October 21, 2014
Xerxes was war-hungry and on the move, the great Persian Shāhanshāh,
king of kings, surrounded by a million, let’s say two million soldiers marching west to crush Greece, washing like a murderous wave across the river Maeander. Herodotus said their numbers were so vast that the soldiers not only crossed rivers, but drained them with their thirst.
And imagine the momentum of so many men and horses moving together, and what it must have felt like to be Xerxes at the center of all that clanging weaponry, or the cause
of it moving setting-sunward, cohesive and singular despite all its moving parts. It was his appetite breathing life into the entire beast. But then the king saw the outline of a solitary oriental plane tree on the horizon, majestic and sprawling and mottle-barked, with wide palmate leaves rustling in the breeze.
It took only the rising of the king’s hand for the whole war animal to screech to a halt.
And what makes something holy? By what alchemy are we moved to awe or, rather, stopped abruptly in our tracks, even as we march ravenously toward war? We know only this: Xerxes fell in love with a tree on his way to crush a civilization.
It’s in the books, sort of trustworthy. And he stayed with that tree for a day and a night, adorned its branches with gold, demanded the entire army fanning around him suspend their blood lust while he sat in worship of a tree, silent in its dappled shade. Absorbing the arboreal. Momentarily sated.
History is the story of hunger! For sustenance, shelter, and sex. The hunger for power and love. For fame and gold and vengeance. For a capital g God, or at least some divine lowercase substitutes. Fill us! we scream. Fill us; fill us; fill us! Appetite animates the entire universe.
What’s funny about Xerxes is that despite his affection for a single tree, he was about to devour an entire forest to move his army across the Hellespont. Close to 900 tons of green timber—rough cut by axe and adz—created the platforms that rested over the decks of almost 700 penteconters
, long-hulled wooden warships each containing an acre of forest within their buoyant bodies, their masts and oars, all lashed together and anchored—a momentary wooden tether between Asia and Europe.
I doubt Xerxes caught the irony.
I was once suspended in the top forks of an American plane tree, a sycamore more than three feet around at its base, almost a hundred feet high at its crown. I was flying through the tree’s canopy attached to a bright green, sixteen-braid, half-inch rope that could, if asked to do so, hold the weight of fifty of me.
The tree was built largely of the same mottled bark and muscled flesh that Xerxes saw, and was littered with dead branches, which is what I was after, swinging from limb to limb with my saw, biting just outside the branch collars with a serrated blade that cut on the pull, watching the sticks fall brittle and broken to the ground. Anthracnose fungi had been feasting. Sunken cankers pockmarked all the twigs. The tree was in decline, being slowly eaten away.
Instead of ancient Lydia, it was Tennessee in mid-summer. Instead of war, I was hungry for tree dollars, tucking them away to buy one-way tickets to far off places. I was equally hungry for surges of adrenaline, for experiences that would set me apart from every other bearded-wannabe-writer who had seen some cobblestones and cathedrals and felt stuff move inside his chest and stomach.
I was hungry for a byline, for love and attention, to do lofty-sounding things like “leave an imprint on the planet.”
But I remember stopping for a full minute at the top of that plane tree, the green hills of Nashville seemingly at my feet, feeding on the view not of
the tree but from
its highest forks, feeling if only for a moment a fleeting satiety.
I was strong, healthy, engrossed in meaningful work, in love with a job and what it afforded me, in love with my city and leaving my city, the smells of chainsaw gas and cut wood and the burning fibers of a friction knot screaming down a braided line. For a moment I felt a tiny suspension of the hunger that turns every cosmic gear. I wanted nothing, needed nothing, was entirely, momentarily without appetite—alone in the tops of a tree being eaten from within.
Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus, sitting in a tree. He climbed up in a sycamore, a Ficus sycomorus,
for the Lord he wanted to see. Hungry for a simple glance, just a look. Jesus coaxed him down, and the tax collector got an entire meal. I imagine him fully full in the presence of a grace-filled God.
And then I imagine Jesus multiplying fishes and loaves, zapping water into wine, sitting at the convergence of a thousand hungers, his disciples fanning around him, the cross yet to come, an upper room table filled with a humble feast. And Jesus says: I will not offer you cheap sustenance but instead become sustenance itself—its summation.
Jesus announces this as he is about to enter his own deep fast: For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes. I will fill you, he says, even as I surrender to the hunger pangs, which is longing and want and waiting for God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom will come, he says, and with it the end of all hunger. It will be the final wrench in the munching universal machine.
A few thousand years later, just before he hanged himself from his home patio, David Foster Wallace reminded the graduating class of Kenyon College that whatever we worship will become our Ouroboros
, will twist and eat us alive like a snake eating its tail:
If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
Xerxes saturated the ground with Greek blood until he was pushed back to Persia, and then he died. The immortal soldier he placed at the plane tree to guard it, to ensure it would never feel the bite of an ax, was mortal after all. The giant Platanus occidentalis
I used as a perch to see my city, to feel a precious pause in appetite, eventually fed our chipper, filled the back of two twelve-yard dump trucks with tree shards. May God direct our appetites, for they animate everything.
And may God bless the precious pause—the moment when something like tree-beauty halts an army, when you hunger for absolutely nothing, when you taste and see that the Lord is good and you never want to taste or see anything else for as long as you live—and may that fullness be a harbinger of what’s to come.
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