Opinion

Collaborating During Covid19: A Reflection on Our Interconnection With Trees

Environmentalist and artist Ann Jyothis Raj and sound studies scholar and artist Dr. Diana Chester reflect on the challenges to their creative processes and collaboration over the past year working remotely on The Trees of Afghanistan Project.

“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth it would look like complete destruction.”

– Cynthia Ocelli

We began The Trees of Afghanistan Project  in 2019 and have spent much of 2020 trying to navigate the complexities of creative collaborations over distance. COVID has created separation, isolation, and loneliness for many, including us, and it has impacted our practice and ability to collaborate. We are both women who are currently living alone because of the pandemic. Ann has worked between Afghanistan, Netherlands, Hungary, and India this year, while Diana has been based in Sydney. The international nature of our collaboration, proximity to Afghanistan (the geography where the research is based) and shifting creative mediums and output plans for the project have led to redrawing timelines, challenging time zone negotiations, and a general difficulty we could not have anticipated when we began.

By looking at the experience of trees and what we know of their life and communication, we will attempt to communicate these challenges we have faced through this lens. We have held close the idea Ocelli communicates, that while what many of us went through in 2020 may have looked like complete destruction, it was in fact complete transformation.

Isolation

Due to the pandemic many of us have had to remain in the same place for long periods of time without the mobility we are used to. Diana, who typically travels for research, has been unable to leave Australia for this project and others. Similarly, a tree often remains in one place its entire life. Some of us have lost loved ones and many of us have experienced major disruptions to our daily lives, social networks, and our daily activities. We asked ourselves what we can learn from looking at how trees navigate their ‘lack of mobility’, and in some cases their movement from place to place and what we can apply to our own understanding in this way.

Trees do better when they are together, in a forest or the woods. Ecologist Suzanne Simard has shown how trees use a network of soil fungi to communicate through underground root networks and rely on their interconnected nature for support and survival. We also know that when a plant is moved from one pot to another it takes time to acclimatise to the nutrients and new environment. Humans require these same support networks and the same adjustment to new environments though we may not always give ourselves the permission, the time or the space for this.

“When a plant is moved, it takes time to acclimatise… Humans require these same support networks and the same adjustment to new environments, though we may not always give ourselves the permission, the time or the space for this.”

People sometimes place trees ornamentally in relative isolation, for example in pots in their homes or on terraces, these trees become entirely dependent on the person to survive, they may even shrivel and ‘die’ but life is still within them, invisible to us. In this same way, the isolation many of us have experienced due to lockdowns or distance from loved ones may contribute to feelings that we are not receiving the type of nourishment, tactility, or support we need to feel alive and present.

Young trees inside a home in the northern part of Herat province, in Afghanistan. These trees are almost cocooned within the home of this family, sheltered and cared for by each of the humans living in this earthen house.

What happens to us when we are distressed? 

Initially this project was envisioned as an in-person exhibition, a space where visitors could roam within a space filled with visual, sonic, and text-based narratives about the trees of Afghanistan. The exhibit would include stories from Afghan people of their memories and knowledge about those trees, how they relate to trees, and stories about the space trees take up in their lives. We realised around April that we were going to need to move from an in-person exhibition to something virtually accessible.

When we started thinking through the possibilities for this it led to several interesting outcomes. The first is that we began working with a 3D concept artist, Kushaan Chavda, who used a number of photos from one Chinar tree to create a highly detailed 3D visualisation that can be projected like a hologram in a space or shared virtually. This was a bridge for us, allowing us to think about the physical and tactile aspects of trees in a virtual space. Kushaan’s model highlights each knot, and ridge in the tree’s bark, so much so that it feels as though you can reach out and feel the Chinar. This led us to want to focus on the tactile more than the virtual, physical objects and practices that happened by hand, versus computer-based manipulations and expressions.

Perhaps this move to the tactile was aided by the distance we felt in our daily lives from human touch and the realisation we would need to take this project into a non-tactile environment. Ann started focusing on embroidery of trees from the project and being physically present with the project materials. Her logic was that all materials come from the earth in one way or another. Even synthetic materials are made from chemicals and materials that come from the earth. When we are so isolated and working over distance it can be complicated and confusing to understand the circumstances in which we are all existing, which can cause an unmooring to occur. This focus on the tactile provided a grounding force.

