Earth Day 2011: Trees and Other Necessities

A twisted white oak on Martha's Vineyard: shaped by wind and time and the unintended consequences of early American agriculture.

White-throated sparrows are singing in cold, blustery Petersham. Back  in Oklahoma that   would have announced the onset of winter.  Here in the north it ostensibly heralds spring, which at this point is a mere promise; I’m still dressed in down and wool.  As oaks, maples and birches groan and wave their bare branches in the freezing wind and crows fly backwards, I peer through streaming eyes and try to sketch with my pencil wrapped in a stiff bunch of somebody else’s fingers. That’s when I remind myself: I signed up for this. And I wouldn’t have it any other way, except maybe a few degrees warmer.

Knowing nature by getting it down on paper...drawing on site in the Quansoo preserve on Martha's Vineyard.

My time here in Harvard Forest is turning into a delightful cram course in history, archaeology, and ecology (with side trips into ornithology and local cuisine). My project as outlined in my Bullard fellowship is thus: to study New England landscapes and historical sites being reclaimed by the forest, to dig into farm ledgers, letters, and other material and give names and stories to the ruins, and by blending and mixing together all this great material, to draw a unique portrait of the forest and its cultural and environmental heritage.  And I could add, to dress warmly and boldly go..

My project is going gangbusters, and with the indispensable help of Harvard Forest archives (and archivists) and the awesome, knowledgeable members of the Petersham Historical Society, I’ve been gifted with reams of detailed history and personally guided to haunting and likely haunted ruins deep in the forest. And, boy, are there ever a slew of  stories to share: drama, commerce, humor, and tragedy are written in stone around here. More to come as these stories unfold.

A sugar shack in New Salem boils tree sap down to syrup, releasing vaporous clouds of deliciousness.

Along with the human stories, I’m learning ecological ones, especially those concerning trees: the ephemeral nature of contorted oaks on Martha’s Vineyard; the fresh minty scent of black birches (scrape a twig and sniff), the peculiar concept of Beech Hell, the living ghosts of American chestnut, and the sweet gifts of Acer saccharum. Just a reminder on this 2011 Earth Day: you can’t have a forest without the trees. Go eat a waffle, dress warm, and boldly go up to your nearest tree and give it a great big hug.

The wonderfulness of a sugar tree- what would a waffle do without it? Sugar Maple at Harvard Forest. Graphite and pastel on paper.

15 thoughts on “Earth Day 2011: Trees and Other Necessities

  1. Sarah says:

    I like how you handled the background in the white oak piece. Those single strokes still evoke the tree-ness of trees without being overworked. Nice solution!

  2. Ken Januski says:

    Sending some wood warblers your way. Hopefully will arrive on a warm front mid-week.

    And I await with baited breath the explanation of ‘Beech Hell.’ I guess one thing to say for the cold weather and leafless trees is that it allows you to really see the form of these striking trees. Soon their skeletons will disappear in vegetation.

  3. Artybecca says:

    I second Sarah’s comment about the tree marks in the background. of the gnarled tree picture. And the bottom tree with the pale blue sky…I’m in awe of the background there where the sky is the positive and the brush and leaves are the negative shapes. Fantastic!

  4. Paula says:

    Hope you had your woolies on today. Wow, what an ugly mess! We woke up to 1-2 inches of snow, then as we drove through Colrain, the snow picked up and so did the sleet. By southern Vermont, there was 6 inches of sloppy stuff on the road with mud underneath, making it impossible for us to get up the dirt road to our cabin. Of course, by evening it was all gone.
    I’m not sure when spring will finally slip through this region, but it’s easy to miss. One day will be like today and the next, it’s hot and steamy.

  5. 100swallows says:

    I was glad for those “crows flying backwards”. That’ll stick like Frost’s crow that sprinkled down snow on him and made his day. Great posts and drawings. What the hell did those settlers do to that poor tree?

  6. Sue says:

    beautiful artwork, you’ve expressed trees essence so wonderfully.
    & planted a litle seed of inspitation for me 🙂 a reminder to take paper and pencils on my next outing with my camera.. want to have a go at drawing my favourite tree now:)

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