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Hermann Hesse's 'On Trees'

grove of aspens at steamboat springs.jpeg
Brian Albers
/
KUER

As an ecologist, I have shelves full of scientific and literary books on trees. One of my favorites is an essay by the German writer Hermann Hesse, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. As we head into the New Year, I’m sharing with you this selection from Hesse’s piece titled, “On Trees.” I hope you find it as powerful as I do.

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more, I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity ... Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured.

And every farm boy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth ... So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have longer thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is.

That is home. That is happiness.

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is an emeritus professor of both The Evergreen State College and the University of Utah, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a popular science communicator. Dr. Nadkarni’s research and public engagement work is supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. @nalininadkarni
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