In Trees, I Sing: They who take care of us

Bryant Bannister Tree-Ring Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson, 2020

Materials: 800 lbs. of Quetta Pine needles, charred ponderosa pine trees

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men... In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and properity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do no preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernal is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form annd veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

Hermann Hesse

For the past twenty years, the forest has become my studio, not as subject matter to draw or paint, but for discovery, observation and the collection of the materials that are the basis of my art. Each spring, I have knelt under the pines collecting the peeled twigs that Abert squirrels gnaw on and then drop as litter onto the forest floor below. I like to believe that the trees I work under remember who I am. I like to believe that they remember me as I enter their home, arms embracing acceptance to come listen and learn. 

More recently, as I have begun collecting materials in burnt forests, my aesthetic has changed. I now find such forests to be more beautiful than the dark dense forests of monotonous green. Fire creates openings to see the contours of topography, of form and horizon, the hollowed-ground of what once stood. There is beauty to the death and eventual resurrection to come.

But yet, I still lament when trees have been destroyed by fire or cut down.

What happens when a fire burns so fast, so hot, that trees have no time to talk to each other? When the mycorrhiza network in the soils below have not had time to send warning signals of an approaching fire, a fireball of destruction, whipped up by hot winds, their frangible needles left on the limbs flash-frozen in time, baked gray, but not incinerated? When trees are unable to draw vital waters from their roots in time to protect themselves from searing gases of heat? Years later, when I enter these flattened forests, I find the trees lying on the ground and smell both the soft-rot of decomposinng wood and the sharp aroma of branch attachments made of hard dense axillary wood.

What happens when a hub tree hears the buzz of a feller buncher, the impact of its noise radiating through the mycelium below? How does a mother tree protect itself and the understory of its young as well as the other species it is connected to? What fear does it face? What defense and signals of wisdom does it send to its young seedlings and the other species below? Weeks later, I again enter an empty forest and now the smell of cut pine fills the air. I see the compacted soils and the stacked logs ready to be hauled to Mexico to construct pallets and crates in order to transport goods made in U.S. factories back to the United States or be shipped across the ocean for fuel to create energy for South Korea.

When we thin a forest, through fire or saw, to protect our communities, have we conscientiously considered the individual life of each tree? Do we honor and give respect to each body?

Scientifically, humans and trees are genetically related. Culturally, we both are spiritual beings. Is it possible that I will someday be reincarnated into a tree, my body stand for decades in the form of a tree, as a sentinel witnessing the business below? 

In trees, I sing.