Are You a Tree?

Or are you a potted plant?

I had moved house at least once a year for seven years straight. It is simply the way of life during higher education, the path I chose in my early twenties. When the short years of an undergraduate degree expire, one is sent into a seemingly endless game of musical chairs; if you’re not moving for a new degree or a new short-term job, you’re moving to find a cheaper place to live or a better roommate, or simply bending yourself to the will of campus housing. It became wearying, but as the years wore on, I began to strategize. In preparation for my move to each new domicile, I kept a few prized possessions, pictures, sentimental things, and valuable household items to be loaded into a single cardboard box. I’d collected these objects in hopes that one day I’d have my own home, where they could be of use or gather dust on a decorative shelf. “Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” wrote William Morris, and I tried to follow his maxim. But each year as another June rolled around, a less idealistic proverb formed itself in my mind: have nothing in your apartment which you do not know to be disposable, or believe to be easily transported.

For me, the necessity of portability did not begin in college. If you were out to dinner with my mother and asked her where our family was from, she would grin and with a twinkle in her eye recite the (to me) familiar formula: “We’ve moved sixteen times, six times internationally” to the consternation of the listening party. Each of my siblings was born in a different state or country, and until my parents moved into our family home in Colorado, they had never stayed in one house for more than three years. The possibility that next year, next month even, I might need to move again has always been more than that to me; it is a probability, no, an inevitability. And so, when, during my studies, I settled into a flat for more than a year – twenty-seven months to be exact – it felt almost miraculous. But eventually my studies came to a close, and it was time to move again.

I sat on the stoop of my flat that breezy September morning, a shambolic mess of half-packed cardboard boxes within, and sighed. I was sad in a tired way. I had grown to like the overgrown garden our flat shared with the letting agency below: the pear trees that were supposedly grafted from medieval trees, the overburdened trellis of roses with limbs arched in blossomed exhaustion, the tree that produced six perfect red apples each fall (no more, sometimes less), even the tropical tree with large, waxy leaves that seemed not quite at home in this gusty Scottish climate. I looked on them with a mixed pleasure. I envied the impassive stability of these trees; they would go on sprouting, blossoming, changing colors with the seasons, not caring whether I stayed or left, lived or died. Oh, to be so stubborn in one’s being and one’s needs, so sure of one’s literal place in the world.

I am a potted plant, I said to myself. Always ready to be moved, never mingling my roots with those of my neighbors, a stranger to solid ground.

This thought fell into my mind like a blunt object. Inside my house was a small potted plant that I had taken pains to keep alive during the final throes of completing my thesis, like a talisman of my own survival. I had been contemplating what to do with it when I left and considering throwing it away. It had taken on a wild, stringy appearance no matter how I groomed and clipped it, as though in protest against its modest pot, signaling to me that it wanted to get out and spread itself into welcoming soil. The metaphor continued to unravel itself within my knotted stomach. Perhaps I am a plant that has grown too large for its pot, a plant that if it does not find real soil to set its roots in soon will become awkward and sad, limbs reaching pleadingly toward the sun at the window, wanting to feel the worms and wetness of early morning, but always kept outside of such experiences. Lately, the sight of the plant had begun to inspire a plaintive despair in me; I had tried to plant indoor plants outside before, but they soon died, their roots shocked by the experience. Darkly, I thought to myself that perhaps I was the same. Perhaps after all these years of life with portable roots, I was no longer capable of natural rootedness. Perhaps if you tried to plant me in a particular place, I would shrivel up and die, not ready for the exposure of pure obligation to a place. I longed for a place to belong, to be entangled with, but felt in my bones incapable of such a thing.

I am not the only potted plant. In centuries past, the odds were good that you would grow up, marry, and work within a short distance of the same place where you were born. Now it is less likely to be the case. Writing in response to the moral and economic desolations of World War II, Simone Weil drew on this metaphor in her book, The Need for Roots, describing the modern condition as one of rootlessness, a lack of meaningful community, work, and belonging, a loss many of us feel in our souls. Some have tried to react to this sense of itinerancy constructively, by choosing a place to put down their roots for good. The notion is noble but comes with its own angst. It is very difficult to belong to a place, to not be able to escape it, to be bound to petty church politics, racist neighbors, the limitations of this place. And how does one choose a place? There is a loneliness of knowing that your rootedness is a chosen rootedness, not the inheritance of love and history. This was a pain I first put my finger on in the golden idealism that first comes with reading a Wendell Berry novel. After a period of wistful desire to take up farming and only use a typewriter, I began to feel a sassier question rising to my pen: it’s all fine and good, Mr. Berry, but what if I have no ancestral farm? And, after all, how far back do I have to look to discover the farm isn’t so ancestral after all?

