One of the most renowned of Chinese poets, Du Fu, survived the devastating An Lushan rebellion that nearly brought down the Tang Dynasty and resulted in an incredible loss of life around the country. His poems are full of grief, as translator David Hinton notes. The opening of “Spring Landscape” contains “possibly the most famous line in Chinese poetry,” and a painful comment on humanity’s place in the natural world.
The country in ruins, rivers and mountains
continue. The city grows lush with spring.
Blossoms scatter tears for us, and all these
separations in a bird’s cry startle the heart.
The poem presents a tragic irony. Nature invites us in, seems to promise comfort and refuge. “Du Fu tells us that birds seem to cry for us, and blossoms weep,” writes Madeleine Thien at The New York Review of Books. But “of course, this is a fairy-tale view, and ‘in the knowledge of its falsity, heartbreaking.’”
Is nature indifferent to human suffering? It would seem so to the broken-hearted Confucian poet. But nature is not devoid of fellow feeling. Trees talk to each other, create social worlds and families, and communicate with the other plants and animals around them. Japanese researchers have shown that the oils trees secrete can measurably lower stress levels, reduce hostility and depression, and boost immunity. Trees may not weep, but they care.
Trees are also, says performance artist Marina Abramović in the short video above, “perfectly silent listeners”—a rare and valuable quality in times of stress. “They have intelligence. They have feelings.” And for this reason, a tree is the ideal companion when we need an ear.
You can complain to them. And I started this a long time ago when I was in the Amazon with the native Indians. You know, they will go to the Sequoia tree, which is one of the oldest on the planet. And they will make a dance for the tree. These dances for the tree are so incredibly moving an emotional. So I thought, Wow! Why don’t I create an exercise that really works for me?
Abramović’s tree therapy is one part of her “Abramović Method,” notes Paper, “a set of techniques that enables artists to get to higher states of consciousness.” She recommends it for anyone who’s reeling from the traumas of this year. In our own age of devastation and isolation, it certainly couldn’t hurt, and perhaps we know more than Du Fu did about how nature supports our emotional lives.
So “please, go to the park near you,” the artist implores. “Pick the tree you like. Hold the tree tight. Really tight. And just pour your heart into it. Complain to the tree for a minimum of 15 minutes. It’s the best healing that you can do.” Included in the video is a testimonial from an ex-rugby player, who found the Complaining to Trees method transformative. “There is something in it,” he says. “It’s almost like you become part of the tree as well.” Trees are not people. They don’t dispense advice. They listen and console in their own mysteriously ancient, silent way.