Gregory Levine | A Tree and a Buddha: Imagining an Arboreal Humanities

This is an Archive of a Past Event See post-event content below.

What it "means to be human" has long depended on forests and trees. Levine makes this out-sized statement as an art historian interested in Buddhist visual culture. To which he adds that our arboreal-human relationship will remain essential as the livable earth and environmental health and justice are devastated by increasingly extreme climate events and feedback loops. Given this catastrophe, what's an art historian, indeed all of us, to do? This crisis may seem like a matter for the sciences and politics to work out. But the conundrum of "meaning"—past, present, and future—not to mention feeling, draws this catastrophe deeply into humanistic thought, representation, and creativity. These behaviors—and their unruly meaning-making—are neither walled off from nor ancillary to other forms of knowledge and action; we're not "made that way" as a species. Even so, "humanistic meaning," unfixed and unstable, may have come to a dead end in certain respects as it is plunged violently into the ecological reality of the biosphere we depend on and upon which certain human behaviors have inflicted grievous harm. It is for this and other reasons that we speak of posthumanisms and transhumanisms (something beyond), even as we find that they tussle over what it means to be human. And so, if forests and trees have long made meaning for/with us, and vice versa, and continue to do so, might we imagine an "arboreal humanism"? A way of plunging the exploration of meaning into a dialectic of trees (with affinity species and ecosystems), human history, narrative, visual and material cultures, and sensing and wondering about the human and nonhuman? What would this reveal to us, what would it demand? Is there an "art to it," and what does it allow us to imagine?

Related Reading

Long Strange Journey: On Modern Zen, Zen Art, and Other Predicaments (2017)

Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan Hardcover (2007)

Daitokuji: The Visual Cultures of a Zen Monastery Hardcover (2006)

About the Speaker

Professor and Chair (Fall 2020-) of the Department of History of Art at UC Berkeley, Greg Levine teaches the art and architecture of Japan, Buddhist visual culture, and eco art history. His current book project is A Tree and A Buddha: Imagining  Arboreal Humanism. A projected trilogy on global Buddhist visual cultures comprises Long Strange Journey: On Modern Zen, Zen Art, and Other Predicaments (2017); Buddha Heads: Fragments and Landscapes; and Other Buddhas: White Supremacy and Buddhist Visual Culture. The recipient of a Guggenheim and other fellowships, he is an editorial board member of Artibus Asiae and the Journal of Art Historiography. His courses introduce Buddhist temples and icons in Japan; global Buddhist visual cultures; eco art history; the "dark sides" of art (plunder, iconoclasm, and forgery); and the fragment in visual-material culture.



Watch the event recording below and read questions for Professor Levine from the online audience.

More comment than question: I did not know about the Buddha in Muir Woods. It's fascinating that this is happening before, during, and after the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The comment is right on target in terms of the entanglement of the Bohemian Club’s summer encampment Buddha/Sermon “High Jinks” performance and anti-Asian racism, the Chinese Exclusion Act, as well as orientalist cultural appropriation and fascination with the exotic cultures of Asia. Club members were in some cases, as with John Boalt, directly promoting racist exclusion and others were interested in the exotic, in some cases painting and sketching Chinatown (members such as Paul Frenzeny and Ernest Peixotto).

Levine illlustration

There are a number of publications that list the High Jinks and Low Jinks (smaller events) performed by the Club across its history, and we find various instances of events that “perform the other,” including Native Americans. One example, from a small event in 1884, involved a party held for George Bromley on the occasion of his being posted to China as the U.S. Consul. The illustration made by the artist/member Theodore Wells represents a “Miracle Play which purported to forecast the future and portray the reception that would be given to the new Consul on his arrival in the Chinese Empire. [The illustration] “represents Mr. Bromley as a gorgeous Chinese idol, before whom the inhabitants of his new sphere of influence are bowing down in worship” (Fletcher, The Annals of the Bohemian Club, 1900).




I am struck by the post-it note intervention in the official park service timelines of the preservation of Muir Woods. I am curious to know if similar interventions have been made or planned in the most dramatic timelines in the park—the ones superimposed upon the tree rings of stumps that remain from older trees that have been cut down, which place the life of these trees in traditional histories of Western settler colonialism.
Tree rings

Yes, the famous redwood trunk cross-section that one encounters inside the grove, of a tree that began in 909, and which had a cameo in the film Vertigo, has also undergone a change in story/chronology/wording. This has taken place with its permanent metal plaques, some that I believe are new, including that which refers to the year “1100 Building of Cliff Dwelling Begins, Mesa Verde,” and “1325 Aztex Begin Construction of Tenochitlan Mexico.” And, in 1492, Columbus “sails to America” instead of “discovered” America.

