Tree Rows of the Fourth Pruning
Plus: What would be needed for sound Catholic doctrine on trans experiences? And more
Welcome, creatures! This long post is really four short notes in a trenchcoat: a book, a play, a theological thing, and a gnawing.
“The Constant Clicking of Millions of Mandibles”
For Christmas last year my sister gave me Jared Farmer’s 2017 Trees in Paradise: The Botanical Conquest of California. She basically said, “I know you think you don’t want to read 450 pages of trees, but you do.” She was right!
Farmer’s a fun writer—this thing just bounces along. I was hooked from the early anecdote about a convoy of loggers who cart a giant wooden peanut from California to Washington. (“On the National Mall, a North Coast worker called out in resignation: ‘Come on, people, they don’t want our peanut.’”) There’s lovely descriptive writing: “On a mature sequoia, the bare shaft is cinnamon red with soot-black fire scars. Compared to a redwood, its bark—its ‘behemoth-like hide’—is softer and spongier, its foliage rougher and scalier.” There are perfect, often pungent quotations: A massive, damaged sequoia is “the St. Sebastian of the forest”; another sequoia’s hollowed trunk is big enough, in the words of a contemporary, “to contain all the wives of Brigham Young and all the husbands of Lola Montes.”
And Farmer crafts a memorable structure. His idea here is that four types of tree reflect four different ways Californians have related to the natural world: four ways we see ourselves in these most easily-anthropomorphized vegetables. Redwoods and sequoias represent the clash between the sacred and the commercial. They’re repositories of ancient time—and they’re made of the best lumber on Earth. Eucalyptus tell us about what it means to be “native.” These Australian trees were brought it to make California less desert, more like the farms-and-forests landscape white settlers considered normative. But by the time expert opinion tilted against “afforestation” and the transformation of landscapes rather than their preservation, Californians had adopted the eucalyptus. Rejecting it raised existential questions: “How long must we live here before we can consider ourselves Californians? What, if anything, about this place is permanent?”
All of these sections are about people as shapers of the “natural world,” which is always also a cultural world. The third tree examines oranges: an industrial fruit whose orchards look (and once smoked) like factories. Because this is a book about California, it’s a book about Asia and Mexico; because this is a book about America, it’s a book about racism. And because this is a book about nature, it’s a book about labor relations. The Golden West is still east of Eden.
And then the final section is about palm trees: the plant as pure symbol. LA’s “plastic” plant, which “complement[s] the beauty of concrete and glass”; the fashion tree, whose hairdressers have one of “the most hazardous jobs in Los Angeles.” Palms symbolize luxury but “take root in the waste spaces.” They “facilitate urban surveillance.” You can get them straight up, anchored in an arc, or in “fantasy shapes”!
But really every section of this marvelous book is about trees’ fantasy shapes. Objects in the world are words spoken by God, but California trees also have a meaning imposed by people.
Emily’s Empathy (Revisited)
While I was in California I was finally able to see “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” in person, at the San Francisco Playhouse. I’ll reductively call “Heroes” a dissection of American Catholic conservatism; when I saw a Zoom quarantine version, I stayed up half the night thinking about it. If you’re reading this newsletter you’d probably get something from it.
Some things hit harder via Zoom. This production’s Theresa wasn’t enough of a pressure-hose. (When she says “cocaine” I think you’re supposed to say, “Ohhhhh of course,” not, “Wait, what?”) And in person you notice when the arguments lose the audience, e.g. Emily’s extended riff on acceptance of bodily suffering as an argument against trans identities. “Heroes” is a lot to take in, and I think the ideal audience would be more open to the occasionally-deranged philosophies on offer than any real American theater audience is.
But this production’s Emily convinced me in a way the Zoom one didn’t. Yes, Emily is passive-aggressive. Yes, Emily seethes with anger and resentment. (Yes, Emily makes you remember that the author is also the child of people who run a conservative Catholic college. Self-awareness!) But, maybe just because she was in person, Wera von Wulfen’s Emily showed a genuine desire for docility. Her face is so open, she wants so badly to be open to these people and the thing they’ve taught her is God’s love. And that docility, or longing for docility, made her final outburst hit me hard—I could finally see it as BD McClay does here, as a possible example of Catholic vicarious suffering (albeit one which explicitly denies the possibility of bearing another’s pain), rather than just the punishment Emily’s been trying to dole out to her unloved friends all night.
