Posted by: Philip Carr-Gomm | April 11, 2009

TreeSpirit Project

I’ve recently finished an exploration of the use of nakedness to deepen spiritual experience for a forthcoming book. In it I look at its use in Classical Paganism, Wicca, Druidry, Jainism, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity.

Now I’m working on the next chapter which explores its use as a political tool – as a vehicle for protest and awareness-raising. As I researched this topic I came across a project which articulates wonderfully the way in which nakedness can be used to make a statement about our need to care for Mother Earth. Nudity is used so much nowadays in a titillating or seedy way, it is heartening to see that it can be used with integrity to convey aesthetic and spiritual values. Have a look at some photographs from the project first (courtesy of photographer Jack Gescheidt), which is followed by the text I wrote on it for the chapter, which includes a link to the TreeSpirit Project site.
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Stripping the body in public as a way of gaining attention and making a statement is clearly suited to the defence of rights in general – not simply those of animals. One of the most creative uses of nudity to raise awareness comes from the work of the American photographer Jack Gescheidt who started the ‘TreeSpirit Project’ in 2003. Rather than protesting against logging or destruction of the environment, Gescheidt’s project seeks to enhance our appreciation of trees in the belief that the more people are able to do this, the less destructive they will be: ‘I believe as more people understand the importance of trees for all they provide the ecosystem in addition to beauty and shade, all species on Earth benefit. The fates of species are intertwined; we have the power to destroy other life forms, and without other life forms humanity will perish. We humans may only be here for a brief stay in the cosmic picture, but we have the tremendous power of free will to shape our world. Many of us in technologically advanced cultures have forgotten the ancient wisdom trees and other life forms patiently hold.’
The TreeSpirit project includes two elements: the photographs Gescheidt takes of naked people in, beside and around trees, which are then displayed on his website (www.treespiritproject.com) and the experiences of the participants when being photographed in this way. In response to the frequently asked question: ‘Why are the people you photograph always naked? Isn’t this really just to get attention?’ Gescheidt  responds: ‘When naked, people are: more ‘present’ in the meditative sense of this word, meaning in the present moment instead of thinking about the past (worry) or future (planning); therefore more vulnerable and have greater, more conscious awareness, more feeling, and therefore move and behave more freely and genuinely; more harmless to trees and other species. We humans often harm as a collective, but not when stripped of our habitual and protective layers of clothing, tools and technology; more timeless, without the many cultural and historical cues clothing provide; unified as a mass of humanity rather than seen as the individual personalities to which we are so attached; and, yes, more attention-getting. One of goals of the TreeSpirit Project is to deliver its message of our interdependence with nature. The more people ready to take this to heart, the better.’


Responses

  1. Nice pics. However, the real political statement would have been to put some African “mamas” in there, as well. The newest fad of the White Man is trying to look “natural” now?…

  2. Well said Philip. I viewed the photographer’s gallery on his website which I take more as a celebration of tree spirits in bark and human flesh together with a mere nod to the political aspect of enviornmental preservation. 25% of the income for the photos go to the environment which is generous. Some of the photos were in public areas which might generate more in the way of political protest. I think here of political protest as media coverage and dissemination of the “message”. Nakedness works as political protest when it attracts attention and shocks us out of our ruts to see a larger picture.

    Participating by being naked is a revolutionary act in its transcendence of social norms. As an individual, a weight is removed along with the clothing. Some of the pictures capture that soaring freedom quite well.

    On the other hand, this is art. Distribution of images that so keenly tie the fate of humans and trees speaks to us at a deeper level than thought. They draw us in and remind us of our own roots. That may in fact be a keener protest because it involves the soul. It is there our values may change more completely. Beliefs are learned and are subject to change. Values are deeper and less responsive to mental exercises. Experincing a state of being like public nakedness takes the challenge to our modesty deeper into the skin and bones of the mind/body connection. The experience can work in the awe of observing beauty. It works better in the experience of being that beauty.

    Would we understand the connction more clearly with people of many colors in the pictures as Shakti suggests? I think it would be a different message. And BTW there are a few (very few) people of color in the artist’s gallery. All the nymphs and satyrs were volunteers. I doubt he turned away any particular ethnic group—though admittedly I don’t know that. (My bona fides include 20+ years as a civil rights investigator so I am not without experience in confronting my own and others racial bias).

