Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Leaves that Won’t be Made: Hard Truths of “Having it All”

“The cost of maintaining these defenses come out of the tree’s meager savings that were intended for happier uses: each drop of sap was a seed that didn’t happen; each thorn a leaf that wouldn’t be made” (Jahren 28).  
These lines come from the book Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, and the author is here reflecting on a tree familiar to her in childhood. These words really stuck with me in an unexpected way. I wasn’t reading the book for personal inspiration. I was reading it to assess its viability as a high school composition spine. The relationship between myself and the text was expected to be professional. I didn’t expect to find a personal connection to this ill-fated tree (which would be unceremoniously chopped down shortly after this passage). 

But this passage clicked with me. Jahren, a botanist and passionate researcher frames the life acts of trees as choices—even “mistakes.” She repeatedly reminds us—through the perspective of a tree—that mortality makes us fragile and thriving is statistically rare—rare enough that even a scientist could be forgiven for seeing it as miraculous. 

In this particular quote, Jahren touches upon the finite nature of our resources. In the tree’s case, this is the energy created and stored as sugar that fuels all of the tree’s actions. But the reserves are not limitless, and so, influenced by the environmental factors pressing upon it and the millennia of programmed code coursing through its genes, the tree makes choices about how to use that energy. As Jahren makes perfectly clear, each action taken is the choice to not take another action. It is a zero-sum game—for the tree full of limited sugar but also for me and probably also for you. 

“I can make more money, but I can’t make more time.” 

I remember saying this to an equally frazzled friend as I explained the mental gymnastics I had done to justify outsourcing some overwhelming household chore. Unlike the tree, my primary concerns are not daily survival. I take it for granted that I will have food to eat, water to drink, and shelter from the elements. The tree and I are not so different in these needs, but the privilege of collective successes and ingenuity has brought me a measure of security that allows me to ignore that similarity. Barring unexpected medical or environmental crisis, I am typically not made conscious of my very real mortality and the work that goes into delaying its inevitable conclusion. 

Instead, I spend my energy on the task of seeking fulfillment and purpose beyond those biological needs, and the finite resource that underpins all my choices is not stored sugar, but time. 

Every choice I make—every book I read to my child, every freelance gig I accept, every dinner I prepare, every class I teach, every television show I watch—is as much a choice made as a dozen, a hundred, a thousand other choices not made with that same slot of time. Wrapped up in those moments is the ghost of all the things that could have been done with that time that are now eliminated as options. 

After all, there is only so much time. 

Later in Lab Girl, Jahren discusses a Hawaiian monkeypod tree, boasting a huge gorgeous canopy filled with flowers and captured by tourists in photo albums and coffee table books. Jahren makes this observation: 
“From the tourists’ perspective, this tree has achieved its perfect form: they do not see a tree that is less than it might have been . . . If [it] were to be cut down, we could count the knots and see the buried scars of the hundreds of branches that it has lost during the last century of its life. But as of today the tree stands, and while it is standing, we see only the branches that did grow and do not miss the ones that were lost” (79). 
Are we trees forced to constantly examine the limbs that did not make it? Instead of wearing our scars until we are whole again, are we doomed to constantly prod them like the gaping hole of a lost tooth? Maybe trees, too, feel these losses, invisible to the passersby, these possible-but-not-quite realities. Should we take a cue from them and hide the gaps by growing a thicker exterior, forever pretending we are whole when we are really not? Really cannot be? Really can only ever hope that the final set of choices and lost branches balances out to a kind of survival we accept?

I’ve been wondering some version of this a lot, lately. I even wrote about wondering if I was wasting my Ph.D. by giving in to the call on my attention as a mother for my local City Moms Blog. What branches am I losing? Will I notice them when they’re gone?

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