The feeling of rootlessness stretches much farther back past our present predicament. One credible description of history is a long legacy of displacement; of winning and losing land, of conquering and being driven out, of building homes and having them destroyed, by war or time, greed or boredom. Rootlessness is not merely a feature of the modern condition but also of the human condition.

I felt this keenly when I first read Saint Augustine’s Confessions, where he touches this ancient wound in a surprisingly vivid way. The North African saint whose words and ideas have echoed down through the centuries described human nature as being characterized by a kind of restlessness. He famously writes in his Confessions, “We are restless until we find our rest in thee.”

Augustine was what we might call a third-culture kid – the son of a Christian North African mother and a pagan Roman father – never quite fitting anywhere. Reading the story of his early life in Confessions is strikingly relatable to us sufferers of (post)modern malaise. As a young man he reinvented himself again and again. First, he fashioned himself as a hedonist and a social climber, intoxicated by romance and every pleasure that came his way. Made a bit sick by his own overindulgence, Augustine turned to a restrictive lifestyle, joining a gnostic cult with strict rules for living and high-minded ideas about the spiritual world. Finally, and perhaps most tragically, he fell in love, taking a lover with whom he had a child, and whom, by all accounts, he never gave up loving. In each act of his recounted life, there is a tragic sense of longing, unsatiated desire. When I read his fraught words, I can’t help but feel that Augustine, too, was a potted plant, withering with desire.

But Augustine took a different metaphor as the interpretive key for his life: a journey, or, rather, an exile. Sarah Stewart-Kroeker writes “Augustine’s dominant image for the human life is peregrinatio, which signifies at once a journey to the homeland (a ‘pilgrimage’) and the condition of exile from the homeland.” All of life for Augustine was shaped both by this search for the homeland and the feeling of exile; he was a potted plant searching for welcoming soil. This feeling characterizes not only the ethos of his theology, but also the arc of his own personal narrative. In Augustine’s story, I found resonances of my own: the desire for rest and rootedness mixed with the sense of exile and strain toward a place of belonging. Here, I began to find myself mixing metaphors. I am a potted plant; I am a pilgrim. The image it presented to me was awkward and funny, like Tolkien’s glacially slow and meandering tree-people, the ents. What could flourishing look like for this mixed metaphorical life? How can one succeed as both a pilgrim and a tree? Of a promising person we say they are going places. We do not say that of a successful tree. A successful tree stays put. It has roots. It bears fruit.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered that this mixed metaphor is at the heart of one of the Bible’s most famous passages: Psalm 1. This is what it says:

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams
   of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand
   in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the
righteous, but the way of the wicked leads
to destruction.

The blessed person walks, like a pilgrim (v. 1), but the blessed person is also like a tree (v. 3). At first the psalm begins as a simile, but it unfolds the likeness in metaphor; the righteous are not only like the tree, they are planted, yielding, prospering. At the heart of these two images is not only the (not) nature of metaphor but also some of the central tensions of what it is to be a human. We flourish in rootedness and fruitfulness, but that rootedness is always temporary, interrupted by death. And even in life we are driven by longings this world never seems capable of satisfying. By reflecting on the properties of trees and journeys, and carrying them over to the human condition, we might discover new ways of understanding ourselves. And even in the ruptures of the metaphors, those places where there is not correspondence, we might discover and articulate those ruptures and noncorrespondences in the human experience that cause us most discomfort and pain. In speaking about them, in giving them the form of images in our mind, we might find ourselves consoled, or drawn onward. The seemingly contradictory images of trees and journeys invite us to consider what it is like to be human, to flourish, to live well in the contradictions of human nature, with the desire for eternity in the confines of mortality, roots in the ground and branches arching their weary arms toward their heavenly home.

An excerpt from You Are a Tree: And Other Metaphors to Nourish Life, Thought, and Prayer by Joy Marie Clarkson (Bethany House Publishers, 2024). Used by permission.

Joy Marie Clarkson holds a PhD in theology from the Institute for Theology and the Arts at the University of Saint Andrews. She hosts “Speaking with Joy”, a popular podcast about art, theology, and culture, and writes books, including her most recent You Are A Tree: And Other Metaphors to Nourish Life, Thought, and Prayer (February 2024).She is a bird watcher, a book collector, and a passionate evangelist for Yorkshire Gold tea.