Imagine the enormous sculpted face of a woman rising up from a field surrounded by woods. Imagine her chest cavity opening to reveal a cavern into which humans can walk.
Then imagine a pair of massive hands joined by intertwining roots, reaching out from the soil in an open embrace.
These are two of the sculptures that make up an astonishing and thought-provoking outdoor exhibit at the Morton Arboretum outside of Chicago. Titled “Human + Nature,” the sculptures — made of concrete, steel and fiberglass — underscore the intimate dance between humans and their natural surroundings.
They are the perfect preparation for the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation coming up September 1.
On the calendars of both the Orthodox Christian and Roman Catholic Churches, this day kicks off the “Season for Creation” — a time of sustained prayer and action for care of our natural surroundings. It lasts until October 4, the Feast Day of one of the most environmentally conscious Catholic saints, Francis of Assisi.
The Morton Arboretum is just a 40-minute drive from downtown Chicago, but a universe away from the noise and dust and congestion of the city. The preserve includes shaded trails, a lake filled with lotus flowers, and just about every tree you can think of from beeches to magnolias, bonsai to crab apples. All of it a magnificent reminder of the astounding diversity of nature.
Daniel Popper is the South African artist responsible for the larger-than-life sculptures of human forms, dispersed across the arboretum’s 1,700 acres. Popper said he wanted to show the symbiotic relationship between humans and trees.
“People rely on trees for clean air to breathe, shade to cool and beauty that can bring joy and relaxation,” the Arboretum’s description of the exhibit says. “In turn, trees need people to care for them if they are to thrive and share their benefits.”
Popper underscores this intimacy in his sculpture titled “Heartwood.” It includes a split human face, reminiscent of the two faces of the Greek god Janus, only Popper’s model resembles an African princess. What’s interesting is that the inside of one of the profiles appears to consist of the whirls of a human fingerprint; the other side resembles the age rings of a tree.
What’s also so intriguing about these depictions of humans is that despite their massive size, real human beings appear miniscule standing alongside them. I couldn’t help thinking of how relatively few we humans are, compared to, say, the number of insects that exist (900,000 different species). Still we humans account for an oversized footprint on the planet, much of it negative.
This lovely prayer for creation from the Ojibway of Canada was sent to me by my friend, Benedictine Sister Jennifer Halling:
O Great Spirit, look at our brokenness.
We know that in all creation,
only the human family has strayed
from the Sacred Way.
We know that we are the ones
who are divided and we are the ones
who must come back together
to walk in the Sacred Way.
O Great Spirit, Sacred One, teach us love,
compassion and honor; that we may heal
the earth and heal each other.
As summer ends and “The Season for Creation” begins, can we commit to do one act each day that will benefit our common home, the earth? Maybe it’s taking our groceries home in reusable sacks instead of the supermarket’s plastic bags. Perhaps it’s using less water; turning off the air conditioner and opening the windows; walking to the store instead of driving; fixing that drippy faucet.
Maybe, if we are really ambitious, we can find a spot to plant a tree.
(Find more information on “Human + Nature” at www.mortonarb.org)