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Consider The Burl

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

Burl is the result of loss of orderly impulse in the tree, so that the grain is a tangle.

- Wallace Nutting

Likely the result of a stress-induced tree virus, burls grow on tree roots, trunks, and branches…Our modern sensibility uses terms such as “tumor” and “cancer” to describe these growths, but the Woodland tribes viewed them differently…

- Gregory LeFever

Whan the bode is made thynne, soo folowyth consumpcyon and wastyng.

- John of Trevisa

Ash Burl carving of a Native American. Circa 1880-1920 Courtesy of Steven S. Powers

O C T A V I A Butler’s Dawn, the first in her Xenogenisis series (1987) tells of alien entities known as Oankali who save humanity in part, to harvest biological traits that are useful to their species. Specifically, they have their eyes on cancer. The Oankali admire humankind for their ability to possess the “talent” for cultivating cancer, because it is intractable, capricious, mercurial and not least, pathological.

Only a truly alien intelligence might see beyond human conception and our vexing reasons to demonize tumorous growths and biological processes that result in the loss of orderly impulse. All of our bodies have gone through some chaotic burl-like transformation. Let us examine how trees deal with these growths outside of the human body so that we might expand our ability to continue to grow despite the stresses and indignities of life.

Trunk burl on Jacaranda, Los Angeles, California.

Quite a question we’ve taken up! Before we go there, I want to invite you to step outside and take a walk in the forest with me

You may notice in your life, as I do in mine, that walking and talking amongst the trees is a practice capable of recasting all manners of problems

Its almost as if tree groves and toadstools amplify alternate perspectives that help us see these problems in more, lively dimensions

What d’ya say?

Right, have ya got your boots on?

Good. Let’s take this path beyond the scraggle that goes deep into the Sequoias

Isn’t is curious how often we use tumors as metaphor? Susan Sontag wrote a whole book on the subject of cancer and AIDS. She sought to unhinge the relationship between the experience of having and illness and the stories we tell about it.

Our conversations around tumors, moles and cysts are often muted and reveal a culture who is in desperate need for new metaphors around the body and the inevitable changes it goes through during a lifetime.

Mushroom Sculpture from Junpier burl

…watch your step there, you almost stepped on a chanterelle! …let’s ask the trees about honesty.

Ok, now we are out past Satre’s feared “vegetation belt”

Just stop for a second… peer way up to the sky, and notice how as we get deeper in, the trees get taller and increasingly formidable

We are in their land now

Doesn’t it feel like these trees are happier than the ones in front of your house in the city, nudging the sidewalk and concrete into different angles like a bark-shrouded atlas?

Contemplate all those trees in the city, especially the ones lining the streets. Most are not native, and many don’t seem to be getting the right nutrients. A sizable amount have odd, bulbous growths on the trunk, on their branches, and in their roots.

Do you think these trees might be anxious living amongst the smog, and noise?

Those bulbs are called burls and are the effect and symptom of stress on a tree. As in humans, there are many sources of stress; famine, drought, bacteria, mold and insect invasion, to name a few. The tree reacts by growing tissue into a labyrinthine puzzle. Depending on the kind of stress, the burl can manifest in many different typologies and sizes.

Still, think back to your neighborhood walks… have you ever seen a root stump that just refuses to die? There’s one in my neighborhood, I think she is a Jacaranda. Anyhow, she was cut down long before I arrived in the neighborhood. Her stump is about 5 feet around and despite this attempted murder, she grows stalks out of what seems like dry, dead tissue.

Holy resurrection in plain view of the KFC drive thru

This happens because what seems like a tumor on the tree, caused by innumerable sources of stress and violence, is actually a sapling.

Some burls are unsprouted bud tissue. They are insurance policies against the ravages of indifferent and sometimes hostile environments. If the tree succumbs, the burl is there to plant itself as a clone, or extension of the original tree.

Because after all, that's how forests are made

Here, let’s take this trail, there's something I want to show you

Burls are like seedbombs and hold within the ugly carapace promises of new life. The embodiment of paradoxical grace, they also corner disease, localize it, and render it inert, allowing the tree to continue to grow magnificently and elegantly skyward, leaving behind a beloved burl as the remnant of a technology to escape death…and a talisman of potential new life.

Seeing these weird mounds on a living tree can seem odd to our sight. When children draw trees they favor straight unencumbered trunks. Likewise, when I see Christmas trees in homes, they too are free of unsightly growth.

Closed form by @afsaneh.bandigan

Caption reads: His name is Kamal made of boiling wood and walnut roots, His name is Kamal Made of Elm and Walnut

Look here, that’s root burl, and over here you can see the mineral stain and voids?

See the bark inclusions. Here is where this tree overcame a bacterial infection, the burl on the trunk has been compressed for many hundreds years

Here’s another example, birdseye burl, it looks like a million darting looks. True to our little walk, the forest is always staring down at us

If we sit here long enough, and watch these old ones, as they grow, our sense of time slows down and we can grasp inner intuitive truths

You don’t need to peer into your own reflection to scry.

What I mean is, thousands of years ago Fu Xi stepped into the Yellow river and entered ecstatic gnosis only to emerge soaking and stumbling to land with the perfect knowledge of the IChing one random day, so, ya, nature contemplation is pretty chill

In a way, I think we are the aliens, who are trying to save trees because we admire their propensity for tumors, and uncanny ability to clone themselves. Yet, could we tell if a tree was suffering as a result of the burls protruding from them? I know when poachers remove burls from healthy trees, its life is gravely threatened by such violence. Its as if the tree needs the outgrowth to still live a healthy life. In this way its only ethical to harvest burl from felled trees, only then can the secrets of these tumors be unlocked. And we love the wood in burls, each one a unique universe telling the story of eros and thanatos.

A crime scene, where thieves have poached a burl and severely endangered the life of a tree centuries old. Credit:

Before we head back to the city, I want to confide in you something I’ve realized as I sit with these trees

When I was young I thought of love as if it were two keys opening a lock, the mechanisms perfect nickel and brass, cast by some fine mold, the lock designed by some long ago intelligence

Later, I thought of love as if it were a waterfall, one that has less to give with each time a relationship ended

After while I found myself relying on Hafiz, Rumi and Rilke, and I had to admit, I didn’t know what love was

But as I sit in the forest, at the foot of a thousand year old Sequoia, I have the funny feeling love is a burl, ten million lanceolate tendrils expanding in all directions, until all touches all - forever

…choking out sickness, and seeding the future

…cloaked in barked armor/amor

Simple Bowl from California Oak felled in the 2019 fires.



Wear, Kimberly. Crimes Against Nature: Poaching Takes its Toll on the North Coast, 2018.

LeFever, Gregory. Early Burl Treen, Eye on Antiques, Early American Life 2010.

Steven S. Powers. North American Burl Treen: Colonial and Native American, 2005.

Sontag Susan. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, 1978.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. New York: New Directions, 1964.

Nutting Wallace, Furniture of the Pilgrim Century, 1620-1720.


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