The Carved Trees of Tehran

This stump is from a tree on my block in Harlem in New York City. You can count the rings, I think. Between twenty and twenty-five years he grew. I’ve lived in New York City my entire life and on this block for just shy of twenty years. I saw this tree as a reedy thin green sapling struggling for the sun. But I never really kept a strong eye pointed in that direction despite walking by this tree almost every single day.

That tree never really flourished. Maybe twelve feet at the highest and never really healthy looking. The light wasn’t great and the small enclosure for him (and the tree was very, very likely a him because the vast majority of urban trees are male trees that don’t drop fruit or seed pods that are considered ‘messy’) probably didn’t offer the most room to spread roots around and have a rich and dark subterranean ecosystem.

But he did his best to send out branches and leaves. And then two years ago he stopped leafing entirely. And this year a fussy and worrying neighbor tried to conspire with me and have me agree with them that this dead tree was a problem. A menace.  And that I should call 911 because they were worried this dead tree would fall and land on a child. And that the dead tree was…ugly.

The tree wasn’t close to falling. I told this neighbor that and didn’t think the dead tree was ugly but that even a new tree planted likely had a similar fate because of the light. I was scoffed at and the next week I was walking by just as an orange-vested and hard-hatted crew took the chainsaw to the trunk and chipped it a big chipper parked in the middle of the street.

The stump leaked and bubbled viscous sap. I think the tree was dead but  the trunk hadn’t fully dried yet.


In Tehran, Iran one of the main thoroughfares is Valiasr Street. There is a tradition at their New Year – Norwuz, there that the dead trees don’t get cut down but carved into grand public sculptures.

I adore this tradition and it speaks to something in the people of Tehran to be able to hold death in their midst and not feel the need to immediately get rid of it but transform the death into beauty for all at a particular time. Honoring the tree as much in death as they did in life. Maybe more so.

This capacity to not immediately get rid of the dead or the unpleasant and to labor to make beauty from it is a deep cultural skill and the city of Tehranemploys it in this particular way.

No slander towards my neighbor at all – they were simply being very faithful to the Western imperative of intolerance for such things and clearing the slate. It is a conditioning to think that danger lies at every turn.

And no slander to myself either – it never, ever dawned on me to beautify the dead tree.

But I am thinking about how to beautify the stump.

Primal Derma though is an expression of this. In the old pathways when a herding animal went down – the cow, the buffalo, the deer, the moose, the wildebeest, the antelope – the people would try to make something of the death beyond just food. Clothing, tools, and and and.

Our fashioning of skincare from tallow is our way of doing what these Tehranian artists do – make beauty and use from endings.

I pray you are reminded to keep up your end in the beauty making bargain up in your corner of the world the best you can. And that Primal Derma reminds you too.

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