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Trees at Night: Stunning Rorschach Silhouettes from the 1920s

“Aside from the appearance of a tree by day or night, is it not kin of the human family with its roots in the earth and its arms stretching toward the sky as if to seek and to know the great mystery?”

Trees at Night: Stunning Rorschach Silhouettes from the 1920s

Walt Whitman considered trees the wisest of teachers. Hermann Hesse found in them sweet consolation for our mortality. Wangari Maathai turned to them as a form of resistance and empowerment that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter. “As a man is, so he sees.”

A century after Blake, the artist, writer, and activist Arthur Henry “Art” Young (January 14, 1866–December 29, 1943) originated a sumptuous new way of seeing life, looking at trees.

In his forties, Young had risen to prominence with his political cartoons, criticizing capitalism and war, railing against racism, and advocating for women’s suffrage and the abolition of child labor. During World War I, they had rendered him prosecuted on a charge of conspiracy to obstruct recruiting. With some of Thoreau coursing through his veins, Young made his art both an instrument of civil disobedience and a lens for contemplating nature’s transcendent beauty.

Art Young

In his fifties, Young’s imagination fell upon a subject both wholly natural and wholly original — the expressive humanlike shapes, states, and emotions emanating from the silhouettes of trees at night. He began rendering what he half-saw and half-imagined in pen and ink — haunting black-and-white drawings full of feeling, straddling the playful and the poignant. These visual poems, replete with the strangeness and splendor of nature and human nature, become the kind of Rorschach test one intuitively performs while looking at the sky, but drawn from the canopy rather than the clouds. While the sensibility is faintly reminiscent of Arthur Rackham’s unforgettable trees, the concept is entirely Young’s own — no artist had done anything like this before.

Available as a print
Available as a print
Available as a print

First published as a series in the Saturday Evening Post, Young’s tree silhouettes were soon picked up by mainstream magazines like Collier’s and LIFE. They drew impassioned letters from readers — some sharing poems inspired by his art, some enclosing tree photographs they hoped Young would draw, some simply thanking him for these uncommon portals into an unseen world of beauty and emotion.

Available as a print
Available as a print

In 1927, Young assembled the best of his arborescent silhouettes in the slim, lovely out-of-print treasure Trees at Night (public library). Upon the book’s publication, Brooklyn’s Daily Eagle exulted that it “places Art Young in a class by himself” and Baltimore’s Evening Sun lauded him as “one of the few real native talents that this country has produced in art.”

Available as a print
Available as a print
Available as a print

Printed on the opening page is an excerpt from an early-autumn entry in Young’s diary:

In common with most people of artistic perception, I like trees. While looking out of my window toward the wooded hills one summer night, a caravan of camels seemed to be humping along the sky. They were trees of course but enough like camels to key my imagination up to discover other pictures in the formation of foliage. The rest of the summer nights I enjoyed hunting for tree pictures against the light of the sky or thrown into relief by the glare of automobiles, and drawing them next day. It seemed to me that this silhouette handling of trees at night had never before been done by any artist. I felt that I had discovered something.

After the caravan, I saw “a woman and a fan” and other subjects followed. Any night I could walk or ride along the road and see interesting silhouettes made by tree forms, many of them so clearly defined as to need no improvement on my part. But aside from the appearance of a tree by day or night, is it not kin of the human family with its roots in the earth and its arms stretching toward the sky as if to seek and to know the great mystery?

Available as a print
Available as a print
Available as a print
Available as a print
Available as a print
Available as a print
Available as a print
Available as a print
Available as a print

Complement Young’s Trees at Night with something he never lived to know but would have cherished knowing — the fascinating science of what trees feel and how they communicate — then revisit The Night Life of Trees, drawn from Indian folklore, and philosopher Martin Buber on what trees teach us about being human.

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The Fascinating Science of How Trees Communicate, Animated

“Trees are the foundation of forests, but a forest is much more than what you see.”

