Go to the Pine Tree
In the late 17th century, Japanese haiku master Matsuo Basho advised his students, “To learn about pine trees, go to the pine tree; to learn of the bamboo, study bamboo.” On first-read, his words seem a surface-deep tip on our quest for knowledge. If b desires a, then b should seek a. Basho tells us to seek direct sources to bear witness to those things we want most.
Yet, what is simple can also be profound, and even the most difficult. As my Zoom yoga teacher reminded us during a challenging posture recently, “I said it was simple, I didn’t say it was easy.” Her words gather and drip off the muscles of my standing leg; I’m not an eagle or shooting arrow as the posture portends, but a crane wobbling in a pond of my own sweat.
In action, Basho's words begin to feel less like a yogic mantra and more like a loud-mouthed dare, a cautionary tale against the inertia of its inverse.
Instead of going to trees to learn about trees, there are many (real and perceived) forces that wend me away from these roots of knowing, down adjacent annals of experience and learning. How often have I texted a person something important rather than calling or telling them face-to-face? How many mornings have I read hours of good writing instead of writing a bit myself? Watched shows about courage, love, and adventure, without dipping one toe into these realms?
It’s natural to circumvent the trees that fascinate and draw us, as natural as it is for a hiker to take the little deer trail that connects one story of a switchback fire-road with the next. You’ve come to walk long distances, but some part of you is constantly looking for a short cut, a way out.
The lure of least resistance, we all feel it. But while these roundabout pathways are convenient, Basho implies they are also the routes of least revelation, and not the ones truth always follows.
Tree-circumventing describes many creative processes. In the morning, I will frenetically chase the advice of authorial “experts,” when what I need most is a slow-dive into my own page, to body surf in the current of my inchoate ideas. I’ll listen to Write Minded for twenty minutes while my second cup of coffee drains, rather than seizing my morning-calm and listening to my thoughts unfurl from sleep onto the sheet. Or I’ll unroll my mat, clinging to some creed that physical articulation precedes linguistic (articulation); that movement on the floor is a precursor to the cursor’s movements across my page. When I exit my meditation, an hour has gone by… Maybe tomorrow, writing…
I guess you could call it avoidance, and sometimes that’s all it is. But other times, and what I think Basho is tacitly warning us against, is that some detours never end. After avoiding the tree or the bamboo enough times, I will find myself entirely bypassing the plant for some other “tree-feeling” or “bamboo-looking” course of action. I’ll find a surrogate for my deep work or studies that leaves me with the impression of success and meaning, when these things are displaced, shunted out of sight and mind.
Each person has their reasons for these detours and displacements, conscious and unconscious. For me, it usually comes down to fear. Fear that if I don’t find a way to feign immediate success via some easier course of action/learning, I’ll be rejected (by myself, or by others—and really, what's the difference?).
We think we’d fear only bad things, but I fear good things too. When I discovered an exercise that would take my teaching lesson to the next level, I tagged the page and immediately began scrolling on Instagram. I feared my own finding, my own arrival at the source, the tree. I’d rather watch my potential from some sideways bunker than inhabit it and risk failure.
Sitting down to do our work is only the first in a forest of trees we must visit. After this initial arrival, Basho’s advice presses me forward, on maybe the most important journey: in the direction of the truth I seek.
“To learn about pine trees, go to the pine tree; to learn of the bamboo, study bamboo” might as well be the journalist’s credo. Go to the source. Bear witness before bringing to the page. This is why so many journals are interview-based. They value the voice of individuals, living the news more than the bystanders reporting it.
Even if you’re not a journalist proper, which I’m not, we are all journalistic in our power to report and disseminate the “truths” we encounter. In this age of info-inundation and social media, Basho’s epistemic principle could help guide us in our search, consumption and digestion of information.
Every day, I feel I’m hacking through a jungle of bushes that claim to be trees, twigs that pose as bamboo. Information is constantly plucked from space-time and used as a tool to advance personal agendas—in the worst case, as a weapon to harm and distort. My mornings and errand-runs are showered by the sound of alarmist (albeit, hilarious and clever) news-bites that leave me laughing and cozied up on some inner-couch of political-correctness but blind to more than one perspective.
