Breathing Without a Head: Plant Respirations in John Gerrard’s Smoke Trees

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About two hours from where I grew up in Invercargill, Aotearoa New Zealand, is a large finger lake called Lake Wakatipu. The lake is nested in the Southern Alps of the South Island and, at the extremes, its body measures three miles wide and fifty-two miles long. The surrounding mountains are haunting in the evenings when the coniferous wildlife is silent, and for as long as I can remember, Wakatipu has been called the breathing lake. I must have read this moniker on a brochure or travel poster in a hotel or a restaurant—I used to visit the area around the lake regularly during the winter months as a child—but according to local legend, it is the beating heart of a taniwha—an ogre called Matau—that causes the lake’s respirations. Matakauri, the hero of this particular myth, set alight the ogre whilst he slept in order to rescue his beloved Manata, the beautiful daughter of a local chief, whom the taniwha had kidnapped. As Matau burned, he left behind his heart, which continued to beat rhythmically in the years that followed Matakauri’s daring rescue. The myth brilliantly invokes the scientific expertise of the local Indigenous people, for the lake really does rise and fall regularly throughout the day. Despite being landlocked, Wakatipu has an observable seiche, or standing wave, that occurs every 26.7 minutes and results in a tide that rises and falls almost eight inches. Of course, the seiche is the Western scientific explanation for the lake’s regular aquatic behavior. The lake breathes because Matau’s heart is still beating.

Wakatipu’s origin myth proposes a respiration that is both wonderfully metaphorical and scientific, but it also raises questions about the embodiments of breath itself. Namely, I’m curious here as to who is an agent of breath? Who and what breathes? Who can breathe easily in the Anthropocene? Who can breathe easily at all? And yet: what an unnecessarily cruel question this is when so many people nowadays cannot breathe fluently or joyfully in a global pandemic. Over the course of the past two years, the ventilator has become a vexed symbol of the persistence of life, of political incompetence. Of medicalized racial injustice. The lungs that strain against the COVID-19 virus are sometimes the same lungs that have historically struggled against anthropogenic non-viral forms of air pollution. Industrial air pollutants are indicators of systemic racism, imperialism, colonialism, and the uneven urban distributions of risk. Indeed, in December 2020, a British coroner ruled, for the first time in legal history of the United Kingdom, that emissions of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter on the South Circular Road of London were the cause of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah’s acute respiratory failure in February 2013 (Laville). Toxic airborne pollution is vile matter that forcibly connects gentle lungs with racialized environments. As Timothy Choy notes, “Air muddies the distinction between subjects and environments, and between subjects. This thickness and porosity rendered by air is part of what makes the air and the airborne such deeply felt elements” (157). We, human animals, are too porous for the heavy industry and traffic routes that fill the air and the softness of our lungs. And so: we know the matter of the air by the smoothness of respiration; we feel the keen politics of the air when breathing is labored.

I can point to numerous examples where respiration in the context of human life is fraught. Indeed, the act of breathing foregrounds the buoyancy of humanity and the formations of life. I want to acknowledge and hold those complexities because breathing in relation to human life, especially for populations of color, disabled people, and transgender communities, is not yet guaranteed. And I want to consider additionally, who and what has been excluded from the formulations of breathing more generally, and how breathing itself has been anthropomorphized at the expense of other forms of more-than-human life. As Jane Bennett suggests, “humans are always in composition with nonhumanity, never outside of a sticky web of connections or an ecology” (365). But it is not enough to collapse the human-nature binary or to imagine the intersections between the human and the more-than human. Rather, I invite human breathers to imagine how marvelously we mesh like microbes with flora and fauna, as well as the local, cellular, and the shared global atmosphere under which we collectively respire.

My rhetorical resistance to the nature-culture division requires a shift in thinking about other kinds of strange breath-making and breathing events that do not map onto our normative perceptions of respiration. After all, what is breath for entities like Lake Wakatipu? How might a breathing lake reshape our understanding of agentic and non-agentic actors of respiration? And for the wilding conifers that surround Wakatipu, what is breathing for them? Sasha Engelmann frames this question more eloquently than I do here as she suggests, “The question, ‘Who is not a breather?’ is an open-ended provocation to think of a politics in terms of the atmospheric and the ‘more-than-human’” (430-44). If Lake Wakatipu is a breather, what queer politics of the body must we nurture? What rights must we afford to it or to Matau, whose absent body now defines the body of the lake and whose violent death exemplifies the very mattering of my childhood? From the moment of our emergence, none of us can unlearn breathing, but if we attend to respiration detached from the human body and in relation to environments and environmental actors, we might instead re-interrogate the very motions of inhalation and exhalation that are wonderfully alien and antithetical to our notions of air and our experiences of embodiment. Since animals, plants, lakes, soils, and forests experience some form of respiration, as a gas exchange, there is no reason to assume that breathing is our embodiment alone.

