ASA11: Vital powers and politics: human interactions with living things

University of Wales Trinity Saint David, 13/09/2011 – 16/09/2011

(P17)

"By leaves we live": the vital politics and poetics of the tree

Location Room 3
Date and Start Time 14 Sep, 2011 at 14:30

Convenors

Jennifer Clarke (University of Aberdeen)  email
Rachel Harkness (University of Aberdeen)  email
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Short Abstract

Inspired by the idea that "by leaves we live" (Geddes) and by art, poetry, philosophy, forestry and political activism, we invite creative responses that consider the vital poetics and politics of the tree and its social forms and associations, from a variety of approaches and contexts.

Long Abstract

In 'Poetics of Space' Gaston Bachelard muses on the image of the lone tree. Referencing Rilke's poetry, it is described as a figure of being 'concentrated upon itself', concentrating 'the entire cosmos': 'always in the center, of all that surrounds it' (1994[1958]: 239-240). The tree, thus, is the muse and focus for our panel.

The tree is rich in symbolism, a recurrent figure in religion, myth and storytelling, a resource upon which many people base their survival, shelter, craft and play. Yet the tree is not merely a 'lone' figure and so its social forms and associations, its politics and poetics, are also our concern. As Geddes wrote: 'by leaves we live'. Human life is intricately bound up with different forms of tree life; orchards, coppices, forests, sacred groves, and plantations are testament to this. Relations between such forms (perhaps understood as place or landscape) and 'lone' tree (as being or organism) may also be productively explored. Various practices have seen human societies attempt control or domination, for instance industrialized forestry's monocultural plantations, yet even here there is a resistant and somewhat mythical liminality; the forest remains powerful, threatening, even magical.

In its life-course and the variety of interactions with the living and non-living constituents of the world around it, the tree is the prism through which we propose to consider vital powers and politics. We invite creative responses to the poetics and politics of the tree and its social forms and associations, from a variety of approaches and contexts.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Metaphor and art: empathic relationship with trees

Author: Reiko Goto Collins (Robert Gordon University) email
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Short Abstract

The paper will focus on how Goto has come to understand empathic relationships with trees through the works of artists, writers and theorists. It will elucidate metaphorical methods used by a western writer working in Japan, as well as modern artists working in Germany and the USA. The paper concludes with ‘Plein Air’ the artists’ own approach to trees.

Long Abstract

This paper focuses on trees and woodlands as described and explored by artists through metaphor: such as "7000 Oaks" (1982-1986) by Joseph Beuys and "The Serpentine Lattice" (1993) by Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison. The research is primarily informed by Edith Stein's treatise 'On the Problem of Empathy'. The metaphoric exploration benefits from Donald Schön's ideas about "generative metaphor" and insights about "empathic projection" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Goto integrates and expands these ideas referring to a Japanese folktale that is written by Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), a Greek Irish writer who follows an animistic tradition that is deeply rooted in the idea of Japanese origination. Goto has come to understand her empathic relationship with trees partially through her Japanese cultural position, but also as a practitioner and researcher informed by the western traditions of art.

Finally she introduces her collaborative artwork called "Plein Air" as a new metaphor. It looks like a traditional French box easel that allows painters to observe and respond to the light, shadow and colour that occurs in landscape and the natural environment. 'Plein Air' is an instrument that allows us to hear the sound of a tree's physiological response to light, temperature, humidity and CO2. The system reveals the invisible and silent life of the tree.

Plein Air is initiated by Goto and Dr. Tim Collins, ecological artists and researchers who accomplished 3 Rivers 2nd Nature (2000-2005) and Nine Mile Run (1995-2000) at STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Time, gravity and the English landscape: The Orchard, a photographic work positioning the human subject within the orchards of Devon.

Author: Carole Baker (University of Plymouth) email
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Short Abstract

This paper will discuss my recent photographic work, The Orchard, which explores the nature of being, time, gravity and representation in relation to the apple orchards of Devon.

Long Abstract

Devon was once the cider capital of England and every farm had its traditional orchard, but in the last century it is estimated that five-sixths of Devon's orchards have been grubbed up and lost forever. A renewed interest in this disappearing heritage in recent years has led to the protection and re-generation of a number of old orchards and the creation of new ones. Orchards contain a richness of culture and nature, with multiple layers of historical meaning and biodiversity. They are economically, ecologically and culturally important places, but they are also places of peace and tranquility and magical places to spend time in.

