Maybe it is the necklace with letters from the Ogham alphabet I received as a Christmas gift last year, or maybe it’s the Christmas tree my husband (whose usual attitude about the season ranges from Bah! to Humbug!) bought yesterday — the earliest we have ever bought a tree — that drew my attention to an article in “Emergence” magazine titled “Deciphering Words in the Woods: A New Irish Tree Alphabet.” Whatever the inspiration for this column, artist and writer Katie Holten shares unique parallels between the language of trees and language itself.
Holten, who grew up in rural Ireland, studied fine art and history of art at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and the Hochschule der Kunst in Berlin. She created a “Tree Alphabet” in 2015 and made the book “About Trees” as well as designed a “Living Tree Alphabet” in New York City. She believes that “translating thoughts into trees lets us share our vulnerabilities in this time of extinction with human-induced environmental change.”
She found the kernel for her tree alphabet in a scene from James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” she says, when Joyce in the “Cyclops” portion describes a tree wedding ceremony between Miss Fir Conifer and the chief ranger of the Irish National Foresters. Holten reminds us that artists often represent Ireland as a woman with flowing hair, curls that diminished as “people cleared land for farming” and for the British to build battleships. She laments, “Trees breathe out. We breathe in. But what happens when there are no trees left?” A remnant lies in the Ogham alphabet, Ireland’s earliest form of script that dates from the fourth century. According to Wikipedia, about 400 inscriptions survive on stone monuments throughout Ireland and western Britain.
Ogham Writing and talking trees
Called a “tree alphabet,” Ogham uses trees for letters written from the roots up, the characters “like leaves on a stem or branches on a tree.” Holten calls Ogham her “protolanguage,” one that she was never taught but that “seeped into (her) consciousness.” She says one reads Ogham as one would climb a tree, from the ground up, as opposed to left to right and down as with English. Holten became convinced that trees can talk, supporting her contention with the work of scientists who study the languages of plants, among them Suzanne Simard, Peter Wohlleben, Hope Jahren, and Merlin Sheldrake. These scientists have shown that trees send messages by way of “mycorrhizal fungi,” an underground network of filaments Holten calls the “wood-wide-web.” Holten wonders that if plants and trees talk to each other, what can they say to us?
Holten sees “reading and writing (as) how we compose ourselves and make sense of the world. Could translating our words into trees be one way to conjoin ourselves with the world around us?” To this aim of communication, Holten drew a “family of trees, one for each letter of the Latin alphabet” and invented a typeface called Trees. She claims that translation forces us to re-read and to “play with the molecules of language: A Tree alphabet helps us re-read the past, re-present the present, and re-imagine the future.” She sees the process as a “simple way to translate what we think we already know.” Holten sees that we — trees and humans — are all matter, which originates from the Latin materia, suggesting both “timber” and “mother” or mater. She believes we have “an ancient entwinement with trees,” finding in the word boc, Old English for “book,” the same word for beech tree. The ancient rune-writers used beechwood tablets for inscribing. The French word for book, livre, derives from the Latin librum, meaning “the inner bark of trees.” Whether we buy into Holten’s notions or not, we cannot help noticing that we call the pages of a book its leaves.
The Irish language
Part of Holten’s goal of creating a Tree Alphabet arises from the fear that her native language, Irish, will eventually die. She says that in her history classes, she learned that the British saw the native language as a threat, so they forced the Irish people to speak English. Still, Irish survived because teachers secretly taught it in “hedge” schools outdoors where they were hidden behind hedges. Holten makes a parallel with that past and our present when teaching outdoors is safer than indoors during these pandemic-ridden times.
Seeing Irish as an “endangered language,” she connects it with its landscape, noting 32 words for “field,” 45 words for “stone,” and 70,000 Irish placenames. She admits that the oldest form of Irish, the Ogham language, has many versions. But she discovered as she began creating the Tree Alphabet that certain letters are the names of trees: B stands for Beithe or birch, C for Coll or hazel, D for Dair or oak, O for Onn or ash, and S for Sail or willow. Her tree alphabet combines English, Irish, and Ogham.
As we buy our Christmas trees and bring them into our homes, may we feel this connection with the natural world, with our primordial past and its shelters that made us dependent on trees for protection, with the “language” of trees — their whispers, their susurrus — with their companionship, and with their generosity. We can recall Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree,” which depicts a small boy who asks gifts from the tree until there remains nothing but the stump for him to sit upon. In this season of giving, Holten reminds us that we need to give something back, “to plant our words to make them matter.” She wants to “reforest our imaginations (to find) a way forward by looking backward through our branches of knowledge. ... The future is no longer somewhere else. It is here and now. This is our story.”
Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.