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter. Walt Whitman found in trees a model of existential authenticity. Hermann Hesse saw them as the wisest of teachers. Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her noble work of planting trees as resistance and empowerment.

But trees are much more than what they are to us, or for us, or in relation to us. They are relational miracles all their own, entangled in complex, symbiotic webs of interbeing, constantly communicating with one another through chemical signals dispatched along the fungal networks that live in their roots — an invisible, astonishing underworld only recently discovered, thanks to the work of Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard.

In this lovely short animation from TED-Ed and animator Avi Ofer, Camille Defrenne — one of Simard’s doctoral students at the University of British Columbia, studying how the interaction and architecture of root systems relate to forest dynamics and climate change — synthesizes the fascinating, almost otherworldly findings of Simard’s lab:

Simard, whose research was foundational to German forester Peter Wohlleben’s wildly popular book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, discusses her work and the improbable path that led her to it in her wonderful full-length TED talk:

Yes, trees are the foundation of forests, but a forest is much more than what you see… Underground there is this other world — a world of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate and allow the forest to behave as though it’s a single organism. It might remind you of a sort of intelligence.

Complement with a wondrous picture-book about the forest, Annie Dillard on how mangrove trees illuminate the human search for meaning, and biologist David Haskell on what a dozen of the world’s most unusual trees taught him about the art of relationship, then revisit three other lovely animations by Avi Ofer: Neil Gaiman’s existentialist dream (also involving trees) narrated by Amanda Palmer; Jane Goodall on her remarkable life-story; and philosopher Skye Clearly on why we love.

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Planting Trees as Resistance and Empowerment: The Remarkable Illustrated Story of Wangari Maathai, the First African Woman to Win the Nobel Peace Prize

“A tree is a little bit of the future.”

Planting Trees as Resistance and Empowerment: The Remarkable Illustrated Story of Wangari Maathai, the First African Woman to Win the Nobel Peace Prize

Walt Whitman saw in trees the wisest of teachers and Hermann Hesse found in them a joyous antidote to the sorrow of our own ephemerality. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter. “As a man is, so he sees.”

Many tree-rings after Blake and Whitman and Hesse, another visionary turned to trees as an instrument of civil disobedience, empowerment, and emancipation, advancing democracy, human rights, and environmental justice.

Born near a holy fig tree in the central highlands of Kenya twenty years after the country became a British colony, Wangari Maathai (April 1, 1940–September 25, 2011) went on to become the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for her triumph of promoting “ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development” by founding the Green Belt Movement responsible for planting 30 million trees and empowering women to partake in social change — an act of courage and resistance for which she was beaten and imprisoned multiple times, but which ultimately helped defeat Kenya’s corrupt, authoritarian president and blazed a new path to ecological resilience.

French children’s book author Franck Prévot and illustrator Aurélia Fronty tell her remarkable story in Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees (public library) — a lovely addition to the most inspiring picture-book biographies of cultural heroes.

Growing up in a small hut with walls made of mud and dung, Wangari watched the British colonialists grow richer and richer by cutting down trees to plant more tea. She ached to see the trees fall, but didn’t yet know that she had the agency to stand up for them and for her people.

One day, with the simplicity and sincerity of a child’s enormous question, her older brother asked the family why he was allowed to go to school and learn, but Wangari was not. And, just like that, the unquestioned cultural more that girls must remain at home until they marry and have a family of their own unraveled. Their mother made the radical decision to answer her son’s question with action and enrolled her daughter in the village primary school.

At eleven, Wangari left home to study at a boarding middle school run by Italian nuns. She graduated from high school at a time when very few African women learned to read at all. In September 1960, then-senator John F. Kennedy initiated a program that welcomed promising African students to study in the United States. Of the entire continent, only a few hundred young people earned such an invitation. Wangari Maathai was among them.

She arrived in America to discover with shock that even in a country as wealthy and emblematic of freedom, human rights were not equally apportioned. She witnessed the height of the civil rights movement just as her own country was finally winning its independence from British rule.

