SCULPTURE BY TREE
Bleached and weathered; scored, lined and hollowed. A large marri, centuries old, collapsed across the swamp like the shin bone of a giant. Nourishment for myriads of small creatures and a feast for the mind that has the time to pause and wonder.
The life history of a tree can be read in the skeleton it leaves behind. Wood shaped slow. Built of soil particles, transported by water and fuelled by the sun. The silhouette of the tree is shaped by light; by the shade of neighbours, and the breath of the wind. But look closer and there are nuances of centuries in an old dead tree; sculpted by growth, invasion, inhabitance; small details documenting an insect bite, the void left by a young branch, fungi.
After the tree falls it is shaped by the agents of weathering; termites, rain, moss, lichen; a home for small marsupials, lizards, snakes. Carbonised into fantastic patterns by the passing of a fire, dappled black on silver.
Shaped underground, formed by slow expansion, pushing between grains of sand and sticky clay. Hundreds of years deep in the earth, searching and seeking out, the weavings of a tree extracting what it needs from the soil. Microscopic filaments stretching outwards, attracting water molecules and minerals, feeding them upwards into ever larger roots. A whole network of fingers, seeking, transmitting, balancing and grounding. Working as conduits for water molecules drawn upwards through the tree to the leaf, siphoned to the heavens by the power of the sun.
Until finally the tree falls; the weight of the accumulated wood wrenches the roots from the earth into the sky, where they reach out like a bouquet of hungry ghosts, seeking to hold and draw you in.
It’s the middle of March. Autumn by the European calendar, for those in the southern hemisphere. But in Noongar country it is Bunuru, or the height of summer. Hot and dry, the bush is dusty and parched. The Marri trees withdraw sustenance from some of their leaves, allowing them to desiccate and fall, minimising the need for moisture. This year the leaves are falling after a massive blossoming, the most prolific for years. So much sugar pumped into the flower, and so little water.
I climb up and along the curve of the fallen log and sit there, absorbing the nuance of its presence. There being no wind, the bush is silent. Just the rustle of soft footfalls like ghosts sidling up, invisible behind the trunks of trees. Unnerving until I see a leaf fall; tumbling, spinning, whispering dryly as it impales itself on a grasstree spike. A long pause and then a pair, drifting down together in a long crackling spiral to merge back into the soil on the forest floor.
The madness of seeing faces in nature: or the art of reading the story of place?
Here I see the wide open scowl of a skull. The ghost grimace of a tree, solidified in wood. In every tree you might find a face, if you are open to the intuitive language of shape. “Imagining” a face is one way to glimpse the personality or history of a tree. Reading shapes and filling the land with story creates an empathy with all things, making it much harder to treat our forest, stone, and water as objects for us to use. It’s a way to open a dialogue with the world, to enter into a meaningful relationship with place.
Shape and movement in nature is the stuff that myths are made of. By looking out for it we can dream ourselves back into relationship with the land.
A knot is the shape of growth from experience.
Branch reaches out for the sun. It wields leaves for transforming light into sugars, drawing them in and nurturing the tree. A bulge forms around the eruption of a branch; the weak point is buttressed, fed and encouraged.
It may sometimes be that what sustained the tree decays, the branch no longer feeds the tree but grows painful and must be shed. Old wounds we cannot erase, but life flows on and around. The space left at the old join is sealed, and energy shifted into the new.
Of all the diverse water saving devices to be found in a eucalypt forest, this must be the most perverse. Ironically, most plastic is made from oil or gas originating from the decay of forest millions of years old. Like wood, it is made from carbon and oxygen but bonded in a way that is not only toxic, but non-biodegradable, meaning that it is tasteless even to a termite, and so dependent on the action of sunlight to break it down.
Termites are vital to both the birth and death of a tree. Not only do they recycle dead wood into easily digestible form that can be used again, the network of tunnels they build underground enables water to pass through and hydrate the soil.
This colony will have a food source for decades. The roots of the tree, still partly embedded in the earth, are one entry point. There is another at the other end of the tree, the shattered remains of the crown. The termite mound is now poised in sculptural balance with the tree. But the balance will change, the log will be eaten out from the inside until transformed into a hollow shell filled with termite dung and clay. Then it will collapse, fold itself into the earth, where rain will saturate and scatter its remains until the work of centuries has been fully recycled back into the soil for the searching roots of future generations of giants to find.