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“The Significance of Trees in Religion, Art and Climate Change Solutions”

Updated: Aug 10, 2023


Tree of Life

Taking a closer look at the role of contemporary art and inspiring calls to ecological action.


The Significance of Trees


The significance of trees in the origin stories of world religions cannot be overstated. Across the ages, their branches and shade have served as sites of contemplation, suffering, and renewal. Even today, trees continue to communicate with us in their own unique language: their deep root systems form intricate webs of connection, while the sight of a blunt stump is a stark reminder of deforestation, and charred limbs bear witness to the fires that we ourselves have sparked. Recently finished, a thought-provoking exhibition called To Bough and To Bend at The Weisman Museum at Pepperdine University Malibu California brought these subjects to the surface. By exploring these pressing ecological issues through the lens of contemporary art, spirituality, and religious traditions, the show featured the work of nearly thirty artists that guided us towards a renewed sense of fellowship with these ancient companions and the living world we share.


As a front desk attendant at the museum for over a year, Senior Lauren Chivers had seen her fair share of exhibits. However, the debut of a new collection of artwork left a deep impression on her. The pieces on display were not merely objects to be admired with historical, mythological or religious references; they were a call to action, urging viewers to reflect on the state of our world and consider what role they could play in shaping its future. The Pressing environmental issues of climate change, nature preservation, and conservation were highlighted by the art created. It challenged viewers to think more deeply about their own relationship to the natural world and consider concrete steps they could take to make a positive impact.


The Sacred Tree


The Bodhi Tree, under which Siddhārtha Gautama attained enlightenment to become the Buddha, holds a sacred place in the hearts of many. Likewise, the Tree of Life appears both at the beginning of the Jewish Tanakh and at the end of the Christian Scriptures. For the ancient Chinook people, trees were an embodiment of the divine, and they addressed God as the “Maker of Trees”. As novelist Richard Powers observes, trees are rightly called the “architecture of imagination”. Across cultures and throughout history, their shade and branches have provided spaces for contemplation, suffering, and the imagining of renewal. Today, trees continue to communicate with us in their own language. New discoveries about the ways in which root systems communicate with one another reveal a web of connections just beneath the surface of the visible world, while LA’s iconic palm trees evoke a colonial past.


The Relationship Between Nature and Mortality


Using the descriptions of the art in the show we wanted to share a few of the many pieces that spoke to us. The artist Tim Hawkinson used Christmas trees, palm branches, seed pods, sunflower seeds, coconut, acorns, avocado pit, corn husk, pomegranate skin, leaves, pine cone, twine, and raffia, to create “Sebastian.” Taking on a human persona “Sebastian” references the martyrdom of St Sebastian and consists of two Christmas Trees, one inverted and grafted to the other, with hand made arrows taking the place of branches piercing through the trunks. Without seeing the name one might think of native tribes and the use of natural materials to feed life from death. Or perhaps the quote by Timothy Keller “Jesus took the tree of death so you could take the Tree of Life” comes to mind because of the connection with pain and raw elemental wood. With its organic material, the imaginative sculpture confronts our relationship to nature and mortality. Sebastian the saint was tied to a tree and shot with arrows, here he is transfigured into that tree trunk, his own suffering aligned with the untold trauma experienced by the tree that bore his weight, and reflected back to the viewer through the visceral elements.


Art as a Memorial


The Shasta Wreath by Billy Joe Miller is a reflection on the devastating Carr Fire that burned 230,000 acres in Shasta and Trinity Counties in Northern California in the summer of 2018. Made from organic materials obtained in collaboration with Nathan Weick and a Forester of the Bureau of Land Management, Shasta Wreath is a sculpture assembled out of a variety of burnt branches that memorializes a landscape that is transformed by human impact. The forests of Shasta and Trinity County are home to Douglas Fir, Ponderosa Pine, Sugar Pine, White Fir, and Incense Cedar, and are an integral part of many tribal lands and practices. Both artists believe that stewardship and reverence for the natural world is crucial for all life to flourish. This is a belief that is part of the cultural practices of many of the native tribes of the area- and can be seen in the new documentary Inhabitants.


