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Two Poems



One evening I had to admit to myself that I had long since preferred trees to
people. Trees had never hurt me. Which did not, of course, mean that they never
would. For some reason I had this thought upon entering the Tiergarten after
visiting an exhibition on Karl Marx and capitalism. Was it because Marx’s life
work consisted almost entirely of criticizing people, and the ways we have
chosen to organize our societies? I was feeling very critical of people. At the
exhibition I was reminded of the enclosure laws, which pushed subsistence
farmers to the cities. I was reminded of laws against wood theft. I regarded the
word “theft” for a long time, its heft. I thought of the Tiergarten during the war,
and of how its trees had all been cut down for firewood. How old was the oldest
tree in the Tiergarten? I found myself in a young forest, a hopeful forest, a lush
forest summers, a forest that at any time could once again be cut down for
firewood. That is the way a capitalist sees a forest. But if I preferred trees to
people — didn’t that mean I also preferred the trees to myself?


One evening I had to admit to myself that I had long since preferred trees to
people. I loved trees in the aggregate, as I could not love people in the
aggregate. Upon entering the park I felt my crown begin to glow as the crowns of
the trees were glowing in the evening’s golden gloaming. I could not love people
as a collective noun, but I could love trees as a collective noun. I preferred to
think of it not as misanthropy, but as philo-arbory. Was I so predictable? Is there
not a stone footbridge leading from the urban to the rural as we age, our tree
rings smashing together inside us, as we cross footbridge after footbridge, even
when all we long to do is lie down on a bench and rest? Was I so predictable, my
crown glowing, as I entered the park after the Marx exhibition, where I saw that
Marx had predicted everything, the crisis after crisis, and tree after tree
exploded into view, crowns all glowing, and I lay down on a bench to try, but
could not, rest.


One evening I had to admit to myself that I had long since preferred trees to
people. I picked up a book about trees but after fifty pages laid it down again,
because the author was too fond of likening trees to people. I learned many
astonishing things in fifty pages, about how trees communicate with and protect
each other, but I could not abide the author’s fondness for likening trees to
people. Trees are not people, which is why I prefer trees to people. Not even
poplars, named for people, are people. Trees give their lives for people. I am
writing this on paper in a notebook that was made from a tree, which is resting
on a desk which a tree gave its life to make possible. At the Marx exhibition I
took photos, which require light, as trees require light for their photosynthesis. I
took a photo of a painting of a young mother caught in the act of wood theft, her
bundle of gathered sticks abandoned at her feet. Her guilty expression glowed
with creamy paint. The young mother glowed with the guilty righteousness
of redistribution. The bundle of sticks was private property, but did not know it.
The entire forest was private property, but did not know it. I thought about
wood theft as I stooped down to pocket a twig. I lay down on a bench with the
twig in my pocket, but could not rest.


One evening I had to admit to myself that I had long since preferred trees to
people. Entering the Tiergarten I felt that I had at last come among them, among
the friends who would never hurt me. Or ask too much of me. They would never
bombard me with e-mails, or not respond to mine. They would never ask to stay
a week in my tiny apartment. True, the trees would also never read this poem, or
any poem. They would never read “I think that I shall never see /.” They would
never cry at a poem, or write me a love letter about a poem, and a whole holt of
them would not make my poem go viral. So for whom was I writing my poems? If
not for my friends the trees? At the exhibition I wondered like everyone else
what Marx would have thought of the internet. Of platforms where “friends”
“labor” for the “remuneration” of being surveilled. For the remuneration of
having our faces harvested. When a forest is harvested, the trees do not create
special names for the round yellow moon that surveils it. The harvested trees do
not make a sound that human ears, attached to our harvested faces, can hear.


One evening I had to admit to myself that I had long since preferred trees to
people. Trees knew exactly what to say in each situation: nothing. And only very
occasionally, if I was lucky, a great, crescendoing shiver. I wasn’t certain how to
interpret this silence in the Tiergarten. The book had taught me that the trees
were communicating constantly with each other, but I did not know how to
interpret their keeping mum to me. Was it circumspection, or indifference, or
some sort of sylvan critique? The Tiergarten had begun life as private property —
the hunting grounds of the Electors of Brandenburg, enclosed by a fence so that
the wild animals brought in to be hunted could not escape. Wikipedia calls this
type of hunting a hobby. Collecting leaves, bark, acorns, and seeds to make
xylotheques was also a hobby. Imagine taking apart a tree piece by piece to turn
it into a book. The world is a Wunderkammer and a torture chamber, at once.
The enclosure laws allowed landowners to put up fences to keep landless
farmers out. The landless farmers escaped to the factories run by the new
bourgeois in the burgeoning cities. At dusk, the Tiergarten filled up with soft gray
rabbits flicking their snow-white tails in this and that direction like beacons to
the odd alienated human. If I followed it, where would the soft gray rabbit lead


I was drawn to the deciduous trees in the Tiergarten because the leaves had
arrived in spring as though a six-month life were something too wonderful to
miss. I loved the soft, bushy profusions of leaves living out their precarity with an
expectant spectatorship, a show that I was not privy to but could sense going on
all around me. The trees parted to make way for a clearing with bronze
sculptures of animals in the Tiergarten, a bear and a boar and an elk whose
snout had been rubbed gold by luck-seeking people. My own hand had rubbed
the snout gold more times than I cared to count, as I asked the elk for luck in this
or that circumstance. The bronze sculptures of bears and boars and elk appeared
in parks as living bears and boars and elk were being driven from the land that
would become the city, with artisans’ studios making bronze sculptures of bears
and boars and elk, which would become a city full of factories producing
machines and medicines to make people live longer and better in a world
without bears and boars and elk. The first document of civilization, wrote
Margaret Mead, was a healed human femur. From that point on, the bears and
boars and elk were out of luck. As for the trees: their luck fluctuated.


