Katie Holten is a visual artist based in New York City. She grew up in rural Ireland and studied fine art and history of art at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and the Hochschule der Kunst in Berlin. In 2003, she represented Ireland at the 50th Venice Biennale. In 2015, she created a Tree Alphabet and used it to make the book About Trees. She also created a Living Tree Alphabet for New York City.
Time to a Pin Oak
Artwork by Katie Holten, words by Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder
I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it. I circle around God, that primordial tower. I’ve been circling for thousands of years and I still don’t know: am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song?“Widening Circles” by Rainer Maria Rilke translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows
The pin oak tree in Deering Oaks Park in Portland, Maine, began as an acorn—as oak trees do. To the New Englander’s eye, acorns are ordinary and unremarkable: widely scattered orbs in pleasant brown caps, autumn fare for the twitching squirrel. But nested in the acorn is an encoded DNA for the synthesis of sunlight; the vision of a tree; the manifestation of an ecosystem; life itself.
13.8 billion years ago—
the birth of the universe.
A pin oak acorn sprouts—
its primary root breaking into the soil.
The pin oak’s wide base is surrounded by a dark and precise circle of mulch and a frantic and shifting community of gray squirrels, busy in the sunlit days of mid-autumn. Beyond the mulch is mowed grass and a tended rose garden. The tree has had space to grow as wide as it is tall. Its great branches find sunlight in sweeping curves.
4.6 billion years ago—
the birth of the sun.
A sapling puts on its first thin layer of bark.
I visit the oak every day and rest my back against its trunk, or lie in the grass beneath the far edge of its wide circle of leaves, which are attached to a maze of branches that my eyes cannot trace and which are never still, periodically tossing the dark silhouettes of restless blue jays into a bright sky.
3.8 billion years ago—
the first life appears on Earth.
The pin oak reaches maturity—
acorns drop to the ground.
When I tell my father about the tree, he says that it is made of sugar, which in turn is made from light, water, and carbon dioxide. The next day, I visit the tree again and see that it is a latticework of light through symmetrical, lobed leaves. It is the sound of wind rustling through the present moment.
385 million years ago—
the first forests.
Eighty-seven rings radiate outward from the heartwood.
The pin oak has dropped its leaves through eighty-seven winters and has regrown them every spring. It stands there in the park, season after season, patiently wrapping layers of time around its trunk.
And what is time to a pin oak?
Dendrochronology is the study of tree time. From the rings of a tree, we can tell if there was rain or fire, drought or blight, in a given year. We can tell how old the tree is. We can use a drill to take a core sample and plot out a timeline of important events along the delicately-lined cylinder extracted from the trunk: wars, technological breakthroughs, presidents, the rise and fall of empires. Dendrochronology marks linear time—the steady march of years, from start to end. But cut down the oak and time will not be marked in a line but in a series of hoops, in a cascade of O’s, in widening circles.
Modern time is an invented structure of seconds, minutes, hours, and days that is almost impossible to step away from in day-to-day life. We work eight hours a day, five days a week. We are ten years old, and then twenty, and then fifty. The sun rises at 6:15; the tide goes out at 3:23. I spend twenty minutes with the tree one day, forty-five minutes another. Every day is lived through clocks and schedules. It leaves little to the imagination.
200 thousand years ago—
Homo sapiens walk the land.
It’s October and the pin oak has survived another storm.
Only one branch lies fallen at its base, jagged and tender at one end, the leaves still green at the other.
The universe is expanding: 13.8 billion years ago, from a point smaller than an atom, came a great explosion which generated space and time and—over billions of years—everything that exists today in the cosmos. Spacetime was born among the laws of the universe. Einstein’s theory of relativity states that the speed of light is constant; time is relative. If we were to approach 186,000 miles per second, time would slow down. For our physical bodies, the spacetime continuum functions far outside of our immediate sensory awareness.
I don’t begin to understand all of this. When it comes to time, I am caught between a constructed reality and a nearly unfathomable one. I can’t see the birth of the universe when I look up at the stars. I don’t understand that we orbit the sun when I feel it rising against my back. So I look for the universe in this tree. I want to see 13.8 billion years mapped out across eighty-seven rings. I want to scrape away the bark or stare into the shifting leaves and encounter the mystery of the beginning of the universe, of the life contained in an acorn.
I want to know that my experience of the world has the potential to be cracked open, expanded into something new, even if only briefly. I, too, want to learn to live in widening circles like the pin oak tree. One day a storm, the next a falcon, the next a great song.
Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder is a writer based in northern New England. As a staff writer for Emergence Magazine, she explores the human relationship to place. Her work has been featured in Crannóg Magazine, Inhabiting the Anthropocene, and the EcoTheo Review. She is currently writing her first book.
Studio Airport is Bram Broerse and Maurits Wouters. Together with a small team of creatives, they run a design practice based in Utrecht, the Netherlands. The studio has been recognized with international awards for projects such as Hart Island Project (New York), Amsterdam Art Council, and Greenpeace International.