Photographs by Nicolai Howalt
Fabrik Books, 2019
224 pp., 16.6cm x 22.5cm
Reviewed by Collier Brown
Ten thousand years ago, glacial sheets were scraping the last of the giants off the earth. The mastodons, the cave bears, and the saber-toothed tigers had perished, to be followed shortly by the wooly mammoth. And between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the forerunners of the Anthropocene were sowing fields of wheat and barley. In the higher latitudes, only a few wild grasses persevered. The pollen grains that scientists have recovered from this receding ice age suggest that forests had dwindled to meager but resilient colonies of spruce, pine, birch, willow, and alder.
The Norway spruce (Picea abies), in particular, can withstand conditions that would easily destroy other conifers. In high temperatures and low, dry areas and wet, poor soil and rich, the spruce finds ways to cope. When conditions are ideal, it can shape itself into a thickly-based cone and grow ten stories high. But the drooping, bearded branches distort the spruce’s natural symmetries. The final impression is one of weariness and long struggle, which makes sense, given the wastelands in which they’re often forced to survive.
Old Tjikko is one such survivor and the lone subject of a new book by Danish photographer Nicolai Howalt. A rather homely-looking specimen of Norway spruce, the solitary Tjikko can be found on Sweden’s Fulufjället Mountain, where it has eked out an existence among ice and stones for 9,600 years. I should add an asterisk to that timeline, since the part we see above ground (the trunk, branches, etc.) is not quite that old. In fact, Old Tjikko is a clone. When scientists say the tree is 9,600 years old, they are talking about the root system, of which Old Tjikko is a single clonal offshoot.
Ecologists, botanists, dendrologists, and mycologists have significantly advanced our understanding of roots and how they sustain not only the lives of individual trees but the health and longevity of forests, sometimes ranging many miles across. In his bestselling book, The Hidden Life of Trees (2015), German forester Peter Wohlleben explains the cooperative relationship between root and fungus. Not only do the two feed one another, they speak to one another in a kind of chemical binary. Tree roots send messages through strands of mycelium to other trees miles away, sometimes to warn others of dangerous insects in the vicinity or to manage the microclimate within a stand of trees. One can only imagine how much more concentrated the vegetal network of a clonal colony must be. Old Tjikko’s remarkable succession of birthdays implies as much.
Remarkable too is the way in which Howalt reimagines Old Tjikko’s world, image by image. The changes are surprising and unapologetically relentless. I can’t help but to think of the time-lapse selfies that people started making about a decade ago. One guy took a selfie every day for eight years (I think he’s still doing it). I just watched a video that covers twenty years of a woman’s life in five minutes! The transformations are mesmerizing. Hair thrashes this way and that, as if caught in a hurricane. Shadows crisscross the person’s face, eroding youth at high speeds. And suddenly, all those National Geographic videos of flowers blooming and dying in two-second clips look disconcertingly familiar. It all happens so fast, for flowers and for us. To an elder like Old Tjikko, how must we appear? Like incoherent blurs of color? Or like fireflies at night?
Thumb through the pages quickly, as if this were a flipbook, and you’ll get the gist of those viral selfies I just described. The flickering alternation of white pages and black imitates sunrise and nightfall. The days come and go. But not a single needle on the spruce’s limb drops, and that’s because all of these tree portraits come from one negative, just as Old Tjikko rises from one root. Using expired, light-sensitive papers (see captions for dates of expiration and paper type), Howalt produced ninety-seven unique portraits of Old Tjikko, each variation the consequence of the photopaper’s age and chemical residue.
The result feels cosmic. Even the silver halides in the paper explode unpredictably into constellations, as if this inconspicuous tree were at the very center of all things, great and small. The image, or motif, of this cosmic world tree is as old as any mythology. Its canopy reaches heaven and its roots extend to hell. For Howalt, Old Tjikko evokes that “mythological power” as a “tangible image of eternity.” “To me,” he says, “Old Tjikko almost becomes a sort of archetype of this duality because of its high age.” It’s a comment on our relationship, or really our lack of a relationship, to eternity. To talk about long expanses of time, we rely on mathematics. Our imaginations simply exhaust themselves after thinking ahead a few generations or back a few centuries. Ten thousand years might as well be an eternity, if the standard of measurement is the human life.
When looking at trees, wrote Walt Whitman, “one does not wonder at the old story fables, (indeed, why fables?) of people falling into love-sickness with trees, seiz’d extatic with the mystic realism of the resistless silent strength in them.” It’s easy, in an aesthetic sense, to cosmologize a tree, especially a tree as old as Old Tjikko. In our more sympathetic moments, the impulse can even be difficult to resist. But Whitman’s word “resistless” applies to the strength of the tree too, as in strong, yet vulnerable. So it was with Yggdrasil, the mythical ash whose sacred form, though in contact with the eternal, was subject to mortal afflictions. In the Poetic Edda, Odin says,
The hardships endured by Yggdrasil
Are more than men can dream of:
Harts bite the twigs, the trunk rots,
Nidhögg gnaws at the roots.
Yggdrasil is a tangible image of eternity, as Howalt describes Old Tjikko. It can be broken, it can rot. And the Nidhögg, or serpent, can gnaw its ancient roots. Of course, the obvious difference here is that in the Anthropocene, it’s not the hart but the man who bites the twigs, who rots the trunks, who gnaws the roots.
When I look at photobooks that make trees, especially old trees, the subject of their photographic studies, I always assume there’s a cautionary tale I’m supposed to intuit. But Howalt’s book makes me eager to discover trees and to create new tales. There’s something about it that reminds me of my time as a forestry student in southeast Texas. Each week, my dendrology class would trek deep into the loblolly pinewoods. There, we’d record our observations in small field journals. I’d sketch a tree’s dimensions, count its needles, outline its cones. Old Tjikko (the book) has that field-notes quality. With its rounded, bump-resistant corners, its sturdy but flexible boards, and its tough surface, the book itself seems ready to venture outdoors.
Superb photobooks about trees have appeared over the last few years. Ancient Skies, Ancient Trees (2016), by photographer Beth Moon, comes to mind. In that book, Moon put stars in conversation with diminishing populations of baobabs. Old Tjikko makes a cameo appearance on the cover of Rachel Sussman’s excellent book, The Oldest Living Things in the World (2014). The list goes on, but Howalt’s Old Tjikko rivals the very best I’ve seen.
The concept of one tree, and ninety-seven ways of looking at it, resumes the aesthetic work that Wallace Stevens began a hundred years ago with blackbirds. And to that extent, Howalt and Stevens are on the same page about nurturing the poetry of encounter and perception. We’re constantly looking for ways to renew our sense wonder, to make the familiar unfamiliar again. Old Tjikko is a photobook of wonders, ninety-seven of them, in fact. And though Howalt’s photographic study poses no solutions to the environmental degradations of our time, it supposes that our imaginations can still be “seiz’d extatic” by trees of such extraordinary ancestry, even at a photograph’s remove. And if there’s hope for that, maybe there’s still hope for the other.