“Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought”

We treated ourselves to a visit to an exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, entitled “Do Not Destroy:  Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought.”  The title is taken from a commandment in the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:19):

“When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, do not destroy its trees, wielding an ax against them.  You may eat of them but you must not cut them down.  Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?  Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed…”

This admonition is expanded by modern Jewish thought to encompass man’s responsibility to protect all of nature from harm.  The tree is a universal symbol of all nature. 

The Jewish Museum invited over 50 international artists to create original works of art inspired by the Jewish holiday which honors trees, Tu B’Shevat.  One of these works of art was awarded first prize by a public popularity contest. 

“Fauxliage: No Birds Sing” by Lisa Kokin. with permission. Photograph by Lia Roozendaal

At first glance, the viewer sees a branch of a eucalyptus tree with its graceful sickle-shaped leaves in a skeletal state, seemingly long-since dead. 

We must look more closely to appreciate the symbolic message of this evocative piece.  The leaves are in fact made of the pages of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.   Silent Spring was published in 1962, so we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of this ground-breaking book.  The pages have been shredded and wired together with thread and wire to create the delicate skeletal frame of each leaf. 

“Foliage: No Birds Sing” Detail with permission. Photo by Lia Roozendaal

The poetic justice of this piece took our breath away.   Silent Spring forever changed the public’s perception of the pesticides that were used in the environment at that time.  Rachel Carson informed us that these pesticides—particularly DDT—were killing our birds, silencing our springs when birds should be singing as they claim their nesting territories and attract their mates.  Although DDT was banned long ago, and many birds have recovered from the damage it caused, new pesticides have been developed and are being used to kill eucalyptus and many other non-native plants and trees.

 We have no way of knowing the artist’s intention in creating this work of art, but we commend her for celebrating the beauty of the eucalyptus and for the deeply ironic reference to the pesticides being used to kill them.  The public’s vote for first prize for this beautiful piece is evidence that there are many fans of the much-maligned eucalyptus.

[Edited to add:  We have received this comment from the artist, Lisa Kokin:  “The only thing that struck me was the sentence that begins, ‘We have no way of knowing the artist’s intention…’  It seems a bit paradoxical, given that you do understand why I chose Silent Spring to embed in the piece.  It is my concern about the environment and its destruction by corporate greed that motivated me to use Carson’s book and create a piece that speaks of that destruction in a poetic, rather than didactic, way.”]

We urge all lovers of trees to visit this exhibit which will continue until September 9, 2012.  And we ask native plant advocates to consider the commandment of the Torah and the Old Testament:  Do Not Destroy our Trees!