers, in fire, and also in the celestial canopy.

Therefore it should not be surprising that in the plant kingdom the tree does not represent a pinnacle hard-won through a long, difficult ascent. The human being is regarded this way, perhaps all too humanly, as goal and crowning majesty of the animated world.

No, in reality there are many classes of plant that aspire to the Tree and represent it in their own way. The oak, the pine and the dragon tree in the eucalyptus family are “in themselves” trees; but they are such by essence, not by species, by spiritual rather than by blood relation. Basically every plant conceals the predisposition, the potential of the Tree. Even mushrooms springing up from mycelium embody the principle. Families whose species we only know as herbs, such as the fern and horsetail, bring forth, or have brought forth, in other latitudes or other times trees and forests. Grasses such as the papyrus can easily be thought of as trees. Some woody plants, like the elder and the sage, grow in both bush and tree form. In a garden near Jericho, I was surprised this spring by the sight of a mighty tree whose blossoms gushed down in violet cascades. It was a bougainvillea, which until then I had only known as a climbing plant. Trees in the desert, the mountains, or the high north moreover may wither into bushy and dwarf forms, like our birches do in the moors in Lapland. And finally, gardeners can remodel bushes into trees by cutting away the lateral shoots or, conversely, transform trees into bushes by cropping the terminal shoot.

If, despite all of this, we still have a firm notion of what the Tree is, it is because our own conceptions orient nature. This image that we have is closely connected to what the ancients called physiognomy. We see the Tree as something grand in which nature achieves individuality, or better, personality; its growth testifies to life with a higher than merely vegetative or even zoological significance. A perception of dignity and due respect arises directly with this.

Right up until the end of the 17th century, botanists separated trees and bushy plants completely from herbs and herbaceous plants. As with so many of these delineations, Linnaeus’ sharp eye was also the first to recognize this one as unessential. Neither in his natural nor his artificial system does he recognize the tree structure as a defining attribute of the genus.

This does not affect the physiognomic judgment. We know instinctively what to regard as Tree and what not. The tiny pine that a Japanese grows in a bowl from grandfather to grandson is a Tree – the huge stalks in bamboo jungles by contrast are not. The Italian poplar is a Tree, even if it divides itself right at the ground into many branches, like a fire into flames. Even where a tree doubles or multiplies itself directly above the root crown, it preserves its personality, in contrast to a bush. We then consider these trunks as twins or brothers. Such formations are well known in all territories. As certain streams may become known from their waterfalls as “the Seven Sisters”, so trees in the forest or on the estates are celebrated as “the Seven Brothers.”

The question of the Tree’s ideal form brings forth as many different answers as a forest does trees. Psychology has invented one of its games from this. As with all physiognomic judgments, it would certainly be better to talk of characterology here, since it is basically a question of inner growth and essence, which each answers according to his Tree. He picks out his totemic image.

It can also happen here that someone does not see the forest for the trees. There is no ideal form of the Tree; each type bears its own ideal within it. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as a style in art. From the inclinations and the fondness of a person for certain plants and animals, a testimony is uttered that reaches deeper than his arts, assuming we don’t see in the art itself a testimony by which he represents his being-as-it-is. The authentic in art remains anonymous. Whether he opts for height, depth, youth, age, grace, dignity, defiance or sorrow, whether a crown, umbrella, bunch, spear, dome or pyramid speaks to him, whether he chooses a tall poplar, a swamp alder, a pine growing in dry sand, a weeping ash or a lightening-struck oak – all remain symbolic testimonies that reach down into the undifferentiated. There the chorus of voices unifies into the great echo of “Thou art that”.

There are monoecious and dioecious trees: those like the alder and the chestnut that simultaneously bear male and female flowers, and others in which the genders are divided by trunks, so that we can speak of male and female individuals.

