Trees work in mysterious ways. A branch from a tree is a miniature replica of the whole tree. It is not identical but similar in nature to the whole. This fractal structure may actually describe the very fabric of reality, meaning the invisible structure behind all existence has the shape of a tree. In this way, the tree goes beyond being a mere symbol of the universe and is actually an echo of how reality is shaped. I see this pattern of the tree everywhere. One of my favorite displays at the recent popular "Body Worlds" exhibition was a hauntingly beautiful tree of plastic blood. It was an actual human circulatory system made solid with the process called plastination. Everything else was stripped away, leaving only an intricate array of branching veins. The tree pattern is inherent in any ontological system. The many species of the animal kingdom are best organized and charted as the branches of a tree. Of course, everyone is familiar with their own family tree.
Buddha achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree because he became one with the cosmic tree. Throughout history, and in so many different cultures, trees have been connected with spiritual growth. The tree, with its roots burrowing deep down into the earth and its branches reaching high up into the sky, can be seen to connect heaven with the earth. The Kabbalist Tree of Life is a guide to how an individual can connect to the divine source. The Maya call their Tree of Life Yaxche. It unites the three realms of the underworld, earth and heavens. In Norse mythology, Yggdrasill is the World Tree, a great ash tree located at the center of the universe and joining the nine worlds of Norse cosmology.
Ancient peoples felt an intimate connection to trees. They saw how their lives were interwoven with the natural world around them and so they instinctively respected and cared for nature. When they cut down a tree, they would say a prayer to the indwelling spirit. One of the very first deities humans ever depicted was a forest spirit. There are cave paintings of a figure with the shape of a man and the horns of a stag believed to represent this divinity. In the ancient Celtic world, this forest spirit was named Cernunnos. He was a very important god to the people and his representations were widespread. Cernunnos was guardian of the forest, and the trees were guardians of both life and death. Trees were so significant in ancient people's lives that the beginning of all religious and social life took place under trees in sacred groves. When the Christians began systematically destroying the sacred groves, a monumental shift in our thinking began. We went from believing we are a part of nature to seeing nature as something to conquer and control, something we are above.
The mysterious spirits and essence of trees, plants and animals have become more and more obscure to us. While in the midst of working on my California Brown Bear painting, I was with my 8-year-old daughter Rosie at the American Rag store here in Los Angeles where they happen to have a 9-foot-tall, taxidermied bear. The bear is majestically standing on his hind legs with an impressive expression. While looking at this striking sight, Rosie was taken aback. She said until that moment she had never realized a bear could be scary. She has been so immersed in a culture whose concept of "Bear-ness" is a Disneyfied, computer-animated cartoon that she hardly knew what a bear truly was.
Today our relationship with nature is more like that of a tourist. We load up the kids in the family car and look out the window at trees like they are animals in a zoo. (Of course, no family trip is complete without bringing home a souvenir. I wanted to make a souvenir of The Tree Show just like the pennants I collected in my childhood. I had to make it the way I remembered them with real felt and ink you could feel.) I grew up in South Lake Tahoe where nature truly functions as a tourist attraction. As I worked on my ideas and sketches for my paintings, I found myself coming back to the trees I am most familiar with, the conifers of California. If you look for trees that rank as the oldest, the tallest or the largest, you can find each one of these record holders right here in California. General Sherman, a giant sequoia in Sequoia National Park, is the largest by volume. Methuselah, a bristlecone pine in the White Mountains, is the oldest at 4,700 years. Hyperion, a coastal redwood in the Redwood National Park, is the tallest at 379 feet. While any humble tree can inspire contemplation into the mysteries of life, when a tree grows to an extreme of size or age, it is difficult not to be filled with philosophical introspection in its presence. When you stand before these ancient trees, you can almost feel their mystical aura. They appear immortal. It is difficult to really comprehend the thousands of years they take to slowly grow, one thin ring at a time. It is a marvel that one individual tree can overlap so much human history.
It is perplexing to me how some can look at these extraordinary trees and see evidence of a spiritual power while others only see a commodity. The history of the California redwoods poignantly illustrates the contrast between these different ways of relating to nature.
Hyperion, the record-breaking tallest tree, was only recently discovered in 2006. What was remarkable about this tree was that it survived at all. In the late 1970s, logging companies were working around the clock, using lights to work at night. They were trying to clear-cut as much virgin forest as possible before a deadline. Legislation was eminent to expand the Redwood National Park and protect the last tiny remaining scraps of virgin forest in this area. They came within a few dozen yards of cutting down the tallest living thing on earth. Amazing as it seems, with so little virgin forest left, logging still remains a constant threat to the small number of remaining ancient trees.
I believe that if there is indeed a secret to the universe and a meaning to life, I am sure it would be found inside of a tree. William Blake said, "The tree that moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way … some scarce see nature at all, but to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself."