Book Bits

Uselessness as Survival

Students of Zen are well accustomed to the idea of doing nothing, sometimes in a very active way. Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing, follows a similar idea and looks at the social and political implications of resisting the forces that demand our attention and distract us from ourselves and the things that really deserve our attention. In this passage from the book’s introduction, she talks about Old Survivor, an old-growth redwood tree that outlived the cull of the Gold Rush because of its strangeness or unfitness as a timber tree. We can take heart from Old Survivor’s story, Odell says, and consider this kind of ‘resistance in place’ as a form of survival.


Let’s start in the hills overlooking Oakland, the city where I currently live. Oakland has two famous trees: first is the Jack London Tree, a gigantic coast live oak in front of City Hall, from which the city gets its tree-shaped logo. The other, which is hidden among the hills, is not as well known. Nicknamed the “Grandfather” or “Old Survivor,” it’s Oakland’s only old-growth redwood left standing, a miraculous five-hundred-year-old holdover from the time before all of the ancient redwoods were logged following the Gold Rush. Though much of the East Bay Hills are covered in redwoods, they are all second growth, sprouted from the stumps of ancestors that at one point were some of the largest on the entire coast. Before 1969, people in Oakland assumed that all of the old-growth trees were gone, until a naturalist happened upon Old Survivor towering over the other trees. Since then, the ancient tree has figured in the collective imagination, prompting articles, group hikes, and even a documentary.

Before they were logged, the old-growth redwoods of the East Bay Hills also included the Navigation Trees, redwoods that were so tall that sailors in the San Francisco Bay used them to steer clear of the submerged and dangerous Blossom Rock. (When the trees were logged, the Army Corp of Engineers had to literally blow up Blossom Rock.) Though it wasn’t one of those trees, I like to think of Old Survivor as its own kind of navigational aid. This wizened tree has a few lessons to teach us.

The first lesson is about resistance. Old Survivor’s somewhat legendary status has to do not only with its age and unlikely survival, but its mysterious location. Even those who grew up hiking in the East Bay Hills can have a hard time finding it. When you do spot Old Survivor, you still can’t get that close, because it sits on a steep rocky slope whose ascent would require a serious scramble. That’s one reason it survived logging; the other reason has to do with its twisted shape and its height: ninety-three feet, a runt compared to other old-growth redwoods. In other words, Old Survivor survived largely by appearing useless to loggers as a timber tree.

To me, this sounds like a real-life version of a story—the title of which is often translated as “The Useless Tree”—from the Zhuangzi, a collection of writings attributed Zhuang Zhou, a fourth-century Chinese philosopher. The story is about a carpenter who sees a tree (in one version, a serrate oak, a similar-looking relative to our coast live oak) of impressive size and age. But the carpenter passes it right by, declaring it a “worthless tree” that has only gotten to be this old because its gnarled branches would not be good for timber. Soon afterward, the tree appears to him in a dream and asks, “Are you comparing me with those useful trees?” The tree points out to him that fruit trees and timber trees are regularly ravaged. Meanwhile, uselessness has been this tree’s strategy: “This is of great use to me. If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large?” The tree balks at the distinction between usefulness and worth, made by a man who only sees trees as potential timber: “What’s the point of this—things condemning things? You a worthless man about to die—how do you know I’m a worthless tree?” It’s easy for me to imagine these words being spoken by Old Survivor to the nineteenth-century loggers who casually passed it over, less than a century before we began realizing what we’d lost.

This formulation—the usefulness of uselessness—is typical of Zhuang Zhou, who often spoke in apparent contradictions and non sequiturs. But like his other statements, it’s not a paradox for the sake of being a paradox: rather, it’s merely an observation of a social world that is itself a paradox, defined by hypocrisy, ignorance, ignorance, and illogic. In a society like that, a man attempting a humble and ethical life would certainly appear “backward”: for him, good would be bad, up would be down, productivity would be destruction, and indeed, uselessness would be useful.

If you’ll allow me to stretch this metaphor, we could say that Old Survivor was too weird or too difficult to proceed easily toward the sawmill. In that way, the tree provides me with an image of “resistance-in-place.” To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system. To do this means refusing the frame of reference: in this case, a frame of reference in which value is determined by productivity, the strength of one’s career, and individual entrepreneurship. It means embracing and trying to inhabit somewhat fuzzier or blobbier ideas: of maintenance as productivity, of the importance of nonverbal communication, and of the mere experience of life as the highest goal. It means recognizing and celebrating a form of the self that changes over time, exceeds algorithmic description, and whose identity doesn’t always stop at the boundary of the individual. In an environment completely geared toward capitalist appropriation of even our smallest thoughts, doing this isn’t any less uncomfortable than wearing the wrong outfit to a place with a dress code. To remain in this state takes commitment, discipline, and will. Doing nothing is hard.


Jenny Odell
From: How to do Nothing

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