A colorful illustration of a tree burl, with swirls of pink and blue.
Artwork: Soft pastels on 19 x 25 shizen paper by Ana Martinez Orizondo

The Art of Irritation

A BURL RESEMBLES A TUMOR on a tree: knobby, crooked, cricked, gnarled.


Outgrowths, protuberances, or irregularities—burls will develop on the trunks and bases of trees.


Burls are striking on the inside.


Redwoods awe me with their stature; their burls thrill me with such naturally misshapen beauty.


Burls demonstrate how injury becomes growth, how a tree’s near-destruction enfolds its own magnificent renewal.


Burls’ mixed-up protein matrices create unpredictable patterns. Their amoeba-like forms go against the prescribed round and straight toy-block shapes of tree trunks and cut boards.


Human hands further can transform burls into something smooth, something surprising, something vulnerable.


A burl lives on like the fireworks veneer of a tall dresser, an exploded sunburst, as opposed to predictably patterned wood grain. Live-edge coffee tables and headboards forged from burls emphasize their organic profile.


A burl, when cut through its full thickness, reveals two slices of the same shape and width, which, when joined, look like a mirror image. Twin slabs fastened together are referred to as “bookmatched,” reminiscent of the pages of an opened book. The two sides are nearly symmetrical in overall shape, yet they differ just enough.


A cut burl dazzles with one-of-a-kind delineations, twice repeated.


Redwood trees, some of the largest and oldest trees in the world, may have burls the size of an African elephant, or as small as a tennis ball. They are unsightly in the ways they make one stare, like at a man with a growth on his nose.


One type of burl can develop as an inflammatory reaction to mold or insect infestation. The venom of certain wasps can cause burls, too. The other type, grown at a tree’s base, allows the tree to reproduce after trying circumstances, such as after a fire.


I wish that I could carry my flaws like the redwoods do; I wish that I could convert my challenges into growth.


Humans that harvest burls from redwoods threaten the trees’ survival. Thieves with trucks sneak into Pacific coast forests in the middle of the night and climb the redwoods to excise and transport away their unique knots. Sometimes stealing a burl leaves a large wound in the tree, making the tree prone to infection, often unable to repair itself.


Trees with stolen burls look like patients with radical surgery. Whole limbs missing. A rough, linear scar interrupts the trunk like some cubist collage exploding in a naturalist work of art. The trees do not grow reparative burls from such human transgressions—these wounds are too large.


Unsprouted tissue resides in redwood buds. Sometimes this tissue lies dormant for hundreds of years before activation. If part of the crown falls, for example, a tree’s hormones send a signal for burls at the base to grow. Depending on the problem, the tissue becomes either roots or sprouts. Or, if a redwood is leaning to one side, the buds will develop into roots to buttress its weakness.


I wish that I, too, could instinctively adapt to my needs.



a wood grain image of dark brown and green.

Photo by Andras Kovacs



Redwoods have several forms of repair. Fallen branches may contain bud tissue, which activates and begins to grow into new trees on the ground. When treetops fall off after a tree reaches maturity, new trunks can shoot out parallel to the original trunk. Eventually, they fuse together to form a strong center. These are called reiterations.


I always thought of reiterations as redundant, never fortifying. I wish that my reiterations could fortify my being.


Burls share commonalities with pearls—both fascinating irritations, both natural treasures, both grown under duress.


I wish that, from my discomfort and irritation, I could cultivate such effortless beauty.


Redwoods are the largest, oldest, continuously living entities on the planet because exact replicas of the parent tree develop at their base—a family tree with no alterations—aside from context-specific variations, such as surface burls that grow from injury, weather events, anomalous growth, adversity.


I hesitate to recount my own wounds.


Sprung from buds at the base, new saplings congregate in what is called a family circle, or “fairy ring,” around the parent tree. A circle of trees emerges, all identical to one another, with a fallen elder in the middle.


Like a redwood’s family circle, some of my flaws are epigenetic, too, always existing before me and beyond me, while others emerged from my own circumstances. There is a continuity among us. I carry within me my own damages in the form of memories, defenses, and reactions.


In my family circle, though clearly not identical, we share similarities: trust is hard to establish. Did it begin with just one relative? The last three generations of women have not succeeded at trusting people, especially men. Perhaps my deceased grandmother lies at the center of our “fairy circle,” a woman married to a man whose lies outweighed his truths. Did the next generations of women inherit this distrust—or did they all develop similar burls in reaction to their own betrayals?


Some of my burls grow inside and are mine alone.


When an elder redwood tree in the center dies, its burls sprout, seizing the light from the new opening in the canopy.


Burls higher on a tree arise more from injury—venomous insects piercing the tree’s bark or a lightning strike, for example.


Humans are experts at keeping pain private. We don’t always have the courage to display most of our injuries; we often port our pain on the inside.


Some of my burls grow inside and are mine alone.


My own trunk contains voluminous, voluptuous outgrowths from outward influences: accidents, violence, unwelcome violations. One such burl sits close to my foliage, like a chunky amber necklace.


Amber, ancient resin, is a tree’s reaction to injury, a protective substance fossilized over time, becoming as precious as gemstones. Amber, like the pendant he gave me to apologize.


I wish that I could recover and regrow from past trespasses, harnessing my healing into beauty.


Would a redwood recognize its burl as a coffee table, altered in texture and form, for someone else’s use?


For the first three decades of my life, I did not acknowledge how my choices reshaped reality, how I grew under duress, how my suffering might transform into strength. Writing can be the reworking of pain. The drama lives in the burls, in their uneven swirls and twists.


Redwoods teach me to see the beauty in my own knotty scars, the gorgeous burls of my figured survival.


Ayla Samli is trained as a cultural anthropologist and creative writer. Her writing appears in The Rumpus, Our State Magazine, Entropy, Anthropology Now, and The Dillydoun Review. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


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  1. across from my hay barn stands a very large laurel oak. I moved to this farm 42 years ago and this oak was in it’s prime. it stood out from all the other oaks because it was marred by scores of large burls.
    since there were so many burls on this tree, I could not believe that they came about through injury. a Botanist told me once that it must have been a virus that instigated all the burls on the tree’s trunk. Some of the burls were larger than my head, others the size of my fist. most folks who saw the tree typed it as being “an ugly tree.” one person insisted that I needed to “cut that ugly thing down.” but I liked the tree.
    unlike the nearby live oaks whose branches spread out encompassing the woodlot, its branches rose straight into the air like a prayer. to me, it was a lovely tree.
    but, it was a laurel oak, which do not live long. all the large laurels that were on the farm when I arrived have since died and most are long rotted into the ground. so I watched this tree. visitors would take pictures of it. I watched it to see if it would out-live the others. but last year, after 3 days of rain that flooded a large part of the farm, I noticed that some of the outer branches did not sprout leaves in the late winter.
    laurels, like their relatives the live oak, are strangely deciduous. they shed their leaves in January and immediately regrow new ones. the lofty branches that had not regrown their leaves fell during the past year’s storms. and this winter, the laurel shed the remainder of it’s leaves and did not grow new ones.
    how much longer before this tree lies on the ground. are it’s burls still alive? the big question. I only know not to park my truck near-by, and to hurry past it when the wind is blowing. it was a lovely tree.

  2. I love Ayla’s submission. It brings hope and healing just by reading it.

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