What Trees Teach Us About Human Nature, Relationships, and the Secret to Lasting Love: Wisdom from a 17th-Century Gardener
By Maria Popova
Since the dawn of time, trees — the oldest living things in our world — have been our silent companions, which we’ve transmuted into the myths and metaphors through which we make sense of the world — from their deity-like role in ancient Indian legends to their long history as the perfect visual metaphor for visualizing human knowledge to their symbolic representation of the cycle of life. Perhaps because they are so strong and so silent, bearing steadfast witness to our earthly lives and while reaching up toward the heavens, we’ve long projected our spiritual longings onto trees and turned to them for answers to our existential questions.
Four centuries before Hermann Hesse proclaimed trees “the most penetrating of preachers,” the English author Ralph Austen, who wrote in great detail and with great beauty about various aspects of gardening, explored just that in a peculiar pamphlet titled The Spiritual Use of an Orchard or Garden of Fruit Trees (public library) — the companion to his 1653 book A Treatise on Fruit-trees, showing the manner of grafting, setting, pruning, and ordering of them in all respects. Beneath the highly religious language of the era and the highly esoteric subject of the book lie unexpectedly elegant metaphors for human concerns of eternal resonance to secular life — from the secret of lasting relationships to the true test of character.
The book was republished nearly two centuries later, with this disarming note to the reader from the editor and publisher, a T. Pettit from London’s Soho, making the modern reader — this modern reader, at least — wistfully wishful that publishers today had such courtesy and warmth for their audiences:
Come, now learn a parable of the Fig tree — and (believe it) there are but two things requisite to enable you to learn to profit or profitably:
first, a heart to receive instruction;
second, The Great Teacher for your instructor;
and then, I am sure you will get heavenly lessons by heart.
I leave the worthy Author to tell his own story, and so bid you heartily welcome to a participation of some of the Fruits to be gather’d from this Orchard.
Grace be with you, and farewell,
so says your Servant,
September 26, 1847
In the original 1653 “Preface to the Reader,” Austen vows to “endeavour to make some spiritual use, and improvement of [fruit trees]” and writes:
When we have gone through all the works and labours to be performed in the orchard, and have received thereby a rich recompense of temporal profits and pleasures in the use of the trees and fruits, we may (besides all that) make a spiritual use of them, and receive more and greater profits and pleasures thereby. Men are not wont to stint themselves at worldly profits, but why are they not willing to receive all kinds of profits, or why are they not willing to receive the greatest, and the best? … How much more foolish and unwise, is he that seeks after temporal profits, and neglects spiritual, and eternal? Therefore be careful to make a spiritual improvement of fruit trees.
But while Austen’s text bears the deep religiosity of his era, at its heart is a deeper, timeless wisdom that speaks to those of us who are nonreligious but invested in attaining a sense of secular spirituality — for who can deny that trees teach us to belong to our own lives? Trees, he assures us, contain great gospels of truth:
The world is a great library, and fruit trees are some of the books wherein we may read and see plainly the attributes of God, his power, wisdom, goodness &c. … for as trees (in a metaphorical sense)* are books, so like-wise in the same sense they have a voice, and speak plainly to us, and teach us many good lessons.
Fruit trees, though they are dumb companions, yet (in a sense) we may discourse with them… We may read divine truths in them, as in a book consisting of words and sentences… Not only rational and irrational, but even inanimate creatures have a voice, and speak loudly to men, and it is our duty to learn their language, and hearken to them.
To do this, Austen argues, requires that we begin seeing other creatures as more than mere means to our practical ends — a remarkably prescient case, given that half a millennium later, we still struggle to stop operationalizing creatures far closer to us on the evolutionary chain than trees. Beneath his religious language, a hallmark of his era, is a deeper message about how we commune with the universe by attending to all of its life forms so we can glean what Mary Oliver memorably called “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.” Austen writes:
If we make use of creatures to serve our turn only in reference to our toward man, we make not half that use of them as we ought, we should study the creatures and learn from them, to bring us nearer the Creator, climbing up by them, as by step, or stairs, till we ascend to the highest good.
How much of the goodness and excellencies of God do fruit trees show forth when they (in their seasons) flourish with leaves, blossoms and fruits; especially considered not only as they appear beautiful to the eye, but also with all their inward beauties and perfections, their virtues, and uses in the life of man?
Centuries before tree-hugging became a cultural trope, Austen extols the rewards of tree-whispering as a form of contemplative practice and intimacy with our own minds:
Fruit trees discover many things of God, and many things of ourselves, and concerning our duty to God. We enquire of, and discourse with fruit trees when we consider, and meditate of them, when we search out their virtues and perfections… when we pry into their natures, and properties, that is speaking to them.
