Rousseau’s Walnut and Willow Trees

Lucas Reiner, On Alameda Ave. #1 (SCF). Commissioned by the Annenberg Foundation/Farmlab LLC. Courtesy of the artist.

 by Michael Marder

JUNE 28, 2014

No one who is even cursorily familiar with the social and political thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau would be surprised that he was an avid botanist and a lover of plants. It is easy to detect is a direct link between Rousseau’s ideal of a more simple and nature-bound human existence, his critique of alienation from nature, and his search for solitude, peace, and tranquility in the meadows and the woods, where he undertook his small botanical expeditions toward the end of his life. An autobiographical record of these journeys is available under the title Reveries of the Solitary Walker, a slim volume, which Rousseau had conceived as a continuation of his Confessions but did not have a chance to complete past the “Tenth Walk.” Having suffered a hemorrhage, he collapsed on a customary morning stroll among plants and died in 1778, at the age of sixty-six.

Rousseau’s love of plants did not start at the end of his life, when, as a social recluse, he sought refuge in the vegetal world. As he narrates in The Confessions, in his childhood, he witnessed a certain walnut tree planted with great pomp and circumstance by Monsieur Lambercier, a country gentleman, at whose estate the young Jean-Jacques passed two years together with his cousin Benjamin. His predilection for things of nature rather than manufactured objects was already obvious at that time: “my cousin and I became more strongly convinced, as was natural, that it was a finer thing to plant a tree on a terrace than a flag upon a beach.”[1] And so, the two boys resolved to copy Monsieur Lambercier’s gesture by planting a slip from a young willow not far from the walnut tree and diverting the water used to irrigate the latter toward the former with the help of an improvised aqueduct.

For a while, narrates Rousseau, “our tree so completely claimed our attention that we were quite incapable of attending to or learning anything else, and were in a sort of delirium.”[2] From an early age, he preferred to learn from plants—to the point of being enchanted by them—rather than from human educators or from the knowledge accumulated by the arts and the sciences. But the adults soon discovered the prank, destroyed the aqueduct, and uprooted the fragile willow slip.

The autobiographical episode involving Jean-Jacques, Benjamin, Monsieur Lambercier, and the two trees is retrospectively lit up in its full significance by Rousseau’s mature thought, especially by Discourse on the Origins and the Foundations of Inequality among Mankind. Was the standoff between the noble walnut and the common willow, or between everything they represented, rooted in the natural or the moral-political types of inequality? Symbolically, the childish prank tried to subvert not only adult authority (i.e., natural inequality in age) but also, the power of a countryside parson, a clergyman and an estate owner (i.e., political inequality, dependent on convention). The distinction, made at the outset of the Discourse, becomes a little blurry here.

More than that, in taking sides with the common willow, doesn’t the young Rousseau already display the “natural virtue” of pity, felt not just toward other human beings but toward other creatures, as well? This remarkable capacity to be moved by and interested in ordinary living beings drove him, during his last botanical walks, to pour over and study the least impressive of plants—grasses, mosses, and lichens.[3] After all, they too have the right to live and to claim our attention, which normally tends toward magnificent trees and beautiful flowers. It is this refusal to distinguish between the valuable and the useless, the noble and the common, that drove the two cousins to divert water from the walnut tree, re-appropriating it for another plant that had no rightful claim on existence in the garden. More precisely, this was not so much an act of re-appropriation, as a retreat to the state of humanity when it still “had no notion of what we call thine or mine, nor any true idea of justice.”[4] The innocence of boyhood practically coincided with the quite asocial condition prior to the rise of inequality, described by Rousseau.

On another interpretation, the boys may have identified with the adult authority figure, whose gesture they replicated, even if the outcomes of this mimicry amounted to a kind of rebellion. In that case, the willow as such was not subject to pity and care but only the means for undermining the “law of the father.” Rousseau himself encourages this less charitable reading, referring to his “first well-defined promptings of vanity” and putting a negative spin on his actions, as he does throughout The Confessions: “To have been able to construct an aqueduct with our own hands, to have put a cutting in competition with a large tree, appeared to me the height of glory.”[5] But this admission by far does not invalidate the conflation of two kinds of inequality and the challenge to the idea of property that ensue from one of the first vegetal episodes in his life. From then onward, Jean-Jacques Rousseau will have a much clearer idea of how to behave toward plants than how to deal with other humans.


[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions (Ware & London: Wordsworth, 1996), p. 20

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, translated by Russell Goulbourne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 51.

[4] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 108.

[5] Rousseau, The Confessions, p. 22.

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