Example Discussion: “Mountain Tambourine”

This is a loose summary of a practice discussion I led with a group of undergraduates February 2015, role-playing as second graders. Just an example of how many directions one poem can take us!

Note that I’ve presented the poem “Mountain Tambourine” as raising issues in environmental ethics, but this discussion went off on an entirely different thread that I had never imagined. The more varied perspectives you have in your Community of Inquiry, the more potential for new thought you have. I am incredibly grateful to Professor Ellen Doré Watson and my peers in the Smith College 2015 Poetry Concentration Capstone for their insight and perspective in this and other discussions, and their support and input on my entire project. Love you all!


Preliminary question: So we’ve been working together for a good while and seem to know pretty well how to respect each other and take turns. We know it is always important to respect each other, but is there any reason that it might be especially central to our philosophy circle, and that we might take special care to make sure we are paying attention to each other equally?

Josie – Speech is already so gendered and racialized, so this is an attempt to inhabit a different way of persuasion.

Hannah B – If no space for everyone to share, then you limit the number of responses and perspectives you have access to. Allowing space for everyone to share helps you make your own reasoning as strong as it can be.

If I talk too much, I could make someone else who’s already nervous about talking even more nervous. The kind thing to do is to give others space to come to thoughts.

“Mountain Tambourine” – read as a group

“Go-Round” – everyone shares a question or two that the poem raises for them. [After note: I’ve bolded the question starters/elements that are little flags that signal “philosophy” to me – opportunities for a facilitator or fellow student to jump in and ask further questions to stimulate a juicy philosophical discussion.]

  • What is “the last tree?” Does she mean just last on the street, or something deeper?
  • Jamie – how do the words “mountain tambourine” relate to the poem about a poplar being cut down?
  • Jamie – Who gets to determine the worth of the tree’s life, and who gets to decide they can kill it?
  • Josie – Do we have the right to make something disappear if it’s not convenient?
  • Rebecca – What makes something “too grey?” especially a tree
  • what makes a tree better than another?
  • Kyle – could this be about social death?
    • thinking about scapegoats and the Holocaust
    • could the tree relate to the Jews being removed from Europe – how could I understand the poplar as a group of people, public removal of a group if they can’t be silent in their own existence? [metaphor?]
      • Hannah B.  – What happens when a tree disappears/people is removed?
  • Hannah B.  – what does it mean to be around “too much?” What is “too much?”
  • Hannah B. – how to we classify the sound that trees make? Is that a kind of language or a kind of music? Is something being told to us?
  • Hannah – how does sound operate in the poem? – how do we classify the sounds that trees make? how do we articulate “tree sounds?”
  • Ellen – thinking about something being wrong for being the colour that it is – “If grey is what it is, then how could it be too that?”
  • or being “dirty” – being wrong just for being what it is, dropping its leaves?
  • Maggie – How do we think about sickness? At one point should we try to heal something vs. doing away with it entirely?
  • Maggie – What purpose do trees have?

As a group, we go over the questions and decide which one to discuss first. If necessary, the group can vote, but our circle decided quickly that most people were very interested in the final question posted, “What purpose do trees have?” And the participants jumped right in.

Josie – They don’t have a purpose!

Ellen – I think their purpose is to be a tree.

J – But do we get to decide that? What does it mean?

E – No, I guess we don’t get to decide.

Kyle – But how does a tree get to self-determine?

Jamie – I think the purpose is to provide fuel for humans.

Hannah B. – But what if there were no humans?

Rebecca – But if you cut down a tree it’s no longer a tree. [Something in retrospect I could have asked as a facilitator here – is one essential property of a tree that it is upright and/or living? If a tree dies of natural causes and falls over, is it no longer a tree?]

Ellen – The person who wanted to use trees for fuel shouldn’t cut all of them down. They should also be mindful to always be planting more.

Hannah B. – A tree is more than the sum of its parts (wood, roots, potential for paperness) – not just for utilitarian consumption.

Ellen – Can I ask a question of the people who are defending the treeness – does that mean we should never cut trees down?

Hannah – Well should we never let a human die?

*Distinction between killing and letting die! Do we kill humans when they are past their prime?*

Josie – I think you can’t make ultimatums – always right or wrong.

Ellen – Is it different to kill a tree than a human?

Hannah B. – YES. But can I tell you exactly how?…. No. I’m not a tree.

Rebecca – And we’re humans, so of course we’re not going to say it’s better to kill a person.

Hannah B. – We don’t have the same function as a tree.

Maggie – From a biological perspective, the function of a tree is to make more trees, just as the function of a human is to make more humans. So killing a tree is bad for the tree, but not necessarily bad for the human.

Ellen and Jamie – You can’t eat trees, so once we started gravitating towards agricultural societies (vs. hunter-gatherer/gatherer-scavenger), human cultures have needed to cut them down to clear land in order to make room to cultivate plants that we could eat.

Josie – But many cultures have lived among trees without killing them.

Kyle – Going back to “Ginko” poem [discussed earlier in the session, a poem that is a kind of performative poem, to be said aloud in the presence of a ginkgo tree, repeating the word “gingko” again and again in an effort to gain a deeper appreciation for the entity] – Trees have many purposes. They produce oxygen, etc., homes for birds.

Maggie – But that’s still assuming utilitarian purpose – its function being for someone else.

As a facilitator, I interject here to note I see two different big questions orbiting around themselves now:

  1. Does everything have a purpose?/What is “purpose?”
  2. What would happen if we never cut down another tree? Could humans survive? (more of a scientific question.

but then coming off that, what if we assume that humans do need to cut down some trees in order to live, but that other life could continue even if we didn’t?

“Snaps” to vote for which question we’ll focus on now → “Purpose” gets all the snaps.

Jamie – “Trees have babies every year.”

→ We all laugh, but as a facilitator I point out this is a good point. This is a particular distinction between trees and humans: Trees get more chances to perpetuate their lineage than people do.

Josie – It feels like we’re anthropomorphizing the tree when talking about “baby trees” etc.

Hannah B. – interjection for a question – Are we asking about the purpose, or a purpose??

Because we generally see people as having many different “purposes.” When someone dies, we might say “oh, she didn’t have children, but she painted such gorgeous pieces.”

Maggie – Creating works of art seems to be a kind of “creation” akin to giving birth – putting some part of yourself out there.

Josie, Hannah B. – “To whom does your purpose belong?” “If you’re existing in a vacuum, what is purpose?”

Jamie – “We’re also talking about purpose as if it definitely exists.”

Maggie – “Is there a difference between not having a purpose but still being in existence, and just having being in existence being the purpose itself?”

Hannah B. – If our purpose is to procreate, then that means existence isn’t enough.

Rebecca – What if we say our purpose is to live, not just to exist? Is there a difference?

Hannah B. – I think our intuitions say there is a distinction but it’s not universal – that distinction is wrapped up in our cultural/religious influences.

Maggie – Not existing can’t really be said to be a failure of the purpose of existing, but dying could be a failure of the purpose of “living.”

Hannah B. – Are there sort of levels of existing? From physical realm to memory to erased entirely …

We had to end the discussion here due to time constraints, but spent a few minutes recapping what we had discussed and tracing how far we had come. Philosophical progress rarely ends in one definitive answer, but can be recognized by charting the path from where the discussion starts to where it ends up. Ideally, some clarity will be reached about certain points, and many new questions will arise, allowing the group to delve far deeper into the subject(s) than they were when the discussion began.