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Emily Gowers (Cambridge): Are trees really like people?

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The giant sequoias of California’s Sierra Nevada have long been a barometer for climate change. These most resilient of trees, sometimes as old as 3000 years, have a cult history dating from the 1850s, when national sentiments were aroused by the needless felling of a single “mammoth” tree. Today’s record-breaking specimens have resisted new environmental stresses relatively well, and can even claim to be antidotes to them, given their potential for cloning. Yet their life-cycles are perceptibly speeding up and trees are dying sooner. Their ancient counterparts, the primeval forests of the Metamorphoses, are equally survivors of prehistoric eras and sites of ecological variety. How does Ovid use trees to mark swathes of historical and metamorphic time, and how do their wrinkled, rooted forms relate to the perennially youthful nymphs who are often coterminous with them? Thomas Cole has detected a steady process of ageing in the human population of the Metamorphoses, which gives good cause to reflect on ontogenic and phylogenic coincidence (Pythagoras will memorably align the ages of man with the progress of the seasons). Can we draw conclusions from the life of trees about the telos of the poem? Maturation, decay or self-combustion? Is metamorphic change sustainable? Texts from the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite to Pliny’s Natural History will be used to frame Ovid’s meditations on mortality and immortality, youth and aging, in contexts human, divine and arboreal.


Streatham Court Old B