My tree project had started as a reaction to the bleak realities of working with environmental issues. I needed a focal point that could provide tangible, living examples of how qualities like resilience and sustainability work in the natural world. Old trees, still alive after thousands of years, seemed like a good starting point.
I am a visual artist and my first impulse was to work with camera and drawing for this project but soon found that I needed a modified approach for each new tree. Some of these approaches have involved the help of local participants, as when singing happy birthday to an ancient yew in Wales, or an inordinate amount of gear (as when a French film team documented my attempt to stage a vodou performance in the crisp snow around the 10,000-year old spruce Old Tjikko in the north of Sweden), but for the most part my visits with the trees have been quiet and intimate. When I set out for the chestnut in Sicily I had no premeditated plan of action. What I found was a series of impressions that I have attempted to render in this text.
Dreaming a tree: Hundred Horses Chestnut
The tree is sleeping. Dormant. The area is on hold. It is quiet in the village and on the hillsides, on the terraces and in the shuttered houses. The tourists are not here yet. It’s too cold, too empty and too damp.
Where was she headed, that fabled Queen of Aragon who made camp here centuries ago? She sought shelter from the storm with a retinue of a hundred horses. Something must have prompted her to take this route. Who was she going to visit? Was she headed up to the crater to meet with the blacksmith Hephaestus, whose forge drew its fire from the very core of the volcano? Did she seek to strike a bargain with the gods of old? Did she bring precious metals to fuse with steel and embers? Or was her journey a pilgrimage, a retreat into the deepening shade of the mountain? I do not know. Perhaps she realised exactly how powerful the image would be. A hundred horses under the sheltering canopy of a single tree on the slopes of an active volcano. Flair and spectacle, the threads of storytelling woven together with so many harnesses and ropes, tents and campfires under a giant chestnut tree. A sudden shift of weather brought them together here and set the stage for drama that would echo beyond the night into centuries to come.
Driving up from the coast is increasingly risky as each hairpin turn brings me further into winter on the slopes of Etna. No snow tyres on my rental. Droves of ripe oranges line the narrow roads. The cultivated terraces on either side of the road are kept in line with barriers of vintage chain link and black lava stone. I slow down to avoid a patch of ice shaded by a north-facing wall. Coming up on a straight stretch I speed up again, only to find a giant heap of trash smack dab in the middle of the road. A mountain of garbage. Then another one. Three lopsided plastic waste containers on wheels pushed aside with just enough room for passage. I drive on, careful not to get too close. The scene is repeated a little further up. A lush crevice is filled all the way up to the moss-covered stonework with rotting drywall, diapers and broken furniture. I step out of the car to take a picture. If I turn the other way the view is stunning. Rolling hillsides and a vast blue sea below. Pink clouds. A scattering of slanting rooftops amid the green foliage. A landscape painter’s dream. I face the gorge and focus my camera on the baroque scenery below.
There is a bit of spectacle surrounding the old chestnut. It starts way down below in the valley with sporadic road signs that point to Castagno dei Cento Cavalli – Hundred Horses Chestnut. The signs do help on these roads that meander in a constant back and forth of hairpin turns and sudden doubleups. The signs also build a sense of expectation. I find myself driving faster the closer I get, as if time is running out. I am having visions of the tree’s 5,000-year-long stretch of life coming to an abrupt end in a raging flood of erupting lava. This feeling is irrational and yet it feels somehow pertinent to the project as a whole – an attempt to learn something from these trees before it’s too late.
I calm down and pull up at a parking lot by the park next to the tree. A stray cat watches me get out of the car and saunters back to its place by the doorstep of Caffe dei Cento Cavalli, which is closed for the season. There’s a taste of snow and organic matter in the air.
The majestic crown of the tree is just up the hill and I make my way through the park. A path of chipped slate leads up to a fence of tightly spaced steel posts. I knew the fence would be here but can’t help feeling a bit disappointed. The view is obscured and it makes it hard to grasp how trunks, branches and canopy interconnect and make one single organism. I set my gear down and walk slowly around the fence. I count no fewer than seven substantial trunks among a number of leaner siblings. They stand like fragments of an ancient forest, contorted, wild and enduring. There is so much beauty in that which is shaped by the slow forces of the ages. I remain there with my face pressed against the fence for a long time, taking it all in.
A small wooden platform on the side of the terrace offers a slightly elevated view of the tree. This is the designated spot for taking pictures. I dutifully snap a few shots, none of which capture the essence of anything. The fence bothers me and I climb down again to read the information plaque posted on the perimeter. The tree was declared a ‘Messenger of Peace’ by UNESCO in 2006. I try to decipher the Italian version where it says that the tree is a ‘Monument to Convey a Culture of Peace Into the World’, which somehow sounds more dignified. The municipality of San’t Alfio further declares that the penalty for breaching the two-metre-high steel posts is €1,000. I take a look around. Still not a living soul. A small puff of white smoke from a chimney further up the hill. The sky has grown a shade darker and it’s getting chilly. I want to lose myself in reveries under the sheltering canopy of the chestnut and physically explore the cracked and creviced surface of the tree with my hands. A squirrel darts into the forbidden zone and scoots up the nearest trunk. I bend down to pick up a chestnut and make another round along the fence. I decide to be content to touch the seeds of the 5,000-year-old and slowly head back to my car.
