How a Writer is Like a Tree: A Metaphor for Creativity
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way”
— William Blake
“Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky,” writes the poet Kahlil Gibran. “We fell them down and turn them into paper, That we may record our emptiness.”
Richard Powers, in his anti-anthropocentric novel Overstory where trees become the story’s protagonists, writes: “This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.”
There’s something about trees that captures our imagination, whether it’s a single oak tree in our neighborhood or an entire rain forest in the Pacific Northwest. So it’s no wonder when we draw on our experience with these ancient beings as metaphors to make sense of our everyday lives.
“Nothing can be rushed. It must grow, it should grow of itself, and if the time ever comes for that work — then so much the better!”
— Paul Klee
A metaphor isn’t just a way to understand and talk about the world in a new way. A metaphor can have powerful social and political consequences too. For example, the environmental activst recognized the power of the tree as a metaphor for mobilizing a movement.
Using actual trees as a living metaphor, Maathai communicated the problem of deforestation and soil erosion in a way that connected the dots of a violent past towards both women and the environment, with a future vision of more just and life-regenerating human-environment relations.
As the environmental historian Rob Nixon writes,
“To plant trees was to metaphorically cultivate democratic change; with a slight vegetative tweak, the gesture could breathe new life into the dead metaphor of grassroots democracy. To plant a tree is an act of intergenerational optimism, a selfless act at once practical and utopian, an investment in a communal future the planter will not see; to plant a tree is to offer shade to unborn strangers.”
How planting a tree became an act of defiance
The unorthodox environmentalism of Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement
The 3 elements of sylvan creativity
Paul Klee (1879–1940), born in Switzerland, came to Munich to study art in 1898.
He visited Tunisia in 1914. It was there he wrote: “Color has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me forever… Color and I are one. I am a painter.”
About his art, “Klee has been variously associated with Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Abstraction, but his pictures are difficult to classify. He generally worked in isolation from his peers, and interpreted new art trends in his own way.”
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Paul Klee, ‘Park’ 1920, (Public Domain)
Years later, in 1924 he gave a lecture on creativity. This lecture is captured in the book Modern Artists on Art, written by the art historian Herbert Read.
In writng about Klee’s leture, “On Modern Art,” Herbert Read writes,