I cannot draw.
This is so true it’s not even critique. Playing Pictionary exclusively with non-artists, my work is irrefutably the most distorted, the least comprehensible. A horse may reasonably be interpreted as a capybara, a sailboat as a place setting. It’s one of those failings I’m no longer ashamed of, though of course I’ve always wished I could create a somewhat representative work, even if visual art is likely beyond my reach. Some people have trouble expressing themselves in words. I have not only been lacking in the ability to convey thoughts, ideas, or images in a visual fashion, I haven’t been able to successfully convey anything in graphite, paint, clay, crayon, ever.
Then, last summer, I started getting into trees. Not, like, physically into them (or just barely). But really falling in love with trees. I have to give credit to Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a book I would not have read if the author hadn’t had a remarkably forgettable name (a work I read of his years ago was one of my most loathed novels of the decade). For whatever flaws it has, The Overstory brought trees alive for me in a way that nothing in my child-of-hippies, nature loving, environmentalist past has done. I was suddenly thirsty with the need to know trees.
How does one meet trees? In the beforetimes, one would naturally show up at one’s local arbor social, chat up some tall, deciduous babe, maybe leaf together. But what of these pandemic times? Where does one socialize with a firmly planted, silent species?
Rather than returning to a method of learning that has, I now realize, always bored me, overwhelmed me, and failed me – that of book study and rote memorization (a methodology I think I may have repeated for decades because I saw it as a way to punish myself for my not knowing, ignorance being a sure sign of my laziness, ineptitude, and lack of intelligence, rather than an accident of circumstance), I sought another way in. I had been using iNaturalist at the recommendation of Jenny Offill’s ironically inspiring book, How to do Nothing in an attempt to identify local birds, so I posted some snapshots of trees in my area and begged the wisdom of the app’s community for identification, but soon found that there’s a lot more you typically need to identify a tree than a bird. A clear avian photo or song is likely to produce a positive identification from an avid amateur, but when I tried arborday.org’s tree identification gauntlet after iNaturalist failed to produce results, I found that with ~60,000 species on Earth, you need a lot of info to id a tree – info I didn’t even comprehend, let alone have the ability to produce (pettiole? pinnately compound? lobed margins? did they teach us anything important in school?). I had to gather data, and short of standing in front of a tree with my blech-inducing laptop to document objective information for long stretches of time, the best way to do that was to start sketching.
Not the whole tree. Too overwhelming for my detail-oriented brain, plus I am wary of attempting representation, for the reasons explicated at the top of this post. I was focused on essential pieces of the tree: the design and texture of the trunk, the exact shape of a leaf, the pattern of leaf placement on a branch, any acorns or fruits or other adornments.
Begin at home, they say. So I literally did. Not with the Black Walnut in my backyard – a tree I love so much I regularly ruminate on the heartbreak of its eventual demise (likely long after my own), much as I do with my dog (likely much sooner), but not with my partner (weird). I focused instead on the unknown boulevard tree, across the sidewalk from my front yard. I grabbed a camp chair and hauled my small stash of gear outside. I started with the trunk, carefully recreating every swirl, protrusion, and knot as clearly as possible with my new charcoal pencils in my new spiral-bound sketchbook. It didn’t take long to realize that not only was I not going to capture the 2×2′ chunk I had planned to draw, I would be lucky to finish 1/4 that much. It struck me that this was because I was essentially copying the details 1:1, that my brain hasn’t developed the skill to shrink the patterns down. I was literally just drawing what I saw, exactly as I saw it, to the best of my ability.
Who cares? The year before, I didn’t think I could draw anything and now I had put something beautiful on paper. The intricacies of the trunk were engrossing. I could honestly have continued getting to know them for hours, if I had enough paper. Instead, I restricted myself to a small chunk of bark and moved on to a branch, being careful to accurately represent the characteristics I had seen on the arbor day site: how the branches grow out of the tree, how the leaves are arranged on the branch, the relative size, color, and texture of the berries all over it. Leaves are, bless ’em, portable, so if you tire of people’s stares, or worry about paranoid neighbors calling the cops, you can take a fallen leaf indoors for the rest of the session. My leaf was covered in little nipples (yep, that’s what they’re called), which I thought were bugs or disease, but turned out to be characteristic of my tree species which, after triple-checking with the Arbor Day foundation, a UMN list of common trees in my state, and a YouTube video for confirmation, I found out was a hackberry. As my first tree it is naturally special, but get this bonus: it has edible fruit! Those little berries that my dog regularly snacks on are tasty little morsels – very little, as the seed takes up almost all the space, but if you get them at the right time of year, the fruit tastes like fig. This was probably the best tree I could have started with, because I love to eat, and because I am always, in the back of my mind, looking for ways I might be useful after the demi-apocalypse. They’ll definitely let me live when I deliver these little delicacies.
