The altar oak

Photo by: (Jeremy Bishop)

Woodworker Shi was on his way to Qi. As he came to Quyuan he saw an oak planted as the village altar tree. It was so huge that a herd of several thousand cattle could have stood in its shade – it’s trunk was a hundred arm-spans round, tall as the hills, and a hundred feet straight up to the lowest limb. A dozen of its branches were so big that a boat could have been built from each one. The throng of gawking sightseers was big as the crowds on market days, but the woodworker did not so much as glance at it and walked right past without stopping. His apprentice, however, stood and gazed his fill before running to catch up. “Master, since I first picked up my ax and hatchet to follow you I have never seen lumber of such fine quality! Yet you were unwilling to look at it and walked right past without stopping. Why?”

“Enough!” said Woodworker Shi. “Say no more about it. It’s waste wood! Make a boat from it and it will sink; make a coffin from it and it will rot; make a utensil from it and it will break; make a gate from it and it will run sap; make a pillar from it and insects will infest it. You can’t make lumbar from such a tree; it’s useless! That is why it has lived to such an age.”

After Woodworker Shi returned home, the altar oak appeared to him in a dream. “What were you comparing me to? Did you mean to compare me to those lovely trees, like the sour cherry and pear, the tangerine and pomelo – fruit bearing trees that are ripped apart once their fruit ripens? Disgraced by all that ripping, their limbs split and their branches torn, they find only bitterness in life and end by dying before their natural years are up. They bring it on themselves, being torn up by the common crowd. It is thus for all types of things. Now, I have sought to be useless for a very long time, and though I came close to death I have now reached my goal – for me that is of great use indeed! Were I useful could I ever have grown so big? And after all, you and I are both things – what sort of thing are you to go sizing up another thing this way? You near dead waste of a man, what do you know of waste wood?”

Woodworker Shi awoke and was explaining his dream. His apprentice said, “If it sought to be useless, how could it serve as an altar tree?”

“Hush!” said the woodworker. “You should keep your mouth shut. It surely planted itself there knowing that it wouldn’t be recognized by the mocking crowd. If it were not an altar tree, wouldn’t it risk being cut down? Moreover, it protects itself differently from the common run; if you try to understand it by the common standard you’ll be far wide of the mark!”