A while ago, I promised my friend V. that I'd post a painting that was related to an essay I wrote about the loss of a huge, mature willow near our Vermont house. The other day I came across it in my flat file, and here it is.
This is kind of a "dream painting;" it came out of my imagination and memory during a period of time when I was doing very large watercolors and trying to loosen up both my technique and my head. I was aiming for the motion of the willow branches tossing in the wind, and the stars appearing through the branches, but more than that to convey a particular emotional temperature. I don't know if it's a "successful" painting or not, I that depends on what criteria you're using to judge it, but seeing it again brought back exactly the feeling of standing there at night, looking at the tree, even though it's been gone for many years. I like it because it does what expressive painting can do, and photography, most of the time, cannot.
Here's the essay:
Requiem for a Tree (1998)
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
Wordsworth, "Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey"
The big willow is being cut. I'm upset about it, know it has to be done, but it's such a great and beautiful tree, worthy of being mourned. I've looked up into its branches for twenty years now, especially on summer evenings, when the only light was from the moon, to see stars shining through the leaves so far above my head, and fireflies dancing among them. It always felt like its own world, up there, in the bowls formed by those great dark branches, populated by things of the air and heights. A pair of orioles nested in the tree each spring, serenading me as I turned over the first soil in the garden; later their purse-like nest swayed above me. And it was home to many smaller birds: chickadees, nuthatches, warblers, feeding no doubt on a vast colony of insects. Kneeling next to the garden beds I'd feel drips of water raining down on me all summer, even during dry weather, and wonder whether willows really wept, if that was how they got their name.
Branches fell continually, especially in spring storms, and I used the long supple tender ones to make woven fences and supports for herbs and other plants. It was a high-maintenance tree for us, and we didn't even own it, but I never minded. I drew it many times, painted a watercolor, wrote a poem --trying unsuccessfully to capture that mysterious, secret world suspended in the sky.
When this hill was a pasture, a stream flowed between our property and the neighbors', and along its banks a line of willows grew up. Ours was the first house cut out of the farm proper, near the turn of the century. Over the last twenty years, the hillside, divided and subdivided, became house lots. The willows -- streambank trees, never intended for shade -- were left in one back yard or another, sending their shallow roots into basement walls and dropping branches each spring. Homeowners, sympathetic at first, grew tired of taking care of the trees and worried when major damage occurred in thunderstorms. It's understandable. But as is always the case, it doesn't matter that the trees were here first, that we are, in fact, the ones who have encroached on them.
Last night, after dinner, the chain saws in the neighbors' yard were finally silent. I went out on the back porch and looked over at the willow. The tree stood there still, its great wide crown shorn, one main trunk remaining with all its branches and leaves, the others amputated into huge logs that lay around the base. It was a horrible sight but heroic in a way; the tree, still alive, retaining something of its nobility and the strength emanating from that huge solid trunk, easily five feet in diameter at chest height. Yet it was doomed; this would be its final night, the last time those branches reached toward sunlight, leaves stretching a few new millimeters in length. I came back upstairs, drew a basin of water for the dishes, and started to cry, filled with sorrow for mankind, for being alive at a time and in a culture which values the safe, the cheap, the fast solution: whatever fits easily into our lives and causes the least inconvenience. I cried rueful tears for myself, made so sad by a tree -- how out of step I am, and how painful it is to stubbornly refuse the cries of a culture that would gladly give up Bach for the sitcom-of-the-moment; where artists, musicians and poets eek out a living and developers get rich.
I'll remember the willow best on those nights, years ago, when I was trying to figure out if God existed. After I'd meditated for an hour, the incense burned down to ash, candle extinguished, I'd come out into the night, and to my polished mind, open, newly innocent, every sensation appeared fresh, important, astonishing. The Milky Way had never seemed so vast, the air so exhilarating, the snow under my feet so white. And there the willow loomed: hugely alive, pulsating with being-ness and a quality of home that strangely did not feel closed to me. I stopped trying to paint it or write about it, but just stood there, night after night, as if it were part of the meditation ritual; looking up, not thinking, I let it tell me whatever it had to say.