Why I made a new Irish Tree Alphabet

Emilee Geist

It was one of those glorious New York City days – everything was bright and crisp, sparkling in October sunlight. It was 2016 and I was on a walking tour of the East Village to commemorate the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. We visited community gardens, a ConEd generating station, East River Park and other affected sites, noticing the (almost) invisible scars left by the storm.

Then I joined Bob Bland and a group of activists in Union Square. We wore matching jumpsuits and held hands, forming a human “wall” against misogyny. We stood in silence. The US presidential election was imminent. The climate emergency was everywhere. We closed our eyes. I saw orange mushroom clouds and the end of human civilisation, as we know it.

Since then – for four years – I have marched through the streets, carrying signs, sharing messages of solidarity, embracing a collective grief and anger. Words of hope and action pinned to my bag. I have stood on the steps of the New York Public Library (and in Times Square, Central Park, Washington Square Park, Foley Square, Union Square, at City Hall, on the Brooklyn Bridge, and in the middle of Fifth Avenue) countless times with members of PEN America, Extinction Rebellion, Rise and Resist, and other groups declaring WORDS MATTER.

Katie Holten, portrait by Dillon Cohen, 2020. 

It has been affirmed repeatedly, often eloquently, always emotionally. You might have seen us. You might have been there with us. You might recognise me. We might recognise each other.

Perhaps you have also felt the weight of words while marching in solidarity. Words Matter. Truth Matters. Science Matters. Facts Matter. Black Lives Matter. Democracy Matters. It all matters. We are all matter. But what is matter, we may ask? The word itself is suggestive of what’s at stake. The etymological roots expose a tension. The Latin materia suggests “timber” while mãter means “mother” or “source”. So, matter is a hybrid, a woody, fleshy fusion of living tissue with a semiotic heart. The heartwood, if you will.

What about words? Words are the smallest units of language that stand alone. They are central to our experience of being human. The languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world and the way we live. If language – like everything else – is a direct extension of nature, then it was here before humans.

But without language fossils we can’t be certain of the origin of human language or words. Prehistoric handprints (and newly discovered fingerprints) matter to us, as they are the first human-made inscriptions in our known universe. They were made by people spitting pigment (itself a fine form of matter) at their outstretched hands, creating signatures, reaching across time.

The most influential artifacts of our civilisation are word mountains, what we call stories or books. Our ancestors shared messages through stories and some of those have reached us as collective stories – books – like the Bible and other creation myths. Stories evolve as multiple authors repeat, copy, translate and circulate them. In America there is the Constitution. In Ireland, the Book of Kells and Book of Ballymote.

What exactly is a book? With roots in Old English boc referred to Proto-Germanic, from bokiz “beech”, itself the source of the German Buch “book” and Buche “beech”. Latin and Sanskrit also have words for “writing” that are based on tree names (Birch and Ash, respectively). The French livre “book” comes from Latin librum, originally “the inner bark of trees”. Again, we’re spiraling in towards the Heartwood.

Ireland’s medieval Ogham, sometimes called a “tree alphabet”, used trees for letters. Image: Katie Holten, 2020.

Ireland’s medieval Ogham, sometimes called a “tree alphabet”, used trees for letters. The characters were called feda “trees”, or nin “forking branches” due to their shape. Astonishingly, this ancient alphabet was “written” from the ground up – each character sprouting from a central line, like leaves on a stem or branches on a tree. Language as living matter.

It can’t be a coincidence that some of the first forms of writing used trees. Our natural capacity to produce language is innate, like a tree’s ability to produce leaves. Buds burst with potential stories. Words are human constructs, concepts representing ideas and categories of things. Words create meaning, they are alive and shift with culture. Words can be planted. They matter. We can seed stories, watch them take root and grow. That’s what makes us human.

But language is not unique to humans. The world is a text waiting to be deciphered. There are stories everywhere. We can unearth words, pluck them from the air. Back on that October day in 2016, during our Sandy walk we “read” the landscape; deciphering marks written on the architecture of the city by events that took place that storm ravaged night.

Watermarks on the side of buildings are obvious. But perhaps less obvious are other lines that can be read: A beautiful weeping willow was dripping over the fence from a community garden creating much needed shade for our group. If you know how to read the invisible city, as we were, this tree indicated a high water-table, revealing a natural water source. Inevitably, the area flooded badly that night. Everything is alive, writing history. You just have to know how to read it.

So, the world is a story writing itself. Things themselves are verbs, not nouns. Indigenous people know this. Robin Wall Kimmerer calls it the Grammar of Animacy. The Earth herself moves, living through deep time that we humans find difficult to grasp. When I’m home, walking in the west of Ireland, I know that every stone has a story, every line in the landscape records a life lived (Tim Robinson’s exquisite work attempts to map it). Stories already exist, written in stone and tree, wind and water, we’ve just forgotten to look, forgotten how to read them. During lockdown some of us have had time to slow down and look closely at our local landscapes.

Growing up in rural Ireland I found solace in trees. Trees are truthful. When I moved to New York City, inevitably, I was drawn to street trees. The City commissioned me to create a Tree Museum to celebrate the centennial of the Grand Concourse in 2009. I was lucky to meet thousands of wonderful residents of the Bronx, both human and arboreal, and share their entangled stories.

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