A grammar of trees, terror, and a few goddesses: (or) how to turn yourself into a forest

Four figures of speech – metonymy, metaphor, synecdoche, and irony – came to mind in trying to think about a series of trees that captured my imagination on a recent trip due to their messy entanglement of nature and culture.

METONYMY, when a thing is called not by its own name but by something associated with it, braided itself into the bare roots of the centuries old tree I’ve now visited for seven years in Kam Tin Shui Mei in Hong Kong’s New Territories. It is called the Tree House in both English and Cantonese, which connotes a child’s play structure, but it is instead a merging of a Q’ing dynasty study hall and a banyan. The aerial prop roots are no longer distinguishable from the main trunk and the crumbling structure of the building is both destroyed and preserved by it; it embodies the Pompeii concept but in the slow moving time of creeping rhizomes rather than the superheated pace of a pyroclastic flow. The tree and building have become one entity both in name and form. As the banyan is an epiphyte, it relied on sheer kismet against terrific odds to begin its life. By fate or accident, a fruit-eating bird did excrete its seed and that seed did fall into a creviced branch in a tree. The host tree and bird each served as surrogate mothers of sorts and are now long gone, yet their tiny offspring did cling to life and the study hall until it grew from diminutive to monumental. The building still exists but now in the form of wood rather than brick and stone. The Writing of Stones by Caillois -  expensive, out-of-print, beatific fetish object of a book – contains a quote about life being a ‘turbulent, spasmodic sap, a presage and expectation of a new way of being, breaking with mineral perpetuity and boldly exchanging it for the doubtful privilege of being able to tremble, decay, and multiply’.  Perhaps, yes, but the durability and intransigence of mineral is trumped temporarily in the Kam Tin Tree House and is more in line with Ovid’s Metamorphoses; inorganic and the organic are not opposites but lie on the same continuum, separated only by quirky chance.


METAPHOR, analogy between two unlike things, clung to the branches of the wishing trees of Hong Kong. The trees sag under the weight of bao die, oranges tied as counterweight to rolled joss paper inscribed with the supplicant’s wish.  By nature, a wish is intangible. If wishes become physical objects rather than evasive and shadowy desires it is far easier to try and coax them into being. I first thought this when I lived in Rio de Janeiro and watched people push small wooden boats of white flowers and perfume and other gifts into the water from Copacabana beach every new year’s eve. If your boat disappears into the sea, the goddess Iemanja has accepted your offering and heard your wish.  If your boat is spat back on the sand your wish is for naught. For this reason hopeful souls, dressed in flowing white, wade again and again into the waves to encourage their wish-vessel to the goddess’s attention. I was hit by this memory as I watched a teenage boy in Lam Tsuen, New Territories toss his wish-orange again and again, a dozen or more times, before it landed on a branch that kept it. The higher the branch your wish reaches, the greater the chance that the goddess will grant it. His landed on a midway branch that must be a limbo zone.

The wishing tree in Lam Tsuen is in front of the Tin Hau Temple. Like the Kam Tin study hall now subsumed by the Tree House, it was also built in the Q’ing dynasty, either in 1768 or 1771. While the Tree House banyan has remained a constant, however, the Lam Tsuen Wishing Tree has transmogrified. The first tree used for wishing at the temple was a camphor, but it aged and became hollow. The next wishing tree was a youthful bauhinia, though it became damaged by joss smoke in the 1990’s, when wishing tree status was moved to a 200-year old banyan tree near the road. This newly designated tree served well until the Chinese New Year of 2005 when, overwhelmed with wishes, the tree sent a branch crashing down on visitors. It is now propped by sticks and ropes and fenced off like a venerable circus elephant in exhausted retirement. It looks smudged with the smoke of too much reverence and expectation. The tree now used for wishes is made of plastic. It is perfectly upright and life-sized, its branches will not sag or defoliate, but it is not a tree at all. And yet it is. A Science article I like from the early 1970s, when the environmental movement coalesced, asks in its title, ‘What’s wrong with plastic trees?’. The article touches on issues of Nature as a construct and the symbolic and social meanings of landscapes as well as the concept of simulated environments. The plastic wishing tree wraps all of these up in a way that no academic writing ever can.

By chance or not, Tin Hau - like Brazil’s Iemanja - is a goddess of the sea. In Hong Kong you throw oranges to a tree’s branches, once wood and now plastic, to request a wish from the sea. In Brazil you push a boat made from a tree into the sea that is now becoming filled with plastics in a giant, swirling garbage gyre. All of these jangling parts and considerations move from mere metaphor to catarchresis, a mixed metaphor or rhetorical fault when categorical boundaries are crossed and something departs from its traditional usage.


SYNECDOCHE, a confusing figure of speech in which a part defines a whole, whole defines a part, pairs reverse, and relationships convert one into the other, stuck in my head as I stared at the Tree of Life that now stands off the main reception area of Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace hotel. Day after day I returned and stared at it in between eating in restaurants and swimming in the pool that had been loci of terror and death five years past. It was cold in New York City and warm and sunny in Mumbai. The normal-yet-not-normal concept of standing at a site of mass terrorism now fully in the daily flow of quotidian life, though, made both cities feel quite similar. If 26/11 is to Mumbai what 9/11 is to New York, the Mumbai Tree of Life is the hybrid cousin of New York’s cross-shaped steel beams (‘Miracle Cross’) and the callery pear that became the Survivor Tree. While the Miracle Cross is mired in controversy in advance of the 9/11 Museum’s impending opening regarding religious affiliation, the Survivor Tree was replanted at the trade center site in December 2010 without conflict. Originally planted at the site in the 1970’s, it was eight feet tall in November 2001 when it was sent to a Bronx nursery for rehabilitation. Now thirty feet tall, the official 9/11 literature states that ‘it represents all of us’; ‘it’s an emotional symbol for a lot of people’; ‘it reminds us all of the capacity of the human spirit to persevere’. This is, of course, interesting and odd and wonderful in that it is not human at all. It is a tree. The relationship between trees and humans in this context is obviously more interlaced than the separation in their biological kingdoms indicates.  We should only be separated by phylum if we are crossing the boundary lines so frequently in our comparisons with them.

