Years ago I had a blog like this one, started as a summer project to keep my mind going during the breaks between undergraduate semesters. That little site was populated with sparse writings about photographic works and other short writings about my museum work. It was a decent time, but a lot has changed. You all know the big one, COVID. Sitting at home in the early days of the 2020 quarantine I thought to myself,
"You know, why the hell not? I'll go to grad school."
And so I put together my portfolio for graduate school. In between now and then I was in and out of work at the museum, and combined with some major unionizing efforts (that are still ongoing thanks to anti-union efforts from the museum leadership), it was a whirlwind. But, I somehow managed to charm my way into the MFA in Studio Art program at the University of Connecticut! The world is on fire, might as well spend three years in rural Connecticut earning a flammable document that says I am a master and can teach others to make pretty pictures. One academic year later I find myself with a wonderful cohort and an invigorating approach to my practice, and some encounters with old memories.
I have moved around a lot, growing up as a military child, but nature was always an immediate source of connection. It made my existence tangible, establishing a sense of belonging that I add to with each new move and encounter, a "patchwork" of memory. My work has shifted over the years from bodily abstractions to painterly portraits, from cityscapes to landscapes. Nowadays it's the trees which catch my eye. I love mythology and folklore of all kinds, tales of fantasy and drama, especially those that revolves the woods and states of transformation. Trees are a perfect example of the ever-changing state of nature, something that we as humans rarely witness with our busy eyes and short lifespans. It is no wonder that the Nordic tribes saw the world Yggdrasil, the World Tree that holds together the universe, or how the Greeks build columns that echo the form of mighty trunks to signify cosmic order and told tales of victims of violence and grief being transformed into trees. These are only a couple examples of the mystic nature of trees and how they impact human cultures, something that I am focusing on in my graduate studies. The question remaining is: What do trees mean to me?
I stated earlier that trees are a conduit of memory and connection, a bridge between the mundane and the divine, allowing one to feel for that pulse of the universe, the world soul. In short, I am attempting to find my metaphor for trees. Deity, memory, conduit, lungs, etc. are all good metaphors in their time, and nature writer Michael Pollan noted in his essay "Trees as Metaphor" in Orion Magazine that we should think of new metaphors that are sustainable for trees. They need to be something tangible, something that recognizes the essential quality of trees as a life-sustaining organism. Do we need to see the humanity in trees, like the hamadryad nymphs of Ancient Greece? I want, no, need to find some metaphor that encapsulates both a sense of wonder and magic while holding trees as something essential to our lives, a promise for the future.
Anyhow, ten months past the start of the academic year I have found myself back in the Hudson Valley, nestled away in the Catskills at the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Colony for my first artist residency! I brought along my 4x5 format field camera as well as ample drawing and writing materials. So far I've been photographing fallen trees and the hauntingly beautiful skeletal structures of dying hemlock trees, which were once stripped of their deep red bark to tan hides in the 19th century. They feel like stone columns, playing a dual role of both corpse and memorial. I won't be printing with my negatives until I return to campus, but this has been an excellent time for refocusing my vision with new intention as I explore the vast wilderness around me.
A professor asked me at the end of the semester to "ponder the long death of a tree." When does a tree take its last breath? They live a long time, but also take a long time to die. Even these seemingly-immortal beings will one day return to the earth. But even then there is life in death, part of the miraculous transformative power of nature. Insects and other creatures will claim the wood as home, fungi will take nutrients from its body. Eventually new growth will spring from the forest floor. Decomposing trees and saplings are a promise of the future, that life will find a way to persist. That being said, we as humans should do our best to understand, appreciate, and protect trees to the best of our ability. We will never fully understand a tree, as each one is so much more than whatever metaphor we ascribe to it, but that doesn't make our connection less significant. If anything, I argue that the unkowableness of a tree is what makes it wonderful. There are endless possibilities, new discoveries, each tree being its own wunderkammer (cabinet of wonders) with treasures and stories to impart, if only we will stop and stay a while.
I am taking it upon myself to cultivate a better writing practice, which will help with my listening in general (to myself, others, and the world around me), so expect more regular updates! Until next time. I'll sign off with an old phrase I used in the last blog.
Open your mind, be brave, and be kind.