And when we (after a serious search) do make some use and result of what we see in them, when we collect something from them concerning the power, wisdom, goodness, and perfections of God, or our duty to God, that is the answer of the fruit trees; then fruit trees speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons.
Our considerations of them are the questions we put to them, and the inferences or conclusions, are their answers. Those are the lessons they teach us… Fruit trees are a Text from which may be raised many profitable doctrines… Many things may be learned from fruit trees for spiritual profit… Fruits of faith, love, joy, peace, and other fruits of the spirit, bunches of grapes, for the feeding, and refreshing of our souls…
Austen, who was only forty-one at the time of this treatise and by that point had already planted more than a thousand fruit trees with his own hands, draws on his experience with these silent sages to offer a number of apt metaphors for the central concerns of human life. In one passage, he explores what the grafting of fruit trees teaches us about compatibility in human relationships. Half a millennium before modern psychologists and relationship gurus began pointing to shared values as the single most important factor in lasting relationships — that is, relationships in which the partners nurture each other’s continual growth — Austen writes:
Grafts and stocks joined together of contrary, or much different natures, will not grow, nor thrive together; if they be joined in grafting, either the graft grows not at all, or else very poorly and weakly, and in a few years decays and dies; but if the kinds of trees are joined together according to rules of nature and art, then they thrive together vigorously, and bear fruits plentifully… Persons joined in any relation, they have comfort or affliction together according to their natures.
Likeness is both the cause and the bond of love.
And yet, Austen admonishes in a remarkably modern sentiment, this similarity shouldn’t be of the superficial kind — much like one wouldn’t graft two trees that have similar leaves but thrive in wholly different conditions, one shouldn’t seek a mate merely on the basis of appearance or alignment of demographic variables like class or income. He counsels:
Likeness in natures, manners, customs, begets love, and distance in these causeth dislike, and sometimes hatred… This should teach all who intend to enter into the stage of marriage, to look well into their choice, that it be upon good grounds , and not for worldly advantages in the first place, as most do, and match a soul to the earth, between which there’s no likeness, nor proportion: neither are they to look so much at likeness in the more low, and inferior respects, as person, age, birth, friends, riches, &c. (though care is to be had in these) as to that great likeness, in natures, manners, habits, and principles of the mind, for these are the springs and the ties of love, therefore “be not unequally yoked together.”
In a sentiment rather ominous given its proximity in time to Henry VIII historic break with the Catholic Church in order to get the first true divorce, Austen adds:
The sad experience of many thousands may be a sufficient warning to others.
If that love flows according to that likeness of natures, then let this teach us to strive for increase of grace…
Austen seems to remind us, too, that lasting, nourishing relationships are daily work:
Every act of grace adds something to the habit, so that the habits of grace are mightily confirmed by their frequent operations.
Austen also admonishes against mistaking appearances from true grace, arguing that — like trees — the people most obsessed with the shape and style of their persona are most vacant in the substance of their personhood:
Fruit trees that bring forth the fairest and most beautiful blossoms, leaves, and shoots, they (usually) bring forth the fewest, and least fruits; because where nature is intent, and vigorously pressing to do one work (spending its strength there) it is at the same time, weak about other works; but distinct, and several works of nature, in moderate and remiss degree, are all promoted at the same time… Generally those persons who are excessive, and most curious about the forms of duties have least of the power of godliness.
The true test of character, Austen suggests through his arboreal metaphor, is in the fruits of our personhood — our motives, the actions they produce, and the aftertaste those leave in others — rather than in the appearance of our persona:
The fruits of trees discover plainly of what kind the trees are: the leaves and blossoms … may deceive us, but the fruits cannot deceive us, but discover manifestly of what nature the trees are… The ways, and conversations of men discover what their natures are: If men of discerning judgments will but exactly observe, and try the actions of others, they may (by degrees) conclude from what principles they act [but] from the actions and ways of some persons, a man cannot easily conclude this; vices in some are clothed in the habits of virtues.
Complement The Spiritual Use of an Orchard or Garden of Fruit Trees with a lovely children’s book based on an arboreal allegory for the human imagination, the fascinating history of visualizing human knowledge through trees, and Eve Ensler’s beautiful meditation on how trees lead us back to ourselves.
* Only a century earlier, Gutenberg had ensured that trees are books in a less-than-metaphorical sense.
Published June 11, 2015