Sumana Roy. How I Became a Tree. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2021. 236 pages.
Reviewed by Olga V. Solovieva
21 December 2023
The posthuman is most commonly imagined in our time as a speculative transcendence of biological limits through some kind of technological hybrid. But Sumana Roy’s book How I Became a Tree shows that the answer to discontent with the human was here all along. On its last pages, we read that “all that the Buddha asked men to be, bereft of greed and desire, and everything that caused suffering, especially the vanity that makes us obsess about control, a life with these subtractions, was actually the life of a tree” (p. 191).
This destination, which is also the author’s own, is already adumbrated in the book’s epigraph from the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz: “Not that I want to be a god or a hero. Just to change into a tree, grow for ages, not hurt anyone.” Connecting these dots, Roy traces a path through the intellectual history of mankind. In this history, trees have always been part of human existence as objects of knowledge, love, and wonder. Intellectual, spiritual, as well as physical yearnings bond us to trees: People wanted to metamorphose into trees, marry them, worship them, confide in them, and be protected by them. They also hoped to understand them, organize and categorize them, cultivate them, and to become, in a sense, their intellectual partners. Though the more frequent pattern is one of trees being integrated into culture and thus humanized, Roy turns the tables to imagine a world in which the destiny of people would be to become trees.
Imagining the point of view of a child, animal, or even a tree as an estrangement device that allows for a new perspective on the familiar world is not new in itself. In Roy’s book, however, this estrangement is not just a switch of perspective. It is rather a metamorphosis of a way of knowing into a way of being. Trees think with their bodies, talk with their leaves. The vegetative condition in Roy’s book is not a mindless one, but one of wisdom. At the heart of the book is Rabindranath Tagore’s garden in Santiniketan, part of his new university that was meant to integrate India and the larger world. So, too, Roy’s book interweaves Indian spiritual, scientific, and cultural traditions with those from other worlds—Asia, Europe, the Americas. The intellectual tenacity of her relentless questioning of the whole system of human values is as radical as it is unassuming.
This political lesson from the plants questions the monologizing and monopolizing social norm with its many ingrained inequalities, violences, and injustices— the status of women, the institutions of marriage and education, the position of minorities. When the plant world is adopted as an alternative and a critical device, an inevitable idealization occurs. For the plant world, as anyone who has ever neglected a garden has had a chance to observe, is as full of violence and conflict as it is of mutual aid or Buddhist transcendence of self. It contains invasive and parasitic species, aggressive domination and territorial struggle, exposure to viral and bacterial diseases, and natural disasters—a Darwinian scene of the survival of the fittest. And where our species is concerned, plants also occasionally kill humans by dropping branches on their heads and dwellings or by exuding poisons and allergens. “Becoming a tree” is not a simple one-step solution to the problem of violence.
Even if abandoning technological civilization for a plant world would not necessarily rescue us from the discontents of the human, the achievement of Roy’s book, intellectual and aesthetic, lies in overcoming the status of the tree as a mere metaphor or setting. Instead, the tree becomes a synecdoche of everything in human nature that allows us to move a step closer to becoming a tree. Here the tree embodies the human potentiality for improvement by intertwining with our propensity for freedom, peace, intellectual self-reliance, silence, empathy, and poetry. In one of her book’s many poetic epigraphs, Roy quotes from Octavio Paz’s A Tree Within: “A tree grew inside my head.” Roy’s book makes this invisible tree visible, tangible, and sharply relevant (p. 1).