Arguing With the Madronas

Can one really argue with a plant?

The birds were out in droves on this bright fall morning. A murder of crows scavenged along the muddy beach and ducks dipped their faces into the cool, shimmering water. A solitary heron stood watch in the shallows, lithe and stolid amid the gently ebbing tide. As I approached the estuary, shells crunched underfoot and salt lingered in the air, flavoring the atmosphere that swirled around me.

I quickly came to realize the water, about halfway between high and low tides, had already moved far enough up the shore to prevent a leisurely stroll along the beach to my destination. My objective, a copse of madrona trees emerging from a time-carved sanctuary of sandstone, lay on the other side of a stretch of bitingly cold water and narrow, crumbling rock ledges. It was precarious to traverse, but there was mapping to be done, and so traverse I did. This brought me into an exploration of argument with the noble madrona tree, as I attempted to navigate the waters of such a dialogue at varying depths.

Can one really argue with a plant?

Questions came to mind as I was considering argument with a tree, something that might seem a little out of the ordinary to most. Why would I want to argue with a tree, and is it even possible? A narrative can arguably be constructed for anything the moment we give it a name, and that narrative takes on complexities and nuances as we interact with that object. Take a rock, for example. As soon as I call it a rock, I define some of its qualities (solid, rigid, etc), and just as importantly, I say all the things it’s not (water, a duck, etc). If I investigate the rock further, I may be able to add complexity to the name — say an igneous rock — which lends greater detail into the rock’s history, stating that the rock was once magma. I might throw the rock from the top of a hill. Now the rock’s name for me is “rock that I just threw”, and it’s name to someone at the bottom of the hill is “rock that came from the top of the hill”; a web of names and narratives begins to take shape, all from a seemingly innocuous rock.

Argument is a topic within the field of rhetoric which has garnered a high amount of attention, with varying views across the field. Jim Corder, one notable entrant into the discussion on argument, promotes a view of argument as emergence, rather than conflict. Argument from a Corderian perspective, and that is to say the interfacing with a “narrative in another world” (Corder, 18), with the madrona, then, is a completely feasible and promising endeavor. I decided to strike up an argument with the madronas as a part of enmeshing myself in my local environment’s narrative.

‘A plant can’t talk back, how could they argue,’ one might ask, but there are many ways in which a plant and I could impact each other’s narratives. I could carve a special someone’s initials along with mine into the smooth, soft trunk, embroiling the trees into a passionate love affair; the madronas certainly shaped my narrative by teaching me about themselves and the nature of argument.

This tree would now speak volumes about my own story — an intertwining of narratives

For this mapping, I embraced two methodologies to approach this dialogue. To explore an artistic method, I visited the madronas’ home and tried to recreate them on my page with pencil. Open to other avenues of thinking as well, I employed a more quantitative, albeit distanced, approach, investigating information published in research on the organism. Each enabled very different interactions with the madronas’ narratives, lending multifaceted insights to both the madrona and the concept of argument itself.

We felt a shift in the taste of the air. Smells of smoke and smog clung to a body; they came from a place very different from this, our home. The effluvium felt heavy and dirty on our leaves, weightless but carrying the weight of countless engines, cities, factories. This was not a new sensation for us. We have come to expect such visitors. This one seemed somehow different from most though. More like the birds which we hold in our branches than its fellow man which heavily plod along the beach, this one sat with us for hours. It pressed its warm hands against our cool bodies. It sat on the rocks, watching us. We grew accustomed to its presence, the way it would breathe in and out, slowly and deeply, developing a dialogue of breaths with us, the same one breath moving out of it and into us, out of us and into it.

To map the madronas’ small nook within the estuary and argue intimately with them, I perched myself on a cliff overlooking the sandstone cove that they called home. The sun shone as a brilliant backlight from the east, draping the green and red branches of the trees in bright warmth – a perfectly posed model lay before me. As I was recreating the trees on the pages of my sketchbook, it began to dawn on me that drawing them was a part of my way of entering into a dialogue with their narratives. To truly do their form justice, I had to step out of my reality and give myself to their essence for a brief period; my eyes were transfixed to the madronas’ elegant lines, tracing the years passed from root to tip. Any lingering remnants of my typical mental milieu fell away as I became engrossed in this discourse with the madronas, devoting all of my attention to the trees’ contours and character.

