To Be or Not To Be A Tree
How I Became a Tree
by Sumana Roy
Yale University Press
Published August 2021
How I Became a Tree moved and discombobulated me. It also made me envious. It’s not that I wish I had written this exact book: for the record, I am not, and do not want to be, a tree. But I would like to write a substantial work of nonfiction with the ethereal, intellectual and sensory qualities, and the speculative-driven foundation, of this book by Sumana Roy.
I read this book laboriously. Over many weeks I plodded through its thirty chapters, each one a mini-essay. I avoided picking it up for days or even a couple of weeks at a time, and then read a few pages or paragraphs before setting it aside again. At no point did I consider abandoning it; at no point did I resent it; at no point did it bore me; at no point did I feel the surge of energy, the rush to get to the end, that usually happens when a book captures me whole.
In no small part, this is a book about obsessions. Roy fixates on drawing trees, leaves, roots, and on photographs, negatives and X-rays of trees: ‘Without realizing it, I had been photographing dead trees for nearly a decade, perhaps longer’. She writes about collecting leaves, about recording the sounds of leaves and wind. She makes a plea for the consideration of tree shadows, and describes her young nephew’s attempts to lick the shadow of a Christmas tree. She takes a dead tree home and puts it her house. She dwells on the many and varied metaphorical uses of trees, plants, and forests, in literature, religion and life. She dwells, too, on what she sees as the absences or gaps in the way we credit trees: plants and trees, compared to the capacity of humans, had not ‘made history’.
All this is the interaction of a human being with living but non-sentient things, reflecting, in the end, on the human condition. No tree will ever write a response – Thank Christ I Didn’t Turn into a Human – and if Roy ever metamorphises physically into a tree she will not write a sequel. And yet I take her at her word. When she says she has a ‘desire’, a ‘need’, an ‘ambition’ to be a tree, and when she talks about ‘my spiritual and emotional transformation into a tree’, she means it.
It took me some time to read the book in this way – to suspend disbelief and scepticism and to believe that Roy really believes in the transformation she describes. Once I chose to take Roy’s ambitions and statements on faith, I found power, purpose and beauty in her enigmatic mix of emotional, psychological, intellectual, spiritual and creative expression. But I am making a choice, one that, I am happy to concede, may wilfully conflate or confuse the literal and the metaphorical.
To suspend disbelief when reading nonfiction is not the same as being convinced. In an essay called ‘The Silence of Trees’, Roy writes:
I had, in frustration with industrial noise and human verbosity, mistaken trees as silent creatures. My experiments with the sound recorder had brought about a new realization – that trees shared a natural sound with people. It is the sound of resistance – like protestors ‘raising their voice’, trees produced a sound that held in it their fight against wind, water, rain, to tearing, cutting and breaking. Like everything else, about sound too, they were economical. Revolution. Rebellion. Resistance. All other sounds were noise.
I have read this paragraph multiple times. I have read it quickly and slowly, broken it down, recited it to myself. I’ve pondered what it means to Roy, what it might mean to me. How I Became a Tree is full of such confounding moments and observations – a sentence here, a paragraph there. In the book’s first essay, Roy describes ‘tree time’ as ‘a life without worries for the future or regret for the past’. In the essay ‘Making Leaves’, she says ‘my family does not consist of human members alone – there are my potted plants and trees’. Fair enough: who are we to tell her who or what should make up her nearest and dearest? The idea of kinship with nature is not actually uncommon. Roy asks questions to which neither she nor anyone else can provide definitive answers: ‘I have stood inside a forest, surrounded by its paralysing restfulness, and wondered whether the forest has an ego.’
Roy identifies other individuals, real and imaginary, who she says also wanted to be trees. About Rabindranath Tagore, she writes: ‘In Tagore, a man born to a life in the spotlight, I found an unlikely comrade and advocate for the utterly ordinary life, a near modernist urge to be an ordinary tree’. Of the artist Nandalal Bose and his ‘greed for light’, she writes, ‘There can be no doubt that Nandalal is speaking as a tree’. She writes about people bonding with trees, marrying trees, having sex with trees.
Although she seeks out a community of others who believe they are trees, who want to be trees, or have unconventional relationships with trees, Roy does not or seek to persuade readers. To read her is to feel no pressure to dig a hole, plant your feet, get watered, and sway in the breeze – or even to dream of such things.
And yet this is an activist book: Roy seeks a different way to live, and she conducts her life, including her writing life, accordingly. She expresses loud and explicit complaints about what she calls ‘my dissatisfaction with being human’. She craves a slower, quieter life, a life not saddled by daily grinds, excess, noise, competition, ‘the ambition industry and the violence of professional success’, illness and the flaws of the human body, and violence – not least, the violence men perpetrate on women. Unhappy with ‘being bulldozed by time’, she says she has experienced ‘the sudden change in the rhythm of my breathing. Speed, choking, stifling, bruising speed – my body and my mind could not run to machine time any more’.
