Through poetic glimpses of an ongoing participatory art process, Tree Memory Gathering, this essay considers the special issue theme by questioning, “How might the concept of ‘social warming’ invite new possibilities for creative-relational inquiry?” Responses unfold through three variations of social warming inspired by socially engaged art and ecopoetry. These variations—gathering, participatory bookmaking, and perforating—unsettle residual boundaries between tree bodies and human bodies, generating ecological wisdom for living and inquiring differently in the world. Perforating is theorized as an alternative to research findings in post-qualitative approaches to inquiry.
I invite you to engage in a participatory artist book that explores memories of trees that have been significant and impactful in your lives. This Tuesday evening, I am hosting a gathering in my home. Feel free to bring those you love and admire along. I will have some soup, bread, and wine to share. Maybe we will get a lovely sunset over Grandfather Mountain while we listen.
FOLLOW THE PLANTS
The wisdom of the plants: even when they have roots, there is always an outside where they form a rhizome with something else—with the wind, an animal, human beings…2
When I encountered Jonathan Wyatt's phrasing, “creative-relational inquiry,”3 it felt as if a generous conversational partner had offered me words I had long been struggling to retrieve when thinking/writing/making arts-based poetic inquiry. Why? Perhaps because a through-line that weaves through my diverse body of work is the creative-relational invitation. Increasingly, these invitations move in relation to place—wondering with trees, wind, streams, light, stories, land.
Here, I write into the question “How might the concept of ‘social warming’4 invite new possibilities for creative-relational inquiry?” I explore this question through three variations of social warming—gathering, participatory bookmaking, and perforating. These variations explore social warming as a concept that embodies “a paradigm of relationality and connectivity”5 between humans and the more-than-human world. Embracing Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's provocation to “follow the plants,”6 I follow trees through artwork, poetry, earthworks, and through the drawings, stories, and memories of neighbors. I follow trees to explore alternative possibilities for being and becoming with our planet. Finally, I discuss how engaging with these variations of social warming as modes of creative-relational inquiry evoke “creative rhizomatics”7 that prompt reimagining representation with regard to research findings.
Uprooting, camouflaging, wrapping, fabricating, personifying, felling, planting, embodying—trees have long occupied the imaginations of artists and poets. Take, for example, Agnes Denes, who organized the planting of 11,000 trees by 11,000 diverse individuals creating a massive earthwork in Ylöjärvi, Finland, designed to ameliorate ecological stress.8 Or consider Eve Ensler, whose writings have beautifully grappled with how easy it is to consider ourselves outside of the ecological. Ensler confessed, “I have been afraid of trees. I have felt the Earth as my enemy. I did not live in the forests. I lived in the concrete city where I could not see the sky or sunset or stars. I moved at the pace of engines and it was faster than my own breath. I became a stranger to myself and to the rhythms of the Earth.”9 Nearly every window in my home frames distant forest density or close tangled branches. The moments of thinking/writing/making that aggregate as this essay are affected by the hussssshhhhh huuuusssshhhh of wind through such networks—the wild flapping of thousands of amber, scarlet, citron, maroon leaves, the slow growing and dying of trees happening beyond the framing of laptop screen and windows. Out my bedroom window and through these trees appears the home of one of my dearest friends. We have laughed that it can take months to sync our schedules for an hour or two of walking over to visit: a last-minute work deadline, a sick child, exhaustion. Taking time to attend to what is out our windows, to who is living next door—and how it matters—is perhaps more radical than one might first consider. Neighbors, forest, place become kneaded into my creative practice—folding into what I make, how I make, where I make, why I make.
Movements across contemporary art and ecopoetry further influence the ways I theorize and extend creative-relational invitations. In what follows, I share glimpses of my ongoing participatory art process, Tree Memory Gathering. As outlined in the invitation above, these gatherings are informal opportunities for neighbors to eat together, stirring recollections of how trees have been impactful to ways we have lived and ways we seek to live differently going ahead.
Tree Memory Gathering was inspired, in part, by a contemporary artist collaborative, Artist as Family, who coined the term “social warming” to categorize modes of art that make relationships.10 All aspects of their creative practice hinge upon practicing “an art that participates in what it represents; an art of social warming in an era of global warming.”11 The family members of this collective invite others to engage materially, locally, and communally with issues of food justice and community economics by foraging for waste, building community gardens, and learning about permaculture living.
Luce Irigaray questioned, “How can we speak of the vegetal world? Is not one of its teachings to show without saying, or to say without words?”12 Her observation prompted me to make a participatory artist book. The book is intentionally oversized, allowing for the potential that several bodies could draw, collage, or work in the book at the same time if desired. Yet, while the participatory artist book was a focal point that brought us together around the table, I noticed how the “wisdom of the plants”13 exceeded the limits of any individual writing or drawing happening across the blank pages—rather, “memories growing, ring on ring.”14
Ring upon ring, the story of how a tree lives is not linear, just as “the story of how we live in the world is not really a single solid line. The story is not closed. The story is perforated; it has holes into which the world's breath can whisper through. Our stories are globally rhizoidic stories that shift and drift within the liminal spaces enacted between the words and the listener or the words and the reader and their particular experiences amid the living world.”15 Yet it is not only our stories, but also our capacity to listen, that is perforated.
