Recently I took a morning to remember the victims of the holocaust by visiting Bachenwald in Germany, a labor concentration camp where an estimated 56 000 people died. Within the camp was a lone tree. Spared from forest clearing for camp construction in 1937 because it was believed to be the Oak tree that German writer Goethe would visit with his lover and under which composed his poem
The wanderers night song and possibly others.
The mighty Oak began to die alongside the prisoners as it became bleached from lack of water and isolation and by 1944 was completely barren. The bare boned trunk was finally burnt in an allied bombing just before the camp was liberated in 1945. Leaving the stump, originally a symbol of German pride and inspiration, to become a symbol of the prisoner’s fate, a potent remnant of the people that have since passed.
A prison art exhibit nearby- many works secretly created, reveals a telling picture of the
lives and experience of the prisoners. It interested me how the artists depicted trees, considering that in their world the only tree they had was a dying oak. Colorful scenes with healthy robust trees featured the full idealism of memories of home and freedom, in contrast to Goethes oak, dark pencil and charcoal lines liken wiry defeated limbs.
To me the dual depiction of trees speak to the prisoners survival, the understandable
hope, seeking another time and place as they watched the only source of tree life wither along with their own.
It is little wonder that Goethes Oak and trees in general feature so prominently in the subject matter of the exhibit. Trees have always been a major subject in visual art. Art being a reflection of its creators and the society that it engages, utilizes symbols as pointers to the abstract interior of ourselves. Paintings and drawings of the prisoner’s trees are revelations and testaments to the heart of these prison artists. Bachenwald illustrates that we may deny trees in the way we live but they are always there in our art because they are in fact a representation of us.
It is out of disconnection and taboo that we relate to trees by marginalizing them as aesthetic, commercial and biological ‘value added’, or even as the other. We rely on them for our air, soil, shade, energy, buildings, businesses, inspiration, social and personal health, and most obviously food and water. In short we need trees more than they need us. Perhaps this dependency is why we refuse to relate to them as ourselves, our equals or even our elders because then we wouldn’t be the jewel in the crown of creation. Attitudes of superiority must crumble when the nature of our dependency is acknowledged.
This dependency may even evoke feelings of inferiority and shame in those of us who adhere to human hierarchies, creating the tree taboo. The global delusion that humans have superiority and autonomy to make decisions about trees denies that trees are our origins, our carers, our protectors, our inspirers, our feeders, our health, our primal home, our future, in effect ourselves. We are modern humans because of trees. Trees have brought us to meet our destiny of modernity. Sometimes we meet beauty and inspiration, as in Goethes Oak and sometimes we meet manipulation, neglect and suffering like the stump and camp victims.
In Bachenwald I found myself in an apocalyptic Garden of Eden, staring at the stump
of a tree with the knowledge of good and evil, where our acts of grace and disgrace are revealed. We are now witnessing our capacity to gracefully embrace life or disgracefully deny it. Turns out Trees do need us. They need us to know ourselves, through our connective ability to preserve and protect, to be related to and care. They need us to allow them to inspire us through our art and through our choices, our conversations and our quieter moments of recognition. Acknowledging them with gratitude is our path to knowing and nurturing ourselves back to the grace and goodness of life. Perhaps there is one amendment I would make to the garden story after all. That the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil are one and the same. Trees are our origins and our future. Our evolution, creations, and humanity weren’t just in the shade and presence of trees but because of trees.