Leafing through Forests in “The Language of Trees” – Chicago Review of Books


We return to the time of green. It’s spring—yes, manifest it—it’s spring. The sharp blades of the most intrepid plants are pushing through earth still cold from winter snow. Where I live, tender white snowdrops still linger from February, watching over newcomer white and lilac crocuses with their creamy orange pistils. Each walk around my downtown neighborhood thrills me, as I scan one garden patch after another for local news. In the long plot next to Town Hall, for instance, several dozen daffodil leaves stand tall, much taller than they did days before. Soon, they’ll bloom. 

Whether you live in a concrete city or on a feral patch of land, spring reminds us that we are part of nature’s cycles. How much sun is finally available to our Vitamin D-deprived bodies, how many flying critters now buzz in our face, how much birdsong we hear sunrise by sunrise—it’s vital information, even if we aren’t plotting out a vegetable garden. Our bodies are transforming, too, unfurling in all directions after months of snowed-in anticipation. And if we take our eyes from our phones to our neighbors down below and up above, spring can teach us to see difference in greater detail, reimagining which lives are worth caring for and what shape that care could take.

Reading The Language of Trees: A Rewilding of Literature and Landscape feels like walking through an urban neighborhood during springtime. We stop at each island of nature buffeted by jagged concrete, and we lean in to catch a whisper of gossip passed between gingko leaves and Norway maple leaves. What are they saying to each other, we wonder as we hurry onto the next natural island. After all, contributor Elizabeth Kolbert reminds us, “[t]hese days every wild place has, to one degree or another, been cut into and cut off.” Spanning 67 excerpts from famous ecocritical works and manifestos, an introduction by Ross Gay, and an afterword by Irish artist and environmental activist (and the book’s “guide”) Katie Holten, The Language of Trees aggregates short forms over 303 pages, mirroring the measured destruction of land and life across the globe. 

The sliced-up format also has the effect of transfiguring tree bodies, as paper, into a book of tree meditations, with each meditation readable in 1-5 minutes. Leafing through the beautifully designed book, images of roots and seeds, leaves and forests wind around exhortations to “[b]e a good relative” (Tanaya Winder) and to challenge our limited, human ways of viewing and conceiving. Here is Lucy O’Hagan’s acorn bread recipe: “The wisdom of the oak now resides in your body!” Here is Thomas Princen’s American elm keyboard stand, which “connects my everyday practice—writing—to a once-living thing.” Here is Luchita Hurtado’s meditation: “The trees breathe out, we breathe in.” Here is Plato, considering the teachings of tree versus man. Here is Sumana Roy, reflecting on the near-immortality of trees: “You discover an autograph on a tree. / You know it’s not the tree’s— / it has no commitment to history. / Only strangers leave their names on bark. / That signature is a tease, a trace—‘I was here.’ / (Which tree has ever needed to say that?).” And here is Ada Limón, marveling at “leaves reattaching themselves to the tree like a strong spell for reversal”: “What else did I expect? What good / is accuracy amidst the perpetual / scattering that unspools the world.” What else did we expect? Haven’t trees composed our most prized texts for centuries, holding onto our traces long after we’ve gone? Haven’t trees—as books, as ink, as seeds ingested by birds and spread across continents—connected us place-bound mortals in miraculous ways? What if we approached trees as active shapers of everything we purport to have built: as so unknowably grand that they inspire reverence?

But the most basic, the most essential question The Language of Trees asks is: What is a tree? The natural extension of this question inevitably follows: What is a forest? According to Forrest Gander and Katie Holten, a forest is “not / description but an un-acknowledged chapter of our / own memoir […] an endless memoir of entanglement in which our case / likewise has been underwritten.” We are made by trees and, as the climate emergency warns, we make the trees that make us, ad infinitum. Several contributors compel us to face the life-or-death stakes of this entanglement. Notably, Gaia Vince’s thought-provoking contribution does this by asking what a tree is not. A tree is not a design that can be leveled-up through bioengineering. A tree is not a vacuum cleaner for all the carbon humankind has released into the atmosphere. A tree is not a tool for further natural extraction. (In this regard, FutureFarmers, quoting Henry David Thoreau, are ready to bring our hubris down to size: “Men have become the tools of their tools.”) So, what is a tree? “[L]ife itself.” (Brian J. Enquist agrees: “Biology is basically all about trees.”)

