Editor’s Note: This post is the fourth post of the Digital Natural History series edited by Nick Koenig and Heather Rogers.
The Arbre de la Liberté was one of the iconic images of the French Revolution. From its central place in festivals, to its local community selection and planting, to its dramatic counter-revolution excavation, it was a deeply resonant node of Revolutionary concern and debate. Developing from the celebratory May Pole of the early revolution to the community selected and cultivated Arbre de la Liberté of the mid to late 1790s, it gathered revolutionaries around itself as they gave and received oaths, made speeches, shared banquets, and welcomed deputations.1
However, produced through the violence of naming the living tree, the Arbre de la Liberté has been solely considered as an inert symbol, with little appreciation of its vibrancy as a living being.
Being viewed as an inert symbol has led to vibrant trees being archivally silenced and hence requires one, to quote Ann Laura Stoler, to ‘read against the grain’. What Stoler meant by this is that archives, despite seemingly ordered and intelligible, are piecemeal productions, with gaps and holes where those who were contemporaneously not valued, can sometimes be heard.
Trees were one such archival silence, and push me to ask, by “read[ing] against the grain”2 how can I begin to hear their faint rustlings? To begin one must understand how the violence of the named-Arbre is presenced archivally. To do this, I took the keyword ‘Arbre de la Liberté’3 and inserted it into the digital search engines of both the archives I used for this project: the Archives nationales de France (AN)4 and the Archives départementales du Calvados (ADC).5
Trees were one such archival silence, and push me to ask, by “read[ing] against the grain” how can I begin to hear their faint rustlings?
There were 163 “hits” in the AN, and 34 in the ADC. Yet, every historian knows the feeling of leaving archives, slightly overwhelmed with the sheer volume of photos of documents bloating their cameras and phones, which leads to the question: how can I hold these documents, set out through the keyword search, in some form of analytic coherence?
I would propose using a methodological bricolage to do so. The notion of ‘bricolage’, the act of creatively repurposing heterogeneous materials separate from their originally intended use, should inform more of how historians approach their source material.6 Yet, what I want to stress here are the various ‘scales’ which can be held together: both the quantitative and the qualitative; it is in the entanglements of these multiple scales that both productive and unpredictable conclusions can arise, as well as allowing the silenced tree to enunciate itself outside its structural silencing.
At the quantitative scale, one can use GIS methodologies to re/present the “hits” outside of their abstract archival numberings, spatio-temporally mapping the incidents when the named-Arbre becomes archivally resonant.
On the other hand, using qualitative methods in conjunction with the quantitative enables one to prise apart the violently made-symbol of the named-Arbre from the living breathing, vibrant tree which revolutionary linguistic and symbolic layerings have effaced, obfuscated, and asphyxiated.
The archival “hits” can be broken down into two categories: ceremonial plantings and counter-revolutionary attacks. It is in close reading that during both these types of events, the living trees exerted themselves on revolutionaries, collaborating in their quotidian lived experiences.Through ceremonial plantings, revolutionaries gathered with their named-Arbre in important moments of clarification as they looked to stabilise and regenerate the Revolution. These ceremonies began days earlier when a local tree was chosen, and a group of locals would leave the commune to uproot it and bring it back to the local place publique to be planted. This gathering of tree and community would be achieved through sensory imbrication as revolutionaries intimately touched it. In Leseur’s gouache,‘Plantation d’un arbre de la Liberté’, the man at the bottom carefully places the roots into their allotted space, guiding them into the soil whilst his fellow citizens have their hands placed all the way up the trunk. Once planted, the tree was meant to protect the local community: at Bourgoin-Jallieu (Isère), 28 February 1794, deputations held banners reading ‘sous son ombre hospitalière / ma guerrier viens chercher un abri’.7
However, the importance of these trees made them targets for potential counter-revolution attacks. Local communes had to report these attacks, and through these reports, one can begin to hear the silenced trees. For, in almost all cases, administrators felt the need to render the attack comprehensible through description. This led to vocabularies of assault – verbs which render the attack comprehensible: ‘coupé’, ‘scié’, ‘rompu’, ‘abattu’, ‘mutilé’.8 It would be too far to claim that each of these words corresponded to different types of assault; often multiple verbs were used to describe the same attack. However, several words indicate the tree was much smaller, hinting at their being saplings which could be ripped out by hand: ‘deraciné’, ‘enlevé’, ‘renversé’, ‘tordu’, ‘arraché’.9
Hence, the silenced tree can begin to be heard at the interstices of its structural silencing, and it is through a bricolage effect whereby dis/reassembling archives through quantitative methodologies can open the possibilities to hear this. By using the keyword ‘Arbre de la Liberté’, I recognise that the tree will always-already be constrained by this anthropocentric violence of naming. Yet, it allows me to begin to understand both how this violence was contemporaneously enacted, how it continues to order the archives of the AN and ADC today, and then to begin to ‘read against the grain’ to hear the minute rustlings of beings which were never quite settled in revolutionary’s onto-epistemologies.