Along my walk route this morning, a few old friends wore sashes of yellow plastic police tape and an orange No Parking Today cone. Not a good look for you, I thought. Now the truck has arrived, the chainsaw started, the wood chipper fired up (a sound I hate), and soon, no dappled shadows, only direct sun where you once stood for tens of thousands of mornings. My mother died this summer, so I’m tender about death these days. The loss of a familiar old tree makes a round shape, a heavy ball of something to carry around in my mouth. Not the tightness of tears, just weight.
Recently, I saw an exhibit of landscape paintings, immense vistas on a grand scale, made by Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, the Hudson River School. These images were designed to evoke the magnificence and grandiosity of nature, in contrast with a few double zero brushstrokes to indicate the tininess of a man lost among twenty yards of painted canvas. I’ve stood on Bear Mountain, been that tiny figure, and looked out at the Hudson Valley. The eyes know a snake oil show when they see one, and the heart, given a choice, would take the mountain over the painting every time.
This isn't to say that painted trees can't be well done. I waited until those who stood an appreciative distance from the work moved on, so that I could peer at the technique close up without blocking anyone's view. Church, in particular could render lush moss growing on cracked and mottled bark with admirable skill. Screened on the exhibit walls were various quotes about nature and the spirit, lovely sentiments. These famous men were my tree loving brothers. Yet they seemed deluded by arrogance and determined to possess, as if with enough canvas and skill, a man could make something more beautiful than land, trees, light.
I've got a drawing of a branch on the table. Both the branch and the drawing of the branch are beautiful, but the branch is extraordinary in a way that my drawing of it is not. I feel humbled with every mark I make, so limited is the attempt. Why bother? What I am doing is worshipping this small portion of a tree, wandering in and around the forms with reverence, awestruck, the same way I copied pictures of Paul McCartney when I was thirteen. This drawing does not matter. What matters is the experience of looking, of kneeling at this miracle of a thing with a pencil in my hand.
The woodchipper has stopped, finally. There’s something in the ensuing silence that speaks of newly created emptiness, of absence. I rest my pencil for a moment and close my eyes.