A day in the life of a tree

Anne Bruggenkamp (2005)

English Romantics visiting the River Wye around the year 1800 could turn to their travel guides to discover how the landscape was being defaced by encroaching industry. In 1798, on the very same tour, the poet William Wordsworth contemplated the beauties of the landscape in his poetry. But in ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ Wordsworth makes no mention of the vagrants living in the ruins of the abbey nor does he speak of the factory chimneys springing up through the valley. The world’s billionth citizen was to be born five years later, followed two centuries later by the sixth billionth. Realism and Romanticism are incompatible. Particularly in the early 19th century when the impact of technological progress on man and his planet was first felt.
How can Wordsworth’s omission be explained? Did he simply not want to see? Did he deliberately close his eyes to the other side of things?

I recently saw one of Erik Odijk’s early drawings at an exhibition. It depicts a group of people in a forest. Perhaps a village community. The trees are huge, dwarfing the figures. And it was when I saw this that I began to grasp the meaning of scale in Erik’s later work. The people have vanished from his drawings; like us, they have now become spectators. The drawings are bigger. Scale is deployed as a way of getting closer to the subject, of penetrating the drawing. But scale also signifies loneliness, humility, empathy and even mortality.
We are so familiar with the lonely Romantic naturalist that any comparison is to some extent gratuitous. But I continue to see Caspar David Friedrich’s ramblers as an important source for this artistic position (the walk as a starting point for the drawing; the trace of the artist becomes a drawing in a landscape that in turn becomes a trace). Restrictions in theme and technique that give rise to a cavernous mental space in the image. The viewer can become lost in an almost pre‐human world, a world in which people are an anomaly. Often executed in black and white, and often in charcoal, the drawings offer a space that is initially pensive. The experience of and confrontation with nature are crucial for the creation of these pieces.

In 1971 the Beach Boys released the LP Surf’s Up, with the wonderful song ‘A day in the life of a tree’. The lyrics tell the tale of a tree that sings about the changes overtaking the world:

“Trees like me weren’t meant to live
If all this world can give
Is pollution and slow death”

The Beach Boys had often produced songs with an ecological theme but what is striking here is the standpoint. Identification with a tree that always gave people pleasure and shelter, and is now threatened by those very same people. It is a sad song with a clear message. Human beings have become estranged from nature and with this from themselves. It is no coincidence that this song was written a year before the publication of the first report of the Club of Rome (The Limits to Growth, 1972).
In this report, the Club concludes that it isn’t economic growth that is needed, but balance. The dangers of unbridled growth were underlined and it was estimated that, before 2100, a major crisis will be inevitable if the punishing pace of progress isn’t halted “Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress”. The publication of this report placed ecology firmly on the map. But it also begged the question of how to define progress in the light of this issue. Isn’t progress one of the engines behind the large‐scale destruction of nature and mankind?

In Paradise there were two trees: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge. According to Genesis, knowledge was the cause of man’s fall. Once we taste the tree’s fruit, we are doomed to toil, shame, pain and, inevitably, death. The expulsion from Paradise has instilled in man a craving to return to the Garden of Eden. One of the themes that concerned Piet Mondriaan was the tree which, like the sea, was a throwback to Romanticism. Mondriaan’s quest for the essence of form is expressed in horizontal and vertical lines. But this means of observation is not too far removed from the world in which knowledge and insight are gained through magic and ritual. A form of Pantheism. Mondriaan believed that reality veiled an underlying harmonious universe. Man’s presence on earth, typified by horizontal and vertical, reflects the natural analogy. Tree and horizon.

With the birth of Modernism, nature was again reinvested with magic, as it had been during the Romantic era. Man’s very analysis and classification of nature connotes its appearance / disappearance. Modern art is then indeed a response to the ‘disenchantment’. How can nature be a source of the spiritual if it is first and foremost the cause of man’s boundless material desire? The days when sacred trees flourished throughout Europe are long gone.

I remember when, as a small child, I roamed the woods every day, finding there the comfort of a natural home. Enchanting reflections in the water, explosions of green and the decomposing remnants of trees. It restores the senses. The ancient world, alive to a different rhythm.
Almost 5000‐year‐old trees like the Pinus longaeva connect us to the first stirrings of civilisation. They also unite us with an idea of the alternative. Our history seems to allow no alternatives. It has come to fruition expansively. Anthropomorphism: trees resemble people in many ways. We see ourselves in their verticality, with branches and foliage. Compare this depiction with the modern portrayal of human beings. A beautiful, unsettling image can be found in ‘Der Mensch als Industriepalast’ (‘Man as Industrial Palace’ Fritz Kahn, 1926), which clearly shows just how widespread the use of technology has become as a metaphor for describing man. The mechanistic vision of man precludes an organic one. Criticism of technology is often considered conservative.
Deforestation at the dawn of civilisation is often interpreted as ‘enlightenment’; it enabled man to have a clearer view of the stars and planets with which to envision his destiny. Was the Enlightenment of the 18th century perhaps a postscript to this?

The painter Ernst Wilhelm Nay: “We cannot be arrogant and set nature to our own hand, we can only look and experience nature; wait for it to admit us, wait until we can enter.” These lines could also be applied to the work of Erik Odijk. The artwork as contemplation and praise of nature.
Continue to the edge of the drawing, where it threatens to spill out over the edge. Where lines and smudges repulse and entice us. The space where we disappear into the undergrowth.