Erin Magrane crafted “Various Instructions for the Practice of Poetic Field Research,”16 prompting readers to designate what is natural and what is not natural, what is alive and not alive. Here, I take cues from Magrane and other ecopoets who compose lists, prompts, formulas, and how-to's that encourage readers to engage with place through poetry in ways that, for me, resonate with creative-relational invitations.17
As the gatherers pulled on shoes and shook pockets to find car keys, we noted how listening to each other's memories sparked openings for us to reach into what had long been overlooked, forgotten. As the kitchen grew quiet, my hands carefully scrubbed wineglasses and ceramic plates—the moments of the evening washed over me. Months later now, I choose not to tell the intricacies of those stories—stories that touch loss, religion, raising children in an era of ecological crisis, land ownership, loneliness, hope. Instead, I offer glimpses of the tree gathering opened through multiple perforations. Perhaps an alternative to research findings is perforating.
What follows is the perforating of one Tree Memory Gathering in which readers are offered space to explore their own tree memories—alone, but preferably around a table shared with others. My hope is that these perforations might begin to unsettle residual boundaries between tree bodies and human bodies, generating ecological wisdom as memories expand—ring on ring on ring.
GATHERING TREE MEMORIES
For as long as I can remember, trees _________________________ ,
I recall how air ___________________________ ,
____________________________________________. In my drawings these
Growing up with ____________________ , _________________________ .
I was _________________ , _______________________ when I began to feel _____________________ was
inside and _____________________ was outside.
Out of the corner of my eye, trees ____________________________________ .
Do you believe trees _____________________________ ,
_____________________________ , _____________________________ ,
_____________________________ when we are not
There is a difference, knowing a tree and knowing a forest.
Trees witness(ed) these events in my life: _____________________________ , _____________________________ ,
Trees protected me from ____________________ , _____________________ .
Can “meeting a tree” be taught? My ancestors speak ______________________ .
We carry with us
_____________________________ , _____________________________ ,
_____________________________ resides in my connections to trees.
We can no longer watch or anticipate. Every _________________________ , _____________________ cut down.
From a solitary seed ______________________ , ______________________ ,
______________________ . I planted __________________________ when
In exploring these variations of social warming, I am reminded that gatherings flow—mobilizing, lingering, scattering. In the spaces between invitations, movements sparked by perforating become the interplay between trees, tree memories, tree gatherings. Everything we, as gatherers, listened with continues to murmur and stir as we go on with our living—rising and abating with each deep breath of distinctly forest air; with each noticing of tender saplings adorned with cautionary orange ribbon. Follow-up notes exchanged; new relationships forged. More gatherings to follow; new memories becoming unearthed. As one gatherer conveyed, “As I left that evening, I felt it strongly. … We are shifting the world.”
From 2018 to 2020, I received a Graduate Research Assistant Mentoring award through the Graduate School at Appalachian State University. In this capacity, I was honored to serve as a mentor to Shauna Caldwell through her graduate work in Appalachian Studies and learn from her creative-relational wisdom. Her photographic documentation of the tree gatherings appears throughout this essay, and I am very appreciative that readers can encounter glimpses through her viewfinder that make significant contributions to how my writing is encountered.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 11.
Jonathan Wyatt, Therapy, Stand-Up, and the Gesture of Writing: Towards Creative-Relational Inquiry (London: Routledge, 2019).
Artist as Family, “Social Warming,” 28 September 2009, https://theartistasfamily.blogspot.com/2009/09/social-warming.html.
Simon O'Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari: Thought Beyond Representation (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 17.
Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 11.
O'Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari, 17.
Eve Ensler, In the Body of the World: A Memoir (New York: Picador, 2013), 1.
Artist as Family, “Social Warming”; Andrew Brown, Art & Ecology Now (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014), 242.
Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being: Two Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 6.
Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 11.
Sylvia Plath, Winter Trees (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 43.
Collette Quinn-Hall, “Poetics in a Capacious Landscape,” in Poetic Inquiry II: Seeing, Caring, Understanding: Using Poetry as and for Inquiry, ed. Kathleen Galvin and Monica Prendergast (Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense, 2016), 127.
Erin Magrane, “Various Instructions for the Practice of Poetic Field Research,” Ecotone 27 (2019): 7–8.
See Emily Kendal Frey, “Ritual to Reclaim the Body as a Place of Love,” Ecotone 27 (2019): 138–40; Anna Lena Phillips Bell, “Venerable Instructions,” Ecotone 27 (2019): 5–6.