Beyond the political and religious specifics, although I care a lot about those, this is a play about docility. It’s not primarily about leadership but about followership. It’s about how unprotected docility will leave you; and people who aren’t sheltered by others, at least by one another, may grow their own poisonous protective coatings.
It’s playing through March 5 so if you’re in SF, now you have Ash Wednesday plans.
The Precondition for Catholic Theologies of Transgender Experience
A couple of American dioceses have recently attempted to lay out policies regarding gender identity (and other stuff, gay people get sideswiped in some of these documents too, but they’re mostly targeted at trans people). They seem to me to make two major mistakes. One is that they assume that there’s a lot of Catholic teaching already when there just isn’t. The other is that they have no concern for the single, central precondition for developing doctrines and prudential guidelines for trans Catholics.
My own position is basically three things.
#1: We do not have a robust body of Catholic doctrine addressing the ethics and questions of trans Christians. We have building blocks.
#2: These building blocks—most notably the unity of body and soul, and the reality and mystery of sex difference—are beautiful and holy. They can also be the foundation for acceptance of trans identities. Catholics can affirm our doctrines and also affirm transition as a way of acknowledging and resolving the complexity of some people’s sexed bodies.
(Gabriel Blanchard makes some relevant points (and see the previous posts in that series); I don’t agree with everything in these posts by Daniel Quinan but he draws out a lot of important points and possibilities; Melinda Selmys also does some important work in the posts here.)
#3: We will not develop either good pastoral/prudential guidance or the range of good theologies we will need to meet trans people’s widely-varied experiences and spiritual needs, unless trans people are safe and welcome in our churches. This is basically the point I made here: theology flows from community. We will not have creative, orthodox Catholic theology responding to transgender people’s questions until we have places where trans Catholics are free to be both orthodox and creative.
So that third thing is the task, imho.
In the past couple years I started to hear this phrase, “giving grace”—that you could choose to “give grace” to someone else, or to yourself, about a specific issue. It unsettled me! I hope I can gnaw a little on my discomfort here without being a scold or a pedant.
My initial reaction was a pretty blunt, “Isn’t God the One Who gives grace?” But that’s maybe semantics. My deeper reaction came from two intertwined things. Basically, people seemed to be using this language of “giving grace” to talk about charity or humility—but also to confine those virtues to the specific issues on which “giving grace” is permissible. We can give grace on thing X, but what we do with one another regarding thing Y is still up for grabs. This I don’t love!
I assume there are good reasons this phrase attracts people, and I can maybe intuit some of them. I have a very close friend for whom the language of “giving oneself grace” about exercise/self-improvement was really powerful. I think maybe it met her sense of the urgency of her self-improvement efforts—it didn’t downplay things, like, oh, exercise isn’t that important for your mental and physical health, why are you so pressed? But it met that urgency with the greater urgency and mystery of grace: an inbreaking from outside, something beyond and more important than our own important little efforts. “Grace” implies mystery, and therefore a recognition of our own limits—even a gratitude for our own limits.
So I’m not telling you not to say it. I give you grace on the use of this phrase! (See? Isn’t there a weird lordliness in framing it that way, like, where did I get the right to give you grace? As vs. the salutary humiliation of “humility” talk. But then I know some people hate the word “humility” because it has been used against them; and “charity” can also connote a pitying condescension. So there are no words we can’t warp. Anyways.) I would just say, whatever grace we give one another in some things, we owe one another charity and humility in all things.
Lol nothing’s more humble than telling other people to remember their humility… /o\
“Urban planning can facilitate friendship—and the Catholic Church can help”: A big shaggy piece, probably overstuffed, but it includes a lot of my obsessions (DC, covenant friendship, the hidden world of childhood, the need for a little disorder) and does some things I haven’t seen elsewhere.
The Beach Boys, “California Girls”
Sequoia via Wikimedia Commons.