One day, about ten years ago, Italian sculptor Giuseppe Penone went shopping. He came home with a 11,000 pound Lebanese cedar tree, one of thousands that had fallen during a wicked wind storm behind the Palace of Versailles.
He took out his tools and set to work. Carving deep into the bark he discovered that behind each knot the original branches remained whole inside the trunk. And so he revealed the tree’s past; he let the tree that grew inside “live” again in the present.
The other day while I was walking through Gallerie Italia, a corridor encased in glass overlooking Dundas St. at the Art Gallery of Ontario, I encountered Giuseppe Penone’s magnificent Cèdre de Versailles.
“Inspired by the quiet slowness of growth in the natural world, the work suggests a sense of time much broader than that encountered in our daily existence,” according to the AGO.
Another critic commented on how the original tree stood for centuries as part of a “masterpiece of landscape design,” before being trans-planted, as it were, in Penone’s studio.
Later, I joined a tour and followed the docent’s art-with-anecdote voiceover. He told us about how distraught Perone was to learn about the presumed death of these toppled trees in the woods behind the palace. He invited us to imagine the reach of Penone’s arms buried inside the trunk releasing a kind of reincarnation of timber.
And so, is it a death? If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one to hear it…if the thickness and knottiness of bark fails to reveal the life inside…is it a death? I don’t know how to answer these questions. I only know how to ask them and tell you how lovely and very much alive I felt that afternoon two afternoons ago, looking at Penone’s lonely tree.
To end with a quick segue to Thoreau, here’s a moment from Walden:
Only that day dawns to which we are awake.