The Human Stories in HBO’s “Trees and Other Entanglements”

The Human Stories in HBO’s “Trees and Other Entanglements”

I’m happy to tip readers off to a terrific documentary about people with extraordinary connections to trees, premiering on HBO and streaming on Max starting Tuesday December 12. All of which I know because HBO’s smart marketing people reached out to the garden media (me and I’m sure others) with the offer of a preview screening and an interview with the director – a real treat for me!

“Trees and Other Entanglements” is described as a “lyrical and haunting exploration of humankind’s deep connection to trees, the natural world and to one another.”  It’s not good guys v. bad guys; these humans are multi-dimensional, and the director’s eye isn’t a judgmental one. No dire warnings, either.

Watch the trailer here.

Clockwise from upper left: George Weyerhaeuser at 9; parents of author Carolyn Finney; Dirk Brinkman; and the son of bonsai artist Ryan Neil.

Its focus is on humans, including:

  • Dirk Brinkman, who’s devoted his life to planting trees on Vancouver Island in the wake of clear-cutting. The director considers him a “hero of our modern age.”
  • The surprising story of lumber baron George Weyerhaeuser Sr., who was kidnapped as a child and went on to build a bonsai collection and a market for the works of bonsai artists.
  • Ryan Neil, an American bonsai artist I blogged about in 2022, and this update to his story is a shocker! No spoiler here – just watch.
  • Author Carolyn Finney, who grew up on a grand 12-acre estate managed by her father. (“It was like having our own park.”) Years later she’s still angry about the destruction of a beloved cherry tree there after her father’s retirement.  (Unlike seasoned gardeners like me, who out of necessity become accustomed to losing plants.)
  • Photographer Beth Moon, who travels to the remotest places on Earth to photograph the most remarkable trees. Her story includes very cool footage of the platinum printing process, producing prints that last forever. (Shown in this video.)
  • The Furuzawa family, whose bonsai collection was sold off when they were interned during World War II.
  • Filmmaker Irene Taylor herself appears in the film, removing English ivy that’s choking old trees in her Portland, Oregon neighborhood. The vine’s “entanglements” are a metaphor for the invasive grip of her father’s Alzheimer’s.

Zooming with Director Irene Taylor

My pre-interview research unearthed Taylor’s many awards (Peabody, Emmy, etc) and nominations (Oscar) and her 10 previous feature-length documentaries for HBO, including some that I’d seen and admired (“Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements,” “Beware the Slenderman” and “Leave No Trace” about the Boy Scouts).

Digging deeper, I discovered her degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and early work in Kathmandu, Nepal as a Himalayan Mountain guide, followed by years as a producer for “CBS Sunday Morning.”

All of which left me wanting to pick her brain for hours, but ready to make the most of my allotted 20 minutes – and grateful to the HBO publicity team for knowing that gardenblog readers are treehuggers likely to appreciate such a beautiful and thoughtful film.

Here are some highlights our chat:

Taylor is a “big gardener and outdoor person,” and thinks GardenRant readers appreciate the passage of time and the seasons. 

The idea for this film was suggested by the HBO documentary team, who’d been inspired by a Richard Powers novel about human connections to the natural world. While The Overstory follows characters with connections to trees, Irene’s reaction was “We can find real people. Real people are more interesting than fictional characters.” Indeed!

Thus began her year-and-a-half search for interesting people and the trees they love, a search that included several she couldn’t include because of covid restrictions on travel. One such person is the Brazilian scientist fighting the poaching of trees with the mounting of AI-connected microphones that detect the sound of chain saws and bulldozers.  Other stories in Italy, France and the Mediterranean had to be scrapped. (Maybe we’ll see them in a “Trees 2.”)

Bonsai master Ryan Neil, whom she calls the “poet philosopher of the film,” lives just 30 minutes from her. I’m jealous! I also learned he has a podcast, which I subscribed to immediately. Taylor thinks he’d be up a GardenRant interview, so stay tuned.

Taylor was “blown away” by the American history she learned in her research about the Weyerhauser Company, especially the pioneer’s well-established hatred toward trees.

And on the subject of English ivy, a scourge that so many of us see around us, she “was motivated to remove the ivy from my trees out of empathy for them.  I couldn’t save my dad but I could save the trees.” She noticed a neighbor, also a gardener, doing the same thing in the publicly owned woods nearby.  “Forest gnomes” is her term for people who work in public spaces to save trees not being cared for by the city.

Btw, winter is the perfect time to remove such harmful entanglements from the trees near you –  here’s how and why. You too could be a forest gnome!

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