From the publisher: “from a master of the wordless form comes an epic reimagining of human civilisation. This time-lapse is a meditation on the relationship between two mighty forces: nature and humankind”.
Wordless picture book, The Tree and the River by Aaron Becker follows the human impact and impermanence of an area of land throughout the ages, as human progress does not follow sustainable practices, conflicts occur, technology advances, weather events descend and the resultant impact on a very specific area of land, with a tree that contains life through it all.
This book begins (the actual starting point of this story is interesting because after you read the story in its entirety, the copyright page has context and the dead tree and evidence of a former civilisation in the distance provides clues, they foreshadow what is to come). Nonetheless, at the beginning there is land with a flowing river as a water source. By the river is a thriving tree, occupying prime position as it is not competing with any other trees for nutrients. It is here that people begin to settle. They cut down some trees to use them construct their homes. Soon more people populate the area, multiplying the homes and what appears to be a mill where the river is used for its power. As time progresses, two populations reside on either side of the river, one group of people clothed in red, with red hats, on one side of the river and the blue clothed and hatted people on the other. More buildings and structures emerge with defence elements evident (walls constructed along the river and lookout towers). A possible conflict occurs, the river shrinks and resources are being depleted. The area becomes dilapidated; some of the structures appear to be in disrepair, the population and town shrink. The skies become grey and smoke filled as the land is industrialised. The river, which no longer runs its natural course and tree, which is now one of the last remaining, are in ill health and a sense of gloom prevails.
A modern scene follows, development seems to be expanding into the background mountains, the level of pollution has decreased and vegetative life seems to be improving. A futuristic city then comes to life, larger, compared to the previous modern town with remarkably less green space areas. The tree is in a state of decay unable to draw the nutrients it needs to sustain itself due to the massive urban sprawl that has taken up around it. The river is almost non-existent.
As time progresses, some kind of disaster affects the city as most of the city is under water and the population is now residing on boats. The tree is submerged and appears to be close to death. The next double page spread shows a deserted wasteland, however, the tree, while close to death has a small section of new growth. The river appears to have returned to its original state. New seeds appear on the leafy branch suggesting new life, hope and survival. What then follows is a precursor to the copyright page in the book.
This wordless format means the reader can construct their own meaning, they have agency to create a story for the purpose of the structures which are never explicitly identified, the cause of conflict, who the people are (the figures don’t have any facial features or any context to identify anything about their story), account for the actions of the tiny people represented – what are they doing and why, the central messages and so on.
Each time I revisit this book I spot a new detail, a new clue, piece of the puzzle to this multilayered story. There is so much to unpack on each double page spread. Throughout this story, despite the actions of the humans, nature persists and with new life, comes hope.