Last entry on The Botany of Desire explored the social and natural histories of common everyday plants, revealing how they have shaped our values even as we altered them for our own purposes. It serves as a reminder that our connection with the non-human world is not a one-sided affair; it is instead more akin to a partnership. Ignorance of this fact is a chief cause of ecological degradation and existential distress. As we wall ourselves off from the rest of the living world, we become detached from the consequences of our actions have on the surrounding community.
To see the world from a non-human perspective helps us reconnect with the world: It can generate awareness and appreciation for other life. It can also cultivate empathy and facilitate big picture thinking. But we as humans are prisoners of our own bodies and experiences. Barring becoming accomplished nature-whisperers, communication and communion with other life forms is difficult, if not impossible. How then can we cross over to view the world from the other side?
One way is through stories, with the use of myth, lore, fiction. I particularly enjoy speculative fiction, which as a genre can stretch minds and tone imaginations. One bizarre and delightful tale titled Direction of the Road comes to mind; it is a short story recently republished in the two-volume collection titled The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin.
Direction of the Road is a scant seven pages, told from the perspective of a large oak situated by the side of a road. Inspired by a real tree living beside Highway 18 near McMinnville in Oregon, the protagonist believes it has the power to grow and shrink in size in relation to other organisms. It diligently uses this power to “uphold Relativity with dignity and the skill of long practice”.
Throughout the tale, the oak notes the changes to the landscape over its long life, serving as a living witness humans beings transition from horse-drawn carts to automobiles. It takes on new responsibilities as the road gets busier over time, working hard to enlarge and diminish in various directions as traffic come to and fro. The conclusion has the oak protesting bitterly of a driver crashing into its trunk. The tree does not regret being made to kill the man. Rather, the tree takes offense that the driver came only to regard it as death:
“For I am not death. I am life: I am mortal… If they wish to see death visibly in the world, that is their business, not mine. I will not act Eternity for them. Let them not turn to the trees for death. If that is what they want to see, let them look into one another’s eyes and see it there.” (p.113)
An Oak-centric View
I love the wooden protagonist in the story. Of course, we cannot fully know what is like to be an oak. But speculative fiction affords us the space and freedom to try, and as I noted earlier, there is value in this sort of play, if only to exercise our ability to imagine ourselves in another’s shoes (in this case, roots). Le Guin briefly sketches a character with traits I could conceivably associate with a oak – a stubborn steadfastness, certainty and conviction in its reality, and a rigid adherence to a Quercian creed of breaking but not bending.
Le Guin makes it clear that this is a thoroughly non-human organism with a strange way of perceiving the world. The oak harbours some peculiar opinions. It prefers the company of birds to squirrels. It favours growing and shrinking to the rhythm of a horse’s canter over the jerkiness of a gallop. It is a snob and a blatant speciest (aren’t we all?), regarding pussy willows as silly creatures while showing open contempt for apple trees, considering them as herd creatures inferior to its own noble and undomesticated heritage. It has no qualms for killing careless drivers to uphold the “Order of Things”. This is a oaken reality through and through.
I Reject Your Reality and Substitute My Own
The most bizarre aspect of the short story is the oak’s belief that it has the power to grow and shrink in size at various speeds. To us, that’s utter nonsense. It is obvious that it is distance and movement that makes things shrink and grow. Yet, I am reminded that throughout much of human history, our perception of reality was not so different from the oak’s. Few questioned that the Earth was stationary and the heavens revolved around it. In recent times, we have come to understand through physics that all motion is relative to the frame of reference. These realizations help me judge the oak a little less harshly. After all, if I was an oak with no understanding of movement, the reality of shrinking and growing might seem completely intuitive. Scientific principles and objective measurements may disprove this reality, but the oak does not understand science, and has no need for facts. I find this deeply amusing.
Insight from an Outsider
It’s always interesting to have an outside observer comment on the human condition. In science fiction, it is often done with extraterrestrials; in children’s books, talking animals. But rarely is the commentary delivered through plants, which in many ways are more alien than anything our imaginations can conjure up. Through its decades and centuries of dutiful observation, the oak highlights changes both subtle and drastic in the local landscape. It subtly notes that the pleasures it enjoys have diminished over the years due to increasing pollution, remarking that “birds are fewer, and the wind has become foul”. Being alive for a long time, it also comments on the gradual shifts in human behaviour over the years:
“Very few of the drivers bothered to look at me, not even a seeing glance. They seemed, indeed, not to see any more. They merely stared ahead. They seemed to believe that they were “going somewhere”. Little mirrors affixed to the front of their cars, at which they glanced to see where they had been; then they stared ahead again. I had thought that only beetles had this delusion of Progress. Beetles are always rushing about, and never looking up. I had always had a pretty low opinion of beetles. But at least they let me be.” (p. 110-111)
The oak is puzzled at why they would abandon interesting and leisurely horse carts for loud obnoxious vehicles that prevent them from noticing the world. I also find this deeply amusing.
Why do I consider Direction of the Road an Ekostory? By exploring the world through the perspective of a tree, the story breaks down the notion that non-human life are merely objects and commodities. Like Botany, it reminds us that immobile organisms are living beings that experience the world through internal realities. There is value in acknowledging this. It’s not everyday I am privy to a fully worked out viewpoint of a tree, complete with its own innate characteristics, tendencies, and interpretation of a familiar world. Direction of the Road tells a funny, thought-provoking, impossible tale that helps me as a reader briefly glimpse the world as the Other, if only for a short while.
- Changing Planes: The Nna Mmoy Language
- A Plant’s View: Pollan’s Botany of Desire
- Love is the Plan the Plan is Death!
Le Guin, Ursula K. (2012). The Unreal and the Real. Volume One: Where on Earth. MA: Small Beer Press.