The Forest for the Trees (October 2011)

For several years I have been searching for an outlet to address climate change in one of our plays.  It is a phenomenon of immense scale, with well-estimated but ultimately unknown repercussions and variable causality, a topic that remains abstract and overwhelming to many people, literally unbelievable to others.  Especially to those living in more temperate areas of the world, climate change feels very far away.  How does an artist create a human connection to something so vast and seemingly impersonal?

Non-fiction artists are making great strides.  There continues to be a steady flow of documentary films, books, magazine articles, television specials and online publications that can travel the world in a concise time frame and show the startling effects of climate change through a succinct series of images.  These media, at their most effective, get as close as possible to capturing climate change, allowing us to glimpse the forest for the trees.

In theater, the challenge is greater, because plays by nature are intimate, human stories—they work in the micro because the macro becomes too distancing in a theater, and can sever the connection between actor and audience.  In such a human-sized environment, our imaginations just can’t fill in enough gaps to comprehend the scale of the entire ocean, the Milky Way or the radically changing temperature of the Earth and all its massive consequences.

One of my favorite NYC theater companies, The Civilians, is currently working on a piece called The Great Immensity; a fitting title for (you guessed it) a play about climate change.  The Civilians use transcribed interviews and non-fiction text as their script, and they are superb at making their own brand of docu-drama.  I always find their work entertaining and thought-provoking.

But when we’re making plays for Superhero Clubhouse, we tend to filter our scientific research more through the lens of allegory and fairy tale than documentary.  What fairy tale could possibly express climate change?

The answer could simply be hiding in the trees.

In this beautiful season, as deciduous leaves start to change color, it’s hard to forget about trees.  Having grown up in New England, autumn to me is analogous with fall foliage; memories are framed in yellow, red and orange (the new year’s school bus, apple picking, Halloween) and afternoons spent cavorting in the woods behind my house.  In fact, it’s hard for anyone not to have a relationship with trees in every season, in city and country, in every part of the world.  The scale of trees is human-friendly; our brains can take them in.  From very early childhood, humans worship and fear trees as benevolent monsters: silent but imposing, nurturing yet alien, their branches welcoming, their forests foreboding.

Perhaps because trees can simultaneously communicate hope and dread, stories involving trees pervade nearly every culture and community throughout history, providing adventure (Dante, Winnie the Pooh, Robin Hood, Endor), rites of passage (Hatchet, Hansel and Gretel) and ritual (Christmas tree); symbolizing life (Japan’s pine, Africa’s baobab), destruction (The Lorax, Avatar, Fern Gully), friendship (The Giving Tree), wisdom (Tolkien’s Ents, Grandmother Willow, Buddha’s Bodhi) and war (Macbeth’s Birnam Wood, The Wizard of Oz’s fighting trees), not to mention the sacred World Tree depicted in many indigenous mythologies (most notably the Norse's Yggdrasil), whose trunk, roots and branches connect the heavens, the Earthen realms and the underworld, literally holding the universe together.

Even before discovering the role of trees in science (read on), researching the role of trees in culture yields rich ideas and inspiration for a potential play about a human relationship to climate change.

Consider, ala Joseph Campbell, this time-honored story structure: an adolescent protagonist finds herself lost in the woods.   She is forced to confront obstacles: strange characters and situations as well as her own innocence, fears, and immaturity.  When she emerges from the wood, she has gained confidence and knowledge; in the traditional sense, she has transformed into an adult.

Human civilization is in its adolescence.  Impetuous, shortsighted youth, we make rash decisions, we are prone to fits of rage and intense boredom, we destroy before we create, we act before we think, we don’t yet know how we fit in with the world we were born into.

In that case, perhaps we humans have only just entered our own proverbial woods, and the disorientation and disbelief we feel in regards to climate change—the sensation that we are alone, that the forest in front of us is disturbingly cloaked and the world we’ve come from has disappeared behind us—perhaps that’s just the necessary first step toward our species’ adulthood.  There’s no turning back, no comforts, no magic to make it all go away; the path is no longer familiar.  Accepting the truth of our situation is scary, but also galvanizing, because the forest surrounding us conceals dangers as well as solutions.

We are not alone, you see: the trees can speak, and they are filled with stories.

On October 1, Superhero Clubhouse presented a family-friendly, site-specific piece at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory’s annual Open House.   We collaborated with scientists from the LDEO’s Tree Ring Lab, one of the country’s foremost places for tree-centered climate research, to create a short play inspired by their work: the science (and art) of dendrochronology, a.k.a. tree ring dating.

Studying the rings of ancient trees can yield a panoply of information in regards to the history and people of the earth.  By extracting cores from trees of particular age in particular geographic areas, scientists can locate specific geologic events in time, observe historic natural disasters and—most significantly to our present/future climate matters—measure trends of heating and cooling, which in turn reveal patterns of flooding and drought, and consequently tales of cultural collapse.

800-year-old bald cypresses of North Carolina tell the ghost story of Roanoke, tracing the mysterious disappearance of an early settlement to severe drought.  Although for a long time we attributed the disappearance to skirmishes with indigenous people, it was most likely the drought of 1587 that did them in: drought has a tendency to destroy crops, making people hungry, desperate and violent.

The trees of South America tell a morality tale of industrialization that makes an eerie parallel to our contemporary world:  between 810-910, the overpopulated Mayans, living way past their means, slashed and burned the Guatamalan forests so much that they increased the climactic temperature, intensifying an already major drought period which in turn caused mass migration and death.

The trees of eastern China present an epic: between 1638-1878, four entire Chinese dynasties fell as a result of a diminished monsoon season.  Rice patties dried up causing peasant rebellions, societal upheaval, political reorganization, socio-economic turmoil and widespread famine.

Our LDEO collaborator Nicole Davi and her fellow dendrochronologists are currently studying the recent dzuds (severe summer drought followed by harsh winters) that have devastated the animal herds of Mongolia.  By sampling and “reconstructing” trees from all over Mongolia, they are slowly creating a historical map, tracing water flow and developing an understanding of the country’s fertility.  The short piece we made together at the Open House was the beginnings of a similar map, one of culture and expression as well as science.

Trees horde stories of climate change, they hold them between their rings just as they capture CO2 with their branches and stabilize ground water with their roots.  We have only begun to consider the theater that might sprout from such stories, but it leaves me giddy with possibility.  The human-sized fairy tales of trees might allow us to better understand ourselves, and better see the forest.

“If I cherish trees beyond all personal (and perhaps rather peculiar) need and liking of them, it is because of this, their natural correspondence with the greener, more mysterious processes of the mind—and because they also seem to me the best, most revealing messengers to us from all nature, the nearest its heart.”  -John Fowles, "The Tree"