A Swarm of Trees: “Till the Wood of Birnam Rise”

The folks at Photo 101 are forcing me to get creative with my camera. Photograph a “swarm” in late November? An old poem about swarming mentions only the months of May, June, and July:

A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay;

A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;

A swarm of bees in July isn’t worth a fly.

I might add, “A swarm of trees in November is worth a photo.” Looking along the Blue Ridge Parkway for “something that overruns your scene,” I was forcibly struck by the bare trees seeming to march towards me, line upon line of bark-clad soldiers with outstretched arms.

Encroaching trees (Coolpix L320)

Parkway trees prepare for attack! (Coolpix L320)

Parkway trees prepare for attack! (Coolpix L320)

Was it looking through the narrowed view of my camera that made the trees appear to move? Trees without leaves seem threatening, somehow — although trees with leaves can be hostile, like the apple trees in The Wizard of Oz. But bare-branched trees, thronged against the sky, create an eerie effect:

Trees on the Blue Ridge Parkway

After I posted this photo, my brother made it into avideo of swarming trees for a joke — I think it was a joke? While not high quality, the video is unnerving. (Panasonic Lumix)

As I sought “swarming” trees to photograph, I began to think about literary examples of trees that moved. The most famous instance of moving trees occurs in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The witches hint that a moving forest will precede Macbeth’s defeat: “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him” (4.1.91-93).

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Panasonic Lumix photo, edited in PicMonkey

Confidently, Macbeth asserts:

That will never be:

Who can impress the forest, bid the tree

Unfix his earthbound root? Sweet bodements, good.

Rebellious dead, rise never till the wood

Of Birnam rise, and our high-plac’d Macbeth

Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath

To time and mortal custom. (4.1.93-99)

Macbeth’s arrogant optimism is ill-founded. In Act 5, soldiers camouflage themselves with tree branches cut from Birnam Wood as they march on Dunsinane Hill, creating the illusion of “a moving grove” (5.5.37). The “forest” that advances on Dunsinane is, in reality, an army of men who overwhelm the castle and force Macbeth’s downfall at the hands of Macduff.

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Treebeard leads an enormous army of bonafide trees to the Battle of the Hornburg. This time, the trees can walk — vengeful Ents and Huorns, who uproot themselves to aid the desperate men of Rohan at Helm’s Deep:

The land had changed. Where before the green dale had lain, its grassy slopes lapping the ever-mounting hills, there now a forest loomed. Great trees, bare and silent, stood, rank on rank, with tangled bough and hoary head; their twisted roots were buried in the long green grass. Darkness was under them. (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers)

Haw Creek Valley Overlook (Panasonic Lumix)

Aroused, Tolkien’s Ents and Huorns decimate the terrified Orcs at Helm’s Deep. The next morning, the mysterious forest of Huorns has vanished, leaving instead an enormous mound of dead Orcs.

A moving forest does not have to be fantastical to cause destruction. In Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children,  trees suddenly begin swarming down a rural hillside toward the railroad tracks. Had it not been for the quick thinking of Bobbie, Peter, and Phyllis, the landslide might have caused a tragic railway accident:

And, as Peter pointed, the tree was moving — not just the way trees ought to move when the wind blows through them, but all in one piece, as though it were a live creature and were walking down the side of the cutting.

“It’s moving!” cried Bobbie. “Oh, look! and so are the others. It’s like the woods in Macbeth.”

“It’s magic,” said Phyllis, breathlessly. “I always knew the railroad was enchanted.”

It really did seem a little like magic. For all the trees for about twenty yards of the opposite bank seemed to be walking slowly down towards the railway line, the tree with the gray leaves bringing up the rear like some old shepherd driving a flock of green sheep. (Edith Nesbit, The Railway Children)

P1070328

Panasonic Lumix photo

In western North Carolina, incidents of trees that suddenly begin to move are rare, although there are occasional rock slides along I-40 heading west. While I am being fanciful with the idea of trees that swarm, landslides and mudslides are a real danger in mountainside communities not far from my home. An actual swarm of trees, caused by erosion or earthquake, would be terrifying.

I have made much of the oppressive character of bare trees on a bleak day, but I like to walk in the woods in late fall and winter. Stripped of leaves, the hardwood trees reveal their clean lines and rough texture. Depending on the time of day and the light, row upon row of leafless trees can create a soothing effect. This cluster of trees suggests not a restless swarm but a graceful gathering of grey-clad Quakers.

