on seeing trees

Whatever land or cityscape you explore, looking out for trees is guaranteed to bring you wonder and joy. My storytelling obsessed mind finds confirmation for this in the biophilia hypothesis propounded by Edward O. Wilson, and similar kinds of we-are-connected-to-nature explanations (but also see this) for our deeply embodied responsiveness to the biosphere. But you can safely ignore that because what really matters is that responsiveness, not its explanation.

As I have argued before, looking out for is more difficult than it seems because we largely operate on automatic pilot. So being reminded to make an effort really helps, and what better reminder than the artist showing us what wonder real looking can reveal. I am piggybacking on the ever interesting blogging of Maria Popova and her treasure trove of brainpickings (which I unreservedly recommended).

First some of the stunning 1920s illustrations copied from her post on Arthur Henry Young’s Trees at Night:

And then some of her review of The Night Life of Trees, based on the mythology of the Gond people and drawn by three renowned local artists:

Trees have captured the eye and the imagination of so many artists that any selection is going to be pretty random. So as a final reminder let me share one of the painter that the Zandstad of Brabant is best known for, Vincent van Gogh. His Tree Roots, regarded virtually without exception as almost abstract, is actually quite true to life, making it a nice specimen of the artist’s eye for wonder in the ‘mundane’.

CLICK ON SOURCE TO ENLARGE IMAGE: https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0195V1962

Once you’ve caught the tree bug, who knows with a little help from artists, there is a lot out there to feed your interest with. The most beautiful all-about-trees book that I know of is Piotr Socha and Wojciech Grajkowki’s:

When you start getting seriously interested, buy yourself a tree guide. Because once you become able to recognize species, a whole new dimension opens up. Every tree is also a story, about soil and climate conditions, and about history. The more you know, the more you’re attentional muscle is going to flex when trees are around, creating one big positive feedback loop.

Beyond that you really don’t need advice because anything interesting tree-related is from now on likely to be picked up by your radar automatically. That is the way our cognition operates. What the algorithms of the internet monopolists do, our brain does all the time: feed awareness with more of the same. That this is a flawed strategy, a quick and dirty short-cut, undeniably true. But when you are on to something good, efficient like hell.

By way of example of something that appeared on my radar that way, courtesy of brainpickings again, enjoy of the great science popularizers of all time on trees:

Feynman’s wondering extends from trees to the universe and back, and perfectly illustrates the absorbing, encompassing nature of fascination bubbles. My own tree bubble is less physics-informed: anything highlighting interconnectedness strengthens my personal feedback loop. E.g. the wood wide web work of ‘secret life of trees’ forester Peter Wohlleben, and ‘mother trees’ scientist Suzanne Simard, controversial as their choice of vocabulary may be, made me look at trees in a totally new way. Their work gels well with other denizens of my filter bubble like the work of Merlin Sheldrake on the complexities of the fungal world (without which the wood wide web wouldn’t exist). And from there it is not a huge jump to the endlessly wonderous universe of the microbiome. Microbiome is pretty much home – this multitude of not-me without which there wouldn’t be a me. Not all that different from the dependence of trees on their microbial partners isn’t it? And microbiome in my personal glass bead game is closely linked to the big thoughts of another controversial scientist, Lynn Margulis, who is best known for her staunch and successful advocacy of symbiogenesis, but also co-developed the gaia hypothesis, which takes us back from the micro to the biggest macro stage on which we still play a, and as it is increasingly viewed, the defining role, the planet.

After the above name dropping and intellectual boasting It is an interesting meta observation that “trees are our most powerful visual metaphor for organizing information and distilling our understanding of the world”. I’ll let some images from Popova’s review of Manuel Lima‘s stunning The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge do the talking:

‘Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences’ by Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth from Encyclopédie (1780)
‘Notabilia’ by Mortiz Stefaner, Dario Taraborelli, and Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia (2011)

Lots of the above may actually defy my purpose of trying to get across how much a bit of knowledge may help you flex your attentional muscle more frequently. So let me also share a fun fact that isn’t meta. The oldest and the largest living entity on the planet is a tree:

Yes, I know, claims about who is top dog in any division are often disputed but at least the contender to the title of biggest living organism, is a honey mushroom, a tree killing ‘Humongous Fungus’ Armillaria in Oregon, covering more than three square miles. Lucky me: I don’t have to leave my personal bubble.

Ultimately, underlying all this tree talk, is an even more basic motivation: get you out into your environment, whatever it is, and start looking so you might see. A blog site that I subscribe to (again: highly recommended!) shared this funny, but also depressingly recognizable short video. Get away from this virtual madness, get away from the almighty screen, immerse in the real, beyond the walls of your home.

You’ll have to bear with me: I cannot post on trees without leaving you with my life-long favorite tree song:

With thanks to my artist, naturalist brother for his contributions to this post.


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