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Fear of Trees
A late-spooky season admission: I’ve always been a little bit afraid of trees.
I blame Algernon Blackwood. I read his 1912 story, The Man Whom The Trees Loved, at an impressionable age. In the story, a young man senses a murky intelligence beneath the bark of a cedar. This special living “something” in the tree excites him; it feels animal-like. His obsession with it becomes ecstatic. He fantasizes that the forest might someday “engulf human vitality into the immense whirlpool of its own vast dreaming life.” The dark woods at the edge of his ordered cottage garden creep closer and closer, until they claim him whole.
Blackwood’s story stirs something weird in me. When the tendrils of ivy creeping along my back fence touch the ground, I rush to cut them back, lest they take me away too. On a whim I recently Googled “dendrophobia,” the fear of trees. In the years-spanning comments section of an online phobia dictionary—a place I consider to be the Deep Internet, almost primevally online—I read about a man stricken to paralysis by the gnarled roots of banyan trees “haphazardly touching the ground in one strangling embrace.” The whooshing sound of leaves in the wind is a common trigger. An account from a young mother: her preschooler noticed a tree near his playground, and, convinced it wasn’t there yesterday, is now inconsolable.
The toddler isn’t wrong; plants are on the move. As the botanist Jack Schultz writes, plants are “just very slow animals.” Forests migrate across great distances, racing against climate change; time-lapse photography reveals the snaking, foraging movements of vines, of seedlings “circumnutating,” swirling around in searching ellipses. We’re in the midst of a revolution in thought regarding plant intelligence, with research suggesting that plants can anticipate pain, warn one another of danger, recognize kin, and learn. It can be disorienting, and yes, even frightening, to encounter an agency so different from our own. Acknowledging the intelligence of plants means decentering our own, and it has moral weight, too: if the whole world can feel, then the whole world is screaming in pain. Truly a horrorshow.
Indeed, horror — along with folklore and science fiction — has long exploited the unsettling implications of plant motility and intelligence, from stories of medieval mandrake roots and deadly upas trees to John Wyndham’s alien triffids, H.G. Wells’ “strange orchid,” and, of course, Audrey II, the bloodthirsty succulent from The Little Shop of Horrors. With every new piece of plant intelligence research, it feels more than ever like the old stories are true, like Blackwood’s special living “something” really is something, waiting to be known.
"Sometimes my thoughts grow confused, and it is as if the forest has put down roots in me, and is thinking its old, eternal thoughts with my brain."
— Marlen Haushofer, from The Wall
Maybe to fear trees is to fear deep time. Forests seems to hold and retain time like sponges. The late naturalist-writer Barry Lopez, who I’ve plugged in this newsletter before, once wrote that time pools around places with a certain weight. He observed this—admittedly jet-lagged out of his mind—while researching a story about long-haul air freighters. On a layover in Johannesburg, he visited Clifton Bay, with its lofty views of oak and pine forests and the silhouette of Table Mountain, so ancient that Lopez felt he could perceive indigenous time still clinging to its face. “It resisted being absorbed into my helter-skelter time,” he wrote. “It seemed not yet to have been subjugated by Dutch and British colonial expansion, as the physical landscape had so clearly been. It was time apparent to the senses, palpable.”
I feel this way sometimes, even in LA. Along the city’s industrial edge, near a drive-in movie theater I frequented in the early days of the pandemic, the unpaved lots are overgrown with tall grass. Driving around, it’s easy to imagine the grass extending in all directions—to squint a bit, ignore the warehouses, and trace the flat plain of the land, a broad valley between the mountains. The overgrown lots are windows onto the original land, revealing what’s buried beneath the asphalt and freeways; not only the plain, but its time. This feels very much like sensing the special living something inside of a tree: eerie and beautiful, on the knife’s edge of terrifying.
The great Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte—my header image today is his painting Le Seize Septembre—on trees:
“Pushing up from the earth toward the sun, a tree is an image of a certain happiness. To perceive this image, we must be still, like a tree. When we are in motion, it’s the tree that becomes the spectator. It is witness, equally, in the shape of a chair, a table, a door, in the more or less restless spectacle of our life. The tree, having become a coffin, disappears into the earth. And when it is transformed into flames, it vanishes into the air.”
Evil Roots: Killer Tales of the Botanical Gothic, from the British Library’s “Tales of the Weird” series of anthologies, is a great roundup of nineteenth-century plant horror. I also highly recommend Algernon Blackwood’s novella The Willows, freely available on Project Gutenberg, in which willow trees along the Danube lure two boatmen to an unearthly fourth dimension.
For more plant horror, browse my Fear of Trees Are.na channel, a loose collection of Lynchian trees, 70s indoor plant slasher flicks, fiction, and criticism.
The first part of this essay is adapted from an introductory text I wrote for BLOOMCORE, an exhibition of new works by my friend, the artist Rick Silva.
Barry Lopez’s observations about indigenous time can be found in the collection Vintage Lopez. “On The Wings of Commerce,” his piece about long-haul air freight, which also gets into his experience at Table Mountain, is also worth a read.
PS - You may have noticed these newsletters are becoming more frequent. I’m trying for one every two weeks, as a Sunday morning read. We’ll see.