Trees and Time

I encourage you to explore Alan Jacobs’s redesigned website, The Gospel of the Trees. As it says on the About page:

The Bible is a story about trees. It begins, or nearly enough, with two trees in a garden: the Tree of Life, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The pivotal event in the book comes when a man named Jesus is hanged on a tree. And the last chapter of the last book features a remade Jerusalem: “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” If you understand the trees, you understand the story.

Start by clicking on the leaf icon in the upper right corner. From there, clicking “Explore” will take you to a random page, containing a photo, a poem, or a quote about trees, usually with some kind of spiritual dimension. The experience of going smoothly from an arresting image to an insightful thought is a little like walking through the woods with a clever, well-read friend at your side. In my few minutes clicking through, I saw photos of trees, part of Auden’s Hora Canonicae, the lyrics to “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree,” a passage from Deuteronomy, and an excerpt from a news article about the difficulty of arboreal classification — creating a family tree for trees, as it were.

I had something like this website in mind when I started my time Tumblr, The Escapement. Perhaps one day that, too, will be a beautiful “coffee-table website.”

A Man Likes to Repeat Himself

W. H Auden’s biographer, Edward Mendelson, wrote,

In romantic thought, repetition is the enemy of freedom, the greatest force of repression both in the mind and in the state. Outside romanticism, repetition has a very different import: it is the sustaining and renewing power of nature, the basis for all art and understanding…. Repetition lost its moral value only with the spread of the industrial machine and the swelling of the romantic chorus of praise for personal originality. Until two hundred years ago virtually no one associated repetition with boredom or constraint. Ennui is ancient; its link to repetition is not. The damned in Dante’s Hell never complain that their suffering is repetitive, only that it is eternal, which is not the same thing.

According to Mendelson, we moderns are hopeless romantics, allergic to repetition. How would marketing departments across the country feel to learn that their promises to constantly innovate are nothing more than romantic puffs?

Combined with this overweening optimism is the worship of the new. Our culture is addicted to novelty. In the days of Shakespeare, “innovation” meant the same thing as “confusion.” Those who constantly upended the past were dangerous, out of their minds. Now, of course, we are so hyper-aware that others may have something or know something that we don’t, we race to adopt new fashions, electronics, attitudes. We have convinced ourselves that keeping up with the New is our civic duty. And if we meet someone who doesn’t read the newspaper, doesn’t have Facebook or Twitter, and doesn’t have an iPhone, we treat them as some kind of fanatic. They must be tripping on something to want to avoid the New.