If humanity is associated with a fast-paced lifestyle and destructive materialism, trees symbolize the opposite of that—namely, slowing down, growth, and being present. Their long lives and slow yet constant growth provide an alternative to rapid and ruinous human development. The narrator describes the ways that new technologies impede human connections, as being packed together on the underground and on omnibuses leads people to look at each other with emptiness and “glassy eyes.” Trees, on the other hand, create nurturing communities for other plants and animals, building symbiotic relationships that the narrator contrasts with the isolation of modern humans. She describes the ways that trees grow over the course of years without paying attention to their surroundings, and in doing so provide spaces for cows to swish their tails in the shade on hot afternoons, for birds to sing in June and for insects to sun themselves on the leaves. Even after succumbing to a storm and falling, “there are a million patient, watchful lives still for a tree,” as they turn into furniture and housing for human activities. This makes trees inherently social, as well as nurturing and protective, in contrast to the “wasteful” and “haphazard” destructive tendencies of humans. Essentially, the lives of trees progress towards growth and community even in their afterlives, as their only goals are growing slowly and being present. Humanity, on the other hand, rushes to develop new technologies, wage wars, and accumulate heaps of material possessions—none of these things can persist. The hubristic desire for the domination of the world leads to isolation and a shrinking, rather than a growth, of one’s knowledge and possessions.
In addition, a tree tapping on the windowpane catches the narrator’s attention, interrupting the domestic isolation of her living room. Like the snail, the tree also proves that the stark walls humans put up between their lives and the natural world are not impermeable. At times, the narrator appears to identify with the tree, imagining herself leading such a life, as opposed to her civilized life. Because this is a real tree (rather than an imagined one), the tree also represents the importance of paying attention to one’s surroundings. By anchoring in solid material objects, one can find a sense of peace outside the various distractions of the fast-paced civilized world.
The Tree Quotes in The Mark on the Wall
The tree outside the window taps very gently on the pane… I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing to another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle; I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts.
Wood is a pleasant thing to think about. It comes from a tree; and trees grow, and we don’t know how they grow. For years and years they grow, without paying any attention to us, in meadows, in forests, and by the side of rivers—all things one likes to think about.
Even so, life isn’t done with; there are a million patient, watchful lives still for a tree, all over the world, in bedrooms, in ships, on the pavement, lining rooms, where men and women sit after tea, smoking cigarettes. It is full of peaceful thoughts, happy thoughts, this tree. I should like to take each one separately—but something is getting in the way. . . . Where was I? What has it all been about? A tree? A river? The Downs? Whitaker’s Almanack? The fields of asphodel? I can’t remember a thing. Everything’s moving, falling, slipping, vanishing.. . . There is a vast upheaval of matter.