Thinking and Moving with Trees

Rainey Straus
12 min readJun 17, 2024

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The following pieces were developed for a public event in conjunction with the Old Growth Project, shown at Marin MOCA over the spring/summer of 2024. The gathering combined an artist talk by Rainey Straus with movement exploration led by Aline Wachsmuth to explore the creative process behind the painting series and somatically experience the life cycle of a Redwood tree.

Blown Away, 5 Feet High x 10 Feet Wide, Acrylic and Watercolor on Yupo Paper, 2022, Rainey Straus

Thinking with the Trees

Rainey Straus

The Old Growth Project

The Old Growth Project started with a walk in the woods, specifically in Prairie Creek and Redwood National Parks up north in Humbolt County. But truthfully, this project started more than 30 years ago when I moved to California. Although I’ve spent many years here enjoying the great outdoors — I’ve never become “of this place,” I’ve stayed on the beautiful surface. So core to this investigation is my desire to grow more intimate with my home — to inhabit this specific place, especially as the climate changes before my eyes.

The paintings in this show are essentially artifacts of a relationship-building practice. They may appear “tree-like,” but they also hold all the stories, experiences, and learnings that emerged over the past two years of research and making. These paintings carry multiple questions, grief, loss, and tremendous awe and wonder.

At the end of the day, as Robin Wall Kimmer speaks to so beautifully in Braiding Sweetgrass, this project is an effort to become kin to the beings I share space with.

The Importance of Stories

This notion of narrative or story is very important to me in framing this work. The thinking of so many writers has nourished the Old Growth Project. Still, related to story, I look to the work of Jeremy Lent (The Patterning Instinct), Amitav Ghosh (The Nutmeg’s Curse), Indigenous scientist/scholars Robin Wall-Kimmerer (Braiding Sweetgrass), and Tyson Yunkaporta (Sand Talk, Right Story/Wrong Story) to guide my thinking.

From this research, I take away three critical concepts:

The First:
Stories are the foundation of culture; they hold the values that drive our actions and behaviors. Stories can be held in the land.

Second:
We are entrenched in the “wrong story,” a story of separation, extraction, monoculture, and human dominance.

I think we all know the outcomes of this story, so I won’t go deeply into what is not news to any of you.

Third:
We need to live from different stories, diverse stories, new stories that incorporate the wise use of modern technologies, ancient stories that model the right relationship with the more-than-human world, and stories that reflect care and reciprocity.

And as Amitav Ghosh writes in The Nutmeg’s Curse,

… if nonhuman voices are to be restored to their proper place, then it must be, in the first instance, through the medium of stories. This is the great burden that now rests upon writers, artists, filmmakers, and everyone else who is involved in the telling of stories: to us falls the task of imaginatively restoring agency and voice to nonhumans. As with all the most important artistic endeavors in human history, this is a task that is at once aesthetic and political — and because of the magnitude of the crisis that besets the planet, it is now freighted with the most pressing moral urgency.

This is such a clear and powerful call to action! We’re a storytelling species, and it falls to each of us, relative to our skills and inclinations, to craft new stories that will shift our values and actions. As creative humans, the methods we use, the actions we take, and the artifacts we produce are the stories that will help restore the agency and voice to the more-than-human world.

Giving Voice to the Trees

Addressing climate issues can, of course, feel overwhelming and paralyzing. Focusing on the big trees in Northern California, we encounter their immense size — up to 300+ feet tall, the height of a 30-floor building — and their ancient presence, some over 2000 years old, dating back to the Roman Empire. Understanding the complexity of the forest ecosystem, from ferns to fungi to bears and salmon, is far above my pay grade. Old-growth forests seem otherworldly from a human perspective. So, how can we begin this task?

For me, a diverse set of methods helps me enter and sense-make within this multi-layered world. I rely on practices that help me shift habitual human ways of seeing and engaging to think with the trees.

I’ll break this toolkit down into three categories:

Thinking with the human body, Thinking with Technology, and Thinking with Other Bodies

Thinking with the Human Body

Before I am a visual artist, I am a mover; I think best when I’m in motion, when I’m a body moving through space. This recognition reflects a shift away from Cartesian dualism — the idea that the mind is separate from the body — to a contemporary perspective of Embodied Cognition, which understands intelligence and consciousness as inseparable from bodily experience.

So, step one: I put my body in the forest. I walk, listen, smell, see, and touch, working to be present and notice the world I am part of. I put my walking body/mind in relationship with the trees. I practice attention as a form of care.

Thinking with the body also comes into play in the making, and I hope, in the viewing of this work. I paint on multiple large panels laid out flat on the floor of my studio; it’s a very physical process. I constantly shift from reaching to balancing, sitting, and standing as I work. This movement, I believe, is evident in the finished paintings.

