Loving Your Tree
By Nina Utne
< back to Features
by Cory Verellen
What better way to find sanctuary than to become it?
A long time ago, my mother made a casual remark that if she were
to have plastic surgery anywhere, it would be on her hands, where
the veins bulge and the skin broadcasts its age unmistakably. As
I watch my fingers move across my computer keyboard, I look at
my hands and see my mother’s. But I also remember walking in the
woods a few years back on a bracing, wet day, colors and shapes
in sharp relief. I was focused on the next step, on not tripping
in the web of tree roots, when I suddenly recognized that the veins
in my hands looked just like the roots at my feet.
Something shifted in me the day that I saw veins as tree roots.
I started seeing stretch marks in rivulets skimming the sand, cellulite
in cloud formations. In her book Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams
describes dunes: “Wind swirls around the sand and ribs appear.
There is musculature in dunes. And they are female. Sensuous curves—the
small of a woman’s back. Breasts. Buttocks. Hips and pelvis. They
are the natural shapes of earth. Let me lie naked and disappear.”
These days, at age 50, I am slightly obsessed with the variety
and beauty of tree bark, by the fact that the smoothness of a sapling
is no more beautiful than the ridges and folds in the bark of a
That’s why I was so struck by The Good Body, a new one
woman show by Eve Ensler (of The Vagina Monologues fame).
In one particularly powerful scene, Ensler asks the character Leah,
a 74-year-old African woman, if she loves her body. “Oh, yes,”
answers Leah. She describes what she loves about her body, including
the moons on her fingernails. She goes on to point to one tree
and then another. “Eve, is one of those trees more beautiful than
another? You must love all the trees, and you must love your tree.”
This affirmation of variety in beauty is juxtaposed against other
vignettes in the play: women who sap their power and joy with their
bodily self-loathing, with dieting and plastic surgery, women like
all of us in the audience who laugh and weep with recognition.
Particularly when Ensler exposes her stomach—the particular locus
of her sense of shame—which she says is the most “glorious” part
of each performance, because “it represents all of me in my complexity.”
On the day after I saw the play in mid November, I talked with
Eve, the two of us curled on either end of a red couch in her Manhattan
apartment, which is simultaneously a womb and an aerie, both peaceful
and fiery, an apt reflection of Eve herself. I asked her what role
spirituality plays in her life. She told me that she spent a year
going to churches and temples and every other kind of place spiritual
practice was going on, finding herself drawn to aspects of Islam,
Judaism, and Hinduism. Ultimately, she found all monotheism antifeminist
because, she asks, “With one god, are women ever included in the
The right path has to be individual, the one that “moves the
currents of your soul,” she says. “I needed something active, so
15 years ago I found a Buddhist practice where I chant. Finding
a practice was central to my happiness. There is a part of me that
moves to self-destruction, to collapse, if I don’t cultivate life
force.” We talked about how our bodies have the capacity to hold
rage, sorrow, joy, all together. But when we shut down and label
feelings and reactions—or bodily parts—wrong or bad or frightening,
we stop our breath and energy and, along with them, our ability
to respond creatively and powerfully in the present.
So much about what passes for beauty in our culture is shut down
and tidy—as opposed to what Eve calls “messy-gooey beauty, the
richness of a sorrow that we can’t control. I’ve seen awful things—refugee
camps, burned women, skulls on riverbanks--but I have a clarity
of purpose that came from my practice (to end violence toward women),
which allows me to see all that and keep going.” Capitalism, pushed
to its extreme, she says, ends up as a “malignant or atrophied
narcissism where you become so self-focused that you are just a
commodity that needs to consume to exist. The antidote is service.
We need to truly devote ourselves to others.”
We serve, not to be good, Eve insists, but because service is
the only antidote to self-hatred.
When people praise her for all the good she’s done (thousands
of performances of The Vagina Monologues have raised over
$25 million to prevent violence toward women all over the world),
she says, “I’m not noble; I take care of me. Building a safe house
in Africa benefits me.”
In conjunction with her play’s run in New
York, ABC Carpet & Home
in Manhattan is hosting the Love Your Tree Project, a series of
talks and programs based on themes raised by the play. I’ll be
speaking there about “The Good Body Politic: How Loving Your Body
Can Help Change the World.” My friend Zhena Muzyka will be serving
fair trade gypsy tea; there will be belly dancers of all ages,
sizes, and colors.
In my mind, all of this connects to our sense
of busyness and stress, our yearning for sanctuary. The fundamental
place we need to find sanctuary, both physically and emotionally,
is in our own bodies and in their connection to the earth. What
better way is there to find sanctuary than to become it? As long
as we judge ourselves and resist the discomfort of “messy-gooey
beauty” we restrict our life force and, along with it, our ability
to take effective action. “Activists are my role models because
they transform destructive energy,” says Eve. For her, such transformation
is at the heart of beauty.
Written by Nina Utne. This article originally appeared
in Utne Magazine. Nina Utne
is Chair and CEO of Utne Magazine.