Review: The Language of Trees by Katie Holten
Beautifully illustrated by author Katie Holten herself, The Language of Trees, which is a mix of texts, poems, song lyrics, essays, quotations and even recipes, is about trees and the natural world and their relationship to human lives
Right in front of my house, stands a burflower tree (Neolamarckia cadamba) at a site the ownership of which is disputed. The tree, surrounded by a few others, gives us a calming hint of a thick foliage and utters, as it were, a blessing every day. As much as I think about its presence, I cannot but feel a deep anxiety over how long it would be allowed to stand. Does not a tree have some entitlement to the land, to which it’s rooted, I wonder. If planting trees is our bounden duty, where shall we do so? Trees require land and every land is encroached or private property. Where will the forest grow?
“Trees are markers. Sometimes trees mark ancient boundaries. Sometimes trees mark memories; their roots hold time, or grow down into it. People mark their lives with trees, taking photos of children near saplings, for example, though maybe more frequently people plant trees in memory of the deceased”, says artist-activist Katie Holten in her book The Language of Trees: A Rewilding of Literature and Landscape that is prompted by her love for forests, trees, leaves, roots, and seeds – “love of the more-than-human world” – and an unmistakable anxiety.
The book, beautifully illustrated by the author herself, is a quirky mix of many things besides texts, poems, song lyrics, essays, quotations and even recipes. In short, it’s about trees and the natural world and their relationship to human lives. The book purports to be “an archive of human knowledge filtered through many branches of thought” setting upon a journey “from prehistoric cave paintings to creation myths, from Tree Clocks in Mongolia and forest fragments in the Amazon to Emerson’s language of fossil poetry, from Eduardo Kohn’s anthropology beyond the human to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s call for a new grammar of animacy”. The book is delicate, as opposed to being rough-hewn, and tells delectable little tales. Holten also seeks to decolonize language and “rewild” the imagination by transforming letters into trees.
Besides putting up projects such as Tree Alphabets, a Stone Alphabet, and a Wildflower Alphabet, Holten has created a public art project celebrating the communities and ecosystems along the Grand Concourse, a 100 year-old boulevard in The Bronx in New York, called a Tree Museum. Her book encapsulates the world inhabited by the trees where they talk and even write. She points to how trees talk to each other using mycorrhizal fungi, an underground hyphal network. “This natural language exists beyond our understanding of communication because trees ‘speak’ in frequencies that humans can’t perceive,” she writes. We also learn that around the world, scores of species of trees are moving north, or west, or upslope.
The trees, through the roots, reach through the earth below, where there exists a constant communication between those roots and mycelium, “where often the ill or weak or stressed are supported by the strong and surplused”. But the knowledge of a tree’s most important means of staying connected to other trees being a “wood wide web” of soil fungi that connects vegetation in a network that is akin to our neural network is not new. Scientific research probing the astonishing abilities of this partnership between fungi and plant has only just begun.
The important pitch of the book is how our primordial ancestors are at the mercy of human beings even when climate change is the looming reality. Holten’s point on nonhumans having voices draws upon Amitav Ghosh’s essay Brutes: Meditations on the myth of the voiceless, extracted from his book The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis where Ghosh says storytelling, far from setting humans apart from animals, is actually the most important residue of our formerly wild selves. “This would explain why stories, above all, are quintessentially the domain of human imaginative life in which nonhumans had voices, and where nonhuman agency was fully recognized and even celebrated”. The task of imaginatively restoring agency and voice to nonhumans rightly falls on the artists, filmmakers, and everyone else who is involved in the telling of stories. A future library, we learn, is in the offing in a forest just outside Oslo where a thousand trees have been planted to supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in one hundred years’ time (“Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until 2114”).
A spruce called Old Tjikko standing on the scrubby Fulufjället Mountains of Sweden, just east of Trysil municipality in Norway, is known to have survived for more than 9,500 years – that’s 115 times longer than the average human lifetime – and the individual life spans of trees are, in many cases, far greater than those of people: some live for thousands of years. Myths, tales and histories are etched into them. Would trees wait till a time, Ghosh wonders, when most humans will perish because of a planetary catastrophe, set to recolonize the world on soil enriched by billions of decomposing human bodies? “It may appear self-evident to humans that they are the gardeners who decide what happens to trees. Yet, on a different timescale, it might appear equally evident that trees are gardening humans”.
Holten’s book contains over 60 excerpts from famous ecocritical works and manifestos dividing them into sections that are as varied as they are comprehensive such as Seeds, Soil, Saplings, Buds, Bark, Branches, Leaves and Trunks, Flowers & Fruits, Forests, Family trees, Tree Time, Tree People, Roots & Resistance and After trees. From the anatomy of trees to communities around them, to the metaphysics and finally to the revolution of trees, the thematic range sweeps from Plato to Ursula K Le Guin, Zadie Smith to James Gleick, Amitav Ghosh to Sumana Roy, Jorge Luis Borges to a Waorani Indigenous leader Nemo Andy Guiquita, Ada Limón to Elizabeth Kolbert and many worthies connected to trees, communities and the natural world, as within “the deliciously smooth and chocolate brown acorn… lies the potential wisdom of a new oak tree”.
Her book lays down an arboreal illustration by taking each of the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet. Her Irish Tree Alphabet (combining the ancient script Ogham with Irish and English) – A for an apple tree, B for beech, C for cedar, Z for zelkova etc – transforms words into an arboreal language of place and belonging. Her tree glyphs do not require decipherment but could potentially be a writing system – easy on the eye, drawn with a sylvan calmness. We are reminded once again that trees do talk and write themselves. While an introduction by Ross Gay is an hors d’oeuvre, an afterword by Holten sums it all up: “People and trees have always been entwined. When we protect plants, we protect ourselves. Today we are teetering on the edge of extinction along with most of life on Earth. The Amazon is on the verge of tipping from life-sustaining rainforest to savannah. Our civilization is sleepwalking into apocalypse.”
Prasenjit Chowdhury is an independent writer. He lives in Kolkata.