Planting a Tree
I want to talk about planting a tree as a symbol of hope. But first: there is a sense in which all human activity springs from hope. Does that seem overstated? A woman rises from bed, stumbles to the kitchen, and starts the coffee machine. How could such a mundane action arise from hope?
I have often written that hope is a “syndrome,” typically composed of several aspects of a person’s soul. But within that syndrome, two things are always true. First, hope looks with desire. Second, hope looks at possible things (neither certain nor impossible). Putting the two together: hope combines appetite (we want the thing) and intellect (we judge it possible). It can be argued that these features are present in all human activity.
All action aims at some good, or to avoid some evil, which means preserving good. We would not choose the action if we did not desire the good or desire to avoid the evil. We would not choose the action if we did not believe that our action would achieve the desired good (or at least increase the chances of achieving the desired good). We simply do not act unless we hope that our action will move us toward some outcome we think good.
But what about that barely-awake woman fumbling with her coffee machine? Does she exhibit hope?
I am not claiming that automatic physiological events are hopeful. After the woman drinks her coffee, her stomach and intestines will process the beverage whether she wills it or not. Caffeine will have its desired (or undesired) effect on her blood vessels. Her kidneys will shunt off liquid to her bladder. Her heart will beat quite independently of her conscious decisions (a bit quicker, perhaps, because of the caffeine). And so on. None of these normal bodily “activities” count as actions in my claim that all actions arise from hope. Actions are what agents do voluntarily.
But the woman, as we imagine her, acts out of habit. How can something as unthinking as turning on a coffee machine count as hopeful? Well, habits generally grow out of freely chosen behaviors. People do not use coffee machines automatically; they have to learn how. (As a non-coffee drinker, I learned how to use the coffee machine to please my wife. Clearly, a hopeful activity!) When the woman began her habit of using the coffee machine, she did so with the expectation of getting some good. She built her habit with hopeful actions.
Now if the woman really has, by daily repetition, made her coffee machine rendezvous into something equivalent to the functioning of her kidneys, then we might say her morning ritual has lost its hopeful quality. (We could imagine that she does it while still asleep.) But this is only because it is no longer an “action” as I am using the word.
So: in a very broad sense, all actions are hopeful. We choose because we hope. When we despair we cease to act.
What does this have to do with planting trees?
Trees have a natural life span, in some species, much longer than we have. To plant a tree is, in many cases, to aim at a good that will not be fully realized in one’s lifetime. To plant a tree is to hope for a good that will be enjoyed by others. (Of course, one may hope to enjoy the tree for oneself, but in many cases those who plant trees acknowledge that the lasting, greater benefit will accrue to others.) Planting a tree, then, can be a symbol of a certain class of hopes, hopes that look beyond one’s lifetime, hopes that look forward to goods that others will enjoy.
Hopes differ according to the thing hoped for. When we plant a tree, we hope (at least if we recognize the truth of trees) for an earthly good that reaches beyond death. Planting trees symbolizes solidarity with coming generations whom we do not know. To plant a tree can be a meaningful way to bless those who will come after. It is a symbol of the good we hope for.
That does not mean that every tree is planted virtuously. In 1994 Karen and I took the boys on vacation to the redwoods of California. We came back with two redwood seedlings, which we planted in our front yard. A couple years later, Karen removed one tree, because the fast growing trees were already interfering with each other; we had planted them too close together. The remaining redwood grew magnificently. By 2007 it was over 50’ tall, towering over our house, and its roots threatened our foundation. We had planted too close to the house. And so, paying the arborist handsomely, we lost our tree. The stump revealed a large split in the trunk of the tree; if not removed, the tree might have fallen in a storm and crushed our house.
Aristotle wrote that all the moral virtues must be gained by practice under the guidance of phronesis, practical wisdom. The planting of our redwood tree may have been a symbol of hope, but it was not done wisely.
Whenever we act, we act in hope. Sometimes we act out of generous hopes, and we hope that our actions will bless future people. But we need to think about our hopes. It is possible to misplace our hope or mismanage our hopes. The redwood tree that no longer stands in front of our house is a symbol too.