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5th September 2017

By Isak Stoddard

Deputy Director and Educational Coordinator at CEMUS

CEMUS Diaries – Stories from past, present and future

This post was originally posted as part of a weekly blog series commemorating the CEMUS’ 25th Anniversary, written by present and former students and staff that have been involved in CEMUS reflecting and contemplating about our past and future work.

Centre for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS): CEMUS is a student-led and faculty-supported transdisciplinary centre at Uppsala University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, with the explicit ambition to contribute to a more just and sustainable world.  It offers a wide range of courses within the environment, development and sustainability field, developed through close collaboration between students, course coordinators, teachers, researchers, university administrators and societal actors.

The Oak Tree:
not interested
in Cheery blossoms.
– Matsuo Basho[1]

On a Monday evening in the early fall of 1992, over 200 students gathered in a lecture hall in the Main University Building in Uppsala. They had all signed up and been lucky enough to receive a spot in the first edition of the interdisciplinary course Humanity & Nature [2] at Uppsala University. The course description was not finished in time to make it into the printed course catalogue – and there was of course no internet or digital registration at the time – so a separate flyer had been designed and made available to students that stopped by the registration office. Adriaan Honcoop, a local Uppsala artist, had been commissioned to design a front cover to the flyer, which depicted a woman and a tree, or perhaps more accurately, a tree-woman.

Människan & Naturen 1992


Trees have a played a fundamental role in the mythologies and sense-making of human cultures for a very long time. Here in the north, the Sami people spoke of Saiwa Muora – the holy tree, and the Norse had their Ash Yggdrasil – the tree of life. An in the Celtic isles there were the Druids – also known as the Oak-knowers, or Oak-seers. The tree of knowledge of Christianity and Judaism, the Bodhi Tree in Buddhism. Even in contemporary fantasy literature, trees play an important role, often taking on characteristics of humans or other animals – from Tolkien’s Ents and Rowling’s Whomping willow to the The Weirwood in R.R Martin’s A song of Ice and fire.

In the late 19th and early 20th century the devastating effects of “modern forestry development” and various forms of industrial logging were becoming more and more apparent, and the fields of forest preservation, conservation and management were born. However, it is not until recently that some scientists and foresters are beginning to rediscover the breathtaking complexity and wonder of the life of trees. In his book The Hidden Life of Trees [3], forester and author Peter Wohlleben draws on recent research as well as his own experiences as a forester, to unveil the extraordinary abilities and sentience of trees. Believe it or not, trees seem to communicate with each other in a myriad of ways, have friends and enemies, they do parenting (often quite strict), take care of the elderly and sick, collaborate closely with other species (such as mushrooms), they breathe, and they even have a form of memory. However, trees often perform these activities in a slow and unhuman kind of way which seems to make it easier for us humans not to notice – or ignore while loudly exclaiming that we must be careful not to anthropomorphize, nor stand in the way of progress, of profit or of sustainability [4].

But at times we are struck by a sense of clarity that is impossible to ignore – even though we might later tend to forget it. A few years back I was hiking down from a peak in western Nepal, and as I came back to the tree-line and was making my way quickly down a steep little path, I literally felt my head being pulled up and to the left. I stopped and found myself face-to-face with a knotted old pine tree. It seemed to be saying: Here I Am. Here. I. Am. I stood transfixed for several minutes, not knowing what to do, before pulling my eyes and head back to the ground and slowly and contemplatively making my way down towards the village.

Old Tjikko

Trees can get old. Really old. And the oldest one of them all is a small Spruce tree known as Old Tjikko in Dalarna, Sweden. Using carbon-dating researchers at Umeå University have estimated its age to a bewildering 9950 years [5].

This is a tree, an individual tree that is almost 11 times older than the oldest Western institution of higher learning [6], around 18 times older than Uppsala University and as much as 400 times older than CEMUS.

Universities, like trees, tend to be slow to change and react and there is definitely some sort of analogy to be found between the path-dependency of institutionalized thought (e.g. in the form of academic disciplines) and that of trunks and branches. C.P Snow’s two cultures of the humanities and science [7] might be seen as two great trunks on a tree that decided to go their separate ways, and then splitting again, and again, and again – further and further down reductionism road.

But then, as all metaphors, it probably should be abandoned and recognized for what it is – a metaphor. How are new fields and disciplines born? How is the university renewed? These are question that probably are better answered in other ways.

Forest of Lyngen #2

But what about CEMUS? Is a tree (or tree-woman) still a fitting image for what CEMUS has been over the past 25 years, and hopefully continue to be in the future? Well, I think so.
But a question that remains is if is a smaller tree, shaded by the older trees above, with our students and roots [8] holding CEMUS to the ground, and with branches and leaves reaching for the little sunlight that is let through the canopy [9]. Or is CEMUS rather that unruly quality of life in trees, which might make branches turn in new and unexpected directions, refusing to conform to dominant trajectories set forth by external or internal circumstances?


Whatever CEMUS is, it was what stopped me in my tracks, spin me around and around, until I came to stand still, at least for a moment, and realize I wasn’t lost after all:

“Stand still.
The trees ahead and the bushes beside you Are not lost.
Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still.
The forest knows Where you are.
You must let it find you.” [10]

Note and references:
[1] Matsuo Basho was a Japanese poet who lived 1644-1694.
[2] The course was run in Swedish and was called Människan & Naturen. It is unfortunately no longer offered at CEMUS, but the syllabus can still be found here:
[3] Peter Wohlleben (2016), The hidden life of trees. Greystone Books.
[4] Or your favorite word of choice when facing something you’d rather not discuss to deeply.
[5]Press Release from Umeå University: World’s Oldest living tree discovered in Sweden. April 16, 2018.
[6] The University of Bologna was founded in 1088. The University of al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco was founded already in 859 but is still over 8 times younger than the Old Kjippen.
[7] Snow, C.P. (1959). The two cultures and the scientific revolution. Cambridge University Press.
[8] CEMUS’ student organization actually goes by the name CEMUS Roots.
[9] Around 3% in the average beech forest, and much less for the average interdisciplinary centre for sustainability research and education in the average university (such as Uppsala).
[10] The Poem is called ‘Lost’. It is an old Native American elder story rendered into modern English by David Wagoner, in The Heart Aroused – Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America by David Whyte, Currency Doubleday, New York, 1996.