In the forested Delaney Conservation Area behind the farm, I saw a white pine growing with what looked like a large clenched fist halfway up the trunk. When I looked more closely I saw that it was a twisted knot. Then I saw other pines growing with similarly knotted trunks. Intrigued and baffled, I wondered what had happened in these woods.

Further along the trail, a young sapling’s central leader was not growing straight, but circled around itself. That was the aha moment. Someone was going around and looping the tops of these young pines. Then, as the tree grew, the loose loop tightened into a knot. I noticed a few young trees missing the top of their trunks, their central leaders. Unable to submit to the pressure of this forced bending, they had sadly snapped off. I continued along the trail, unraveling any looped tree I found. Later I learned that one of my neighbors had knotted the trees when he was a young child; and he continues to do it haphazardly even now.

In the 16th century painting The Lament of Nature to the Wandering Alchemist by the French artist, Jean Perréal, a scantily clad angel with arms crossed below her breasts sits in a regal seat, which when you look closely, is really a tree with a trellised back of sinuous trunks. Why the naked angel, the well-dressed alchemist, the fire under her seat? The angel appears to be either defending herself or rebuking the alchemist. However, what interests me most is her chair. The upright branches have been twisted to grow and touch; they have grafted themselves to each other creating this fantastical throne chair. I wondered if this was the wildly imaginative idea of the painter or whether he had seen such a tree chair. 

If you had been driving along the California coast near Santa Cruz in the 1940’s you could have seen even more fantastical tree creations. Axel Erlandson, a farmer, created what he called a Tree Circus — eccentric, fanciful, and bizarre shapes created by training trees to grow in particular shapes. One of his trees has a heart right in the center of the main trunk. Another had two trunks that spiral around each other as they both support the large tree canopy. His ‘Basket’ tree is made from several trees planted in a circle, then he grafted overlapping limbs together to form a basket weave pattern.

Image from Wikipedia article on Axel Erlandson.

Image from Wikipedia article on Axel Erlandson.

Today, a tree shaper in Oregon, Richard Reames, calls his work arbor sculpture. He makes living trees into furniture. Chairs, he says, are relatively easy to grow, but he has also created arbors, a spiral staircase, and even a boat. In Germany, Konstantin Kirsch and Herman Block have created several living tree houses. For one house, they planted 1,300 ash saplings, seven every foot, and wove them together to make the walls to form an interior court surrounded by six rooms.  

Arborshaping is grafting carried to its limits; we humans do seem to be wired to go to extremes. When I look at these images of arborshaping, I have simultaneous reactions of awe and horror. There is something ghastly about forcing nature to grow in such unnatural ways, and yet the growth patterns are astonishing. I do, however, love the idea of incorporating a living tree into the building of a house. One of my favorite examples is from Homer’s Odyssey. (Though I can’t quite tell if the tree continued to live.) 

There was the bole of an olive tree with long leaves growing strongly in the courtyard, and it was thick, like a column. I laid down my chamber around this … Then I cut away the foliage of the long-leaved olive, and trimmed the trunk from the roots up, planning it with a brazen adze, well and expertly, and trued it straight to a chalkline, making a bedpost of it, and bored all hones with an auger. (23.190-288).

When Odysseus returned home in the guise of a beggar after ten years of wandering, Penelope tested him by saying she had moved their bed. From Odysseus’ reaction of indignation, she was certain that she was speaking to her husband.

And that angel representing Nature? I think she is saying, “I don’t need your alchemy, your thick red robes, your ivory tower of mysterious pursuits. Look what magic I can do on my own. Nature has plenty of mystery, just embrace her!