Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"Still Alive"

A workshop exploration
of connective practices
focusing on our relatedness
to the earth and the living creatures, which populate it

a one-day workshop at Oxford Brookes University, conducted by Axel Ewald

In collaboration with the University of the Trees

The aim of the workshop

was to explore ways to open our senses, minds and hearts to the familiar and less familiar, the obvious and the hidden aspects of our close environment. Might there be hidden life behind the appearance of wintery gloom and death? The exploration included close encounters with trees and their naked shapes in winter; with manifold manifestations of decay and growth; and with the hidden life of creeping and crawling creatures in the earth. How do we respond to what might be unfamiliar, unexpected sights and discoveries? What do our responses tell us about what we are observing and about ourselves? What insights can we gain about our relatedness to the life-processes in Nature and how can these insights inform and transform our outlook in the wider field of social processes?
The workshop was based on current and evolving practices related to my PhD research project “Redeeming the Soul of Landscape and Redeeming Landscape for the Soul”, in which I am exploring the application of Goethean Science processes in the field of Social Sculpture and their extension into practices focusing on our relatedness to Nature and to each other.
The workshop was designed as a journey consisting of a number of encounters, both indoors and outdoors, each of which would explore a different dimension of relatedness.


Sitting around the circle of fallen leaves participants introduced themselves by sharing one image of "Nature in Winter" - a memory of a particular landscape or a personal experience. While the person would relate his/her image, the other participants were asked to listen attentively with their eyes closed, in order to be able to inwardly 'live' in the image of the other person.

The images included descriptions of sense perceptions like colours, forms, sounds; experiences of stillness and inwardness; unusual and unexpected encounters with creatures; musings about life and death. This intimate sharing process, in which each person could connect to his/her own inner world of images and memories and share this with the group, provided a fertile ground for the later explorations.

photograph by Dianne Regisford

photograph by Helena Fox
Participants were asked to come closer to the circle of shrivelled chestnut leaves which I had prepared on the ground, to closely observe, touch, smell, listen. Then we closely observed one of the leaves which we picked from the ground. Following the observation participants were invited to share their impressions:
People commented on the leaves as conveying a sense of dryness, fragility, inwardness and separateness, their 'contorted and tortured forms' of having become frozen at the moment of death. But is it the tree who has died or aren't those leaves not just the discarded shreds of its garment which the tree was ready to shed?


People were then asked to inwardly picture the whole process of the shedding of the leaves, from the green foliage of summer to the decaying leaves having been discarded beneath the tree.


photograph by Helena Fox
For the next practice we ventured out into the cold and damp park landscape at Haddington Hall. Each person chose a tree and, to start with, observed it from afar, getting a sense of its shape and proportion. Participants were asked to slowly approach their tree, seeing the tree from a different perspective by looking up into its crown or down towards its roots, then getting into close physical contact: touching the bark, embracing the trunk, smelling the earth at its feet. All along people were to pay attention to the gradual change in their relationship to the tree.
Eventually each person would stand with his/her back leaning against the tree and facing inwards to the open space between the individual trees.


photograph by Dianne Regisford
Returning to the workshop we closely explored oak-branches, representing the outmost periphery of a tree. We embarked on a disciplined observation process, in which each person would share one observation only, building on the observation shared by the previous person.

photograph by Helena Fox
This process allowed us to collectively build a shared, detailed and visually rich picture of the object of our observation. We identified the half-moon shapes underneath each bud as the 'scars' of last year's leaves - being struck by the proximity of past and future, of life and death in the 'eye of the leaf'.Following this we surveyed the branch for further evidence for developmental processes and found where last year's growth had begun. Gradually the branch section and its frozen forms in space began to become transparent for the time-process which created it. We managed to fathom the evidence of one year's growth. Penetrating what we saw with our capacity of thinking in processes, the tree's living in time became 'evident' in space.
photograph by Helena Fox


Participants were then asked to close their eyes and to vividly imagine (on our inner 'screen') the entire process of one year's growth from the end buds to the new sections end buds.

People found this practice very challenging. It asks for the inner capacity of mobile imagination, which can fluidly connect one image with the next one in order to create a continuous developmental process. At this stage most people failed for lack of will forces to perform this task. In addition we had not seen enough visual evidence of the different stages of development, only the beginning and the end.
The practice also raised questions about what are the necessary requirements for imagination to be exact and sensory (Goethe claimed to have developed 'exact sensory imagination' as a requisite tool for the research in the real of the life sciences) ? 


photograph by Helena Fox

After lunch break we again ventured outside for a 'snapshot walk', taking in four 'snapshot evidences' which would put the morning's explorations of the tree's life in winter into a larger context. Participants would follow me on a silent walk leading from station to station. At each station people would take on a particular viewpoint or action which I first had introduced.

station 1: moss landscape on a tree trunk, photograph by Axel Ewald

station 2: uncovering layers of compostation and encountering the creatures
that do the work, photograph by Dianne Regisford

station 3: tree seedlings unfolding on the forest floor, photograph by Axel Ewald

station 4: tree carcasses in a junk-yard for unwanted trees, photograph by Axel Ewald

After completing the walk we returned to the studio and split up into groups of 4-5 people. Each group had 20 minutes to review the walk and share impressions, experiences, questions and insights from what we had seen. The groups then gave a summary report to the forum.

