How we See Trees

What is a forest? An ecologist might respond that a forest is an area of land where trees are the most common plant species. The types of trees that grow in a particular forest, the ecologist might say, are determined by factors such as topography, climate, moisture and soil. The shapes the trees in a forest take – stately and tall, or wizened and bent – are simply a function of their genes and the conditions in which they are growing.

Let us assume that this scientific perspective is basically correct. Does that mean it’s the only way to see forests? Is there value in seeing trees from other perspectives?

Eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) can be found across the landscape of southern Ontario, Canada. This species favours moist, cool, nutrient-rich areas, especially near water. In settled areas, it grows along roads and the edges of fields where trees were planted to create windbreaks and habitat for animals. In suburban areas, people may know this species only in its tame form: as part of a neatly-trimmed hedge, or as an ornamental tree purchased from a nursery and planted in a yard.

In uncultivated lands, eastern white cedars take on a different personality. They can easily live for 400 years, with some living much longer. Old cedars can become thick and heavy, their bark shaggy and creviced, their limbs massive, and their roots twisting together at their feet. The trunks of young cedars will often form long, sweeping curves and arcs. The shallow soils in the swampy areas these trees favour allow younger trees to blow over more easily in windstorms. As a result, they can tilt in all directions, growing over and around each other, with live trees supporting dead ones.

Amidst all this chaos, one can find astonishing, often otherworldly beauty. Eastern white cedars are lyrical, sensuous trees. Their roots, trunks and branches can twist together with enthusiastic, muscular intimacy. Groups of cedars may seem to be dancing with each other, or embracing like lovers. In the right light, human forms can take shape in their trunks and branches. Sculptures they formed in life are preserved in death due to the remarkable rot resistance of cedar wood. Death also creates new forms and patterns when the bark wears away, revealing the grain and textures of the bright interior wood.

From a conventional scientific perspective, cedar trees do not dance with each other, or embrace like lovers. They are neither lyrical nor sensual, and they do not take human forms. Rather than being otherworldly, they are firmly and naturally of this world, simply growing according to their nature. But this is not the only way we should see them. Allowing our imaginations and emotions a freer rein when we look at trees and forests can open us to wonder, to different (and perhaps deeper) seeing, and even, sometimes, to greater understanding. These are all things that we need more of in this world.

Pictures from this project were published as an Image Suite in Lenswork, 151 (February, 2021).

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