Sumana Roy wants to become a tree. There are many reasons for this but perhaps most important is that she’s tired of the pace of modern life, the way we’re regimented by schedules and clocks and calendars. She wants to escape the feeling of being “bulldozed by time.” She fantasizes about living as a tree on “tree time.” Her book, How I Became a Tree, explores the relationships that people have had, and might have, with trees.
Roy is an author and poet from West Bengal, India. She’s currently a professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University in Haryana, India.
How I Became a Tree
By Sumana Roy
Yale University Press, New Haven, 2021
(First published in India in 2017 by Aleph Book Company)
I can’t remember where I heard about How I Became a Tree, but it seemed like an interesting exploration, or “meditation” as it says on the cover, about how we relate to the natural world, trees in particular.
In the last few months I’ve read a couple of books about trees; one fiction: The Overstory by Richard Powers (review); and one non-fiction: Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard (review). This time I thought I’d try something in between.
Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy the book and stopped reading about halfway through.
The book starts out well enough, discussing how trees are not just important parts of the natural world, but also about how they’re used as a metaphor for all kinds of human structures from families to computer file systems.
Roy explores at length how countless artists have been inspired to write about, draw, paint and sculpt trees. I like how she described both trees and painters as “clients of light.”
She devotes a couple of chapters to Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali writer, poet and philosopher who in 1913 became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tagore was a hugely influential figure in Bengali culture. According to Roy he both wrote about trees and cultivated them at his family home in Santiniketan about 150 km north of Kolkata.
Despite this I was having trouble staying interested.
Then I read the section on what it would be like to marry a tree.
Yeah, it sounds absurd. But Roy writes about it as a serious proposition. I didn’t sense any kind of absurdist humor at all. Now, it’s possible that by imagining a relationship between a human and a tree, Roy is really attempting to shine a light on the nature of our relationships with each other. But I found the whole idea both preposterous and selfish. A person might want to marry a tree for their own (bizarre) reasons, but the reality is trees don’t need us. They’re already deeply enmeshed in relationships within forest ecosystems.
At this point, I’d had enough and stopped reading.
If you’ve read How I Became a Tree and got something more out if it than I did, please leave a comment.
Thanks for reading.