The origin of our world is in leaves—A spring meditation on a painting by Claude Monet, a poem by Boris A. Novak, and a book by Emanuele Coccia

READINGS: Eyesight by A. R. Ammons

It was May before my
attention came
to spring and

my word I said
to the southern slopes

missed it, it
came and went before
I got right to see:

don't worry, said the mountain,
try the later northern slopes
or if

you can climb, climb
into spring: but
said the mountain
it's not that way
with all things, some
that go are gone

 Springtime by Boris A. Novak

 In the Art Institute of Chicago
 a Claude Monet hangs,
 Torrent, Creuse,
 a winter landscape with an oak tree.
 To capture the frozen trembling
 of the oaken forms
 the painter hung so long on the canvas
 that the oak tree began to turn green,
 for spring had come in the land.
 Desperate at the thought of losing the image
 of an oak tree in winter,
 Monet hired workers
 to peel the young green foliage off
 the oak day after day,
 so as to keep it winterly at any cost,
 naked, dead,
 painterly alive.

 Poetry is different.
 For a long time I felt winter
 inside and around me,
 now that I want to write a winter poem
 the poem is turning green,
 for spring has come in the land,
 and I don't have workers
 to peel the greening
 words off the reborn tree of a poem.
 And even if I had an army of good, skillful elves,
 the poem would not yield,
 for words sprout up
 whenever they do and however they do,
 and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

 That's why I eagerly, vernally, hasten my step
 for I well know:
 when summer comes in the land,
 and autumn, and the next winter,
 nothing will ever bring back
 this painfully luxuriant
 awakening in spring.
 Nothing can ever bring anything back again.
 Oh, the unwritten poems!
 Oh, things forever lost!

 I hasten, hasten my step
 and with every word,
 with every leaf
 winter is getting nearer.

From The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture by Emanuele Coccia (Polity Press, 2019, pp.27-28)

The leaf is the paradigmatic form of openness: life capable of being traversed by the world without being destroyed by it. But it is also the climatic laboratory par excellence, the oven that produces oxygen and frees it into space, the element that renders possible the life, the presence, and the mixture of an infinite variety of subjects, bodies, histories, and worldly beings. The little green limbs that populate the planet and capture the energy of the Sun are the cosmic connective tissue that has allowed, for millions of years, the most disparate lives to cross paths and mix without melting reciprocally, one into the other.
        The origin of our world does not reside in an event that is infinitely distant from us in time and space, millions of light years away; nor does it reside in a space of which we no longer have a trace. It is here and now. The origin of the world is seasonal, rhythmic, deciduous like everything that exists. Being neither substance nor foundation, it is no more in the ground than in the sky, but rather halfway between the two. Our origin is not in us—in interiore homine—but outside, in open air. It is not something stable or ancestral, a star of immeasurable size, a god, a titan. It is not unique. The origin of our world is in leaves: fragile, vulnerable, yet capable of returning, of coming back to life once they have passed through the rough season.


The origin of our world is in leaves—A spring meditation on a painting by Claude Monet, a poem by Boris A. Novak, and a book by Emanuele Coccia

Just a few months ago I came across the poem by the Slovenian poet Boris A. Novak (born in Belgrade in 1953) you heard in our readings.

When I first read Novak’s words about Monet’s actions I confess to wondering whether this could really be true so I immediately headed over to the Art Institute of Chicago’s website where I discovered a very informative and interesting set of pages about Monet’s painting campaign in the Petite Creuse Valley during the spring of 1889. It seems he’d arrived on March 7th and by April 13 had begun to paint the scene we are considering. However, thanks to bad health and bad weather, he wasn’t able to go back to the same site to continue painting until early May by which time spring had sprung and the landscape’s appearance had changed considerably. As the museum’s commentary tells us:

The spring thaw had caused the river to rise, and the sun reflecting off the drop of the river was blindingly bright. Some trees had been cut down and some had sprouted leaves.