Many people related to the complexity of impressions conveyed by the four stations, which were experienced as confusing to start with, but which, after some pondering, began to make more sense, less as a logical sequence, but rather as a mosaic which presents certain facets of a picture: 
  • evidence of nature's ability to create mini eco-systems, small wholenesses within a larger whole 
  • a glimpse into the recycling facilities of nature, where death leads to new life and little creatures are constantly busy transforming matter 
  • an experience of nature's still abundant forces of renewal and growth, even in the middle of winter 
  • a meeting with the shocking, apparent indifference and cruelty of human beings towards living nature
The sharing raised many questions touching upon the responsibility of human beings towards nature and man/woman's right to determine the destiny of a non-human creature.


Here is a selection of comments by which participants summarised their experience of the workshop:

"the circle of fallen leaves set the tone of the workshop from the outset and served as a visual anchor throughout the work. It gradually became 'charged' ..."
"the fact that the final practice (the snapshot walk) was open-ended, was confusing to start with, but also very activating and thought provoking."
"I was very moved by the power of sharing our inner images with everybody listening with closed eyes."
"the communal effort of closely observing and describing a nature object, so that it becomes present between people, is very impressive and powerful." 
"nature offers us pictures, images, true metaphors which are parallel to our experiences in everyday life and human relationships."
"our pain in meeting nature stems from the sense of separation. In the plant, things just happen, everything moves and develops and is connected. We can only bring about this movement by willing it! What can motivate the will?"
"amazing how in nature life and death are closely intertwined. We want to push death away - and, actually, life as well. In nature they are both present all the time ..."
"the practices provided ample opportunities to explore imaginative thought. But we all the time have to go back to the 'evidence' on the ground. Material and Imagination are to be in a dynamic relationship..."
"Having had this experience of intimacy with nature will make me behave differently."
"I had a profound experience of connectedness. Life processes are not only outside in nature, they are in me as well."
"I found the practice of imagining growth a potent tool for developing the capacity of inner movement and flexibility."
photograph by Helena Fox
Many thanks to Prof. Shelley Sacks for making this workshop possible at Brookes University and for her continuing support and inspiration; thanks to Helena Fox and Dianne Regisford for providing me with their sensitive photographs and thanks to all participants for their interest, commitment and engagement along the journey.

Creative Encounters with Trees - A Tree Observation workshop

"Creative Encounters with Trees"

A tree workshop at Kibbutz Harduf
Friday, 30.1.2015


“Creative encounters for the sake of renewing and deepening our relationship with trees and with the earth” (quoted from the advertising flyer)

The aim of this one-day workshop was to enable participants to establish an intimate relationship with trees in general and with a specific, individually chosen tree in particular. Close observation and various practices were designed to demeanour familiarise participants with various aspects of the tree-organism: its spatial form and organisation and its life as an organism developing in time. Special emphasis was put on developing an awareness of different levels of relatedness, which we can develop between the human world and the world of trees. The workshop was jointly prepared and conducted by Axel Ewald and Ephrat Angress-Ewald.


The workshop started with people introducing themselves by telling their name and sharing a tree, which they like, or a particular tree with which they had formed a personal relationship.

This practice of introduction allowed people to introduce themselves through their choice of tree and the personal story connected to the tree. It made it plainly evident that trees can play an important part in the life and biography of a human being. The wide range of individual stories, the choices of trees and the way people chose to present their trees gave an indication of the different levels of relatedness. These included detailed descriptions of form, emphasis of certain sense perceptions like smell, highlighting of particular tree-organs like flowers, interest in the changing expression of a tree through the seasons, expression of awe in the face of a 2000 year old tree and musings about what it saw in its long life and expression of feelings of friendship and mutual support between a person and a tree.

Axel summarised this part with the following quotation by J.W von Goethe:
“In surveying the phenomena of the world we should carefully consider relationships. And the most important relationship is that which exists between the observer and the object observed.”

It was explained that this workshop was about exploring and deepening our relationship with trees and that, by following different practices including observation, sharing, drawing, movement and writing, we would explore various levels of relationship.