    Anyhow, I continnue to appreciate your work in this area. it fits in well with mine in disuccsing body image and meaning.

  3. Dorothy : “Distribution of images that so keenly tie the fate of humans and trees speaks to us at a deeper level than thought.”

    That is exactly my point, too.
    But WHAT is the message that is transmitted “at a deeper level than thought” in these pictures? I think it would be an interesting discussion.Sorry for the irreverent comment above, but I still think that these pics transmit a very specific cultural message that is NOT that of “interdependence with nature”, but exactly the contrary. And I still wonder what a Native American (for example) would think and FEEL about them.

  4. Hi Shakti,
    I guess that’s what’s wonderful about art and projects like this – they stimulate us to react, to discuss and express ourselves. For me the images speak very much about interdependence, with the lovely curves of the bodies combining with the curves of the tree boughs. In your first post you suggested that if the humans were black that would look natural, (or in your words ‘make a statement’ – perhaps you meant something else?) which raises all sorts of very sensitive issues. Someone might misconstrue (or construe?) you as suggesting that there is some distinction in ‘closeness to nature’ according to skin colour, which seems an odd idea, but I am not sure what point you are actually making.
    Would, for example a photo of clothed human beings with trees speak more to you of our interdependence?

  5. Hello!
    I was not referring to skin colour, I was referring to different cultures, different than the Western culture, I mean (Africa, African Americans, Native Americans, Maori, etc.). These are cultures where nakedness is perceived very differently, more naturally, more holistically if you will, with more integrity than in our Western “civilization”, which is literally hung-up on physical appearances.

    As an artist I understand about stimulation of course, and pics like this provoke the most interesting discussions, that´s true.

    I guess that my basic point is that bodies, even naked, are still “cultured”, especially Western bodies, as you know. We are not exactly a culture used to nakedness, or to being naked in nature in a natural way. We have to learn to be natural again. It is a very long and deep process. (Which may start with a pic like that, that is also true).

    I just thought that these pictures, if they do make a conceptual statement of sorts, are also sort of contradictory, because what you see are Western bodies, bodies shaped by a culture which actually denies nature and our interdependence with it.

    As art, simply art – the pictures are beautiful, very esthetic, a little too much. I can even accept that the statement they make is in favour of nature, in a very conceptual way though – but the contradiction is there, as Dorothy also said… “deeper than thought”.
    Maybe I perceive this contradiction, or am sensitive to it, because, like Dorothy, I have worked a lot on the subject.

    The trees are incredible.
    And I´m white. 🙂

  6. Hello again Shakti-of-the-Spanish-woodland-haven!
    I am not sure that nakedness is ‘perceived more naturally’ by Native Americans and Maoris. My knowledge may be limited and indeed incorrect here (forgive me if so) but I think that many people in both these groups have taboos around nakedness. I believe, for instance, that participants going into a sweatlodge naked, for example, is considered really bad form. Now whether these taboos come from Christian and colonial indoctrination over the years, or whether they pre-date this I’m not sure.
    And I really can’t grasp how a brown or black person draped on a tree emits any different kind of message to a white person similarly draped.The risk is you might be interpreted as making an equation white=’civilized’, coloured=’primitive’ and therefore close to nature (I’m pretty sure you’re not, but that’s how your idea could be understood by some).
    And I agree with you that we are not used to being naked, but what I wonder is whether seeing ‘unnaturalness’ or a ‘cultured’ body as it stands by a tree is simply a projection of a stereotype on our part. The bottom line is they are simply photos of two species of life on Earth.
    As regards the contradiction this is a very live issue for me as I write this chapter because it is a contradiction, or existential absurdity, at the heart of naked protest that makes it so potent. The contradiction or paradox is that naked we are at our most vulnerable, and yet in that moment we possess a strange power precisely because of this. The absurdity comes in the surreality of naked protest in which nudity (or sometimes even just body parts as in the ‘Breasts not Bombs’ protests) becomes a ‘weapon’. To get esoteric, the microcosm stands with nothing in all its completeness.

