… alive like stars in the heavens … Or: An Oak is an Oak.


Koen Kleijn

What went before: Marjolijn Dijkman took a young oak tree from a newly planted forest in Heeswijk, Brabant, the Netherlands, and took it to the last remaining primeval forest in Europe, the woods of Bialowieza on the border between Poland and Belarus. There she planted her tree from Brabant among the Polish trees. She dug out a little Polish oak and brought it back to the Netherlands, where she planted it amongst the young trees in Heeswijk with a small sign, in three languages, that explains the project. The distance she covered was approximately 3000 kilometers, which is about the same as a trip to Rome and back.

This expedition was a romantic journey in the artistic sense of the word, and can be considered as a work of art. A voyage to the forest of Bialowieza is akin to a journey to the Drachenfels, the Loreley or the waterfall at Tivoli, traditional destinations for the inspired soul; it is an undertaking that has presented itself in the careers of artists for centuries. Hendrick Goltzius, for instance, cured himself of a mid-life crisis by taking a trip from Haarlem to Rome and back. Scorel, Heemskerk and Brueghel went before him, Rubens followed suit. A voyage like that can be termed a romantic undertaking because it encompasses a combination of transformation and projection. The artist’s psyche is excited by the stimulus of change – the voyage, a birth, the coup de foudre of love, a death – and the artist subsequently projects his experience and his feelings on ‘the other’ – a building, a landscape, a tree, a Grecian urn, a child, a distant lover. These objects are generally ignorant of these projections, they are neutral beings, without consciousness or even breath, but the gaze of the artist gives them meaning and brings them to life. The cliffs of the Loreley, the sagging palaces of Venice, Beatrice: they become something other than what they really are – a rock, masonry, a woman walking along the Arno. Out of this combination of change and projection a work of art may emerge.

Which could very well be an oak tree. An oak is an oak, a type of tree common to Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa. It can reach about 30 meters in height, perhaps a bit more, and can have a fairly long life, sometimes over a thousand years. If you wanted to, you could – like Linnaeus – note the differences between oaks from Italy, south-eastern Europe or the Caucasus, between Quercus Robur, Quercus Petraea, Quercus Brutia, Quercus Pedunculiflora K. Koch or Quercus Haas Kotschy. That would be the work of the biologist, the lover of classification, the patient observer; to the ordinary rambler a Polish oak is in essence the same as any oak in Brabant.

Now, however, the artist’s actions give meaning to such a tree. This involves parentheses, the oak becomes ‘the oak,’ a concept, a complex of histories and associations, of mythology and economics, of desires and fears, of religion and geography, of dreams and acts. In this way, an oak might become royal, like in England, where Charles II once hid in a tree which has since been called ‘Royal Oak.’ It could become a place of worship, like those countless German oaks devoted to Wotan that were cut down by the early missionaries to the Netherlands such as Willibrord, Liafwin, Boniface, who were attempting to demonstrate the might of the Christian faith. The oak could even become a god itself, as it was in the mind of the delirious poet Friedrich Hölderlin: ‘Indomitable Titans! Each one of You is a World, alive like Stars in the Heavens, Godlike…’

Marjolijn Dijkman’s trip to Poland is laden with such complexes of meaning. The forest of Bialowieza is the oldest in Europe. It owes its continued existence in part to the fact that Polish kings and Russian czars preserved it as their private hunting grounds. It has continuously occupied a central position in the mythology and psychology of Poles, Lithuanians and Russians. In this forest, the Pole, hunting, would connect to his mythical Sarmatian ancestry. In this forest, the partisans of the Second World War preserved their independence and their moral purity. Onno de Bruijn, an expert on nature preservation and lover of Bialowieza, said that to him, the forest was enchanted, and had great power. He mentioned that some visitors find it difficult to stay there, and they leave early, because the effect the forest has on their minds is overwhelming. They become tense, depressed. Simon Schama described the Bialowieza experience in similar terms in Landscape and Memory (1995). Even though in later centuries the wilderness suffered from logging and exploitation, there was always ‘something at the heart of the forest that remained irreducibly alien, impenetrable, resistant.’ The outward sign of this magnificent independence was the sheer brutality of the closed ecosystem, in which trees stood, fell and died in an impenetrable chaos. In Schama’s words: ‘The irregularity was dreadful, sublime, perfectly imperfect.’

The little oak tree from Poland carries a combination of memories and ideas with it. But it finds itself in the Netherlands, where ‘oak’ and ‘forest’ are entirely different concepts. The romantic projections are perhaps just as strong – there is no place in the world where people are so intensely preoccupied with the qualities of the landscape – but they are very different from, say, the highly strung sentiments of Hölderlin. The idea that unkempt nature and wild emptiness could have a positive influence on the human spirit was for centuries quite alien to the Dutch. The painter and theorist Gerard Lairesse wrote that when a painting showed nothing but trees and no houses or other signs of civilization, ‘then it would be a Wilderness or an uninhabited Land where Pestilence reigns.’ A civilized person would keep well clear of such dangerous places.

