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Winter Trees as a Portal to Aliveness

“Eons must have lapsed before the human eye grew keen enough and the human soul large enough to give sympathetic comprehension to the beauty of bare branches laced across changing skies.”

Winter Trees as a Portal to Aliveness

There is something about the skeletal splendor of winter trees — so vascular, so axonal, so pulmonary — that fills the lung of life with a special atmosphere of aliveness. Something beyond the knowledge that wintering is the root of trees’ resilience, beyond the revelation of their fractal nature and how it salves the soul with its geometry of grief. Something that humbles you to the barest, most beautiful face of the elemental.

I know of no one who has captured that singular enchantment better than the artist, naturalist, philosopher, entomologist, and educator Anna Botsford Comstock (September 1, 1854–August 24, 1930).

Anna Botsford Comstock circa 1900.

In 1902, nine years before she laid the cultural groundwork for what we now call youth climate action in her exquisite field guide to wonder, Comstock wrote an article for the magazine Country Life that became, fourteen years later, her slender, tender book Trees at Leisure (public library | public domain) — a love letter to the science, splendor, and spiritual rewards of our barked, branched, rooted chaperones of being.

A century before Ursula K. Le Guin so mightily unsexed the universal pronoun, Comstock considers the role trees have played in “the aesthetic education of man” since the dawn of evolutionary time and writes:

Ages may have passed before man gained sufficient mental stature to pay admiring tribute to the tree standing in all the glory of its full leafage, shimmering in the sunlight, making its myriad bows to the restless winds; but eons must have lapsed before the human eye grew keen enough and the human soul large enough to give sympathetic comprehension to the beauty of bare branches laced across changing skies, which is the tree-lover’s full heritage.

Ever/After by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Noting that “the mortal who has never enjoyed a speaking acquaintance with some individual tree is to be pitied,” for a tree “brings serene comfort to the human heart,” Comstock celebrates winter as the season that welcomes the most intimate connection between the human heart and trees:

In winter, we are prone to regard our trees as cold, bare, and dreary; and we bid them wait until they are again clothed in verdure before we may accord to them comradeship. However, it is during this winter resting time that the tree stands revealed to the uttermost, ready to give its most intimate confidences to those who love it. It is indeed a superficial acquaintance that depends upon the garb worn for half the year; and to those who know them, the trees display even more individuality in the winter than in the summer. The summer is the tree’s period of reticence, when, behind its mysterious veil of green, it is so busy with its own life processes that it has no time for confidences, and may only now and then fling us a friendly greeting.

Winter Moon at Toyamagahara, 1931 — one of Japanese artist Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage woodblocks of trees. (Available as a print.)

Winter, Comstock observes, is the best time for learning to tell trees apart from each other. How to discern, and inevitably fall in love with, different species — the sycamore, with its “great undulating, serpent-like branches, blotched with white”; the golden osier willow, with its “magnificent trunk and giant limbs upholding a mass of terminal shoots that tinge with warm ocher the winter landscape”; the apple, with its “maze of twigs” and its “great twisted branches making picturesque any scene” — is what Comstock explores throughout the rest of her sapling-sized, sequoia-spirited Trees at Leisure.

Complement it with Trees at Night — a playful, poignant meditation on our relationship to trees, painted by the cartoonist Art Young in the final years of Anna Botsford Comstock’s life — and Paul Klee, writing in the same era, on why an artist is like a tree, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin’s love poem to trees and Rilke on winter as the season for tending to your inner garden.

For a different portal into growing more intimate with trees, explore Italian artist, designer, futurist, and inventor Bruno Munari’s uncommon vintage gem Drawing a Tree. Then, for no reason other than sheer delight, savor Women in Trees.


Women in Trees: Sweet and Subversive Vintage Photographs of Defiant Delight

The chance-anthropology of a secret tribe.