The morning part of he workshop would be devoted to a shared study of one tree – a local Palestinian Oak (Tabor Oak – Quercus Ithaburensis) while in the afternoon participants would have the chance to establish a personal relationship with a tree of their own choice.

Ephrat introduced children’s drawings of trees, which gave us a clue about the difference between grasping the tree ‘from outside’ or ‘from inside’ – and the close relationship between the shape of a tree and that of the human being.


The first practice was to approach the oak tree from the outside and stop at a distance of some thirty meters. From this distance it was possible to survey the tree as a whole. Participants were asked to observe the tree and focus on its spatial form, its proportions, the relationship between stem and crown, the angles of the main branches etc. Then they were asked to make a short summary drawing of the tree, starting from the (invisible) outline, adding the trunk and finally filling in some of the main branches.

Drawing is used here as tool of observation. The process of drawing ‘what we see’ and the mental effort this demands makes people aware of the limitations of their perception. Many of the participants remarked that they had to undergo some painful transformation, correcting their mental picture of how a tree looks like in order to make it match the real tree in front of their eyes. People expressed their surprise at the real proportion of the tree – for instance at the width of the crown in relation to the thickness of the trunk.

Participants were then asked to slowly walk towards the tree, being aware of how their relationship to the tree changes with the distance. Eventually people would walk up to the trunk of the tree, touch the trunk and finally stand with their backs leaning against the tree-trunk, facing outwards.
This practice allows participants, by means of a simple change of physical ‘perspective’, to have a first glimpse of the difference between a detached subject-object relationship and a participatory, emphatic relationship. Participants described how their relationship changed from being ‘outside’ and relating to the tree as an ‘object’ to experiencing a distinct moment of entering into the inner ‘home-space’ of the tree and eventually to ‘becoming’ the tree, looking, as it were, with the tree into its environment.

We then moved on to meet another oak of the same species but displaying a very different character.


After sharing some observations and impressions about the very different appearance of this particular specimen, we focused on identifying features, which provide evidence that the tree is ‘alive’ – meaning that it is not an inert object in space, but a living organism. Life manifests in time – so we had to look for evidence of change in time. Participants were encouraged to engage all their senses and to explore both the tree itself, mainly the tips of its branches, as well as the earth underneath the tree.

This practice focuses participants’ mindfulness in a new direction. Although we are still looking at inert forms in space, our inner gaze is searching for the evidence of time passing, traces of the past and inklings of the future: we compared buds of different shape and size and realised that we are looking at different stages of development, then we discovered some buds which have already opened and released a fountain of lush green leaves. We inspected the ground underneath the tree and found brown leaves in various stages of decay. Digging further into the ground we witnessed how these leaves decompose into a rich soil with a tangy smell. And we even found a sprouting acorn, its tender root venturing out of the hard shell. Wherever we turned our gaze, we became aware of the transformative processes of life and we had an intuitive grasp of a whole self-sustained eco-system, which developed under the canopy of this tree. Participants also remarked that the rich fabric of life, which we found in and around the second oak, reflects a different, more caring and less invasive interference of human beings compared to what we found with the first oak.
We then returned to the classroom in order to have a closer look at oak branches, which we had carefully cut from the tree. Every participant was given a branch and people were asked to describe their first impressions. Then participants were encouraged to closely observe the branch, pay attention to smallest details and move forward from section to section. Moving around the circle, people described their observations, carefully listening to what other people had already described and each adding another facet to the whole picture.

One of the first impressions shared by one of the participants was that, in contrast to the impression of the whole tree outside, which was experienced as a “creative chaos”, here we can discern a clear order, a kind of musical rhythm from bud to bud, a lawfulness and clear structure. Soon participants discovered the ‘scars’ of former leaves and their close relationship to the new buds – the place where past and future meet. Another discovery was the identification of the place of last year’s end-buds, and, following from this, the realization that in each such section of the branch we can see the tree’s biography in time having become manifest in spatial form. A fascinating discussion ensued about how this relates to how, in the human sphere, a person’s biography realizes itself - not, like the tree, in physical form, but in the inner structure of the soul.
We continued conducting a similar observation of the development of the acorns, from the first tiny bulbous extrusion to the fully-fledged acorn. The final step was to see with our own eyes the embryo of the new oak, root and two tiny leaves, embedded in the acorn.

These close observations gave participants a tangible experience of how the life of the tree, its development in time, has become manifest as a dynamic sequence of visible forms in space.