This paper will examine my recent photographic work, The Orchard, which explores the apple orchards of Devon; from ancient fruit trees to farm-based orchards, to commercial concerns, through images and text. The work explores the nature of being, the passing of time and the effects of gravity in relation to a sense of place, and also explores the representation of the English landscape. It draws on philosophical, literary, visual and scientific texts and images as well as on empirical observation in an attempt to understand our human connection and dependence on these places of sanctuary, sustenance and symbolic association. The work seeks to create an empathy and interconnection between the human subject and the orchard as place, so enabling us to re-position ourselves subjectively within the space of nature rather than distancing and objectifying ourselves.

'By trees we measure': the temporalization of trees in science.

Author: Cristián Simonetti (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile) email
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Short Abstract

‘Western science’ has constantly relied on trees for understanding time, both by using analogies of the tree and by measuring them. The paper reflects on the particularities of these modes of conceptualizations and some important contradictions that emerge from them.

Long Abstract

In the history of 'western science' trees have been a constant presence. They have particularly influenced our understandings of the passage of time, at least in two fundamental ways. First, the image of the tree has influenced the way many sciences interested in the past understand history. Just to mention some of them, this long list includes genealogy, geology, biology, marine biology, linguistics, and archaeology, among others. Second many scientists currently work with trees as they try to understand the past by paying attention to the development of their biological properties and their surrounding environment. Rather than using analogies with trees for the understanding of history, these scientists have to work with trees in order to understand the past. The paper reflects on some of these ways of conceptualizing trees and their contrasting properties taking into consideration some key readings in the history of science. In doing so, ethnographic work carried out both with scientists that rely on analogies of the tree and scientists that study trees for understanding the past is also taken into consideration. The paper reveals that rather than a unified understanding of time there are different and sometimes contradictory ways of conceptualizing history relying on trees.

Innovating tree-people relationships in Japanese tree burial

Author: Sebastien Boret Penmellen (Tohoku University) email
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Short Abstract

This paper examines how contemporary ecological ethics and discourses provide cultural innovators with the opportunity to change the relationships between trees and people within contemporary Japanese society.

Long Abstract

This paper examines how tree symbolisms and cultures animate the social relationships among the members of an ecological form of dealing with human remains in Japan, namely Tree-Burial. Established in 1999 by the priest of a Buddhist temple, Tree-Burial consists in the disposal of human remains directly into the earth of a forest. Instead of the conventional gravestone, a tree is planted on the burial spot and marks the grave. In addition to providing a cemetery for its subscribers, Tree-Burial is a means of contributing to the rehabilitation of forestland critically damaged by post-war governmental policies and the domestic timber industry. In order to restore the biodiversity and biocapital of such impoverished timber plantations owned by the temple, Tree-Burial subscribers are encouraged to renew their relationships with nature during forestry chores, ecology lectures and other experiences with/in nature. In this paper, I consider three levels of relationships developed in the Tree-Burial community: people-tree, tree-tree, and people-people. Firstly, I discuss the relationships between the tree marking the grave and the subscriber(s). Secondly, I analyse people's discourses about the relationships between trees and other non-human livings within Tree-Burial cemeteries and woodlands (social forests). Thirdly, this paper discusses the new ties developed among subscribers through their shared discourses and practices of nature (ecological bonds). This paper concludes that Tree-Burial is as much about the socialisation of trees and forests through a death practice as it is about the collective representations of new ecological bonds between people and trees.

"Bringing the forest to the city": spaces imagined in "sacred song circles"

Author: Ronit Grossman-Horesh (The Open University of Israel/Tel-Aviv University ) email
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Short Abstract

The paper focuses its analysis on the three places constructed in "sacred song circles": "urban", "rural" and "forest". Analysis of the songs and messages transmitted in the circles reveals the imageries of each of these places and the connections between them.

Long Abstract

The relationships between religious practice and space are a central theme in religion and religiosity research. One direction investigated is the religious symbolization of space. This perspective awakens wider questions: how does the religious imagination understand places? And how do contemporary spiritual imaginaries create various places.

Sacred song circles are mainly held at New Age movement festivals. For the last three years these song circles have also been held regularly (monthly) in urban settings outside the festival venue. The institutionalization of sacred song circles in Tel Aviv, "the secular capital of Israel", has given rise to song book collections of over 300 prayers — songs of gratitude and praises to nature in general and the forest in particular, from various spiritual traditions and languages. Most participants are urban dwellers, although the music circle leaders, without exception, live close to nature in rural communities in Israel and are members of groups that migrated to the "forest" in Costa Rica this past year and only come to Israel for visits.

My assertion is that sacred song circles create a break in the Urban/Rural hierarchical dichotomy. "Bringing the forest to the city" maintains spiritual activity in the city itself. At the same time, initiatives of some song circle leaders aspire to bring people to the forest in spiritual tourism/immigration enterprises, which are marketed in the song circles. As yet, there has been no discussion of how the forest would be affected.

