Losing our safe arbour

Siobhán McDonald’s installation “Future Breath” explores our connection with trees

In June 2018, Trinity lost its two 170-year-old Oregon Maple trees. These sister trees were a central part of the College landscape and their loss was felt deeply within the Trinity community. Future Breath, an installation by Siobhán McDonald, which exhibited in the Science Gallery in December, recalled the two recently felled sister trees. It recounted the memories connected to the trees in the College, and prompted us to reflect on the symbiotic relationship between the plants around us and the air we breathe.

The loss of the Oregon Maples came as a shock to many students and staff. They were an integral part of the physical backdrop to the memories that generations of people had made in Trinity. They stood as landmarks – a well-defined place on campus. Trees, like all plants, play a crucial role in society. Their life is explored in McDonald’s exhibition, from the longevity of their presence to the way in which they provide us with clean air, medicines, and toxins, and how this is threatened in the wake of climate change.

“Front Gate is represented as the mouth, the Campanile is the heart, and the Oregon Maples are the lungs.”

The project views Trinity through an anatomical perspective: Front Gate is represented as the mouth, the Campanile is the heart, and the Oregon Maples are the lungs. “Body Trinity”, a film inspired by Michelangelo’s style of viewing architecture as anatomy, shows a living, breathing Trinity campus through a time lapse video of the College shot in front of the Campanile. The film reflects on the deep connection that the trees had with the college, as well as exploring the link between the plant world, and the crucial role they play in sustaining human life.

Another theme McDonald ponders in her installation is the concept of breath. We are reminded of how we depend on plants and trees for our own health and wellbeing. A three-minute film, “Breathe”, incorporates plant, tree, and human breath recordings. Images of a pair of lungs during the industrial revolution shows staggered breaths and visible discomfort. The film gives the viewer a glimpse at one of the first visible signs of air pollution and how it affects the human anatomy. This is followed by two plants growing towards the sun in phototropism a perfectly symmetric image imitating lungs. McDonald described how the project “weaves together narratives of studies in human breath, medicine and plant remedies from Trinity’s archives. It uses the architecture of Trinity College as a point of departure that connects the breathing pores and the DNA of plants to the body that is Trinity College. The trees represent the lungs of the body as the roots that remain in Front Square reach into the present.”

Plants are responsible for our health in a number of ways, the most obvious being that they provide us with the clean air we breathe, as well as the medicines and toxins we derive from them. The work, “An Archive of New Knowledge”, features eight botanical paintings, created using ink made from toxic pollutants found throughout Dublin. Images created from plant specimens chart the journey into the age of human impact on earth. The paintings serve as an “alternative archive” into our history and attempt to explore the question: how have humans changed the world around us?

“Climate change was a strong theme in the exhibition.”

As is reflected in the exhibition, using nature as a method of therapy is becoming more and more common. The NHS now prescribes nature appreciation in GP consultations, with research showing that patients who can view trees from their hospital windows recover more quickly. Gardens were shown to help patients with stress and emotional trauma. People who walked through nature were found to be in a better mood and scored significantly higher on attention and memory tests than those walking through urban areas. Living amongst trees has instant impacts on our psychological well-being. Additionally, the mental benefit of proximity to nature has been closely linked to the diversity of the trees and plants surrounding us. The more variety of trees in a city park, the higher the scores on tests of psychological well-being.

Climate change was also a strong theme in the exhibition, with particular emphasis on the pivotal role which plants and trees play in protecting the environment from human activity. “Appearance of that which cannot be seen” is a glass bell jar containing a 400 million year old atmosphere. Again, we are prompted to consider how the world we live in has changed over time. The display asks questions such as: what is the difference between the atmosphere in the bell jar and the one we breathe in today? How have we shaped the earth we live in today, and what would things look like without human interference? How much do we depend on the plants around us for clean air?.

“They release the carbon dioxide they have been storing for years back out into the atmosphere.”

Entering what has been christened as the “sixth major extinction event” in the earth’s history, we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change as a result of global warming. What does this mean for the future of the earth? What effect will this have on the plants which sustain life? What will it mean for us?

Despite the implications of our country’s nickname, the Emerald Isle, Ireland’s forestry cover is the second lowest in Europe at 11%, with just 2% made up of native trees. Deforestation is estimated to account for up to 23% of carbon emissions. When trees are cut down, they release the carbon dioxide they have been storing for years back out into the atmosphere. Trees are responsible for converting the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into oxygen in the air we breathe. Native hardwood trees such as oak and ash aid flood control, biodiversity, and water filtration as well as improving soil fertility, which makes deforestation a major catalyst for climate change.

Evidently, forests play an overwhelmingly beneficial role in our environment, and it is vital that we protect them. The time has come for us to give trees the respect they deserve. They keep us alive and we repay them in chainsaw massacres. We must change our attitude towards trees in order to secure their survival and that of future generations, because without our busy trees we would certainly crumble.

Grace Breen

Grace Breen is the current SciTech News Editor of Trinity News. She is a Senior Sophister Physics and Astrophysics student.