by Heidi Threlfo
I have been making art in collaboration with trees for over 5 years. The influence of trees upon my practice, career and personal philosophies has been profound. Trees have made me a better artist and a more conscious person. The more I lean on and learn about them, the more deeply I recognise the absolute bond that trees and humans share – it’s the perception of this relationship that interests me.
The recent shift in our relationship to trees has been rapid, only yesterday I was browsing a shopping brochure and it featured a full page photo to represent ´green products´, a wholesome image of a young girl hugging a tree. It is an iconic symbol revealing that we have outgrown the dirty hippy and deranged tree hugging label and become a society that desires this relationship so much that mainstream marketing is utilising it to sell, sell, sell. But what if it were a grown man in that young girls place? It seems that it is acceptable for women and children to hug trees but still not kosher for the man without a ponytail. A few years ago when I started doing my tree installations, the most common thing said by males was ´I’m not a tree hugger but can I touch it?´. They would have photos taken and slip an arm secretly around the trunk, occasionally giving a self aware hug. Women and children on the other hand would move into position and embrace the trees naturally and without concern.
It seems that the link between the feminine and the tree is a potent one. Amrita Devi, the first recorded tree hugger and forest activist led a life crushing crusade to save her woods. It is a historical story with modern implications. In the pursuit of a new palace for a Rajasthani royal, men were sent to fell the forest in the area of Khejedli, Jodhpur. Amrita took the stand to protect the green trees.
After refusing to bribe the fellers she proclaimed ‘If a tree is saved even at the cost of one’s head, it’s worth it.’ She gave her life to the axe that felled the tree she hugged in 1730, her 3 daughters followed suit inspiring 363 of the villagers to martyr their lives for the sake of their woods. The workers could not finish their job returning to report their own resistance after axing through young people and children. It is said that the King was eventually grieved by the event and promised to let the forest be protected and the village recompensed through an abolition of Taxes.
Amrita’s influence spanned hundreds of years, inspiring the world’s first protected forest, and more recently influencing the Himalayan Chipko Andolan movement of the 1970’s. Again women and children were forefront in hugging the trees and saving them from destruction each choosing a ‘sister’ tree to protect.
It is women who had the conviction and courage to lead others and to sacrifice their lives for their forests. How could they know their influence would span continents and time to popularize tree hugging within the western environmental movement?
Tree hugging has become an important strategy for protestors and in particular for women and young people to use their loving might. More recently Julia Butterfly Hill has been a prominent figure in the American tree activist movement by inhabiting a Redwood for 738 days resulting in the preservation of the Luna tree and a 200 foot buffer zone around it.
Women and children represent the future; we can be powerful agents and provocateurs of the trees plight. We can embrace them without the gender slurs that men are still overcoming and trees all over are inviting us to do that. To hold them, to feel them, to protect them with our hearts, minds and bodies. I am one of the lucky ones who have made it a part of my life work. Or maybe they have made me their life work? It’s a question that is just starting to unravel itself. Which comes first the human or the tree? Amrita and 366 of her fellow villagers felt the tree did.I have been a practising visual artist for 16 years. I have taught Contemporary Spirituality at Victoria University (Wellington New Zealand 2009). I am a practising mystic and deeply committed to bird welfare. I have a Masters in Creative Arts ( public installation- Wollongong University) and was a pioneering artist commissioned to collaborate with the NSW Government on a project to create artistically and ecologically beneficial works. I have been engaged to create by botanical gardens and councils, but also enjoy doing Guerilla work involving community reponses. I am a partner to Micah Sherman, a sustainable energy engineer and we are currently on a one year world trip with our ten year old son before returning to New Zealand to settle.