I’m beginning to sense my blind spots. I see how I've detoured around the forest of other points-of-view for my own, in a way that’s more palpable than before; the way that you can feel a pencil dangling in front of your face even with eyes closed (did anyone else play this game in elementary school?).
The "tree" or "bamboo" I'm searching for is not one party's philosophy or viewpoint. It's a larger human truth: the whole landscape of sameness and difference, of how we connect and diverge from each other and why. Without listening to a broader range of human perspectives each day, this truth escapes me.
The solution for me, for now, is queuing up voices and opinions with whom I share less common ground, and then simply listening, even if I find some of these ideologies hurtful or abominable. What’s important is that I can quell these visceral responses and search for the human behind them. What's important is that I move past the garish "what" and gain insight into the dimmer yet more illuminating "why" behind each perspective I hear. That's my tree.
The boldest example of tree-going I’ve seen lately is Sewyard Darby’s book, Sisters in Hate: American Women on The Front Lines of White Nationalism. Published this Spring, Darby’s Sisters in Hate reports on the life of women behind White Nationalism in America. She didn’t simply ask white supremacist sympathizers. She went and found these women herself. In doing so, she helps her reader move beyond a hyperbolic “idea” of white nationalists, into a space where we can witness their humanity and their connectedness to quieter forms of racism in America. In an interview, Darby reflects:
"I wanted to think of how they were not just an ‘other.’ I think there’s this tendency to other them and think ‘Well that’s just abominable, I can’t imagine, I would never,’ but it’s all drawing from the same roots…A lot of what they’re saying is just like amplified, hyperbolized versions of what is accepted racism."
Rather than speculating on the “soft-power” of women in white nationalism from the sidelines of her progressive community, Darby goes the extra mile to investigate and “de-other” these extremists face-to-face. It's a sort of tree-seeking that most of us wouldn’t dare attempt. On this tree's trunk are carved messages of hate, other people’s dehumanization—even her own gender’s subordination. On one hand, it’s a place that feels alien and unsurvivable. But venturing this far has also pointed to an alarming proximity, a connectedness among trees there and here, nation-wide racism grown and sown from the same seeds.
Hate, as with most things, is more complicated, more complex, and even more human, when examined up-close. This doesn’t make it less scary or harmful, but it does allow us a place to connect and converse. It’s still a tree, of course. But how it grows and why, where it’s rooted, how it's connected to other trunks, and what shelter it gives to which creatures can only be discovered when you take the hike, the climb.
Darby uncovers a more common, culturally camouflaged definition of hate. In many cases, she says hate-groups are fed less by animosity for others, than by the desire to cohere with one another. Paraphrasing psychologist Kathleen Blee, Darby explains, “One definition for hate is animus toward another person or group. But there’s another more complex, useful, and frightening description. Hate can be understood as a social bond: a complex phenomenon that occurs among people as a means of mattering and belonging."
More simply, hate-movements are often motivated by—and act as a substitute for—social camaraderie.
This idea isn't new. To situate her observations in history, Darby recalls how most of the women who worked in the eastern territory in the Reich during World War II did so not because they were antisemitic, but because they wanted to travel, advance their careers and make money as secretaries, teachers, nurses. She says, “Once installed in the Nazi machinery, they reaped social and political rewards…and because the cause was genocidal, they were conditioned ‘to accept violence, to incite it, and to commit it.’” The point here isn't: hate-crimes can be excused by hate-less motives. The point is, animus is not an inborn pathological condition. It is incentivized, learned, and performed inside a complex social context. Hate (I hate to say) is more human than many of us are willing to admit.
Classic summer-reading, I know. But I'm glad I found this book. Darby hosts an extreme version of the conversations that we all should be having: the ones that cross borders, that blur (and even dissolve at moments) red and blue lines. Take it from her: “The least Americans can ask of one another is to have frank conversations about whiteness, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable.”