Women in Trees: Sweet and Subversive Vintage Photographs of Defiant Delight

It was always a rapture, a rebellion, a gauntlet against gravity and girlhood — skulking past the teachers, pushing through the boys, and racing across the schoolyard to climb the colossal walnut tree, whose feisty fractal vivacity mocked the bleak Brutalist architecture of my elementary school in Bulgaria.

Then there was my rural-grandmother’s cherry tree, into whose balding crown I would disappear to sulk when my parents discarded me to the country for yet another endless summer. And the copse of horse-chestnut across the street from my city-grandmother’s lightless apartment, whose friendly open-palmed leaves beckoned me to find the first of the spiky green fruit, before they released their shiny brown pebbles of seed onto the cracked sidewalk.

Even as my wrist-bones turned from twigs to branches and adulthood carried me across the Atlantic to lay down my sovereign roots, the impulse never left me, perhaps because the child never leaves us. I climbed — not with the skills and scientific motive force of an arbornaut but with the sylvan transcendence of Blake — oaks in Brooklyn and coastal redwood in Bolinas and Douglas Fir in Olympia and the Tree of Life in New Orleans.

Oak-hopping in New Orleans, September 2020. (Photograph: Milène Lichtwarck.)

Along the way, I came to cherish trees not only as aerial playgrounds, but as wonders of immense poetic, philosophical, and ecological import.

Imagine, then, my delight when a friend handed me a copy of More Women in Trees (public library) by the German photography editor, collector, and curator Jochen Raiss, a follow-up to his improbable hit Women in Trees (public library) — an entry in the ledger of lovely things created by the confluence of chance and choice (which, as Simone de Beauvoir observed with her keen existentialist eye, actually includes our very lives and what makes us who we are.)

It began with a single photograph Raiss found while rummaging through the bin of hodgepodge vintage ephemera at a Frankfurt flea market — a woman, in a tree, happy and carefree.

It delighted him enough to take home and use as a bookmark.

But then, by the marvelous pattern-recognition virtuosity of the human brain, he started finding others during his flea market excursions. He started collecting them. He started carefully cataloguing them in antique wooden crates.

Over the course of a quarter century, he amassed some 140 specimens of the genre, the anthropology of a secret tribe — strange, sweet, subversive photographs of anonymous women engaged in acts of arboreal daring, taken before color film became a commonplace and feminism a conscience.

Some of the photographs were taken when Germany was the roiling epicenter of World War II. Some of the women in them probably hailed Hitler. Some probably died in concentration camps. But for those moments suspended in the branches above the current of their epoch, islanded in space and time, they shared something singular and lovely, united in a sisterhood of sylvan joy.

Their mute, defiant delight seems to be saying, “My grandmother was jailed for wearing trousers but I can win the Nobel Prize in Physics”; seem to be saying, “My mother could not vote but my daughter can be chancellor”; seem to be saying, “I can go as high as I please, damned be gravity and grace, so I can peer at broader horizons.”

Complement the mischievous and marvelous Women in Trees and More Women in Trees with Dylan Thomas’s “Being But Men” — his love poem to trees and the wonder of being human, composed in the same era, an era when “man” included “woman” while erasing women — then revisit artist Art Young’s century-old meditation on human nature in tree silhouettes and Italian visual philosopher Bruno Munari’s existential lesson in how to draw a tree to see yourself.


Drawing a Tree: Uncommon Vintage Italian Meditation on the Existential Poetics of Diversity and Resilience Through the Art and Science of Trees

A subtle sylvan celebration of how our hurts and our healings shape the singular beauty of our character.

Drawing a Tree: Uncommon Vintage Italian Meditation on the Existential Poetics of Diversity and Resilience Through the Art and Science of Trees

Few things salve sanity better than the awareness that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives, and few places foster this awareness more readily than the forest — this cathedral of infinite possibility, pillared by trees of wildly different shapes and sizes that all began life as nearly identical seeds.