I make my way down to the coast for the night. I had hoped to stay at one of the old estates transformed into agriturismo hotels, but they were all closed for the season. Eventually, I end up driving around in the town of Giarre, where I pass a number of crumbling mansions and abandoned fincas but have little look finding a room. I am reminded of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel Il Gattopardo, a story set in mid-19th-century Sicily. ‘Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same’, says the Prince of Salina as he makes a final round through the chambers of his estate, through landscapes of peeling paint, crumbling stucco and tapestries laden with melancholy and dust. It is the night of the wedding between his handsome nephew and the mayor’s daughter. Aristocracy weds bourgeoisie. There would be no shortage of possible sets to stage a remake of the novel in this part of town. I drive along imposing walls with wrought iron gates and facades heavy on ornament. The gloomy gardens are long gone wild. I would love to spend the night in one of these weary palaces. I would not mind the soot on the windows or the rattling shutters. I do not need continental breakfast and free wifi, but I do need a rest and eventually I find myself in the comfort of a tidy and well heated pensione, complete with the flicker of half-dead sex shop neon across the street, and breakfast included.
Left largely undisturbed in the present day, the tree has had a long history of interactions with men and their desires. I read Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees on the flight from Stockholm to Sicily. It is like reading a survival manual. Being a tree is a demanding task. There is a plethora of threats and obstacles to overcome. Fungus, bacteria, microbes, insects, beetles, competing plants and trees, storms, floods, droughts, lightning and mudslides, to name a few. A tree on the slopes of Etna must add volcanic eruptions with rivers of molten lava to the list. At 3,329 meters tall, Mount Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe. I was a bit disappointed to learn that the volcano erupted shortly after I left the island, but relieved to find that, once again, the old chestnut had made it intact.
When I speak to others about my work with old trees, the question invariably comes up: how did they manage to get this old? The answer is fairly simple. No destructive human interference. No chopping axes. No chainsaws, handsaws, pickaxes, engineered fires or sloppy coppicing. Some trees are spared for ceremonial purposes like the old yews of European churchyards, but these are exceptions to the rule of utility. Survival in a cultivated landscape appears to be first and foremost connected to a tree’s economic or practical value to us humans. Castagno dei Cento Cavalli has been useful in a number of ways over time. The seeds are edible and the broad-leaved canopy provides shelter from sun and rain. A massive root system keeps the soil in place. The tree is a renewable source of food, firewood and kindling. Furthermore, it has become a tourist attraction over the centuries – a place to visit, a space of place in its own right.
Having said this, we urgently need to shift focus when fighting for the protection of trees. It is easy to single out an individual tree and assign it special status but the VIP treatment needs to go beyond the spectacular individual and encompass the environment as a whole. That means a departure from preservation efforts that are hinged on nature’s use to us humans, and an understanding that, unless we put our needs and desires in synch with the oceans, the rocks, the plants and the animals of this planet, we will end up living in a barren effigy of nature with an atmosphere that relies on ever-upgraded versions of the latest technofix. If you think this is alarmist, I’d invite you to come visit me in Sweden, half of which is forest. Barring a radical change in land treatment, circa 95% of this vast area will be industrial forest within 20 years, with all that it entails: monoculture, ecological depletion and a utility-oriented landscape. There will be no poetry in this forest. There will be no enormous trees under which a retinue of horses can seek shelter. What we’re dealing with here is the irrevocable loss of poetic space; a loss which must be addressed in a language quite other than the ethnocentric lingo of the global marketplace. It is difficult, and I am not certain that I possess the adequate words, but for now, I say this: leave the trees alone. They were never ours to chop down.
I am dreaming a queen under a tree.
She held a spiky sheath in her numb hand and squeezed it slowly. We are birds of a feather, she thought to herself. Life and warmth slowly returned to her fingers as she clamped down harder on the dry spikes of the blackened shell. Relaxing her grip she gently pried the shell loose from the soft spots of her palm and held it up to the light. Tiny drops of blood on white skin. She ordered the men to gather as many chestnuts as they could find. They stacked the chestnuts in a shiny brown mound outside outside her tent. She picked them up one by one and let the smooth surface rub against the inside of her cupped hands. Those with a particular softness were set aside. They would make nice gifts. The men built a fire and waited until the glow of the embers was ready for roasting. Barrels of coarse salt and and butter were brought forth. She could not stand the smell of chestnuts and ordered her tent moved upwind from the fire. She did not care for the taste. Too pungent and earthy. But it was customary to feast on the fruit of the ancient tree. Pay respect to your elders. Acknowledge the passing of yet another year.
It’s time to leave Sicily, but first I need to see the ocean. I head down to the coast on the outskirts of the airport, passing through an industrial area with empty shells of Modernist factories and warehouses. I have the beach all to myself on this crisp January morning. I gather cans and bottles and separate materials into discrete piles.
Plastic goes in the pile that takes some 500 years to break down. A million years for the many glass bottles. I make stacks of reddish brown, green and white glass in the fashion of a possible Italian flag. Principalities united under one banner. Aluminum over there. Rust never gets to these beers and sodas. In due time, Coca-Cola-red cans will bleach out to a greenish orange hue, with the white lettering taking on a sepia tone. And right here, on this beach on an island where queens of Aragon held sway and made camp under giant chestnuts no more than one breakdown of a plastic bottle ago, right here, time itself will eventually come rolling down the mountain and heave itself into the surf to a quaking end of steam and fizz.
The plastic bottles are arranged to form letters. Big words. Not. Enough. Planet. But so much time to waste.
Our ‘Under the Canopy’ section will continue next week.