If a tree talks in the woods and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Tuesday morning I had my choice of places to view the televised inauguration of Barack Obama or ways to hear the audio feed. Working as I do on the UCSD campus, there were rooms in libraries, radios at coffee stands and individual laptops that were all playing the ceremonies. The most unusual venue I could pick from was to hear the inauguration broadcast through the speakers of lead-plated eucalyptus trees that were installed over twenty years ago as part of the campus’s Stuart Collection.
The work is Trees by artist Terry Allen, and was constructed from three eucalyptus that either had died or had to be removed to make way for new construction. The dead trees were cut into big chunks, dipped in wood preservative, reassembled, and then covered with small sheets of lead attached nails. What was the artist’s intent? The Stuart Collection’s description offers this explanation:
One could walk through the grove several times before noticing Allen’s two unobtrusive trees. Not only do these trees reinvest a natural site with a literal sense of magic but they implicitly make connections between nature and death and the life of the spirit. It is not surprising that students have dubbed this area the “Enchanted Forest.”
At the entrance to the vast, geometric library the third tree of Allen’s installation remains silent – perhaps another form of the tree of knowledge, perhaps a reminder that trees must be cut down to print books and build buildings, perhaps a dance form, or perhaps noting that one can acquire knowledge both through observation of nature and through research.
On Tuesday, the tree that ordinarily recites poetry and the one that typically offers songs and music were dedicated to an audio feed of the Presidential inauguration. The organizers had high hopes, predicting “hundreds of students” would show up for the event. But for the few minutes I could spend there, I counted just about a dozen people and two dogs (well-behaved ones, attending with their owners, not dogs doing their thing on the trees…).
The special programming wasn’t the easiest sell that morning. The inauguration was already a huge event.
I’ll have to admit I had a hard time paying attention the the art event myself. You could feel change in the air. And even talking trees in a forest weren’t enough to get people to stop.