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August 2018: How Trees Tell Stories

May T. Watts walking among trees in a forest, possibly in the Great Smoky Mountains. A figure of another person, possibly a child, is visible walking in front of Watts.

Through time and throughout various cultures, people have looked to trees to make sense of life and the world around them. A tender connection between people and trees is demonstrated in author Shel Silverstein’s classic book, “The Giving Tree.” In the story, Silverstein chronicles the life of a boy and his special relationship with a tree. As the boy’s life evolves, so does his relationship with the tree, providing the boy with different gifts throughout the stages of his life. A popular quote from the story goes: “And the boy loved the tree...very much. And the tree was happy.” There are plenty of reasons to love trees. Besides their environmental, economical, and social benefits, trees can provide insights on an artistic, spiritual, and emotional level.

Trees are a popular subject matter for many artists. Trees have been an enduring subject in photography since its invention. Not only photographed for botanical and topographical purposes, they are also seen like portrait subjects, where isolated trees can convey individual identities and moods, while trees as a whole are often used and seen as the main representation for nature. Additionally, trees are one of the more popular art subjects for artists to put on canvas. Since trees can live for hundreds, even thousands of years, when an artist draws or paints a tree, they can can be inspired by the tree’s life and interpret its story with different colors and styles.

Below is an image of an original Tony Tyznik black ink drawing. The drawing depicts a scale drawing of mature and immature Cercis canadensis (redbud) trees, flowering and fruiting branches, and flower and fruit cross sections.


Tree Portrait: Cercis canadensis (redbud)  Scale drawing of mature and immature trees, flowering and fruiting branches, and flower and fruit cross sections. Tree age and height above tree images.

The Sterling Morton Library has vast botanical art collection, some of which has been digitized and added to ACORN! To browse the Library’s artwork on ACORN, click ‘Browse’ on the top center of the page. Then select ‘Object Type’ on the left side, which will allow you to select a medium to view.

In addition to having a strong presence in art, trees have compelling roles in many of the world’s mythologies and religions. More well-known sacred or spiritual trees include the banyan and ‘sacred fig’, seen in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and the ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’, which is seen in Judaism and Christianity. In many pagan beliefs, trees are seen to embody deities, spirits, or even humans that have been transformed into trees. If you’re interested in learning more about how trees are depicted in various beliefs, some of these books (available in the Library) may be of interest to you:

All the trees and woody plants of the Bible by David A. Anderson

Tree-talk : memories, myths and timeless customs by Marie-France Boyer
Irish Trees – Myths, Legends & Folklore: Myths, Legends and Folklore by Niall Mac Coitir*
The attentive heart : conversations with trees by Stephanie Kaza
Figs, dates, laurel, and myrrh : plants of the Bible and the Quran by Lytton John Musselman
Inventing the Christmas Tree by Bernd Brunner and Benjamin A Smith*
Spiritual Ecology : A Quiet Revolution by Leslie E. Sponsel*

There are multiple ways in which trees can have an impact on us emotionally. From a mental health perspective, numerous studies have suggested that exposure to trees and nature can have a positive impact on our mental health. In the book, “The Biophilia Hypothesis” by Edward O. Wilson and Stephen R. Kellert, the scientists hypothesize that humans have evolutionary biological and psychological needs attached to the natural world. According to the book,  ruthless environmental decimation could have a significant impact on our psychological and spiritual lives. To parallel this hypothesis, a recent 2015 study published in the journal Nature combines satellite imagery, individual tree data and health surveys from over 31,000 residents of the greater Toronto area to find that people who live in areas with higher tree density report better health perception than their peers living in areas with lower street tree density.

Additionally, many trees are considered to have stature in our communities and memories. To help celebrate the trees that have had an impact on our lives, The Morton Arboretum has teamed up with Openlands to celebrate Chicago-area trees by creating the Tree-mendous Tree Stories project. This curated collection of stories allows users to share their memorable and impactful tree experiences with a large community of users.

This August, the Sterling Morton Library will be hosting the Tree-mendous Tree Stories Digitization Workshop! This workshop allows individuals the opportunity to have their tree images digitized (scanned) by Library staff and have help uploading their images and stories onto the Tree-mendous Tree Stories website. To register for this event, follow the link here.

If you need any inspiration while trying to write your tree story, you may be interested in some of these titles, available through the Library:

Tree stories : a collection of extraordinary encounters by Warren D. Jacobs
The Power of Trees by Gretchen Daily and Charles Katz*
Kenilworth tree stories : history woven around its trees by Colleen Browne Kilner
Between earth and sky : our intimate connections to trees by Nalini Nadkarni
The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford*
The hidden life of trees : what they feel, how they communicate : discoveries from a secret world by Peter Wohlleben


*Access the Library’s e-book collection by entering the number on the back of your Sterling Morton Library card.