There are a lot of good stories about trees.
One well-known story about a tree is that of Adam & Eve, who ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil—often said to be an apple or a pomegranate tree. Despite a clear warning against eating its fruit, it seemed like a good tree: good food, nice to look at, and of course, knowledge-increasing. Of course, the side effects turned out to be unfortunate. They fell from grace, and brought all of their descendants (i.e. us) down with them. The consequences of misguided behavior remain with us today.
Another story I happen to know: Hades, the ancient Greek god of the dead, kidnapped Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest. Skipping many details, I can tell you she was eventually rescued: Zeus, ruler of the gods, eventually forced Hades to return Persephone to her mother. However—and this is a big “however”—while she was with Hades, she ate the fruit from one of his pomegranate trees. This tied her to the underworld, and she was required, going forward, to spend part of every year there (during which Demeter mourned, and crops did not grow). She had, so to speak, one foot on the living earth and one in the land of the dead, even as she continued to work with her mother.
Several trees stand in a row along a harbor wall. One’s leaves are turning.
For me, these can be useful stories to consider. As a hippie environmentalist, I often feel like I live in a dead, miserable world of empty consumption, corporate exploitation, and chronic disconnection, in bitter contrast to the world of fertile nature, nourishment, and supportive communities that I hold in my heart. I see the possibility of a beautiful way of life, and believe it to be the only viable path for humanity (if “humanity” can make that kind of decision), but I don’t see it manifest. It may exist somewhere, sometime: in a past golden age, or in a utopian future, or in some isolated mountain forest. I don’t know. It’s definitely not the way of the world I live in. For me, the ideal only exists in my heart and the hearts of others. I spend most of my time in the world of the dead.
It’s difficult to navigate the tension between the world I live in and the world I need to live in. Living in and engaging with the real world as it is in the present moment, I have a hard time not feeling like a hypocrite for holding the ideals of a life-giving, world-sustaining way of life even as I have not fully let go of everything belonging to another, contradictory way of life that leaves damage and suffering behind itself.
It’s hypocritical, and it’s hard on my heart. It’s hypocritical to visit a friend with similar views, and burn fossil fuels to get there. It’s hypocritical to criticize events in the world, and watch the media to learn about them. It’s hypocritical to talk about local food, and drink coffee. It’s hypocritical to reflect on social or environmental issues, and read about them on a smartphone. It’s hypocritical to receive support from one way of life, and then reject it and look for something else.
To be an environmentalist is to be a hypocrite. It’s impossible not to have eaten from the pomegranate, if you’re alive today. Whether we’ve received our vaccines, heated our apartments in the wintertime, or bought anything manufactured in another country—no matter what you decide or do in this moment, in some past moment (or many past moments), you did not reject the environmentally unfriendly option. In a very real, material sense, that is part of who you are now, and part of any action you take. We’re all bound to the dead world that feeds us. The flesh of the fruit you eat becomes part of your flesh, and part of yourself.
Don’t reject yourself and don’t reject the hypocrisy. Embrace the hypocrisy and the imperfection of your present action, even as you take that action. Your change—the change you want to see in the world—and the other changes we need are built on the foundation of the present. They’re built on the tension between the here-and-now and the abstract ideal.
Persephone went on to have a long, productive, and green career, despite being simultaneously bound up with death. With her mother, she continued to rebuild the earth year after year, when she was above ground. And together, they were the principle goddesses of one of the longest-lived mystery religions in recorded history, in which they assisted mortals preparing for a better future after death. Persephone’s encounter with the underworld must have been very difficult and confusing for her, and she nevertheless moved forward. Her story remained useful for thousands of years.
Confucius, another figure in another long-lived civilization, had a lot to say about the subtle tension between living in the present and moving forward to the future. Most of what he said was about stability and the status quo, but he also talked about humanity’s shared, even co-created, path forward. Humanity broadens that path—the path doesn’t broaden humanity (Analects, 15:29). What is here and now is dictated by inertia, and we can’t look to it to fix itself; however, even as we live in the here-and-now, we are preparing for what comes next, and, ideally, making room for something better than now. The path forward is nothing more or less than the next step taken.
Your next step is part of our path.
Update, 2017-03-03: this site was quietly hacked (for the lolz, according to the brief message which overwrote this particular post) in the February 2017 feeding frenzy. Oops. Interesting they chose this particular essay to write over, rather than, say, the front page, to deface. … A reminder to myself, and anyone reading, to stay on the ball.