Field Guides: The Secret Language of Trees book
My Field Guides books are already installed at Lake Roland Park’s for their Art on the Trail program, but I wanted to be sure to write about the third book I made “The Secret Language of Trees”. In my proposal I wrote that I would make a book made out of bark. For my show this past July I had made two little paintings that I thought I wanted to revisit, but in a large size and in a book format. That was the plan until one afternoon I found myself on a nearby land that was clearing out trees for a new building. With the owner’s blessing, I was given permission to take anything I wanted. As a lover of trees I felt so sad to walk among the felled trees. I came across big pieces of bark that were so beautiful and I started to gather these pieces. They were extremely heavy, but somehow I managed to get them to my car. I didn’t know what I was going to do with them, but I knew I would do something to give these trees an homage of sorts.
I share the above moment of coming across the bark because it gives a glimpse into my creative process. When I am working with natural materials, I often work in response to the materials. I may have a plan, but I always know that the plan is just a plan and it will change once my hands get on the materials. Once I hold things and handle them, then the materials in a sense tell me what should be done. I took the largest and heaviest piece and sawed it in half using a handsaw. That was so much more difficult than I thought it would be! But it was this piece of wood that spoke to me and told me what needed to be done.
I used the coptic stitch to bind the pages into two other pieces of bark that I also sawed. These pieces are smaller than the one in the photo at the top. The pages are made out of cloth dipped in local pure beeswax. A local beekeeper gifted me a big block of his golden wax- a precious gift! However because the wax is so yellow, I prefer not to paint with it. This use of the pure beeswax was perfect- it created golden pages that seem to glow when the light filters through the surface. The beeswax though is not about decoration. It is about preservation. My pages need to be able to withstand the outdoor wintry and wet elements. There is no damar resin added to the wax either as I need the pages to stay pliable. Pure beautiful golden beeswax that will the protect the pages as best as it can.
I stitched the pages, as again I want the pages to be investigated and “read”. One of the things I learned in my research is that within a single tree there is so much going on. So much living and so much life. I already knew that, but delving into the details was illuminating. Trees can tell us so much, if only we know how to read them. For instance, we all know that a tree’s rings can tell us how old a tree is. But it can also tell us if there was a drought 150 years ago. Or if there was a fire or a season of plentiful rain. The interesting thing too is that of course weather often is linked to historical events- many of the important revolutions in human history occur in the middle of summer- when it’s hot, and/or when there has been a disruption in agriculture- and people are hot and hungry and fed up. Trees can speak to these correlations. Something to think about! They are the record keepers for us.
Isn’t the bark just beautiful? I wish I had the knowledge to positively identify the trees, but if I had to guess- the inner book is probably from an oak and the outer book cover is from a black walnut tree. But as I only have the bark and did not see where the tree came from to see leaves or twigs, I am not totally sure. I wish I knew!
One thing that has always fascinated me is how every culture has a sacred tree reference in their origin stories. Humans have always been drawn to trees and have recognized their importance- until our modern age it seems.
This book just looks perfect installed in its place in the woods by the trail at Lake Roland Park. Be sure to visit if you have to be in the Baltimore area. And stop at my favorite bookstore The Ivy Bookshop and get a banana and caramel pop tart at The Corner Pantry– both are near the park entrance on Falls Road. There will be an artist reception this Sunday, December 13th, from 1-3 pm
I just have to conclude with this perfect piece of writing by Herman Hesse on trees:
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. The do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.
A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.
A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.
When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.
A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’ suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.
So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts. Trees have long thought, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives that ours. The are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve and incomparable joy. Whoever has leaned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.