Trees would not nurse me as my broken femur healed. People would hurt me.
Trees would never make xylotheques. People would read my poems. Trees
would never harvest faces. People would never let me rest.


I walked into the Tiergarten to enclose myself in a haven of leaves, whose gentle
rustling drowned out my criticism, and whose explosive profusion blotted out my
confusion. Here everything was clear: rest was permanently deferred, but luck
might still be in the offing. I stuffed my pocket with twigs and made my way to
the elk, where I lay down on a bench to think of all the people I would nurse
while their femurs healed, and all the people who would nurse me as my femur
healed. I looked up into the trees and preferred them to all of us, but I knew my
place: I was an odd, alienated, tired human with femurs instead of branches and
I lay on a wooden bench near a bronze elk whose golden snout made promises it
might or might not keep. I forgave the trees.




I started following a tree on Instagram. Not the tree itself, but the people
forming a human chain around the tree, trying to protect it. The tree said: LET
ME LIVE. Not the tree itself, but a sign tacked to the tree painted in bright red
letters, which looked like bright red blood. LASS MICH LEBEN. The account was
called Traumbaum = dream tree. I do not know if it meant that the tree was a
dream tree, i.e. a kind of ideal tree, or that the tree itself dreamed, or that the
people dreamed of the tree at night beyond their windows, living, wanting to be
allowed to live. The people wanted to be allowed to live the way they wanted to
live: with the tree beyond their windows. The tree was on Instagram, where I
followed it. I followed the children decorating the tree and writing love letters to
the tree. I followed the adults writing letters to the developer, who needed the
ground the dream tree occupied for four parking spots. I followed the news
stories of the hand-wringing local politicians, I followed the posts pointing out
that the tree had lived through two world wars, three kaisers, the Nazis, and
probably also Napoleon. I followed the increasingly urgent calls to action. I
followed the preparatory lopping of its 200-year-old branches. I stopped
following the tree.


I started following a tree on Instagram. I gave a “heart” to every post from the
Traumbaum account, including the post with a link to a petition, which I clicked
on and signed. Every time I scrolled down and spotted the tree in its allotted
square, I felt a thrill of spangled melancholy not unmingled with anger, not
unmingled with my own well-rooted griefs. Briefly I forgot my own griefs as I
built an edifice of sadness around the dream tree. I could feel my own volume of
sap, but I continued dispensing hearts. I imagined the time of the kaisers, I
imagined Napoleon marching through the Brandenburg Gate as the tree I was
following was still a sapling, unsuspecting and unaware of its future life wearing
a hand-painted blood-red sign that said LET ME LIVE. I “hearted” the tree in an
abstract way, despite my grief. I knew it was abstract, and mediated, and
cathected, and a projection, and an ersatz, and transference, but still, I “hearted”
and “hearted” the tree. Until I stopped following the tree.


I started following a tree on Instagram. I did not know much about the tree,
apart from the fact that it was located in a courtyard in Kreuzberg, that it was as
old as Napoleon, that it had survived three kaisers, two world wars, the Nazis, a
cold war, and god knows what else. But I did not know the genus of the tree. I
imagined cutting open the trunk and counting its 200 tree rings, I imagined
putting my arms around its august bark, I imagined tasting its sap. But I did not
know the genus of the tree. My edifice of sadness did not require knowledge of
this kind. I knew what I needed to know. I could ID some trees, in leaf, if need be
— I could ID an oak, a sycamore, a chestnut, a linden, and a maple tree, in leaf, if
need be. But the Traumbaum was not in leaf. It was a dream tree, and like all
trees, dream or otherwise, reliant on human caprice, on human dreams of
scarcity or plenitude or sufficiency or satisfaction or suffering or need, stoked
and sated and magnified and spurred on and sublimated by Instagram. I courted
my own caprice. I stopped following the tree.


I started following a tree on Instagram. I stopped following a tree on Instagram. I
started following a tree on Instagram. I stopped following a tree on Instagram. I
heard through other channels that at the eleventh hour, the dream tree had
been saved. Why it could not have been saved in the fourth or even the ninth
hour was beyond my comprehension. I logged on to Instagram and searched for
the Traumbaum, and there it was, in its square as usual, with its lopped branches
and its hand-painted blood-red sign LET ME LIVE, and its chain of neighbors
rejoicing over the continuance of a being as old as Napoleon. This being, with its
lopped branches, its hacked-off limbs, its grotesque pollarded appearance. I was
bursting with sap. I sat at my desk with sap flowing out all over, rejoicing with
the neighbors through my screen. I had signed a petition. I had fed the
algorithm. I had performed my small civic duty. I had dispensed a Valentine’s box
worth of hearts. I had used my daily dose of fossil fuels. I had followed and
unfollowed. I was in control of my outrage, mistress of my grief. I read the rest of
the article on the Traumbaum account. It said how wonderful it was that the
Traumbaum had been saved, but too bad about the other four trees that had
already been felled before the Traumbaum action began. I stopped following the tree.


Donna Stonecipher's sixth book of poetry, The Ruins of Nostalgia, was recently published by Wesleyan. She lives in Berlin.