THE WALNUT TREE
My head foaming clouds, sea inside me and out
I am a walnut tree in Gulhane Park an old walnut, knot by knot, shred by shred Neither you are aware of this, nor the police
I am a walnut tree in Gulhane Park My leaves are nimble, nimble like fish in water
My leaves are sheer, sheer like a silk handkerchief pick, wipe, my rose, the tear from your eyes
My leaves are my hands, I have one hundred thousand
I touch you with one hundred thousand hands, I touch Istanbul My leaves are my eyes, I look in amazement
I watch you with one hundred thousand eyes, I watch Istanbul
Like one hundred thousand hearts, beat, beat my leaves I am a walnut tree in Gulhane Park neither you are aware of this, nor the police
NAZIM HIKMET RAN, 1902-1963 If you say his name on the street in Turkey, everyone will look up. Often described as a romantic revolutionary, he was frequently arrested for his Communist beliefs and spent much of his life in jail or exile. He spent quite awhile up the street from Gulhane Park in the prison made infamous by the movie Midnight Express, now a swanky Four Seasons Hotel. I wonder if he wrote The Walnut Tree there. His passionate determination is much admired, but what makes him loved is his literary voice, immediately familiar, direct and clear. I’m not a big fan of Communism, but I sure relate to his rage at nuclear war and persecution of all kinds. It was Nazim Hikmet who wrote that Byrds song I Stand At Every Door, the one that sent shivers up everyone’s spine, of a little girl nuked at Hiroshima, set to music by Pete Seeger and sung at sit-ins throughout the Peace Movement. This was the man who said, “Living is no laughing matter.”
Turkey is rich in trees. There are so many you can’t believe it. I’m from that desert: Los Angeles, where trees improve your property values. Trees are a big deal to me. It’s human nature to take something for granted that comes easily. But I know that it takes forty or fifty years for a tree to get big, and plenty of natural water and light for them to be beautiful. When they are cut down, or made ugly with chainsaws, it puts me in a state of mind I can only describe as savage. I try my best to keep my actions positive. One way is to celebrate the trees that remain by drawing them.
To fight something, don’t dwell on it. Cease to fight at all. Concentrate instead on what you want to replace it. Concentrate not on what you hate but on what you love. Here’s what I love: the glorious trees of Istanbul, the wonderful trees of Turkey.
They are everywhere. Shooting perkily up out of an old wall, greening a grey landscape, dappling a seared cement square with cool shadows.
It took me years to learn to draw foliage, and it was everywhere. First, I treated it as a decorative element, whiting it out.
Then I tried to draw each leaf, which can work but didn’t for me. Finally, with this olive tree, I realized that leaves are a texture, treated the clumps of leaves as single shapes and lit them accordingly.
When I learned that, the drawings got better. And as I ceased to take trees for granted I began to draw them more.
All the world knows now that Gezi Park, behind Taksim Square, was slated for destruction by the government, to be replaced by a shopping mall tricked out to look like an early 19th-century Ottoman barracks torn down in 1940. This banner in Cihangir shows the proposed mall, with graffiti trees added in the subsequent protests. This banner has since been removed, and a huge portrait of Ataturk draped over the Cultural Center up on Taksim Square.
MUSTAFA KEMAL ATATURK Winston Churchill, after losing his entire army to the Turks at Gallipoli, said that a general of Ataturk’s status comes along once in a thousand years, and it was just his rotten luck to be up against him. The way in which the Turkish people revere Kemal Ataturk can hardly be overestimated. If you combined George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, all the Kennedys, and Martin Luther King, Americans might feel that way about one single person.
Ataturk, hero of Gallipoli and the Turkish War of Independence, was the founder of the Republic and a human being. He was called a drunk in his lifetime and he said, yes, that’s true, and kept putting the country together. As he was dying, in the late 1930s, there was no effective treatment for alcoholism. The fledgling program of AA was not well-known outside of a few people in America.
Ataturk continued to work despite the crippling disability and died in 1938 of complications caused by the disease, leaving behind the first secular Republic in the Middle East and an iconic collective memory. Conservative Muslim Prime Minister Erdogan’s widely-reported recent dismissal of Ataturk as “a drunk” sparked outrage and a spew of anti-PM graffiti signed “Sons of the Drunk.” Because of this polarization with the current government, and because there is no new unifying symbol for Turkey, Ataturk was taken by the Gezi Park Resistance as their symbol. This is particularly ironic because many women in the park were covered, and Ataturk declared war on headscarves. The current government has restored headscarves to the public venue, legalizing them in state buildings including schools. Here are a couple of people in Gezi Park displaying Turkish Patriotism.
