22 June 2019, Birkbeck College, University of London
A Symposium Hosted by Medieval Ecocriticisms and N/EMICS
In the Shanameh written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi at around the turn of the Christian millennium, the conqueror Sekandar (aka Alexander the Great) encounters a speaking tree that foretells his doom, saying:
Few days remain;
You must prepare your final baggage train.
Neither your mother, nor your family,
Nor the veiled women of your land will see
Your face again.
Like the tree of the Dream of the Rood, which speaks for itself, or the dream tree of Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel, which portends the Babylonian king’s own fall, the speaking tree faced by Sekandar is a being that possesses knowledge and understanding of the world that far exceeds his own. There is something magnificent about trees, a majesty to their towering figures that singles them out as more than just a part of our natural surroundings. Rooted in the soil, they emerge from below and aim high: forever branching never-ending fractals. Exhaling, we relax and sink into their repeating patterns. Why do we recognize them as objects of beauty? How is this loveliness captured in medieval imagery? Is the method different across cultures? Why? Are arboreal images particularly well-suited to certain types of knowledge communication? What might they be? We are interested in how humans use these images drawn from nature to communicate effectively.
This one-day symposium aims to explore the image of the tree as a conduit for the exploration of human engagements with environment in the global middle ages, broadly defined, and seeks to encourage cross-cultural, trans-national, and interdisciplinary understanding of the role of trees, woodland, and other vegetation in various contexts. We want to better understand human responses to nature. What is it about ‘arboreal beauty’ that connects it with the divine? Recognized across cultures as axis mundi, the tree shoots upwards, its trunk and branches stretching, reaching, growing towards the light as it seeks to bridge the in-between space that divides earth from the heavens. The liminal quality of foliage, trees, and forests is recognized by artists and weavers of images across the world.