  7. Is it about how we define ‘natural’? I am not quite sure about what a ‘cultured’ body is compared to a ‘natural’ one. None of us humans can stand outside culture – whatever that might be for any of us at any one time – although I hope we can at least challenge and develop it. Culture is shifting and relative and our beliefs about naturalness are actually cultural assumptions in themselves. How can we be sure exactly what ‘natural’ is? What was the starting point? Can we ever be free from a cultural context? Are we just playing into that assumption about a nature/culture split? Culture is mutable – at the moment, mine has some pretty contradictory and confused notions about the naked body, ones that are entangled with gender and power issues, ones that I know it has the power to transform and change (I certainly hope that it will).

    Perhaps it is more helpful to think in terms of openess rather than naturalness, and as Philip says, in that openess the willingness to show our vulnerability and humanity. If I stand naked before you, you might well judge me by the prevailing cultural prejudices; I might well position my body in a way that reflects the expectations of my culture and gender, and I guess at those moments nakedness isn’t really naked at all. In this sense I can see what Shakti means about us perhaps not knowing how to be truly naked. But if I stand naked before you with as open a heart as possible – no faking – feeling all my fears and vulnerabilities, no hiding but an honest sharing, maybe something shifts, all that constructed cultural ‘clothing’ sheds and for a moment there is no expectation, no judgement, only potential and connection. Placing naked people in situations where nakedness is not the ‘norm’ helps in making that shift I think. Used in protest, nakedness challenges all our assumptions about power; it reflects back everyone’s vulnerabilit and shared humanity.

    Looking at the ‘Tree Spirit’ photos, the one I really like is called ‘Magnolia Exploration’ (or something like that) and showed a small child and parent. It really spoke to me – something in the child’s curiosity and lack of self-consciousness, being so present in that moment, not separate, not apart, unaware of the camera. In being truly naked (I think this involves more than just being in the buff (!) – as we have discussed here before) there is the potential for true connection and relationship with our environment, with each moment, with others and ourselves; it challenges the false boundaries and labels that we use to divide and conquer; its about the potential to truly see each other as we really are and on that basis build more loving, inclusive, creative and compassionate relationships and communities. I’m a bit of an idealist on this one I think!

  8. Maria: ” Placing naked people in situations where nakedness is not the ‘norm’ helps in making that shift I think. ”

    Actually I agree with that; I agree with all three of you, and this discussion is a proof of how stimulating these images can be. We´ve also started a very lively discussion about them here in our “Spanish-haven”, lol.

    So thank you for the stimulating discussion, and thanks to Philip for providing the start of it !

    Philip : “The risk is you might be interpreted as making an equation white=’civilized’, coloured=’primitive’ and therefore close to nature (I’m pretty sure you’re not, but that’s how your idea could be understood by some).”

    No, I´m not doing that. I´m not sure that the Western world is really “civilized”, anyway. As Gandhi said, when asked about the concept of civilization, “It´s a good idea!” As for “natural”, Maria is right, what is “natural” ? Are we ever free from our culture, whatever that culture might be ? Do we need to be free from our culture?

    Given the circumstances around the planet, I think that “civilized” would actually mean to be “respectful with one´s environment”, and” aware of one´s interdependence with it” – so you see, I did not equate “primitive” with “more natural thus more “civilized” (I´m not for that type of regression), and I am not equating “civilized” as “completely zany” (thank the gods of technology for computers and hospitals).
    Thinking this through since yesterday, I have come to formulate my point as… “looking for a new way to feel comfortable with the Earth and our environment”, comfortable, aware, respectful – whatever your culture, whatever the colour of your skin or the name in your passport.

    And I think that we all agree about that!
    Don´t we?

  9. Who knew being naked with trees could spur such discussion? I have little to add to the ideas you have already shared but I have some other tangents. The other 2 thoughts I had were

    1. In the Charge of the Goddess written some 50 years ago by Doreen Valiente we read:

    ” And ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye are really free, ye shall be naked in your rites; and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in my praise.

    For mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and mine also is joy on earth; for my Law is Love unto all Beings.”

    In that sense nakedness is a spiritual and political act. Free from slavery in the UK in the 1950’s? We must be talking about something beyond the buying and selling of huuman kind–something economic or gender political perhaps. Something along the line of nakedness as protest, or something about nakedness being the great equalizer among classes.

