A Whole Forest of Useless Trees

Trying to make qualitative decisions about the world

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What does it mean to be the best during a crisis?

A few weeks ago, I gave a quote for GQ about what the “best” coffee subscription was. I can imagine the intended reader: a person who likes going to their local coffee shop, but now that coronavirus has completely altered our lives, wonders how to make a coffee as well as what they’re used to getting. They’re the folks asking what coffee subscription they should buy.

Like many interviews, I spent about an hour talking with the writer, and only a few of the ideas we chatted about made it into the piece (this is a very common and necessary practice).

Ultimately, I spent the majority of my time telling the author this: start local. If you have a favorite coffee shop in your neighborhood, go to their social media and see if they’re selling beans. If you’re lucky to live in a town with a roaster, go to their website—they likely have a subscription service.

I just started reading Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing, and one of the ideas she introduces at the beginning of the book is bioregionalism, which is a big ol’ term with lots of meaning and applications rooted in Indigenous practices. Odell describes it as “not only familiarity with the local ecology but a commitment to stewarding it together.”

It’s funny that this term came up in Odell’s book. I just had a conversation with a future podcast guest about global markets—specifically looking at coffee—and how a global market that dictates the price of coffee can serve the interest of market actors, like traders and investors, but doesn’t serve the folks who actually grow and sell their coffee. There are layers and layers between the people who actually dictate the price of a global commodity and the people whose lives are irrecoverably affected by it.

Towards the end of our recording, one of the solutions my guest posited (and this isn’t a cure-all by any means) is a focus on locality and consuming goods closer to the place you live. They mention shortening the gap between the person who made a thing and the person consuming that thing.

Not only do you remove intermediaries who must profit as a good or product moves through a complicated chain, but there’s something ineffable about buying something from a person with who you have to interact. You’re confronted with their humanity in some capacity, even if you don’t see them face-to-face. It’s not simply about honoring their humanity (although I’m sure being confronted with a person is a useful exercise because we all struggle with alienation in some form, I have to think), but it’s about imagining a whole world for them—your transaction is a small part of their complicated lives, and you’ve been interwoven into their existence.

This reminded me of an episode of the show where my guest, Karla Boza, a third-generation coffee grower from El Salvador, shared that her coffee is much more profitable when it’s sold and consumed within El Salvador. When the space between producer and consumer is smaller, the benefit to the producer is greater.

These conversations made me think about the article I was quoted in and the pursuit of what’s best. The article is literally called, “13 Best Coffee Subscription Services in 2020” and I wonder what it means when we’re all racing to the top of lists like these—and what it says about how we should evaluate what is good.

We all like things for different reasons. This is obvious, but in the context of an obsessive pursuit for what’s best, what we like is suddenly under close scrutiny. Some judgments feel fair and justified—I wouldn’t want to support a place that has bad employment practices or pays its employees poorly. But what makes something I love different or better than something you love?

The pursuit of objective superiority—being called “the best” or topping this and that list in whatever publication—is not only impossible but can breed competitiveness and sameness. Think of that “coffeeshop” aesthetic. Wrought iron, exposed wood, probably some plants hanging somewhere. The picture of a coffee shop has become more and more similar over time. Or think about coffee competitions like the United States Barista Championships or the Good Food Awards where the same coffees win the top prize over and over again.

Being “the best” feels like a clear goal. But how is the best determined, and at what cost does the descent into being “the best” affect “the rest?” For every coffee shop that doesn’t look like what we see on Instagram or every bean that doesn’t end up on a world stage—where do they exist? If we’re all pushing for the same goal, we end up naturally replicating the results we’ve seen be successful in the past. And yet, because we all like different things, we’re left sort of in a world where no one is really satisfied and all of our options are the same.

Being “the best” isn’t a bad pursuit. It’s just not the only one. And it’s not the only way to make decisions.

In Odell’s book, she shares a story about a useless tree by Zhuang Zhou. A carpenter sees a large tree but passes it over because he deems it useless—the tree is too crooked and rough to be used to make things. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but the tree, coming to the carpenter in a dream, essentially shows that by being useless—being undesirable to the carpenter—he escapes being chopped down.