Among the many existential consolations of trees — these teachers in loss as a portal to revelation, these high priestesses of optimism, these virtuosi of improvisation, these emissaries of eternity — is how they self-sculpt their beauty and character from the monolith of challenge that is life. Once planted in its chance-granted location, each tree morphs the basic givens of its genome into a singular shape in response to the gauntlets of its environment: It boughs down low to elude the unforgiving wind, rises and bends to reach the sunlit corner of the umbral canopy, grows a wondrous sidewise trunk to go on living after lightning.

This endless, life-affirming dialogue between a tree’s predestined structure and its living shape is what the visionary Italian artist, designer, inventor, futurist, and visual philosopher Bruno Munari (October 24, 1907–September 30, 1998) explores in the spare, splendid 1978 gem Drawing a Tree (public library). Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s centuries-old diagrammatic study of tree growth, this unexampled masterpiece is a work of visual poetry and existential philosophy in the guise of a simple, elegant drawing guide to the art of trees rooted in their science.

Leonardo da Vinci’s diagram of tree growth.

Munari — who made some wildly inventive “interactive” picture-books before the Internet was born and who saw graphic literacy as the bridge “between living people and art as a living thing” — annotates the drawing lesson with his spare, poetic prose, contouring the life of a tree:

At last winter is finished and, from the ground where a seed has dropped, a vertical green blade appears. The sun starts to make itself felt and the green shoots grow. It is a tree, but so small no one recognizes it yet. Little by little it grows tough. It begins to branch, buds germinate on its branches, other branches spring from the buds, other leaves from the branches, and so on. A few years later, that green blade will have become a fine trunk covered in boughs. Later still, it will have produced wide branches which will produce leaves, blossoms and fruit. In autumn it will spread its seeds around, and some will fall beneath it while others will be carried far away by the wind.

Almost everywhere a seed falls, a new tree will grow.

Writing while elsewhere in Europe a refugee was revolutionizing the mathematics of reality with the discovery of fractals — a new science that would come to explain everything from earthquakes to economics markets, most readily visible in nature in trees — Munari deduces a basic growth pattern all trees share: each branch splitting into newer branches, each slenderer than its progenitor.

If they grew in isolation, free from any environmental challenge, all trees would follow perfectly predictable fractal geometries — a pattern so simple anyone could draw it, yet an ideal form not found in nature. This is where the existential meets the scientific and the artistic. Munari observes:

To grow so exactly, a tree would have to live in a place where there was no wind and with the sun always high in the sky, with the rain always the same and with constant nourishment from the ground all the time. There would have to be no lightning flashes nor even any spar changes in temperature, no snow or frost, never too hot or dry.

Because no such idyllic conditions exist in reality, Munari draws the tree as versions of the pattern adapted to various challenges. (Yes. There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.)

Delighting in the wildest subversions of the pattern — “there are the mad branches too, like in nearly all families” — Munari observes that even through them, you can still discern the fundamental form if you look attentively enough.

Drawing on the long human tradition of seeing ourselves in trees, Munari offers a tender reminder that trees — like us — take their shape and sculpt their individual character in the act of healing from hurt:

Here we are at the point where the sky turns dark and a real and proper storm comes, the tree waves frantically in the wind, as if it were afraid. A flash of lightning from the almost black sky hits the tree and disappears in a blaze of light. Through the heavy rain you can see a part of the tree on the ground, a big limb with its smaller branches. All you can hear is the sound of the heavy rain on the leaves.

The next year the tree is different, wounded. New branches still shoot out though, as if nothing has happened. This is how trees change shape: a flash of lightning, the weight of the snow on the branches, insects that gnaw at the wood… and the tree changes shape.

As he draws “some hurt and wounded trees,” Munari observes that you can still see the contours of their elemental structure through their scars and healing adaptations.

In an oak leaf’s “network of nerves,” he finds a miniature of the entire tree’s branching pattern. (This resemblance, of course, is what fractals explain — the leaf at the tip of the branch at the side of the trunk is just the finest extension of the fractal structure.)

Munari goes on to draw variations on the basic tree-growth pattern in different species, and variations on each species’ adaptation of the pattern in different specimens.

