A Tree Cathedral

A parable of rootedness and growth.

There was a sign on the window stating the cathedral was closed that morning for trimming, but the man sold us tickets anyway. There would still be plenty to see, he said. Just follow the path and enjoy. 

Our friends’ children ran on ahead. They’d been here before and knew the best places, and my children followed hot on their heels, trying to keep up. Six kids and a whole forest to explore.

These old friends had moved recently to the north of Italy, which gave us an excellent excuse to visit. Over the week our families were together, we swam in Alpine lakes and in the Adriatic, climbed mountains, visited cheesemakers, ate gelato at every single possible opportunity and made buckets full of memories. It was a pretty perfect summer vacation. 

Perhaps a highlight was our visit to Arte Sella, an open-air museum where art grows from the forest floor. Featuring locally-found natural – and even living – materials, the artworks grow and change with the seasons: wood weathers, meadow hollows fill with wildflowers, puddles form and offer reflections, a newspaper bridge melts back into the forest floor. In the words of an early manifesto for the park: “The works come out of the landscape, they inhabit it and, according to nature’s time scale, they return to it again.” Just like the rest of us, of course, and in this museum that natural change was beautifully celebrated.

The day we visited the weather was warm, but a few trees on the hills were beginning to show the first of their fall colours. The children ran on ahead of us down the path and disappeared into a pebble. 

Coming close, I could see the pebble’s sides were made of bent wood, and a round opening offered a dark, inviting place for those visitors small enough to climb inside. I leaned in to look and found the wood around the opening had been smoothed by the touch of hands the way playground posts are or the wood of pews. 

One of the most popular artworks in the park is the Tree Cathedral. Designed by Giuliano Mauri and planted in 2002, it is made of 80 eight-metre-tall timber frame columns, each housing a hornbeam tree which grows half a metre each year. The reaching branches curve towards each other, creating the effect of a leafy Gothic nave, planted in an open grassy meadow. Throughout the seasons, the colours shift, and so the cathedral is always changing and growing.

But not all change is slow or beautiful. Change can be violent and sudden, too. Last November, a severe storm passed through the area, destroying many of the pieces at Arte Sella and shattering wide swathes of forest on the surrounding hills. As we walked through the forest together, we could see that some pieces had been removed and others were roped off. 

We could hear the work before we could see the cathedral. The sound of machines: chainsaws, hedge clippers, maybe. Coming out through the trees, I saw the glint of a ladder propped up against a timber frame and then a little further on, a bright yellow cherry-picker stretching high into the greenery. Workers in hardhats cut lush branches and tossed them down to the ground to be collected. The light changed and straight, strong branches were given space to stretch and arch. From where I stood behind the safety ropes, I couldn’t tell if the trimming was focused on growth or storm damage. I was too far away to see clearly, but still I stood and watched the work and the shifting balance of green shade and light. 

It felt like watching a parable. And like a parable, there wasn’t only one meaning. I saw care and the effect of time and change. Nurture and chance and light.  Rootedness, of course, and the shift of growth and reach, and between all that, there was also a kind of green and growing faithfulness that takes time to understand. 


  • Katie is an Ottawa writer living in Cardiff with her spouse and three growing children. You can also find Katie on Twitter @messy_table.

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