Max Ernst’s Forest

Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, I found myself in a dark wood where the right path was wholly lost, and gone. And that was just the tree talking.

See that tree? That’s the soviet tree. Now the communists are gone it’s the only living thing left capable of hearing everything you think. It is a necessary tree. This is the only one of its species left now and its branches and roots reach everywhere, they have to—one single tree to do the job the entire forest used to do before the cuts, before the fall, all the way from the grit of the city to the ebbed and flowing sea—there’s no way out of this forest.

If you listen carefully, you can hear people remark how tall this tree is.  Most visitors say that because most of the tree is under the ground. Its roots reach further than the reasoning of any sentient being. It doesn’t lack an education. It keeps records. It has your name, this iceberg. It goes to the head. You just shave your head and see. Most people don’t have a chance, they’re going to become enlightened beneath this arbourous specimen whether they like it or not. Do not be deceived by its picturesque bosky appearance, that sylvan idyll; this tree is still listening.

This tree whispers. It tells you what to do when the wind passes through its branches, between its leaves. It’s all to do with special circumstances.

On summer days when the sun is warm and the air is still, or in the motionlessness of winter when a hard frost insists on silence, this tree has an imaginary breeze all of its own. That gentle movement that passes through your thoughts, a riffling idea, codifying your imagination on a scale from sea to mountain against the axis of sky to cave. Yours qualifies as a shallow valley with a flowing stream beneath the ascendant elm, with a path leading to a quiet cornfield, done in an amateur’s oils. There is a cornfield. It won’t fetch much of a price when autumn comes. You should see Max Ernst’s forest when the wind gets up, for that is where. It is just where.  I am trying to speak.

It is by the movement of the leaves of this tree that the flickerings of your imagination are classified, reworked and made into a special history. It is a little like the basketwork of the blind, well meaning, all brittle raffia destined to dust. No-one will ever have a bright idea again.

It’s  laid down in exactly this way just so you’ll know who you are. Where you come from. Can’t you hear the rustling of the air moving through the leaves? I know you did when you were that young figure sprawled beneath the tree sipping the water that refreshed you so much that you grew as old as the trees.  Do you remember that childhood you never had while you were becoming someone other than yourself. Everyone dreams of that. There is no other way. Believe me. This tree is everything.


And here across the grass, assembled on the field of Dharma we stand upon, the other side of this neatly gritted parkland path is another tree, so heavy on its branches.

What with the flowers and leaves, the whole panoply of spring growth this tree is responsible for the sun coming out, this tree.  Its role is so onerous, sometimes it’s cloudy round here. Sometimes it rains. How do you get the sun out on such a day against its will? Watery daylight seeping through the dense air of a dark thought that is the best it can do. Not much good is it? That this tree wants to be happy only makes it all tragic. This tree is waiting to fall over you now.

It has leaves, this tree. That is worth saying whatever you think, nothing can change that. Being stupid or crafty would not be enough. Picking every leaf would make no difference to that fact. They’d only come out again, the unprincipled revolutionaries, the leaves. Next spring—then the sun would shine—that’s what makes this tree like every tree: different and necessary, the principle of the wood we’re lost upon.

And this other tree over here by the pool where the ancient children sail their boats. It’s a plane tree. That’s simply its name, the plane tree. Because of the flaking bark and the breadth of its leaves, some impossible obviousness. There’s no reason for people to admire it, but they do. You have only to think. We all do.

Then, that other tree over there, God help you stranger if you don’t know this one. That tree is the one that will kill you if you look at it. This tree doesn’t exist except by rumour. See it and the lies of others must be true, whose dread pierces to the heart’s root deep. Confidence has been breached, even if you catch only a glimpse. A look can kill, that’s what they say. A flicker of a likeness of this tree at the back of your mind and it’ll slice your thinking in two like a Samurai. You’ll be dead in an instant, even if you don’t notice the difference. You’ll still seem the usual person you have always seemed to others, but the moment you shut your eyes you’ll be running until your legs are worn down to stumps. Every time you try to sleep, all the way through the forest until you die of old age.

That is why they grow trees.

Then there is this other tree. Who? Well just let it tell you. Every leaf has the whole of your being flowing through its veins. That’s why they fall to earth. The branches refuse to know you, that’s why it has thick bark. It doesn’t matter who you are, this tree has the same number of rings as mistakes in your life. You have only to cut it down. You’ll fall over yourself, and never arise. This is a record of everything you did wrong, and this tree knows like knowledge was going out of fashion.

And this twisted tree over here, this one is familiar. See how it sticks out its chin, shakes it shoulders, looks you in the eyes and laughs. It doesn’t know any better. “You’re mad,” this tree says to the calling of the wind. A huge draft of air suddenly shakes all the leaves together like an audience in applause, like everyone in the world laughing. Like waves that roll in. The wind blows the long corn of the field like those waves rolling in. See the wind travelling the open acres, like a playful giant of a running boy, puerile joy of the woods—his stream drink having taken—full of mischief, invisible and dancing—the green man. He is ridiculous and unconcerned, lucky boy. A forest bending before the storm, powerful and unassuming, a blast of wilderness within the merest flickering of your eye. Don’t look, for to see that energy with the naked eye would be to kill yourself.

Don’t move away either, uncomfortable idler with your half eaten pack of  sandwiches and tipped Thermos leaching into the loam, just ask yourself why I am next to you as you sit on your park bench. I can only speak for you, not for myself of course, that would be absurd. You are unlike the rest, far worse.  You have no branches, you have no twigs, no leaves at all, no skill at seeing the silence, dancing in the wind. Your skill is only that of slowly, as if with unrivalled expertise, folding soiled anti-macassars in the rain, with a penchant for ornamental doilies; or a need to eat that stale sandwich without actually swallowing. Some truths will never go away. Your life depends on it. Your significance will disappear the moment you’ve gone. Not like a tree at all. You are like the echo of a shout coming back upon its words.

Yours is a story that everyone who has lost a forest wrote once only, and then every day. Every tree wrote you. My shadows will always be your sunlight, my dappled light as if you were that green man.

Then I look up to see the morning rays mantle its shoulder from that planet bright, which guides men’s feet aright.

I am the one tree you can’t deny.


With apologies to Dante Alighieri and Max Ernst