The tree points out to him that fruit trees and timber trees are regularly ravaged. Meanwhile, uselessness has been this tree’s strategy.

So what does this have to do with coffee? At this moment, coronavirus is shutting down the majority of our nation’s coffee shops. There’s no end in sight, and it’s uncertain when or if most of these places will open again. Customers are struggling to figure out what coffees to buy or what roasteries to support. How are we supposed to make decisions—about coffee, or food, or anything, really? Some decisions are made for us due to circumstances and limitations, but for the decisions available to us, I wonder if we should refocus our attention on local.

Odell writes about a future with a forest of useless trees:

The shape of the useless tree does more than just protect it from the carpenter; it is also the shape or care, of branching out over the thousands of animals who seek shelter, thus providing the grounds for life itself.

This idea comes up later in Odell’s book, in a chapter where she talks about connecting with our neighbors and the things around us. “A community in the thrall of the attention economy feels like an industrial farm, where our jobs are to grow straight and tall, side by side, producing faithfully without ever touching.”

I imagine local coffee communities to be these useless trees. They grow in multiple directions, unpredictable and uniquely suited to their area. The branches curve in together, weaving themselves tightly through the nooks and crannies of a neighborhood’s roads and valleys. One could not simply pick up the forest of useless trees and move it somewhere else—it exists symbiotically within its surroundings. They don’t exist to be the best. They exist to be present.

Odell imagines a whole world of useless tress, and I’m trying to imagine what that means in this particular moment for coffee. We’ve been narrowing towards sameness for so long, trying to capture a target that is always moving. Being “the best” isn’t something captured and kept. It will always be fleeting and impossible to pin down. There’s certainly excitement in that, but there’s an invitation to hollowness as well.

The metaphor might not fit exactly as Odell intended—mostly because mine has a glint of capitalism in that I’m speaking about coffee shops and roasteries and she speaks about the natural world—but it invites us to consider the whole by getting hyperfocused on the minute. It reminds us that to exist and care for your community is enough. You don’t have to be the best to be useful. Your usefulness is not measured by your ability to grow in the same direction as your peers around you.

There’s a lot of history to unpack in terms of locality and coffee (where is coffee from, how has it been used to colonize countries and enslave people) and while I do think a focus on local can untangle some of this, I am not skilled or knowledgable enough to speak on this. What I can speak on is how I can redefine value for myself.

I don’t care about coffee because it tastes good. I don’t care about coffee because there are rare varietals that exhibit new and unique flavors. What I care about is coffee’s potential to create community, and I can’t value the community-building aspect of one coffee roastery or café over another (to an extent—this doesn’t excuse shitty or immoral behavior).

The pursuit of “what’s best” reminds me of the carpenter, and the useless tree is every coffee shop or café that’s never made one of these lists. Perhaps they’re being told they’re useless, but their usefulness lies in their ability to serve their communities, flying under the radar of national attention and a slow descent into sameness.

The coffee shop I love the most is called Four Letter Word. It’s a few blocks from my home and an easy bike ride away. I like having coffee here because I know the baristas and feel welcome every time. I feel nourished and connected to my community when I’m here. That experience isn’t replicable at all. I can’t expect someone from somewhere else to feel what I feel when I go to Four Letter Word.

Sometimes, a “best of” list makes me question where value is placed. Is it valuable to be considered the best, or is it valuable to simply exist and maintain those things around you that you cherish? In a way, a focus on local redistributes value and gives it back to individuals to nourish their communities.

I can value the impact I have as an individual. The best care I can give is to the people and things that surround me. That’s not necessarily always physical. For example, it’s ok to buy coffee from your friend’s roastery simply because they’re your friend—they are part of your community! My friend Lily Waite penned a beautiful story about the importance of online communities:

Tumblr was a haven for anyone who felt othered: queer kids, trans kids, those of the nichest subcultures, and endless goths…freaks of all stripes congregated, finding community through blogging.

So when someone asks me where they should buy coffee, this is what I tell them: buy local, and buy what you like. You’ve built a beautiful community around you. Tend to it. Bask in the shade of a useless tree.

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