Arcadiana

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The Writings of Trees: Ogham, Phytographia, and Calligraphy

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Introduction

If a plant could speak, what would it say? From the Ents in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings to current scientific research on plant communication and signaling, explorations and imaginations of communications from plants abound. The concept of a language of plants and plant writing has been addressed by philosophers, botanists, writers, poets and many others, fostering a rich discussion on what a language of plants may look like. 

            Adjacent to the idea of a language of plants is that of a language based upon plants. Ogham[1], or the Celtic Tree Alphabet, is an early Mediaeval alphabet whose letters can be ascribed to trees and plants: the names of letters include  “dair” (oak), “beithe” (birch), “coll” (hazel) and “sail” (willow) (McManus, 1991). Although Ogham has fallen out of everyday use and is principally used nowadays for artwork, a contemporary place and role for it may perhaps still be found. As a unique venue to encounter plants and their forms, appreciation of Ogham and its incorporation in our life may help bring us closer to acknowledging and recognizing the ways of beings of plants, and enhancing nature-connectedness. Here, I will explore how Ogham may be a distinctive setting where our language, and that of plants, can encounter and intertwine. 

Ogham, the Celtic Tree Alphabet

Ogham is a distinct alphabet that represents the sounds of the Irish language and is estimated to have been used from the fourth to the tenth century AD (Carney, 1975). It is most commonly found in the form of inscriptions on stones in counties across Ireland, with a concentration in the south-west counties of Kerry, Cork, and Waterford. However, it can also be found across England and Scotland. These inscriptions are often in the genitive case, denoting possession (e.g. stone of, burial place of), and are carved along the natural edge of the stone, to be read from the bottom up along a stem line (McManus, 1991). 

            There are numerous theories on the origins of Ogham, with its definitive provenance still unknown. The Ogham Tract, a manuscript written near the end of the fourteenth century, suggests that Ogham was invented in Ireland by Ogma, “a man very learned in language and poetry” (Graves & Limerick, 1876). It may also have been created by pre-Christian druids as a secret manual gesture alphabet, or was based upon secondary cryptic runes or derived from tally numerals (McManus, 1991). 

            The letters of Ogham are composed of one to five lines along a “stemline”, with the letters called “faeda” (trees). The consonants are called “taobomna”, while the diphthongs are “forfeada”, or extra trees. The continuous stem, or stemline, along which the Ogham letters are ranged is called the drum, or ridge, with each short stroke perpendicular to it called a “flesc” (twig). Notably, the names of at least some of the letters refer to real trees and plants, such as oak, birch, hazel, willow, and alder, with the shape of trees playing an important role in Ogham. Commenting on its distinctive nomenclature, Charles Vallancey’s observations on Ogham note that the form may have been adapted to the name, rather than the name to the form: he writes “from the Book of Oghams, translated and published in my Vindication, it appears that the first Ogham characters were intended to represent trees” (Graves & Limerick, 1876). 

It is worth highlighting that while manuscript sources such as Auraicept na n-Éces ‘The Scholars’ Primer’ and In Lebor Ogaim ‘The Ogam Tract’ have keys indicating that all the letters are named after trees, more recent work by Damian McManus has shown that while some of the letters are named after trees, others have been misinterpreted or replaced artificially as the original meanings were lost. Nonetheless, some of the original tree letter names include the birch for B or “beithe” and the willow tree for S or “sail” (McManus, 1991). 

Ogham and Phytographia 

To see how our language and that of plants may meet in Ogham, we can turn to Patricia Vieira’s concept of  “phytographia” – namely, how the vegetal world is embedded in human cultural productions. Here, Ogham presents a clear case of the vegetal becoming deeply embedded in one of human beings’ most fundamental activities: writing. 

            First, how can we understand and interpret the language of plants? Vieira proposes using the notion of inscription: we all inscribe ourselves in our environment and in the existence of those who surround us. This notion of inscription can be understood in terms of Spinoza’s conatus essendi, or “the wish of all things to persevere in existence, a yearning that leaves traces in and through other entities” (Vieira, 2015, p. 39). For plants, their inscriptions take the form of their physical configurations, such as the shapes and length of their branches, the texture of their bark, and the contours of their leaves. Vegetal inscription takes place in human lives at very basic levels, Vieira writes, such as through the food we eat and the air we breathe. However, she focuses upon a narrower dimension of vegetal inscription- specifically, how the vegetal world is embedded in human cultural productions – phytographia . This rests upon the assumption that “a continuum extends from plant to human forms of inscription, which necessarily interact and get entangled” (Vieira, 2015, p.39). Although Vieira focuses on literature for her phytographia, Ogham presents an interesting case of traces being left in not just our literature, but in our letters and alphabet themselves- phytographia as a concept can help us to decipher this encounter.

