The Need Tree by Finn Harvor

Finn Harvor is a writer, artist, musician and filmmaker living in South Korea. Finn draws, writes, sings and makes authorial movies (which are movies where one person creates and authors the whole project).

A memory: I’m with my brother during the summer. It’s a Saturday morning. We’re waiting by our family’s old car: a second-hand Volkswagen that sits in the driveway, gathering heat like a tent that’s been zipped up and set in the sun. There’s a huge tree close to the car – an elm. All the neighbourhood’s elms are slowly dying of Dutch Elm disease; it’s the sort of environmental crisis that people in Ottawa, our home town, get concerned about. Terms like “global warming” are far off in the future. Fear of nuclear war, however, is not: my parents are deeply involved in peace movements – against the Bomb, against Vietnam.

My brother and I are bored. We’ve been told by our parents to “wait by the car”. We’re all going to the beach. My dad, however, has to make what he tells us are just a few phone calls. Hard-working at his job as an architect, and hard-working as an activist, he constantly seems busy. This is both a source of amusement and annoyance in our family; every family outing seems to involve a wait time, made all the more drawn out and hard to endure by the summer heat – not the heat itself, but the sense one has in the summer of time slowing, of time doubling, or tripling itself, like an ancient time machine.

My brother and I look at the tree. We both have the same sense: of its immensity, of its complex, messy beauty – its leaves like flattened neurons, or flocks of gently undulating seaweed. The sun feels golden. The sun pours down on us, on the tree, on the car. My brother and I – not impatient enough yet to start quarrelling – experience all this with a kind of peace.

Then, from within the house, the strange sound of an elevated voice – that sound that is the human equivalent of a bark. Parents like excitable dogs. One bark, or a furious string of many? We don’t even know if it’s my dad’s voice or my mom’s. But the elevated voices continue, until they flow into an angry, conversational torrent. My brother look at each other and at the same time look away: our parents are fighting. Weekends are eerily predictable.

A second memory: my brother – in a bed this time. A hospital bed. He is very thin. In fact, he is dying. He is dying because his liver has failed. And his liver has failed because he drinks – drinks with a fury and single-mindedness that ensures his physical destruction. Therapists and doctors have told us the causes of addiction are complex. But they have also told us that, ultimately, the addict must own his or her own addiction: must take a responsibility for it. This is the only way in which the will to overcome the addiction can take root.

And so from a beginning to an end; my sweet kid brother with me during the summer; my moody, obstreperous, exasperatingly stubborn (but still sweet) brother dying. How do events – the events of an entire life — come round to an end like this? It’s not the sort of question you ask yourself directly; it’s one that lurks at the back of your mind. It’s hard to accept the reality of a loved one’s death – especially when it all seems to tragically preventable.

But my brother died. Addicts die all the time. And sometimes medical systems help. Often, they do not – they stand back. And sometimes families help. Or sometimes families fracture, or enable, or simply crack under the pressure. Understanding the reality of this sort of death is hard, and understanding – in any sort of helpful way – its causes is also hard.

There are many explanations for addiction, ranging from the one most modern people have got used to : that it is a disease, and is caused by changes in the brain which drive the addict to crave his or her substance of choice with a physical ache, a physical need.

One medical dictionary defines it as follows: “Addiction is Habitual psychological or physiologic dependence on a substance or practice that is beyond voluntary control.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) defines addiction as: “Substance dependence is When an individual persists in use of alcohol or other drugs despite problems related to use of the substance, substance dependence may be diagnosed. Compulsive and repetitive use may result in tolerance to the effect of the drug and withdrawal symptoms when use is reduced or stopped. This, along with Substance Abuse are considered Substance Use Disorders..”

There have been a variety of counter-explanations, ranging from the anti-psychiatry movements of the 1960s and 70s, to the pop psychological theories of the 21st Century, including Ken Naimann’s argument that addiction is a “difficult choice” to Maia Szalavitz’s argument that “addiction is[…] neither an illness nor a sign of an immoral personality, but a learning disorder.”

And, of course, there are family counselling models with many of their sources in psychoanalysis that see addiction as having roots in family dysfunction. It is this final aspect of addiction that is the hardest to make sense – or at least, the thorniest in it complexity. What happened near the end was not simply that my brother drank, but that he seemed pursued by the furies of some mental anguish he was trying to self-medicate … and these were alongside the furies that seemed to block his perception of what he was doing to himself. To make matters even more difficult were the psychic furies of another family member, who enabled (quite severely) my brother’s isolation and constant imbibing of cheap booze.

Yet who is responsible? That is the question a person always comes back to. And the answer is always the same: it’s the addict; he or she is the one who is making certain choices. Then – that question answered, another question emerges, like a hydra head, like a rubber ball, like a kid’s question: why did it happen? And here we return to the complicated matrix of family relationships, marriage relationships, doctor-patient relationships. And to answer (that is, understand) these latter questions, one also becomes aware of the need for acutely accurate language. (My brother – a very good poet – was also aware of the extreme nuance, almost the vibrating-ness, of language.)

But language is rarely a refined tool. The explanations of therapists, of doctors – even friends — seem to deflate almost as soon as they are offered. In a sense, making art about something as personal as the death of a sibling is one of the few ways to “talk about it”; the very ambiguity of artistic language has its shortcomings – but these shortcomings are better than the frequently clumsy quality of empirical, self-consciously factual discourse.

