Consider the Tree
And its artistic and scientific branches
October 4, 2019 | by Anush Ter-Khachatryan
From the wisdom of oaks to the weeping of willows, writers, visual artists, and scientists have admired trees ever since the great human adventure began under one.
Jane Goodall’s beech tree
Before she would embark on her journey from England to Gombe to explore the little known world of chimpanzees, an experience she transformed into the revolutionary book My Friends The Wild Chimpanzees, primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall’s childhood was already rooted in nature and her natural habitat was revolving around her favorite beech tree.
Goodall spent hours on the tree, taking with her supplies that would nourish her intellect and belly. “I had a little basket on the end of a long piece of string that was tied to my branch: I would load it before I climbed, then haul up the contents—a Tarzan book, a saved piece of cake, sometimes my homework.” She so loved the beech trees, that she scribbled a “Last Will and Testament” on a piece of paper and made her grandmother Danny legally give the tree to her.
Later on she would witness the Wollemi pine, a species that had weathered seventeen ice ages and admire the strangler fig tree in Cambodia. Awestruck by the sinister beauty of trees, Goodall’s early paper-based tree ownership would grow into an eternal debt toward nature she’d learned to understand.
Annie Dillard’s mangroves
Nature writer Annie Dillard was fascinated by mangroves, the vagabond trees that float in the waters of the ocean clenching to other mangroves or debris and surviving all odds of homelessness.
“If survival is an art, then mangroves are artists of the beautiful: not only that they exist at all—smooth-barked, glossy-leaved, thickets of lapped mystery—but that they can and do exist as floating islands, as trees upright and loose, alive and homeless on the water.”
These stoic trees, spread in the tropical waters of Florida and Galápagos, exist in the liminal space between the turmoil of winds and the crisp of the peaceful waters. Ripped from the shore by riptides, they are carried to the ocean. With nothing to hold on to, they capture the floating debris and manufacture their own soil. They show defiance against the salty waters by exuding the salt from their leaves and coming up as problem-solvers in flora.
Arthur Henry Young's Trees at Night
In between his work as a writer and cartoonist, Arthur Henry Young created his dream-drawn series of tree illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post, a haunting appearance of anthropomorphic trees called to life by black ink in the hands of a craftful artist.
“While looking out of my window toward the wooded hills one summer night, a caravan of camels seemed to be humping along the sky. They were trees of course but enough like camels to key my imagination up to discover other pictures in the formation of foliage,” Young noted proceeding to bring his own camels to life.
Young’s trees seem to be disparate characters of a melancholy film shot in the surreal hours between dusk and nightfall. While one of his silhouetted arbor-creatures rolls its heavy burden up the slope, as some species of Sisyphus, another stretches its bare and skinny limbs to the lonesome air, while a third freezes in the moment of natural uproar.
Bible’s burning bush
Biblical stories are also enthralled by trees, sometimes extremely so—from the snake-occupied tree of knowledge from which Adam and Eve harvested their share of self-consciousness to the burning bush in which God was a temporary tenant.
In the Book of Exodus, Moses encounters the Burning Bush on Mount Sinai—the bush which “burnt with fire, but was not consumed,” as God himself appeared through it. If God is Truth, which he is believed to be, then only the truth can withstand the flames, while falsehood burns like dead wood.
This analogy also applies to such natural appearance as forest fires. Just as the dead wood burns off to regenerate new seeds in the forests, so should burn off all that is not truthful giving space to the very little that is.
Toni Morrison’s chokecherry tree
In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, the black chokecherry tree grows in another manner—it grows on the character’s back as a scar and a memory of her years in slavery.
Although the chokecherry tree is a maze of scars branched out and heavy with fruit, it is usually referred by Morrison as an actual tree. “I got a tree on my back and a haint in my house, and nothing in between but the daughter I am holding in my arms.”
The black chokecherry tree, whose fruit is poisonous, mainly occurs in Virginia and the Carolinas, the epicenters of slavery. It directly speaks on behalf of Morrison’s metaphor and so makes her language exact as she creates the tangible surfaces of her imageries.
Anush Ter-Khachatryan is a writer living in Yerevan.