Archive for February, 2011

February 28, 2011

Trees from above

Schools of trees–Why the evergreen coniferous tree?

Gerco de Ruijter sends us best wishes from Rotterdam, and two amazing photos of his work.

# 20 by Gerco de Ruijter, 28" x 28", from Baumschule (2008-2010), courtesy of the artist)

At least in Europe and the US, many people think that if Christianity has a tree, it must be an evergreen conifer. Not even on the list. Try the myrtle, the palm, cypress, olive or the cedar of Lebanon, dogwood, mesquite, ash, oak, or maybe the willow.(1)  No pines or spruces.

In some parts of the United States, conifers are cut for Christmas leaving at least three branches at the base.  The tree will regrow over a period of several years. The United States Department of Agriculture’s 2002 census shows that over twenty-thousand farms were producing conifers for the cut Christmas tree market in America: 447,006 acres (180,897 hectares) were planted in Christmas trees. But why?

In 1584, the German pastor and chronicler Balthasar Russow wrote of a tradition of setting up a decorated spruce at the market square where the young men “went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame”.[2]

Fire is a theme in these tales of trees that don’t drop all their leaves before the dark days of winter.  Purportedly in Norway, the Jul log was an entire tree that was shoved into the fireplace,  extending into the room. The story is that as it burned watchful people would it would keep pushing it in farther. We’re fact-checking this one.  There are many stories on the origin of the Yule tree, and doubtless more will emerge with careful scholarship.

In Gerco de Ruijter’s photographs, shorn, tended trees become an abstraction, not unlike the aluminum and plastic trees decorated with electric light.  Yet this analogy is misleading, because even if trees are planted on grid lines, they still form a living community, as de Ruijter’s work shows.  Karl J. Niklas has stated that communities of  plants are highly integrated organisms that respond to their environments in ways “that are every bit as complex as even the most sophisticated animals.” (3)

Let’s let Gerco de Ruijte have the last word:

Even though this series “Baumschule” deals with an extremely defined cultural landscape, it (is) the abnormalities that jump into view. The presence of all of these objects arranged to form rows creates a new form of abstraction, not because of the image’s emptiness but, to the contrary, because of the presence of so many “things”, and their patterns and rhythms.

Funny, the irregularities in the patterns cause the viewer to once again notice nature…

1. Pamela R. Frese and S. J. M. Gray. Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 14. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. p9333-9340.   Palm branches are associated with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. The myrtle, the symbol of virginity, is naturally associated with the Virgin, as are the palm, cypress, and the olive tree (symbolizing peace, heaven, and hope). The cedar of Lebanon, dogwood, mesquite, ash, and oak are all identified as the wood of  the Cross. Willows and cedar grow in cemeteries reminding visitors of death and everlasting life.

(2) Christmas Tree. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_tree. Accessed Feb 28, 2011.

(3) Karl J. Niklas, Edward D. Cobb. Ontogenetic changes in the numbers of short- vs. long-shoots account for decreasing specific leaf area in Acer rubrum (Aceraceae) as trees increase in size. American Journal of Botany, 2010; 97 (1): 27 DOI: 10.3732/ajb.0900249

Further reading:

Karas, Sheryl Ann. The Solstice Evergreen: History, Folklore, and Origins of the Christmas Tree. 1990; reprint, Fairfield, Conn., 1998.

Kathleen Stokker. Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land. Minnesota Historical Society Press (October 2000).

# 10 by Gerco de Ruijter, 28" x 28", from Baumschule (2008-2010), courtesy of the artist

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February 13, 2011

Week 13: The Sycamore

Sally from Palo Alto alerted us to “Moon Trees.”  In the crush-on-space years, these were grown from hundreds of seeds orbited around the moon by Stuart Roosa during Apollo 14 (1971). The photo shows a Moon Sycamore in Philadelphia. Along with the Sycamore, seeds were taken from: Loblolly Pine, Sweetgum, Redwood, and Douglas Fir.[1]

View of Bicentennial Moon Tree, located in the Northeast corner of Washington Square, Philadelphia, PA.

Sycamore grown from Apollo moon seed.

Our favorite sycamore in contemporary literature is a mystical guide. For the writer Annie Dillard, a tree’s growth into the soil and into the air mirrors a creation continually reborn and expanding in time-space.   In Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek,  Dillard mentally converses with Trappist monk Thomas Merton, speaking of time and wakefulness (Dillard 2001, 87).  She explains she wants to keep awake and “prop her eyes open with toothpicks, with trees.” (ibid., 87).  The sycamore at Tinker’s Creek serves as her guide for soulflight in drawing the narrator under into the past.

Platanus, the North American sycamores of North America, are known as Plane trees in Europe

  • Platanus occidentalis, the American sycamore
  • Platanus racemosa, California sycamore or western sycamore
  • Platanus wrightii, Arizona sycamore

Its bark is striking and its leaves are enormous.  The trunk can be as well. One at Stanford University has a diameter of 10.5 feet.

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_tree

February 4, 2011

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Thirty-four year old Andreas Gschwari is setting off this Sunday to walk the 4,600 mile British coastline in order to raise funds for ‘Trees for Life’ (see image above). This charity works to restore the Caledonian Forest in the Scottish Highlands. Wish him well!

And see http://www.treesforlife.org.uk/index.html.