I read this courtesy of NetGalley.
This is definitely not the sort of book that I can read all in one hit. I took me several weeks, in fact, of dipping in and out. But that’s ok, because this is in no sense a narrative, or a memoir, or something that particularly requires you to remember pertinent details from one moment to the next. Instead, this is a wide-ranging book on the idea of how people relate to trees (and plants in general), how humans are like and unlike trees, what we can learn from them, how various humans have written about or otherwise interpreted trees, and what it might mean for a human to be more like a tree.
Like the editor at Yale who decided to pick this up for their press – it had already been published in India – I too was captivated by the first line: “At first it was the underwear. I wanted to become a tree because trees did not wear bras.”
Reading it in 2021 as I did, perhaps the idea that most (I’m sorry) took root (really, I am sorry) was the idea of tree time. That tight schedules and being rushed and hurried / harried and always needing to be places and do stuff at speed is just… not fun. (Especially when the pandemic makes all of that also feel like running in place.) Tree time, though? Trees, in Roy’s words, show “disobedience to human time”.
I don’t agree with everything that Roy talks about here – I don’t even agree that all of the questions she asks are relevant or useful. But I appreciate her asking them nonetheless, and therefore forcing me to consider them whether I want to or not.
Chapters range across a meditation on why flowers are seen to be attractive but not trees, in art and how children are taught to draw or paint; the ideas of x-raying plants, what the way nature is studied says about humans, what it might mean to have sex with a tree, what death means for trees and how religions connect to and reflect on trees and forests. And a lot more. Roy writes in the first person – this is an intensely personal book for all it’s not a memoir; Roy examines her own memories, and reactions, and hopes and intentions and fears, throughout the book. After all, it’s her musing on becoming a tree that instigates the whole thing; she reflects on her childhood experiences of trees, and how that relationship changes as she gets older; commenting on what it means to be childless and to be ageing, to be in a relationship and part of a family, and how those things are like and unlike the world of trees.
Aside from the meandering consideration of trees and how humans can be / are not like them, one thing that was particularly interesting for this Anglo Australian was the lack of cultural touchstones that I am familiar with. There were a few – a reference to Shakespeare here, Brecht there, DH Lawrence and Ovid. But much of the literature and art and philosophy referenced was foreign to me, which is only right since Roy is writing in India, and comes (I think) from a Bengali background. There are Hindi and Buddhist texts, Indian philosophers and authors… and a bunch of western authors, too, whom I’d never heard of because I don’t go in for philosophy or botany in any great way.
This was an intriguing, insightful, challenging and wide-ranging consideration of plants and humanity. Well worth reading if you’re feeling like humans need to, or could, learn how to be different.