Ataturk also loved trees. He once chided a gardener for truncsating a tree growing into his house, said to leave it alone, rather they should move the house. He was concerned that Ankara, necessarily made capital of the new Turkish Republic by its protected central location, was so arid. Traveling frequently by car from Istanbul, he stopped always under a lone magnificent tree by the side of the road. And then there came a day when, to widen the highway, they had cut it down. The great general and statesman probably felt the same as we all do when this happens: the sense of helpless fury, the utter incomprehensibility of someone doing that to a living tree, the hopelessness of that empty space where an hour ago was a living spirit of green and giving, not to be replaced in a human lifetime. I think he must have felt all this because he did what I do. He cried.
OFF WITH THEIR HEADS Chopping crowns off trees, along with the branches, has become a regular Turkish custom. It wasn’t always. School children told me that the Prophet Mohammed said, “To cut off the top of a tree is to cut a head.” The Ottomans loved trees, planting avenues of them, surrounding all the mansions and monuments. The Grand Bazaar was surrounded by tree-shaded gardens. All of them have vanished now. “You’ve got to control trees in a civic area,” says a French friend, native of the land that invented pollarding, the practice of making grown trees into lollipops. It makes me wonder about towns in Bulgaria, where the trees are as big as thunderheads. How do they do it? I believe they leave them alone, and tend to their plumbing.
THE CROWNS OF THE TREES Gulhane Park, of Nazim Hikmet’s walnut tree, is a rolling greensward on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace in Sultanahmet. It’s got lots of tall trees, a rare thing in Sultanahmet where most of them have been truncated. Parks have been literally cut in half– Kadirga Park near Kumkapi comes to mind- by the removal of all the branches off of many of the trees, but Gulhane Park, Maçka Park, and Gezi Park and many others still have their crowns.
I drew the plane tree at the top of this post in 2006 to protest the truncating of the Sultanahmet trees. This particular tree survived the renovation of the entire square behind Yeni Camii- Mosque- in Eminonu. The government cut down all the others and demolished all the little hobbledehoy cafes for a modern generic terraced area there in the Spice Bazaar. The ends of the great tree’s branches have been cut off. This has an aesthetically disquieting effect, as the natural growth twists and turns until the ends, when all the new growth points straight up as if drawn by a ruler. Locals say it’s 450 years old. UPDATE December 2013: It grieves me to report that the tree did not survive. It’s still there, but not a leaf in sight all year. It likely lost its taproot when the government tunneled out a parking structure under it.
The huge tree at right in the picture above was planted hundreds of years ago at the Topkapi Palace by one of the Sultans. The trees below, planted in the early 1960s, shaded the sweltering ruins of the Boukoleon Palace until last year, when they were cut down to stubby sculpture. I miss them.
A tree’s roots are as deep as the tree is tall. Tree roots are holding Istanbul up out of the Bosporus. Cutting them can collapse your ruins, make way for landslides, weaken your foundations. But the main reason I hate seeing the trees butchered is quite selfish: I like to look at them. “Oh, they’ll grow out,” people say airily. Yes, after I am dead. After the tourists have gone home. And they’ll look awful in winter for years to come. And aesthetics are not taken into account by the chainsaws. So when I see a natural tree, without the bunched-fist look of a grown-out stump, I draw it. It takes forever, but it’s worth it.
I went nuts when they shortened the trees in Sultanamet. Boy, was I glad I had drawn them when I could!
The Byzantine architectural detail behind the tracery of those branches is an art lesson in itself.
There are still plenty of trees around Hagia Sophia. One plane tree was spared entirely. One day they may be allowed to grow out again. They’ll never look completely natural, but they do recover in about ten years if allowed. The current practice is to cut the branches just about every year. And I mean cut. Candy-ass terms like “crop,” “prune,” or “trim” don’t begin to describe the amputation of living leafy trees into stump sculpture. I see I am going to have to post one picture of this. I’m going to use one that proves the chainsaw-wielders have heart.
But oh, if they were trained! It’s a good way to create jobs for unskilled labor. Imagine if those guys, with all that energy, were sent to Forestry School! To learn to plant! To nurture! Just imagine!
