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  • Lex van der steen

The Pine Cone Kid

There used to be this kid that gathered pine cones really seriously. Let me tell you the story. To begin with, there were no criteria that filtered the pine cones from being selected. All were fine, as long as they were pine cones. I think that the kid started collecting these pine cones around the age of 8. I’ve been told that the first pine cone was put very carefully in position on an empty shelf of a bookcase. The second, third, fourth and many more found their way to this same shelf. At some point books needed to be moved somewhere else, since more and more pine cones got in line for their spot in the bookcase. The bookcase slowly turned into a pine cone case. But let’s slow down, I’m going too fast! It’s hard to tell exciting stories in the pace they deserve. In the hands of this kid, the first pine cone was observed in all of its peculiarity. In being alone, in being the only pine cone to exist for this kid in that moment, the pine cone was the pine cone. Its shape, its specific shades of brown and its size, they all belonged to what a pine cone really was, for that kid, in that moment. The second pine cone however, immediately after arriving at the shelf in the book case, and actually already when found by the kid when walking back from school, challenged the reign of the first pine cone. To whom did the throne belong?! In their standing next to each other, sharing existence as two pine cones and the only two pine cones, an insurmountable tension inhabited the shelf. Both took shape in light of the other. A pine cone is either this one, or the other one. In an attempt to overcome this unbearable pressure the kid brought back a third pine cone. A trinity was established, much like the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One substance, three entities. But, the kid’s attempt was in vain, and a cold war-ish atmosphere remained present between the two walls of the book shelf. As soon as the fourth pine cone was added to the battlefield, the kid intuitively, but only intuitively, caught a sense of the dynamic that grew in the slow increase of gathered pine cones. Somehow, each pine cone was less special, since it was not the only, or the only of two, or the only of three pine cones in the universe. Yet, they also, simultaneously, become each more special, since it seemed that their idiosyncrasies only really got established in comparison to the others. The third pine cone was coloured by an obviously darker shade of brown than the other three, and the first pine cone still remained to be the largest of them all. But only now these characteristics became visible. And it was this revealment of oddities that slightly subdued the former tension. The kid felt it, and got driven to gather more pine cones to expose all the singularity that the world of pine cones had to offer.

As I already mentioned, the books had to move in order to make space for more pine cones. As you can guess, the book shelf at some point no longer contained any books, only pine cones. The parents ordered their child to move the pine cones to the kid’s bedroom once they realized that the bookshelf would no longer be enough to host the collection. As the years passed, and the kid grew older, and the bedroom got increasingly taken over by the growing collection, more creative ways of storing the pine cones needed to be invented. No worries, the kid somehow seemed to overcome the increasing lack of space. And by the time the bedroom’s capacity to store more pine cones was exhausted, it was time for the kid, no longer really a kid, to move out of the house. Of course, way before actually leaving, the kid had realized that a large house was needed for the growing collection. As such it was settled: the kid figured out that by becoming a lawyer it would be possible to earn enough money to keep providing the ever growing collection of pine cones with more space, with more bookcases-turned-pine-cone-cases.

No, the grown up did not lose count of the pine cones. Without numbering them, the grown up kept on remembering which one was the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, etcetera. All the thousands of pine cones had been studied and observed like the first had been on that summer day when this story began. All the idiosyncrasies had been noticed and all the pine cones had been related to the totality of uniqueness. Perhaps that you might now think that the grown up was somewhat of a strange figure. I won’t judge on this matter, on having a pine cone collection as one’s existential guideline, as the center around which all decisions in life are made. But I can tell you that nobody ever noticed something off. I didn’t. The grown up was a regular grown up, at least from the outside. Again, no judgment from my side, I am just here to tell you the story as it is. Anyway, the collection kept on growing. The grown up even bought another house, a small vacation resort but actually another large bookcase, in the Belgian Ardennes. Not unrelated was the fact that there one can find many pine cones. And all this time the dynamic between the pine cones never changed: each one became more special and less special, more unique in its specific shape, size and color, and also less unique, being only one out of many, many pine cones. But, how many different pine cones the grown up had seen, felt and grasped! Witnessing this unstoppable increase in difference must be, so the grown up must have thought, the only value that can be subtracted from this life and its pine cones.

Friends and family never noticed. But then again, the grown up, now an elder, never had much time to spend with them, being too busy collecting pine cones. Even at an old age, the elder had not stopped collecting pine cones. The accumulation of difference proceeded! On again a summer day, when the elder was at the age of 88 and taking a walk, another pine cone appeared. Yet, something was off. The elder somehow lost touch with the gathered totality of tension between all the different pine cones. Back at the house, after finishing the rest of the walk anxiously, the true damage became clear. The elder no longer knew which pine cone was which, and worse even, the elder no longer had any overview of the idiosyncrasies of each in relation to the others. All the pine cones appeared as just pine cones. The only one of which the elder knew which one it was, was the first. Holding this particular pine cone, which was now no longer the first, or the tallest, or the almost roundest, it appeared to the elder that somehow, nothing ever changed. This pine cone is still this pine cone. What remained was a regret for not having looked at this first pine cone longer, with a bit more contentment and no need to compare, compare and compare.


At the Pigna courtyard at the Vatican, there stands the Fontana delle Pigna. This is a former Roman fountain from the first century composed of a large bronze pine cone. In La Divina Commedia, Dante refers to this fountain when describing the size of the head of the giant Nimrod, which is based on the eponymous biblical figure: “His face appeared to me as long and large. As is at Rome the pine-cone of Saint Peter's”.

If we believe the first-century Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, it was the biblical figure Nimrod who supposedly directed the construction of the tower of Babel. As such, Nimrod would be indirectly responsible for the separation of languages, and thus for all problems of miscomprehension. This stands in line with the general interpretation of his actions as sketched out in Dante’s Inferno. There, Nimrod only shouts the verse “Raphèl mai amècche zabì almi”, which most scholars consider to be untranslatable. In fact, most later critics consider the phrase to be exactly a gesture of incomprehensibility or untranslatability.

With this juxtaposition in mind, we can perhaps construct the thought that thinks a relation between the story of the pine cone kid and the untranslatable. Taking into account that the untranslatable belongs to the one with a pine cone head, Nimrod, which we can also imagine to be the kid, we can think of a relation between the untranslatable and the life long goal of collecting pine cones. In a way, perhaps, it can be said that every pine cone expresses, or refuses to fully express, a singularity like Nimrod's verse, essentially incomprehensible and untranslatable. The pine cone kid, then, was only able to truly love the pinecone in the first phase, when no comparison had yet been made, and in the very last phase, when the act of comparing could no longer hold any sense.

I’ll leave this here as a possibility, a possibility without any necessity or authority.


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