All we need to get the fullest measure of you, is you

by Sarah Bird

I had an imaginary friend when I was about six years old.  Actually, it had form, but wasn’t animate; it was a pine cone. I cannot explain it beyond a child’s imagination, but returning to photograph trees in the past year and a half has been a return to that intimate relationship with an artifact of nature.  While the pinecone itself was important, it also functioned as a portal to another world whose logic I created, in which human, plants, animals and imaginary beings all coexisted.

The idea for this work started simply: to photograph and present redwood trees as important beings in themselves, with the care we have historically photographed humans. I had the early 20th century portrait photographs of August Sander in my mind’s eye as I wandered the Santa Cruz mountains, enveloped in the trees. 

I was drawn to Sander’s portraits’ formal beauty, the subjects meeting the gaze of the photographer’s lens. As I investigated Sander’s project I came to understand how radical it was, and the way the ways in which my tree-human equalizing echoed his dismantling of social class through the presentation of all classes and multiple ethnicities with similar aesthetic choices. We are taught by his photographs not to rate one person higher than the next, which was particularly freighted in Germany of the ‘20s and ‘30s during the disintegration of the Weimar Republic into Nazism.

Giant coastal redwood roots are surprisingly shallow anchors. The trees’ key to survival against strong winter storms off the Pacific is to brace each other’s underground root systems,  transferring the enormous physical load exerted on these beings onto each other like multiple Gothic cathedrals sharing buttresses.

The crenelations of the bark mark a visualization of the near-geological timescale of these creatures. Spiders’ homes are made there, a metaphor made visual of the myriad invisible natural systems that are harbored within the span of the trees’ roots and branches. 

In the past 25 years science has learned much more about the complexity of the worlds the trees create, including how trees communicate through electrical impulse, nurture their young, and warn other trees of impending danger through the release of chemicals. The individual trees themselves are connected via vast networks of soil fungi, providing a conduit of communication across many members.

The photographs are large-scale; Coastal Redwood Portrait #1is life size.  That scale allows us to interact with the image physically, in the way three-dimensional sculpture does.  While large scale representations of nature are often meant to invoke reverence, I am looking for something else here.  For a redwood, bigness is one of its essential characteristics. Bigness is about itself, rather than a display of awe. Paradoxically, the scale also allows for a physical intimacy and relationship with the texture and form of the trees. With the California Bay Laurel Portrait, I am smitten by the vulnerability of the roots.  The tree’s self, normally hidden and protected, is laid bare. In these photographs it is important that I render the bigness as the truth of the redwood, in the same way I strive for the intimate translucency of leaf and clover, the texture of bark and moss.

There is a tendency and temptation to anthropomorphize the trees, to make them as “good” as humans, especially in light of this new information about their social relationships. I resist this comparison to ourselves, a value system based on proximity to human characteristics. There is a distinction between calling trees as good as humans in order to elevate them in the hierarchy, and the examination of the hierarchy. I hope to pry open our cultural assumption that a hierarchy exists. I seek to acknowledge their magnificent equal footing, and their essential role in our web of being.

And so in this act of bearing witness to the trees, I hope to protest the assumption that the natural world exists solely as fodder for human consumption, and rather honor these astounding organisms in the full measure of themselves.


Charismatic Mega-Flora

by Andrew Parker,  French and Comparative Literature, Rutgers University

How do we look at trees?  What do we see in them?  

    When not thinking about them at all, or regarding them merely as potential fuel or lumber, we tend to picture trees in the plural—as pines, or oaks, or maples, each an instance of its genus rather than as individuals as different from one another as, say, you and me.  We rarely if ever tell trees from their forest, or indeed from themselves.  

    Except, perhaps, when we stand amidst redwoods, quickly and viscerally realizing that all around us grow particular trees, each with its own history and what we might wish to call its unique being.  We are in awe of these trees because their measure exceeds us: far older and larger than we, they make us feel puny, incomplete, and ill-equipped for our survival.  We sense our vulnerability in looking at redwoods, and fantasize that they would recognize us if only they could see us, too.

    In taking this encounter between humans and redwoods as their subject matter, Sarah Bird’s photographs and sculptures challenge us to rethink the terms of what has never been a relationship.  For one thing, her images revisit the conventions of portraiture to suggest that, like people, redwoods are hardly all alike.  But these are portraits that do not ennoble their subjects.  We see trees with their root systems precariously exposed to the air—their futures as uncertain as our own.  We see minute details of exteriors we could never have perceived had we been present at the spot.  We see tree parts that challenge us to imagine the organic whole that yet defies our capacities to register wholeness.  We find ourselves too close and too far to take in parts and wholes at once.  And yet Bird shows us how we might map our relation as humans to whatever may be both too near and too distant.  Her photographs and sculptures are map-like experiments in scale—that is, in proportion and contour—marking the limits of what even “life size” photographs and sculptures can tell us about these ancient, colossal, and precarious beings.  A metal ring follows accurately for some distance the shape of an enormous tree trunk … only to continue in the form of a circle that gestures abstractly at the trunk’s circumference.  Rather than anthropomorphizing the formidable trees that form the subjects of her challenging show, Bird’s work call on us to imagine our relation to nature otherwise.