Trees are some of my favorite subjects to paint. My love for them only grows as years go by. The wild pear tree that grew in my backyard is an early memory of my kinship with them. I grew up by a highway, so this tree was special. It truly was a delight to my senses, with its golden fruits, like the partridge song. A silhouette against the sky on the top of the hill where my house was perched; the hill that led down into Route 8. It had roots set in there; in the gravel front yard alongside the picnic table. I heard it growing. The pairs were rough; mottled, often scarred. They hung heavily on the tree’s intricate branches. It was like so many Christmas ornaments, it seemed. Christmas under the sun. Pears in piles, pungent, soft upon the ground, nested in leaf litter. The tree was blessedly noisy. It buzzed with bees that twirled through and around it; busy, busy, all this silhouetted against the sky. My favorite sky, grey.
I caught my school bus every day in front of the gas station. I sat there waiting for it, under the impossibly tall rotating Texaco sign. At school, even the polished floors of my beloved grade school lent me thoughts of trees…
My school’s skin was burnt-red brick in color. The water that flowed through its radiator pipes;
warming us in winter, were my school’s veins. The clanking of the radiators was its heartbeat. The
school’s caretaker Mr. Rayder, nurtured the building; meeting its needs spouse-like. In the noisy
cafeteria, he blew up his muscles for me with milk straws. Without looking into my face, Mr.Rayder
stuck the straw papers up his nose, walrus like. It was easy to laugh. Who could reprimand him for
blowing straw papers off of straws one after another? It was he who swept those gorgeous floors; he
who kept them shimmering like a sea. A sea of wood, I remember thinking. They made me smile. Trees,
once alive, once holding hands underground. Trees were sacrificed; all for me to make the floor I
walked upon. When I wore those awful heeled shoes; they clicked off on the sacred floors like castanets
in my ears all day, shattering the respect I should have for the trees’ sacrifice.
That’s how I felt then. Sensitive to everything. Wait, I’m still like that! I remember all those trees I encountered with my father when I was a child… As an only child, a girl child, he took me fishing all the time. We crossed streams. Always he guided me with a big callused hand held lightly over mine; sausage fingers over smooth little white ones. Usually the stepping rocks, however smartly placed, were a bit too far apart for my legs and he would tell me, “Just hold on. I’m not gonna’ let you fall in…” I trusted him and let his hand swallow mine.
When we had to cross logs, suspended where they crashed over streams during storms, sometimes several feet in air over the rushing water, it was the same. He held my hand. We walked sideways over the fallen trees, slowly, and I wasn’t too afraid. “I got your hand. Pretend you’re walking on level ground. Don’t slow up. Just walk steady now. Almost there. Don’t look down”, he’d say.
The woods were my playground. I liked to nestle into a crevice in one particular boulder and if you have already read my book “Under The Banana Moon”, I apologize for some of these passages, as you may have read them before, but this blog post is about trees. These are my memories.
“This is my seat rock.” I said to ants on my knees. I gave each one a careful flick. Each wee ant face was frozen; not unlike Munch’s The Scream as I sent them flailing through the air, legs akimbo- thinking ant thoughts: oh no a giant! It’s all right though; I was aiming for leaf litter where I knew they’d find safe footing. The rock was my real estate. In the castle of the woods fifth grade was far behind me.
My bottom almost fit inside the natural rock chair. My legs dangled over the big rock face; a good ten feet from the floor of the woods. I needed only to hoist myself up a few feet and I’d be standing on top of the big rock where I could stretch out cat-like and pick mica all day; even the smoky black kind. I adjusted my elbows which fit into rock armrests. Pin-dot sized red insects mesmerized me; gliding over the rock terrain. I had super vision, of course so I could see them waving their flags and bagpipes. I could hear them. The alive speck-dots had adventurous missions to get on with; over the moss stained crannies and sparkly pink and clear quartz deposits. Nevertheless sometimes I was evil and ended their lives with a fingertip. I existed to be their God and I was their wrath. Without the woods, the seclusion of the trees, none of this adventure was possible. I was a loner and so were the trees. I felt a bit sorry for them; frozen in place and never able to get up and move around.
