Tree Lines

London Plane trees in Victoria Park, east London.

If you’ve been following the news recently, you may have heard more about trees than usual. In Ethiopia, a reported 350 million of them were planted in a single day. At the same time, horrific fires have been devastating forests from Siberia to the Amazon.

We now know that protecting the world’s forests is crucial to combatting climate change, but so too is increasing the number of trees on the planet. In Britain – where most ancient woodland was long ago cleared – fields, hedgerows, and barren uplands may look ‘natural’, but this island would be almost entirely forested were it not for human intervention.

There is debate about how reforestation should be achieved; whether through artificial planting or natural regeneration. But either way, it is clear that trees are now political – perhaps more so than they have ever been.

Tree of life motif on a screen at Sidi Saiyyed Mosque, Gujurat, India. Vrajesh jani, Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, trees have always been an important resource for wood and fruits. They’ve also taken root in our imaginations – in their still grandeur, they invite contemplation of that which is bigger and older than us. The Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment while meditating under a fig tree. Isaac Newton contemplated an apple tree in theorising gravity. Various mythologies have drawn on the idea of sacred trees, or the ‘tree of life’. As Yeats wrote:

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night […]

Consider too the eighteenth-century poem Jesus Christ The Apple Tree, which was set for choir in hauntingly simple music by Elisabeth Poston.

The tree of life, my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit, and always green,
The trees of nature, fruitless be,
Compar’d with Christ the apple tree.

Poston’s opening line rises in an arpeggio, a delicate sketch of upward growth. The harmonies in this short work are completely diatonic, with a purity that fits the devotional simplicity of words.

Of course, the world of music owes a more fundamental debt to trees: many instruments are made from wood. Often the type of tree is an important part of their traditional construction – whether it’s the perfect spruce specimens prized by luthiers, or the soft apricot wood from which the Armenian duduk is carved.

Alan Hovhaness’ Spirit Of The Trees is scored for harp and guitar. These two similar but distinct timbres are intertwined in a series of movements which unfold without any hurry, nor do they seem structured toward a particular destination. Altogether, this subtle sound-world seems to suggest we slow down and pay attention to these organisms, which we so easily pass by.

More arresting is Caroline Shaw’s The Beech Tree, from her string quartet album Orange. Mature beeches grow to a magnificent size, and this track is based around a chord progression rising in thirds, which builds in texture to create a feeling of resonant joy spreading out to the sky. (In a nice coincidence, the ‘root’ notes of this progression, C-E-G-B, are the same pitches as at the start of Poston’s work).

Trees are not just a rural phenomenon of course – their shade and decoration makes them an important part of city life. Respighi’s colourful symphonic poem Pines Of Rome uses trees to explore different aspects of the Italian capital – from the quiet of Janiculum Hill, with its recording of a nightingale, to the triumph of a marching army on the Appian Way. But these pines, though magnificent, are not much more than a picturesque symbol of the city.

Contrastingly, in the music and writings of Toru Takemitsu, we find a composer who thought deeply about nature. According to Noriko Ohtake, writing before the composer’s death, ‘Takemitsu’s view of contemporary music is that it does not conform with Nature, but that it has developed while excluding Nature. Unless music achieves equivalence with Nature, it can never be considered the foremost language of humanity’.

A set of beech trees with exposed roots at Avebury stone circle, Wiltshire. Visitors to the prehistoric site have tied the branches with ribbons and messages to lost loved ones.

Takemitsu’s fascinating personal essay Mirror of Tree, Mirror of Grass went so far as to describe Western music history as having grown through individual geniuses like trees, while non-Western musics he compared to grass – covering the ground and attached to the contours of its home.

In the percussion trio Rain Tree, we can hear how Takemitsu’s music doesn’t tend to impose itself firmly, but fluctuates like wind in the leaves with finesse and spontaneity. It was inspired by passage in a novel by Kenzaburō Ōe:

It has been named the ‘rain tree,’ for its abundant foliage continues to let fall rain drops collected from last night’s shower until well after the following midday. Its hundreds of thousands of tiny leaves – finger-like – store up moisture while other trees dry up at once. What an ingenious tree, isn’t it?

Here, wooden and metallic tones suggests a complex interplay of water drops in the canopy. And similarly specific in inspiration is the brooding, mysterious Tree Line for chamber orchestra. This was intended as an homage to a row of acacia trees growing near the composer’s mountain workshop, which he described as ‘graceful, and yet daunting’.

Perhaps this description sums up something of our complicated attitude to trees. We might admire their form, but they also make us feel small. By extension, forests are both beautiful and daunting – unwelcoming places that do not exist to serve us, and which deny us more profitable uses of land. Dark woods, we may recall, loom as places of danger in our oldest fairytales.

A grove of trees by Gustav Klimt, Wikimedia Commons

But with the crucial need to increase tree cover, how we imagine forests, and portray them in art, becomes more important. We can see them positively – as places bristling with life. Arnold Bax’s tone poem The Happy Forest sets out as a jolly, scampering scherzo full of contrast and colour, while a translucently beautiful slow theme at its heart suggests that this sylvan paradise is fragile.

Sibelius’s Tapiola, on the other hand, is much more unsettling. It is named after Tapio, the wood God of Finnish myth from The Kalevala. As the composer introduced it:

Widespread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

The music of this austere, icy work seems to emerge organically out of its terse opening statement. With pregnant silences and near-silent whispers, much of it suggests an eerie stillness; at other times its forces coalesce into a kind of horrible majesty. In one remarkable passage, string tremolos run up and down furiously and all sense of tonality dissolves. We are briefly lost in a nightmare panic.

Bax and Sibelius both responded imaginatively to the idea of forests. But composer Judith Weir describes how, in one of her projects, the theme seemed to choose her:

I started to write this piece with nothing but the opening melody in mind. As I arranged this apparently simple material for an initial ensemble of four solo violas and cello, the intertwining lines seemed to be sprouting musical leaves; or, in other words, interesting melodic and harmonic fragments were being generated almost as if in a process of nature.

She called the resulting work Forest, and its self-perpetuating counterpoint suggests a benign place, blossoming with colour and geometric fascination. It is less an object on which to project human feelings as a form which is growing and interacting with itself, and which we could imagine developing indefinitely after the final bars have ended.

It seems to me that this understanding of forest as a dynamic process is the most crucial to our current moment. We know that trees are more than shading street decoration, and forests are more than places to admire on a hike through a national park. They are a part of the planetary system in which live and on which we will depend.

What’s more, trees are not nearly so still as they appear. As a recent New Yorker piece explained, they respond to their environment all the time – through the stimuli of night and day, sunlight and rain – with changes imperceptible to the naked eye.

Ginkgo leaves photographed by Lynn Greyling, public domain license. The ginkgo tree is a ‘living fossil’ – the last surviving species of a wider family of trees which were widespread in the age of the dinosaurs.

It’s awful to watch in despair as vast tracts of the world burn. But there is much we can do, through political pressure and consumer choices, to resist the forces that drive deforestation around the world (cutting back on beef is a good place to start). And as the debate continues about where and how to increase tree cover, perhaps one part of our response should be to pay more attention to these gentle giants, which have so much to tell us about the interconnected world we live in, if we learn how to read them.

Here in Britain at least there is one small piece of good news: this month the Forestry Commission is celebrating its 100th birthday. To mark the occasion, and to recognise the importance of forests in arts and culture, they have commissioned a new work by the poet Tiffany Francis-Baker.

Reading about the centenary, it surprised me to learn that since the organisation’s founding, England’s forest cover has doubled. A moment, then, to recognise that progress can be made. But not for forgetting how far there still is to go.

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