And yet upon returning to Kenya, she found that trees were no better off — colonialism had crumbed, but it had left in the rubble a nation so impoverished and dependent that Kenyans were forced to continue cutting down trees just as the British had, selling the lumber and using the felled land to plant tea, coffee, and tobacco for export. As marine biologist and author Rachel Carson was making ecology a household word across the Atlantic and issuing the radical insistence that the real wealth of a nation “lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” Wangari Maathai was realizing that her nation’s welfare depended on healing the broken relationship between a broken economy and a broken ecology. She came to see that a tree is much more than an economic resource. She came to see, in Prévot’s lovely words, that “a tree is a little bit of the future.”

Progress, however, is slow. “The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion,” Thoreau — the patron saint of trees and civil disobedience — wrote in contemplating the long cycles of social change. In 1977, three decades into her outrage, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement and set out to plant trees all over Kenya, traveling to villages and encouraging people to think about the future, whatever the privations of the present may be.

Her insistence on women’s leadership was nothing short of countercultural in a society where women were expected to demur and lower their gaze in the mere presence of a man. And yet she persisted, entrusting tree nurseries to local women and seeding in them a newfound sense of civic agency. She herself stood up to the president himself, who had initiated a massive real-estate development in the city’s precious urban forest, habitat to endangered species like the blue monkey and the river hog, and had endeavored to build a skyscraper and a statue of himself in the heart of Nairobi’s largest park.

In response to the lengthy protests she organized, for which she was imprisoned several times, the government forced Maathai out of her office, calling her “a crazy woman” in press statements and describing the Green Belt Movement as “a bunch of divorcees.” (Meanwhile in America, Rachel Carson was enduring the same sexist assaults from government and industry, who painted her as a hysterical spinster for her composed, courageous, scientifically rigorous exposé of the pesticide industry that would catalyze the environmental movement.)

But Maathai persisted, alerting leaders around the world to the ecological and human rights abuses in her country. In letters and speeches, her voice reached beyond the government-controlled echo chamber of the Kenyan press, igniting an international investigation that eventually made the president relinquish his exploitive development plans. Upon her triumph, a man from rural Kenya greeted her during one of her village visits with these words: “You are the only man left standing.”

Over and over, the president tried to fell Maathai and her movement. In a desperate bid for control, emblematic of Hannah Arendt’s insight into how tyrants use isolation and separation as a weapon of oppression, he attempted to set neighboring tribes against one another. But Maathai and the Green Belt Movement built a simple, brilliant bridge across this artificial divide — they offered saplings from tree nurseries as tokens of peace to be exchanged between tribes.

Eventually, Amnesty International and UNESCO published a report exposing the president’s corruption and human rights abuses, ending his quarter-century reign. Maathai — by that point affectionately known as Mama Miti, “the mother of trees” — was elected to the new Parliament and appointed Assistant Minister of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife.

On October 8, 2004, midway through her sixty-fifth year, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. By the end of her life, the movement she started had planted thirty million trees, reimagining the ecological and economic landscape of possibility for generations of Kenyans to come, and modeling for the rest of the world a new form of civic agency standing up for nature and humanity as an indivisible whole.

Complement the immensely inspiring, gorgeously illustrated Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees with this Krista Tippett’s wonderful On Being conversation with Maathai, then revisit philosopher Martin Buber on what trees teach us about being human and ecologist Lauren Oakes on what one endangered tree species can teach us about grace and resilience.

For other heartening picture-book biographies of visionaries who have changed this world, savor the illustrated stories Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, E.E. Cummings, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, and Nellie Bly.

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The Mesmerizing Microscopy of Trees: Otherworldly Images Revealing the Cellular Structure of Wood Specimens

Stunning images that occupy the lacuna between art and science.