The afternoon session was introduced by a short reflection of the morning’s insights into the spatial and dynamic nature of trees. The afternoon session would lead us from the general to the specific, from the general features of trees to the specific character of individual species and specimens. Ephrat introduced the characterization of specific trees in mythology (the Finish epos Kalewala) and in contemporary poetry and mentioned the fact that in Hebrew the word for Oak ( אלון – Alon ) has in it the male root for ‘God’, whereas the Hebrew name of the Pistacia Palestinensis ( אלה – Ela ) literally means ‘Goddess’. In order to approach the individual gesture of a specific tree, we have to proceed to an emphatic mode of observation. This means that instead of looking at the tree from outside, we are called upon to identify ourselves with the tree, be inside the tree.

We returned to the place where we had met the first oak. From this point we had a good view of the oak and another large tree, a Syrian ash. Participants were asked to take some time and observe the two trees, but this time making an attempt at ‘becoming’ the tree, imagining its growth into space, as it were, from within outwards. After a few minutes of silent observation participants were asked to translate their inner experience into movement, to embody the growth of the tree and its gesture in space. We then split into two groups facing each other and ‘performed’ the gestures of the two trees, one opposite the other.

The movements/gestures within each of the groups were surprisingly similar. This can be seen as an indication of the validity of the emphatic approach, which, while entirely depending on the individual emphatic ability of the observers’ psyche, seems to touch upon some of the archetypal gestures inherent in the natural world.


Participants were then asked to study a specific tree of their choice. They were given 30 minutes to choose, observe, draw and write notes, describing the specific, individual features and characteristics of their tree. They were encouraged to use all the tools, which we had developed in the morning session.
Participants chose a wide variety of different tree species, among them some specimen, which apparently were not in good health or somehow ‘unusual’. It was obvious that at this stage participants were very motivated and ready to embark on a more personal ‘conversation’ with a tree. Although the time was rather short, people managed to establish an intimate relationship with their tree.

After 30 minutes we returned to the classroom. Participants were given two more tasks related to their individual tree project. The first practice was introduced by looking at some artists’ drawings of trees.

botanical illustration - anon.

tree - David Nash
tree signature
we distinguished between:

  • a botanical drawing, which renders the outer appearance of the tree with a multitude of tiny details
  • a ‘gesture drawing’, which simplifies the outer shape to dynamic gesture
  • a further reduction – or better distillation – of the tree into its essential ‘signature’. How would the tree sign, if it would be able to do so?

The task was for participants to draw the ‘signature’ of their tree. After some moments of quiet meditation and concentration on the essence of their tree (with their eyes closed) people were asked to draw a very concise ‘signature’ of their tree. It was stressed that this is not an ‘abstraction’ of the outer shape of the tree, but rather a condensed expression of the being of the tree in us, flowing straight from the heart to the hand.

The final practice was to create a piece of ‘poetry’ – a verbal condensation of the essence of the tree. This was to be cast into a particular form:

xxx xxx
xxx xxx xxx
xxx xxx xxx xxx
xxx xxx xxx
xxx xxx

Participants’ responses (translated from Hebrew):

Weeping Mulberry:

In pain

weeps my soul;

my branches cry and twist,

with comforting tears droop to the earth,

wrap, cover, soothe

a sorrowful soul

in its loneliness

Anonymous tree:

veiled is your name; 
my eye was on you for long,
I drew your trunk and your branches, 
caressed the lichen on your limbs 
and leaned on your 


The workshop was concluded with a reflection on the discoveries and insights, which participants had gained from the workshop. Here are some of the comments made by participants:
“I am somewhat familiar with creating relationships with people. But it was new for me to create a relationship with a tree – how can this be done? In talking to the tree, do I only hear myself or can I make myself open to what comes from him?”
“I learned to observe botanically, but gaze inwardly.” 
“how human the glance of the eye can become! I was deeply moved.” 
“an energetic gate to trees was opened. It was a bit scary – I wasn’t always sure that they (the trees) wanted us to be there …” 
“it made my usually blunt way of walking through nature so much more sensitive …” 
“I received two gifts: one was learning to look and observe not only with the eyes, but with the heart; the other one was, that I became aware that it was not I who chose my tree, but him, who chose me – and not by accident. The tree became like a mirror through which I could touch myself…I wanted to give to the tree, instead I received… I wanted to forgive, instead I was forgiven…” 
“I beheld the first oak tree standing between the times and between worlds, between the houses and the fields; like a guardian he sees everybody come into the Kibbutz and everybody go. His demeanour demeanour demeanour knowing, painful, awake – his is a stern warning …”

How would it be, Axel concluded, if we could adopt the perspective of this last comment as an alternative attitude to the ‘non-human’ world? What, if we could look at our deeds and ourselves from the point of view of a tree, or an ant, or the rocks under our feet? Wouldn’t this bring a complete turn-around to our egocentric way of relating to the planet and exploiting its resources?