Art Culture Environment Environmental History Film History Nature

The Art of Trees: Root of the Issue

What is the oldest picture of a tree? Why are trees important to ecosystems and for our health?

In part one of The Art of Trees series, I examine what is the oldest picture of a tree, how trees are good for the environment, and how trees benefit our health.

A RED-PAINTED TREE IS SURROUNDED BY HUMAN FIGURES. In a semi-circle, the ochre figures stand with their arms outstretched towards the tree. Who are these mysterious people, and why are they joined around a tree?

Sequestered between green valleys and steep russet cliffs, the cave that this rock art dwells in is hard to reach. That’s because the road leading to Serra da Capivara National Park, the PI-140, was once listed as one of the worst paved roads in Brazil. This semi-arid park is a UNESCO World Heritage site which comes as no surprise, due to the fact that it is home to an astonishing number of archaeological sites, wildlife, and geological formations. Prehistoric rock art of wild animals and human figures here have been dated to be around 25,000 years old. This has revolutionized the widely held view that the Americas were first inhabited by people around 10,000 BC. If this is true, this site may show us some of the oldest remaining art of trees to date.

Photo by Vitor 1234 / Wikimedia Commons.

The purpose of this rock art depicting a tree is somewhat unclear and we may never truly know what it means. What we can say though is that it appears that the human figures, presumably male, are worshiping the tree they have encircled. It may be rare for people to worship trees in the same religious or magical sense today, but we still cherish trees in a variety of forms. We express the significance of trees in different mediums.

THERE IS A GIANT NAMED THE TREE OF SOULS. In a dreamlike landscape lush with illuminated flora and fauna, a bio-luminescent, willow-like tree is shielded by a formation of rock arches. It serves a great spiritual purpose for the Na’vi, who are a fictional extraterrestrial race of humanoids in Avatar (2009). The Na’vi entangle their hair with the tree’s glowing tendrils to connect with Eywa.

“Who’s Eywa? Only their deity! Their goddess, made up of all living things. Everything they know!”

Norm Spellman explains Eywa to Jake (Avatar, 2009).
The Tree of Souls in Avatar

The Na’vi can be seen gathering at the Tree of Souls to give routine thanks and to perform healing rituals, since the tree is their closest link to their goddess. Eywa shares similarities with human deities such as Gaia, Mother Earth, the Triple Goddess, or a version of God as in naturalistic pantheism. While Avatar may not be the finest example of contemporary art, it is a clear portrayal of tree worship in pop culture today. However, throughout history and across cultures we have made consistent connections between trees and the heavens. Beyond spirituality though, trees fulfill countless functions in human society and for our environment.

AT EVERY LEVEL, WE DEPEND ON TREES. Trees provide the air we need to breathe and they help to give us clean water. They provide us with an abundance of resources such as fuel, medicine, food, tools, fodder for livestock, firewood for cooking and heat, and the materials we use for building. On a global scale, trees contribute to food security by providing forest foods such as fruit, nuts, and vegetables to rural communities. Trees also help us combat air pollution and climate change through their ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and absorb airborne pollutants.

In our environment, trees act as a foundation species for forest ecosystems. Old trees are especially key. They are home to ground flora and fauna such as bats, squirrels, and invertebrates. Where insects and fungi use trees as habitat we can see just how significant trees are for biodiversity. If we lose the trees associated with certain insects, we can degrade an entire ecosystem from the ground up. Because trees provide habitat for wildlife such as pollinators and pest predators like birds, they are essential for improving the diversity of species. Trees are also vital to ecosystems in the way that they use nutrients around them which are then given back when they die and decompose. Last but not least, trees help protect and manage healthy watersheds. They do this by catching rainwater, reducing erosion, and creating absorbent soils. This illustration shows us how a single tree itself can be an ecosystem:

Ecosystem of a Tree, a Photoshop illustration by Michael Sealy, 2012.

STEP INTO AN URBAN FOREST AND CLOSE YOUR EYES. Listen. You may first notice leaves crunching beneath your shoes. Somewhere nearby a stream bubbles. Linger a little longer and you might be lucky enough to hear the drumming sound of a woodpecker hammering into a tree. You may notice that the sounds of the city seem further away the deeper you go into the woods. You may feel relaxed. That’s because trees can help reduce noise pollution by acting as natural sound barriers, and as stress reducers. Forest bathing, named after the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, is one way you can personally experience the benefits of trees:

The key to unlocking the power of the forest is in the five senses. Let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees. Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches. Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural aromatherapy of phytoncides. Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths. Place your hands on the trunk of a tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground. Drink in the flavor of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense, a state of mind. Now you have connected with nature. You have crossed the bridge to happiness.

Dr. Qing Li is the author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness.

As we can see through the practice of forest bathing, trees are not only visually appealing. They are a delight to all of our senses. They soften the hard textures of the city, breathing life into our urban environments. Jim Robbins, the author of The Man Who Planted Trees, said that if we had to pay for the services that trees provide, we couldn’t afford them. One might say that we take trees for granted. But perhaps art is the way we express our gratitude for all that trees do.

Photo by Augusto Pessoa / Wikimedia Commons

Back in Serra de Capivara National Park, another rock painting depicts human figures carrying a tree together. These primordial pieces of art make it clear that trees have played a key role in our art and culture even in prehistoric times and they continue to do so today. Whether in cave paintings, traditional landscape art, film, or even music, trees are treasured subjects.

In this series I will explore the world of trees in various forms of art. I will answer questions about what trees might mean to us, how they’re illustrated in different artistic mediums, and how that might pertain to current and past environmental issues.

This is part one in the Art of Trees series.
Part Two


1 comment on “The Art of Trees: Root of the Issue

  1. Pingback: There Are Witches in These Woods: Witches and Trees in Art – NATURE MEETS MIND

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