Wooden Memory: Revisiting Trees in the Early Modern World


Comparative Literature / Interdisciplinary Humanities

Chenyun Li (Cornell University)

“lean against an ash your ash” — Luis de Góngora y Argote, Soledad I, “Dedicatoria,” v. 13

Trees are rooted in human memory. In the early modern world, there are three significant literary junctures at which trees and life experience intersect. First, Trees figuratively take the place of female bodies in classical antiquity: poplars are Phaethon’s mourning sisters; myrrh is Adonis’s incestuous mother; laurel is Daphne escaping from passionate Apollo. Early modern Europe inherited this mythological memory and developed from it ways of exploring nature and sensuality. Second, wood was increasingly used in the construction of palaces, weapons, and ships, bridging the natural world and manmade work. Beyond industrial uses, trees could be a medium of writing and reading, as the Latin word folium meaning both ‘leaf’ and ‘paper sheet’ suggests. By rhetorical figures of metonymy or synecdoche, trees straddle nature and culture with a dramatism that often stages intrusion and exploitation. Third, trees offer a fundamental morphology that contributes to human understanding of life and growth. While rings inscribed in tree trunks register time and the seasonal changes mark the rhythm of life, the shape of trees helps humans to conceptualize genealogy and language.

Today, ecocriticism opens new inquiries into trees and Virtual Reality creates the experience of being a tree. How do these seemingly new modes of envisioning life draw on imaginations, fantasies, and knowledge about trees that have been passed down from the early modern world? What will we discover if we revisit this wooden memory?

This panel invites fresh discoveries of and experimental revisits to trees in the 16th- and 17th-century world that do not consider them as secondary background but protagonists of new inquiries into life, (dis)order, and memory. Fields may include but are not limited to: literature, natural philosophy, science history, colonial history, manuscript and book illustrations, material culture, architecture, and ecology.