After a recent march in D.C., where I walked Walt Whitman’s love of democracy and his conviction that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” I set out to temper the tumult of the human world with an immersion in Whitman’s other great love — the natural world. Visiting the National Museum of Natural History’s Objects of Wonder exhibition, a splendid embodiment of Whitman’s admiration of the character of trees stopped me up short: a display of slides revealing the cellular structure of trees and shrubs seen under a microscope — stunning images that occupy the lacuna between art and science, resembling ancient tapestries and Klimt paintings and galactic constellations.

Cornus controversa (giant dogwood), radial view
Cornus controversa (giant dogwood), tangential view
Prosopis juliflora (a Mexican mesquite shrub), transverse view

The slides, photographed by The Smithsonian’s Stanley Yankowski, are drawn from the 4,637 specimens amassed by the prolific wood collector Archie F. Wilson (1903–1960) — the largest private collection of arboreal specimens from around the world, donated to the museum’s already formidable wood collection a year after Wilson’s death.

Cornus stolonifera (red stem dogwood), transverse view
Cornus stolonifera (red stem dogwood), tangential view
Picea pungens (Colorado spruce), transverse view

Wilson, who served as a research associate at the Chicago Museum of Natural History and went on to preside over the International Wood Collectors Society, cut his samples into meticulously sanded 7×3-inch blocks. Each slide presents a thin slice from one of the blocks, stained to reveal specific microscopic features of its structure.

Maytenus micrantha, tangential view
Maytenus micrantha, transverse view
Colubrina arborescens (wild coffee), tangential view

Beyond their aesthetic rapture, these specimens have taken on a wonderfully hope-giving new role in advancing science and the law. Half a century after Wilson’s death, they have become part of a vast database documenting the chemical fingerprints of wood, known as the Forensic Spectra of Trees — or, because scientists do delight in acronymic puns, ForeST. Much like artist Ryota Kajita’s stunning photomicroscopy of Alaskan ice formation are being used to understand climate change, scientists are using Wilson’s samples for vital wood identification, not only in advancing botany, but in combatting the worldwide epidemic of illegal logging and timber trafficking, which has swelled to about a third of the world’s wood trade — ecologically exploitive contraband estimated to be costing the global economy up to $152 billion per year, with unfathomed environmental costs as entire ecosystems are being decimated. (Trees, lest we forget, are the relational infrastructure of the living world.)

Picea (spruce), radial view
Cornus kousa (Chinese dogwood), transverse view

In Brazil, nearly 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been savaged by illegal logging in the decades since Wilson’s death — the loss of woodland approximately equivalent to the size of California. In China, rosewood has become the blood diamond of the wood trade — a species protected under the multilateral endangered species treaty CITES, yet ruthlessly logged for the manufacture of expensive Ming and Qing dynasty furniture reproductions. A quarter of Russia’s timber exports come from illegal logging and a devastating 61% of Indonesian wood production is traded illegally.

Tsuga orientalis, tangential view
Mastixia (an evergreen)

Accompanying the ForeST database is an advanced spectrometry instrument that showers the wood sample with heated helium atoms to instantly reveal its chemical profile, enabling customs agents and the various custodians of environmental policy to perform simple, cheap, noninvasive wood analysis that identifies illegally traded species and helps prevent these losses of tree life that take generations to recover.

Ricinodendron heudelotii (West African tropical tree known as “cocoa’s friend”), tangential view
Ampelopsis brevipedunculata (porcelain vine), transverse view
Salix fragilia (brittle willow), transverse view
Quiina negrensis, radial view
Cornus stolonifera (red stem dogwood), transverse view
Capraria biflora (goatweed), transverse view
Cornus controversa (giant dogwood), transverse view
Ailanthus integrifolia (an East Asian rainforest tree), radial view

Complement with French photographer Cedric Pollet’s beautiful photographs of tree bark from around the world and amateur wood collector Romeyn Beck Hough’s remarkable cross-sections of trees from a century ago, then revisit Hermann Hesse’s lyrical love letter to trees and this beautiful illustrated celebration of the forest.

HT Smithsonian Magazine

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