With the letters and structure of Ogham resembling the shape of the tree and its branches, the physically inscribed language of plants not only encounters but is heavily intertwined and entangled with our written word – we express ourselves through the form of plants and their physical inscription, almost as if we attempt to view our language through theirs. The letters take a tree-like shape and are formed like the forking branches of a tree, mimicking the ways in which they physically inscribe themselves in the world. Each character sprouts from the central line, like leaves from a stem, and we read Ogham in a vertical manner from the bottom to the top, mimicking the growth and flow of trees, from the roots to the crown. 

Ogham presents a particular instance of the language of plants meeting ours. However, concerns have been raised as to whether we might erase the vegetal language in our attempt to interpret or co-opt it.  In “To Hear Plants Speak”, Michael Marder raises this worry of vegetal languages disappearing under the “shroud of meanings” that we throw over it when we use plants as symbols (Marder, 2017). In using them as symbols for our own frameworks, we may inadvertently turn them into mere tokens. By using the physical inscriptions of plants as letters in Ogham to form our own language,, are we obscuring their own language?

            To respond to this concern, I turn to Chinese calligraphy and its appreciation, drawing upon the work of Shi Xiongbo, to show how this encounter may not necessarily entail the suppression of the vegetal language. Instead, Ogham may aid in highlighting and drawing attention to the language of plants in beneficial ways.

Lessons from Chinese Calligraphy 

Chinese calligraphy, or shufa in Mandarin, is best translated as “the art of writing” and was established as an art in China during the first four centuries of the first millennium (Shi, 2023). It has developed into the characteristic cultural symbol for China that many recognize it as, and is appreciated as a fine art alongside painting and poetry (Zhang et al., 2008). 

            The beauty of Chinese calligraphy is seen to stem from the order and the pattern of the forms and brushstrokes. It does not seek to replicate images from the real world, but “rather expresses them kinesthetically” (Shi, 2023). As an example, metaphorical expressions like “a dot should be like a stone falling from a high peak…a vertical line should be like a withered vine, ten thousand years old” are often employed (Shi, 2023) – for calligraphy, this does not entail the dot should literally be a falling stone, but should embody a momentum akin to one. Shi writes on two aesthetic terms associated with Chinese calligraphy: xing, or form/configuration; and shi, the force or potential. Successful works of calligraphy present both characteristics: however, only with shi can a calligraphic form be a living form (Shi, 2023). 

Attending to the multiple brushstrokes that compose a Chinese character then constitutes the other important element of Chinese calligraphy. To achieve shi in a character requires “an effect of tension that animates the various elements in the configuration of the written character” (Shi, 2023). Suzanne Langer’s concept of “living form” has also been used to characterize Chinese calligraphy. According to Langer, living form suggests “a dynamic form of vital processes such as growth and motion” (Langer, 1957). This is particularly relevant as a work of calligraphy constitutes an organic form, and not just a sequence of characters (Shi, 2023).

            To appreciate calligraphy, Shi suggests that the physical presence of the characters – and not the textual content- is the primary object of appreciation (although the two are inextricably intertwined) (Shi, 2023). Indeed, Simon Leys raises the question as to what extent one needs to be able to read Chinese in order to fully enjoy Chinese calligraphy, answering the question by way of another: “To what extent is it necessary to be able to read music in order to enjoy a musical performance” (Leys, 2011)? Appreciating Chinese calligraphy, Shi describes, involves “tracing the brush” and identifying the brushwork and its spiritual qualities (Shi, 2023; Gulik, 1958). Or, as Leys elaborates, “follow[ing] and reconstruct[ing] in his mind the successive movements of the calligrapher’s brush” (Leys, 2011). 

