Thursday, April 15, 2010

“Oh, but you are so beautiful!”

On the lefthand side of the ferry dock at Vesuvius, the little community with the big name on the north-west side of Saltspring Island, is a big Arbutus ( Madrone) tree. It has seen better days. Not only have all its upper trunk and branches been brutally shorn away, but generations of people have carved their initials, some encased in hearts, into its bark. “Poor bloody thing”, I automatically think as I drive past. There is something here that links the tree`s condition with our own human sensibilities.

I photograph it one day while waiting for the ferry to the other side and it is hard to do. There it rears up into the blue sky, its orange bark so smooth, folded, and skin-like, a last few branches and leathery green leaves wreathed around its shattered torso. It is like photographing a disabled person lying on the street, weird and disrespectful somehow, but a reality that needs to be included in the scene all the same. To avoid it would be to wipe its reality out of existence. And I do need to understand this conflict in my thoughts between pity, revulsion and a dawning sense of beauty.

That skin-like bark has grown over wounds in the past. Old carved initials are healing scars and branch stubs have grown over into softly rounded breast-like projections. The tree is so obviously female, and the thousand cuts and major wounds jump across the species divide and reach into my human heart.

Later, at the computer with my collected images I can see the next logical step if I am to take this reality and create an image that clearly speaks to that duality: tree and person. It is only our cultural classifications that stand in the way of thinking of ‘tree’ as ‘person’ after all, but what an important leap in thought that would be. Across the water stands a pulp mill absorbing mountainsides of trees without a thought beyond technology and profit to a multinational. We all participate in this mind set. It is practical for us to do so and goes way beyond this one mangled tree. We carve ourselves into the landscape every day. How best to help this one tree speak to this mental divide. I look at the oh so human smooth skin and ‘breasts’.

I begin to copy the one breast on the lower carved up trunk to make an identical mate beside it, - photoshopping it in like some plastic surgeon. The result is almost life-like and emphasizes the humanness of the arbutus, but the carved initials become so very horrible. Once I have removed the cheerful colours, I have created an image that is very stark and cruel if we think of a human being and her life story. Although this is female imagery it is not so hard for all people to experience the pain. We have all endured ‘a thousand cuts’ and have lost great chunks of our human potential as we have lived our lives. I have a dawning sense that this is a kind of beauty, fierce and terrible, to whom I have given a voice.

The ‘Wild Woman of the Woods’, is the mythic figure of the First Nations people who speaks to the thought that I am trying to develop in the present context. The mistreated, alienated aspect of ourselves who retreats into the forest, forced out of human contact but representing the guilt of the people and the terrible power to destroy those who neglect to acknowledge an intimate relationship with each other and the earth. All peoples around the world have myths, teaching stories, that speak of this vital relationship with nature. Our own Western religious tradition however, has our symbolic ancestors, Adam and Eve, breaking that primary link with nature and from then on manipulating nature and living outside natural law. Tremendous advantages have come to us from that severing of connection. We profit from it every day. We are just beginning to feel the edges of the ultimate balancing up that is at last coming upon us. That old tree can teach us a few things if it is still not too late.

When I see real beauty here I am making that connection that needs to be remade. I can see it in other people, in myself and in my environment. I walk in beauty; beside me, behind me, below and above me and also before me on my trail.

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