Nature often times represent a unique calmness. Toni Morrison doesn’t make any exceptions to this idea. In her novel Beloved, Toni Morrison uses trees to symbolize comfort, protection and peace. Morrison uses trees throughout Beloved to emphasize the serenity that the natural world offers. Many black characters, and some white and Native American characters, refer to trees as offering calm, healing and escape, thus conveying Morrison’s message that trees bring peace. Besides using the novel’s characters to convey her message, Morrison herself displays and shows the good and calmness that trees represent in the tree imagery in her narration. Perhaps Toni Morrison uses trees and characters’ responses to them to show that when one lives through an ordeal as horrible as slavery, one will naturally find comfort in the simple or seemingly harmless aspects of life, such as nature and especially trees.
With the tree’s symbolism of escape and peace, Morrison uses her characters’ references to their serenity and soothing nature as messages that only in nature could these oppressed people find comfort and escape from unwanted thoughts. Almost every one of Morrison’s characters find refuge in trees and nature, especially the main characters such as Sethe and Paul D. During Sethe’s time in slavery, she has witnessed many gruesome and horrible events that blacks endure such as whippings and lynchings. However, Sethe seemingly chooses to remember the sight of sycamore trees over the sight of lynched boys, thus revealing her comfort in a tree’s presence: “Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world. It shamed her- remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might to make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that” (6).
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Although Sethe wishes she would’ve remembered the boys instead, she probably rationalized this thought because when she asks Paul D about news of Halle, she pictures the sycamores instead of the possibility that Halle has been lynched: “‘I wouldn’t have to ask about him would I? You’d tell me if there was anything to tell, wouldn’t you?’ Sethe looked down at her feet and saw again the sycamores” (8).
When Schoolteacher whips Sethe, leaving her back leathery with scars, she refers to the scar as a chokecherry tree to soothe and to lessen the physically and emotional pain that the scar represents: “But that’s what she said it looked like, A chokecherry tree. Trunk, branches and even leaves. Tiny little chokecherry leaves” (16).
While Sethe thinks of trees to heal and calm her pain and suffering, Paul D directly looks for physically real trees as his escape from everyday slave life. During Paul D’s time in slavery, he chose to love trees for their comfort and calm qualities: “… trees were inviting; things you could trust and be near; talk to if you wanted to as he frequently did since way back when he took the midday meal in the fields of Sweet Home” (21).
Because of these qualities, Paul D chose one particular tree, larger and more inviting than other trees, to always return to. A tree which he named “Brother” and a tree that listened and comforted and was always there. But most importantly, Brother represents the comforting escape from slavery which Paul D didn’t and doesn’t have: “His choice he called Brother, and sat under it, alone sometimes. Sometimes with Halle or the other Pauls…” (21).
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After a long day working in the fields, Paul D would rest, often times under the towering but comforting presence of Brother with Halle, the Pauls and Sixo: “He, Sixo and both of the Pauls sat under Brother pouring water from a gourd over their heads…” (27).
Not only do trees represent comfort, they also represent a place of security, a place for escape from slave life. When Sixo visits the Thirty-Mile Woman, he escapes into the secure woods before her master could catch him: “But Sixo had already melted into the woods before the lash could unfurl itself on his indigo behind” (25).
While Paul D sits under Brother to find comfort, Sixo enters the woods at night to dance, escape slave life and to keep his culture: “Sixo went among the trees at night. For dancing, he said, to keep his bloodlines open, he said” (25).
Even Beloved, the strange human apparition of the Crawling Already Baby, seemingly finds comfort with trees when she appears in the real world: “She barely gained the dry bank of the stream before she sat down and leaned against a mulberry tree” (50).
Morrison’s characters refer to trees for comfort, escape and safety, thus conveying Morrison’s message.
While the main significant characters refer to the trees’ serenity and comfort, characters’ with lesser significance or lesser prominence in Beloved also refer to trees, not to themselves though, to convey the message that nature helps provide comfort and escape. Amy Denver, the whitewoman who had helped Sethe through labor only appears once in the book during Denver’s story. Although she only appears once, her tree reference to Sethe’s scarred back helps soothe Sethe’s physical and mental pain: “It’s a tree Lu. See, here’s the trunk- it’s red and split open, full of sap, and this here’s the parting for the branches. You got a mighty a lot of branches. Leaves, too, look like, and dern if these ain’t blossoms. Tiny little cherry tree blossoms, just as white. Your back got a whole tree on it. In bloom” (79).
Amy Denver uses a euphemism for Sethe’s scar, calling it a chokecherry tree to ease the pain and memory that the scar brings. The image of a chokecherry tree brings spring, bloom and peaceful nature instead of the shame, pain and sadness that the scar truly represents. Trying to ease Sethe’s pain some more, Amy Denver searches for spiderwebs, another product of mother nature, to drape over Sethe’s “tree” to cool the pain and to then refer to the scar as a Christmas tree to conjure images of peace and happiness to take Sethe’s mind off her pain and suffering: “Amy returned with two palmfuls of web, which she cleaned of prey and then draped on Sethe’s back, saying it was like stringing a tree for Christmas” (80).