The best read is the one that leads me closer to truth. Anything that turns unturned stones of truth (even if this truth is too-hot-to-hold, sharp, cringe-worthy) is a relief, a summer vacation from the tense and twisted work of pretending to know, and casting judgment without bearing witness.
I’d like to think that, like Darby, I sniff out the truth, not just where it blooms, but at its deep (and sometimes dark) roots. But I haven’t quite grown into this journalistic side of me. I’ve always been a careful, honest observer. But I’m not a participator in the way that Darby is. Not yet. What insight I’ve gained into other political extremes, I’ve done so by stumbling into them.
This summer, for instance, while visiting the family of a close friend, I collided with a perspective that had only informed my politics remotely.
The host of this home has big dark eyes—a brown that looks black unless in direct sunlight. Chalked around them is a crayon-line of makeup that makes her pupils seem brighter. She has a wide bronze face and her hourglass figure is still traceable in her chair; I feel the softness of her skin from where she hugged me hello.
After lunch, I find her nursing her beer in the backyard in the shade. After a sharp U-turn of huffs and puffs—we've just returned from Folsom lake to find that its ramps are still closed because of COVID precautions—we're lounging by their bean-shaped pool instead.
I sit down across from her at the patio-table with my cider, trying to piece together the bits I hear about Gavin Newsom; I gather she dislikes Newsom and his pandemic policies.
“I’m just waiting to hear what they do next, how low they’re gonna go.” Her nails tap the glass-top of the table as if to mime her disaffection.
“Who’s they?” I ask, leaning over to exchange my cider for an IPA.
“The Democrats!” Instead of looking at me, she looks at my friend now, reads his face for signs of my political horoscope. He blushes and turns to pet the dog.
“It’s ridiculous.” Her eyes seek her husband’s. But he’s at the BBQ searing burgers by the pool, humming to the radio.
“Makes absolutely no sense. They’re just trying to take more and more away from people like us.”
She locks her eyes on mine, a pronged tongue on two flies. “All those wealthy people with their private boats.” She pulls back slightly; I can tell she’s trying to gauge whether I am one of these wealthy people with a boat.
I nod, but it’s a sort of rocking of my head and shoulders, propelled by an imperceptible push and pull against the arms of my chair. Her chair.
Her husband takes a break from his BBQing and, spatula in-hand, says to his son, my friend, “Oh yeah, son, did you know you had white privilege? Did you know that?” He babbles the words, stuttering on his thick sarcasm.
These words unlock something, open a door. His wife walks through. “Black Lives Matter protesters are just a bunch of anarchists. Did you know that they want to destroy the nuclear family?” She’s saying it loud enough for her husband to hear, but he’s already dropped back to his grilling, into silence.
I think of Darby. Just listen. You’re here to listen. “Ummm, no. How is that?”
“Go ahead and read it, it’s right there in their mission statement! They want to prevent people like you and me from living with our families in homes.” She puts her hands up and sinks back into her chair, gesticulating innocence, letting me know that she’s just the messenger. The same way that, before I go, she’ll place a spare bible on my handbag and say, “I just want you to have the facts.”
I think of my future self walking out this family’s door, having said nothing to thin the walls of misunderstanding between us. I think of my “random” gig as a U.S. history teacher, and wonder if it wasn’t so random. I say something.
“Well. What people are reacting to is historical; it goes really far back. There are centuries of racism and violence that black communities have endured and are now trying to bring awareness to, to change. There’s a lot of hurt and anger…and I bet it’s hard to know how to bring that to the surface.”
If thought is slow and careful, she responds without thinking, “Black people had slaves too. I don’t care what people say; racism goes both ways. If you judge a white person, that’s the same. Everyone has always taken land from everyone. The Indians were horrible to each other.”
But then, so do I. “But is the solution to just keep the cycle going, taking human rights from each other?”
“I don’t care what people say, I think this is happening because nobody has God in their life anymore. Nobody has Jesus in their hearts.”
