During the course of reading and considering Plato’s Phaedrus dialogue, I had occasion to reflect that the act of sitting under a shady tree, both literally and metaphorically, is a fundamental human experience that very nearly every human being has access to. This notion seems to offer an interesting place to explore what exactly all of that means. It seems like intriguing new Zensylvania territory. So here we have an exploration of the meanings and benefits of shadetrees.
Fundamental Human Experience
For convenience, let’s start this examination with the Phaedrus dialogue. The dialogue begins with the characters Phaedrus and Socrates heading out of the city for a conversation. Eventually they take up a place to sit by a river under a shady tree. In their case, it was a plane (or sycamore) tree. On face value, this is an interesting and relatively benign detail. Plato presents a couple of intellectuals heading off to a pleasant spot to chat.
I’ve already suggested that sitting und a shady tree is a fundamental human experience and this could be enough. The dialogue is merely showing what any two friends have had opportunity to do throughout human existence: take shelter together and commune. I wouldn’t want to suggest that this simplicity should be mistaken for banality. Instead, and even before any other considerations, I want to suggest that the simplicity is relatively profound. Taking shelter in the natural world to commune and learn from one another is perhaps one of the most fundamental indicators of productive civilization that we have. What could have been more essential to human progress, at any time, than taking a bit of time to figure a few things out together?
For Socrates and Phaedrus, the tree was a platanus orientalis. That is the scientific term. As most of us are aware, standardized scientific terminology (in our contemporary western culture) is most often rendered-in or derived from Latin, Greek and, to a certain extent, Arabic (see my Incomplete Exploration of Fuzzy Logic). The vocabulary preferences displayed in scientific jargon are an interesting tangent which still managers to be firmly connected to this exploration. The reasons that scientists continue to use these languages for their jargon are dominated by the Academy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Sure, there are many other variables and events involved, but western academia (and therefore, science) is rooted with those influential individuals.
So let’s get back to the platanus orientalis. Those two words mean Eastern Plane tree. Orientalis indicates eastern. There is also a platanus occidentalis, or Western Plane tree species as well. Occidentalis indicates western. The eastern variety may also be referred to as the Old World Sycamore while the western variety may be called the American Sycamore. Here again, there is an interesting tangent. In writing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig was clearly interested in the synthesis of many different ideas, not least being the values of Eastern and Western culture. This was an underlying attitude that he held in his approach to the University of Chicago which is detailed in the book.
Pirsig’s interest in these issues are displayed via a number of events of his life and perhaps not insignificantly influenced by a book he referenced reading after having been exposed to Eastern cultures during a period of military service. In ZAMM, Pirsig references having read The Meeting of East and West by F.S.C. Northop. That book was published shortly after the second world war and was deeply concerned with a need to reconcile eastern and western cultures . Northrop recognized that human civilization had entered a period of global interactions which made communication among differing cultures and values existentially necessary.
So the fact of a platanus orientalis and a platanus occidentalis – an eastern and a western shade tree – is not entirely banal.
The plane tree is closely connected with the Athenian Academy which had a grove of trees where the peripatetic (walking) scholars interacted with their students. There was also the Tree of Hippocrates, which was a plane tree. All of this is to say that academics and learning has, for at least 2500 years, been closely associated with the fundamental experience of taking shelter under a shady tree t commune.
Well…let’s continue to play with words a bit and take note that the plan tree is also known by the name ‘sycamore’. Sycamore (sicamour) is a word derived from the root words of sykos (fig) and moron (mulberry). So a sycamore is a fig-mulberry. The sycamore leaf resembles the mulberry leaf while the fruit resembles the fig. Indeed, sycamore is a Biblical word used for a wide-spreading shady tree with fig-like fruit; it should be no surprise that fig-trees are often cited in the Abrahamic religions. Those trees were a valued presence for their fruit and shade – in essence for their community-nurturing properties.