Planning, planting and posters: contested forest restructuring and the role of visualisations in Loch Arklet

Author: Jennifer Clarke (University of Aberdeen) email
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Short Abstract

This paper will present some aspects of a contestation around a significant restructuring plan for a forest 'habitat network', and the campaign against it, to ‘save the view'. It will illustrate contrasting ways of understanding a forest landscape's 'value' through visualisations, asking: to what extent do ways of seeing work to constitute and shape a place?

Long Abstract

This paper will present some aspects of a contestation around a significant restructuring plan for a forest 'habitat network', and the campaign against it, to 'save the view'. It will illustrate contrasting ways of understanding a forest landscape's 'value' asking: to what extent do ways of seeing work to constitute and shape a place? It will focus on divergent intentions for and appropriations of visualisations of the landscape for 100 years from now, proposed and projected by the land managers (a government body) and resisted and rejected by the local community. The visualisations were used simultaneously to attempt to persuade of the value of change, and to persuade to preserve and maintain the status quo, in competing claims across heritage, biodiversity and aesthetics, crossing environmental and economic value.

These visualisations raise questions about knowledge practices. Stakeholders were expected to 'receive' the plans as scientifically valid but challenged them as being 'weak' scientifically and in terms of landscape 'value'. This paper suggests that landscape visualisations can be recast as events, part of a longer process, understood in terms of mutual constitution of people and landscape. Foresters have a certain way of understanding change and value that is constituted by what they do; the ordinary people who challenged it have a different way of seeing grounded in their own activities. The visuals were ambivalent because both groups managed to see their particular forests in them, imbued with different ideas of planning and change.

The tree of Guernica: political poetics of rootedness and belonging

Author: Safet HadziMuhamedovic (Goldsmiths, University of London) email
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Short Abstract

This paper looks at the poetics of Basque political language through the symbolism of the Guernica tree. It traces a tradition of subtle conversation between people and land in the forming of Basque politics.

Long Abstract

On 26 April 1937 Nazi aeroplanes razed Guernica to the ground. However, one tree survived - the Gernikako Arbola (Euskari: the Tree of Guernica). Since the XIV century it symbolised freedom and history of the Basque region. Most recently, Patxi López, the current lehendakari (President of the Basque Government) swore in beneath this tree which holds a central place in the emotional geography of the Basque people. The paper argues that such an act, reminiscent of Basque political heritage, conveys a notion of organic symbiosis between people and land. Other biotic terms pertaining to the natural cycles of a tree, like rootedness and re-growth, have been historically used to describe the community, especially after the atrocities of the 1930s. Similarly, the tree itself has been attributed with anthropomorphic qualities of lineage (talent of receiving life descending from the old 'father' tree). It has also been understood as an embodiment of sacred Basque values, thus it is referred to as the 'holy tree', the 'loved tree', the tree 'delivering fruit unto the world'. Its symbolic value has been woven into the Basque flag, coat of arms, folk songs and, more generally, into the poetics of Basque political identity and resistance. The identification of the people with the tree is perhaps best expressed in a famous Basque song from the nineteenth century: 'if you fall, we will perish easily'. This paper traces a tradition of subtle conversation between people and land in the forming of Basque politics, through the symbol of a tree.

The Field - a project near Stansted

Author: Alana Jelinek (University of Cambridge) email
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Short Abstract

As a self-conscious, reflexive, critical and yet optimistic response to the politics consequent of neoliberalism, terra incognita arts organisation have developed a project called 'The Field'. The Field is located near Stansted airport in 13 acres of woodland and pasture. Established in 2009, it is a real-world attempt at collapsing unhelpful binaries: thinking, doing; practice, theory; us, them; arts, science; rural, urban; majority, minority; practical conservation, ecology; politics, activism; growth, destruction; natural, man-made.

Long Abstract

The Field is a project located in a 13acre woodland near Stansted airport. It is a life-long, hopefully generational, collective project that aims at creating connections between those things that are ordinarily understood as unconnected, or disconnected. It is a considered and evolving response to politics, theory, science and art, understanding all action as specific to geography and this moment in time. So far, The Field revolves around a winter programme, involving people from a range of backgrounds in practical conservation, using only hand tools to fell trees, coppice, create and maintain hedges and plant trees. The summer has a range of projects including 'moot point', a weekend event where a group of people camp together, discuss ideas and make things within a theme (2009 Utopia, 2010 String Theory). Other projects bring Londoners (usually young people 16-25s) to the countryside to experience nettles and fire. Tying the seasons together is the allotment project and bee-keeping. The aim of The Field is to be both strategic and yet thoughtful, collective yet considering the safety and needs of the individual. We would like to introduce The Field to the conference, not as a model, but as one response to the questions and thoughts of this moment in time.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.