This included the little oak tree you can see in the picture before you. For Monet, again to quote from the museum’s commentary,

The gnarled oak tree was essential to [his] emotional and aesthetic attachment to this site: not only did it impart a rhythm and pattern to the surface, it conveyed a mood. So important was the tree’s nature as he first encountered it to his concept that he determined to undo nature itself. Instead of accepting the seasons’ effects and reworking or even restarting the canvas accordingly, Monet intervened to reverse them. Hiring workers to scale ladders to defoliate the tree, Monet re-created its winter appearance.

Here are Monet’s own words about this in a letter to Alice Hoschedé dated May 9, 1889:

I am in a state of joy: the unhoped-for permission to remove the leaves of my handsome oak has been graciously granted! It was a big business to bring large enough ladders into the ravine. Finally it has been done; two men have been occupied with it since yesterday.

I confess to being really very shocked and not a little angry with Monet for doing this — a feeling which our own more ecologically aware time has only served to increase. The three pictures he painted of the scene with the oak tree may still be beautiful and life-affirming in their surface appearances but, to me, their heart and soul now seems very ugly and destructive. Knowing the story I’d struggle to have one of those “beautiful” pictures hung on my wall.

As the poet Novak realises whilst he contemplates Monet’s picture, “Poetry is different” and for “poetry” I think we may also read real “life”. Like leaves coming to a tree in the meteorological season of spring when the spring of the spirit comes, words come to the poet. As Novak points out, even if he “had an army of good, skillful elves, / the poem would not yield, / for words sprout up / whenever they do and however they do, / and there is nothing anyone can do about it.” The poem, like spring itself, will not be held back. It’s no wonder that Novak feels the words which come to him (just like leaves) are unique, “painfully luxuriant” gifts and that one must hasten to celebrate them because “with every word, / with every leaf / winter is getting nearer.”

The point is, of course, that one can only have another chance to paint again a winter tree or try to pen a winter poem in so far as you are willing to paint or write your way through another unfolding year. As Ammons imagines the mountain to say to him in his poem “Eyesight” the most you can hope for is to delay things a little by trying “the later northern slopes / or if / you can climb, climb / into spring”.

Monet’s shameful attitude and action reveals how he singularly failed to understand this. His painting turns out not to be a picture of a beautiful oak tree in winter but, instead, an illustration of the kind of blind and arrogant human hubris that has served to make us think we are somehow above, outside and not part of the ecosystem of earth which is itself an expression of the endless and indivisible fluxes and flows of matter. This, in turn, has helped contribute to what we are now calling a climate emergency. His was a view of the world which failed to see our deep relationship with, and utter dependance upon rather than our dominance over, the leaf.

These thoughts were in mind this week as I coincidently found myself enjoying Emanuele Coccia’s wonderful, newly published book “The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture” (Polity Press, 2019). In it, he offers us a view of the world in which we begin to see our relationship and dependance upon the leaf goes way further than we might, at first, think.

In a recent interview (with the exception of the quote from the book above all quotations of Coccia are taken from this interview) Coccia observes that one of the reasons for our blindness in these matters is that, for too long, our biological studies have been “zoocentric” — namely centred on animal life — as if life on this planet centres and relies upon us. Coccia wants to abandon this view and help us see that life on this planet instead centres and relies upon plants. He also wants us to help us see that we continue problematically to divide what we call knowledge “into the humanities and the natural sciences, when in fact that division makes no sense.” In his opinion — one which I share with him — “we should consider the humanities to be part of biology and zoology, and the natural sciences to be spiritual sciences, because man is an animal.”

Part of the reason for our tendency artificially to divide up the world into biology, zoology, art and science and so forth, is because of our modern understanding of in what consists reason. Coccia feels that by the nineteenth-century we had lost connection with an earlier tradition which began with the Stoics and had “exploded” in the Renaissance “according to which the paradigm for the essence of reason was the plant, and specifically the seed.”

Coccia says of this that:

The idea [in this earlier tradition] is that reason is not the awareness of something but the capacity to transform, or fashion, the world. The example par excellence of a rational event is when an artisan takes a piece of matter and makes something of it, gives it a form or a function. That is rationality par excellence. If we adopt this perfectly reasonable point of view, then the seed is a force able to draw forth incredible forms from matter. But at that point, reason is no longer just a human or animal faculty; it’s a cosmic force. . . .  A force that permeates the universe and to which we owe the continual and perpetual youth of forms.

