On The Subject of Trees

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The story goes that this bicycle was chained to a tree by, I think, an Italian boy on his way to fight in the Great War. It occurs to me that he may have been French, but that doesn’t matter.

I first saw this image a few years ago and it has tattooed itself into my consciousness. I can’t think about the death of a young person without this image almost overwhelming me.

It is a metaphor for so many things. I’m not going to start listing them; what they are is entirely self evident.

My most immediate take on the image is that it demonstrates the fleeting impermanence of human existence as compared to that of our world. Surely, a tree lives a long time. Some may live for a millennium, but even that is young compared to the incomprehensible age of the ecosystem in which it resides. These ecosystems are Johnny Come Latelies against the age of the Earth.

Also, trees are slow growing. Very, very slow growing. This species certainly isn’t one of the quicker ones either. It adds on only a few inches of girth in every generation of man. How fast must the passing of a generation of man seem to a tree? Very fast indeed. A flash.

I love trees. I love them enough to have them tattooed on my body. The ‘tree of life’ paradigm is found in most cultures. What they represent is beautiful. They represent time. Time anchored in the earth with their tops reaching into the heavens. Fuel. Shelter. Sustenance. A vestige of the gods on earth.

They stand silently watching the comings and goings of the seasons. Without judging.

So, there’s a boy who is called to go to war. Thinking, in the way that youth thinks about these things, that he is immortal he chains his bicycle to a tree in order to keep it secure until his return. What happens to him after that is not recorded. I think that he didn’t even come home in a box and that his family waited in vain, not wanting to remove the bike, not wanting to believe that he wouldn’t one day unchain it.

He never came back.

This isn’t a fairy story.

The tree added ring after ring, year after year, growing over the bike and raising it off the ground. It holds it up in plain view, telling us that in the ways of nature we are insignificant. Our lives are over in a blink and one day when, like all species, we fail and die out only nature, in some evolved form, will remain. Not the wars of man, the tears of a mother or the grief of a lover will change this. Nature has no conscience. It doesn’t judge. It just keeps on doing what it has always done; providing a counterpoint to the follies of man.

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