Our Earth is hungry for solutions. From climate change and deforestation to overpopulation and pollution, our lives are ever dependent on our delicate dealings with the environment. But among the grassroots, an ancient practice is resurging—combining art and science, humanity and nature—to deliver an innovative contemporary response: arborsculpture.
Dating as far back as the sixteenth century, tree shaping has been hinted at in paintings and literature, but it wasn’t until Axel Erlandson, the father of modern arborsculpture, that the art form truly flourished. As a young man, Erlandson was inspired by the sight of two conjoined branches in a hedgerow on his property. As a result, he began experimenting, designing and sculpting over 70 different trees into various stunning horticultural and architectural specimens. He would then go on to open a roadside exhibition in Scotts Valley, California in 1947, debuting his curiosities in an aptly named Tree Circus.
What Erlandson had observed and used to great effect, was a natural form of grafting known as inosculation. Rather ordinary, the phenomenon occurs when trunks, roots or branches in close proximity gradually fuse together; it can arise within a single tree or neighbouring trees of the same or different species. Over time, as the limbs grow, they exert pressure similar to the friction between two palms rubbed against each other. This causes the outer bark to slough off, exposing the inner tissue or cambium and allowing the vasculature of both trees to intermingle; in essence, joining their lifeblood.
Besides grafting, arborsculpture also employs pruning, bending, weaving and bracing to create the dramatic loops, twists and knots evocative of the form. Many of the techniques are borrowed from related horticultural practices like bonsai, espalier and topiary. However, not all species are suitable for such creative treatment. Trees to be shaped must be flexible, vigorous and easily grafted (thin barks); notable examples being willow, sycamore, poplar, birch and box elder.
The potential of tree shaping for eco-solutions is promising. However, much of it still remains dependent on the trial and error projects of a few pioneers. The movement is so recent in fact, that the term arborsculpture itself was coined in 1995 by Richard Reames and Barbara Delbol in their book, How to Grow a Chair—The Art of Tree Trunk Topiary. True to title, living furniture is a popular application; so too is the prospect of living houses and landscape architecture. The ability of growing trees to incorporate foreign material such as metal and glass further solidifies arborsculpture as a viable green alternative for use in urban design.
Unlike their dead lumber-based counterparts, living architecture continues to combat soil erosion while providing oxygen, sustenance, shelter and habitation. An important part of the ecosystem, trees can convert carbon into biomass, mitigating the effects of climate change. Even when harvested (essentially killing them), living architecture persists as a source of aesthetic wonder.
When asked how he was able to shape trees, Axel Erlandson often replied, “I talk to them.” Indeed, when humankind and nature work together, the results can be mutually impressive. Rather than cutting trees down, arborsculpture seeks to cultivate a natural passion for the future of our world and our environment—a greener step towards a more sustainable, balanced tomorrow.