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Paper, Pencils, and Gifts of a Tree

By Rachel D. Levy, Contributing Opinion Writer
Rachel D. Levy ’22 is an Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column “The Experiment of Life” appears on alternate Mondays.

Growing up, there was a particular ficus tree that stood proudly in our backyard. This was, for all intents and purposes, not your average tree. More than a simple mess of bark and leaves, she is more accurately described as a friend, and, with that, one that was fundamental to the rhythm of my childhood.

This Goliath was the focal point of the make-believe games my sister and I spent hours playing, a refuge from the sea monsters and kraken that had infested our imaginations for the day. She was the gathering place around which my friends would flock, each fiending for a turn to swing from the rope that hung from her branches.

Some afternoons she was my only companion, and I look back on those days wondering if I’ll ever be in such good company again. Day after day, she provided her protective branches and crevices as spaces for my solo adventures through the mysterious places of a child’s imagination. When I was a pirate, she was my ship; and as a pilot, she was my plane. Before I knew meditation, she showed me the power of intentional silence and though I didn’t yet know beauty, she still offered me a place to sit and watch the sun as it tumbled out of the sky each night.

There was a certain generosity to this tree, a wealth of creative inspiration she never failed to share.

As recently as the past year, it was beneath her benevolent shade that my curiosity and creativity were reignited through art projects and literature. Though I might’ve outgrown them, those familiar pockets and footholds were right where I’d left them, strong as ever to support me as I climbed up to be with my old friend.

The same trees that give us our capacity for speech by breathing life into our lungs also supply the tools we use to immortalize this speech: pencils and paper. However, these instruments have become but two among the growing list of disposable possessions we have long forgotten the origin of.

Industrial manufacturing, especially of such commonplace things as writing utensils, obscures the living origins of the resources that go into our everyday products. Every tool, toy, and utensil we’ve ever created has come from the Earth — a fact that I think could redefine the relationships we have with seemingly lifeless objects.

In the case of pencils and paper, we have lost our respect for the trees that were felled. Robin Wall Kimmerer encourages us to be in relationship with the items we interact with daily, saying, “... looking over the objects on my desk — the basket, the candle, the paper — I delight in following their origins back to the ground. I twirl a pencil — a magic wand lathed from incense cedar — between my fingers.”​

For a moment, imagine holding a pencil. Can you feel its weight? Its straight edges and sharp point? Instead of understanding this possession as an abundant, limitless commodity, is it possible to instead feel the pressure on our fingertips and understand that we’re holding the weight of an entire life that has been gifted to us in the name of creativity?

And as you touch this miracle to a sheet of paper, consider the body that was sacrificed to provide you a blank space for your musings. Doing this, we might think twice about the words we choose to bleed into the world. When we’re able to recognize the marvel of using these tools to write and draw, the entire process becomes interwoven with an almost mystical air. It becomes exciting; meaningful even.

What have become conceptualized as mundane items are actually anything but. Within our notebooks we hold the weight of lives generously given so that we might place upon them words that can outlast us once we are gone. What we have in a blank sheet is no simple piece of paper; instead, it can be seen as a portal towards immortality. A place our minds can live on once our bodies no longer do.

As I think back to my relationship with that ficus tree, I can’t help but recognize the role she played in my creative growth. And though she wasn’t cut down and processed into pencils and paper, I keep her in mind when I use such tools and imagine the tree from which they were sourced and the little girl they might’ve inspired during their own time on Earth.

In the same way that the tree in Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” gave to the boy all that it had, I imagine my ficus readily sacrificing the branches that I’ve grown too old to climb for pencils and paper so that she might continue to help me chase after my creative pursuits. It’s my hope that with what I bring into the world using her body, and those of her kind, that she, like Silverstein’s tree, might see what I’ve done and be happy.

Rachel D. Levy ’22 is an Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column “The Experiment of Life” appears on alternate Mondays.

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