The Magic of Gently Touching Trees

3 December 2020

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I have a confession to make to you: I’m a tree toucher. Maybe that sounds weird, but please let me explain. When walking through the forest I can’t help gently touching trees as I pass. Tree touching is something I have always done unconsciously as a way of saying hello to the forest. I don’t know when I started doing this, but I think it’s a good way to ground myself and connect with the natural world.

The forest has always been the place where I feel most at home. I grew up on an apple orchard that backed onto a forest of ponderosa pine, and there was a giant English walnut tree in our front yard that I would climb for hours. Now I live in Vancouver, Canada, where I can get to the forest within twenty minutes of my home, and I can go find peace in the trees.

treetoucher

Photo credit Arlin ffrench
Description: the writer, touching a giant tree, looking up.

The forest has become so intertwined in my life that it has become a joke with my friends and family that I walk and hike slowly because I’m too busy identifying plants and trees, and in late summer I’m even slower because I’ve got to find and eat berries along the way. The only real danger with eating wild berries in the forest is that you’ve got to watch out for bears! I’ve had many run-ins with black bears that are also snacking on berries, but as long as there are enough for all of us I think we’re okay.

Photo from slightly above of a valley running diagonally between two sizeable, treed hills.

Photo credit Caitlin frrench
Image description: a heavily wooded area, with strings threaded between two trees, catching the light.

Forests hold great magic, and trees provide all sorts of things I use daily. I wildcraft fallen leaves in the autumn off of city streets to use for the coming year in ecoprint bundles – a method of natural dyeing where you bundle the leaves into fabric, tie it tightly, and cook the leaf prints onto the fabric. I harvest poplar buds to make salves, cherry sap as a painting medium, fir resin for incense, and fallen arbutus branches for woodworking projects. I do want to point out that wildcrafting from the forest should be done with good intentions: you should be able to identify what you are taking, not take too much, and give thanks.

A large part of my art practice takes place in the forest. I’ve been making rock and stick installations in the forest as artworks ever since I can remember, and since I met my partner in art school fifteen years ago we’ve been collaborating on them. (He was making rock and stick sculptures his whole life too; it was one of the reasons we fell in love.) We have been making string installations in the forest for a few years, where we tie off cotton string from one point to another in fanned-out patterns. These sculptures connect tree branches to the ground, logs to stumps, and draw the viewer through the landscape. The catch is that we photograph these works and them immediately take them down, as leaving them up would interfere with the forest and the strings would become trash. We aren’t sure where this body of work is going, but it gives us a reason to get out to the forest and go walk around.

Brutally Beautiful, photo of Caitlin ffrench between two large trees in the forest.

Photo credit Beautifully Brutal Photography
Image description: the writer, wearing a handknit hat, standing between two tall trees, touching one with each outstretched hand.

I’ve been having my knitting patterns photographed in the forest since 2014. Using the forest as a backdrop gives the knitted pieces a narrative, and I think it gives the knitter/viewer a glimpse into some of my favourite places in the world. I’ve shot photos for two of my knitting books in the Northern California redwood forest, using the photoshoots as an excuse to travel down the West Coast and go camping. The only downside to camping and photoshoots is that I’m my own model, and I am usually covered in campfire soot and have unkempt hair – but all of that can be fixed with a jump in the ocean or a river to wash off, and a little hair brushing. I hope I haven’t wrecked the magic of the ethereal photos of my knitting patterns, but I am much less put together than the photos would lead you to believe.

I want to leave you with my top five favourite trees. These are trees that I consider friends, and that I can’t wait to visit again.

  1. There is a row of black poplar trees in Reykjavik, Iceland, that’s just across from a pool I like to visit when I’m there. These trees throw off the most heartfelt scent in the summer, and in winter you can harvest their buds to make salve. You can find them on Google Maps at 64.1418433,-21.9210898. I think these trees are reminiscent of my time spent in Iceland and it’s pretty telling of how often I went to the swimming pool!
  2. There is a California redwood tree in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, in Stout Grove, California, that I love. It’s enormous, and it’s an easy walk to get to it. You’ll know it because park maintenance has built a boardwalk around it to protect its roots. I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a thermos of coffee beside this tree on a number of occasions.
  3. In Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal, I saw a rhododendron tree that was larger than I thought was possible for one grow. It was outside of a pizza place called Fire And Ice, but I don’t remember the exact address. I can’t imagine how wonderful it would be in bloom!
  4. There is an arbutus tree growing on the cliff at Whytecliff Park in Vancouver that leans right over the edge overlooking the ocean. Arbutus trees are otherworldly, but this one holds something really special. It is somewhere near here.
  5. There is a ponderosa pine in Oyama, Canada, at the edge of a lookout that holds my heart. In the summer, the smell of warm pine trees and the view make me feel like I’m home. You can find it around here.
Copyright © Caitlin ffrench except as indicated.
Caitlin ffrench headshot

About Caitlin ffrench

Caitlin ffrench is an artist living in East Vancouver. She works with wildcrafted pigments from the land bases she visits and she uses string to make all sorts of magical things.

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