Once I got to know this tree, I saw it everywhere. Not only because we were now acquainted, but because my block is lined with hackberries. Stupid human planning, and here’s hoping no hackberry disease comes to our lovely street anytime soon, but now I know.
This is the practical. I now know a tree. Several, in fact, as I repeated this practice some weekends while the weather was good – not as much as I’d like, but, you know, I know some trees, if you get my drift. The unintended but unsurprising bonus was how this intimacy breathed life into my spirit. I see trees differently now. I see the world differently now because I have paid attention to a handful of trees.
It can happen with any element of nature – birds, trees, insects, flowers. Once you really get to know a few of them, you are invited into a world in which the contrast has been turned up at least 100%. Once you know a thing, you literally see it in a way you could not previously. And once you can see that specific category of thing, you can use that awesome brain power to identify difference – how is this tree unlike my tree? What animals like to hang on my tree? What creatures prefer others? Which of my trees look healthy, which don’t? What in the immediate environment might influence that? The wacky thing, for me, is that all of these questions came from a place of curiosity, not of intellectual greed. The more I paid attention, the more my attention expanded. I started boring my partner on walks with my constant, simple observations like, Look at that beautiful trunk! What a scratchy leaf! Why aren’t there branches growing there? I don’t think one needs to know the name of something – cultural or scientific – to connect with it, but I do think I need to know some name, have some way to identify it so that it becomes real to me, and the ecosystem it interacts with becomes like the home town of a loved one – an abstraction now infused with meaning because it means something to someone you care about.
Until I started practicing it myself, I didn’t understand this apparent paradox: how can naming a thing, which is essentially putting it in a box and separating it from myself, bring me closer to it? I think of the neuroscientist who wrote about her massive stroke, explaining that the loss of words for the things around her allowed her to feel fully at one with everything. I don’t have a definitive answer (and don’t have to – I’m all about the nonbinary these days) but I think it has something to do with attention. For example, if we looked at all of humanity as nothing but people, it might keep us from stereotyping them as friend, enemy, good, bad; but if we resist any classification, we are left without an understanding of the whole or any of its parts. Once we start paying attention, we make note of differences, but also similarities and qualities and patterns. We start to see the object in relation to ourselves and other things we know, which connects it to us, even if only in difference and novelty. It’s not a perfect relationship, but it is a relationship.
Once I started paying attention to just the 1/2 dozen trees I’d sketched or otherwise identified in my neighborhood, I was also able to assimilate some of the knowledge I’d picked up from the books I’d been reading to theoretically connect with nature for years. For example, knowing that trees interact and act as communities to protect and defend themselves led me to predict and confirm that none of the Black Walnuts in the area would bear fruit this year because we had a remarkably dry summer and they were collectively conserving their resources. I felt terribly smart.
The living world has come alive for me in a way that is simple and tangible since I started sketching trees. I feel like I’m a part of my species-rich community, that we are actually connected in the sameness of growth and change and struggle and rest, and in the distinctions that live and breathe into and out of each other; our interdependence making each others’ existence possible. Knowing the plants and animals around you used to be essential to human survival in a quite literal way. Now those of us with a mediated relationship with our food and water can live without that, but it’s a lonely existence. As humans have isolated from the life around us, are we not like tourists in a foreign culture? Navigating our way through greenery and fecund landscapes either gingerly, not wanting to stir up trouble; or tendentiously, like an imperialist set only on extraction and exploitation. So many people are feel so lonely and disconnected. I think the massive pet adoption that swept many countries at the beginning of the pandemic was a wise response. Finding a way to connect to any of the infinite varieties of life that bloom in all but the most persecuted communities simply makes all life better.