Sebastopol's 'TreeGirl' shares intimate tree encounters
It’s the grand, exotic trees that especially call to Julianne Skai Arbor - the ones with gnarled outgrowths, tangled roots or hollows into which she can crawl.
She likes to drape herself across swooping branches or ease herself into small spaces, exploring the habits, curves and textures of the different species she seeks out around the globe and absorbing their life force.
The Sebastopol resident’s affection for the trees of the world has evolved into a unique vocation, one that forms the basis of a new coffee table book that features photographs of the author posing nude, enmeshed or intertwined in some way with different kinds of trees.
A certified arborist and environmental educator, Arbor espouses intimate engagement with trees as a kind of extreme ecotherapy, a spiritual reconnection with the natural world that is both healing and fundamental. And she hopes her work will inspire others, even if it just means finding comfort sitting in a tree’s shade.
“This book is really an invitation for people to have relationship with more than just humans,” said Arbor, 47. “I’m opening up the possibility.”
“TreeGirl: Intimate Encounters With Wild Nature” includes images from some of Arbor’s more than 70 assignations with trees in 13 countries on four continents, shot over a period of some 20 years. The 200-page volume includes extensive notes on the natural and cultural history of the species in her photographs, as well as essays detailing different aspects of the author’s connection with trees.
Arbor knows some people can’t grasp her unconventional kinship with them, but tree lovers “get it,” she said, and especially female ones, it turns out. “They understand it.”
Arbor contends that people are naturally drawn to trees - though most probably aren’t aware of it - as a result of humankind’s historic reliance on them for shelter, fiber, food and other needs, as well as trees’ vital role in shaping the world through oxygen production and carbon sequestration, soil conditioning and weather regulation, and provision of habitat for myriad organisms.
But humans have increasingly broken free of what she calls the non-built world and ignored their interdependence on nature, though it can still be reawakened and nurtured, Arbor said, a process she calls “rewilding.”
She says she found her own magic in the big, backyard trees of her childhood in suburban Chicago but was in her 20s, a student of art and ecology freshly arrived in California for graduate school, before the majesty and grandeur of the state’s redwoods and sequoias revealed a thirst to understand more about them that has driven her since.
“Once you get to know a species, then it becomes your friend,” she said, “‘Oh! Hi, Redwood! I know you.’?”
The impulse to shed her clothes first hit her two decades ago while walking in an Australian rain forest, “a wild, animated landscape” in which she came upon two young, twisting trees growing side-by-side and bending in tandem.
“They just seemed like they were dance partners, how they were curving toward each other, and they just seemed like they were moving,” she said. “I just couldn’t help myself, and I just wanted to get in there and be with those trees.”
There wasn’t much space, either, so she removed her clothes, handed her camera to a friend and got that first shot.
“It was very spontaneous, but I thought, ‘Wow! This is it! There’s something to this,’?” she said. “It’s very fulfilling.”
A self-taught photographer, Arbor has traveled extensively since then in pursuit of interesting, impressive trees that beckon, though she said she asks each tree and the land around it for permission before interacting with it, using remote triggers to capture the moment. She’s careful to scope out the scene for interlopers and has only been caught by surprise about three times, though it’s not usually too big a deal, Arbor said.
From a bulbous boab tree in Australia to a skeletal mangrove rooted in the waters of Madagascar, and a slumped and leafy welwitschia in Namibia, Arbor said she’s drawn to the odd, impressive species of the world.
At times she also photographs others as part of forest therapy trips, generally women, who are more likely to understand the experience. She said she’s gotten a few rashes, once found ticks crawling across her face and another time discovered a leech in a most unpleasant place.
Arbor still considers herself a teacher and mentor, but after devoting herself to the book for eight years is now focused on her work as TreeGirl.
“I would really love to be TreeGirl full time,” she said. “It’s like my soul’s work. And now, with the book, this is why I’m here.”
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @MaryCallahanB.
Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat
I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment.