In the soil of the sensible, 2008
Giclee print from colour transparency, Dimensions Variable
"To see the wood from among the trees: the photography of Cristina Sáez"
by Tim Ingold
Of someone who is so caught up in the minutiae of life that they are unable to comprehend the overall picture, it is often said that they cannot tell the wood for the trees. To see the wood, it seems, you have to get out from among the trees and take a long view from a bare hilltop, or even from the air. Seen thus from afar, the wood appears to be laid like a mosaic over the contoured surface of the land. Let us suppose, however, that we descend from the heights and re-enter the wood. Are we, once again, overwhelmed by minutiae? Do we see only individual trees rather than the wood as a whole? Not a bit of it! To enter the wood, and to find ourselves surrounded on all sides by trunks and branches, is not just to undergo a change of focus, from distant to close-up, but to experience a radically different perception of the world.
In this perception, the wood ceases to appear as an aggregate of individual trees. Perhaps the Oxford English Dictionary gets closer to it when it defines the wood as trees collectively growing together. In the twisting, turning, gnarling, knotting and branching of its roots, trunk and limbs, each tree bears testimony to a process of growth that is continually responsive to that of its neighbours, as well as to rainfall, wind and light, and the passage of the seasons. To perceive the wood from within is to become immersed in these ongoing entanglements of life. It is to see every tree not as a discrete, bounded individual but as something more like a bundle of fibrous threads, tightly wound along the trunk but splaying out above ground in the canopy and below in the roots. And it is to see the wood no longer as a mosaic of individual pieces but as a labyrinth of thread-lines.
So entangled are these lines that it is scarcely possible to say with any certainty where any particular tree ends and the rest of the world begins. Is the bark a part of the tree? If so, then what of the insects which burrow in it, or the lichens that hang from it? And if insects are part of the tree, then why should we not also include the bird that nests there? Or even the wind, which causes the branches to wave and the leaves to rustle in characteristic ways? When seeds and leaves drop to the ground, do they not continue the life-stories of the trees from which they fell? Thus the ground, too, is no mere surface, upon which trees stand like an army of soldiers on parade. To walk in the woods is to find your footing, at every step, in a morass of shrubs and foliage, fallen twigs and leaf litter, soil and stones. You seem always to be treading either on growing vegetation or on stuff that has been deposited, whether by the wind, the action of rainwater or simply having dropped from the trees above.
The very ground underfoot, in short, is a tissue of lines of growth, erosion and decomposition. Far from separating the earth below from the sky above, the ground is a zone in which earth and sky intermingle in the ongoing generation of life. Thus to enter the wood is to cast aside the illusion, to which people in high places are prone, that the world we inhabit is spread out like a mosaic beneath our feet, with its forms and patterns already impressed upon the physical substrate of nature. It is rather to join in a dynamic world of energies, forces and flows an earth-sky world and to participate in the processes of its formation. It is, paradoxically, in the depths of the woods that the world opens up most fully to our perception, by allowing us in to observe what is going on, rather than turning its back on us and presenting only its ready-formed, outward surfaces for inspection.
To perceive the wood, as the philosopher Henri Lefebvre has written, we must drop the pretence that we are witnessing a scene that is given all at once, as a spectacle. Go deeper, Lefebvre advises; be like the wind that shakes these trees. This is precisely what Cristina Sáez has done with her camera, in giving us what might best be described as a winds-eye view of the woods. The eye of the wind does not look at trees but roams among them, setting them ever so slightly in motion, tickling their surfaces and watching them come alive to the visual touch. It is an eye that is tuned not to the discrimination and identification of individual objects but to the registration of subtle variations of light and shade, and the surface textures they reveal. Sáezs photographs do not picture scenes in a landscape but give us intimate, behind-the-scenes portraits of the earth-sky world.
University of Aberdeen