But back to Mumbai. The Tree of Life was cast in brass, bronze, and alloy in 2006 by Jaidev Baghel and sold by his gallery to the Taj without his knowing the purchaser or prominent placement until after the attack. The tree stood on the fifth floor under the iconic dome of the oldest part of the hotel. This section of the Taj burned completely during the excruciatingly long and live-televised terror siege in 2008, details of which are captured in chaotic newspaper articles from the time as well as a recent book (poorly written but well researched enough to compensate). The tree – remarkably undamaged during the siege and fire – was placed in an outdoor courtyard as a symbol of human perseverance. The sculptor said in an interview that he made the piece while thinking of the merciless cutting of trees in Chhattisgarh, India. Baghel lives in the Chhattisgarh district of Bastar, where the goddess of forests, Vandevi, appeals to humans to understand that she too has life and feels pain. Vandevi’s pain was not broadcast globally until the keen for trees became synecdochal for the human lives shattered on 26/11. The artwork was created as a memorial for the pain and death of trees and slid by chance into the role of memorial for the pain and death of people. The tree became linked through synecdoche and its inherent rhetorical enigma to the loss and interconnection of life and how our efforts to memorialize these things often clash when slid into a new context. This is clear in the use of a Virgil quote from the Aeneid that will adorn the wall and the commemorative books and key ring keepsakes for tourist consumption when the National September 11 Memorial Museum gift shop opens in a few weeks. ‘No day shall erase you from the memory of time’, the wall and souvenirs say, merging the slaughter of and by Trojan soldier-lovers and jihadists in a way that makes many uncomfortable.


IRONY, the incongruity or contrast between expectation and a situation:  it hit me full force in London, the final stop of this trip, as trees continued to put propagative roots in my thoughts. Spring had arrived and everywhere in the greenspace-checkered city the trees were covered in buds and blooms and birds. Fresh life seemed to have washed the well-kept streets in a way that would never happen for winter stale, salt and grime caked New York, seemingly destined to remain in polar vortex indefinitely.

In fiddling online for information about one or another of the trees in Hong Kong or Mumbai or New York that commemorate human life or lives or perseverance, the first site that I came across was entirely about death. ‘Be a Tree; the Natural Burial Guide for Turning Yourself into a Forest’, read the banner. It touts natural burial, the ‘ultimate back-to-the-land movement’. Having been a child of back-to-the-land parents, one would think I would find this fairly normative in counterculture terms, and yet I couldn’t stop laughing at its [what I am fairly certain is] tongue in cheek writing. ‘Dying to do the right thing’ as a heading for the natural burial movement in the UK… ‘new product companies fill real needs with style’ to describe  ‘attractive biodegradable burial vessels made from natural and recycled materials’… ‘when it’s time to leave no trace’ as a way of equating the life span to a conscientious camping trip in which you leave no rocks disturbed and carry your waste out with you… the lovely oxymoron of ‘Natural Burial: the traditional alternative’… ‘What’s in the Box (Besides You)’; ‘All We Leave is Energy’…. Even before beginning to read about becoming intentional compost for carefully chosen tree or the possibility of cryogenic freeze-drying of my body before vibrating it with sound at an amplitude to reduce it to powder, compliments of a new method devised by a Swedish soil scientist, I was entirely charmed. *[Note that in the freeze-dry technique metals and non-degradables can be sifted out, accounting for numerous implants. All that would remain is ‘a dry, silt-like and nutrient-dense substance highly suitable for burial and fertilization’. Granted, the expense and energy required for the technique due to its reliance on liquid nitrogen make it less appealing to the site’s author than simple decomposition beneath a memorial tree].

The parting words of the natural burial homepage encourage you to ask, ‘Is there a pioneer cemetery nearby with room for a Bioneer or two?’…‘All that’s left to make the leap is you’. As is the case with the ‘natural’ birth movement, of course, the concept of a ‘natural’ burial is fraught. Putrefaction ‘naturally’ releases all sorts of substances we tend to think of as dangerous or unsavory – freon, benzene, sulfur, and carbon tetrachloride, for example [do see this wonderfully droll Scientific American Instant Egghead video on decomposition] -  but the concept did still give me a smile. The heaviness of thinking about terror and the passage of time and goddesses who ignore wishes suddenly felt out of synch with the spring-drunk cheer of Londoners.

Now I sit in New York City again and I keep thinking about Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I didn’t think I loved when it came out in 2011. Its 139 minutes felt heavy and I was restless by the end. Images from it have stuck with me, though, more so than any other movie I’ve seen more recently. The opening scene of volcanic eruption that sets off microbial life on a young earth were central for me when I saw the film at the theater, followed in a close second by the asteroid hitting the earth. The telluric and planetary, geological and inorganic, set the stage for the action. But it was the arc of the human life span and its concomitant experiences, memories, animals, ghosts that still stick in my mind, years later. Dendric detritus, they sprouted when I wasn’t looking and grew. Vandevi played the role of epiphyte, perhaps, while Iemanja and Tin Hau served as surrogates? However it happened, I’m beginning to think that trees are anything but natural.

doorway to the Q'ing period study hall now consumed by a banyan tree in Kam Tin, New Territories, Hong Kong. the small child, ancestral to the village but not autochthonous, wandered into the shot by chance as the author tried to photograph the Tree House. (photo by K. Holmberg).