In Spain they say that before you die, you should have a child, plant a tree, and write a book. Of children, I have three; of trees I have several and of books I have written none – I do have a couple of blogs, though, even if they are rather less well cared-for than the children or trees.
The starting point for today’s ramblings is one of my trees. I spend a lot of time in my “garden” – a better term, I suppose, would be managed wilderness – just gazing at the trees. It is the most relaxing activity that I know of.
One day this winter I was admiring my unpruned, 20+-foot high almond tree – my favourite – when I noticed that the branches on one side formed a concavity, as if they were embracing something, something immaterial. Continuing my contemplation, my eyes fell upon an olive tree some four or five yards to the east of the almond tree and about two yards further down the slope that forms my garden. I then realised that what the almond tree was embracing was the shadow of the olive tree.
Compared to the almond tree, the venerable olive is small – yet its almost imperceptible shadow had conditioned the growth of the mighty almond tree. Probably you can now see where this is going, and it’s probably nothing more than a commonplace, but let’s continue anyway.
How many times have we heard or used the expressions ‘to live in someone’s shadow’, or ‘X’s genius overshadows that of his/her contemporaries’? This is an obviously negative observation regarding those in the shadow – indeed, what is a shadow but a certain absence of light? The best example that springs to my mind is the fact that George Harrison was definitely overshadowed by the genius of Lennon and McCartney. If you listen to the songs he was allowed to record for the Beatles albums up to, and including the White Album, you can almost always detect a plaintive, perhaps whining, tone to his voice and his songs tend to be rather sanctimonious criticisms of the listener. Yet listen to the songs on the Beatles’ last two albums and you will hear his skills as a composer and lyricist flower. As the colossus of Lennon/McCartney’s influence began to crumble and its shadow to wane, George Harrison began to flourish and gain confidence.
But a shadow can be more than just an absence of light. It can mean shelter; it can mean safety. It can be a benign, nurturing space in which to develop and grow. Here in Andalusia, finding yourself in the harsh, blinding, burning summer sunlight can be less than agreeable. In fact, it can literally be dangerous. In summer, I tend to seek out the shade as I walk in the streets to avoid heat exhaustion and/or sunstroke.
As children, we find ourselves under the protection of our parents, other family members and teachers. If we are fortunate, their love, wisdom and kindness will nurture us physically, emotionally and intellectually. If the opposite is true, we will become emotionally, intellectually and even, perhaps, physically stunted. These imperceptible, yet powerful, influences will shape us, for good or ill, for the rest of our lives, just as my olive tree has shaped the almond tree.
Just like shadows, human relationships condition us and those that surround us without our realising it. Let us take care, therefore, of the emotional shadows that we cast. May they always be of the positive, nuturing kind and never of the kind that leads to the withering of others because even when we are dead and nothing but a memory, the shadows that we cast will still linger in the minds and hearts of others.