Of the combustible and useless varieties of trees

Reading Fire Season, Philip Connors’ account of his experiences watching for forest fires in the Gila mountain range, I was struck by the following passage:

My own insights are fragmentary, fleeting. I write something in my notebook and forget it an hour later. I do not so much seek anything as allow the world to come to me, allow the days to unfold as they will, the dramas of weather and wild creatures. I am most at peace not when I am thinking but when I am observing. There is so much to see, a pleasing diversity of landscapes, all of them always changing in new weather, new light, and all of them still and forever strange to a boy from the northern plains. I produce nothing but words; I consume nothing but food, a little propane, a little firewood. By being virtually useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become useful, at last, to myself.

— Philip Connors, Fire Season.

There are a few old themes at work in this paragraph. Take Case 129 from Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo: Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, compiled in 13th Century Japan:

When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked,
“What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?”
Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.”
The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?”
Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”

A lot could be said about Connors’ experience of the moment in relation to Buddhist thought (or non-thought) but it will do to note that non-striving and mindful awareness seem prominent here. Now let’s look at his closing line, “By being virtually useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become, at last, useful to myself.”

Notice that Connors doesn’t say he is useless to the culture – he’s performing an important duty, after all – more that he is forgotten by that culture. He here echoes Chuang Tzu’s dream-parable of the useless tree. In it, an old carpenter named Shih, encounters a large oak standing in a field. His apprentice admires the tree but Shih admonishes him, explaining that the wood is so gnarled and filled with knots that it’s not worth cutting down. That night, the old oak appears in Shih’s dream to explain that trees which bear fruit are cut, pruned and interfered with, so that they cannot live long; trees that are otherwise useful are cut down for their wood. The gnarled oak reveals that it has spent many years trying to become useless and that this uselessness has indeed become very useful to it. Would the tree have reached its enormous size if it had been useful to carpenters?

Connors, P. (2011) Fire Season. London: Macmillan, pp. 52–3.
For commentary on Case 129 of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, see Schireson (2011) Zen in Fresno and Central Valley. Available online: http://kuzanzen.org/2011/04/non-thinking/ [Accessed: 02/03/2015].
For more Chuang Tzu / Zhuang Zhou try The Book of Chuang Tzu, translated by Martin Palmer, or The Tao of Nature in the Penguin Great Ideas series.

The meaning of Tolkien’s one ring

Possessiveness is a recurring theme in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. At the beginning, Bilbo is attached to his quiet way of life. His daily trials are no more strenuous than avoiding the Sackville-Bagginses and no more rewarding than a pint of ale and a hearty repast. He has a quotidian existence and Gandalf’s invitation to re-order his life in the shape of a quest is a troubling challenge.

We learn that this bother with Smaug is the upshot of greed: the greed of Thorin Oakenshield’s father and grandfather, and their coveting of the arkenstone. Later, when they seize Smaug’s stronghold, their lust for gold has the potential to bring all to ruin were it not for a clever burglar. A burglar is someone who relieves the burden of possession. Bilbo relieved Gollum of the ring, though after too many years for the darkness-dweller to adjust to the burden of not having it. Gollum might not possess the ring, but the ring still possesses him. In Jungian terms, Gollum is Bilbo’s shadow: the repressed part of himself that he cannot consciously acknowledge but will come face to face with through his quest. Gollum is wild and violent; he also takes Bilbo’s anti-social, obsessive tendencies to an extreme. Like Bilbo, he enjoys small comforts and games – but of a darker shade. Smaug, too, is shadow. He represents more than the dwarves’ uninterrogated greed. He is an usurping serpent in the heart of the mountain and the human heart. His possessiveness of gold is witness to his colossal covetousness of his own self, his massive ego. He loathes nothing more than a thief who might relieve him of his burden and has no greater blindspot than flattery.

When Frodo comes to bear the ring we see exactly how a possession may possess its owner. Like Bilbo, Frodo begins to echo Gollum’s speech: my own, mine. We learn that the ring, though forged, cannot be unmade except in special circumstances. It’s this idea of the ring as a discrete object, whole, existing objectively and immutably as fact, that forms part of its attractiveness (contrast with the Buddhist concept of emptiness). It represents something absolute, apart from other objects, and so able to satisfy dark longings for power and security that all other possessions have failed to quench. The hobbits’ relative resistance to the one ring has its root in their humility; the allure of the ring is the support it lends to the assumption at the root of possessiveness: that there is an enduring ego that gains security through possession. It literally prolongs the life of its bearer, but in doing so unites them with the shadow of their nature. Ultimately, Tolkien dissolves the deadlock between possessor and possession as the ring melts in the belly of Mt. Doom.