Trees have always been a source of wonder for me. Pausing, looking up and absorbing the unique beauty of each has been an integral part of my journey as an artist. Within the last year, several sources of influence have changed my sense of purpose. Reading Richard Powers’ The Overstory affected me deeply. The book opens with the following poems:
Earth may be alive: not as the ancients saw her—a sentient Goddess with a purpose and foresight—but alive like a tree. A tree that quietly exists, never moving except to sway in the wind, yet endlessly conversing with the sunlight and the soil. Using sunlight and water and nutrient minerals to grow and change. But all done so imperceptibly, that to me the old oak tree on the green is the same as it was when I was a child. —JAMES LOVELOCK
The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right. —RALPH WALDO EMERSON
The Overstory’s first page:
First there was nothing. Then there was everything. Then, in a park above a western city after dusk, the air is raining messages. A woman sits on the ground, leaning against a pine. Its bark presses hard against her back, as hard as life. Its needles scent the air and a force hums in the heart of the wood. Her ears tune down to the lowest frequencies. The tree is saying things, in words before words. It says: Sun and water are questions endlessly worth answering. It says: A good answer must be reinvented many times, from scratch.
Another paragraph from the beginning:
That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen. Right here, right next. Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count.
My sense of distress at the way society and some corporations fail to protect and value trees for the benefit of all life on Earth was being subtly channeled.
My daughter was attending a course in Paris and I had free time during the day to wander. I ended up spending the majority of my time under the trees in the nearby Jardin des Plantes.
I encountered a tree that looked so much like a woman with her arms raised joyously that it stunned me. She became the basis for my painting Lady of the Sycamore. Would showing people the human form of some trees arouse a protective spirit in them ?
Scrolling through my news articles one morning I encountered an article in the Washington Post by Gabriel Popkin.
The article addressed the loss of diversity in our forests. He specified ash trees as particularly threatened due to the emerald ash borer, a type of beetle accidentally imported from northern China. His photo of a blue ash reminded me of my Lady of the Sycamore. He remarked on the human form of the tree.
If we can get people to look at trees the way they look at different animals, will they realize how fascinating and necessary they are? It was clear to me then. I needed to embark on a mission to paint as many endangered trees as possible. The research began with reading articles on the internet and reaching out to the sources they listed. Out of all of the inquiries, several were kind enough to answer.
From the Morton Arboretum’s Murphy Westwood came a list of the endangered trees of the US, and patient answers to my uneducated questions.
Gabriel Popkin was kind enough to let me know that there were ash trees left standing in Kentucky. Since my sister lives there, it was a good place to start.
Please check back in, the next post will be about my hunt for the Ash trees.