My legs and arms were limp things separate from me. My eyelids fell closed part way. Maple tree arms swayed overhead where I couldn’t reach; rustling their leaves in a swishing chorus. I’d always try to catch sight of the wind but it proved elusive. Even the isolated night creatures in the caves were glimpsed from time to time; a swift deer, a meandering skunk, an amber-tailed fox. But the wind remained invisible; a conductor to lulling leaf choruses, a cracker of dry hollow limbs. Tall solid trees creaked and scratched their limbs together, singing and at times quarreling. They leaned to and fro; dancing. Commingling. I wanted to burst out laughing.
I tipped back my head; and reveled there; resting it against the big rock pillow. My skin was on alert for crawly bugs but my eyes were enraptured. An intricate granny afghan of trees holding hands was my ceiling. Stitches of cloudless blue peeked around the silvery bellies of leaves in every hue from pea-green and celery to emerald. A mosaic of sunlight played kaleidoscopic games with me; flashing sparklies in no manmade pattern. A feeling I could not name rose up from my chest, humbling me; it was almost too much to bear. I would surely cry. I expected of course, a leprechaun with filthy knees and suspenders to hoist himself up on the rock beside me; using his odd curled pipe for a cane -and give me an earful of dirty limericks. (Those sorts of things really did happen.)
I studied the indented place in a nearby pine’s massive trunk where long ago someone had encircled it with wire which was now rusted and still clearly visible in places. The resilient tree had grown in bulges around its crude wire belt. I so wished it could catch its breath. Its encroached midsection, like the fat roll on a middle-aged man had been trying to maintain its dignity for all the time since it was crudely defaced. It grew upright proud, though slightly bent, with long graceful pine arms. It was perhaps disfigured compared to its neighbors, but nonetheless thriving. I imagined its voice as that of a breathless, jolly librarian who carried around oxygen. You had to lean in to hear his voice but he was worth listening to.
And trees today can be searched on the internet. All sorts of fascinating ones like the ones in my book Remarkable Trees of the World. Of course nothing beats spending time with them in person. I’ve mentioned “Z” in one of my blog posts here… He was my woodcarving teacher. What a love he had for wood; for trees, and he told stories about where he acquired all of it for our various carving projects. He passed on a bit of wisdom that I won’t forget, wisdom his father passed to him back in Hungary or thereabouts when he was a boy with lots of carving projects still ahead of him. He said that when a person is wrong, “leave quietly with your tail between your legs. But when you are right, tip over the table!” Alongside Z’s house, grows an ordinary tree, with an extraordinary knothole upon it. It looks like an all-seeing eye. How appropriate for a tree in Z’s yard to have such a thing!
It is interesting to note too, with my mother passed on now, and my father retired to Vermont -two and a half hours away, that there is an interesting tree in his yard. I think you will agree. I’ve got a picture of it here on the blog if it loaded correctly. You see, my father still helps me, even in his eighties. He is a source of kindhearted gestures to everyone in need around him, a man still reaching out a helpful “hand” to those who need it, for this is what makes him happy. Upon the tree in his front yard there grows what looks like a hand, right out of the bark.
The sole Maple tree in my own postage stamp sized lawn out front reflects my troubles too. It’s looking like a warrior fresh from the front. Lord knows I’ve endured my share in this house. The tree “got in the way” of some power lines and it’s been neatly cut in half by the tree people. Not a Lorax among them. I hear tell their coming for my tree. It’s marked to take down. I hope the tree cutters get poison ivy from the patch that grows around its base. I’ll be dressed like the Lorax the day they take it. See if I don’t!
On the upside, I get to spend time working at the home of a dear lady whose shaded backyard is inviting and lovely as she is. The house is…like a big hug. It’s a peaceful place. Wouldn’t you know it, all four trees in her yard (she calls them the four sisters) have two prominent outspread boughs, or ‘arms’ that reach as if to hug you.
(the hand tree at my father’s place)
(this is my painting “Hugging Trees”)
(This sketch I did of a tree-house is based on a real one, but darned if I can remember the name of it. I think it’s in France.)