"Nobody sees a flower really" - my artist's talk at BigCi, Australia
Below is a slightly modified version of the text that I planned to give at the Artists’ Open Day at BigCi in the Blue Mountains, Australia on 29 April 2019. I was speaking from notes, and sometimes not from my notes, so this is not word-for-word, but it captures some of the key themes and ideas that I was exploring during my time in Australia.
When I was a teenager, my father and stepmother gave me a framed Georgia O’Keefe poster. It was from an exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute, and it was a picture of a red poppy. On the poster was a quote. “Nobody sees a flower really. We haven’t time and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time”.
Thirty or so years later, the picture is in storage as I live in other countries and go on my travels. But I still remember the quote. Without my conscious adoption of it as such, I think it has become a constant reminder to me of why I am a long-time photographer of plants – and also why I have set out this on journey to visit and listen to ten trees.
Because if we don’t see flowers, we often don’t see trees either. In my time at this residency, I came across the term ‘plant blindness’. It is a term that was coined by Elizabeth Schussler and James Wandersee, long after Georgia O’Keefe, to describe the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment. Children, for example, don’t recognise plants from their local area but are able to recognise animals, such as lions, which are not native to them. This plant blindness is dangerous given how crucial plants are for our survival and the survival of the entire planet. We often have a connection to a particular tree in our garden or in a local area, but how much do we know about what the other trees and plants are and their role in the ecosystem?
The trees that I am visiting on my journey range from the banyan tree in India to the oak tree in England. The catalyst for my journey was reading an article about how the baobab trees in Africa are dying becase of climate change. I lived in Africa for a year and I knew the baobab trees, and I felt real grief on reading this. I asked myself “What are we doing? Destroying thousand year old plus beings, never mind the effect on human lives. And some quick research revealed that it was not only baobab trees that were being effected because of climate change.
In drawing up my list of trees, eucalyptus was on the first draft. I knew that there were solid reasons from a research perspective, but I also knew that the primary draw was emotional. But that is a story for another day – or for the book.
However, as you know, the eucalpytus is not just one tree, it is many. On arriving here, I was faced with the sheer number and variety. Where did I start ? In the Blue Mountains alone, there are nearly 100 different type of eucalyptus. I couldn’t just write about ‘eucalyptus’. That was like writing about the whole ficus or fig family – and I was writing about both the banyan and the bodhi tree, which are both members of that family.
A state of mind?
A week or so into my trip, I latched onto a phrase that I came across on a blog. Patrick White, the Australian writer, who as it turns out lived near here, had said that eucalyptus is a more of a state of mind than a tree. Aha, I thought, this was the insight that I needed, my justification to focus (using the term focus loosely) on eucalypts as a family, rather than on an individual species. I wrote exploring what the eucalyptus state of mind was:
A state of mind which is a state of light and shadow.
A state of mind which is blue and red and scribbly and pepperminty and lemony.
A state of mind rooted in rock of volcano flow and spinning out to the Southern Cross.
A state of mind which charcoals, hollows, still grows.
A state of mind which is a lung-opened, inhale, exhale, expansion
State of heart.
Despite the last three words I wrote – state of heart - I continued turning around in my head the concept of what a eucalyptus state of mind was.
A week or so later, I was skyping with Monica Gagliano, an Australian research scientist who has written a book called ‘Thus Spoke the Plant’ about her research in understanding plant communication. I ask her if the phrase eucalyptus state of mind resonates with her.
“Not really” she said. “I don’t think of them as a state of mind, but rather as a condition of the heart”.
She described how she loved the pink smoothness of the skin of the salmon gum, and the contrast between the tall, strong trunk of the lemon eucalyptus and its delicate, lemony fragrance.
Despite coming to my own conclusion that the eucalyptus was a state of heart, my thinking mind was still getting in the way. The same thinking mind that, perhaps, was stopping me from listening more closely to the trees.
Another story. I like to think that it was not just the baobabs that called me on this journey. In June last year, a couple of days before reading about the baobabs, I went on a weekend to learn about deep ecology at Menla in the Catskills, upstate New York. My shorthand explanation for deep ecology is that is about how we and all other nature beings are all interconnected and therefore our responsibility to act in a way which doesn’t just privilege humans. During this weekend, I was by the side of the lake on the property. A young man who worked there asked if he could play his wooden flute. “Of course”, I said. As he played, a woodpecker started knocking in response. He, in turn, tuned in his playing to the woodpecker. And it became a call and response between the man and the woodpecker. Afterwards, one of the other women asked the flute player: “Where did you learn to play?” “The woods”, he replied.
Learning from the woods
I think that we can all learn from the woods – whatever the question is that we are called to answer. One of the questions that I am exploring on this trip is how to live. The alternative title that came to me in Sri Lanka is: “Learning how to live: lessons from 10 Trees’. The trees have answers to share if I have ears, eyes, body to listen. And if as a society we are to heal the divide that has grown up within us with nature – or what is in fact the divide within ourselves as we are ourselves nature – then the woods, and the trees, and the plants which make up the forest have an important part to play in reconnecting us to ourselves. The rise of forest bathing is one small example of how people are beginning to recognize again the importance of spending time with the trees.
I could give you statistics about climate change and how the forests are an essential part in helping to combat climate change. But I think or perhaps I should say better, I feel, that part of the problem is that we are trying to ‘solve’ climate change with our minds, as if it was a puzzle that could be solved. And that leads us to technical solutions and innovations and the hope that this will somehow save us from ourselves. Whilst this is important, we also need to be connecting more with what is happening through our hearts, and seeing what arises from this place – which goes back to the question of how do we want to live.
10 years or so ago, I contributed to a book called ‘The Future is Beautiful’. My contribution was about my creative practice of taking a picture a day, which meant that everyday I had to take time to look, and because of what I am attracted to, that was often the beautiful and often nature-based. The future is beautiful only if we can see the beauty in the now.
So if my book is ‘A History of the Future of the World in 10 Trees’, then one of the things that I am learning is that I have to learn to be rooted in the present. Because that is actually the only time that we have. And if we want the future to be beautiful, then it begins with what we do now in the present, rather than exporting the solutions to the future. That is just one lesson that we can learn from listening to the trees.
If we take time to see. And to listen.