In Buddhism, Guatama Buddha is described as sitting under a ‘Bodhi tree‘ when enlightenment was attained. Bodhi tree means tree of awakening. One of the archetypal images of Buddhism is a person seated in a lotus-position under the canopy of a tree. This is the tree of awakening. The original bodhi tree was a fig tree with the latin name Ficus Religiosa. It seems entirely likely that the fig tree was a central figure of the Buddha story/myth for the same reasons that it appear in the Abahamic stories/myths: community-nurturing properties.
Buddhist literature formally recognizes twenty-nine individuals as having achieved the status of enlightenment or wisdom – thereby attaining the term ‘Buddha’ and each one has a particular species of tree associated with the achievement. Clearly, there is something that is both fundamental and universal in sitting under a shade tree that seemed worth documenting within that tradition.
The image of a single person meditating under a shady tree is not precisely the same as that of two (or more) folks gathered under a tree in community. But it isn’t terribly far from it. In fact, the image of a person meditating under a tree feels far more like an invitation to community than (for example) the image of a hermit in a cave, a sage at the top of a mountain or a variety of other archetypal depictions that one cares to call to mind.
In the final chapter of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, there is an extended revelatory scene where Chris, the narrator’s son, is finally freed-up from his sheltered and limiting position behind his father on the back of the motorcycle. At that moment, Chris is finally able to see the trees and the road itself: “The road continues to twist and wind through the trees..some of these branches over the road are hanging so low they’re going to konk him on the head if he’s not careful….the sunlight makes strange and beautiful designs through the tree branches on the road.”
This is the culmination and enlightenment moment for the motorcycle-ride-as-meditation. Pirsig names the tress along this ride on the California coast as being coastal manzanita. The scene clearly sets this species as a kind of Bodhi tree for Chris and/or the narrator.
There had been may scenes in the book prior to this offering trees as vital elements of Pirsig’s intellectual, spiritual and philosophical journey, but let’s focus on the manzanita. Manzanita is derived from the Spanish word for apple, manzana. Manzanita means little apple. It can hardly be a coincidence that the apple is, like the fruit tree, a tree commonly associated with its fruit. And that the apple fruit is frequently referenced as the specific fruit depicted in the Abrahamic (Biblical) story of the Tree of Knowledge which Adam and Eve consumed.
A very early scene in ZAMM has the narrator consuming big Washington apples after his discharge from the military. At the time, he seems to have been reading F.S.C. Northrop’s book about Eastern and Western cultures. In North America, there is a phrase, “American as apple pie” which attempts to establish a thing as genuinely connected to American values. So, Pirsig eating Washington apples while reading and learning is a thorough-going metaphor and the use of the manzanita trees at the close of the book is a particular contemporary (relatively speaking) American version of a temple or shrine tree in the tradition of the figs and sycamores.
Ash and Elm
In 2020, Neil Price published a book titled Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings; it’s an interesting book for anyone who may be interested to learn what contemporary historians have to say about Viking culture. Clearly, my purpose in mentioning the book is that tree-based title.
In Norse mythology, an immense Ash tree is the primordial element of existence. It is Yggdrasil, the tree of life. It is interesting to consider the ordering of those words and recall that old Germanic languages were not all that fussy about word order in their sentences. At least, not as fussy a modern English is. It may well be just as accurate and correct to say instead ‘life which is a tree’. And that offers some different connotations to the mythology.
This notion of Yggdrasil, the tree of life is common enough in our culture that most people are probably familiar with it. But fewer, I expect, consider the specific species of tree that the Viking mind envisioned when invoking this element of the culture. Clearly, the mythology of these northern people pointed to the ash.
These cultures also involved the concept of a warden tree (a kind of protecting spirit) and these trees were commonly ash, elm and linden species. Interestingly, the word “warden” is cognate with vordr..a kind of wraith or spirit.
I can’t help but observe that Robert Pirsig was of Swedish and German descent and would certainly have been familiar with Norse mythology. Certainly an early passage in ZAMM has the narrator recite a short passage from a poem by Wolfgang von Goethe – the Erlkonig. I take this to be a link to Pirsig’s observation that the book is a link to his personal and cultural mythologies.