How I Became a Tree is – excuse the metaphor – an abundant garden of ideas, thinkers, metaphors, stories. Roy engages at some length with Tagore’s writing and life, but she also draws on the work of Amit Chaudhari, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, short story writer O. Henry, and many others. This literary focus sits within wider discussions about visual artists and photographers, botany, history, ecology, philosophy, gardening, foresting, and more. In an essay called ‘The Kindness of Plants’, for example, Roy reports that people around her had told her that kindness ‘was my hamartia, my fatal flaw’. She then ponders whether plants are kind. Across a couple of paragraphs, she bounces from Michel Foucault to a Bengali idiom – ‘“awpatray daan”, I was putting my alms in the wrong bowl was what I was told’ – to the differing perspectives of moral ecologists and biologists. Roy declares herself uninterested ‘in the quarrel between the two schools of thought’. Instead, she wants to think about ‘whether trees too did what I had been accused of doing – donating alms to the wrong person’.
In a 2020 interview, Sayantani Dasgupta asked Roy about the multiple layers of her work. Roy suggested that her approach is ‘not a “style” that academics take to, and not one that is encouraged’. I am unsure to what extent Roy is right – it depends on which academics, on the assumptions, history, principles and methods of their discipline, on the preferences of the gatekeepers. But this sort of writing-research – call it creative nonfiction, call it a non-traditional research output, call it generalism – is, when undertaken with Roy’s skill, creativity and self-awareness, a legitimate and compelling branch of what we might broadly call – excuse me sounding like a roving inspector for the Australian Research Council – an original contribution to knowledge. Roy offers insights of her own and she tempers the research insights of others – not least those individuals and disciplines that, if Roy is right, might not rate her ‘style’.
Roy filters thinkers and doers through the prism of her inner world, a space where the real and the fantastic cohabit. Her sources are at the mercy of her obsessions. This is not to say she is careless; she engages seriously and respectfully with her sources, on her own terms. Roy builds an evidence-base that is personal – to call it ‘discursive’ is an understatement. She makes no claim to universal truths because much of what she writes is partial and personal – and with her propensity to wonder, she makes this a strength. One result of this, which may not be intentional, is to undermine the pseudo-objectivity that still seeps into some forms of scholarship even when the researchers are publicly or privately cognisant of their intellectual and cultural biases and baggage.
Throughout How I Became a Tree, Roy deploys the power of speculation. She overcomes disbelief – hers and others. She writes about the freedom to imagine, about ‘free association with this concept’, about outcomes only possible in miracles, about ‘a moment of fantasy’, about ‘the dreaminess of liberation’. This power of speculation extends to the way she uses her sources. Writing about human parts and plant parts, such as the brain and a walnut, she says:
There must be – I want to believe – some relation, even if it only imaginary. Unlike Jocab Boehme, the German Christian mystic who saw the signature of God in this similarity of shapes and designs, I like to think of this differently – how wonderful it is, I told myself, that I, with my heart and brain and kidneys, am composed of plant parts already.
Roy chooses a quote from Czech writer Czeslaw Milosz for the book’s epigraph: ‘Not that I want to be a god or a hero. Just to change into a tree, grow for ages, not hurt anyone’. She could have added her own words: ‘I want to believe’.
Any appeal to generalism can degenerate into the sort of anti-expert dogmatism much loved by, for example, deniers of climate change. How I Became a Tree does not topple into anti-intellectualism because Roy writes her personal truth with discipline and care, understanding its limits. She deploys self-deprecation not as a prop or as a technique of self-absolution, but in a way that is practical, honest and funny. She recognises the limits and inconsistencies of her inner world even as she mines it and revels in its infinite qualities. My point is not that readers should absolve Roy of the need to justify her position or that they should casually accept her views as theirs. I am not suggesting that her approach should replace, or that it magically invalidates, other types of thinking, doing, living. More modestly, it is about recognising that Roy builds an evidence base in a particular, peculiar way. In doing so, Roy’s avoidance of feigned dispassion is compelling and transformative.
These days, I gravitate to strange writing – or writing, at least, that I perceive as strange. It has become the defining criteria by which I gauge my interest in a book and judge its qualities. It is far from an objective measure of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’, or ‘canonical’ versus ‘also rans’, but, then, I do not trust my own objectivity any more than I trust yours.
As I judged How I Became a Tree, I tried to remind myself that perceiving something to be ‘strange’ can be a euphemism for ‘that’s not what I know’, ‘that’s not my culture’, ‘that’s not my language’, ‘that’s not my way’. I also acknowledged to myself that a book is not necessarily strange just because it happens to make me feel strange.
All that said, How I Became a Tree is a strange book. It is not strange for its own sake. And although Roy expresses her dislike of genre, the text is not strange in the sense that it experiments with language or form to such an extent that it becomes incomprehensible. On the contrary, Roy tells her story in a simple, witty and open-hearted way. She does so courageously, because she reveals to readers her workings, her method, the hems of her stitching. She exposes an uncommon amount of her inner world to public scrutiny.
At one point, Roy writes ‘Perhaps I imagined too much.’ I disagree. And I doubt that she really means it, given that she revels in this fantasy nonfiction world of her own making: ‘At the bend was another wayward query’.
Sayantani Dasgupta, ‘The Assay Interview Project: Sumana Roy’, Assay: a Journal of Nonfiction Studies, 1 November 2020.