Associate Professor of French & Francophone Studies Giulia Pacini talks about her book on trees and eighteenth-century cultures of nature:
You just co-edited a volume entitled Invaluable Trees: cultures of nature, 1660-1830, published by the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford (2012). Why are you so interested in trees? Why were they important in the long eighteenth century?
Trees mattered a lot in early modern times, materially and therefore also symbolically. They offered food, medicinal ingredients, shelter for humans and animals, materials for heating, for construction (both civil and military), and manufacturing. So in the eighteenth century the legitimacy of a sovereign was often linked to the strategic management of the country’s forests. Trees were also precious objects of commercial and diplomatic exchanges, and the focus of extensive scientific study. And at the same time, in this period an increasing number of people developed emotional relationships to trees. Trees helped them define themselves. You can see this in paintings of gentlemen who chose to be portrayed alongside their favorite plants, or in the words of writers such as François-René de Chateaubriand, who liked to say about his saplings: “I know them all by name, as my children: they are my family; I don’t have any other.”
When did you start working on this project?
To some extent this work started fifteen years ago, when I took a couple of courses in the history of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. More specifically, though, this project emerged out of conference discussions between colleagues who had long been studying gardens and landscapes as culturally constructed sites, and who now wanted to focus on trees specifically. I was fortunate to find two wonderful co-editors, Laura Auricchio and Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook, who not only shared my interests, but also contributed different cultural and disciplinary perspectives (the former is a professor of French art history; the latter a professor of British literature and cultural studies). Co-writing the introduction to this volume was particularly exciting, as we tried to map out together what an interdisciplinary field of tree studies might look like.
Your book is an edited volume. Who else participated in this conversation about trees?
Invaluable Trees is an international project, with contributions from scholars in Europe, North America, and Australia. It is amazing how well and how easily one can work with colleagues at a distance, now that we have the technology to share and write on the same documents. The volume includes essays in fields as diverse as environmental and forest history, social history, cultural geography, the history of medicine, eco-musicology, anthropology, art history, and literary studies.
The volume includes an essay of yours. What is it about?
I analyze some bizarre landscaping projects that represent tree-planting as an instrument for reform. I found a few texts by French authors Jacques Delille and Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint Pierre, which suggested that in the late eighteenth-century imaginary trees may have been perceived as transformative agents, rather than as exclusively passive objects of human handling. Both authors had similar ideas about the ways in which people might have “arboreal habits” which shaped their identity and attached them to a place. And both authors ultimately asked whether the transplantation of trees could serve a political purpose, strategically facilitating the naturalization of foreigners on French soil.
What did you and your co-editors ultimately discover through this research?
We were struck first of all by the diversity of (often competing) discourses and practices that characterized this period — some rather traditional, others quite innovative. We also realized how much these discourses and practices were caught up in shifting conceptions of nature, physical health, moral wellbeing, and social identity. We found a widespread awareness throughout the eighteenth century that human and arboreal lives were intimately connected. Above all, however, we found a growing concern about the consequences of deforestation, and therefore a strong interest in sustainable forestry across the European continent. So in the end our essays put current ecological thought in a broader historical context, while also allowing us to engage ongoing critical debates about the character of the Enlightenment and its relationship to nature. Although we certainly found evidence of a growing appreciation of the material value and utility of trees, we also discovered a plurality of voices that spoke to trees’ extra- or non-economic importance, as well as to their intrinsic vitality and deep-rooted and organic connections to other forms of life.
How do you interact with trees in your private life?
I have to confess that I really enjoy pruning, even though I know that this act was often constructed in the late eighteenth century as the repressive expression of an absolutist will (the French were particularly hit by this politically motivated criticism, as they were known for extreme forms of topiary at the royal palace and gardens of Versailles). Every time I pull out my pruning shears, the voices of Horace Walpole and of other eighteenth-century writers start nagging me, telling me that I should allow my hedges to grow and to express themselves as freely as they wish!