Back in 2006, nobody seemed to notice or care that the trees were so denuded. Many actually died from the radical cutting, standing barkless and grim for years before they were removed. So I talked to the guys on the street. Let’s talk about this miracle, I said to many a carpet tout, photosynthesis. A tree eats from its leaves. The leaves take light and gas and turn it into air. They eat carbon dioxide and create oxygen. This is why trees in a city are a good thing, since people breathe oxygen and choke on carbon dioxide. Trees without leaves cannot do this. The dying tree immediately puts out a spray of leaves to survive, and people say “Look! It’s coming back!” To a Californian tree-hugger, this is like saying about a woman with her lips, ears, breasts, arms and top of head cut off: “Look! She’s really all right! She is trying to smile!”
But she does smile. The trees keep trying to give us what we need. This miracle happens every day, all around, everywhere I look. It keeps me sane.
A city of 20 million and counting needs all the air it can get. People living near parks tend to feel better. Plenty of trees in the city makes it a better place to live in, better air to breathe. Shade is nice too. Shade in fierce sweltering August, shade to walk in, shade to sit in. We need our trees. That they are most beautiful with the hundred thousand leaves, the hundred thousand hands, reaching out to us, making air! –that’s just a bonus. We need every leaf. And I thought I was the only one who thought so. Now I know I’m not alone.
Everyone will tell you these days, It’s not about the trees. Not anymore. But that’s where it started. Regardless of what side you’re on, the imagery coming out of Turkey these days is stunning. The Gas Mask Dervish:
The Woman in the Red Dress, hair flying up as the gas hits her face, now performance art in Santa Monica, California:
The Barricade at Cihangir, where actual young Turks protest another shopping mall under a giant ad of a hypothetical young Turk brandishing a credit card.
Two women in black chadors, wearing masks of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. The Prime Minister exhorting people to go home.
Masked police blackly stalking through swirling clouds of gas, bashing in all directions.
The Prime Minister striding across the world stage, handed sheaves of red carnations, carelessly tossing them in relays into a huge crowd of fanatical supporters.
And as I write, late at night on 22 June, new images described on Twitter as gas creeps up onto my balcony half a mile from Gezi Park: hundreds of wet red carnations litter Taksim Square, brought to honor the dead from the protests and dropped as people fled the water cannons.
Across the Golden Horn in the tourist area of Sultanahmet, you’d never know there was any unrest. Still hordes of tourists canceled, alarmed by images of violence. But the rest of the world has become violently, exuberantly aware of Turkey. The tourists are now coming back. They have to. The imagery alone might compel them.
I asked a bunch of people what they wanted. Later someone sent me an anonymous message in English, signed Çapulcu: in Turkish Marauder, which was adopted by Gezi Park protesters after the Prime Minister called them that early on. It said: What do I want? I want trees with tops. I want trees with tops everywhere. I want historic landmarks saved and incorporated back into daily living, like the Post Office and Haydarpasa and the SeSam Cinema Building and the Spice Bazaar.* I want preserved ruins and monuments with historic integrity. I want tolerance for all religions, races, sexual preferences. I want a place that doesn’t look like any other place on earth, because it couldn’t happen anywhere else but the center of the world. I want Turkey, as it is, was, and can be, the land that always was, the Republic that can be free.
(*Note: Haydarpasa Train Station was put at risk after its roof fire burned unchecked some years ago. It may become a hotel. SeSam Cinema Building is to be torn down and replaced with a mall. The police used water cannons for the first time at that demonstration. People are upset at losing the magnificence of everyday life here to hotelization and generic globalization.)
In the course of the Gezi Park Occupation, the trees in Gezi Park became billboards for resistance.
I don’t know what these signs say, but I do know that they all express a desire for freedom in one form or another.
The spirit of every maimed and murdered tree in Istanbul rose up in Gezi Park and blew a big raspberry at the Forces of Chainsaw.
The government has not said what they will do. Of course they can do as they like. Just now, I am happy to say that they are laying in new grass in Gezi Park, cleared a week ago and worn to the dirt with protest.
I devoutly hope that these trees, now stripped of their messages, will not end up as a bunch of sad stumps. But if they do, the images from Gezi Park have already flown out into the media, and some of them are so scorching that they will continue to reappear again and again. That’s one way these trees will always live; in the media. We humans can’t breathe it, but we can use it to ensure that we will from time to time be able to come up for air.
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All drawings Plein Air, © Trici Venola for the Drawing On Istanbul Series. Most photographs by Trici Venola. If you see an uncredited photo and know the photographer, please let me know so I can credit them. We love your comments.