    On the other hand, I know many woman who will not practice pagan ritual naked in a group including men on the grounds the men cannot find the women’s eyes when they speak to them …it gets complicated.

    2. I really debated bringing this up, but what was obvious to me might not be to you. Strange Fruit might be a song that is not well known to my blogging friends here. The contrast between the song and the peaceful tree images of Gescheidt’s photos struck me immediately.

    Billy Holiday, noted black jazz singer in 1930’s shocked the music world and the cultured world (there’s that c word again) with her song Strange Fruit. It is a haunting captivating melody describing in graphic detail trees bearing the fruit of lynching in the US South.

    “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
    Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

    is likely the least horrifying couplet. The song ends: “Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
    For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
    For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
    Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

    She lets the horror speak for itself without screaming out loud “Stop!” In in her reserve, she leaves us in tears as listeners.

    So if the Tree Spirit photos included more black people/people of color, would it be more healing? More chathartic? Would we seek or find ways to forgive ourselves for the excesses of history when we respected neither the trees or the people? And would people of color care to let us off the hook and grant us forgivenss by posing in the photos? My friend Akosua initially refused to join us naked in the hot tub as an African American woman because her body was not to be an object lesson for a bunch of white people. I respect that deeply.

    And this too is complicated.

    So what is the parallel between being free from slavery in pagan rites and being free from political violence and lynchings. There is a mystery there, a synchronisity.

    Did I mention I am known for setting the cat among the pigeons?

  10. Wow Dorothy that gives us a lot to think about. This is the reason I decided to embark on the current book project. Something as apparently simple as the naked human body (What’s the big deal? How can you write a whole book about it? Will anybody read it? Won’t they just look at the pictures?) becomes – the more you think about – one of the deepest wells you can look into…

  11. Yes, I´m also glad for this conversation. Wish it could go on, to deepen it, maybe in another space. Lots of subjects to really think deep about…so, thank you, all, from my heart.

    For me, this discussion resonates further, into our “real” lives…The young ones here at the Earth Sanctuary are talking, and that is really good.

    I feel very moved by Dorothy´s speaking about the Strange Fruit song…(My comment was not about race, really, but about conditioning about nakedness in ANY culture. If these pics provoke discussions like this one, alleluia…)

    And we´ll be looking forward to your book, Philip.

    Gosh, people should certainly read it! 🙂

  12. For Dorothy : …We do need more cats, lol. 😉

  13. This is so interesting! It has also sparked off discussion here, particularly about the assumptions, prejudices, all the baggage that veils the way an individual views a naked body. Laurie has recently been encouraging his students to explore Laura Mulvey’s ideas about the ‘Male Gaze’ (ideas that remain very relevant I think) – asking the question ‘who defines the manner in which we all perceive?’ Gender is just one area that exposes the complexity in how we view the naked body- expanding out to include race, class, sexuality, disability etc. it gets no less murky…we have many layers to work though, it seems, before we actually really ‘see’ each other, and even then maybe we can only view through a series of cultural or personal filters.

    Culturally, I think we view the naked body rather two dimensionally – actually maybe the word ‘view’ is the problem; we look at it but don’t engage with it; it becomes an image upon which we project a great deal that actually obscures and distances. Women know this very well because our bodies have been objectified in this way for so long. Such loaded visual scrutiny leaves the viewer knowing women even less (doesn’t help women to know thenselves much either!). If we view others in this two-dimensional fashion, without engaging our own humanity; if we consume an image without truly relating, then ultimately, in that objectification we dehumanise. The horrific extremes of such can been seen in the lynchings that Dorothy writes about.

    I think it is so important to attempt to deconstruct the stuff that colours our perceptions so negatively. Nakedness is a powerful symbol of this act of peeling away each obscuring layer. The reaching for true nakedness is about touching something core and vital deep within us. If we each truly witnessed and related to this place within each other, we would never hurt or harm anyone ever again! The cultural baggage is the boundary we build up around this tender, vulnerable but powerful place within us; the more we obscure it, the more we divide each other, the fog descends and we kid each other that we are separate, different and therefore a threat to be defended against. In this sense being truly naked before another is a politcal act and also a spiritual one too.

    Thanks everyone for such thought provoking posts! I’ve really enjoyed reading them.


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