Is it too late to start talking with trees? 

at SAR (Society for Artistic Research) conference, Trondheim 19-21.4.2023, see here


Is it too late to start talking with trees? Or, rather, a bit too early, considering the rapid developments in our understanding of vegetal life? In this presentation I describe my experiments with the podcast Talking with Trees, a series of attempts at addressing specific trees in Swedish, Finnish, or English. As part of the artistic research project Pondering with Pines, in the border zone of environmental, media, and performance art, the main concern is to develop ways to recognize and engage with the subjectivity of life forms such as trees, which we tend to consider as wholly “other.” How can we develop acts of thinking, reflecting, pondering or speaking with trees? How can we develop imaginative and poetic ways of encountering pine trees and engaging with them? What possible ways of communicating could be developed between trees and non-trees like humans? These experiments are repetitive, circular, and low-tech, not innovative as such. Rather than claim direct impact or provide “solutions,” they explore alternative and intimate forms of documenting and sharing, and they strive to participate in the cultural transition that is taking place. As author Amitav Ghosh, among others, has noted, the task of imaginatively restoring agency and voice to nonhumans is a task that is at once aesthetic and political and of pressing moral urgency.

The episode 'Pondering with a Pine in the Park 7' in the podcast Talking with Trees

Hello pine, hello. Nice to see you again. I'm struggling because it's really windy and I try to speak to my phone so that I protect it from the wind. And I had to add a rock to my camera bag, which is hanging as a weight from the camera tripod to prevent it from toppling over. In these two weeks that have passed since we last met your world has changed completely. There is not a trace of snow anywhere near you and well, the spring is here, although it's cold. The wind is really cold. I'm going next week to Norway to Trondheim to a conference and I thought I'd like to talk with you about the theme, because the theme or topic related to the theme, because the theme is 'too late or too early' and I have proposed to talk about, briefly, about the work we've been doing and whether it's too late to start talking with trees. And now when I sit here I realise yes in many many ways it is too late, we should have been talking with you much earlier. And people probably did and are doing in other parts of the world, but in our society we don't do that. We treat you badly and treat you as a resource and cut you down and then the world changes. And that's the real thing I thought about, this idea of the tipping point. So I searched online and came to a book by Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian, who wrote the book in the year 2000, something like that, about tipping points. And his idea of the tipping point - I have just only begun reading the book - is not really how I associate tipping points today, because when I hear the word tipping point, I'm thinking of climate change and the dangerous tipping points that would sort of put the system out of balance to such an extent, in a sudden change, like a boiling point, that the change is irreversible. So the system can no longer balance itself, but it will get into a chaotic mode before it finds a new balance in a completely different, yeah, different type of balance. But yes, as I understand it, Gladwell's book is not about that, but it's about how ideas spread or how viruses spread or how fashions spread and so on and some of the rules for human behaviour. In some sense, I was reminded of the chaos theory idea from the 80s that a butterfly flap somewhere in the world could cause a storm in another part of the world. Although it's not the same, of course, but this idea that, well, a little bit like the boiling point. So water simmers and simmers and simmers and then suddenly it starts to boil. Or a fashion, or a virus. We've just experienced a pandemic, which has not gone away but it's no longer spreading in the same manner. So what, how much does it take before something that is slowly, slowly, slowly developing suddenly spreads like a wildfire. And of course, in a positive sense you can speak of critical mass, or like artistic breakthrough. I'm still looking forward to it, I mean Louise Bourgeois, she had her artistic breakthrough when she was 80. So you work and work and work and you accumulate stuff and then at some point there is a breakthrough. But that is somehow a positive thing, while the tipping points we speak of today and that are so worrisome, like the melting of the glaciers or a warming climate changing the ocean currents and by that the whole wind system, and of course the forest. How much do forests have to be cut down or can they be cut down before they sort stop being a carbon sink and turn into carbon sources. This is something that we have been discussing a lot here in Finland because there has been so heavy, heavy forestry activity with new factories of cellulose. And a lot of climate activists are really worried because a lot of the old-growth forest is cut down. But of course also just of the area, the amount of forest, when it changes. Of course, not all change is necessarily bad and some of the feared tipping points have been, or are not maybe as bad as thought, like the melting of the permafrost. I've been reading texts that say that it's not necessarily going to happen in such a catastrophic manner as was forecast at some point. But anyway, the danger of very abrupt, sudden changes is clear. So in a way we are getting used to this idea of things just slowly, slowly, slowly developing, but then suddenly, like an iceberg falls down from a glacier or things happen. So in a sense you, when I sit here with you, you feel like the epitome of stability, and unlike the spruce trees that sometimes really do topple over in storms, you have roots that go sort of straight down, deep, deep, deep - in Finnish we call them like pole roots - so you're quite stabile. Although, when there are storms and a lot of snow there are branches broken, and so on, but you're not really toppling over in that sense. But I guess you, too, would have your tipping point; how dry can it be before you give up. I thought about that because I've been away two weeks and I have a lot of house plants; and one old beautiful plant, which I got from a friend, I don't know its name, and which usually is blooming with a massive amount of pink flowers, it didn't look so well two weeks ago. And I thought, if it had too little water, because when the sun starts burning in the spring, if it was dry or if it had too much or too little water. But I gave it a little bit of water and a little bit of fertiliser before I left. And now when I came back it was really not feeling well, I mean with a lot of dry leaves and it really was not happy. And I felt that the soil, even on top of it felt somehow slightly humid. So I think I just have over watered it. And now I'm really curious to see if it somehow has reached a tipping point, where the roots are rotten and it can't survive and I can't do much anymore, or if the sun and letting it dry would help it to overcome the maltreatment; I have given it a maltreatment with my best intentions. And somehow that's symptomatic because if the roots are rotten, really badly, then that's beyond cure in a way, a tipping point of some sort. Well, of course in the Gladwell book one thing I saw in the summary was this idea of, because it's more like sociological, it's about human behaviour rather than climate change or pine behaviour, was this idea of economists' rule of 20 - 80, which is an example of one of the laws that influence the tipping point. A lot of, there is the estimate that 80 percent of the work done for something is often done by 20 percent of the participants. And I sometimes feel that it's like 90 percent of the work is done by 10 percent and I have to admit it that I am not very often one of the ten percent, but rather like today, when I'm here with you, my colleagues on Harakka Island are preparing for an afternoon meeting, where we are going to plan an exhibition next fall and they're cooking lentil soup and making bread and preparing for the rest of us who will go there in the afternoon. And here I am sitting and talking with you and not contributing to that event. So how should I say, because today, so many people are aware of the necessary moves needed for climate change, even like businessmen are more aware of that than sometimes the politicians. So in one way, we have to fear for the tipping point of the Earth system collapsing or not collapsing, but changing so radically that it's not possible for humans to live in large areas of the Earth. On the one hand that's something to fear. But we have also to hope for the tipping points of somehow human consciousness and human activity and 20 - 80 rule, so maybe our task as artists is to try to be part of the 20 percent doing the 80 percent work for somehow changing the mentality. But of course, this is very optimistic, because I realise that me talking to you here is not doing very much good to you, it's not doing very much good to the climate, it's not necessary doing very much to the public opinion, because not so many people will listen to this. The only things it's actually doing good to really at the moment is me, because I'm so grateful that you're listening to me so I can voice these concerns. But, now the wind is so cold so it's not doing good even to me, so I have to stop. And I'll be back with you in a few weeks again. So take care and enjoy the spring, thank you.