Tree of life and its invisible narrative(s)

Suzanne Simard has also warned us that threats like clear-cutting and climate change could disrupt these critical underground networks that trees and plants rely so heavily on. But what does that mean for trees in war torn Afghanistan?

While working in Afghanistan, a country suffering from decades of war and conflict, Ann frequently contemplated the nature of human narrative, especially its impact on our own growth, life and death. When you meet someone in Kabul you’d never guess that they went through years of political instability and war or that they may have lost a dear one. The trending news about Afghanistan is about conflict and death, with rare glimpses into the lives lived or the lives lost. Can you comprehend an eighty-year-old tree? It takes twenty to fifty years to grow from seed to full adult and it is gone in an instant when it is chopped down. A living breathing being is gone. Is this like the human experience?

We borrow everything we need to survive from the earth, as do trees. If a tree is allowed to die in the forest, there is a process it goes through. It passes on the data it has to the other trees and then it dies nourishing the soil as it does.  Can we say the same for human beings, in that there is a ceremonial action for us to go back to the earth through practices including cremation and burial?

Although we are not alone in expressing or perceiving the metaphor of a tree in our lived experience, who indeed understands trees, who celebrates their life and learns their secrets, who mourns their death? We asked these questions of the trees in Kabul, which is how the Trees project began.

Trees standing tall in the middle of Kabul city. Cedar is abundant in Afghanistan and below the fir and cedar lines, oak, walnut, alder, ash, and juniper trees can be found. The trees in Kabul stand testimony to the juxtaposition of normal life and the days when the city reverberates with bomb blasts and gunfights. War and conflict are tremendously destructive, not only in terms of its effects on human populations and the cities in which they live. There are many voiceless witnesses and casualties of this war, including the trees pictured here.

During the months of lockdown, Ann was happy to be ‘stuck’ in her hometown, in Kerala, India. She reconnected with the trees on her family’s farm that had witnessed the lives of the family over a century, the trees surrounding the space where her mother and later Ann herself ran barefoot. One of the oldest trees on the property is the Anjili Chakka tree, the Wild Jack Fruit of Kerala. One evening before departing India, Ann went up to the terrace to take a good look at all the trees, to thank them and bid them farewell. “My eyes gaze toward the beloved Anjili tree, my eyes were fixed on it, I wondered what it would tell me if I could speak with it, I hoped that it felt my love. Suddenly, I found myself in tears, it felt as though the tree was bidding me farewell too, somehow I knew I would never see it again.” A few months later, her family informed her that they would be cutting down the tree as it would fetch a couple thousand dollars as lumber.

Perhaps it is a blessing that trees don’t speak human languages. Our collective use and skills of linear language systems may not have the capacity or depth needed to hold the information/poetry/story of a single tree, let alone an entire forest. Those of us who perceive beyond language and who study trees may be able to say more, but it may only be one leaf from an unwritten book about a tree. The Trees Project is a humble attempt to express some broken perceptions and assumptions about a few trees in Afghanistan.

The lockdown across the world has made us still, within the parameters of our chosen walls. What many of us went through in 2020 looked like complete destruction but it was in fact complete transformation. We look toward trees as an example of how to live in a time that seems so chaotic. Let’s conclude with a quote borrowed from Hermann Hesse’s 100-Year-Old Love Letter to Trees: “In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws… to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.”

Tree rings can tell us how old the tree is, and what the weather was like during each year of the tree’s life. I can’t help but wonder if the trees that have survived across Afghanistan can tell us about their lives, without being cut down to be investigated. This geometric pattern on the bark gives me pause to imagine how the sound frequencies may have translated onto the surface of the tree.

Ann Raj is an international development professional with one foot in the environment and the other in art. She grew up in different cities across India, she left the country at 21 to pursue a Bachelors in Environmental Studies and a Masters in Geographic Information Science for Development and Environment.

Diana Chester is an inter-disciplinary multimedia artist and Digital Media Scholar. Her work draws from sound studies, archival studies, and the ethnographic study of expressive culture in religious festivals and traditions. Her work interacts with the spaces in which they inhabit, which help to inform the physical and theoretical framing of her pieces. Chester is fascinated by patterns in sound and the relationship in the formal qualities of different mediums. This gives organization to her work and informs her compositional approach. She is the recent recipient of the NMEMNM Digital Residency for Music and Sound Cultures and is a visiting scholar at TISCH School of the Arts at New York University. Diana is the Research Lead on Stories of Kabul Through Its Trees and Pandemic Resonance and Indigenous Vibrations.