Fathom Mag

Are We Palm Oil Trees?

Published on:
February 28, 2024
Read time:
4 min.
Share this article:

Once, during a period of exasperating insomnia, I watched a nature documentary, hoping the dulcet tones of David Attenborough might put me to sleep. I was, at the time, frustrated with myself. It was a demanding era for me,  requiring a great deal of personal discipline to complete my studies and carry on doing all the things that I needed to do to pay my bills and appear as a rational member of society. Each day, I had the same relentless routine of studying, working, eating, cleaning, and preparing to do it all again. And despite my best efforts, my pace of writing was glacial and my body was constantly in some kind of rebellion—I caught cold after cold and fell prey to migraines until I felt quite literally dysfunctional: unable to function, to produce.  

Purchasing through links on this page may earn Fathom a small commission.

My insomnia was merely the final stone in an avalanche of stress tumbling down the hill of my life. David Attenborough was talking about palm oil trees.  

Unlike me, apparently palm oil trees are very productive and make a lot of money. This was probably not the impression David Attenborough wished me to take away from the program, but I did feel slightly envious of the incredibly productive trees. Farmers created the conditions for this productivity by tripping away the many other seemingly useless plants from the jungle, planting endless, orderly lines of palm—and only palm—trees. What Attenborough did wish me to catch, though, was that this process led to the diminishment of the area surrounding the palm oil trees. The relentless orientation toward producing palm oil began to diminish the biologically rich resources that oriented the trees toward such productivity to begin with. 

Much of what appears useless, time-consuming, and unproductive is key to its survival.

When Attenborough began to wax eloquent about the eating and pooping habits of a certain species of ape, I had a moment of clarity about the human condition. He spoke about how it takes years for them to teach their young what to eat, and that over the years, as they swing from tree to tree, eating and feeding their young, the excrement they leave behind plants seeds across the jungle, offering both fertilizer and a self-perpetuating system of biodiversity. This, suggested Attenborough, is the way of things: the chaos of the rainforest is the source of its life. Much of what appears useless, time-consuming, and unproductive is key to its survival. Thus, while the extreme order imposed by the farmers made an abundance of one kind of crop, it began to destroy everything else in its orderly path.

As I watched, I began to realize that I was thinking of myself like a palm oil tree. I was oriented around one purpose: to produce, produce, produce. I had cut and cleared the field of my life, vacating all that was not useful, all that did not directly contribute to the sustainment of my own existence and the productivity of my work. And as a result, the forest of my life was yielding less and less fruit. The world we live in has told us to make ourselves like palm oil trees, fit for producing and capitalizing. We leave little room in our lives for the wild and weedy flower of love or the unhurried snacking and pooping ape of curiosity to reside. And the irony of this, of course, is that we often make ourselves much less “productive” in the process by depriving ourselves of those secret and incalculable forms of nourishment. I resolved to reincorporate some of the frivolous sources of pleasure I had abandoned, which I suspected had somehow secretly fertilized my capacity for creativity, like the meandering and pooping ape. I resolved also to eat more leafy greens. I became sleepy. I never finished the documentary (apologies, Sir Attenborough), but my migraines became less frequent. 

A good life is not made up of a few discrete ingredients, but of diffuse influences and sources of nourishment that cultivate a conducive context for fruitfulness.

Each day, a tree needs something slightly different: sunlight, shade, water, nutrients in the soil, the reprieve of winter, springtime bees to fertilize its flowers, birds to pluck fruit so its branches won’t break. A flourishing human life is the same. A good life is not made up of a few discrete ingredients, but of diffuse influences and sources of nourishment that cultivate a conducive context for fruitfulness. Some commentators believe that the phrase “planted by streams of water” refers to an irrigated garden, a place intentionally crafted to nourish trees. This suggests that the flourishing tree is flourishing not by happenstance or luck, but because of the careful, loving intention of a gardener who made the conditions good for the tree (and indeed, for all of the trees)  to thrive. Perhaps, then, if we want to thrive, we must think of ourselves not only as the tree planted by streams of water, but as gardeners who intentionally make an environment conducive to fruitfulness. That we should do so is fitting,  given that the first vision we are given of humankind is of two people set in a garden to tend it. 

When we see ourselves as trees we can accept the varying seasons of life, and even trust in their beneficial work. The psalmist does not say that the righteous man bears fruit all the time. Sometimes it can be frightening when it feels like our effort or prayer hasn’t borne fruit. But remembering you are a tree can relieve some of this anxiety by reminding us that even wintery seasons (as long as they feel) may be a time when our roots are growing deep and may precede the decadent glory of spring. This perspective encourages us to pay attention to what is happening in our lives, what season we are in. Trees are constantly adjusting to the weather, the sun, the nutrients in the soil, the activity of bugs and animals. This invites us to adopt a posture of agency in those waiting and wintery seasons; you need not only weather the storm, but also figure out what you need in this season to ready yourself for the next. 

Joy Clarkson
Joy Clarkson is the author of You Are a Tree and host of popular podcast, Speaking with Joy. She is the books editor for Plough Quarterly and a research associate in theology and literature at King's College London. Joy completed her PhD in theology at the University of St Andrews, where she researched how art can be a resource of hope and consolation.

From You Are A Tree by Joy Clarkson, provided by Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Copyright 2024. Used with permission.

Cover image by Hans Eiskonen.

Next story