I’m fortunate to have space at MOCA to show many works from this series together. As a cohesive world, they encourage the viewer to move, experiencing the monumental quality of the work from a distance and, by moving closer, the mycelial density of an old-growth forest. This back-and-forth, zooming and expanding, mirrors the dance of being with the trees themselves. This, too, gives you, the viewer, the opportunity to think with the body.

Thinking with Technology

The complexity of Old Growth forests makes it challenging to retain the details, so in my quest to map these experiences, I began to search for tools to help me capture the specifics and scale to bring back to the studio. This search led me to Lidar or 3D scanning technology.

Lidar scanners measure the distance between objects to create 3D maps of spaces or forms. The technology is used in everything from product design to ‘the sight’ of self-driving cars. Once the data is captured, the resulting 3D models can be turned in space, enlarged, distorted, and viewed from multiple perspectives. Discovering Lidar technology was a game changer for me, but not in the straightforward way you might expect.

I run a Lidar scanning app on my iPhone when I’m out in the woods. It’s not very good and pretty much chokes on the chaos of the forest. It can’t handle the height of the trees or the dense plant life; ultimately, it makes terrible, broken, distorted models that are full of noise…And I find them so curious and provocative. For me, they embody our disordered relationship with the more than human world.

Back in the studio, I manipulate the models until I have multiple views that capture the energies of the trees. I combine these views to serve as the foundation of the paintings you see here.

Using LiDAR in my process enables me to broaden my way of seeing; it introduces an element of randomness to the work and engages the thinking of another kind of mind — modern technology.

And as James Bridle describes in Ways of Being:

Technology enables us to change our vision, and it allows us to change what we do with that vision: where we look, what we see, and how we act as a result. It allows us to engage our care and attention at a greater scale and to be more present in the world than we would be without it.

I find seeing with other kinds of vision critically important in shifting my own perspective.

Thinking with Trees/With Other Bodies

Another concept that helps me think with the trees is the notion of umwelt. A being’s umwelt is their unique experience of the world, filtered through their distinct physical and sensory capacities. For instance, a dog lives in a world structured by scent, while a fly perceives through faceted vision — both vastly different perceptions of our shared planet.

Imaging the world through the umwelt of a Redwood catalyzes questions like:

  • How does a tree experience movement (or move)?
  • How does a tree feel heat and cold?
  • What is family for a tree? How does a tree recognize family members?
  • How does a tree communicate?
  • How does a tree experience time?
  • Or pain, joy, and change?

This form of questioning allows me to at least imagine the experience of the world from the perspective of another kind of being. I see it as a framework for growing empathy with the more-than-human world.

My engagement with these questions is perhaps most obvious in the paintings’ titles.

  • Tree Becoming
  • Dwelling
  • Blown Away
  • Sentinels
  • Afterlife
  • Fragments

All of these attempts are from within the limits of English to speak from the standpoint of the trees.

Dwelling, 5 Feet High x 10 Feet Wide, Acrylic and Watercolor on Yupo Paper, 2022, Rainey Straus

Learnings and Outcomes

Thinking with is central to my practice of growing more entangled with the more-than-human world. I imagine each of you has many tools you might add to these categories of thinking with the human body, with technology, and with other bodies. It’s a platform rich with possibilities. These approaches have been critical in growing my relationship with and recognizing the subjecthood (rather than the objecthood) of the trees themselves.

Project ideas generally arrive for me in one of two ways. The first type appears as seemingly fully baked elaborate schemes, which I’ve learned to let fall by the wayside. I prefer projects that hover gently as questions I don’t have answers to.

The Old Growth Project was this kind of generative inquiry. As it progressed, I saw the trees’ journeys expressed in the forms, textures, energies, and compositions that emerged. I noticed stories of community, life cycle, and motion. Most surprisingly, it was a story of transformation — as trees became water, earth, mountain, and sky — a story of a world continually emerging, moving from one form of matter to another. A story that contains all stories, and for me, this was the biggest and most delightful realization.

Journeying with the trees opened new worlds for me, too. My desire to tend to these relationships deepened as we grew more intimate. Outside the studio, I explored the evolving rights of nature legal framework, where ecosystems or features such as rivers are given rights equivalent to human rights. I learned about supporting old growth through salmon habitat restoration. And on a much smaller scale, I planted my first vegetable garden at home.

This all called to mind a sense I had when reading Richard Power’s The Overstory that the trees were getting me to do their bidding. So, with that, I’ll leave you with a final quote from Richard Powers:

What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”

Although no trees were cut down in the making of this work, I at least hope that, in partnership with the trees, I’ve told a worthwhile story.

Aline Wachsmuth, Dancing With Trees, Photo Alex Ketley, 2024

Moving with Trees

Aline Wachsmuth (with Rainey Straus)

Welcome to Thinking and Moving with Trees! We are going to play together using our imaginations to shift our human perceptions to those of redwood trees. I invite you to tune into your somatic experience as you hear my words. There is no right or wrong way to interpret these prompts. It’s less about what it looks like and purely about what sensations arise from what you hear. You can close your eyes or have a soft focus and let yourself be moved. You may stay seated, lie on the ground, or move as much or as little as feels right for you. Please be aware of those around you and take personal responsibility for your own safety.