Alongside that cross-section is a laminated sign that states “Welcome to the Ancestral Home of the Huimen Coast Miwok.” This sign is temporary, and it also may have the problematic effect of rendering the Coast Miwok as part of the past rather than the present and future, even if the forest is in fact no longer Coast Miwok homeland but the property of the U.S. government.

I’m a bit surprised (not trying to be critical) that you never mention Druid Heights in this context.

This was something that I had to leave out. Druid Heights, for those not familiar with it, is located to the southeast of the Muir Woods entrance, and has a remarkable, important counter-culture history, architecture, visual and literary culture, from the mid 20th century on. And efforts to preserve it are underway. There are many stories there as well, and stories perhaps to “un-tell.” I’m sure you’re already familiar with: And among other sources, one can also refer to the Historic Resource Study for Muir Woods National Monument (2006).  

Trees are large, important, and they "provide" us a lot. To what extent is our historic view or association with trees and forests deeply egocentric or self-serving? (i.e. as humans we have found trees to be useful for food, lumber, shade, or shelter—and that's the lens through which we've always examined trees and forests: far from the Buddhist or other concepts of truly "caring" for these other species.)

Vital, important question that brings to mind diverse debates and representations that tangle the human and more-than-human, material/materiality, uses and use-values, political economy, and ethical values.

When we listen to, learn from communities whose practices—many very old, Indigenous as well as non-industrial—are regenerative, stewarding in relation to “enough is abundance,” and who dissolve self and other into relationship, into “eco-centricity”—which can arise with the sacred, from particular forms of material use and consciousness, as well as ecological science—the forces and impacts of market, capital, neoliberal extraction become vividly, if not unbearably, noticeable.

I would add that there is a great deal to consider with care about “Buddhist environmentalism,” which is a topic worthy of its own conversation, but not all Buddhists historically and presently perceive, understand, use the environment including forests in the same ways. Some are barely disguised greenwashed self- indulgence and others center compassion and interrelation against suffering and in nonduality. Here I would take a look at Susan Darlington’s The Ordination of a Tree, as well as reviews, to explore a contemporary Thai Buddhist movement (that is in a number of ways “unorthodox” Buddhist).

From an anti-capitalist perspective, moreover, one can acknowledge the labor and economic disempowerment of communities whose lives have been shaped, dependent upon, exploited by “Big Timber,” industrial corporate lumber companies. There are vivid pictures of not just forest preservation protest/sabotage actions and scientific efforts to demonstrate the ecological and conservation harms of clear-cutting and cutting old growth timber (see Suzanne Simard’s recent Finding the Mother Tree) but also of the forces of capital driven extraction. See for instance David Harris, The Last Stand: The War Between Wall Street and Main Street over California’s Ancient Redwoods.

At the same time there are publications that trace the civilizational-ecological significance of wood, most recently Roland Ennos, The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization (confession: I’ve yet to read it). I’m also going to add here in juxtaposition Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel, The Word for World is Forest, which is worth an entire lecture in its own right, with its speculative fictional envisioning of a planet colonized to extract wood for an Earth that has been paved over, colonial occupation, and indigenous resistance. And then, add in Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: Of the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, and capitalism’s extraction of value from non-capitalist places.

We can also pay attention to debates about the legal rights of the nonhuman, that in modern legal context emerged with/from Christopher Stone’s “Should Trees have Standing: Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects” (1972). For a review, see Anna Grear, ed. Should Trees Have Standing? 40 Years On. As for animals, we can look forward to Martha Nussbaum’s book Justice for Animals; she was recently profiled in the New York Times article “Do Humans Owe Animals Equal Rights?” (12/6). One can also turn to the full-fledged philosophical narrative of Christina Korsgard’s Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to Other Animals.

This has turned into something of a reading list, but we have plenty to still ponder about how we understand and value self, other, human and more-than-human; the intrinsic values of those who are different from us, be they human or plant, fungi, or animal, etc., and how we converge, overlap, co-inhabit, and come into conflict amid vital difference. And how we act in turn in response to the realities of our intimate, inherent and necessary overlaps and relations that can create ground for life and justice, and our implicated-ness in systems that overlay such grounding and which are extractive, fast-throwaway consumption driving, violent, and unjust.

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