One discipline necessary for resisting the speed and inattentiveness of Western culture is seeing. Although the following book takes trees as its object, it is really about recovering practices of seeing and attention. And given that trees of some sort are pretty much everywhere, Seeing Trees is a helpful guide for all of us in learning to slow down and pay attention to the good gifts of God that surround us.
“Regaining the delights of a child-like wonder and curiosity”
A review of
Discovering the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees.
By Nancy Ross Hugo. Photography by Robert Llewellyn.
Hardback: Timber Press, 2011. Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Review by Chris Smith.
[ This review originally appeared in the online edition of
The Englewood Review of Books ]
In an essay I wrote for Catapult magazine awhile back, I argued for tree-climbing as a redemptive practice and that the tree-top world is one of the few untouched natural spaces in urban areas like our neighborhood in Indianapolis. I wrote in that essay:
Tree-climbing is a redemptive practice because by it, we get to experience intimately and be challenged by the virtues of a tree. In observing the manifold forms of life that make their homes in or on a tree, we begin to get a sense of a tree’s hospitality. A tree offers shade from the beating summer sun, and in the winter, its hollow nooks offer cozy nesting places for squirrels and other rodents. In climbing a tree, one will undoubtedly experience the generosity of a tree, its bountiful fruit or nuts, its leaves, which in dying each fall are resurrected as rich compost.
In the same vein, I have just discovered the extraordinary new book Seeing Trees: Discovering the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo and illustrated with delightfully particular photographs by Robert Llewellyn.
In a fast-paced and ever-accelerating world, there is a dire need for practices that help us slow down and become attentive again to the wonder and beauty of our particular places. Seeing Trees, is a guide that will help us to do so, and as we begin to experiment with the attentive practices it describes, we will find that many of them are transferable to seeing, knowing and loving other facets of our immediate environment – plants, animals, architecture, etc. As I argued in the essay mentioned above, trees are a wonderful means to begin the knowing and loving of our particular places, as there are very few places that do not have at least a few trees. Nancy Hugo says of densely urban places like Manhattan, “I have seen ginkgos growing along Manhattan sidewalks that could occupy one’s eyes for a lifetime, and weedy ailanthus trees growing in alleys make fine subjects for viewing” (26).
Hugo is an extraordinary writer who has cultivated a deep love for trees over years of observing a wide variety of trees. Llewellyn’s photography with its lush colors and attention to the minute details of specific parts of particular trees is the perfect complement to Hugo’s writing. The book is divided into three parts, the first and shortest is guide to learning how to see trees. Hugo describes here many useful methods, some – if not most – of which will be helpful in helping us all to become more attentive to trees. Of particular note here was here recommendation of the practice of drawing (which certainly is one of the practices that I mentioned above that would be transferable to seeing more than just trees):
Any time you draw something, no matter how successful you are from an artistic point of view, you learn more about it, so it’s good advice to draw more if you want to see and remember more. If we all approached drawing as a means of fixing a memory as opposed to creating a work of art, we’d do more of it and see more as a result. (30).
The second part of the book helps to train our attention to the manifold parts of a tree, including Leaves, Flowers and Cones, Fruit, Buds and Leaf Scars, and Bark and Twigs. A tree is a single organism, but like the human body it is made up of many diverse parts, some of which would escape notice without careful observation. Hugo is quick to emphasize in the introduction to this part of the book that a tree is much more than the sum of the parts that she names and explores here: “A black locust, for example, is not just a collection of parts that include compound leaves, drooping racemes of white flowers, deeply fissured bark, and pea-like seed pods. It is the sweet fragrance of May flowers dripping from broken branches on a ramshackle trunk, not to mention bees visiting the flowers and leaf miners devouring the leaves” (38). Seeing and coming to know the parts of trees, however, is a grand journey that leads us into a deeper knowledge of all the facets of life that flourish in the community of a tree.
The book’s third and final part is a study of ten common varieties of trees, utilizing the methods described in the book’s first two parts. These wonderfully crafted tree narratives will inspire us and guide us down the early stages of the path of seeing and knowing the trees that inhabit our own places. One of my favorite of the tree studies in this part of the book was that of the White Oak. In this chapter, Hugo makes the keenly astute observation that “to really appreciate a tree one should spend more time experiencing the world the way it does, which means holding still. I wanted to see my oak’s acorns ripening, experience its rooted constancy, and examine the many visitors to its limbs, bark, and leaves” (198, 201).
What makes this volume exquisite, and such a wonderful resource for those wanting to immerse themselves in nature is that Hugo and Llewellyn’s work is full of life, it is careful at every turn not to reduce the wonder of trees in any way. Hugo’s playful approach, for instance, is inspiring throughout. Consider, for example, the contest she has with herself to find the largest and smallest tulip poplar leaves possible in her neighborhood. There is much to love in her child-like approach, as described in the book’s afterword: “The answers to most questions a beginning tree observer might have are out there – on the Internet, or in the mind of some scientist or naturalist – but nowhere, until you make them, are the observations you can make on a particular day, in particular light, in particular weather, through the lens of your particular eyes. The real danger is not being beginner enough.” (231, Emphasis added in the last sentence)
In our fast food world, where the pace of life is accelerating and places are rapidly becoming placeless, we need to learn to slow down and appreciate the gifts of life that flourishes around us everyday. Our churches can and should be communities where we cultivate these sorts of attentive arts, regain the delights of a child-like wonder and curiosity, and come to know and love the particularities that define our place. Unfortunately, these arts are all to rare today and we need guides who will take us by the hand and point us in this direction, and as far as guides go, one is hard-pressed to do better than Nancy Ross Hugo and Robert Llewellyn’s vibrant and delightful work in Seeing Trees. This elegant volume is more than a book, rather it offers us a deep way of being alive and attuned to the multitude of God’s marvelous gifts that encompass us at every moment. I pray that we would have eyes to see, ears to hear and grateful hearts to throb with delight!
[ Take a minute to peruse an excerpt from this lovely book… ]