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Panasonic Lumix


Photos taken November 2014 by Sandra Fleming with a Nikon Coolpix L320 and  a Panasonic Lumix. Text and photos copyrighted by Sandra Fleming © 2014.

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40 thoughts on “A Swarm of Trees: “Till the Wood of Birnam Rise”

  1. I love the idea of swarming trees. I adore forests and I’m fascinated by their symbolism as places of danger but also of self-discovery. Swarming trees fits with this perfectly. I like the final shot best. The light through the trunks gives it a lovely warm glow. The twisty one at the front is also quite intriguing…

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    • Thanks for reading (and thank you for the follow). I like the way you describe forests — as places of danger but also of self-discovery. One definitely needs to exercise caution when going into the woods, but the forest can offer a much-needed place to escape from the stresses of life.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A swarm of trees sounds exceedingly ominous. I have always had an affinity for trees, but there is something creepy about a grove of bare trees in a darkened forest. I wonder what Joyce Kilmer would have to say about your swarm of attacking trees?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree: later, I thought about how forests figured as a menace in fairy tales like “Hansel and Gretel” or in Snow White’s escape from the evil queen (although I might be mixing Disney’s version in).

      Excellent question about Joyce Kilmer! I feel a bit of a fraud, b/c I have only ever read his poem “Trees.” I’d have to read more Kilmer to know if he saw the dark side of nature.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Previous to my Joyce Kilmer question I was about to state how your story reminded me of the many scary forests in fairy tales, Hansel and Gretel and Snow White included. In the original versions of both of those stories, the menacing trees provide terror for both the children and a young, helpless Snow White. What a vast subject tree swarms are turning out to be!

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  3. Your pictures have such heart and depth to them, making my eye want to linger for a second longer lest I might miss something hidden in a tree or beyond a mountain range? Wonderfully written words to storyboard them as well. So glad I stopped by to discover you! Truly beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! It was a different way to look at trees: of course they are living, but they come to life in fiction. A friend pointed out that I forgot about the trees who dance with Lucy in Narnia.

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  4. Man, aren’t you having one adventure after another. Oh my. I don’t know what I would have done.
    Loved your brothers video.
    If you take your hiatus, I’ll see ya after Thanksgiving. Have a good one!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, cleaning, cooking, and laundry can no longer be avoided — not with my three oldest kids coming home for Thanksgiving with dirty clothes (I assume they’ll have dirty clothes). Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, April!

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  5. Pingback: Gallery of Brown and Gold | What oft was thought

    • Thank you, Teresa. With the two middle photos, with the valley below, there was way too much sunlight at the time I was taking the pictures — but what can you do? Edit later and try to compensate!

      Liked by 1 person

        • My son has a DSLR camera that we bought him for a project. Now it is sitting in the basement. I have thought about using it, but: a) I need a new computer, and I was worried about how much memory would be used up; b) I felt like a new camera would just complicate matters. I am fairly happy with the Lumix, but, in the spring, I might just “borrow” my son’s camera.

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        • I encourage you to use it. Don’t worry about the storage space and you won’t need to change pc. Just get a thumb drive card reader and you slot the SD card into the pc to upload your photos 🙂

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  6. Great post, and I really enjoyed the photos! You’re so right, there is something eerie about bare trees against the sky. The second photo here is pretty, yet reminds me of a scary dream I used to have as a kid; in it, I’d be marveling at the trees outside when I’d see someone moving from tree to tree, hiding behind each trunk as they approached. I thought I found that image eerie from that recurring dream, so I was surprised when you said the same here! 🙂

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    • Thanks, Dan: I had more fun writing about the pictures than taking them, to tell you the truth. Photo 101 is starting to make me too worried about pictures, if you know what I mean: “am I doing it right”? I agree: few things are lovelier than a bare tree against a beautiful sky.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There’s two ways to look at “am I doing it right?” One is tied to the fact that you’re trying to complete an assignment. The second way is more important – do you like the photo? I have enjoyed all the photos that you’ve shared. I also understand what you mean about writing about them. I think I enjoy that more too.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Good point: if I weren’t trying to learn from the assignment, I wouldn’t care about trying to take a certain approach. My respect for professional photographers has gone up, as a result of this course.

          For me, 1,000 words might be easier than a picture that tells the story 🙂

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    • Thank you. My daughter also liked that shot best: I took it on the way home the other day — I pulled over to the side of the Parkway, only to discover that an amorous couple under a blanket had also pulled over. I think they were glad when I left!

      Liked by 1 person

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