I begin with a lake, but I want to discuss plants because when I think of Wakatipu, I’m reminded of its wilding conifer trees, an invasive species that threatens to choke the native beech forests and tussocks. Yet so unfamiliar are the conifers to their abominable presence, they gift the area a citrusy scent. Too quickly we scorn so-called invasive species without attending to our own vegetal conditions. Before I proceed, then, I want to share two quotations. First, I’m reminded of Maureen N. McLane’s provocation that we are “preplant,” a claim that invokes our organic futures following our inevitable deaths (102). Here, we might think of ourselves either as compost or as temporary humans before we acquire a new intimate condition of wilderness. Either way, being preplant dismantles an assumed distinction between our mammalian selves and flora by rescaling material life into a geo-temporal framework.

Second, I feel a kinship to Michael Marder’s notion of plant thinking that “refers in the same breath, to”:

(1) the non-cognitive, non-ideational, and non-imagistic mode of thinking proper to plants (hence, what I call “thinking without the head”); (2) our thinking about plants; (3) how human thinking is, to some extent, de-humanized and rendered plant-like, altered by its encounter with the vegetal world; and finally, (4) the ongoing symbiotic relation between this transfigured thinking and the existence of plants. (124)

I want to adapt Marder’s first point here to consider a 2006 series of virtual sculptures, Smoke Trees, by Irish artist John Gerrard, as an example of “breathing without the head” or, more accurately, “breathing without lungs.” As a preplant person, I’m not entirely sure if I agree that plant-thinking is non-imagistic, but I am curious how our thinking is rendered joyfully plant-like when we mesh with the vegetal world and, by extension, how plants are rendered human-like in their encounters with ours. This rhetorical turn toward to plant-thinking and plant-breathing is a means to dislodge the anthropomorphism of breath and to unsettle the representations of (human) lungs as the dominant metaphor of respiration and life.

Smoke Trees (2006) is a series of six hyper-realistic virtual sculptures, where the leaves of a tree have been replaced with wisps of smoke that give the appearance that the tree is exhaling carbon (fig. 1). The pastoral scene rotates from dusk to dawn, revealing a landscape devoid of nonhuman animal and human animal lifeforms, although a treeline is clearly visible in the distance. As a point of order: Gerrard’s works are simulations, meaning that the indexical bond—the referent—of the artwork to a specific real object is tenuous. While a smoke tree (Cotinus Coggygria Scop) is a species native to Southern Europe and Central Asia, Gerrard’s series of virtual sculptures are based on a Holm Oak that populated his childhood in Tipperary, Ireland. This indexical distance between the virtual sculptures and representations of a tree underlie the uncanniness of this series, which further defamiliarize respiration and the atmosphere.

John Gerrard, Smoke Trees II, 2006.

Image Courtesy: The Artist, Thomas Dane Gallery, London, and Simon Preston Gallery, NY.

Let me explain this last point. I’ve often cited Eva Horn’s argument that disruption reveals the legibility of the air.1See Eva Horn, “Air as Medium,” Grey Room, no. 73, Fall 2018, pp. 6-25. Indeed, smoke disturbs smooth respirations and underscores the atmosphere as a carrier and extra-terrestrial cultural space. We feel the air when it disturbs us. In Smoke Trees, the image of a tree emitting carbon defamiliarizes not only our familiarity with the air but also reverses our perception of plant-based respiration. Tree respiration is a gas exchange, whereby stomata—the tiny pores on a tree’s leaf—open and close to draw in carbon dioxide, which is needed to produce energy in conjunction with photosynthesis. Oxygen and water vapor are released during respiration and transpiration, and the carbon is locked in the plant’s biomass. So it’s true that plants don’t breathe in the same manner as we do, but the purposefulness of their breathing remains the same: plant respiration—like human respiration—enables persistence and self-maintenance within complex environments.

Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that. Trees also release carbon dioxide, but Gerrard’s sculpture relies on reversing the pervasive symbolism of the tree as a benefactor of the planet’s oxygen economy. Indeed, the idea that trees could be detrimental is perversely thrilling. In fact, in an interview, Gerrard describes his Smoke Trees as “a kind of a polluter, a bit like we are polluters” (Gerrard). Could trees be agents of risk, exhaling smoke and contributing to our global carbon budgets instead? Could planting trees harm our human respiration? What point is Gerrard really making here?