Take a moment to find a place in the room that feels most comfortable to you. Quiet your mind and let your awareness settle into your body. Notice the movement and quality of your breath. Notice the sensation of the floor or chair underneath you. Let yourself trace the edges of your skin, mapping your human body, experiencing your fullness…Imagine all of the cells within that make up the fluids, tissues, and bones.

Now, take a deep breath and clear it all with the exhale. Turn to a fresh page. Change your lens from being a human to that of a redwood seed.

Being Seed

As a seed, imagine being gently blown by the wind or carried by water until you land softly on the ground. Experience the sensation of sinking into the earth, the gentle pressure of the soil enveloping you. Notice the cool moisture, the comforting darkness, and the rich, earthy scent. Sense the full weight of your being resting into gravity. What other elements and creatures might be present beneath the surface? Feel the energy gathering in your center, preparing for growth.

Germinating (Aliveness)

Are any new sensations arising? Maybe a tingling or a bubbly sensation, possibly heat building, as the spark of life within your core begins a new stage of transformation. Experience the compelling urge to push upward, reaching for the warmth and light above the soil. Sense the movement as you break through the surface and emerge into the sunlight. What does this moment of transition feel like? Can you sense the warm light on your newly sprouted self? What does the new spaciousness around and above you engender? Who and what do you notice in this first moment above soil as your growth begins?

Seedling (Expanding into the World)

As a seedling, sense yourself reaching toward the sun while your roots anchor you into the soil. Experience the pull of growth in opposing directions. Absorb nourishment from the sun, inhale CO2, and exhale oxygen. Sense the moisture around you. How does drawing water from the environment feel? Do you feel flow, satisfaction, pleasure, relief or any other qualities? Become aware of the connections forming below the surface through the Mycorrhizal network. What information and nutrients are you receiving from those around you?

Sapling (Claiming Space)

As a young sapling, feel yourself growing taller and deeper despite the challenges of wind and rain. Experience the sensation of expanding both above and below the soil. What does it feel like to take up more space, to stand among other trees, to be part of a forest community?

Maturing (Growing Community)

Sense your roots firmly intertwined with those of your neighbors, providing stability. Notice the density of your trunk and your lush crown of leaves. Experience the presence of birds nesting in your branches and squirrels playing around you. How does it feel to provide shelter and be part of this vibrant community? Sense the interactions and life thriving around you. How do you connect with these other presences?

Reproducing (Birthing Generations/Kin)

Reflect on the rich interactions you’ve had over the last 150 years. Remember seasons of interacting with various creatures like bears, owls, squirrels, chipmunks, slugs, woodpeckers… What do you recall about these exchanges and relationships? Now, your branches are heavy with seeds. As a storm approaches, feel the high winds and release your seeds into the air. Trust that they will land and grow. Imagine sharing nutrients with your young through the Mycorrhizal network as they begin their journey.

Forest Crisis (Regeneration)

Imagine the intense heat of a fire engulfing the forest. Do you withdraw into the damp soil or your center, or do you rise up to your crown? Or do you allow yourself to remain present as the fire has its effect on you? How does the heat feel against your bark as it climbs up and out into your branches? What is your shared experience with your family and neighbors? As you wait for the fire to pass, what sensations arise? Then, notice the stillness and quiet after the fire has gone out. It is time to regenerate and allow the emergence of new life.

Old-Growth (Growing Wise)

Imagine yourself as an ancient tree, standing tall and majestic after up to 2000 years. You are massive, with a vast crown and deep roots intertwined with your family. Reflect on the floods, droughts, and generations of forest life you’ve witnessed. You’ve mothered your family, experienced loss and abundance. Let yourself feel your wisdom and strength as one of the oldest living creatures on Earth.

After-life (Transformation)

Visualize the moment you fall, your trunk landing heavily on the soft soil, and your roots pulling up from the forest floor. Do you feel shocked or disoriented after standing upright for thousands of years? Experience your mass against the ground and notice how the ecosystem around you shifts. New beings take up residence on your body, and as you decompose, mosses, ferns, and seedlings grow on your trunk. Feel your life force returning to Earth, nurturing the next generation.

About Rainey Straus
Rainey Straus is a visual artist whose work explores the intersection of the human and more-than-human worlds. Focusing on embodied story-telling, Straus’s projects aim to deepen our understanding and care for our shared world.

About Aline Wachsmuth
Aline Wachsmuth is a dancer, educator, and bodyworker who is deeply curious about how different environments inform our physical experience. Her research highlights the role of bodymind connection in restoring our respectful relationship with the planet.

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