friedman’s fables (2)

The essential difficulty in trying to communicate with another is how to get past the interference of the resistance demons who inhabit that other. What makes this task especially difficult is that it is the intrinsic nature of such demons to stiffen in the faces of efforts to will them away. Yet they often vanish on the spot when our own demons no longer resist them. When, rather than trying to assault these demons head-on, we can, instead, stimulate in others their own imaginative capacity, we can often subvert the contrariness of their demons from within. That is why all successful artists, no matter what their medium, are always careful not to give too much information to, or solve the problem for, the viewer.

An American Holly

There was a certain holly tree whose owner, when it was very young, planted it close to the foundation of his house to shelter the tree from the icy blast of winter. He had done right. For it is the way of young, broad-leaved evergreens to lose their vital moisture to the evaporation of winter winds.

As time went by, however, the holly grew and soon found itself competing with that which had protected it during early life. The owner, therefore, decided to let the plant have more room. Carefully, early one spring, he dug up the sprouting tree and replanted it some distance away, so that it could branch out in all directions. As with the initial planting, the owner did everything with care; roots were embalmed in a big ball of earth, a mound of mud surrounded the new site to keep the rainwater from running away, and the protective blanket of the finest mulch covered the area about the slowly thickening trunk, and fertilizer, again only the finest grade, was liberally applied.

But all did not go well, despite the best intentions in the kindest care. The holly began to lose its leaves. Some were lost every year, of course, but others had always quickly blossomed to take their place. This time the dying leaves were not replenished. Something different was at work.

Perplexed by this unexpected turn of events, the owner gave his tree more care. He borrowed some books from the library to see what he could learn. He wrote to garden experts in the newspapers. Perhaps some blight or other noxious influence had come into the area, though he had read no warnings. He frequented the best garden shops and asked the old-timers what they did on such occasions.

Every question brought an answer; every question acquired more than one answer, if asked more than one time. And with each new suggestion, tale, or remedy he heard, the owner hurried back and tried anew. But nothing worked.

Each morning when the owner awoke he found that more leaves had fallen to the ground. Each week another branch was dead. Should these be allowed to remain on the trunk? Can life flow again through such hard wood? Or does the dead decay and add decay to the living nearby?

When fall came, the holly was a sorry sight. Few leaves were left and most of them were turning brown. The frost came, and then it was too late in the year to try more remedies. But the owner hadn’t ceased to care.

Every morning as he went to work, he saw the tree and wondered where he might have erred. Sometimes in the middle of the night, if he could not sleep and happened by the window, he would stop and stare. If there was moonlight, the branches, now so sparse of leaves, seemed even more bare.

Several times that winter it snowed, and the fall covered the lower, thicker part of the trunk so that the remainder look like some cast-off limb that had fallen from a taller tree and javelined its way into the ground.

With the spring thaw, the holly’s owner hoped again and waited for the buds. Perhaps with so few other leaves to share the nutrients, there would be more than ever. But no. If anything, there were fewer.

Still the owner tried: more fertilizer, a newer, softer blanket of mulch, further, careful pruning of the tips of the lambs, water with every day of sun. But the holly did not respond.

One day during the early summer, before the owner was about to leave for vacation, he was preparing his other plants for some weeks without attention, and he came upon his sorrowful tree. Gingerly he pruned each little limb that had died. He would bend each back gently to see if the sign of life – the rubbery flexibility – was there, and, if so, he let it snap softly back into place; if not, with his clippers, as always, at the proper angle, he sheared it near the base, as always at the proper place. This time, however, something changed in his heart. Rather than pity, he began to feel anger.

Suddenly, he began to cut without checking carefully to be sure the limb was dead. Faster he began to clip, faster and with gusto, indiscriminately, this way and that, this limb and that, and then, enraged, the trunk itself. And when he finally stopped, exhausted, his heart pumping, all that faced him was a scraggly stick that came up to his nose.

He hung his shears away and left with his family. Only once while they were gone did he think about the tree, and he said to his wife, “I’ll dig it up when we return.”

But when they returned something had changed. As they drove up, at first from the distance, and then with closer view, all could see the holly now bristling green. From every cut and wound and point from which a parted limb had gone, a hundred prickly, scorning tongues.

MORAL: If all else fails, don’t just do something, stand there!

Friedman’s Fables by Edwin H. Friedman (The Guilford Press, 1990), pp.51,61-64

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