A Tree In Four Seasons

vincent-van-gogh-pollard-willows-at-sunset
Willows At Sunset Van Gogh, 1888

This world is like a tree, and we are the half-ripe fruit upon it. Unripe fruit clings tight to the branch because, immature, it’s not ready for the palace. When fruits become ripe, sweet and juicy, then biting their lips, they loosen their hold. When the mouth has been sweetened by felicity, the kingdom of the world loses its appeal. To be tightly attached to the world signifies immaturity; as long as you’re an embryo, blood-drinking is your business. “
Rumi, Mathnawi III, 1293-7

Another month, another season. I came tumbling down from the lofty mountains of New York and fell back into the streets of English suburbia. I didn’t plan on staying for long in my native UK, but Providence had other plans. My heart knows where I want to be, but I should know by now that there are always greater forces at play than just the longings of my heart. Who knows how long it will take for my-timing to synchronise with Divine Timing. After a tumultuous start, I have successfully passed the three-month mark, the longest I’ve ever been home in over a decade.  And to celebrate, I’ve come to spend a week in a sleepy coastal town in the South West of England. I’ve conjoined my wayfaring ways to cat-sitting for strangers. It’s a novel way to continue enjoying the few luxuries in life still available to me, at no cost (warning; flexibility required!).

From the kitchen table, I watch the evening sunset descend behind a row of trees as it disappears for the night into the surrounding sea’s that lead into the North Atlantic Ocean. When an early autumn breeze carries in warm salty currents through the wide patio doors, it’s tempting to believe that all is well in the world.  I almost feel guilty that I have been blessed with this haven of tranquillity while deep pockets of the world are incurring the dual wrath of Nature and human aggression. Behind the scenes of chaos, I see the Buddhist wheel of life where the pig representing ignorance feeds into the bird representing the poison of passion, making it difficult to stomach the resultant aggression, symbolised by the snary snake. But the shadows were always there, like a poisonous snake in waiting for its next victim. I console myself with the myths of Plato, like the myth of Politicus, as narrated by the Eleatic Guest;

The universe, says the stranger, has two cycles, in one of which it is guided by God himself and revolves for a certain period in one direction, but afterwards God ceases to propel it, so that the direction of it’s motion changes and it revolves for an equal period in a contrary direction. The reason for this is that it is impossible for that which has body to be without change of any kind, and this change, of the direction of it’s perfect circular motion, is of all changes the least.

The first period, when God was the Ruler and Shepherd of men, was the Golden Age, and even when the motion had changed, vestiges of the former perfection remained for some time until the growing discord among men impaired the beauty of the world.

The Myths of Plato

The ultimate free-will. The will to lower oneself to the lowest depths of depravity. Or equally, the will to manifest the highest potential of the perfection of God’s creation. Perhaps, as I keep reading, our world will not change by the will of God alone, not unless we change the condition of the world ourselves.

The thought of the political governance of the world solely entrusted into the hands of the human ego driven by free-will, doesn’t seem so far-fetched in some of our world leaders. Equally, I can’t help but see a connection between the benign fear-based religion that many follow in my faith community, without harming others, and the version twisted and bent out of shape to dominate news headlines. The same headlines used to define 1.8 billion of the world’s population, whether they practice the faith or not.  Though the tough shell of exoteric religion, abused and hardened by patriarchy and politics is slowly cracking open to reveal the hidden depths of its esoteric counterpart, it’s painful nonetheless to witness the cracking of the shell. As always, I turn to Maulana Rumi for courage, seeking inspiration from his timeless wisdom,

“Don’t turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.”

If the world is to be considered as a living breathing object that has been mistreated badly, you can hear the cries of Mother Earth and feel her pain if you listen carefully enough. But I can also hear the silent cries of those hell-bent on causing as much havoc and chaos as possible. They’re like trees planted in the shadow planes that grow stunted, twisting their roots to catch the few motes of sunlight that they can. With each act of tyranny, they inch further away from their primordial purity, their fitra. But to reject the shadows of the world, would be akin to rejecting parts of myself and separating myself from the world. A cancer cell doesn’t stop being a cell just because it’s malignant, and so the body suffers as a whole unit. In times of illness, it’s easy to forget how the body functioned without disease.  The Golden Ages of humanity seem as mythical and ancient as the words of Plato. But there are also cases of spontaneous remission, whereby cancer cells miraculously disintegrate and the body begins to operate in a healthy manner again.

I’m reminded of the fable of the tree in four seasons. A father sends out his four sons to view a pear tree over the period of a year. The first son visits in the throes of winter. The twisted branches of the barren tree shiver nakedly in the wind and the son leaves uninspired despite the early signs of tiny buds. The second son visits in the spring when the buds are starting to swell with potential, filling his heart with the hopes of a promising summer. The third son visits the following season and is graced with a tree in full blossom scenting the air. The fourth son visits in the final season to be met with a tree pregnant with ripe fruit, waiting to be picked. At the end of the year, each son argues the validity of his truth, unable to see the natural continuation of each of their experiences blending into one stretch of time.

I may not live long enough to see the buds of today ripen into fruit, but that doesn’t stop me from planting seeds to be sown by generations to come. Maybe it’s the job of my generation to replenish the land first with much-needed nutrients and create the ideal conditions. In one of my favourite Hadith, which mysteriously didn’t make the cut in Islamic jurisprudence priority, the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) is said to have stated that,

‘Even if it’s your last day, you should still plant a tree.’

But the soil is tough and dry, it may take a while for it to become healthy enough to nurture fresh seeds. Pushed deep into the soil,, the seeds need to crack open in the depths of darkness to enable young shoots to push upwards towards the light. This is the most fragile time, but also the most exciting.

Tomorrow I’ll leave behind the sterile streets of this quiet coastal town as I swap a somewhat static environment for the challenging but dynamic environment of home. But I’m sad that most of my mixed community of varying creeds and cultures don’t share my love for the environment. Table talk in my family home has evolved from the police surveillance vans alternatively stalking (ir)religious fundamentalists and violent Neo-Nazi extremists, to the Government worker strikes that have left months of uncollected rubbish stewing on the streets. The local park is my sanctuary no more. It’s embarrassing to watch burka-clad women sidestep empty condom wrappers left by careless clandestine lovers. Much like the Parisian dog owners who refuse to clean up after their canine darlings, my local community expects Government employees to pick up their cans, confectionery wrappers and takeaway containers arrogantly tossed at the feet of young saplings.

Like my favourite pair of young gingko biloba saplings on an adjacent side street. Struggling with exam stress induced asthma as an adolescent, I was offered no relief by inhalers prescribed by doctors. My saviour came in the form of small herbal tablets from the gingko plant, a tree native to China. My airways opened, I could breathe again. My love for this wonder tree was cemented for life. The words of William Blake come to mind,

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way.

As a man is, so a man sees.

But there is one small square of green that still remains my sanctuary. It’s in the family back garden. And incidentally, there is a pear tree in the centre, lovingly tended to by my mother.  We may not have much in common, my mother and I, but the mutual love for this tree binds us together. As the leaves on surrounding trees turn into varying hues of golden yellow, red and brown, the autumnal wind has put an end to the continuous supply of ripe fruit that coloured my summer. Soon the branches will become as bare as Van Gogh’s Willows at Sunset only without the smouldering heat of the Provençal sun. The sun doesn’t burn so brightly in middle England as it does in the golden fields in the South of France, but that’s ok because I know behind the grey clouds, it’s still the same sun.

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