The morning we moved out of my childhood home, the new owner pulled up with a small tractor to uproot the Forsythia hedge, my mother’s pride. It was late April, I think, as the bushes were in bloom; sprays of yellow blossoms shivered as the backhoe groaned and clawed at the plantings. I was shocked by how easily they came up, ungainly roots whipsawing as they shook loose from earth. My mother sobbed as we drove away. And yet soil clings to the roots; an ecology shifts intact. To uproot is an ambivalent move, metaphorically: is it about the fragility of attachments, or their stubbornness to endure?
Salomé Jashi’s Taming the Garden opens with a tree shimmering on the horizon, rooted in the liquid tumble of the sea. Lashed to the deck of a barge, its headway is barely perceptible against the lowering sky. The barge sails under the orders of Georgian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose minions search farm and forest for the prodigious trees he has uprooted and moved to his “dendrological park” in Shekvetili, a resort town on Black Sea coast. We never see Ivanishvili; no agents or officials sit to offer apologies or explanations to the camera. The oligarch’s name is only occasionally uttered by workmen and townspeople, and he remains a minor character, his motives a mystery to the people whose trees he takes. One man claims to have read that “it prolongs his life” to collect trees, if their age is greater than one hundred years. Some praise his enterprise, while others boggle at the cost of the operation. “No matter how much a villain he is,” another exclaims, “at least he’s doing something!”
Townspeople gawk at their trees on the move. Their faces register the dappled play of emotions, from grief to wonder, as workers cut, dig, and lever at giant trees—a towering tulip, goblet-shaped and elegant; a bounteous linden growing close by an old house; a chestnut with two splayed leaders that swing like the arms of a drunken giant. Their slow severance from the earth is both clumsy and precise, a kind of terrestrial surgery, at once an amputation and a deliverance of tender care. Jashi allows the sensuous overwhelm of these labors to fill her frame: a trench dug round the tree, the earth wrapped with sheets and shored up with boards, and a framework of pipes bored through below, driven home with rust-streaked drilling augers. The scale of the work matters to Jashi: we see men chopping, sawing, dragging brush, dwarfed by walls and mounds of foliage. A backhoe swings into view, framing the shot like a great mechanized tree; from another angle, viewed downslope through a colonnade of what look like hemlocks, the same machine looks minuscule. During a break, the crew sit around a fire of brush and reminisce. They agree that the trees are very beautiful. “Life takes strange turns,” says one.
Jashi is a generous storyteller, and patient. Long takes invite us to ponder how a mature tree organizes its surrounding space: the way the earth bunches muscularly at the roots; how its shade selects and prunes the vegetation; above all, the way it pigments and concentrates the air in its branches. And then we watch the slow, uncanny spectacle of this composition deconstructed, as yet another great tree is carved out of the ground, jacked onto a carriage, and towed off, leaving a crumbling pit of soil to fill up with new vegetation.
I think of those islands of earth cut and carried away, with their cryptic assemblages of fungi and invertebrates, to be installed in the oligarch’s faraway estate, ferns and flowering plants bobbing in the shade of a tree transported over the sea. The trees’ communities exceed grasses, forbs, and fungi, however, rooted as they are in the loam of family and village. Local people gather in the night to watch as a towed tree sways in spotlight gleam. “It’s so beautiful in the night,” one says. “Like a fairytale.” “It won’t survive,” says another, “it’s shrunk so much.” An old woman confronts the cutters: “she planted this tree,” her companion warns the foreman; “what we do in this world will be judged in the next.” Elders embrace, young people shoot video on cellphones, the tree moving stately through pines as flashlights lance through the galleries of boughs, the lights of the trucks closing in, filling the frame, branches of roadside trees snapping as the tulip shoulders through. Jashi stays with these shots a long time, lingering in the strangeness of a tree swaying in the still of night.
What are we to make of Ivanishvili’s uprootings? How do we weigh the ecological and social costs; how does his project compare to the collecting practices of public gardens and arboreta? Jashi eschews such ready questions and contrasts, preferring to dwell patiently in the confusion of the more-than-human encounter. Resisting easy critique, her eye is anthropological, tracing the exertions of people and trees with equanimity and affection. Along with townspeople and workers, we’re invited to boggle, mourn, and wonder. And the trees in the end are beautiful, settled in their new home amid sprinklers and curving paths.
In his lavish account of Kublai Khan’s pleasure palace, Marco Polo describes a hill planted with mature evergreens collected throughout the empire and carried to the capital by elephants. Historically, Marco Polo arrives on the eve of modernity and the coming Anthropocene—before the forests of North America travelled upright over the seas in the form of ships’ masts; before the forests of Asia and South America were felled for tea and palm and rapeseed. The ecological impact of Ivanishvili’s Dendrological Park pales by comparison to such depredations. It’s even beautiful in its way. Like the green hill of the Khan, the oligarch’s park is lush, verdant, well tended. The birdsong there is fluting and evocative. And yet the trees are still rigged with the cables, bound fast like wild beasts. The oligarch wants his country to behave like a well-loved garden. And yet, as Salomé Jashi reminds us, the memory of living soil persists amid the roots.
Matthew Battles is the editor of Arnoldia.
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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