It was an arborist who first told me about the blue trees. We were out on a walk in Boston’s Back Bay, it was bud burst season, and all that wild reemerging had me a bit in love with the city again. She asked if I had heard about the new installation at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem. I hadn’t. Artist Konstantin Dimopoulos had collaborated with local artist Wes Bruce to paint the trunks of trees blue. It was one of several such installations all over the world, but the Salem installation had been met with mixed response. People worried that the blue paint wasn’t safe, the arborist said, but it was a non-toxic solvent—and besides, she reminded me, trees don’t do much oxygen exchange through their bark. People do get protective of their trees, don’t they? She smiled. I sensed that she was amused by the controversy.

Two months later, I traveled to Salem to see the blue trees for myself. I arrived in a hot and sticky temper. I had mistimed my departure and was stuck in summer highway traffic under a sky mottled with clouds. When I reached the museum parking garage, the attendant had just let the last car through, and she waved her arms at me, gesturing outward. “Park somewhere on the street,” she said, and I eventually found a spot in a lot by Broad Street Cemetery—a historic, raised burial ground with mature oaks and maples that had an immense, otherworldly presence. The effort to get to the installation and the welcome sight of one oak’s canopy against the sky had perhaps unfairly influenced my expectations. When I reached the Blue Trees, I was a bit baffled. Is this it?

They were in PEM’s Axelrod Walkway Park, a narrow stretch on the east side of the museum’s main entrance that served as a corridor between two commercial streets. On one side of its brick path a thicket of bamboo, witch-hazel, and low shrubs stood, tangled and undefined, and on the museum side, two large plots of neatly spaced, well-maintained trees. For the installation, the artists had chosen to paint the branches of a few witch-hazels by either entrance, the trunks of about a dozen young ginkgos in the park, and three more ginkgos isolated in grate-covered pits along the shops on Essex Street. Blue, blue, blue. I’ve always been inexplicably drawn to the color in all its variations and intensities, maybe because, as William Gass once wrote, “Blue is … the color of interior life.” And in the natural world, blue indicates not what is soilsprung but celestial. The sky, the ocean. The color of a mountain range in the distance, which is not a color but a lack of one, yet perceived by the able-sighted human as a muted, stone blue. But Dimopoulos’ blue was jewel-toned, royal, with all its intensity but none of its seriousness. In various interviews, he has said that he wanted his blue trees to be surreal. But there was something almost childlike about the effect of that color slathered over the brown trunk and low limbs of the ginkgos. It didn’t evoke wonder—and I am prone to wonder when in the presence of trees—but, instead, Dr. Seuss. And yet the sight was startling—and that, of course, was the point.

Why were the trees blue? Two placards placed on the outer wall of the museum, behind the ginkgos, anticipated the question and answered it. Dimopoulous, a conceptual artist, painted the trees blue to call attention to deforestation. This was an associative leap that could only be made with the aid of a placard, yet even with this prompt, it was a grand and hollow explanation. The placard said little else—nothing about the species selected—among them the extraordinary ginkgo, slow growing but resilient, and which, I had learned from my arborist friend, had become a species of choice by urban foresters throughout the country. The trees had been generalized, made metaphorical; a few trees to stand for them all. The placard did include a note about the non-toxicity of the paint. Safe for critters, it said. Yet how could Dimopoulos be so certain? Birds and insects—tetrachromats, with four cones in their eyes—experience color in a far broader range of hues than humans; we can only begin to understand how they visually perceive the world. And how a blue tree may disrupt it.

But depth was not the artist’s aim, only human provocation. And in this, Dimopoulos had succeeded. Nearly every person who walked through the park noticed the blue trees. They paused, took photographs, audibly asked why the trees were blue. They moved toward the placard. Read it aloud to their companions. Dimopoulos had succeeded in getting people to pay attention.

Another simple yet profound element of the installation was time. The trees would remain blue until nature determined otherwise. From April until—when? In October I visited them again with my partner and my step-kids. Peak tourist season in Salem. We moved through the thick crowd, the four of us forming our own space. It was difficult for me to see beyond the scope of the family; there were simply too many people. The blue trees became a part of the spectacle—nothing more than another family in costume. In the park, we could hear the busker on Essex Street, his drum beats pulsed orange; I could feel his music in my ribs. A person with a clipboard gathered her group for the next tour. I was thinking about witches, and while looking at the trees from a bench, tall and still over the heads of all those people, an image flashed before me. A noose rope hanging from the gallows. We were, after all, near the day when the veil between the world of the living and the dead thinned.

A month later, on a walk through the Arnold Arboretum, I paused to admire the fluorescence of the ginkgos along the base of Peter’s Hill. Had they ever been more brilliant?

Then in December, I traveled to Salem once more. It was a mild day between Christmas and New Year’s. Six months had passed since I had first seen the blue trees, and I confess, they had stayed with me. I wanted to see them again, to see how the months had altered them.

But the blue on the ginkgos had stayed strong. If anything, with the trees’ leaves now shed, the color appeared even more vibrant. I could see where the on-site artists had stopped painting, and the sky burned bright through the unpainted upper branches. Winter is blue, I thought. And the bare trees take the color of the sky.

It was a weekday, and the park was quiet. Few people walked by, yet still, nearly all paused to look at the ginkgos. A woman with a baby in a stroller passed me, a toddler at her hip. I remembered a story Dimopoulos told in one of his interviews. At the Vancouver installation, he had noticed a four-year-old girl detach from her mother and run toward a blue tree and hug it. To him, it was clear that they walked regularly through the park. But had she ever noticed the trees before? he wondered. Where she takes that encounter, he said, I don’t know. What she does with it would be up to her.

Shuchi Saraswat is a writer based in Boston.

From “free” to “friend”…

Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.

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