Few people can claim to be as “at one with nature” as Julianne Skai Arbor, better known as Tree Girl.
An arborist and conservation educator, Arbor details her relationship with the African Baobab, European Yew, Giant Sequoia and other trees in her new book, Tree Girl: Intimacy with Nature. The coffee-table book highlights her travels to 13 countries on four continents, where she captured 50 species of trees in more than 150 colorful images. The trees range from 30 to 3,000 years old.
That’s not the entire allure of Arbor’s new work.
With a tripod in hand, Arbor, 48, takes nude forest selfies, which for for her reveal how interconnected we are to trees.
“Trees are incredibly important ecologically—we know that,” Arbor says. “We need to learn more about what they do. There’s all this science coming out that trees are a community below and above ground. Why then does it surprise us that creatures other than humans are intelligent?”
Arbor (her chosen name) says trees are “accessibly wild beings,” which is part of what attracts people.
“Modern humans are extremely over domesticated and over-civilized,” she says. “There’s a part of us that remembers nature is our true home and we yearn for it.”
While people might be drawn to pictures of wild animals, Arbor suggests that our relationship with these creatures is limited. “We can’t interact with that wild animal. We can’t have a relationship with it,” she says.
Now nature lovers and art “buffs” alike can appreciate Arbor’s collection of images and meet Arbor in person—clothed of course. Arbor will be making a book stop tour Dec. 16 at Barnes and Noble in Gilroy.
As much as Arbor celebrates the many gifts that trees give us, taking nude photos in the wild does present a few risks. She takes precautions to avoid trees that are poisonous or prickly, but 99 percent of them, she says, are benign and approachable.
Art in Nature
A study of classical art throughout history reveals plenty of nudity including Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the Nymphs or Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus. It’s only recently that society stopped honoring the body for its beauty, says Arbor.
“There’s a lot of shame and part of my mission is to be like: ‘Hey I’m not ashamed.’ This is beautiful—is there a part of you that resonates with this at all?” she asks.
Arbor credits her inspiration to three women artists who, during their peak, were “really pushing the boundaries of photography and performance art,” including famous dancer Anna Halperin, Georgia O’Keefe and Anne Brigman, who moved to the Bay Area from Hawaii in the late 1800s. Arbor says Brigman was famous for her own nude portraits with trees—an example of female liberation in a male-dominated world.
Arbor says because of the nudity featured in her book, it was difficult to get published.
“There is so much taboo about nudity—because it’s powerful,” says Arbor. “Things that are really powerful tend to get knocked down and put away and hidden and there’s no point in having any shame the whole damn world is naked. Humans cover themselves up to have their masks on to the world and to stay warm. It doesn’t have to be taboo.”
All skin aside, Arbor says she’s not a naturist.
“I don’t spend a lot of time naked in nature,” she says. “I only do it when I do this work. Being naked allows me to be vulnerable in a vulnerable state. That’s something humans in our modern world need to learn how to do in the same sense as being humble is being vulnerable—we get out into nature and we climb a tree and I could fall or I could hurt myself. I am not in charge of this situation.”
A certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture with a master’s degree in environmental education, Arbor is trained to teach about veteran trees via the Ancient Tree Forum in England. Arbor says there is an entire ecology to knowing about the value of trees.
In a society that prizes youth, Arbor says there are similarities in the modern approach to trees. While people may revere a grove of redwood trees, there are older trees that may not readily be considered iconic.
“It’s just like how people we want to get rid of old people,” says Arbor. “People don’t see their value, but really there’s so much value and wisdom—[trees] ought to be cherished and there’s secrets and wisdom inside old trees. We should respect them.”
Arbor is emphatic that trees are critical our wiring—as animals—as humans.
Arbor considers herself an animist.
“I’m animist meaning I believe that everything is alive and can communicate with us,” she says.
Identifying herself as pagan, Arbor, who grew up agnostic, says she had the freedom to develop her own spiritual beliefs and was inspired by Joseph Cambell’s teachings that all world religions were at their core the same stories being told in different ways.
“I was really interested in great archetypes like the world tree,” a prevalent motif in cosmologies the world over.
Arbor has been infatuated with our forest friends for years—her book was eight years in the making, and reflects more than 15 years of photography.
“I think it was part of my soul’s path,” she says. “It’s part of my destiny. I had my ears open and I fell in love with them,” she says. “I’ve been in awe of them. I love the aesthetics of trees. I love oak trees especially. I love the branching patterns and they’re so safe.”
Although rare, Arbor says there are situations where Arbor says trees are not safe.
“That’s where respect comes in,” she says. “Every place you go is a community of beings and you are a guest in their home. Ask permission. ‘May I climb you?’ If you think that it’s not safe. That’s an intuitive knowing—respect and asking permission is really really vital.”
The lifespan of a “wild” tree, Arbor says, can be anywhere from 30 to 3,000 years depending on the species. The oldest tree she’s come into contact with—an ancient yew more than 3,000 years old—was in Wales.
“You can’t do a core ring sample to find out how old they really are,” she says. “Most of these trees are hollow. That’s the natural progression of an ancient tree.”
By comparison, the average lifespan of an urban tree is 15 years, says Arbor. When they’re not planted in the right soil and correct conditions, “they are just going to have to be replaced.”
With all the concrete and paved roads surrounding us, have we become disconnected to nature’s wonder? Have we lost our way?
Arbor believes people today struggle to get to know nature amid the rush of the modern world.
This is where Arbor’s work as a forest eco-therapist comes in.
“When I do forest therapy, I try to teach people how to engage with trees on energetic and spiritual levels, which has to do with how people listen to nature,” she says. “It’s inherent, but it’s as skill that we have to relearn.”
Arbor says these skills are intuitive, and believes relationships with trees can have positive health benefits, including a lowered blood pressure, lowered heart rate, lowered cortisol levels and an improved immune system “via an increase in natural killer cells that kill cancer.”
“Certain trees like pine and oak give off chemical like phytoncides,” she says. “And inhaling those is like boosting immune system.”
Similar to the known benefits of aromatherapy, Arbor says this is where the breathing involved in smelling the trees is therapeutic.
“There’s also research on sight that if people gaze on trees or falling snow, moving water that that relaxes the brain or restores the brain,” says Arbor.
Arbor stresses people ought to be surrounding themselves with other living things—creatures, beings, rather than their televisions.
She says humans are hardwired to be afraid of the unknown or biophobia. She says biophobia is out of control.
“Kids are gonna grow up and think and see that the planet has been ravaged and degraded and [believe] that that’s OK.” says Arbor.
She says this is what’s inherent with this type of cultural conditioning. With practices like forest therapy, she says people can be retaught that it’s safe and comfortable and we can get back to our innate love and affinity with nature.
“It’s really all about rebonding,” says Arbor.
“There is no separation between humans and nature,” Arbor says. “That’s the whole point of why I have a photograph of myself pressed up against a tree—we are nature.”
Join Julianne Skai Arbor, aka TreeGirl, as she reads from her new book, TreeGirl: Intimate Encounters with Wild Nature. Attendees will enjoy a book talk, slide show and signing on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2pm at Barnes and Noble Booksellers, 6825 Camino Arroyo, Gilroy. For more information, visit tinyurl.com/y9alg4oj.