Thursday, July 07, 2005

Planting a Tree

Regular readers (hah!) will recall that a couple of weeks ago, I noted a rabbinical anecdote by Walter Kohn:

Then, . . . [Kohn] gave a rabbinical lesson.

About 2000 years ago, there was a young farm worker in the Holy Land who was moving about the land to find work. He passed an old man planting an olive tree.

"Grandfather," he called out, "why are you planting that tree? It won't bear fruit for many years."

"All the more reason to plant now," replied the old man.

This is the sort of parable that crosses ethnic, national, and religious boundaries. When Kohn recounted it at his talk, I was reminded of a similar story told of Martin Luther -- and I'll return to Luther in a moment -- so I decided to dig around a bit to find the origins of this story.

A true scholar always goes to the original sources.

I went to google.

I found a number of online variants. Here's one (doc file) from a Christian organization that is pretty obviously drawing on a Jewish source:

A Rabbi was walking down a road when he came upon an old man planting an olive tree. The Rabbi stopped and asked him, "How many years will it take for the tree to bear fruit?"

The old man stopped work, straightened up his back, paused and answered him, "I think around forty years if the summers are good and the rain comes."

The Rabbi questioned him further, "And are you so fit and strong that you expect to live that long and eat its fruits?"

The old man answered, "I found a fruitful world because my forefathers planted for me, so I will do the same for my children."

A Muslim website draws from what is obviously the same tradition but in a form that has transfered the context to Persia:

There is a famous story of a Persian King that passed by an old man planting an olive tree. The King asked him "Will this tree benefit you? And you'll die before it comes to fruition" ( a good olive tree takes several decades to produce).

The old man replied "They planted before us and we ate, we therefore plant so others can eat."

The king was impressed and said "This tree already benefited me!" He gave the old man a reward.

Now, let's return to Martin Luther.

I had heard a number of times that Luther is supposed to have offered this retort to those who in their millenarian fervor wanted to drop all worldly concerns and await the imminent return of Jesus:

"If I knew that Jesus would return tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today."

Online, I found a non-millenarian variant of this that has been dismissed by Luther scholar William R. Russell:

Luther probably never said, "If I knew I was to die tomorrow, I would plant a tree today."

Interestingly, this 'quote' has migrated to a different Martin Luther:

"If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, I would plant a tree today."

Martin Luther King Jr.

It has also been attributed to Stephen Girard:

"If I knew I should die tomorrow, I would plant a tree today."

Stephen Girard

And if you don't know who Stephen Girard was, then go to this biographical site on Girard.

None of these online sources are especially scholarly, but we can at least see that the story has migrated, sometimes as a one-line remark, across all sorts of boundaries. I'll bet that if I were to dig further, I'd find that some Church Father also said it.

But there's no end of digging, just as there's no end of planting, watering, and reaping. I may not know where this tree story came from or who first planted it, but it has certainly borne a lot of fruit.


At 1:04 PM, Blogger Linda Ryan-Harper said...

well, I read the quote a number of years ago—in a book written by Spurgeon? I don't recall, but whoever it was attributed the quote to a man with a Dr. before his name. What's the use? I can't bring the name into focus in my mind. But, the lack of scholarly information on the quote online is equally frustrating. For some reason, I don't think it was Martin Luther. But, who knows? I'll have to keep digging and will let you know what I find—if anything. The reason it came up for me, I just heard my son say to his girlfriend, "The Dalai Lama was asked what he'd do if knew the world would end tomorrow. He laughed and said, 'I'd plant a tree.'" I said, "No he didn't—well, he might have, but it didn't originate with him." Maybe I should just accept the migration theory and be done with it. My son would be a lot happier with me right now.

At 1:17 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the visit to my minor blog. If you do find the original source of this remark about planting a tree, please let me know.

Searching for origins, of course, is an endless quest -- there's always another version that inspired the one we're looking for.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My grandfather was born in Indiana in 1916. He was from a Jewish/Kale family. If you could have heard him talk about it, you would've assumed it was his peoples idea. This was his biggest concern. If there was anything he wanted his children to do, it was to plant trees. I am coming up with the same grab bag of stories concerning this tradition as you. The mystery continues...

At 12:06 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for the comment. I'd never heard of the Kale people. When you referred to your grandfather's people, were you referring to them? Or to the Jews?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:48 PM, Anonymous Mikele Schultz-Knudsen said...

The quote about planting a tree even if the whole world ends tomorrow is at least 1400 years old. It's found in the classical islamic sources as a quote from the Prophet Mohammad.

Anas ibn Malik reported that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, "If the Final Hour comes while you have a palm-cutting in your hands and it is possible to plant it before the Hour comes, you should plant it." (From Bukhari's Adab al Mufrad nr. 479)

At 6:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the reference. That's interesting.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:32 AM, Anonymous said...

As a young girl I received a card with that quote/story and it was attributed to Descartes

At 4:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

This quote seems to make the rounds of famous folk.

Thanks for dropping by.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I ran across this blog entry while looking to source this quote to send to my arborist. The uncertainty of sources doesn't surprise me. One thing I will say, as a Protestant who married into a Jewish family, is that, while my father certainly loved to plant trees, favoring long-lived oaks, it is in my in-laws' family that I encountered a custom of planting a tree in commemoration of someone who has died (a couple generations ago, one may have arranged to plant a tree in Israel; when my mother-in-law died about 20 years ago, my father-in-law had a tree planted on the grounds of his Bay Area condominium complex). I'm not sure what to make of this, and it's always possible that the custom started as a way of greening the Holy Land as Israel was being created, but it could also be a point in favor of the Rabbinical source.

At 3:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Perhaps a tree planted to commemorate the passing away of the heavens and the earth?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:37 PM, Blogger commanderjarak said...

That's interesting. I wasn't aware of the tradition, but we've planted an orange tree and a frangipani in remembrance of the miscarriages we've had, and a lemon tree in remembrance of my father (and scattered some of his ashes in with the soil as well)

At 6:40 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the comment. Sorry to hear of the various tragedies. My condolences.

Jeffery Hodges

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