Week 44: The Black Gum

Black Gum

I have a favorite tree in our back yard. It was not planted to commemorate a special occasion, or in honor of a family member. It is not an exotic cultivar, or even an especially ornamental flowering species. It is a simple Black Gum with a simple story. Our landscape designer chose the Black Gum for two reasons. It is one of the first trees to change color in the fall– a brilliant red. This seemed reason enough, but there was something else. The Black Gum is characterized by a straight upright trunk, with sturdy branches that grow horizontally outward at right angles. Why might this structural feature be important?  “For a swing,” said the landscape designer.  As soon as this idea was released, it planted itself in my imagination. I had a tree swing when I was a girl. Now I could have another one! How long would it take before the tree was big enough to hold a swing? Ten years, twenty years? Would I watch my little boy grow into a teenager who would swing on that swing, or is it for me… and the grandchildren? Would I still even live here in twenty years? As soon as the tree was planted, it marked a moment in time from which I would measure the passing years. The tree became a slow stop watch. What can I create and accomplish between now and the time when the Black Gum is ready for its swing? The tree is planted at the top of a steep slope, so that when you swing out over the edge of the retaining wall, where the land falls away, you will feel like you are flying. Who will I have become when I sail through the air on that swing?

We planted the Black Gum three years ago. It was very spindly at first, with a sparse dotting of leaves. I fussed over it, diligently watering its roots each week. Tiny green aphids gathered on its fresh new growth in sticky clumps, which I crushed with my fingers every time I walked past, or occasionally sprayed with soap. The second summer the tree began to fill out with a fuller canopy, and the aphids moved on to weaker hosts. It went through curious growth spurts like a gangly child, where the top would shoot straight up a good twelve inches with no side branches, only to burst forth with a big bundle of leaves at its tip, as if it were balancing an outlandish hat on the end of a broomstick. The third summer it grew more handsome and sturdy, with a thick flush of deep green foliage, the glossy leaves turning a spotty red and gold in September. This Fall, Grandma and Max planted daffodil bulbs in the mulch circle around its base. Yellow and white blooms will appear in early Spring. Now I have something to look forward to that is not as far away as the swing. You know you are growing older when a mere five month wait feels like instant gratification.

This collage is about the passing of time, growth, patience, and how a landscape can tell our stories across the past, present, and future.

Black Gum, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Black Gum

Detail, Black Gum

Detail, Black Gum

Detail, Black Gum

Detail, Black Gum

Waiting for Spring

It is early March. The daffodils and crocus are blooming along with the early pink cherry trees.  Warm days surface in between the cooler ones. There is that certain freshness in the air. I notice neighbors clearing out their flower beds and think about tidying the garden at our house: cutting back the dry stems and swaying seed heads on last year’s cone flowers, pulling off the blanket of fallen leaves to find the green and pliable new shoots underneath. My mind races ahead to putting away the winter coats and buying new sandals. I dream of a rainbow of baby beets, carrots and swiss chard in my vegetable garden. It seems like Spring has arrived. Then we wake up Monday morning to falling snow! School is closed and my son runs outside to play, bundled up in snow pants and winter gear, having just worn shorts a few days ago. Nature reminds us to be patient, to expect the unexpected, to have faith and let things happen in their own time. The Spring will come, just as it does every year, but each year it arrives a little bit differently.

These are things I need to keep in mind. I am patient with my child, with other children in the neighborhood, patient with a new account at work, patient with friends, patient with strangers, but entirely inpatient with myself.  I am hardworking and disciplined, I commit to doing things in specified time slots. I am organized and ambitious. I want things to get done on a deadline. And too often I expect my creative work to conform to these parameters in order to be successful.  Yes, art requires discipline and commitment, but it also requires patience. What I really require is open-ended time to think, dream, experiment and muddle along– activities that seem suspiciously like doing nothing. I work at this every day, trying to balance these two sides of myself, both controlling and improvising, pressing forward with all my will and my intellect, while trying to remain open and receptive to different rhythms and unplanned ideas.

I sit down to write or to paint. I look at the clock. I tell myself I will finish this post and paint this painting within a certain time block, then I will complete that spreadsheet for work, do the laundry, run that errand, and be home in time when my son gets off the bus so that I can help him with his school project, do some design work on my Mac when he goes out to play, then make dinner and relax into a family evening. Things rarely go as planned. Sometimes the writing does not flow, jerking along while I procrastinate by reading other people’s blogs. Sometimes the painting flows so much that I lose track of time. Hours pass while I cut out tiny shapes with an X-acto blade and layer color over color over color. Maybe it works, or maybe it doesn’t and I will have to paint over the entire thing. My schedule is now way off. There is no time to run that errand. The spreadsheet will have to wait. Tomorrow I will have to carve out time for the design project.  I will make time for my son now. His company softens me and makes me laugh. We talk about our day and my rigid To Do List fades. Maybe his dinner comes out of a mac and cheese box tonight. (I get away with this only because my husband is working tonight.) But I do steam him some fresh broccoli. There’s just enough time to snuggle on the sofa and watch our favorite show, Cupcake Wars, then it’s up to bed for story time and sleep. I think about staying up late to work in the studio, but I am exhausted. Tomorrow is another day.

This morning I took my dog, Holly, out for a walk, intent on photographing those blooming cherry trees in the neighborhood.  As I excitedly approached and steadied the camera, zooming in on those gorgeous blossoms, Holly yanked my arm that was holding the leash, a gust of wind blew the branches wildly about, and the sun went behind a cloud.  This went on for several minutes as I became more and more frustrated. Then I had to laugh at myself. These pictures are about patience.  I took a deep breath, waiting for the sun, the wind, the dog, and my mind to be still. I stopped looking through the camera lens for a moment and observed the intricacy of the flowers, the nuance of pinks. I heard the soft exhale of the breeze in the branches. This is what I really came here for.