The species of trees which serve as the focal-point are clearly not the fig trees observed in the more southern cultural seats of the other cultures considered. That seems reasonable and perhaps an indication of a clearly different relationship to trees and forests. One might consider that the northern people considered themselves, as the title of Price’s book indicates, to be children of the forest, a sylvan culture.
Ash, elm and linden trees are certainly in keeping with shade trees and further demonstrates the fundamental connection humanity has with tree and with the act of taking shelter and community in their shade.
Regardless of the many other culture that may be similarly – and the perhaps diminishing probability that I would be able to weave some connection to the established themes of Zensylvania – the underlying point here is that the relationship between us as individual and collective folk and the act of being among trees is fundamental. It is older than history.
The fact that hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people live in vast municipal infrastructures where the ability to connect with that relationship is a rare, limited or non-existent situation is a travesty. Certainly there are other pressing travesties. But this one seems to be uniquely indicative of the crisis humanity is experiencing. The simple and profound act of being under and among the trees is vanished for vast portions of the human population. It is a sobering and saddening thought.
Crimson King Norway Maple
At my present home, the front porch of the house sits under the canopy of what is most likely a thirty- to fifty-year-old Crimson King Norway Maple tree (Acer Platanoides). The tree is presently taller than our 2.5-story, century-old home. It is one of the most comfortable and relaxing places of our home to be. And indeed, the tree lends a welcoming coziness to the entire block that we live on. People want to park their cars under our tree, whether they are neighbours or visitors to the area.
Our home is not significantly different than the ones that line the several blocks of our street. They’re all, more or less, the same kind of thing. But the tree establishes a particular community welcome that simply isn’t present elsewhere on the block or street. While we didn’t plant the tree (it may well be as old as I am) – but its presence certainly played a role in the affection we had for the property when moving to the community.
Being Canadian, I can’t help but observe that maple trees have been a symbol of shared community throughout our history. There are ten varieties of maple native to Canada and six of those are native to Ontario: Moosewood Maple, Red Maple, Silver Maple, Freeman Maple, the Sugar Maple and the Manitoba Maple. Maple leaves have appeared on Canadian flags dating to the Red Ensign naval flag of the 1890s. The current flag with two vivid red stripes and a matching maple leaf was designed in the 1960s. Ontario’s flag has borne maple leaves since that same period when many people in Ontario wished to retain some reminiscence of the Red Ensign.
Most, if not all, of the homes I can recall living in had a maple tree somewhere on the property. They have always been a part of the community.
The Shade Tree Mechanic
Shadetree mechanic is a term used to describe a particular kind of person. It’s someone who sits under the shade of a tree to maintain and repair their own equipment. Usually on their own property and at their leisure. It’s a term that an interesting connotative weight of pride, self-reliance, pragmatism and even some sense of mockery or derision.
The shade-tree mechanic is a generalist who overcomes obstacles to the best of their ability and resources. These are virtues.
Some of that is by jerry-rigging the equipment or circumstances they need to accomplish their goals or needs. Consider the archetypal concept/image of an engine being lifted from a car using a chain slung over a tree branch. On the one hand, there is evidence of resource-scarcity, otherwise the expensive specialized equipment and environment would be present. On the other hand, the shade-tree mechanic does not allow this scarcity to be a ‘gumption trap’ that prevents work from being done.
Shadetree mechanics can be hobbyists, as in the hotrod culture where increasing a vehicle’s performance is a matter of entertainment, or it can be a matter of necessity for the person who needs their equipment to be in running order and does not have access to a specialist to do it for them. (we don’t need to exclusively focus on vehicles, despite Zensylvania drawing on automobiles as a primary reference point). Anybody who maintains and repairs their own equipment and technology is a shadetree mechanic.
They are a person who keeps the infrastructure of their own lives operating not (necessarily) as a profession, but as a matter of principle, need or preference.
The fact that a shady tree is a involved also makes this situation a matter that is related to other community-building and self-shaping matters examined in this essay. The shade-tree mechanic is often accompanied by friends, family and neighbours. Peers. Folk. Kin.
It is a time and place where practical wisdom and social connection may be shared. Where values may be exchanged.
Zensylvania: It’s a state of mind.
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