Like a researcher disappearing into the forest to write on its behalf, Holten is everywhere and nowhere in The Language of Trees. Holten peeks out from the foliage of each section, having named them after tree development (“Seeds, Soil, Saplings” and “Buds, Bark, Branches”), tree anatomy (“Leaves & Trunks” and “Flowers & Fruits”), tree community (“Forests” and “Family Trees”), tree metaphysics (“Tree Time”), and tree revolution (“Tree People,” “Roots and Resistance,” and “After Trees”). Hers are the hands that lovingly poked a one-inch hole into damp soil and sprinkled seeds in hope of saplings. “This book has been germinating for decades,” she acknowledges, and readers can tell based on the breadth of the contributions—and the time it likely took to obtain permissions to reprint them. Most apparent from the minute we hold the book in our own hands, though, Holten’s are the hands that created the Trees font: an alphabet with trees in place of letters. 

Yes, the Trees font! (You can download the font here, on Holten’s website.) Holten developed the Trees font for the forerunner to The Language of Trees, the compilation About Trees published in 2015. In both books, the opening page of each contribution is written in Trees. Depending on the number and spacing of characters in that contribution, the opening page is either a densely packed forest or an evenly spaced orchard. We humans can type with the Trees font on our own devices, notes Holten, to “renew our relationships with language, landscape, perception, time, memory and reading itself by slowing the reader down to decipher words in the woods.” For Holten, the Trees font is a call to practice radical empathy in a time of emergency by extending the human domain of “language” to trees. She wants us to see and hear trees everywhere, where they already were. Her desire to repurpose our lingual forms in rethinking our relations to nonhumans follows in the tradition, contemporarily speaking, of ecocritical authors like Amitav Ghosh, political movements like TREE x OFFICE, and Indigenous thinkers like Robin Wall Kimmerer. 

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At first glance, though, the Trees font falls prey to the dangerous good intentions of anthropomorphism: the act of putting a human face on a nonhuman form which does not, in fact, stimulate human empathy for that nonhuman, but rather restricts human empathy to humankind. The Trees font, on the other hand (or branch), would be a reverse anthropomorphism: the act of putting a nonhuman face on a human lingual form which does not, in fact, extend “language” to nonhumans, but reinscribes “language” as inherently, irreversibly human. Holten is aware of the trap of anthropomorphism, and she wisely selects contributions situating humans in “this landscape of unknowing” (Irene Kopelman). Unknowing, she suggests, can be an antidote to our human limitations. We are not all-hearing eavesdroppers, with the sciences as our hearing trumpets. If we can hear trees at all, let us be grateful. “What matters more, I think,” muses Carl Phillips, “is that in the language of trees there’s no grammatical mood: questions, statements, commands—it’s all song, stripped of anything like judgment, intention, or need. This makes translation especially difficult.”

The ultimate political potential of Holten’s Trees font—and the entire book—is most apparent in Kimmerer’s contribution, from her 2017 Orion Magazine essay, “Speaking of Nature.” Kimmerer takes her students to a graveyard, where they behold mushrooms and grasses while challenging the English language’s “special grammar for personhood.” Namely, English speakers employ “he/she” for humans and “it” for nonhumans, whether or not they are living beings. Over the course of generations, English’s emphasis on nouns and materialism has replaced Kimmerer’s native language of verbs and nonhuman agency. “Beyond the renaming of places,” writes Kimmerer, “I think the most profound act of linguistic imperialism was the replacement of a language of animacy with one of objectification of nature, which renders the beloved land as lifeless object, the forest as board feet of timber.” Summing up the urgency of her essay, and The Language of Trees, Kimmerer advocates for meeting each living being not as natural resources, but as relatives: “Language, personhood, and politics have always been linked with human rights. Will we have the wisdom to expand the circle yet again? Naming is the beginning of justice.”

The Language of Trees: A Rewilding of Literature and Landscape
by Katie Holten
Tin House Books
Published April 4th


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