To Paul Klee, a tree embodied the creative process. In a public lecture, the artist likened the artist to a tree. The artist is deeply rooted in the world, while the artist’s work is similar to the tree’s crown, as the book Art and Phenomenology explains. “Standing at his appointed place, at the trunk of the tree, he does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths, ” Klee observed. “And the beauty at the crown is not his own. He is merely a channel.” In Klee’s conceptual view, the manifestation of the human body into artistic creation and the tree’s shaping are intertwined.
Examine a branch or trunk or crown, feel the tree’s presence and qualities, and it will speak to you or move you in some way. A single tree is one of the most soulful, persistent, and expressive of nature’s creations. Trees speak to us, energetically and visually, on a deep level.
The human body and the body of a tree are in kinship. The About Trees Exhibition at the Zentrum Paul Klee museum in Bern, Switzerland, seeks to explain this connection. The roots, trunk, and crown correspond to the feet, body, and the head. We can only wonder at their strength through the seasons and weather’s vagaries. On the whole, trees outlive humans, their lives spanning the generations. The glorious American elms on the Central Park Mall looked at children playing and the Sunday strollers at the turn into the 20th century the way they do the drummers, skateboarders, and walkers today. This is not to say that trees aren’t frail or vulnerable.
A tree both exemplifies certain predictable laws of nature and processes, but in countless variations and individual forms. A tree can be fierce and soaring, gentle and fragile, imposing, graceful, gnarly and quirky, ancient, or tender. We can see it and project our moods upon it, or conversely draw its energy to us. Trees are imbued with meanings and symbolism, something the storytellers have known since ancient times.
Trees become part of life’s experiences and chapters. The autumn of 1974, after my mother died, I bonded with a tree along a local road near my Western Pennsylvania home. It was a tiny tree, just planted. How, I wondered, would this new, small tree make it through the winter? Yes, at age 22, I was wondering how I would make it without my mother that year. As the tree made it to spring, so did I.
We see qualities and character we admire and honor. A tree on Greenwich Street in New York’s West Village survives despite the encroachment of a chain-link fence that has made searing impressions upon its trunk. Along Route 208 in Ulster County is a huge tree that by its very elegant, rounded branches seems to say, “I preside over the fields and the seasons.” Each tree is not only life-giving to our Earth and us. It’s an unmistakable art form.
Behold each one. Look closely in wonder.