In the Netherlands the landscape has been primarily a canvas for creating notions of balance and harmony. The polder is the supreme example of the creation of an orderly landscape and an orderly society at the same time, a desert tamed along lines of pure proportion. In Holland’s Arcadia (1804) the poet Adriaan Loosjes sang the praises of the simplicity and beauty of that self-invented landscape. To him the polder and the perfectly square fields were the embodiment of the national psychology, of the equanimity, common sense and ordinariness of the Dutchman. His contemporary Anthony Staring, poet, country squire and agronomist, openly disapproved of the oak tree. He much preferred the fir tree because of its straightness, its simplicity, its modesty and its usefulness. The fir, Staring wrote, ‘saves the eye from bafflement,’ and a forest of firs doesn’t have the ‘obnoxious net of confusion’ of the ‘wild branching and prickly roughness’ of the oak. That was chaos, and no rational person could ever connect to it.

Shaping the landscape and the way we experience it became therefore primarily the job of the surveyor, the engineer, the forestry expert, but also of the artist. The greatest Dutch artists dealing with the natural world were not the great painters Jacob van Ruisdael and Barend Koekkoek, not Philips Koninck or Aelbert Cuyp, however successful they were. They were the Zocher family, Johan David (1763-1817) and his sons Jan David (1791-1870) and Karel (1796-1863). From the late eighteenth century until the end of the next, they were the most influential landscape architects of the country. They worked in a style that the Dutch liked to call ‘English Landscape Style.’ At first glance, this breaks radically with the rational harmony of the classicist structure of gardens and polders. It introduces asymmetry, artificial mounds, paths and ponds with capricious patterns and shapes. But none of it is, of course, real wilderness. A Zocher-park is a piece of theatre. The ‘effects’ of wild nature that might stir the soul, such as the panorama, the sense of solitude, refreshing changes and encountering the unexpected, have been captured in elegant stage direction. In a park like the Vondelpark in Amsterdam, or the extensive grounds around the Palace of Soestdijk, the visitor walks through shady passages of low trees into open spaces with a pleasant vista, marked by a few very large trees. Organically flowing lines of water and pathways lead the gaze and the feet to another passage, where the landscape closes again, the vegetation alters, but between the trees another ‘surprise’ already beckons. The forest is chaos; the park is a narrative, an education.

The thirteen hectare forest in Heeswijk is not a forest at all: it’s a park. The Polish oak finds itself a part of a staged experience. Is that it, then? Well no – there appears to be a more to the emotional attitudes of the Dutch than just rigid planning and orchestration of sentiment. Mark de Wit, an experienced manager of woodland and natural reserves in the Netherlands, explained that the National Forestry Service (Staatsbosbeheer) finds itself increasingly having to deal with the exalted emotions of the public, who interfere with their work. The ‘natural’ forest, however artificial it may be, has become an experience. Cutting down trees, a normal part of forest management, has become virtually impossible. The sound of the chainsaw seems to cut through the very soul of the Dutch. Seeking to reclaim the forest experience, they apply for permission to be buried among the trees. These applications have perhaps not a ‘romantic’ impetus, but rather a vaguely ‘spiritual’ one, a longing for something imperfect, un-controlled. Perhaps that is the essence of creating a forest: from order, new myths will emerge.

Koen Kleijn is a journalist and writer based in Amsterdam.
This text was originally published in Sarah Farrar, ed., The woods that see and hear, ’s-Hertogenbosch, 2010.
The Woods that see and hear
ISBN: 978-90-815763-1-4
Participating Artists: Eduardo Abaroa (MX) / Eve Armstrong (NZ) / Melanie Bonajo (NL), Kinga Kielczynska (PL) and Emmeline de Mooij (NL) / Marjolijn Dijkman (NL) / Bright Ugochukwu Eke (NG) / Tue Greenfort (DK) / Jonathan Horowitz (US) / Ives Maes (BE) / Tea Mäkipää (FI) / Nick Mangan (AU) / Heather and Ivan Morison (GB) / Overtreders W (NL).
Sarah Farrar (New Zealand, 1980) is a curator and art writer based in Amsterdam and London. From 2007-08 she participated in the Curatorial Programme at De Appel Arts Centre, Amsterdam. Before moving to the Netherlands, Sarah was employed as a curator at City Gallery Wellington, a contemporary art museum in New Zealand, where she worked from 2003-07. Sarah has curated over thirty exhibitions of contemporary art, design and architecture and has contributed texts for international art magazines including Frieze (UK), Metropolis M (NL), Artlink (AU), and art publications in New Zealand, the Netherlands and Belgium.