As founders of a unique tree shaping method called Pooktre, Australia-based Becky Northey and Peter “Pook” Cook have gained international acclaim for their distinctive art. In 1987, Peter Cook had a thought: "I wonder if I can grow a chair?" And that’s how it all began. Not only did Peter and Becky grow a living garden chair, but they went on to create many other inventive and fantastic designs as they honed their skills in Pooktre. We recently had the pleasure of talking with Becky and Peter about their background, work and methodology. Read on for an exciting look at some of their projects!
INHABITAT: What obstacles did you face in figuring out your design process, and what methods did you try before arriving at Pooktre?
POOKTRE: There are many trees in our valley that have taught us much about tree lore—the reactions and responses that trees have to external forces. The lessons they teach are by example, incorporating their reactions into the design, making the tree’s response a feature of the final outcome. “If I do this, the tree will do that.” Understanding a tree’s behavior makes designing far more diverse.
Our crucial discovery was the shaping zone. The shaping zone is an area of a tree that can be guided into any shape without damaging the tree. We also learned how trees can produce muscle wood to reinforce or change the orientation of their trunks and limbs, especially when they grow along waterways. Trees that grow along rivers are pushed over in floods and have the ability to stand back up, making them less fitting for shaping, especially willow trees.
For example, we were growing chairs a lot like this one. We thought growing the trees in a loop around itself would work as a way to create a junction, but five years on we started to have doubts. We harvested one of the chairs but left the other one growing. This was fortunate, since after another five years, we found that it does work and looks beautiful too. So we are always refining our process. In general though, the process is very straightforward and we can design a piece and know exactly how it will turn out or someone can show us a design and we can tell them its future.
INHABITAT: What kind of reactions do you get when people see your trees for the first time?
POOKTRE: Very few people have seen our trees here in our forest. However when our work was shown in Japan a man danced with delight in front of a people tree.
INHABITAT: You write that your book “Knowledge to Grow Shaped Trees” is your contribution to the green revolution. Can you speak to Pooktre’s contribution to the green revolution?
POOKTRE: Instead of cutting trees down to make structures, living trees can be shaped and incorporated into the city, bringing life, fresh air and beauty for hundreds of years with very low maintenance. Many things can be grown from trees that are now made from metal, plastic and wood. If we are to survive as a species we need to work together with other living beings of the planet and not just use and abuse them for short term gain. We have to plant for the long term.
INHABITAT: Does Pooktre affect tree health?
POOKTRE: No, we just choreograph what trees are already doing in the forest by themselves. The Pooktre process works with the trees, and their growth remains strong because nothing is forced or damaged. Small designs can be shaped in one growing season. Bigger designs like chairs may take two or three years to take form, then four or six years before they are ready to sit in. We believe the photos of our trees show that they are healthy with vigorous growth.
We mainly use wild plum trees, but we have also used plain trees, black cherry, crape myrtle and redbud. Every tree that we have examined has a shaping zone. The shaping zone varies in length depending on the intensity of the bend, and is located just behind the growing tip where the new cells mature. The growing tip is in a state of flux as to the orientation of its final position, similar to a vine.
The hallmark of a successfully shaped tree is even, balanced and vigorous growth.
INHABITAT: How do you respond to people who say call this an “offense to nature” or “tree torture?”
POOKTRE: They misunderstand what we do and other ways people use vegetation, such as eating lettuce. One of the main differences between lettuce and tress is the length of time the plant takes to mature. Both are living beings.
When you are working in the shaping zone you don’t damage the tree. Damage occurs when a tree or branch is bent beyond its normal flexing range. We never do that.
The shaping zone is a small area on the branch just behind the growing tip. This part is fluid, vine-like and where the final form of trees is determined. Even the hardest trees have a shaping zone.
INHABITAT: What is the difference between Pooktre and other forms of tree shaping?
POOKTRE: The Pooktre process is a gradual shaping as the tree grows. We start with a seed/seedling or cuttings aprox 3-30 cm tall. We work in the shaping zone, and this method requires day-to-day or weekly attention.
At the other end of the scale there is the instant arborsculpture method, which is basically pleaching (weaving). With this instant method of shaping, trees two meters or longer are bent into shape and then held in place until new growth is formed. The new growth acts somewhat like a cast.
Let’s say we wanted to shape a braid using the Pooktre process. The growth pathways and framing would be put in place first, creating a braided shape which is used to guide the new growth to create a natural braid.
INHABITAT: What advice would you give to people who are starting out in tree shaping?
POOKTRE: Don’t be tempted by the short cut of the arborsculpture method, it can cause dieback and years of grief with slow damaged growth or stunted growth. Unfortunately the results can take up two years or more to show, because of the nature of trees’ growth patterns.
Shaping trees is no harder then cooking, making a dress, or building a book case if you are following a repeatable process with predictable results. Since the publication of our book, Knowledge to Grow Shaped Trees, we have been contacted by many people around the world now starting to grow and train shaped trees from our knowledge.
We are standing on the edge of a massive new field it is amazing what can be done with trees. Once people realize just how easy this is, trees will be integrated into cities in a way never before thought possible and will change the way we interact with nature.
Alex Levin is a Brooklyn-based writer who covers topics related to sustainable design and technology. For information on responsible tree care, check out the SherrillTree Learning Center.