Your Future Is Written In The Trees

Brisbane-based artist Caitlin Franzmann hands me a deck of divination cards. “Shuffle them and while you do, focus on a question that has relevance to your life right now. Then pick a card,” she says. The deck is no ordinary deck; the invitation is no ordinary invitation. This is divination by the trees.

Caitlin’s divination cards are part of her project called Tree-telling, commissioned by Liquid Architecture for Melbourne’s MPavilion. For a week in late January Caitlin laid out her hand-painted deck on a card table under the phosphorescent shade of the MPavilion in the Queen Victoria Gardens and gave readings to friends, strangers and intrigued passersby. “Tree-telling is an extension of an earlier work I created titled Magical Thinking. This comprised a set of 24 divination cards and a card table which was set up in galleries where I gave one-on-one readings to visitors,” Caitlin tells me. “It seemed a natural progression for a work such as Magical Thinking to exist in a public outdoors location like MPavilion.”

When I visited the site, I was instantly drawn to the idea of trees being wise beings watching over us and being full of symbology relating to the life of humans throughout history. I also wanted to respond to the MPavilion structure, which is designed as a forest canopy.”

Tree-telling is an evolving, spontaneous work of art that responds to the local environment and the people who enter into it. Each of the six divination cards Caitlin created depict an iconic tree located within walking distance of the MPavilion. Reflection and guidance may come from the Canary Island Palm, River Red Gum, London Plane, Algerian Oak, Jacaranda or Atlas Cedar.

Brisbane-based artist Caitlin Franzmann's work 'Tree-telling' was hosted by the MPavilion in Melbourne last month. Photo: Keelan O'Hehir.
Caitlin began each reading at MPavilion, where participants were asked to select one card from a deck of six hand-painted divination cards... to reveal the future! Photo: Keelan O'Hehir.
Each divination card corresponds to a tree in the Queen Victoria Gardens surrounding the MPavilion: Canary Island Palm, River Red Gum, London Plane, Algerian Oak, Jacaranda and Atlas Cedar. Photo: Sally Wilson.

The card I drew from the deck on a humid Saturday afternoon was the River Red Gum, named the ‘Well of Spirit’ within the symbolism of Caitlin’s project. The burning question on my mind was to do with a series of changes taking place in my life: I have returned to Australia after living abroad for some time and I’m beginning, however tentatively, to put down roots at home again. As destiny would have it, the River Red Gum is the only Australian native in the Tree-telling suite. Trees sure do know best!

“The Queen Victoria Gardens are full of trees originating from many parts of the world,” Caitlin tells me as we stroll towards the big, old gum. “I tried to select a variety of trees including one native species. For me, this speaks very softly of the history of colonialism in this country.” Within the deck the River Red Gum represents hope, resilience and endurance. “To develop the spiritual framework for each tree I researched their horticultural histories, their cultural significance, what they were used for, how they were revered and why,” explains Caitlin. “I also looked in to the mythologies, historical writings and poetry relating to the trees. From all this information, I was able to connect the dots and boil it all down into a short musing on each tree, which informs my conversations and ultimately became the sound walk side of the project.”

The sound walk is a pre-recorded reading, available to visitors once they’ve selected a card and identified their tree, and incorporates music composed by artist David M Thomas. “The sound walk follows the one-on-one reading (or works independently of it) and is about each visitor having their own moment with the tree,” says Caitlin. A big set of headphones and Caitlin’s lilting, fortune-teller’s voice dovetail with the soundtrack to create a very private bubble within which to slow down and dwell for a while under the grandeur of the trees. And so I stroll, eyes on the River Red Gum, as the recording provides me with a gentle, intellectual nudge:

Are you experiencing a misunderstanding? Consider how listening and connection might help you to break down judgments you are experiencing or feel are being made toward you. If you are going through a time of change and uncertainty, could you look to your environment to guide you with feelings of assurance and connection?”

Are you at a crossroads? A pathway lined with great London Plane trees represented forking paths in Caitlin's divination. Photo: Sally Wilson.
Caitlin invited participants to walk with her from MPavilion to the tree they selected from the deck, to explore the meanings and symbology it may hold for them. Photo: Keelan O'Hehir.
Caitlin prepared a sonic work for each divination card in collaboration with David M Thomas. Participants could walk through the garden listening to their recorded divination to the sound of Thomas' ethereal compositions. Photo: Keelan O'Hehir.

Drawing on trees for spiritual guidance is by no means arbitrary. In his classic book Cosmos, space expert Carl Sagan observes that: “Human beings grew up in forests; we have a natural affinity for them.” John Fowles in his book The Tree describes trees as possessing a “natural correspondence with the greener, more mysterious process of the mind – [they] seem to me to be the best, most revealing messengers to us from all nature, the nearest its heart.” Caitlin herself asks visitors to:

Imagine an ancient time when the trees were part of the human consciousness, spanning many lands and cultures. A time in which the symbolic imaginations of trees was a source of spiritual nourishment, ritual and celebration. When humans cared for trees as much as trees care for us. When we knew our place in the whole.”

The traditions of tarot and astrology provide inspiration for Tree-telling, but when trees rather than stars and archetypes form the basis of the fortune, the message becomes all the more tactile, earth-bound and immediate. The fact is you can walk up to a tree, feel the texture of the bark, collect one or two fallen leaves and bask in the safe harbour of its shade. It’s a time in the history of this blue planet when a bit of honest communion with the trees would do us good.

“I’m interested in the potential of tarot and astrology to contribute some illumination or wise counsel,” Caitlin explains as we head back towards the MPavilion. “I’m drawn to the symbolism and esoteric wisdom of tarot and yet I don’t believe them to claim any final truths – I see them more as tools that give permission for each of us to reflect and give time to our thoughts.”

Caitlin pauses while the trees around us take in our breaths, exchanging each of them for oxygen. “You know, there was a visitor who came for two readings on different days. She returned seeking a different card, only to chance the same card again! The tree was definitely her tree.”

To find out more about Tree-telling you can visit Caitlin Franzmann’s website.

You can also hear the pre-recorded readings at Liquid Architecture’s website here.

Caitlin deep in tree-telling action at the MPavilion! Photo: Keelan O'Hehir.