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The Language of Trees Katie Holten

Katie Holten
+ posts


When I feel overwhelmed by what we’ve caused—biodiversity loss, climate change, ecocide, hunger, migration, pandemics, poverty, war—I find solace in the beauty of the living world, especially in trees. Trees are truthful. They fill me with joy. The simplicity and quiet wonder of trees, whether alone on a city footpath or together in a forest, slows down time. 

If we humans could move away from “flat-time” thinking and embrace Tree Time I believe that we would better understand ourselves and the world around us. What I call flat-time thinking promotes the notion that time is linear. But just as we came to understand that the Earth is not flat, I think we are coming to appreciate that time is not linear. Surely time is cyclical, looping in ever widening circles, like tree rings. Tree Time can help us see that past and future are as real as now, meaning that our actions today will resonate with as yet unfurled leaves on our family tree.

I grew up in rural Ireland, running wild through fields and the tree-filled hedges at their edges. One of my earliest cherished memories is of lying in the spongy moss at the base of a tree and looking up into the magical canopy. Those trees are long since gone. Despite its green image, Ireland is one of the least forested countries in Europe. But we are slowly remembering that Ireland was once richly forested. In the last few years, we’ve (re)discovered that the west of the island was home to temperate rainforest. Rainforest! Our ancient Brehon Laws—with trees at their heart—were once the law of the land. Today we call this Rights of Nature.

Today the movement to recognize Rights of Nature is inspiring people around the world, with Indigenous communities leading the way. Almost all successful Rights of Nature cases—so far—protect bodies of water. Why not trees? Paul Powlesland, founder of Law for Nature, told me, “I’m not aware of a draft Rights of Trees in general as they seem more difficult to conceptualize than rivers.” The recent outpouring of emotion over the murder of the Sycamore Gap Tree shows the power trees can hold over us. I believe we will soon see Rights for Forests and Trees.

Learning other languages creates empathy, compelling us to reconsider our relationships with other beings. The Climate Emergency demands that we speak on behalf of our nonhuman neighbors. If trees have memories, respond to stress, and communicate, what can they tell us? And will we listen?

Listening, speaking, reading, and writing are how humans communicate and make sense of the world. The alphabet is how we organize information and knowledge; our networked world depends on it. 

The alphabet is magic, a way to love the world intimately. With these 26 little letters we can create any word in the universe. The alphabet didn’t fall out of the sky. The lovely letters that we know so well have evolved over millennia, originating as symbols that represented animals, birds, and plants. What if we reanimate our alphabet? What if we let our letters go vegetal?

I’ve always felt more comfortable around plants than people. So maybe it was inevitable that one day I would let plants take over my writing. I created a Tree Alphabet by replacing each of the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet with a tree drawing. These new “characters” were turned into a font, a typeface I call Trees, which lets us translate letters into trees, words into woods and stories into forests. 

Translation is perhaps the most intimate form of reading. When we translate our words into glyphs, such as trees, it forces us to re-read everything. By translating or rewriting what we think we already know, the Tree Alphabet invites us to revisit the past, re-present the present, and reimagine the future. Language is powerful and beautiful. It is also dangerous. What is the language we need to live right now? How can we learn to be better lovers of the world?

People and trees have always been entwined. When we protect plants, we protect ourselves. Today we are teetering on the edge of extinction along with most of life on Earth. The Amazon is on the verge of tipping from life-sustaining rainforest to savannah. Our civilization is sleepwalking into apocalypse. But when I’m at climate protests, I’m surrounded by thoughtful, kind, powerful, joyful, determined people fighting to protect people, plants, water, trees, forests, and truth by working to create a better world. We need to nurture their messages of hope.

Learning the language of trees can help us think like the multicellular organisms that we are, inspiring new ways to live and work together. Trees can help us rewrite the broken stories that we have been telling ourselves. Today, in this time of planetary emergency, we need to reread origin stories and rediscover other ways of living in harmony with our kin. Beautiful re-imaginings are happening everywhere—people are Rewilding, Reforesting, Restoring, and creating Radical Hope.

Because an ecological civilization based on Rights of Nature is a survival imperative. 

Trees breathe out. We breathe in. Another world is possible. Together—with trees—we must breathe her into being.

History shows us that we become the stories we tell ourselves and our children. What stories do we want to leave behind? What do we want our ancestors to remember us for?


Katie Holten is an artist, activist, and bestselling author of The Language of Trees. She has created Tree Alphabets, a Stone Alphabet, and a Wildflower Alphabet to share the joy she finds in her love of the more-than-human world. She is currently translating Ulysses into Irish Trees. She is a visiting lecturer at the New School of the Anthropocene. If she could be a tree, she would be an Oak.


CALL TO ACTION: Join Katie Holten in declaring emergency and advocating for the Rights of Nature and the rights of trees, forests, peatlands, rivers, and planet Earth. And be part of Fossil free Books’ campaign to put pressure on literature festival sponsor Baillie Gifford to divest from fossil fuels.