The Daily Heller: Meditation on a Banyan Tree and More

  • by

A Seed Takes Root: A True Story, by artist and designer Michele Oka Doner, documents a decades-long relationship between the author and a banyan tree that began when she was a young girl. It is also a meditation on the passage of time. The lyrical text is paired with evocative original artwork, some including mementos from the tree itself. It was Oka Doner’s place for play, for refuge, and also a source of inspiration.

Ultimately, A Seed Takes Root is also an environmental statement. Oka Doner’s tree is in the process of being designated a City of Miami Beach heritage tree, and in 2021 she was officially proclaimed guardian of the 95-year-old banyan in a mayoral proclamation that states, “Oka Doner calls on all of us to be lovers of the environment, not its masters.”

Oka Doner is a sculptor, printmaker, furniture and jewelry artisan who also works in video, costume and set design. Her work is often inspired by the natural world, and she is known for permanent art installations, including Flight at Reagan International Airport, Radiant Site at the Herald Square 34th Street Subway Station, and A Walk on the Beach, the mile-and-a-quarter-long bronze terrazzo concourse at Miami International Airport.

Here, she talks about her decidedly spiritual relationship.

This is such a soothing book. Not just the wistful and poetic words, but the expressive abstract brushmarks give an overall sense of comfort. And still, I was waiting, as I ‘m wont to do, for something bad to befall the banyan tree. That was a total misreading, but was there any of that foreboding for you?
Steve, when I grew up there were many stories that opened up the world to children. The past 50 years things have darkened, a spiritual and psychological ombre now dominates the screens children watch. A Seed Takes Root has intention, as you suspect. I’m sharing the sense of wonder that I experienced as a child who could climb up a tree and enter a new world.

What inspired you to make this book at this time in your life and career?
The banyan tree has stayed with me for a lifetime. I visit the tree on a regular basis and have shared it with my children and grandchildren. Recently, I asked the mayor of Miami Beach to allow the tree to grow wild, to nourish itself from its own composting leaves as nature intended, without chemical interference. His response was so lovely. He declared the tree my sister and anointed me Guardian of the Great Miami Beach Banyan Tree. It is truly magnificent and deserves its 100th birthday celebration coming up in 2026.

The mayor also asked if I could write a book about the banyan tree, and I surprised him with press proofs a year later.

I’m tempted to ask if the current climate catastrophes had something to do with it.
My initial interest was the fact that trees have been unseen, their shade and shelter, fruits and flowering branches taken for granted, literally part of the greater landscape. My attempt to address the issue of seeing, bringing the joys of sharing time and place with the trees around us, was the primary motivator. Since climate change has been accelerating these thoughts have crystalized into a larger purpose: We cannot love what we don’t see.

How long has this project been gestating?
A lifetime. Now that I’m looking back at what has been important in my life, I realize the experience of intimacy with a living thing, the continuity provided by this splendid tree, the grace of the leafy dome under which I could discover my own voice in a silence unlike any other, was a gift. And like all great gifts, it is meant to be shared.

In addition to what you’ve mentioned, does the tree also represent a memory from youth that gives you joy when the world is in such flux?
Back to the word shelter. The world has always been in flux. Trees have provided humanity with shelter and a sense of something sacred since our beginnings in a dim, unseen place. The Garden of Eden? One of my favorite songs from childhood was about a tree, “The Ash Grove.” Years ago I found a recording by Peter Pears accompanied by Benjamin Britten. I think this is one of the reasons I have saved my vinyls!

The part about your costume as Eve, fashioned from the tree’s leaves, is serene and satisfying. How significant a memory is this for you?
I think it was a coming-of-age moment. Or, as they express it today, agency. I found my own dress in my imagination and made it with my own hands.

What would you like your audience to garner from this book (or gift, if you will)?
We are custodians of all living things on this earth. 

What is next on your horizon?
A solo exhibition at The Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, The True Story of Eve, which presents a range of my works—on paper, ceramics, bronzes, wood, glass—from the 1960s to now, united in that they are inspired by nature and comment on our ecosystem in its strength and fragility. That show opens Nov. 18.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.