In the date palms, we even encounter individual inclinations. A female palm yearns for a specific male plant and starts to pine, even though there are others nearer by. The Arabs, who are as familiar with this palm as they are with their horses and camels, do not only drape the female palms with male panicles bearing ripe pollen, but also often connect both two trunks with a string.

Besides male and female flowers, nature also produces hermaphroditic ones, and all these forms are combined and divided in various ways in the world of trees. Botanists distinguish between various sexual possibilities, from hermaphroditism to polygamy.

This is worth mentioning as an indication that gender is a secondary determination and not a fundamental character, as graphology and astrology and also genetics confirm. The Tree as such is grounded more deeply; it bears sexes but not a sex.

And it is for this reason that no compelling conclusions can be drawn from the fact that in some languages the Tree takes the male gender and in others the female. This has as little to do with chance as the gender given to the sun or moon, since a people’s determination of its characteristics contains a declaration, as, in a similar manner, does the individual’s sketching of his own ideal form of the tree. The conferring of gender in the transition from one language to another is also revealing. Arbor comes arbre; considering the close relation of these two words, this is remarkable insofar as the Romans sensed the female gender of the tree so strongly that they even extended it to species with masculine name endings.

Anyone reflecting on the Tree must not consider only the roots, but also the forest. The forest is a capability of the Tree, which is why the Tree can be imagined without the forest but not the forest without the trees.

Still, the forest is not a mere multiplication or simple collection of trees; rather it changes the form and life of the individuals. Made up of them, it in turn affects their makeup. In the wild, the natural selection is tougher; the different species struggle for space and light, especially in primordial and mixed forests. From a thousand pollen spores, one pollinates, from a thousand shoots one trunk makes it, and even it lives a precarious life for a long time. In thick fir forests, we occasionally stumble on a young beech, which, after shooting up high, now bends its crown to the ground. The image recalls a young man, an apprentice, of whom too much was asked.

On the other hand, the forest also provides security. Its crowns unite into a roof that barely lets the rain through but shelters the ground from the sun. The trunks forfeit lateral branches and grow quickly upwards. This affects the habitat: free-standing copper beeches form crowns close above the ground, while in forests of the same trees the branches soar up to the canopy, branching off from high up, like lancet arches in gothic halls. Only the trees at the edge of the forest develop lateral branches; these reach right down to the ground, and in combination with the hedgerows they form a barricade against the wind, which slips over the forest as if over a dome. In the tropics in particular, certain islands of forests resemble a single, mighty tree.

The forest grows vigorously in biomass, returning more to the earth than it asks of it. Flourishing anew each year, it casts off its leaves and branches and ultimately its trunks too, entrusting them to the humus, in which the heat of mighty summers is stored. We still warm ourselves with the surpluses of forests whose riches no human eye ever saw.

Only seldom, in species like the Andean lamas or South Pacific breadfruit for instance, does this giving virtue so concentrate that the people with whom they share a home are freed from life’s burdens. This recalls Hesiod’s golden age, in which the labor of a day supposedly sufficed for the needs of a year.

Just three trunks of the breadfruit tree are said to be sufficient not only to nourish a family throughout the year but also to supply them with clothing and even building materials for huts, boats, and tools. There are also trees that make deserts and islands inhabitable, such as the date and coconut palms, and others whose disappearance would cause countries and coasts to sink into poverty – not without reason was the olive tree considered a gift of the gods. Yet, for even more than the rich surplus of fruits weighing down its branches, for more than its gifts of wine, bread, sugar and oil, is man indebted to the Tree’s quiet growth, which accumulates year after year, ring after ring, on its trunk. In its wood, the concealing and protecting nature of the tree emerges in its most undisguised form.

It is currently said that an age of wood preceded the stone age. Yet distinctions are hardly possible here, because the moment the inventive consciousness awakened in man, every means that presented itself for his needs must have been used: branches, pebbles, bones, horn, shells, fish bones. Wood and stone were combined early on in simple implements, with the wood usually taking the directing roles, the stone the tougher, implementing ones. This can be observed in spears and arrows, in axes and knives from all early periods. It repeats in increasingly larger configurations, all the way up to half-timbered houses, in which wood provided the frame, stone the filling.

