The above proverb is a metaphor for many things in our lives. It is about taking the long-view and starting a task where the incremental change is imperceptible, but the accumulated achievement can be monumental. A child on her first day of school cannot appreciate that in 20 years, she might be a doctor. The proverb also speaks to the idea of having vision – of seeing what might be where currently nothing exists. Lastly, the proverb speaks to optimism. The future, in this light, is a time and a place to look forward to. It is a statement that one will enjoy the fruits of his labor or that generations to come will and are worth the investment.
Planting trees is inherently an exercise in optimism. The timescales at which trees grow and mature is hard to internalize within the human experience. The oldest tree in the world first emerged from a seed over five millennia ago – before even the formation of the first human civilizations. In a world where communication is globally instantaneous and business outlooks are quarterly, this can be a hard thing to truly comprehend. All of recorded history has been exceeded by the lifespan of one tree, living quietly its life on a mountain in California.
In the realty market, a premium is paid for property with mature trees, because even fast-growing trees in hospitable areas take decades to mature. We value things as they are and not as they might be. On a logical basis, we understand that someone must have planted a tree for us to enjoy its shade today, but it is hard to find the urgency to plant a tree when the return on investment is so distant.
While the proverb applies literally in this case, its broader meaning is the more important. Are you an optimist? Is the future worth the investment?