In the modern age, however, we succeeded in “reduc[ing] rationality or mind to something spiritual or psychological, and thus belonging strictly to man.”

With the thought that reason — conceived as a seed — “is a force able to draw forth incredible forms from matter” we arrive back at art because Coccia also sees plant life as being the paradigmatic expression of the realm of life which, obviously, most concerned Monet, namely art. Coccia is clear “that science and art are not so very contrary.” As he makes clear, although “plants have no hands with which to manipulate the world . . . it would be difficult to find defter agents for the construction of forms.”

For Coccia when we begin to understand that “the seed is a form of rationality” we also begin to find “the idea of the universal artist or the cosmic artist.” But, and let me be quite clear about this, this is not quietly to smuggle in by the back-door the god of theism because the “rational force” being spoken about here “corresponds to the force of matter itself and does not pass through thought or mediation.” In other words “[m]atter itself seeks, invents, produces its forms of life and rationality simultaneously.” As Coccia says:

[P]lants embody the aesthetic idea of a vitality of form. Life’s ability to produce its own forms. Inversely, this illustrates that forms are nothing but living beings and that art is nothing but the sphere in which forms come to life.

At this point, we can, perhaps, begin to see that art so considered is a real force for changing the world. Again as Coccia notes, “[e]very major work of art is an object that suddenly, magically manages to change the forms around it.”

Who can doubt this assertion? One does not need to think very hard to find examples of how art in all its forms has managed to change the course of human life in both small and great ways by introducing rhizomatically into play new ideas, new visions, new perspectives, new maps, new myths and new legends which have flowed and fluxed giving us new religions, new politics, new sciences and so on. I trust Novak’s poem we heard earlier can be one such specific example of this for us this spring morning.

However, when human art is driven by the kind of blindness to the primacy of plants as was displayed by Monet, then we’re in trouble. And who can doubt that we are, indeed, in some real trouble.

How I wish Monet was able to have painted his scene with eyes truly opened to how dependent he, and we all are upon the leaves he so thoughtlessly, hubristically stripped-off that lovely oak tree. How I wish he’d see that it would have been better to have tried to paint some other scene on some higher and later northern slope. How I wish he could have seen that we must stand before all plant-life and go way beyond seeing them as merely pretty, decorative things to be painted, to be casually observed on our walks, beyond seeing them as products of our gardening and agriculture. Is there any doubt that today we need to start seeing, and feeling, as deeply as possible that, as Coccia observes:

Every time we breathe . . . we come into close or distant contact with plants. We feed on their detritus, on what they expel . . . which is oxygen. This banal event is the basis of all existence. Respiration is an act through which we immerse ourselves in the world and allow the world to immerse itself in us — the world of plants.

Yes, indeed!

However we can’t, of course, go back in time and somehow persuade Monet to hold off from his act of desecration of that oak tree — that’s an activity as impossible as wanting to make a tree go back a season. However, we can in the years to come choose to use his painting and the story of its making as a salutary aide-mémoire reminding us that “The origin of our world is in leaves: fragile, vulnerable, yet capable of returning, of coming back to life” but only “once they have passed through the rough season.”

I trust that the current, if still nascent, awakening to our inextricable and intimate enfolded-ness within the earth’s complex ecosystem (and, by extension, the fluxes and flows of matter everywhere), this Green rebellion, will help us truly begin to change our ways and to stop us continuing to behave like Monet did during that spring of 1889.

Such a change of behaviour might just help us begin to see that although our old ways of being mean we, like the leaves, will ourselves also have to pass through a rough season, there remains a real chance that some kind of spring will come again for us.

There is now excellent and increasing evidence — scientific, philosophical, artistic and poetic — for us to say that this “spring” will, however, only come in so far as we become less and less like Monet and more and more like the leaves upon which we depend for our very breath (Ruach) and spirit.


As Thomas Nail perspicaciously observes (in a recent lecture/essay On Returning to Lucretius):

There will be no resolution to the deepest problems of our times until the Lucretian unity of humans, nature, and art (the humanities, sciences, and arts) are brought back together again in collective ethical practice.