Plant a Tree, Have a Son, Write a Book

A famous quote tells us the three things every man should do during his time on earth: Plant a tree, have a son and write a book. The reason behind this quote is generally believed to be that we are only here for a short time and these three things will live on long after we have passed. It’s like leaving a legacy and in a sense achieving a kind of immortality.

Note: There are a couple of updates to this post (after almost 6 years) – click here for that post. Plus a further update June 2022, specifically about the ‘Write a Book’ part – click here.  Please click on these links and read those posts.

I first heard this quote in a Spanish class when I first worked in Spain back in 1998. My Spanish teacher was the wonderful Carmen Lopez Blanco. Being keen on literature she knew all about the famous writers from the Spanish speaking world.

I can still recall her telling me about the quote but cannot remember who had supposedly written it. Only that it was some Latin American writer. At that time I had done none of the three things.

Now I have my son Dani, I have planted a couple of trees and I am in the process of writing a book. A few days ago Dani planted his first tree.

Holding treeSource of the Quote…

Bear with me while I digress slightly.

It is possible that the phrase is derived from the Talmud (sotah 44) which states: “…a man should build a house, plant a vineyard and then marry a wife”.

Other sources suggest it is a Buddhist saying. Yet another that it is an old Russian proverb.

Of course recently the quote has lost its male dominated meaning and is widely quoted as “Plant a tree, have a child and write a book”. It is also quoted as something every person should do rather than just a man.

A quick internet search also reveals that the quote is widely attributed to Jose Martí (1853-1895) a Cuban poet, journalist and political philosopher. He is a national hero in Cuba.

Through his writings and political activity, he became a symbol for Cuba’s bid for independence against Spain in the 19th century, and is referred to as the “Apostle of Cuban Independence.”

Although he never lived to see Cuba’s independence from Spain his face is on the Cuban One Peso note. An honour no less. Rather like the reverence given to George Washington who appears on the US One Dollar note.

planting tree

Latin American heroes…

I wondered why any reference to Latin American history always mentions poets and writers as heroes. This is a fact. If you look into the history of Latin American politics you will see what I mean. Basically these were so called “intellectuals” who would have also been critical of the political system or even revolutionary.

In Europe we would have gone through a similar phase in our history. We just no longer seem to quote them. In a similar way our so called “intellectuals” would have been well educated in comparison to the masses. They had something to say and (better still) knew how to express it. Even more importantly they knew how to get it published. Those types are hardly revered anymore in our countries but they still seem to be a large part of the historical and political fabric that makes up Latin America.

It was suggested to me that perhaps Latin America is somehow living in the past and behind Europe in this respect. As if they have not outgrown these old intellectuals. In a way that may be true.

Oops! Cue comments from Latin Americans – I do hope so, even if it only means that my blog is being read by Latin Americans. However please read on…

In actual fact it could mean they are in a better, more advanced state than we are in Europe. Nowadays in Europe so many people hang on every word of a footballer (for example) as if they have anything worth saying!! Another example: In the English speaking world it certainly seems that Hollywood actors have filled a void to become (or at least pretend to be) the new intellectuals. Unfortunately, these relatively talentless individuals do have a big influence on the way people think and what they say.

I think I know which I prefer. Give me the likes of Jose Martí any day.

After thought…

There are many websites that claim Jose Marti made this quote but oddly it does not appear on any site listing his famous quotes. At least that I could find.

Can anyone help me with this? Does anyone have any real evidence linking Jose Martí with this quote?

Martí is considered one of the great turn-of-the-century (19th century that is) Latin American intellectuals. If he really did write that famous quote then it is good enough for me. 

2 thoughts on “Plant a Tree, Have a Son, Write a Book

  1. In Ingoldsby’s Legends circa 1843 is written in the Blasphemer’s Warning: (the social duties are) the planting of a tree, the producing a book then a baby. Jose Marti was born in 1853.

    1. Thanks for that Tom. I was only thinking the other day how popular that one blog post had been. It still gets quite a few viewings every week. I was thinking of revisiting it (as by far my most popular post) and this new information from The Ingoldsbys’ Legends will certainly get a mention. I managed to download that book for free and have read some of the poems.
      How on earth did you come across such an obscure (at least to literary Philistines like myself) book?

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