Out on a limb
I have hiked many streams and creeks in the capital district. Because I love trees, I make a point of stopping to examine them in the forests and preserves that I frequent. Many of the banks of our bodies of water contain a mix of shale rock and thin soil common to our area, in which trees grow and from which they protrude. We are conditioned to think of a tree’s roots being anchored deeply, securely and self-contained in rich soil that firmly holds them in place. Even a casual stroll along these local banks upends this assumption; a closer look reveals the tangled, fragile-looking root systems of our various conifers and deciduous species that have been exposed by soil erosion and the splintering of soft shale. Though perhaps shallow, the root systems are, in fact, not so fragile at all, for their tangles are part of even more vast root systems just beneath the forest floor that hold them in place. Together with the extensive filaments of fungi that live and function symbiotically with tree communities, these roots form what tree scientists call the “wood wide web,” a vast arboreal internet of sorts through which multiple species of trees communicate and protect each other. I am always amazed by the sight of a tree jutting out over the water. Its thin but resilient trunk curves upward toward the sky, an adaptation that I imagine allows it to defy the pull of gravity by somehow evenly distributing the tree’s weight between roots, trunk and branches. The tree seems almost to float in midair, attached to nothing and utterly alone, as it gently perseveres in its precarious tightrope stance over a rushing stream or waterfall. The perceptive hiker or scientist knows the even more amazing truth behind these acrobatics: that tree is hardly alone.
The forms and functions within nature are often echoed in great works of art. Walking recently through the Rodin sculpture exhibit currently on view at the Clark Art Institute, I was astounded at how this master impressionist sculptor duplicated the image of the tree jutting out over water in his sculptures of young ballet dancers. There is a ballet position known as the Arabesque, in which the agile dancer juts her body outward at a perfect right angle, with one leg thrown straight behind her, as she perches herself almost magically on her other leg. Though it’s a common position in ballet, the Arabesque is not natural to human locomotion or standing. Most of us can’t balance ourselves on one leg in this way, at least not for very long, because we have evolved from walking on all fours to walking upright, bipedally. No matter how strong our core muscles might be, jutting outward on one leg isn’t an especially comfortable position for us anymore. However, any good ballet dancer, like any hardy tree growing up and out over a riverbank, can make this physical form look beautiful and easy.
My limited reading on the history of ballet tells me that the earliest ballet performances in seventeenth century France drew from the natural world and the four seasons. I imagine the early masters of this dance form sitting by the banks of a river, amazed, like I always am, at the gravity-defying resilience of the trees they encountered. As they trained their dancers, did they demand of them that they imitate the elegance of our woody neighbors in their lonely perseverance? Did they imagine their dancers mimicking in perfect physical form the trees’ seeming capacity for hanging over a precipice with nearly nothing to anchor them?
The trees only appear to be hanging precariously over the water, a small tangle of roots barely holding them up. That tangle is part of an even bigger underground tangle which quietly keeps each tree suspended but secure. A great ballet dancer only appears to be standing precariously on one foot, her body thrust forward with nothing to support her. That pose is part of years of training, muscular conditioning and overlapping communities of teachers, family and fellow dancers, that dancer’s vast underground root system which anchors her firmly, so that, tether-like, she can appear to float seamlessly in the air.
Everyone of us has experienced the proverbial condition of being out on a limb: utterly alone and rootless, unable to find solace and connection with others when we most desperately need it. For many Americans, this lonely despair is exacerbated by the dogmatic sanctification of the individual that I worry leaves us little room to contemplate the greater tangles of family and community: the matrices within which we function that can and do keep us from plummeting, and to which we owe mutual obligations. For the poorest Americans, such despair is made even worse by impersonal structures of power that rationalize greed and disenfranchisement with pseudo-pieties about individual responsibility.
The jutting trees and the agile Arabesque dancers graciously but forcefully remind us: we can all stand out as individuals so long as we recognize and nourish the roots that anchor us during our dances through this fragile existence. No one of us needs to be alone. No one of us should ever be alone.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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