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Love without knowledge - in praise of a tree

A TREE stands in the side yard - really a sort of overgrown bush. It is - how should we put it? - reputed to be a euonymus tree. When the house was first occupied, it seemed important, even urgent, to identify the species. Books were consulted, and yes, that illustrated euonymus leaf looked like the real leaf - more or less. A tree-knowledgeable friend was called in to confirm. Well, he certainly guessed this was a euonymus tree - more euonymus than anything else.

Years have gone by, and the mysterious (so far as its owners are concerned) tree continues to be a mystery. It would have been thought inconceivable back then that the question of identity might be allowed to continue in doubt. What does it say about simple curiosity that its owners still refer to it as the anonymous tree?

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The family has developed a special affection for the tree, as for a mongrel mutt whose pedigree remains obscure - though what remains obscure in this case is our puzzling tolerance ofignorance.

How this tree has had to suffer, beyond our casual neglect of its name! Since it grows on the horizontal rather than the vertical, its boughs get dangerously weighed down with snow each winter, leaving it looking rather like a defeated sumo wrestler. Its rough bark makes it the favorite scratching post for every cat in the neighborhood. It does not appear to be one of those trees built for the long run, destined to develop rings within its rings. Some summers it produces more leaves than others. Some autumns it produces a red berry, some autumns not. All in all, it possesses the self-contradictory quality of a fragile cactus.

Yet how fond we have become of its gnarled and eccentric shape, its spiky leaves - and the very fact that it has endured in spite of all.

Each year, as summer ends, we examine our tree solicitously - without, in our ignorance, knowing what to look for. Will it make it through another winter? Should we prune the longer branches to help it in its struggle? We are truly concerned without being truly responsible. Our entire relationship with this unknown tree is an act of faith.

At this time of year, any shade of green, any form of blooming, seems particularly reassuring. Some people love the autumn, when nature so vividly plays at being dead. These people just know that the cycle - the greening - will renew itself next spring. The rest of us think: What a long time to wait, from September to April - more than half the year! Last April came all right. But does that mean next April has to? We cannot take our tree for granted.

Such ignorance, such flighty irrationality, is hardly to be defended, and the family makes no case for charming whimsicality. Clearly our attitude toward our tree - toward all of nature - is flawed by the pathetic fallacy. We are bad romantic poets, projecting our feelings on the tree instead of taking care of it. We are treating nature like background music.

There are other areas in life where enthusiasm exists minus understanding. People love the ``Kreutzer'' Sonata without having the foggiest idea what the sonata form is. Automobile buffs love their engines without knowing the first thing about how to fix them.

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In an age of sentiment, such an attitude is made a virtue. In an age of science, such an attitude is made a vice. It is implied that one cannot ``appreciate'' without understanding. One is even advised to analyze and articulate and explain to oneself and others in pseudo-scientific terms such finally inexplicable matters as love.

In fact, science can describe a lot better than it can explain, as the scientist-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead warned. We tree-appreciators take some comfort from Whitehead's observation that a summary of the laws of refraction does little to increase one's knowledge of a sunset - and almost nothing to enhance one's pleasure.

Someday we will diagram the ``Kreutzer'' Sonata, and verify the identity of our tree. In the meantime, our ignorant ears listen to Beethoven, and our ignorant hearts continue to love - and, as September approaches, fret over - this tree for which we have no name.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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