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Submitted on
May 2, 2012
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The Tree as Beautiful Machine

Wed May 2, 2012, 7:17 PM by techgnotic:icontechgnotic:

While searching deviantART for images for the Earth Day article, I became intrigued with how trees have become not only such a central focus of our current environmental concerns, but also how they play such a central role in our art, whether as background or actual subject matter. There are so many Enchanted Forests on deviantART that it made me wonder if trees, so mundane and taken for granted yet at the same time so vital to life on earth and so steeped in myth, have always been the revered subjects of the world’s artists.

There was one especially intriguing piece of information that I came across during my research of the Earth Day article that seemed the perfect way to feature some of the beautiful artwork depicting trees and forests on deviantART.  Even though most of us know the opening of Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s poem;

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree...
The tree went through a rough patch as being unsuitable as art subject for a period of nearly a thousand years, at least in Europe. This was the Medieval period from roughly 500 to 1450 A.D. The Church controlled artistic expression almost absolutely during that time and anything to do with nature or the woods was too closely linked with the “old religion” that Christianity had just superseded, Paganism, and Pagan animism (the idea of spirits being in all things, including trees) to be allowed to be fulsomely depicted in art. So it was mostly portraits of saints and kings and lots stained glass windows until Giotto kicked off the Renaissance by being rebel enough to put trees as natural backgrounds in his paintings in the 1300s.

A near-thousand year ban?

What is it so dangerous about trees that they could be suppressed for so long as art images to dream on? I suppose that climbing a tree as a kid might be our first great “victory” over the challenge and dangers of wildest nature. And the dark forests of fairy tales are well populated with evil beings and creatures intent on harming wandering children. So there’s always been that primal fear ingrained in us from birth to know the woods can be a “bad” place. But early humans lived and survived in the wild, so they embraced the trees and all the components of nature as the stuff of their religion and their art, making the forests as magical and spiritual as they were potentially lethal. It was only when humans built the cities and began razing the forests that trees became mere raw material to be exploited and the woods became less Pagan “Natural Cathedrals” and more scary backdrops to monster movies like “Dracula”.

Now it seems we’ve finally course corrected on trees and forests both out of practical concerns (our desire to survive) and our current cultural predilections (our insatiable spiritual explorations and the prevalence of fantasy in our entertainment). So whether it’s because we’ve finally acknowledged that the Earth’s forests and jungles are our planet’s “lungs” (and that there are secrets in the bark of the Amazon’s trees that might cure every disease), or if it’s because we need enchanted forests for the faeries and elves and witches of our favorite stories to inhabit, the tree has reestablished its rightful place as both necessary instrument of survival and emblematic icon of our artistic imagination. Trees give us oxygen so we can breathe. But they also provide a sense of mystery and timelessness so we can ponder and draw and dream.


For the Reader

1As an artist, writer or photographer, do you think of trees as mostly background or backdrop to your art? Or have you actually used trees as a central subject?

2What’s your favorite work of fiction or movie that really made use of the forest as an actual “character” in the story?

3Do you find “subject-less” landscape photography or paintings generally boring or often compelling? Or does it all depend on the artist’s lens or brush?

4Can you remember a specific tree that played an important part in your own life? Or maybe that still does?

5Is a backyard without at least one tree really a “backyard” (i.e., a theater of childhood dreams of adventure) or just a soulless kid & pet pen?

While searching deviantART for images for the Earth Day article, I became intrigued with how trees have become not only such a central focus of our current environmental concerns, but also how they play such a central role in our art, whether as background or actual subject matter. There are so many Enchanted Forests on deviantART that it made me wonder if trees, so mundane and taken for granted yet at the same time so vital to life on earth and so steeped in myth, have always been the revered subjects of the world’s artists.
Add a Comment:
AbbyMeyer Featured By Owner Sep 26, 2013
1. I mentioned a tree in a short story I posted, but I've never used one as a main focus. Maybe some time in the future.
2. Technically they're not trees, but I love the Ents in LOTR and how they are so connected with their surroundings. They feel the pain of the trees that have been cut down.
3. That depends on the skill of the photographer, but I definitely think that landscape photos can be compelling if they are done right.
4. No, there's not any particular tree that stands out. I used to love running through the dense 'woodland area' in my lower school's grounds, though (even if that was forbidden :D)
5. I don't think there has to be a tree for it to be special. When you are young, anything can be the inspiration for an adventure. :)
okamifuyu Featured By Owner Oct 14, 2012
3. I tend to really enjoy Landscape pictures and paintings, so long as i find them well done and the colours to be harmonize, but a walk in a forest both at night and in the day can be a very calming and beautiful experience.
4. well i remember the combinations of a tree and some stones to have had an important role in my life. Some big rocks in my grandparents garden, that my siblings and I played around on, were always standing close to an old tree, and seeing the tree cut down, because it was covering up the stones, really surprised me and made me somewhat sad
tmpst24myst Featured By Owner Aug 17, 2012  Student Writer
I've always enjoyed trees, as a child for various things such as climbing or tying a rope from branch to branch to prove to the boys in the neighborhood that a girl could play Tarzan better than a boy could :lmao: or at least, just as good as. I've always ha certain kind of respect for them. As mentioned in the article, they give us oxygen - they are a huge contributing factor for proving oxygen for everything that breaths air. I am fascinated by the example they set for humans - take your pick and relate a metaphor that works for you. The idea that tree's are responsible for so many things is how I relate them to humans. They provide shelter for the birds and squirrel's and safer grounds for sloths or even a person running away from a dog they just teased and is now getting chased! (It happened to a friend of mine when we were kids :lol:! I can laugh now but then it was frightening and because he deserved the chase and I knew he had, I was worried about the dog and what would happen to the dog so I shouted to my friends to get to the neighbors tree; had the dog caught him... it would have ended badly. You could say, the tree saved two lives that day. My friends from the dog and the dogs from animal control declaring it unsafe and unfit, clearly to dangerous and violent to live any longer. The same tree also had the best apples for apple pie :p!!! Talk about a multi-tasking form of life?