The metaphors that we employ implicitly shape our narratives, and as such should be chosen thoughtfully and deliberately. Regarding argument, language that evokes images of war is most often used in our culture – ideas get ‘shot down’, some people tend to get ‘defensive’ – a dialogue grounded in debate results. In the spirit of rhetoricians like Corder, one can look to a model of argument that embraces collaboration over conflict. One possible option is based in dance instead of war. When approaching another’s narrative as a dance partner, the rhetorical steps and modes of thinking drastically shift from when another’s narrative is viewed as the opposition. Arguers carry, guide, and follow each other, skirting opposite edges of the same point as they twirl through the space of their dialogue.

The trees were leading, and I was following…

Contemplating the shades and tones of the madrona, I came to realize that this particular embodiment of argument was much more akin to dance than war. More so, I realized that in this dance the trees were leading and I was following. While the madronas confidently curved and drew me in with their grace, I navigated the finest subtleties of their movements to be able to dance in stride. Such attention to detail opened me up to a higher awareness and understanding of the madrona at a fundamental level. I became attuned to new attributes of the madrona that had been sitting before me all along: for example, it seems that branches sprout off of the main trunk at noticeable kinks, protruding from the reflexively angled side of such bends.

The composition of the trees was a beautiful balance between straight lines and curves. At times, as my eyes would follow along their contours, I would reach a point in the trees’ history in which they seemed to have experienced a sudden burst of growth, surging up and outward towards the sun. When I would widen my focus to the trees figures overall, however, the seemingly straight lines gave way into great sweeping curves. My mind was drawn away briefly as I was reminded of old calculus classes and the approximation of a curve as a series of straight line segments. Attuning myself to such nuances implored a slowing down of my perception and my hand, and this deceleration sparked a further awareness of the role of time in argument.

The presence of time within the dialogue became acutely apparent as the tide continued to roll in. There came a point where the water level was just high enough to hit the rocks in such a way that the water lapping up onto them sounded uncannily like footsteps, creating the illusion that there was a person coming up towards me, broaching the intimate space in which I was arguing and dancing with the madronas. Even though I realized soon enough that there was no person approaching, this gave me the pressure of feeling rushed, at least as a reminder that I still had to wade back through now higher waters to return homeward.

The sense of dwindling time starkly changed the tone of my dialogue with the trees and my ability to draw. I immediately noticed a lack of precision and attention to detail as compared to when I felt locked in a timeless tango of narratives. I tried to let go of the sense of time pressing in on me, but it was difficult at this point as I had already been pulled out of my state of immersion. Noticing both how the lack of time and, more specifically, my awareness of that lacking affected my dialogue with the trees, I gained further understanding of the essentiality of holding time in our arguments.

In coming into contact with the trees’ narratives, I also took an approach one might find more typical for trying to learn about the life of madrona trees – sifting through biological research on the internet. This turned up a mountain of data on Arbutus Menziesii, and I was able to learn things about the madrona that were beyond the scope of my own observations. For instance, the madrona, referred to as ‘madrone’ in southern Oregon and northern California, is native to the west coast of North America from British Colombia to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada range (Sonja, 2007). While these facts were interesting and shaped my understanding of the madrona, they felt detached from the experience of the organism.

This mode of inquiry and interfacing yielded inert insights into the madrona that I could not have obtained on my own. However, the facts lacked vivacity and subtlety when compared to the depth and intimacy of information I gleaned from my dance-like argument with the trees. Even still, I now had access to parts of the trees’ narratives which had previously been unknowable; this modified my own perceived narrative I had begun constructing by drawing the madronas. Connections between quantitative and qualitative nodes of information began to take shape.

The artistic and the scientific provided two avenues along which I could converse with the madronas. These two ways of embracing the madronas’ narratives may seem to be opposing, but they are in actuality complementary. Each contributes to the appreciation of the other, demonstrating the value in approaching an argument from multiple viewpoints. Entering into a dance with the trees more profoundly brought their narrative into my own, but a detached and disinterested perspective revealed new sides to my dance partner as well.

Reflecting upon my dialogue with the madronas, there are new insights to be found into the concept of argument itself. The manner of approach, including the language and metaphors at play, strongly affects the discourse and resulting impact on participatory narratives. Adopting various modes of interfacing with narratives enables a cross-pollination of ideas from different worlds, producing a gestalt argument from the synergies of the combined inquiries. Time plays a crucial role in argument as well, whether in the meticulous care it took to observe and draw the trees or in the hours of research done to compile the data I was able to find on the internet. Allowing oneself to become immersed in the argument at hand and lose a sense of time and the rest of the world also produces a much more fruitful discourse.

Although it provided me with some answers, this argument left me with many more questions about the madronas and about how I can further interface with the narratives of my environment as well. This argument with the madronas won’t have been my last.