Exactly two centuries after William Blake issued his searing indictment of inattention and numbness to life — “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.” — what emerges from the pages of Munari’s little, largehearted book is an invitation to look at green things more intimately as training ground for loving the world and its variousness more joyously.

Complement Drawing a Tree with Japanese artist Hasui Kawase’s stunning woodblock prints of trees and some equally, differently stunning drawings of trees by indigenous Indian artists, then revisit Munari’s delightful visual-anthropological guide to Italian hand-gestures.

For a contemporary counterpart of existential-processing-disguised-as-drawing-lessons, dive into my friend Wendy MacNaughton’s wondrous DrawTogether project for human saplings.


Kinship: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Love Poem to Trees, the Interleaving of Life and Death, and the Eternal Flame of Being

A lyrical reminder that “the word for world is forest” and the feeling of forest is love.

Kinship: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Love Poem to Trees, the Interleaving of Life and Death, and the Eternal Flame of Being

I have been thinking a great deal about growth — what it means, what it asks of us, how it feels when unforced but organic. I have been thinking about growth and decay, the interplay between the two, the way all growth requires regeneration, which in turn requires a shedding, a composting, a reconstituting of old material. We don’t always know what needs to be shed, or what the optimal direction of growth is. This is where the “blind optimism” of a tree is helpful — there is consolation in trusting the quiet workings of chemistry and the primal instinct for orienting to the light.

Ever/After by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

I have been thinking about growth and decay while walking long bundled hours in an old-growth forest.

The forest, with its colossal trees that have been part-dead since their saplinghood centuries ago and are at the same time potentially immortal.

The forest, with its ceaseless syncopation of generation and decomposition that composes the pulse-beat of total aliveness.

The forest, this place of constant change that feels somehow atemporal, an everlasting Yes! to life echoed by an ungrudging and vibrant Yes! to death — a place where one feels most intimately the elemental yet counterintuitive fact that death is not the assailant of life but the ultimate consecration of its lucky possibility.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

This might be why we see ourselves so readily in trees, why we find in them our greatest lessons and the deepest truths about love.

Walt Whitman saw in them models for the highest measure of authenticity and why he, in consequence, celebrated the friend he most loved as “true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free… [she] is a tree.”

Whitman, who two centuries ago declared himself to “know the amplitude of time” and “laugh at what you call dissolution.”

Whitman, whose atoms now belong to some mycelial wonder pushing up the leaves of cemetery grass and nourishing the roots of the two towering trees that stand sentinel on either side of his tomb, trees that were saplings when he laughed out of life.

Little Painting of Fir-Trees, 1922, by Paul Klee, who believed that an artist is like a tree. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

While thinking about life and death and poetry in an old-growth forest, I thought of this immortal line: “The word for world is forest” — the title of a novella by Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018). I thought of the short, stunning tree-poem she wrote at the end of her life, originally published on the pages of Orion Magazine and recently included, fittingly, in Old Growth — their splendid anthology of sylvan literature from the magazine’s decades-deep archive. Here it is, brought tenderly to life by my tree-loving, poetry-loving, life-and-death-loving friend and kindred spirit Amanda Palmer, to which I have added the perfect sonic companionship of an old recording of Bach’s Organ Concerto in D Minor.

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Very slowly burning, the big forest tree
stands in the slight hollow of the snow
melted around it by the mild, long
heat of its being and its will to be
root, trunk, branch, leaf, and know
earth dark, sun light, wind touch, bird song.

Rootless and restless and warmblooded, we
blaze in the flare that blinds us to that slow,
tall, fraternal fire of life as strong
now as in the seedling two centuries ago.

Complement with Amanda reading “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver and poet Jane Hirshfield reading “Today, Another Universe” — her kindred take on the life and death of a single tree — then revisit Le Guin on anger, the magic of real human conversation, the meaning of loyalty, getting to the other side of suffering, and her timeless “Hymn to Time.”


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