I highly doubt that we should read these sculptures as severe provocations, but I am reminded how world forests are frequently spoken in the context of planetary lungs in media over the course of the last two years. Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, posted a picture of Amazon alight on Instagram on August 22, 2019, with the caption, “The lungs of the Earth are in flames” (DiCaprio). Reportedly, the image he shared wasn’t of the Amazon at all, but a larger issue remains. As vexed a symbol the Amazon is as our planetary lungs, it is often accompanied by the misleading claim that this rainforest produces twenty percent of the world’s oxygen supply. Actually, its contribution is around six percent by some estimates, and destroying all the forests in the world wouldn’t necessarily eliminate a global supply of oxygen, at least not according to biochemist Nick Lane (25).2I’m not sure where this twenty-percent claim emerges, as other studies have emphasized oceanic rather land-based photosynthesis. See, for example, A. Yu Borisov and L. O. Björn, “On Oxygen Production by Photosynthesis: A Viewpoint,” Photosynthetica, vol. 56, no. 1, 2018, pp. 44-47. I haven’t been able to verify the six-percent claim either in peer review. Climate scientist Jonathan Foley reports this figure in the following publication, and at any rate, the Amazon’s oxygen contributions are contested. See Katarina Zimmer, “Why the Amazon doesn’t really produce 20% of the world’s oxygen,” National Geographic, Aug. 28, 2019,, accessed March 18, 2021. (Instead, we really should be attending to the significance of oceanic phytoplankton as global oxygenators, but that’s another story.) Still, the trees-as-lungs trope really gestures to the displacement of our anxious embodiment and our own sense of fragility in an ecologically changing world under threat by far-right governments and ill-regulated transnational industries. Reports of anthropogenic wildfires have provoked substantial social anxiety about the seemingly out-of-control deforestation in Brazil and the dramatic forest-fire events in California and Australia in 2019 and 2020. According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), President Jair Bolsonaro’s relaxation of environmental regulations, combined with political encouragement to increase agricultural activity, saw over 700 square miles of forests cleared between April and June 2019. This rampant deforestation marked an increase of twenty-five percent from the same period the year before (Borunda).

Forests are enormous carbon sinks, and forest fires, like those recently in California, Australia, and Brazil, produce thick monstrous plumes into the atmosphere that travel over extreme distances. In January 2020, for example, NASA scientists followed the long journey of particulates and aerosols from the Australian bushfires as they skirted over Aotearoa New Zealand, before crisscrossing the ocean to South America, where the skies and sunsets turned hazy and beautiful. This smoke made a full circuit around the globe before it returned to its place of origin in Australia.3See: NASA, “NASA Animates World Path of Smoke and Aerosols from Australian Fires,” Jan. 9, 2020, accessed Dec. 22, 2020, Moreover, between December 2019 and January 4, 2020, the Australian wildfires produced at least eighteen pyrocumulonimbus clouds as they migrated across the entire span of the globe. See G.P. Kablick, D.R. Allen, M.D. Fromm, and G.E. Nedoluha. “Australian PyroCb Smoke Generates Synoptic-Scale Stratospheric Anticyclones,” Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 47, e2020GL088101, 2020, Forest-fire smoke is the imperfect lesson in the social construction of atmospheres, of illegibility and visibility, and of the mobility of landscapes beyond their points of origin. As wildfire-generated particulates from Australia, California, and Brazil traveled beyond the confines of sovereign and state territories, the vaporous interconnectivity between landscapes became especially inflammatory in asthmatic lungs. The danger of smoke lies not only its carcinogenic particulates but also in that fact that it moves and can affect people far from its point of origin. Even in February 2020, for example, New Zealanders with respiratory issues were advised to remain indoors as the plumes of wildfire smoke from Australia continued to drift into national airspace. Airborne carbon pollution then invites us to think about our spatial interconnectivity, atmospheric citizenship, and global air circulations. In other words, in 2020—as in 2019—we knew smoke through our inhalations of aerosolized landscapes.

Perhaps it is fear that leaves us with such frightening air hunger and ties our lungs with world forests. There’s something tantalizingly familiar, and strangely human, about the idea that a tree is lungful. That forests like the Amazon are embodied like us, by the power of personification, we have a responsibility to the preservation of their perceived humanity (but not necessarily the preservation of the humanity of Indigenous peoples living within them). And this leads me back to Gerrard’s virtual sculptures, Smoke Trees, because on the one hand, I read these works as a commentary on deforestation and forest fires. Notice our focus is directed toward the only smoking tree in the manufactured landscape. The value that I see in Smoke Trees is how it speculates on bad breath, that is, our nightmarish fantasies of carbon and climate change. If forest fires unmake worlds, then the smoking tree in Smoke Trees underscores the persistence of the virtual vegetal materiality despite their literal erasures.

I’m conscious that I am slipping in and out of the cruelty of metaphor. I’m using the image of breath outside of a very human framework than I began in this essay. The anthropomorphism of a rainforest, a tree, and a lake erases the weirdness of other forms of respiration. But at a talk on poetry and plants, hosted by Davy Knittle at the Kelly Writers House on March 31, 2021, poet Evelyn Reilly made a wonderful comment that “Metaphor is how we think.”4The entire discussion can be accessed here: “Plants and Poetics: Panel Discussion,” moderated by Davy Knittle, Kelly Writers House, March 31, 2021, And in this moment of carbon-based respiration, I encourage us to embrace breathing as a metaphor, as a device with which to apprehend the landscapes like Smoke Trees and the Amazon Rainforest that are in full explosion of their emissions. Breathing helps us to think through our exchanges with other carbon-based life forms. To do so means to confront the catastrophe of the bad breath we call climate change that inflames our lungs and demands our action. Because right now, none of us can afford to hold our breath.

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