As the animals clothe man with their fur and wool, so wood warms him, not alone with its fire, but also by enfolding him in an all-embracing garment. It serves him as a table, a boat, as a bed in which to rest, beget, give birth and die, as a cradle, and finally also as his coffin.

Still today, we feel ourselves truly at home when we are “in wood”, be it in a paneled room with old furniture, or on a winter’s night in the far north, where wood is still used to build. Only then does the real life in wood first become clear to us – its forest and tree spirits, its sylvan magic, which even the axe does not destroy. This magic reawakens in the hearth, over the embers, as the growth rings peel off like the leaves of an unnamed book. Then man’s memory too goes back, deep into what can only be intuited, into the undifferentiated.

On the coasts and in the mountains of the forested north, in its boathouses and Alpine chalets, memories also awaken of times when men did not yet know how to hew wood but used fire to cut it. No boards or veneers existed, only the unplaned, unsawn trunk, for the log cabin, the dugout canoe, or the coffin.

Wood may weather, but it loses none of its vital, giving power. And thus for many it seems more appropriate as a last vestment, as a last covering, than a stone sarcophagus. A man’s traces lose themselves more anonymously and more consolingly in “Nos habebit humus”.*

Yet something imperishable remains. The ancients called the coffin a bier, bara – an ambiguous word, since it points not only to a load to be born but also to a load-bearer and a load deliverer. Hence, certain even widely-separated peoples regarded the coffin as a boat, a vehicle for the cosmic road.

The unique character of something emerges in isolation. To be able to admire the Tree and its forms, for instance in the Jupiter oak in the forests of Fontainbleau, we must grant it space.

All the transition phases from more to less dense populations are found in nature – from impenetrable primeval forests to sparse groves, the forests of the flood plains, the dry steppe, the prairies and savannah, and the scattered clumps of the pre-Alps that Felix von Hornstein describes in his work on our forests and their history.

Perhaps the Tree’s nicest effect is achieved in sun-soaked copses where centuries-old stocks have survived. Here the forest is raised to a new power that unites age-old experience and triumph. Time and space vanquishing powers become perceptible, like in a senate or an assembly filled with kings.

Where small groups of trees on estate lands have been spared with their undergrowth intact, the man-made landscape is tremendously enlivened. The sight of plants and animals to which these last islands of wilderness still offer cover, nourishment and protection will surprise us here.

A row of trees is less a transition to isolation than it is its enhancement. Its sight evokes the idea of a border, above all a guarded one. We encounter it in nature where strings of poplar, alder or old willows follow the course of a stream or river, or in the graceful rows of coconut palms which tropical shorelines hail us from afar with.

As a land patron, man plants rows of trees as markers of his territory and his property. Napoleon had bridges and military roads identified by plantings of poplars. Stately rows of trees guided the people of the big cities to the castles, pilgrimage churches and squares where they relaxed and enjoyed themselves; they also divided the park lands and shaded the driveways. Some of these boulevards are famed for their length, their antiquity and their fourfold rows; they often linked the capital with the royal gardens, as avenues of linden did the manor houses.

In such arrangements, the concept takes precedent over the utility. They are an aspect of the noble side of man and his orders. They seek to make room for the phenomenon of the Tree and its grandeur, and to conduct man to where great and solemn things await, to where he worships or where he delights.

