For the Love of Trees

In Review: The Language of Trees

Katie Holten’s work exists, as she writes, at the intersection of “art, activism, ecology, language, and history.” She is known especially for the creation of an alphabet of trees for New York City, for which she assigned each Latin letter a tree found within the city. A is an apple tree, B is a beech, C is a cedar, etc. Her pen-and-ink drawings of the species make up the Tree typeface, a font Holten calls a “rewilding tool.”

In 2015, Holten published About Trees, a commonplace book of writings about trees that was printed in English and “translated” into her Tree typeface. The Language of Trees: A Rewilding of Literature and Landscape is a reissue of this book that contains much of the original content. Holten has removed excerpts from the likes of Darwin, Jules Verne, and Kafka, while adding excerpts from new work by poets like Ada Limón and Camille T. Dungy, ecologist Suzanne Simard, environmental historian Jessica J. Lee, and global Indigenous activists like Nemo Andy Guiquita.

Holten divides these works into eleven sections. From “Seeds, Soil, Saplings” to “Forests,” and from “Family Trees” to “Roots & Resistance,” the essays in the book span the world of trees, exploring individual trees, forests, trees in society, and more.

Trees and writing have long been intimately linked. As poet Ross Gay writes in the introduction, the words for book in some languages “derive from or overlap with words for trees,” adding that “being in a library … can sometimes feel like being in a forest … just as being in a forest can sometimes feel like being in a library.”

But why an alphabet of trees? Gay again writes, “The language of trees might incline us to patience. To love. It might incline us to gratitude.” This is why Holten considers the tree alphabet a rewilding tool — because, as she writes, the Tree font is “a living alphabet that can be planted, allowing us to seed stories, watch them sprout and grow.”

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The Language of Trees is not just a book but a piece of visual art. It is a feast of tree-related excerpts, poems, and quotes, communicated in tree language, printed alongside stunning tree-centric visual art.

Each excerpt is printed in English in Garamond Premier Pro font, and on the facing page is translated into Tree font. Holten plays with font size, sometimes making the Tree font large enough that the trees overlap and create an impenetrable forest of “words” that can’t be interpreted. For other pieces, she shrinks the Tree font down to allow the reader to see how the English words are mirrored by the tree words on the facing page.

While most translations are printed linearly, several are confined to circles of tree text. For example, in Tacita Dean’s excerpt about noted German-British translator and poet Michael Hamburger and his friendship with German writer W.G. Sebald, the tree text creates two overlapping circles on the facing page. These may represent the relationship between the two. The circles may also represent the many apple trees that Hamburger has painstakingly grown from seed in his orchard. In Branches, Leaves, Roots and Trunks, by Robert Macfarlane, the Tree font is small enough to see the patterns of paragraph divisions and the list of tree-related words from the UK that Macfarlane translates in his text.

With this approach, readers are drawn into the animacy of the tree alphabet, able to see what the forest of words looks like as well as being able to pick out individual trees from that forest. There’s even a piece that’s translated three times: Blad 2/Leaf 2 by Åse Eg Jørgensen is printed in Danish, translated into English, and then both are translated into trees as well.

In addition to the artistry of the typeface and the creative layouts, the book includes many pen and ink drawings. There is a sketch of the Ogham alphabet, an Irish alphabet believed to have originated from trees, plus a haiku written in Ogham. There is a drawing of a cross-section of a 374-million-year-old tree. And one section of the table of contents is simply an arrangement of various sized black dots, the “seeds” of the tree alphabet, germinating. Holten includes sketches of trees that look almost like neural networks, and a leaf font based on the same trees as the Tree font. It’s a testament to how the tree alphabet can utilize pieces of a tree in addition to the tree itself.

The Language of Trees is truly a book for those of us who love trees.

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