‘There are times when it can be almost a crime to write of trees.’ (Bertold Brecht).
When I am at odds with myself, or lost (which has been often), it is the trees that I come back to. Living in London, and broke and sickened with loneliness and longing for the green I grew up within and thus barely noticed (until I began to feel this deep and longing nostalgia) I sought them out.
I found first, in a thick grey southern patch of the city, an apple tree. It was through a gap in the plasticised chicken wire fence at the back of my garden. Dry deep-summer soil and a long-since-loved miniature rockery. One hot August afternoon I scraped my way through, my bare legs landing in a carpet of brambles. New Cross; the edge of civilisation, crumbling into the wild. It was in some kind of centre that I discovered this old apple, overshadowed and bearing tiny, sharp fruit that stung my tongue as I unthinkingly bit into one on clambering up its branches. Eating unknown city fruit; the forest had made me as idiotic as some cousin-mothered fairy tale tragi-heroine. I was but a babe in the wood.
Later, on my bike, hurtling my way the fourteen miles between home and university and job and job and university and home I begin to make a stop at a clearing, of oak (chestnut, ash? How did I never learn?) a circle of trunks surrounding sun-dappled grass. It is here, between two roads, mere feet away from the footfall of the tourists around Buckingham Palace, that I find my rare moments of rest. This minutia of a somewhat unnatural nature.
Nature writing is a fallacy (ask any farmer). But it is a long-standing one. From those pastoral crime-scenes of the ancients (where however beautiful the landscape, we are never far away from a bestial rape), the roots of nature writing deepened into our collective consciousness during the Industrial Revolution, and our city-centric selves call out for it even more today. Because the danger lies when we forget about the trees, when we do not read the writing or view the paintings that remind us that something so much larger than us (so much quieter than us!) exists out there.
It is not the writers alone. Artists have long reminded us of the powers of nature. They have brought her roaring majesty into our smogged-up cities, they have introduced her serenity into our cluttered minds. They have and still do allow us to forget the national politics, the grim state of the world, our own personal messes.
But we do not always want to forget. And I believe that painting can too give us the strength to turn towards these issues, allowing us to digest them in more manageable ways.
Art-making is inherently personal, it is intimate. For me, Goya’s series, Disasters of War, a searing collection of eighty-two prints on the atrocities of conflict, are far more gut-wrenchingly awful than looking at photographs or news footage of our current warzones. We see these real-life images all the time now and it is easy to become somewhat immune to them (perhaps a defence mechanism more than anything?)
I disagree wholeheartedly with the poet George Oppen, who writes ‘There are situations that cannot honourably be met by art.’ Through art, I would argue that we are able to become closer to horrific situations. When we view works such as the above, we are immersed into a pre-digested scene (we are already, though it may not seem so, held-back from the complete truth of it). We hold the hand of beauty, of composition, as we step into the horror. We are buoyant on the art that waters down the facts). The dismembered torso in Goya’s Esto es Peor is reminiscent of classical sculpture, the leaves behind the grimacing body executed with all of the light-handed fancy of the later Impressionists. Imagine the skill it takes to transform scenes like this enough to deem them fit to hang in galleries worldwide, or on forgotten postcards blu-tacked to your office walls.
So is it ever a crime to write of trees? Is it ever a crime to paint beautiful landscapes, or to turn atrocity into art. Never. It is a necessity.