I chose this quote by Nietzsche as the title of my blog because I was reminded of it during a recent trip I took through southern Xing Jiang in Northwest China earlier this month. My friends in Xing Jiang introduced me to the multi-leaved poplar tree (poplar diversifolia). My friends brought me to admire the transient beauty of the poplar when it turns various hues of yellow prior to losing its leaves. This changing of color happens during a two-week period every year. The yellows hues are brilliant and draw large crowds from afar to come and experience its beauty. Of course, this beauty is intricately tied into transience, detachment, and death as the leaves change colors, die, detach themselves, and fall to the ground.
The well-admired poplar is part of the local folklore. It is said of the poplar that it will not die in three thousand years; even in death, it will not fall for three thousand years; and upon falling, it will not rot for yet another three thousand years (胡扬三千年不死，死了三千年不倒，倒了三千年不朽)! This is folklore and likely an embellishment. Nevertheless, the tale speaks of the vitality of this sacred tree, and its resilience is often used to portray an individual’s fortitude.
The secret to the poplar resilience is both seen and unseen. It is extremely adaptable to various climate conditions. The region I visited in Xing Jiang was adjacent to the second largest shifting sand desert landmass in the world: the Taklamakan Desert. Popular accounts (according to Wikipedia) claim that Takla Makan means “go in and you will never come out.” It may also describe it as “the point of no return” or “the Desert of Death.”
The poplar is able to live in such an arid and desolate region because of its amazing adaptability. First, the poplar grows leaves of different shapes and sizes in order to gather nutrients in various conditions. Some leaves are oblong while others are semi-circular. One would never guess that the various leaves came from the same tree. The second secret to its resilience is its interconnected root structure. The roots of the poplar tree are extensive, extremely long, and interconnect with other trees. This suggests that poplar trees are interdependent. Yet, this takes place underground, invisible to the eye. Ah, if we can only learn from the trees that we are all interconnected, and will wither and die if left to ourselves.
Throughout the ages, sages have known of the wisdom of trees. I was reminded of such wisdom during this past trip. The masses flock to appreciate the beauty of the poplar because of its transience. The trees are otherwise unremarkable to the eye the rest of the year. The melancholy yellowing of its leaves remind us of our own mortality and the beauty that can exist in our brief lifetime. And how such beauty is intricately tied to loss and decay at the edge of the Desert of Death. Faced with such trials, we must learn to be adaptable and interdependent. After all, when confronted with the existential givens of life, it is our inter-connectedness, often unseen, that sustains. Once again, Nietzsche reminds us that, “the strongest threads are invisible.”
Finally, in the midst of such solemnity, here is a little levity to be found in this fun little poem by Joyce Kilmer:
I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
— Mark Yang