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While the whitewoman Amy Denver aided Sethe, a group of Cherokee Indians helped Paul D to his freedom. When Paul D escapes from Alfred, Georgia, the Cherokees tell him to follow cherry blossoms to freedom and escape from Alfred, Georgia: “‘That way,’ he said, pointing. ‘Follow the tree flowers,’ he said. ‘Only the tree flowers. As they go, you go. You will be where you want to be when they are gone'” (112).
Nature brings a certain calmness to life and the characters’ references to trees support this idea.
While Morrison relies on her characters’ references to trees to convey her message, she herself indirectly reiterates her point by using symbolic tree imagery in her narration. In her description of the path to the Clearing, Morrison describes drooping trees as if they represented towering guards seemingly bringing serenity and security to a once sacred place: “The old path was a track now, but still arched over with trees drooping buckeyes onto the grass below” (89).
The mere image of draping branches over the path to the Clearing implies the protectiveness that trees bring. And to further her point, Morrison subtlely implies the sin of cutting down soothing, calming trees by describing the lumberyard’s surroundings and the old sawyer: “Up and down the old lumberyard fence old roses were dying. The sawyer who had planted them twelve years ago to give his workplace a friendly feel- something to take the sin out of slicing trees for a living…” (47).
Besides representing protection, security and comfort, Morrison also implies that trees bring good things. To Sethe and Denver, Beloved represents the best things in the world, a daughter and a sister. When Sethe and Denver first discover their “best thing,” Beloved is slumped over a tree stump, Morrison’s subtle message that trees bring good things: “Just as she thought it might happen, it has. Easy as walking into a room. A magical appearance on a stump, the face wiped out by sunlight…” (123).
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Morrison also uses this implication when various townspeople leave food for Denver and Sethe on a tree stump: “Two days later Denver stood on the porch and noticed something lying on the tree stump at the edge of the yard. She went to look and found a sack of white beans. Another time a plate of cold rabbit meat. One morning a basket of eggs sat there” (250).
Not only can trees bring good things, trees can also bring people into good situations. When Paul D. leaves the woods, he finds himself in Wilmington with food and a temporary home as if Morrison implies that the woods lead him to comfort: “Crawling out of the woods, cross-eyed with hunger and loneliness, he knocked at the first back door he came to in the colored section of Wilmington” (131).
Paul D has also followed the “tree blossoms” to Sethe, another sign that trees help bring good and calmness. Morrison’s indirect implications of tree’s soothing nature has strong symbolism, representing the comfort and calmness to readers.
While Toni Morrison mainly uses tree imagery as a message of serenity and comfort, she uses her characters’ responses to trees to show that perhaps when one lives through a horrific ordeal like slavery, people find comfort in the natural world for its calmness and seemingly harmless characteristics. For Paul D, loving small things represents survival. When forced into Alfred, Georgia, Paul D encounters the most evil that he has ever encountered before, but despite tasting the iron bit, watching Sixo burn, losing Halle and the Pauls, and facing Schoolteacher’s slavery, Paul D finds comfort in a young tree in the prison camp: “Loving small and in secret. His little love was a tree of course, but not like Brother- old, wide and beckoning. In Alfred, Georgia, there was an aspen too young to call a sapling. Just a shoot no taller than his waist. The kind of thing a man would cut to whip his horse” (221).
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For Stamp Paid, an established savior, he feels the most comfortable when he helps and aids others. Stamp Paid’s picking berries for Sethe and Denver symbolizes his comfort towards helping people with the goodness of nature: “…went off with two buckets to a place near the river’s edge that only he knew about where blackberries grew, tasting so good and happy that to eat them was like being in church” (136).
A similar figure to Stamp Paid, Baby Suggs holy also finds the most comfort in helping others, giving advice, passing messages, healing the sick, hiding fugitives, loving and loving some more. She became a holy presence in town and preached from a rock in the Clearing surrounded by trees, doing what she finds comfort in, helping and preaching to others: “In the Clearing, Sethe found Baby’s old preaching rock and remembered the smell of leaves simmering in the sun, thunderous feet and the shouts that ripped pods off the limbs of chestnuts. With Baby Suggs’ heart in charge, the people let go” (94).
Even Sixo, the wild man went among the trees at night to “keep his bloodlines open.” Each one of these characters has endured the horrors of slavery and faced this ordeal in different ways, but they all deal with slavery with the comforting and harmless aspect of nature, trees.
Although people today don’t have to live through slavery, people still have to face their own tough personal situations. Instead of having nature to soothe one’s problems, people today drown their sorrows in material possessions and controlled substances, unfortunately a problem plaguing society. Readers can only remember a time not too long ago when the little secret hiding place in the woods or one’s special thinking rock meant a great deal more than material items, a simple healthy escape from life and it’s problems.