Recycling takes on new layers of meaning in the “Forces of Nature II” exhibit at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden.
Curated by artist in residence and “interpretive horticulturalist” Leigh Adams, it presents artworks fashioned from trees that fell victim to drought and disease on the property, including a Tasmanian blue gum that stood guard over Queen Anne Cottage. The combined attacks of windstorm damage, historic drought, insects and fungi finally pushed the mighty 150-year-old tree past the point of recovery. Taking it down required three weeks, heavy equipment and skilled tree trimmers from the county.
“It’s right next to a historic home that we want to preserve, so it’s like balancing on one foot on the tip of a surfboard and trying not to spill the tea,” Adams says with a laugh. “We’re not talking about something they could just go in and hack up. Think of a tree that’s going up 140 feet, maybe 120 feet, and seven feet in diameter. Eucalyptus wood is very, very hard, dense wood, and the Tasmanian blue gum is a form of eucalyptus. Imagine the weight of that tree pushing down on that trunk, and the trunk thickening and buttressing itself to hold that weight. You end up with some incredibly heavy, dense, amazingly hard wood. …
“The milling and cutting of that was one of the most gruesome processes I have ever been involved in. Literally, with a professional mill, cutting an eight-foot plank that’s maybe two feet across, it took one blade for each cut. Then they had to put another blade on; that blade will have to be hand-sharpened. For cutting small blocks of that wood, it took one can of gas in the chainsaw to cut through. It’s that hard, and it’s really beautiful wood.”
She laughs while describing herself cradling another, rarely seen chunk of dawn sequoia (“the ancestor of all sequoia trees”) whose aroma was so “heavenly” she wanted to bury her face in it: “It smells like a cross between chocolate and redwood.”
As its name implies, “Forces of Nature II” follows a similar show mounted five years ago, with art created from trees devastated by the 2011 windstorm. Adams says there were complaints that not enough art was available, so this time she estimates at least 500 pieces will be for sale, ranging from intricately carved chopsticks and unevenly rimmed bowls so polished they look like glass to birdhouses, charcuterie boards, earrings, picture frames, kitchen spoons, fine art sculpture, and furniture. Monies raised will support the Arboretum Tree Fund. Individual artists, including several from retirement communities in Monrovia and Laguna Woods, choose whether to donate or take a percentage of their sales.
The wood those artists use is called “rescue wood,” since it did not come from green, growing trees. In their hands, spalting (also known as spalling) — discoloration or patterns caused by molds or fungi — is transformed into eye-catching beauty.
“We have one artist who especially looks for stress in the crotch or limb of a tree,” Adams says. “He gets different patterns from each branch that will show up in his wood-turned bowls. Another artist takes a bunya-bunya tree from Australia, cuts it into squares or rectangles and turns it sideways so the branch patterns look like flowers on the side of the vessel that he turns.”
The Arboretum is not the only property to suffer tree loss this year. Quite a few older trees in the area have died, sad testaments to the drought’s ongoing aftereffects; root systems remain vulnerable despite increased rainfall. Adams says the goal of the exhibit is not only to give people the opportunity to buy commemorative pieces of Arboretum history, but also to raise money to purchase more trees and teach visitors how to maintain the urban forest. For instance, she notes, many well-intentioned residents have replaced front lawns with gravel — not realizing they’ve essentially created a heat sink deadly to their and their neighbors’ trees.
“It’s also making their electric bills shoot up enormously because you then lose that evaporative cooling and shade from the tree,” she says. “We want to encourage removing the lawn and putting in a native habitat or low-water alternative. But they have to realize that they then need to water the tree. They can reduce their water use and still keep their trees healthy.
“The urban forest is critical to our health and wellbeing; it’s also critical to our property values. … Every mature tree is valued at about $5,000 in your property value. That’s what we’re losing, sometimes 10, 15 thousand dollars at a time, without people realizing that tree affects the actual value of their property, not just the quality of their life.”
“Forces of Nature II” opens with a reservation-only reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1, at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden’s Ayres Hall, 301 N. Baldwin, Arcadia, featuring violinist Jean Sudbury’s trio, woodworking and freestyle weaving demonstrations, and live and silent auctions; $25. The exhibit will remain open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Dec. 2-3 and Dec. 9-1 and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Dec. 7-8; $4-$9 general admission. Info: (626) 821.3237. arboretum.org