Fantasy Trees Versus Reality Trees

By L. Peter MacDonagh, RLA, ISA and Leda Marritz
“Without trees, a city is just a scab on the earth.”
– Chuck Gilstrap

It is hard to imagine any creation as wild or as fanciful as what can be found in nature. One way or another, the natural world is where the shapes and inspiration for almost everything we do is derived. The acceptance of nature as the foundation of our creative output  is reinforced in numerous ways, from the universal task of gathering and identifying leaves in school to creating tree houses or making sand castles.

But that’s kid stuff. We also see nature inspiring the grown-up business world, whether it’s in the logos of BP and Apple Computer or AT&T’s advertising.

Leaves, oceans, and dunes are just a few examples of elements of the natural world that are as artful and inspiring as anything humans have every created. Would anybody argue that trees, in and of themselves, are not art? I don’t think so. These gorgeous organisms grow in ways that manage to be both spontaneous and restrained, majestic and fragile. They are immense and powerful, but also fundamentally gentle. Can you think of anything else that bursts through space so quietly?

In many ways it’s no surprise that, as humans, we’ve gone the next step and tried to enhance and adapt these pre-existing artistic properties of trees through controlled manipulation of their growing conditions or appearance.

This debarked tree in Normal, IL is one such example of tree-as-art. Debarking enables us to see a part of the tree we normally wouldn’t that is very, very beautiful. When I look at this tree, it makes me think about dissecting a frog in high school science: the insides are quite amazing and rare to see — and therefore precious. The tree and the frog can’t survive a process like this of course, but the result is lovely to behold.

This woven willow is from a lobby in the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Woven Willows are actually shrubs composed of a woody tissue that is yarn-like in appearance. It grows in bunches and is usually harvested to make willow furniture or for flower arrangements.

In this case, the stems have been woven to form a column and branches to create a huge “tree.” This “tree” is not a tree at all, of course, and it’s certainly not alive. To grow a tree in this circumstance would be very difficult, and at a minimum would require huge volumes of soil. Instead, this work of art is a suggestion of a tree rather than a tree itself.

(This tree also happens to look quite a lot like a Lorax, perhaps the ultimate symbol of a child’s perspective on the world.)

Sevillano Olives like the one pictured here, also growing a Las Vegas atrium, can live to be hundreds of years old. They’re completely incredible. This tree is alive, but has been heavily pruned, obviously to achieve a shape and style consistent with the artist’s imagination. This is an almost European version of bonsai. No doubt this tree was grown elsewhere before being planted here; this courtyard is not designed to grow a tree like this. And even though it is surviving, it has been pushed to the limits of livable conditions.

In these examples we’ve got trees that are not alive, trees that are not really trees, and trees that are at the brink of survival, all expressing the form and creation of these incredible plants in different and visually compelling ways.

The City of London, ON has gone somewhat in another direction, installing metal tree sculptures trather than trees themselves (our understanding is that they were not able to successfully grow mature trees in their downtown). These public art pieces were funded by the local downtown business association. They cost $6,000 per tree and were installed by local firm Spriet and Associates. There are approximately 45 of these sculptures in the downtown area, designed to represent a selection of the most common native tree species such as red oak and white pine. I don’t mean to be impertinent, but these honestly look more like coat racks than trees.


All of these examples — and no doubt there are many more — raise a lot of interesting questions about art as provocation, trees as graphical statements, and the nature of our relationship to trees.

I started off this post by writing about “kid stuff” that we all grow up with that enforces the fundamental basis of nature in our artistic sensibility. I think that much of what we’ve examined here suggests that we have not matured beyond this childlike, romanticized version of trees. The trees in these examples are derivations of their natural forms and patterns, yes, but they are also magical fantasies, graphic statements that look like they could have come from the drawing of a school child. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s an important clue to understanding their meaning to us.

The trees here all seem to possess somewhat miraculous properties — a well-deserved descriptor, since they are all either dead, not actual trees, were never alive in the first place, or are on the brink of survival.

Of course, the point of art is not to simply mimic or reflect existing cultural values. Part of what makes art so powerful is its capacity to exaggerate, evoke, question, subvert, even to ridicule. But looking at these examples — and they are provocative because of the fantasy they evoke so powerfully — I think it’s undeniable that they reflect a somewhat undeveloped relationship to these plants.

I’m thinking about so many things here — from the admirable but terribly flawed Million Trees Initiatives that value short-lived quantity over creating a shift in how trees are planted, to the endless search for “super trees” that will somehow grow to their full potential in harsh and unforgiving urban environments.

Priorities like these are partly to blame for the real and very serious lack of species diversity in street trees, and also for the decline in urban canopy that we have been experiencing for the last 20 years. Priorities like these suggest that we must simply continue to search for the right tree to survive, because that is the tree will answer the question of how to preserve our link to nature in an increasingly developed world.

It almost is an unknown that the canopy of a tree requires a root volume twice the size of its canopy. In a sense, denying the tree its root volume keeps the thinking on trees in the magical realm and doesn’t truly honor all that trees are. This denial of a tree’s very real needs is in a way a denial of its existence on anything other than human terms. I think that trees are almost the perfect non-animal organism imaginable, but even they are no silver bullet. They are not magically strong, and they cannot withstand anything that we throw at them.

Fundamentally, we must cultivate an adult relationship to trees, whether on our sidewalks or as art installations. The variety of species and beauty of trees is absolutely staggering. Their benefits to the earth, to wildlife and to people is unparalleled. Global development of cities and towns is a very real fact of modern life, making our efforts to create an urban environment in which trees can thrive even more critical. We are their stewards, and their continued long-term success depends entirely on us.>

All tree images courtesy of Peter MacDonagh.


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