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Are trees like us?

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Trees in a forest
Trees in a forest

It’s easier than you would think to anthropomorphize trees – to imagine them as people. Branches become stout arms ending in lacy fingers, trunks become torsos, and facial features pop out of twists and knots of bark. Trees suffer in drought, lap up the rains, sap moving through them like lifeblood. They bear wounds and scars from disease and assaults. They silently witness our loves and our losses.

There is an ethical push in anthropomorphism. When we imagine that something is like us, we create a pocket of empathy. Its well-being comes to matter to us, and its suffering pains us. We become answerable for its welfare. But there’s also an ethical pitfall to anthropomorphism – to imagining that everything is just like us. By projecting ourselves onto another, we stop paying attention to how that other is very much unlike us. We stop thinking about what it might require and desire, because we imagine it needs and wants exactly what we do.

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A popular, if controversial, children’s book from the mid-1960s imagined a boy and a tree in a lifelong relationship. At each stage, the boy desired something that the tree provided. Over time, granting the boy’s desires took more and more out of the tree. From a branch for a swing and fruit to eat, the tree offered itself for agri-business, building materials, and eventually, a stump for the elderly former-boy to sit on. The book gives the tree human emotion and volition, repeatedly pronouncing it “happy” to serve. The tree’s self-effacing joy has been read as a model for a “giving” spirit. The book has also been read as a manual for thoughtless exploitation – of nature, mothers or others. The emotions projected onto the tree allow us to imagine it gains fulfilment.

Tu b’Shvat, the New Year of Trees, reminds us that Judaism puzzles over whether and how trees might be like us, or we like them. Biblical laws concerning warfare, for example, lay out an ethical obligation to the natural world even under duress, focusing on the cutting down of trees during battle. In besieging a city, we read, “you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you under siege?” (Deuteronomy 20:19, JPS translation). In the predominant reading of this passage, it’s precisely because trees are not like us that we have an obligation to them. There’s a poignancy to the helplessness of trees, literally rooted in their spot, unable to escape human assault. Unlike us, trees have no option to escape, to surrender, or to fight back and defend.

But there is a tension in the passage between letting nature be and using it – even using it up. The passage continues: “Only trees that you know to not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siege works against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been destroyed.” (Deut. 20:20). In other words, we spare at least some trees because we need them. Trees, in their “tree-ness,” are neutral. Their fruit feed all parties – conquered and conqueror alike. And they may be used by all sides to wage war.

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Most English translations render the phrase “ki ha’adam etz hasadeh” as a question: “Are trees of the field human?” – implying that they are not. But a few translations pick up on ambivalence of the Hebrew phrasing and translate it as an assertion that trees are, indeed, like humans, and we, like them – a metaphor we find elsewhere in the Tanach.

Hovering behind the image of trees in the field that may or may not be spared, I imagine the people in the city under siege. When you eat a tree’s fruit, it keeps on giving. When you use it to wage war, it gets used up.

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