Tree Time


First Person

Livingston, Neem Tree Crow, 2011, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

At first it was the underwear. I wanted to become a tree because trees did not wear bras.

Then it had to do with the specter of violence. I loved the way in which trees coped with dark and lonely places while sunlessness decided curfew hours for me. I liked, too, how trees thrived on things that were still freely available—water, air, and sunlight; and no mortgage in spite of their lifelong occupation of land.

My amorphous fancies about trees began to coalesce when I entered middle age and began to weigh the benefits of a freelancer’s life against that of a salaried professional. An epiphany wrapped me like a tendril—were trees freelancers or salaried employees? A tree was a daily wage laborer, its life of work bound to the cycle of sunlight. Holidays, vacations, weekends, the salaried life, pension, loans—all of these were recent inventions, nothing more than consolations offered to employees like myself.

So, when I look back at the reasons for my disaffection with being human, and my desire to become a tree, I can see that at root lay the feeling that I was being bulldozed by time. As I removed my watch from my wrist, and clocks from my walls, I realized that all my flaws—and this I now discover I share with many others—came from my failure to be a good slave to time. I began envying the tree, its disobedience to human time. All around me were estate developers sending their fleets of workers to construct skyscrapers to tight schedules.The trees they planted in the gated communities annoyed them—they would grow at their natural pace. It was impossible to rush plants, to tell a tree to “hurry up.” In envy, in admiration and with ambition, I began to call that pace “tree time.” (Was it this that Salvador Dalí wanted to invoke when he placed so many of his melting clocks on trees in his paintings?)

I was tired of speed. I wanted to live to tree time. This I felt most excruciatingly during examination hall invigilation, while keeping guard over the exhausted faces of my students, their having to condense a year into a few hours, the learning acquired at different times of the day and in different places cramped into a few hours of writing time. That was how one passed examinations, got degrees and jobs, measured success. A tree did not stay up all night to become a successful examinee the next morning. Plant life, in spite of its various genres of seasonal flowers and fruits, did not—could not—do that. One can’t tinker with the timing of a yawn, one cannot play with tree time.

I began by abandoning newspapers, news television, and news suppliers. These capsules of heightened and condensed time had come to divide our attention, splintered our life into bullets. Plants were not newsmakers because they could not cause coups or wars. Plants were not news consumers because their world remained unaffected by changes in governments and results of cricket matches. Apart from the weather—not its forecast, mind you, that comedy show on television—the plant world was indifferent to every occurrence, man-made or natural, outside the locality of its amphitheater. The day’s work anesthetized me, left me incompetent to deal with humans, their order and orders. Talk, the incessant word-by-word relay of the goings-on, always and inevitably of humans, on the earth, in the air, under water, generated a claustrophobia in me that is difficult to explain—I am daughter to a man who is a news junkie, who watches the same piece of news on the state-sponsored Doordarshan channel in Bangla, Hindi, and then Urdu. I found myself in a world where being a repository of news—as telegrams—turned one into a sort of activist. And all the news that mattered was, of course, almost exclusively bad news. This timbre of nervous energy that had turned the world into an apocalypse movie was the resident spirit of the newsroom—we were all doomed, all moving toward a terrifying end, we were all a part of the news. 

 The newspaper was the new holy book and the news reader the new priest. The unnatural rhythm of news, the panting pace at which it now moved, caused me breathlessness. I wanted to move out, out of this news as neighborhood. And so my attraction to the tree and its complete indifference to the hypnosis of news.

Once upon a time, I was certain, men and trees moved to the same rhythm, lived their lives to the same time. To gain an understanding of this concept that, of course, existed only in my imagination, I began planting saplings to mark births and beginnings. When my nephew was born five years ago, for instance, I planted a neem tree in our backyard. The little boy stands at three feet or so. The neem tree is taller than my husband, who is six feet tall. But before this there was the tree that is as old as my marriage. I did not plant it. The municipal corporation did, as part of its city greening project. It was just a happy happenstance, then, that the gulmohar tree, with its yellow flowers, came to be planted a few days before my wedding, and just opposite the room from where my married life would begin. It is now taller than our three-storied house, and it allows me to imagine an alternative version of my marriage as a tree, a life I might have lived had I allowed myself to live to tree time.

Allied to human notions of time is an overwhelming ageism. People have often told me—I refrain from using the word compliment because I cannot think of “youthful looks” as praise—that I looked young for my age. I found the words offensive and discriminatory: wasn’t every division of age—old, middle, the many varieties that came as prefix and critique—beautiful? One morning, when I received such a “compliment,” I couldn’t help wondering how a tree might have reacted. If I was a forty-year-old tree, would I not have felt insulted to be considered twenty on the basis of my appearance? Age, I was certain, was important to trees. The wrinkles on our face and neck, the accumulation of folds around hips and thighs had become embarrassing to humans. The age of trees was to be found in similar lines, in circles denoting lived years, in the girth of time that gave aged trees a kind of sober dignity. By looking at trees one could see that time was an obese creature. And that history, whether it was reflected in lines or folds, loose bark or skin, new colors or pigmentation, was a beautiful thing. Our lives in the industrial age, lived bizarrely as an approximation of machines, had made us think of age as ugly—in the way machines rusted, wasted, and gradually became ugly before they fell apart.

But how does one live to tree time in this deadlined world? I began by trying to dismantle the architecture of time units inside my head. It wasn’t completely a conscious effort, but the whole manner of our timekeeping begins to look silly when one asks a tree the question that inaugurates application forms and conversations: “When is your birthday?” I had taken information about my birthday off Facebook, for instance. I felt awkward when people asked me about my birth date. I also couldn’t understand why our culture, both social and bureaucratic, placed such great emphasis on the date of our arrival into the world. I knew no one who celebrated the birthdays of trees. I also found it difficult to picture trees celebrating death anniversaries. Wedding anniversaries would be a joke given the number of “marriages” a tree went through in its lifespan. What exactly was tree time then? I wandered aimlessly through philosophical discussions on time until it came to me one night, in my salty sleep: carpe diem, seize the moment, living in the present—that was tree time, a life without worries for the future or regret for the past. There’s sunlight: gulp, swallow, eat; there’s night: rest. And I began writing this to tree time, recording thoughts as they arrived, events as they occurred, and fighting insomnia and its derivative poetry like a good tree.


Sumana Roy is associate professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University in Haryana, India. She is the author of Missing, Out of Syllabus, and My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories.

Excerpted from How I Became a Tree, by Sumana Roy © 2021. Reprinted with permission from Yale University Press. All rights reserved.