Agents of Change


One project that particularly captured our attention was The Redwood Preserve. Let’s recap the history first. Giant sequoias and California redwoods were brought to Rotorua, New Zealand at the beginning of the 20th century for a forestry experiment. Due to favorable conditions, the trees grew faster than in their native US and now stand at over 70 meters tall. Redwoods can live for over 3,000 years, have fire-resistant bark, and require a coastal climate to survive. They also absorb more carbon dioxide than any other tree, making them critical in stabilizing the global climate. Despite earthquakes in their habitat, they can adapt and stabilize themselves to avoid toppling over.


Climate change Solutions


The project is a bold new approach to the urgent environmental challenges facing our world. After centuries of devastating logging practices that obliterated ancient California redwood forests and decimated biodiversity, this visionary land art and social enterprise project aims to restore the natural balance and establish a vast wildland sanctuary that will combat climate change and serve as a giant terrestrial carbon sink. Yet despite the urgent need for action, our response to these pressing environmental issues has been woefully inadequate. With the specter of a catastrophic ecological meltdown looming large, we must find ways to mobilize the necessary expertise and resources with greater speed and scope to avert a sixth mass extinction that could wipe out over three-quarters of all life on Earth. To achieve this, we must fundamentally rethink our social and economic paradigms and place a much higher value on ecology and sustainability. By shifting our relationship with the environment from one of destructive complacency to active ecological engagement, we can work towards a better future for ourselves and the planet. The Redwood Preserve project offers a shining example of what is possible when we embrace this new paradigm. By ambitiously restoring and reforesting two million acres of California redwood forest, the project aims to create a lasting legacy that will inspire awe and wonder for thousands of years to come. In doing so, it offers a hopeful vision of a future in which humanity and the natural world can coexist in harmony, rather than in conflict.

The genesis of The Redwood Preserve project draws inspiration from a confluence of artistic and environmental influences. Environmental land artist Agnes Denes, social practice artist Rick Lowe, and German artist Joseph Beuys’ project “7000 Oaks” are a few of the sources that informed the project. Additionally, artist Robert Hammonds’ visionary concept of The High Line in New York City and American land art, including Michael Metzer’s “City” and James Turrell’s “Roden Crater”, have also contributed to the project’s vision. The grand scale of The Redwood Preserve is reminiscent of epoch-defining monuments such as the Pyramids at Giza and the Great Wall of China. As an artwork, it exists within the contexts of social practice, conceptual art, and environmental land art. The project is a call to envision a future that endures as a legacy of its generation and serves as a reminder of the intrinsic value of natural abundance and the diversity of life on Earth.


Environmental Legacy


On top of that, the act of planting and conserving trees, particularly redwood trees, as memorials for the deceased can bring a range of benefits, not only to the environment but also to the grieving families. By reforesting, families can make positive contributions to the planet by helping to reduce carbon emissions. All majestic trees are instrumental in providing vital ecosystem services such as supporting biodiversity by providing habitats for a range of species, regulating water cycles, and improving air quality. Planting or conserving redwoods as grave memorials can also create a lasting legacy and offer a tangible way to honor the memory, providing comfort and solace during the grieving process, while fostering a deeper connection with nature and a sense of environmental stewardship. By taking this action, individuals can honor the values and beliefs of their loved ones and pass on a legacy of environmental awareness to future generations. According to Robert Van Pelt, a researcher at Mumbolat State University Department of Forestry and Wildland Resources: “The carbon part of a redwood may be more important than the lumber part in the coming decades”.


To conclude, the restoration of the great California redwood forest offers a tangible solution to the global climate crisis and regional biodiversity loss. This restoration effort could serve as a prototype for large-scale ecological restoration projects, providing a model for future endeavours. In the face of an uncertain environmental future, it is vital that we consider the importance of protecting and restoring these magnificent trees, that we honor and listen to the lessons and advice of indigenous people, and we are inspired by the artists that are the innovators of change. By doing so, we can have confidence in the knowledge that we can leave this world with an environmental legacy that continues to grow, long after we are gone.


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