I've written numerous poems about trees, or where they closely revolve around trees or the pine needles or the leaves... I've had many dreams about a few different trees, but they are always consistent in my dreams same trees, same setting and atmosphere, but in an entirely different place. I see trees as having many secrets and an equal amount of stories to tell? I often stare at trees for hours not realizing how long I've been there, trying to get a feel for something to write. It usually comes to me in a dream after a day or more of walking around staring at certain trees (that I get a strange to everyone I've mentioned it to, response) I feel more connected to or that seem to have pull on me that I can't help but gravitate towards them. They simply have an intrigue to them that one day, I hope to pen as perfectly as a non-verbose form of life can tell me about them self.

Stringthing87 Featured By Owner Aug 17, 2012  Student Filmographer
I think of trees as characters not just as backgrounds. I think that they vary in size and shape as much we do and I would say if they could talk they would enlighten us all seein as some types mainly oaks live for hundreds of years. I think writers such as Tolkien made us think differently about trees with is ent characters and how in the woods the trees whisper to each other and creak in some effort of movement.
Medniex Featured By Owner Aug 15, 2012  Student General Artist
About first question.
My best experience with trees are they shadows in late autumn nights in my deviation: My Home . It is kind of main subject but indirectly.
Zephammo Featured By Owner Aug 14, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
1. I don't have very many full pieces with backgrounds and everything, but the pieces I have in my mind often have trees as a backdrop, setting the mood around the main idea. I also have multiple ideas for pieces just focused on trees. A field I often drive past is flat except for a few trees in the middle that twist together into one tree, and every time I see it, i find myself wishing it was my property,so I could see it closer, and photograph it, and paint it. It is so beautiful.

2. I love this animated movie called "Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest". The trees aren't really a character, but they are pretty much the focus.

3. When they are well done, I could stare at them for hours.

4. A few, but one in particular. The plum tree in my backyard is where i used to climb and sit all the time. I would catch lady bugs, read, draw, and play in that tree. not to mention the memories of when the plums would appear (some years bring no fruit at all, but the years that do, we are all excited, especially when I was young.)

5. Well, i don't know if I could live in a house with no trees in the yard. My large backyard is full of trees, and so is my front yard. I live in Washington, and I wouldn't want to be where there where no trees. I don't know what I would do without the beauty and fresh air and fun and shelter they provide.
Mytana Featured By Owner Aug 14, 2012  Hobbyist Photographer
I have always valued trees.
I live in Iceland, and those who have seen our landscape, realize that trees do not play a significant role in it.
The Norse settlers that came here, saw forest stretch from the coast to the mountain, a country we can only imagine today.
The had to use the wood for building and for fire and it took them few hundred years to almost erase trees from the surface of our country, leaving the once grown land barren and and black deserts getting ever larger. And the Volcanoes did not help....nor our free range sheep, grazing and biting all the young plants so they could not grow.
That's how things were when I was a little girl. People were waking up from the long sleep of ignorance and realized they had to start fighting for their country. A fight that began with fences, to keep the sheep out of certain areas and growing trees here and there.
In my life I've seen how much has changed since then and those who said trees could not grow in Iceland ( and they were many), had to silently watch as small woods grew in all corners of the country, farmers started growing trees, and every other person, that had a patch to grow on, started their own tree garden. These trees are quite big today (on Icelandic standards ;-)
As for myself, I simply adored the trees I could see when I visited foreign countries, and I admit I envied those countries of their huge, dramatic trees.
Now I have my own garden and the largest tree in it was about my height when I moved here in 2000, but now it towers over me and my one story house. It is an Icelandic tree, an European mountain-ash, that's adorned with lovely white flowers in the spring and beautiful bright red berries in fall.
I love to photograph trees and have painted them on pebbles..... I will photograph some of them and upload....when I have the time.
But until then, take care of the trees, dear tree lovers. They are a symbol of life and fertility.
Furox-art Featured By Owner May 31, 2012  Student General Artist
Well I can answer number 5: Without a tree, a backyard is a pain in the neck. Because all it is good for is to keep mowing the lawn. Week after week. I'd rather have a tree.
GottaLoveMushrooms Featured By Owner May 24, 2012
There's something really pleasantly peaceful and sweet about the blogs you write. They make me smile.
gir131 Featured By Owner May 17, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
1. I use them both to set the mood of a piece, as well as as central elements of a piece, such as the main character.
2. Well, there was this one short movie in 'Fantasia' about a tree spirit that was very inspiring.
3. It definently depends on the perspective, mood, and lens. For instance, if it's a distopic piece where everything is dead, yes this piece really speaks to me, and it is very effective.
4. Yes, we have this dogwood tree beside our house that i have always found calming.
5. It's not a backyard unless it has a fence of trees
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