Given that the Tree calls for veneration, it has the strongest effects where man and his arts provide it the free space owed it. This cannot happen from one day to the next. A person who plants a tree considers his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Here subsists a concern for meaning beyond day-to-day consumption and quick utility, even beyond anything affecting one’s own life and death. And it prevails over time; we feel it in the peace and quiet that delights us in an old park. Our forefathers must have thought of us. Now we join with them, and distance ourselves from the harrying, threatening turning of time. We sense quietness, even in the decay. Nuthatches and woodpeckers nest in the hollow trunks, mushrooms colonize the rotten wood, a red-brown powder dribbles down from the worms’ burrowings. We caress the bark of our elder brother; he was there to witness jousts and was already stately when Columbus was preparing his caravels. Here there is more powerful life, a dreaming life, and our own life, with all its temporal worries, becomes a dream. What will remain of them after even one century passes?

If, after a period of unrestricted exploitation, we now begin to protect and care for trees, in particular old trees, then we do no more than our duty. This aid is not like that which we give to an invalid, whom we indulge with a few additional pleasant days in the hospital before he is laid to rest. Fundamentally it is not we that protect the Tree; it is he who grants us his protection. We are granted admittance to him. The old oak, the old linden, or the old ash tree that we venerate is a symbol that represents not only the Tree of Life but also the World Tree. By not presuming to touch it, we bear witness that the inviolate exists, and will be honored. This confers meaning and legitimacy to the order of our world and our life. It was for this reason that sacrifices were once made before trees were felled.

Where gods and ancestors are still venerated, the protection-giving power that is sensed in trees has survived. We plant a tree in memory of a great man or a turn of destiny. And when we make out the distant crown of an old linden tree in the middle of the fields, as here in Upper Swabia, so we may be sure that it casts its shadow on a saint’s image or a crucifix, and that when it will one day fall, it will not be to the axe, but to the river or to lightening.

Myths sometimes grasp the unity, other times the opposition. They grasp the whole and do not leave the gaps that science does. We must therefore view them stereoscopically. This is also true where they at one moment ascribe the Tree to the father, at the next to the mother, or once to the earth, then to the gods. Both have their meaning.

The Tree is a son of the earth; and so the priestesses in the groves of Dodona accompanied their praises to Great Zeus with praises to the Mother Earth:

Gaia sends up the harvest, therefore sing her praise as Mother Earth.

Man has always tried to understand his becoming and passing with the metaphor of the Tree – not only his own ephemeral life but also that of the royal and divine lineages, of the hierarchies and dynasties, of the peoples and empires. The eternally-young earth produces all this, and it all passes back into her. It is the great model in which the “dying and becoming”** can be seen, and which Spengler still follows in his comparative study of cultures. They sprout, bloom, produce fruit, age and mysteriously die as thousand-year-old trunks; then the earth claims them back again.

There are reasons why we live in a period that is ill-disposed to the Tree. The forests disappear, the old trunks fall, and this cannot be explained through economics alone. The economics merely play along with and execute things, because in fact our times are also wasteful in an unprecedented manner. This corresponds to its two great tendencies of leveling and acceleration. The higher needs to fall, and what is senior must lose its power. In its height, the Tree belongs to the father and so with it falls everything that was of value to the father: the crown, the sword of war and the sword of justice, the sacred borders, and the horse.

However myth knows not only the Tree of Life, but also the World Tree. Rooted in the primordial ground and flourishing in the cosmos, it brings forth the suns and stars. Here the Father and Mother are united in eternal radiance. It is the wood of Life in the middle of the Eternal City in which there are no differentiations, no holy sanctuaries. And thus the ash tree Ygdrasil, in whose shade the gods gather each day to take counsel, does not fall with them – it outlives the downfall.”

* From “On the shortness of life”:

Let us rejoice, therefore,

While we are young.

After a pleasant youth

After a troubling old age

The earth will have us.”

** From Goethe’s “Seelige Sehnsucht” (The Soul’s Yearning):

Und solang Du das nicht hast

Dieses: Stirb und werde!

Bist Du nur ein trüber Gast

Auf der dunklen Erde.

And so long as this you lack,

This dying and becoming,

You will be but a dull guest

On the gloomy earth.

By SiFr



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