Hermann Hesse on Tree Reverence

Some of my beliefs, thoughts, and feelings I am unable to express as well as others can do for me.  Hermann Hesse is one example, particularly on the topic of relationship with trees.

Right: Book cover illustration by Peter le Vasseur on the 1975 Picador/Pan Books Ltd. edition of Wandering, listed new at $1.75!

“Hermann Hesse was a German-Swiss poet, novelist, and painter. In 1946, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. His best known works include Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game (also known as Magister Ludi) which explore an individual’s search for spirituality outside society.” —from goodreads Hesse author page

Hermann Hesse book “Wandering” (1920) translated from German by James Wright

Below I offer a large passage on trees from Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) in his book Wandering, Notes and Sketches (1920); translated by James Wright. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972:

There is a comprehensive review of the book at Hermitary.com.  It begins, “Hermann Hesse composed his little book Wanderung: Aufzeichnungen as fiction, but it reads as autobiography, as do most of his little sketches wherein a personable narrator reveals his convoluted emotions.  Wandering finds the fictional narrator at a psychological crossroads, and Hesse’s clear, simple, and heartfelt prose makes the book a candid and attractive reflection.”


Biographical note in the front matter of the Picador edition (click for larger view):

From the chapter “Trees” in Wandering by Hermann Hesse (1920):

Hesse painting Kirschbaum (Cherry Tree) 1938

“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and nobleest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Hermann Hesse Painting “Cortivallo” 1926

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

“A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

“A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

“When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

Hermann Hesse Painting “Cortivallo” 1926

“A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

“So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts. Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”


Read Hesse’s autobiographical statement (from Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969).  Their brief biographical note about Hesse for the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature says:

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) received the Goethe Prize of Frankfurt in 1946 and the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers in 1955. A complete edition of his works in six volumes appeared in 1952; a seventh volume (1957) contains essays and miscellaneous writings. Beschwörungen (1955) [Evocations], a volume of late prose, and his correspondence with Romain Rolland (1954) were published separately.

Images of Hesse above are from Wikimedia Commons.

Hesse experimented with a variety of painting techniques, but created mostly watercolors.  He painted about 3,000 watercolors, found in countless exhibitions around the world.


Related Reading:

In his blog Ars, Arte et Labore (Art, Skill and Work), Supersede (Jaq White) wrote a terrific overview of the life and work of Hermann Hesse, The Wandering and Watercolours of Hermann Hesse, including paintings, poetry, and books, with some inspiring quotes from Hesse’ book, Wandering.


Where did Hermann Hesse meet you in your journeys to or through or around solitary self-discovery?  What work of his influenced you?  Did you know he was a painter?  If he were here right now, what would you like to ask him?

Is your relationship with trees similar to Hesse’s?  What part(s) of his essay about trees caught you in a special way?

If you prefer not to comment publicly here, contact The Balsamean privately.


5 thoughts on “Hermann Hesse on Tree Reverence

  1. Forests are so quiet, yet so noisy, The trees whisper of their trials and tribulations, but also of their enduring responsibilities to life. I live near “old growth forest” in the far north of western Canada. Though skinny, due to the harsh climate every winter, some have been here for centuries. They speak with the softest voices, and can be hard to hear amongst the loudness of the young, but they are in no hurry to announce themselves. They were young once too.
    Thank you for the writings of Herr Hesse. I did not know of Wanderings. This was a good thing to learn. Except for his maunderings on a super being, which is a product of his youth, he knows about life. It has been too many years since I read his works.

    Liked by 1 person

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