Moreover, apart from the writing, is the art that goes into a project like this. In the case of the pictures of my brother that are in these video poems, I did them in notebooks I carried with me. I didn’t do them when we together, but soon after. The lines in the background of many of the drawings are not really intentional – school notebooks are cheap, and that’s why I use them. I could re-do the drawings on better paper. But doing the drawings once has probably been, up to now, all I can bear. Grief still hits me very hard at times when I think of him, and maybe the unfinished quality of the drawings is a result of that sadness as much as it is an aesthetic preference I have for visual art that is representational but a little bit unfinished.

Faced with an actual addict (and my brother wasn’t the first self-destructive alcoholic I had met), explanations become “explanations”; everything seems to wither away in the face of the sheer implacability of the addict’s crazed, frustratingly stubborn behaviour. And, in our family at least, it was certainly true that my brother’s addiction seemed to have roots that went back decades. But then, there was also the pain and dysfunction of his own marriage, along with the heavy drinking that was a part of that. Which root is the most important? Which disease is killing the tree?


Mats and Gordon.
Mats and Gordon as kids, drawing together….
comics, mainly — also, monsters, ancient Rome,
and, as seen in the 1960s, futuristic technology.
Mats and Gordon – this in the afternoon,
before Jac and Marion start their post-dinner screaming matches –
And, in the afternoon, as they draw,
the world seeming to agree;
green leaves on the trees,
hot sun beams in the air —
everything radiating vitality
and juice
and energy.

Then, Gordon in a bed –
a hospital bed.
Gordon, skinny as a rake,
a cancer patient.
Gordon’s liver already a hard, failed clot in his gut….
Gordon dying.

This is a year and a half earlier —
Mats has flown to Canada again.
On this occasion,
one of those crazy, super-short overseas trips that Koreans are used to
but that North Americans think are wasteful.
Universal cultural agreement on the necessity of this one, though.
During a teleconference with Montreal General’s doctors, one says:
“If you want to see your brother one more time,
I suggest you come in the next week.”

So – Mats arriving in Montreal.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport.
Mats trying to figure out yet another
frigging complicated vending machine that’s used in travel …
even the machines in Japan are easier to figure out
than this one in Montreal.

Mats on a bus, then in a taxi.
Mats arriving at the hotel on Sherbrooke where his dad is.
Mats and Jac hugging.
One year and a half, and Jac still physically fairly substantial.
Then, the next morning, another taxi,
and Mats and Jac arriving at Montreal General,
going to the 15th or 18th or 200th floor —
the hospital feels like a building housing a city –
and seeing first his mom Marion, close to the hospital room door,
and then, a second later, emaciated Gordon.

Mats isn’t shocked, exactly.
The only reason he’s here is because
the doctors have told him Gordon is terminal.
When Mats had seen Gordon a year ago,
his ascites was so bad
he looked like he’d swallowed an inflatable mattress.
Now, the ascites bloat is gone.
Medical teams have drained the fluid.
But in place of bloat is
the even more pernicious feature of emaciation.
Liver failure and malnutrition have cleared Gordon’s skin —
blotchy when he was still on the booze —
and receded his hairline.
He looks like a born intellectual.
His high forehead —
a family trait —
is more pronounced than ever.
But this pulling back, this making taut, has,
for some reason, affected his mouth.
His teeth look weird.
They have the feral look of a creature
whose food supply is very uneven.
Apart from everything else — the limbs as thin as sticks,
the plastic tubes in his arms, the medical prognoses —
you can tell, this is a human being in mortally bad shape.
He resembles a victim;
someone imprisoned and deliberately
starved and now, too weak to crawl back to health.

But he’s friendly.
He smiles as soon as he sees Mats.
“Hey,” he says, in a tone that would be cheerful
if it weren’t hideous
in its underlying weakness.

– Finn Harvor


The Violence of Sadness II
For Richard 1963 – 2013.

My brother once said:
“You and I are the same person.”
but it took going halfway across the plaent —
a burdened, industry-stinking, feverish planet —
to see that this was so.


Autumn rain’s cool membranes
Are cold stars,
Wet galaxies
That we observe through ground glass.


When do we reach the point where we understand
another human being?
When we’re broken-hearted on their behalf?
When we’re angry at
the occasionally selfish
things they did?

Every universe
Has its riddles
And its liquid alternations;
And every world
Needs some creative violence.

But why the craziness, too?

You and I
Loved where nature and machines meet,
We thought it was neat.
But we didn’t sufficiently mistrust
Big systems.


We try to help others.
We try to help ourselves.
And we’d be able to do that —
we’d be able to success – if our actions
weren’t framed by time.


I see my brother one last time.
My head is throbbing from blows
(like a soldier’s head).
My brother’s gut is throbbing from surgery:
the knives that can only contain, and temporarily minimize,
the failure of his liver.
The hospital staff
don’t like my brother;
they don’t like his type.
But when they do do that, I’m angered;
they don’t like me.
Yes, my brother was an addict —
his drug sold legally by millionaires
only causes the OCCASIONAL death.
But he was also —
and this is where he and I join —
an artist … out of time.


We cried out,
And, in thanks,
Were thrown to the ground.

You were stuffed into a bed —
Even your bed became ground,
And your hospital, a rocket ship
To darker planets.

– Finn Harvor