THE MEMORY OF TREES
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination Nature is Imagination itself.”
- William Blake, in The Letters of William Blake (1906). Letter to the Reverend John Trusler (23 August 1799)
The other day, as I was making my way to my office (at the day job at that place down the road) I noticed something I usually walk right past. You see, our office is tucked away behind a sizeable office full of coders. Now, I find the people who do the work everyone takes for granted to be the most fascinating people of all. They are the ones who allow us to push buttons and expect things to happen instantaneously – the IT crowd, the coders – and the ones who do the invisible jobs, like the roto artists1, whose work is only noticed when it’s not perfect (when it is, well, you don’t even know it’s been done).
I chat with the coders quite often; talking with them is like talking with alchemists or musicians; I can vaguely grasp what they are explaining, and then five minutes later, I realize I haven’t understood at all. Code does seem to be very similar to music, though, and possesses symmetry and a logic that is almost poetic (or at least it seems so – I don’t really grasp poetry either, any more than I can music.) And, they love white boards. There is a vast white board that I walk past every day, which until recently has seen a succession of impromptu scribblings and notes, but has now been commandeered and filled with a list of tasks to tackle, problems to solve, codes to create. Most of it I don’t understand at all, the remainder is cryptic, with the likes of “flashing coins”, “popping goblets” or “grid merging artifacts”. One, though, caught my eye.
“Trees taking too much memory”
That makes sense, I thought. All those leaves, twigs, branches… potentially a whole lot of pixels. A lot to code, compute and manage.
I guess that’s why I spend so much time looking at trees. It’s all about coding, computing and managing.
Trees. We all know what they are, but for something so ubiquitous, there is no satisfactory definition of “tree”. The difference between “tree” and “shrub” is ill-defined. We generally think of trees as having woody stems, but seen that way, banana trees wouldn’t be trees, and bamboo would… There are a hundred thousand species of tree. Even the etymology is as complicated as counting tree rings: Old English treo, treow “tree” (also “wood”), from Proto-Germanic *trewan (cf. Old Frisian tre, Old Saxon trio, Old Norse tre, Gothic triu “tree”), from PIE *deru- “oak” (cf. Sanskrit dru “tree, wood,” daru “wood, log;” Greek drys “oak,” doru “beam, shaft of a spear;” Old Church Slavonic drievo “tree, wood;” Serbian drvo “tree,” drva “wood;” Russian drevo “tree, wood;” Czech drva; Polish drwa “wood;” Lithuanian derva “pine wood;” Old Irish daur, Welsh derwen “oak,” Albanian drusk “oak”).
But, etymology and taxonomy are fruitless pursuits, except to show that the words we use for trees are among the oldest of words. I’d like to think our memory of trees is older still.
I often find myself in forests, quizzically peering at layers of branches, chiaroscuro juxtapositions of leaves and bark, wondering how on earth it would be possible to draw all that. Well, as it turns out, artists have been pondering that as well for some time.
I recently purchased a first edition of Rex Vicat Cole’s The Artistic Anatomy of Trees. I already had the excellent Dover re-edition, but somehow it’s one of those books where you want to see a copy like the one Cole must have received from the publisher when it was first printed.
Reginald Rex Vicat Cole is someone I’ve met before, principally because of his wonderful Perpective For Artists, also republished by Dover Books, which has long been in my library. Vicat Cole was born in 1870 into a family of painters and died in 1940, from a heart attack brought on by helping a family whose motorcar was trapped by flooding in Sussex. Member of the Royal Society of British Artists from 1900, he taught art at King’s College in London, before founding, with fellow artist John Byam Liston Shaw, the Byam Shaw and Vicat Cole School of Art, in Camden Street, Kensington in 1910. Vicat Cole and Shaw both served with the Artist’s Rifles during the First World War.
At nearly 350 pages, The Artistic Anatomy of Trees: Their Structure & Treatment in Painting is an ambitious book. Published in 1915 by Seeley, Service & Co in London, it followed British Trees, published in 1907. (There are two volumes, 500 drawings and paintings, over 700 pages of detailed descriptions of more than a hundred species of tree present in the British Isles). Vicat Cole also published Perspective: The Practice & Theory of Perspective as Applied to Pictures with Section Dealing with Application to Architecture in 1921, possibly the best book of its kind ever done, and had prepared the text and illustrations of The Streets of London, which remained unpublished upon his death in 1940. But, back to the anatomy of trees.
Here is his introduction:2
“It is with considerable diffidence that I undertake the task of attempting a description of Trees from the artist’s point of view. A loving acquaintance with them each year brings home to me my shortcomings in rendering them as they should be rendered in the branch of art I follow—Painting. To this is added a new terror in having to use words; and the temptation is to relinquish the effort and say instead that only those who can feel the beauty of Trees may attempt to paint them, and that to others their significance must for ever remain a closed door. If my statements appear dogmatic or dictatorial it is not because I think I can draw trees really well; but only because I know that a large number of people draw them worse.”