            For Ogham, as an alphabet bearing traces of the physical inscription and forms of trees, the letters seem to embody Langer’s living form, expressing the living process of flourishing and growth found in nature. With the physical shape they embody, characteristics like germination and motion are captured in the letters. Interesting to note is that this has parallels with the Chinese character for tree (木), which also resembles a tree with roots and branches (with two “tree” characters coming together to form the character for forest ( 林)).

Chinese calligraphy can help us to respond to Marder’s worry of vegetal languages disappearing under the cloak of our own meanings.. By drawing upon methods of appreciation of calligraphy, which endeavor to separately appreciate the art from the textual content it carries, Ogham may also be acknowledged and appreciated for more than the meanings that we attribute to it from our own language. By focusing on its form and shape, we can highlight the way traces of vegetal inscription lie within Ogham. 

The method of appreciation for Chinese calligraphy can also be a source of inspiration for Ogham. Just as we retrace the brushwork of the artist in calligraphy, we can trace in our minds the form of the letters, and its origin -namely, the tree or plant in question. We can envision the growth of branches and the trunk, and how they spread out into the sky, forming the distinctive silhouette of a tree. “Retracing the brush” for Ogham might look like reflecting on the growth and processes of trees, how they convert elements like water and air into their own bodily material and inscriptions, and what their physical form might say. By appreciating Ogham in this manner, and by viewing it as a space where traces of vegetal inscriptions can be found, we are encouraged to pay attention to the physical inscriptions of plants and to listen to their language. 

Building Upon Ogham: Steps Forward

As previously mentioned, Ogham is no longer in everyday use. However, it has not been forgotten, cropping up in places like the Ogham in 3D project, which seeks to digitize the four hundred remaining Ogham stones that exist (“Ogham in 3D”, 2014). Increasing awareness of Ogham, along with other forms of tree-based alphabets such as types of runes, may have numerous benefits- notably, the offering of a novel form of interaction with nature and the language of plants.

Popularizing Ogham, and novel variations of it, can serve to introduce to the public both the names of trees and their way of being in an enjoyable and accessible way, especially for children. Moreover, examining and drawing upon the rich knowledge and history behind Chinese calligraphy can also provide ideas for Ogham’s future direction. As described above, Chinese calligraphic works seek to embody an energy, a tension, and convey images kinesthetically- it becomes a living form. Artwork involving Ogham and other tree-based alphabets may also follow a similar route, seeking to embody the organic processes and growth that lead to the physical inscriptions of trees that we observe. Such mediums and projects can encourage us to explore and listen to the language of the vegetal, and to ponder their inscriptions in our lives. 

References

Carney, James. “The invention of the Ogom cipher.” Ériu 26 (1975): 53-65.

Translation based on Robert H. van Gulik, Chinese Pictorial Art as Viewed by the Connoisseur (Rome: Serie Orientale Roma, 1958)

Graves, Charles, and C. Limerick. “The ogham alphabet.” Hermathena 2, no. 4 (1876): 443-472.

Holten, Katie. “Katie Holten.” Katie Holten. 2013. https://www.katieholten.com/new-york-city-tree-alphabet.

Langer, Susanne K. 1895-1985. 1957. Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures. New York, Scribner.

Leys, Simon. The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays. New York Review of Books, 2013.

Marder, Michael . 2017. “To Hear Plants Speak.” In The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature, edited by Patricia Vieira, Monica Gagliano, and John Charles Ryan. U of Minnesota Press .

McManus, Damian. A guide to ogam. 1991. Maynooth Monographs 4.

“Ogham in 3D.” 2014. Dias.ie. 2014. https://ogham.celt.dias.ie/menu.php?lang=en&menuitem=80.

Shi, Xiongbo. “An Aesthetics of Chinese Calligraphy.” Philosophy Compass (2023): e12912.

“The Talking Forest Tree Runes.” 2023. Talkingforestrunes.com. 2023. https://www.talkingforestrunes.com/.

Vieira, Patrícia. “Phytographia: literature as plant writing.” Environmental Philosophy 12, no. 2 (2015): 205-220.

Zhang, Jie, et al. “Chinese calligraphy and tourism: From cultural heritage to landscape symbol and media of the tourism industry.” Current Issues in Tourism 11.6 (2008): 529-548


[1] Although the alphabet is frequently referred to as “Ogham”, Ogham refers to the characters, whilst the script as a whole is named Beithluisnin. 

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