The best books on trees in literature and art

Leopoldine Prosperetti Author Of Woodland Imagery in Northern Art, c. 1500 - 1800: Poetry and Ecology
By Leopoldine Prosperetti

Who am I?

"Ut pictura poesis", as goes painting so goes poetry is a pithy phrase that sums up the truth that a picture is mute poetry and poetry is a speaking picture. I have studied the history of this tradition from many angles and I have derived from it the term “lyrical naturalism” which I use to discover what is charming or captivating in the world of plants. As an art historian, well-read in European literature, I regard myself as a member of the environmental humanities which increasingly is the home of many academics eager to participate in the great debate on how to honor the natural world in literature and art before it is too late.


I wrote...

Woodland Imagery in Northern Art, c. 1500 - 1800: Poetry and Ecology

By Leopoldine Prosperetti,

Book cover of Woodland Imagery in Northern Art, c. 1500 - 1800: Poetry and Ecology

What is my book about?

Woodland Imagery instills a sense of a “lyrical naturalism” that reconnects the reader to the natural world as it was before the industrial revolution. Twelve essays explore the copses and “frothing hedges,” and other features of the woodland ecosystem as pleasing landmarks that make their appearance in nature, poetry, and art. The chapters include the story of Albrecht Dürer’s love of linden trees, and reveal Jan van Eyck’s boastful conviction that art trumps nature in creating visions of a “new earth.” Other essays tell the stories of Paul Rubens, Pieter Bruegel, Jan Brueghel the Elder and other masters of sylvan beauty gathered together as never before between the covers of a single, lavish volume.

The books I picked & why

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The Tree

By John Fowles,

Book cover of The Tree

Why this book?

This booklet is thin, smaller than a kindle, and small enough to fit in an outer pocket or any small bag. I bought my copy in 2011 and ever since I have given copies of the booklet to those who would connect with his ideas about trees. He wants us to forget the trimmed apple trees of his father, and urges us to fall in love with the overgrown trees in a scrap of ancient woods in the English countryside. He hated Victorian botanists for their passion for naming and classification. He sounds like a heretic when he takes on Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the Swedish botanist, who continues to be famous for the binomial system for naming all the plants in the Vegetable Kingdom. He actually takes his readers to Uppsala, the university town in Sweden where Linnaeus was a professor, to underscore what he calls the “bitter fruit of the Uppsalan tree.” By naming a tree, Fowles writes, we stop looking at it. That is the original sin! His unorthodox views inspired me to discern in the woods of the Old Masters - Titian, Ruisdael, Rubens, and Claude Lorrain - not a collection of named trees, but a celebration of sylvan beauty. In fact, I consider the essays in my book the direct descendants of Fowles’s observations in a little book that by now is truly an evergreen.

Silent Spring

By Rachel Carson,

Book cover of Silent Spring

Why this book?

I read her book as a child, and it never left my memory. I was drawn to her “Fable of Tomorrow,” which she used to set the stage, and which became unforgettable in her readers’ minds. It launched the environmental movement. It is a literary device that inspired me in the writing of my essays, which at times take on the character of a fable.

The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth

By Robert Graves,

Book cover of The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth

Why this book?

This is another book that permanently perches on my shoulder. It is a masterpiece by a visionary author that helped me to explore the mythic origins of shrubs and trees in early societies. The book inspired me to write essays on the hazel and the hawthorn, their early blossoms as manifestations of the power of the mysterious white mantle spread by the White Goddess in Celtic lands, in contradistinction to the Aphrodite as the goddess of all that is green in the Mediterranean.

The Overstory

By Richard Powers,

Book cover of The Overstory

Why this book?

This book makes a powerful case for the sentience of trees and that trees experience injury and use their underground networks to send messages to each other. This magnificent novel describes the plight of trees, not as a lumberjack’s problem, but as an earth-shattering tragedy that impacts the lives of its nine major characters in dramatic ways. The title is also an allusion to the upper canopy as a place for humans to live before lowering down to the midstory, and finally, the shrubby understory of a tree. I welcomed the book as a bellwether for a growing interest on the part of non-academic readers for books that connect with nature and tell us the story of earth from a dendrological point of view.

The Metamorphoses

By Ovid, Hendrik Goltzius (illustrator), A.S. Kline (translator)

Book cover of The Metamorphoses

Why this book?

There is no book as rich in tree imagery as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It is a book of fables many of which are about trees. Best known, I believe, is the story of Apollo and Daphne, in which a nymph is transformed into a laurel tree. The fable that I use in the book is the story of Pan and Syrinx, painted collaboratively by Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder. It explains the mythical origins of the sedges and reeds that fringe the riverbanks.

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