A first chapter details trees depicted by painters, from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, always a difficult exercise, and not the most satisfying, but the rest of the book is devoted to a thorough study in understanding trees from the roots to the tips of their branches. Naturally Vicat Cole is really talking about composition and balance, about light and shade, perspective and volumes in space. He is, however, exclusively employing trees to illustrate his philosophy. In short, the book is a philosophy of trees, a meditation on the very nature of trees, with a solid sense of simply looking. The intricate drawings of twigs and leaves are little short of exquisite, given that they are such a difficult subject to render convincingly; I can’t help but admire the deft delicacy of the drawings, which conceal none of the energy and strength of line inherent in every branch.
Illustrations by Rex Vicat Cole from The Artistic Anatomy of Trees
Vicat Cole’s book may not provide you with an easy one-two-three-tree technique, but, and more importantly, it instructs the reader to look at trees, to squint and see the volumes and masses of foliage, to poke one’s nose up against the trunk and study the bark, or choose a twig with a dozen leaves to draw painstakingly.
Nevertheless, he does not expect us to memorize trees. He is, however, entreating us to look at them, and all of this needs substance to support it. I’m not sure the reader will recognize tree types effortlessly after reading the book, nor will the meticulously detailed drawings of branches and leaves add much to his or her own palette. Observation of detail is not hard. Translating it to the page is work, but only work, aided by practice and dexterity.
The enduring value of Vicat Cole’s book is simply that it exists. Here is the testament of a thoughtful artist, who has exchanged pencil and brush for quill pen, who had bartered his profession for the opportunity to transmit a passion for all things by using the example of one. His book is an ode to the persistence of Nature, to the extraordinary things that are trees, and is inviting us to share in this in a curiously companionable way.
Trees. How long they’ve stood where they are, where a chance seed fallen has taken root. All they have witnessed over the years, over the centuries. What do they remember? The memory of trees is the essence of the trees themselves, memories of winds and rains and seasons. Time compressed in branch and trunk, each tree a book we can’t read, or only imperfectly. Trees don’t go anywhere, they travel in time, while we travel in space, or at least entertain the illusion that we do. (We are busy creatures; that which does not move or visibly change is quickly consigned to our passive index of things.) They oblige us to walk around them, or they oblige us with shade, which we gratefully accept, or shelter from rain. They get in the way, they are living, breathing creatures that do not understand progress, but they have memories of life none of us can match. Ours the brevity and motion, theirs the patience of immobility.
All of that is in Vicat Cole’s book, though of course it’s between the lines. The memory of trees… No wonder trees take up so much RAM.
As for me, I am one of the brief creatures that they must sense rushing past, pausing an instant, and then skittering off to some other destination. As for them they appear to me to be Nature’s logos, hieroglyphs for which we possess no handy Rosetta Stone: the undecipherable beauty of form and substance. Tolkien hinted such a language with his Ents; with their thrumming speech and distaste for hastiness, their reluctance to act rashly.3 So, I spend my time in the company of trees. Trees belong to myth and nature in equal part, to treat them as pure botany or art is insufficient, the very reason why Vicat Cole’s book cannot please all, as indeed it did not at the time. The Spectator chides the author for omitting the Symbolists in favour of the Academicians, but noting that “ The part devoted to the scientific aspect of the subject is minute and precise, and the author’s illustrations, not only of whole trees but of boughs, leaves, and flowers, are exact, and drawn with infinite labour and skill, and the keenest sense of the character and botanical aspect of the different trees he illustrates.” 4 The Studio opines that “an excess of merely botanical knowledge may react unfavourably on his work” 5 while conceding that many artists might benefit from a little more knowledge of their subjects.
Vicat Cole’s book, whose centenary is upon us next year, is an intensely modern reflection on the subject and our relationship to Nature, disguised as a drawing manual. Our failing is that we need words (they are imperfect things, but the best we have) to define our position and place. Vicat Cole is encouraging us to go out and simply look, and by the inarticulate but eloquent act of drawing, of which he encompasses, without the reader noticing, every aspect of that contemplative and non-articulate exercise, from broad strokes of composition to the finely sharpened sight required to draw detail, he escapes the pitfalls of rationalizing his views. It is a book both practical and philosophical, not really about drawing at all (although that was of course his professed intent), bent upon applying as it does the particular to the universal. He is saying go look at trees, by understanding them artistically, thus holistically, you will finally realize where you stand on issues concerning Nature in a wider sense. It is a geomantic manual as well, although dedicated to the placing of oneself in the landscape – instead of the auspicious ordering of elements about us: we can’t ask the trees to move – in order to achieve a sense of harmony.
That’s why I don’t object to trees taking up so much memory. We have such a terrible tendency to forget.
A gallery of trees encountered in New Zealand
Next newsletter: More trees, but this time it’s about ætiology, entelechy, and the logic in myth. And a pilgrimage.
1. In the vfx industry, the term rotoscoping refers to the technique of manually creating a matte for an element on a live-action plate so it may be composited over another background. (Thank you Wikipedia)
3 The attack by the Ents and the Huorns on Isengard in The Two Towers is often erroneously compared to the episode of Birnam Wood in Macbeth and left at that, without exploring Shakespeare’s purpose or Tolkien’s true intent. More plausibly, his is the imagining of a forest that could and would strike back, rather than silently submitting to the inexorable progression of industry and “progress”. Robert Holdstock’s daurog is closer to the heart of the wood, so to speak, but of that, more next time.