I don’t care what people say. I don’t care what people say. It is her refrain, the part of a song that repeats. It’s also the part that keeps ringing in my head now.
“Mmmm.” I try to make a sound that neither confirms nor denies.
“If Adam and Eve hadn’t went into the garden to eat that apple we wouldn’t be where we are today, but here we are, and I’m not surprised.”
Hadn’t gone, hadn’t gone. I cling to correcting her grammar, use it to pull up the feet of my thoughts, so they barely graze the rush of meaning and emotion beneath.
Circuitously, I get around to telling her I’m Jewish, in case this changes what she chooses to say or not say.
But it’s another door leading back to where we started.
“You know, there’s this Jewish guy I know. His wife is a Christian and her friend said ‘Someone just needs to show him what a good Christian looks like.’ She did and he converted. He just converted to Christianity!”
She does the sinking thing again—just the messenger.
Over the next few days, I alternate between incense and rawness. My friend and I engage in that horrible tug of war between family-loyalty and individual ideology.
But I also feel relief. The same relief I felt when I found Darby’s book. The relief of hearing the voices I’d been reacting to without actually hearing. I feel the groundedness of finally glimpsing the landscape that gives meaning to my own political views and opinions and experiences—the ones that are pushing me to clarify why I think what I think.
Though smaller and closer to home than Darby’s research (tree-search), I sat next to an unfamiliar tree for a day too. I let it rain its needles on me inside the political storm we’re all braving right now. I still don’t know the tree wholly. That would take years. And even if I did, she wouldn’t represent everyone who aligns with her political and theological views. But one real human, one real story, is worth tens of “he said” and “she said” contorted clips. That day I saw her, I also saw the person in the politics: the one searching—in fear and desire, in love and in hate—for safety, for belonging, for meaning.
Of course, many of the trees we could once sit in the shade of are now pixelated on a Zoom-screen. In the middle of a pandemic, Basho’s advice has a radical (and maybe even reckless) ring to it. We are unfinished characters in a new chapter of human learning when more and more information, more experience, is becoming indirect, not just for convenience’s sake, but to quell a serious health crisis. Many of us cannot “go to the pine tree,” so to speak, and for good reason. Instead, we must stay at home and conjure a sense of presence and connectedness from afar. This sucks. It’s causing many of us, myself included at times, to feel disconnected and despondent.
But in the project of writing and reading, I'd like to think that not so much has changed. The art of saying, receiving, and circulating ideas has never been “over there” in a forest overseas. It is always here, in our notebooks, in our minds, in our mouths. The obligation to seek diverse information and craft a voice that reflects this multi-perspectivism is upon you now, not when things "go back to normal."
People are fighting for their lives, their jobs, their incomes, their basic human rights. Markets are plunging. Wildernesses are burning, ice caps are melting, species are disappearing. You can ask yourself, what good could my journalistic efforts possibly do right now for anyone? Or you could see the growing value in how we summon each other with words into new spaces. You might notice the impact you feel when a writer or speaker brings the “bamboo” of Black Lives Matter, the groves of political extremists, and the whole forest of things that matter right now, into physical force on the page. It’s palpable.
After a fire destroyed his home around 1682, Basho began a long journey on foot that would inspire his new poetic form, the haibun. A haibun is a dual-visioned haiku: haibuns follow the external images observed on the poet’s journey, as well as the internal images that pass through the poet’s mind during their travels.
Without this two-eyed traveling, the initial proverb that launched this essay spells little progress. We might as well cancel the difficult conversation, the journey, the sitting down to do, or see the thing—whatever your "thing" is—if we remain stationary inside our hearts and minds. As we move towards deeper and wider knowledge in practice, internal progress is the real mileage. The journey of opening my mind to another perspective is a daunting and uncomfortable one; it often takes longer than the outward journey. But it is this journey that moves me to a place where I can actually receive what and who I find when I arrive. It is the one that chants:
I care what people say.
I care why they say it.