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A forest-bathing spokesperson for connecting with nature and mindful living, Andrea Sarubbi Fereshteh’s hardbound collection of arboreal images has the suggestion of a coffee-table self-indulgence on first cracking open—but reveals itself to be altogether handier and more contemplative than the visuals alone would suggest. For a book that has a photojournalistic format, it is not the pictures that are the key impression (though they do entice you to wander into the depths, they are mostly stock images you might readily encounter elsewhere); it is the anthropological weaving of human social contexts around the trees, in the accompanying text on every page, beside the always- larger picture it is often only loosely associated with.
Counterbalancing the ‘Sacred’ of the subtitle, the book—which is as undivided as any real forest—begins with a scientific lens: there’s the living fossil that is the Wollemi pine, and the tale of its finding and naming; a touch on the Co2 transaction we all know; a note on watersheds and how trees purify them. From there, a quick segue into culture and the sacred, with the Jewish Tu Bishvat observance, becomes a taste of the hidden treasures in this title. Fereshteh’s exploration crosses geographies (she is based in the US herself ) to urge you into an acquaintance with fronds from further afield than the most vaunted poison gardens and redwood stands, importances less showy than a rafflesia or a pitcher plant.
In between, quotations underline the importance trees have held for humans—even when regarded incidentally or transactionally. Beneath, you become aware, are invisible roots spreading further than the visible trail laid out here. Any one of the spreads could send you down a happy rabbit hole to discover a new religion (or aspects of an old familiar you never considered), philology, mythology, folk beliefs, ghost stories, biographies, and yes, interspersing the lot, the science of botany. Have you ever googled ‘crown shyness’? Or the Celtic alphabet and Brehon tree laws? Or ‘loblolly pine’?
Inevitably, too, you end up exploring the earth itself, for trees are nearly everywhere, from Bialowieza to Waipoua Kauri—even Antarctica has its fossil forests. Sometimes it is a single tree, and not a species or a location, that takes the spotlight, like the ‘Survivor elm’ on page 243, or old Tjikko, named after a beloved dog. More often, you are pulled towards the same families scattered across the earth in different guises. There is the legend of Cyparissus elaborated upon a stopover in Tuscany and venice; the Chinese fengshuilin, stewarded by local communities; the boab nuts that Australian aboriginal artists use for a canvas; Bahrain’s Tree of life (by species, mesquite); the Russian tradition of the yolka, or New Year tree that occupies the space a Christmas tree would in the West; and the multi-coloured fluorescence trunk of the rainbow eucalyptus. You glimpse the past heights of glory, the decline and the present regrowth of the Scottish Caledonian forests. You learn of contemporary activists such as Julia ‘Butterfly’ hill and Ben Raines, and of drones used as the tractors of the sky. You find the Kalahari Christmas tree is also the Chinese lantern tree.
You genuflect before Serbian zapis and badnjak, and wait in Pantellaria’s ancient womb gardens, referenced in Sumerian tablets. You stare at Colombian wax palms and meet a goat sipping liquid gold in an argan tree. You cross the exosphere with the moon trees of Apollo 14. You wonder at the Japanese ingenuity behind describing the light that is komorebi and the (un)natural forces that result in the crooked forest of Gryfino, Poland. You come home to India, yes, with its Bodhi tree and the medicinal neem; but did we all know of the Karam-Devta of Jharkhand (we may know the tree better as kadamba, some of us, beloved of Sanskrit authors and Krishna worshippers)?
Yes, there is a natural American bias in the selection but consider this a window into a new hobby, with as little organisation and as much serendipity as growth in the actual wilderness. Ushering you in with the promise of an undemanding solitude with its spa-décor photographs, In the Company of Trees ends up being a deeper immersion into human history and culture than you might first bargain for, thought-provoking though still not demanding, because you wend your way through the thicket willingly by now—and find the loose leaves of history and culture are as intricately and delicately connected as a tree in full growth.
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