The general form of a tree—trunk, branches, twigs, leaves—is so commonplace as to be completely unremarkable. Trees inhabit spaces that most of us experience daily, and, in fact, they often create those spaces. A low, widespread, and rather twisting elm stretches its branches over the patio of a café, not far from my apartment. It forms an enchanted ceiling, especially in the spring, when the samaras alight in the branches. Any tree we encounter is likewise defining its space. We move around them, beneath them, and sometimes even upon them. We’re so familiar with trees that, for some of us, they feature in our earliest memories. In my case, it was a ten-foot-tall apple tree in a neighbor’s backyard. (I filled a bucket with the forbidden fruit and was ordered to return it—with an apology.) For Emanuele Coccia, an associate professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, it was a trio of Italian umbrella pines viewed from the balcony of his childhood bedroom. He calls them his “first image of the world.”
Coccia recounts this memory in Trees, a book designed for an exhibit of the same name at Fondation Cartier, a contemporary art museum in Paris. The large-format book, published in an English translation, is the kind that you might see stacked on a coffee table in a furniture catalogue. It’s filled with almost five hundred images, including field sketches, conceptual paintings, and film stills. Often, when parsing meaning from an artistic depiction of a tree, we turn to a standard suite of metaphors. We see the ancient oak, gnarled and twisted, as a symbol of endurance and solidity. We see a small tree growing from broken concrete as a reminder of perseverance. Scholars might examine specific depictions through the lens of post-colonial studies or otherwise. Yet many of the writers and artists who contribute to Trees suggest that, first and foremost, we must acknowledge trees’ status as living beings, reconsidering the strangeness of their too-familiar forms.
Stefano Mancuso, the Italian biologist who is a prominent figure in the controversial field of “plant intelligence,” leads this charge, pointing out the bizarro ingenuity of plant life. “Like the negative of a photo, what is white in the animal world is black in the plant world,” he writes. “Organisms that are so different from us that, as far as we are concerned, they may as well be aliens that evolved on a different planet.” Mancuso enumerates many of the differences between the lifestyles of plants and animals, including differences pertaining to movement, of course, and our inverse needs for carbon dioxide and oxygen. He emphasizes one difference as especially noteworthy: the distribution of specialized functions. While almost all animals have organs that cannot be separated from the rest of the body, plants spread these functions across their form in repeating modules. Plants, for instance, respire without organs that resemble lungs. They digest food without anything that resembles a stomach. Given this functional distribution, a Kentucky coffeetree can lose a large branch from a lightning strike (another one of my early childhood memories) yet retain its ability to produce the organic compounds needed to continue living.
This phenomenon of distribution, Mancuso suggests, can cause us to discount the liveliness of plants. We recognize that plants are living organisms, yet we see little of ourselves in their structure. Although we know that plants die, many of us aren’t exactly sure what it means for them to be alive. Distribution, we come to recognize, is fundamental to the forms featured in Trees.
Among the most maximalist works in the book are Luiz Zerbini’s large-scale paintings that situate trees within a jumble of urban textures. Zerbini’s Mamão Manilha shows a potted papaya (Carica papaya) growing alongside several bromeliads. Two papaya leaves sag along its trunk, preparing to join another that has already dropped to the ground. Above them, a bird opens one of several fruits, revealing the orange flesh and black seeds within, and above that, white flowers appear in large, loose clusters. The painting not only captures the modular form of the plant—each leaf, each fruit, ultimately destined to be shed—it also captures how this disposability becomes central to a web of other biotic interactions. The pot suggests that a human had grown the papaya in anticipation of the fruit, yet, in a war of attractions, a bird won the harvest. A series of leaf scars along the papaya’s trunk also reminds us of the seasons of growth and disposal that have led to this moment. The painting is a composite—an imagined place—yet the plant seems to be a singular individual, forging an existence that is less than glamorous but nonetheless alive.
The book also includes works by Indigenous artists from several regions in South America, including the Gran Chaco, the semiarid plain that sprawls between the Paraguay River and the Andes. The works from this region are ink and paper drawings, and almost all capture interactions among trees and other organisms. A fascinating untitled work by Eurides Asque Gómez shows lines of leafcutter ants trailing into their volcanic burrows carrying leaves of algarrobo trees (Prosopis nigra). The ants, in turn, are shown being picked off by partridges. According to the artist, who is quoted in an essay by Ursula and Verena Regehr, the partridges nest in grasses between the algarrobo, knowing that the ants are partial to the young leaves. Meanwhile, an ovenbird has built its nest in one tree, and birds perch on the branches of another. In this way, Gómez showcases not only the modular, throw-away nature of the trees’ emerging leaves—a solution to being immobile targets for predators—but the way that their modular structures become essential to other organisms.
Moreover, Trees is a testament to the ways these omnipresent forms shape the lives of humans. Gómez and other artists often include people in the web of arboreal interactions depicted in their art. An atmospheric scientist, Abigail Swann, describes how trees influence climate, choreographing weather patterns—a fact among many in the book that reminds us that our disregard for the imperiled state of trees may precipitate our own demise. Yet, on a personal level, the artists and essayists are, themselves, residing among trees, sometimes building livelihoods around their forms. The ensemble of individuals includes landscape designers, a mathematician, the film director Agnès Varda, the American artist Charles Gaines, and many others.
Yet it is the botanist Francis Hallé whose lifelong engagement with trees is most clearly documented in the pages. Hallé offers forth drawings from field notebooks, prepared in rainforests around the world: Sri Lanka, Côte d’Ivoire, Peru, and elsewhere. In some sense, these field sketches represent the leaves of Hallé’s career, collected and pressed within the covers of dozens of notebooks that he has labeled by date and location. “You quickly realize that the shape of a tree, even when young is never random,” Hallé says in an interview with Coccia. “Each species has its own ‘architectural model,’ that is, a tree’s growth and development follow a genetic program.”
Hallé’s drawings endeavor to capture these unique forms. Among his most impressive works is a large drawing on tracing paper titled Forest Profile, which depicts dozens of trees growing in relationship with one another in French Guiana. He provides two views of the forest: from the side (a cross-section that shows the complex layering of tree canopies) and from above (showing the locations of the tree trunks and the spread of their branches). Even in this schematic form, Hallé captures each individual’s species-specific, non-random shape. His empirical approach seems like it would produce results that are more like traditional scientific illustrations, often beautiful but unsurprising. Yet through his careful attention to detail, and the disambiguation of these overlapping forms, Hallé captures what many of the other artists in Trees likewise reveal: the strange reality of the still lives of trees.
Jonathan Damery served as the editor of Arnoldia from 2018 to 2022.
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.
It takes resources to gather and nurture these new voices, and we depend on the support of our member-subscribers to make it possible. But membership means more: by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum, you help to keep our collection vibrant and our research and educational mission active. Through the pages of Arnoldia, you can take part in the life of this free-to-all landscape whether you live next door or an ocean away.