Take one black tree …

At dawn and dusk, the pines around our house turn stark, trunks and boughs and needles all black cut-outs from a sky awash in the electric colors of twilight transition. It’s hard to capture in a photograph, but I have a pile of memories.

Black trees against the sky

Memories can get in the way, though, of fresh sight, as Rilke’s poem reminds us.


Whoever you may be: step into the evening.
Step out of the room where everything is known.
Whoever you are,
your house is the last before the far-off.
With your eyes, which are almost too tired
to free themselves from the familiar,
you slowly take one black tree
and set it against the sky: slender, alone.
And you have made a world.
It is big
and like a word, still ripening in silence.
And though your mind would fabricate its meaning,
your eyes tenderly let go of what they see.

— Rilke, Book of Images

This poem was translated from the German by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy; in addition to a deeply skilled translator, Macy is a Buddhist scholar and philosopher, and you can feel the Buddhist undertones in this translation, the invitation to seeing things as they are, the knowing that to see one thing fully is to somehow see all things. Macy does not introduce these notions into Rilke’s writings; she finds them there, and is herself astonished.

In the middle of the forest, Rilke says, “… take one black tree, and set it against the sky, slender, alone.” It is as though he is flipping the cliché: sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees, and sometimes we can’t see the trees for the forest. So, to know all, pick one. Become intimate with its bark, its branches, its sighing sway in the wind. See how the light loves it, in particular.

I’m reminded of another artist I love, Emily Carr. On vacation in Canada in 2002, I stumbled across her work in a pile of books awaiting guests at a bed-and-breakfast. As the vacation itinerary wended its way west, I lucked out again: a Vancouver museum was in its last days of a special exhibit of the works of Emily Carr, Georgia O’Keefe and Frida Kahlo. I was familiar with the works of O’Keefe and Kahlo, but seeing Carr’s works for the first time, surrounded by the Pacific Northwest woods she had so lovingly captured, was a fresh delight.

Rilke’s poem reminds me of this image, in particular:

Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky

It’s from later in her body of work, when she seemed to be trying to suggest the feel of things more than some objective representation. In this painting, she does what Rilke imagines, taking one tree, and setting it against the sky, slender, alone. The stumps in the foreground and the title of the image tell a little more of the story: this tall pine has escaped the harvest, and stands alone, stark — and yet, what is more clearly revealed is the relationship between the tree and the sky. An enveloping belovedness.

In those moments when I feel particularly alone, or unchosen, or lost in a crowd, I can take some comfort — if I remember to — in knowing what surrounds me. An unending love.

And then perhaps I will remember something even more important: to see not only each tree but each person before me, each one a world: “… big … and like a word, still ripening in silence.” And though my mind would like to fabricate the meaning for the one standing before me, my eyes would do well to let go of what I think I see, in order to be open to the ripening still to come.

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