We are like trees

January 2017

The preface to the second edition of  ‘A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America’ begins: “Without the magnificent blanket of trees which cover the land, man would find it extremely difficult to exist. Trees supply the tall shade for the soil, they aid in conserving the soil moisture and giving it off slowly to the atmosphere, they keep the soil of the hills from running down to the sea.” It “is trees that bring beauty to the land”, in addition to their other gifts of material and fuel, food and medicine. Published in 1948, the natural history book by Donald Culross Peattie, with a preface by Donald Wyman,  belonged to my grandfather and is full of starkly beautiful wood engravings reproduced in rich black ink. The illustrations by California artist Paul Landacre accompany the detailed descriptions of tree species. From the white pines whose timber was so coveted and exploited for its tall straight trunk excellent for shipbuilding to the sugar maple whose clear sap diverted and extracted from its xylem is boiled down to the beautiful amber coloured syrup which tastes so sweet poured warm over snow and rolled into sticky soft globs or poured in pools over pancakes. The sweetness of its sap is what makes its foliage so beautiful in autumn; that bright red leaf so emphatically Canadian.

Wood engraving of a hemlock sprig by artist Paul Landacre from ‘A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America’ (1948)

Real estate and graffiti in the shadows of trees, Lachine Canal, Montréal (2017)

A glassy-eyed girl stood before me suddenly on the metro platform at Vendôme station the other day. She materialised like an apparition. Stoic and rehearsed with little emotion or conviction, she asked for a dollar. I replied that I had no cash though in fact I had only moments ago remarked on a few twonies in my wallet. She proceeded down the platform. A male voice some distance away said to another person “Don’t give her any money. She’s just going to buy drugs.” But she was already out of view, out of earshot. Moments earlier, obscured in contemplation, I missed my metro stop. I was lost, reflecting on the past year, the past two months, utterly  bewildered by the denouements of the past weeks in particular and the disappointing unpredictability and unreliability of human behaviour. I watched the glossy orange and yellow bricks of Saint-Henri station slowly accelerate out of view.

Post-industrial architectures, Montréal (2017)

There is a blue glow at dusk this time of year in Montréal, in the city of my birth and upbringing, where I am currently undertaking some fieldwork. I am beginning to wrap up the loose ends of my PhD with the knowledge that the upcoming months will be a flurry of reading and writing, with an incredible amount of work ahead.  It is somewhat poetic that as I begin to embark upon this final stage, I am in the place where it all started, where I developed and tested the methods that would become the basis of my doctoral project. In the cold but light streets here, I see things a little differently than I did than during my pilot study. For, now I have the added knowledge of over three years of wandering in Norway and elsewhere, of perfecting the craft of my own personal version of photographic psychogeography, steeped a little more in experience and perspective than I was in 2011.

Works by Turtlecaps, Waxhead, and Kashink in Griffintown, Montréal (2017)

Speaking with a childhood friend – now an artist and curator – I felt an affinity and an intellectual understanding that I do not frequently feel. Speaking on the role of art and the power of art, on the need for a critical and political art, and speaking about the works of various Canadian artists left me inspired, refreshed, and with a new found sense of urgency and importance of my work.I turn to art so frequently because, for me, this is where hope lies. I want to find ways to connect outside my research, beyond the university, to find a way to inspire and to help people. Though I am not one for resolutions, perhaps this might be my own personal challenge for the time ahead. Doing a PhD feels often like a very selfish pursuit, a prisoner of your own thoughts among an increasingly neoliberal university system which discourages or at least inhibits collaboration and instead nurtures individualism and selfishness, a system in which you are encouraged to put yourself first, over your colleagues, over collaboration, over the students you strive to teach and inspire.

I think about zero tolerance and wonder about whether there are any redeeming qualities to the much maligned policy approach. I think about the woman on the subway platform and the distance in her eyes. I think about my personal life as well. Though flawed as a policy approach, perhaps its logics work interpersonally. Zero tolerance against hatred and prejudice. Zero tolerance against the unkind and dispassionate. Zero tolerance against disrespect. Tolerance for difference, communication, agonism. Now at the beginning of a new year, these are the thoughts I am confronted with. How to move forward, how to remain positive, how to have hope in a world where there is so much to lose hope over, so many that need our help.

Urban quilts of linoleum at 1230 Rue Smith, Lachine Canal, Montréal (2017)

“When he passed away I could not weep so I wrote” writes Patti Smith in her work ‘The Coral Sea’, her tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe after his death. This year has been one of the most difficult that I have experienced, full of many challenges both personal and professional. October 17th  2016 marked the ten-year anniversary of my father’s death and a very long period of grief. Grieving never really ends, it becomes a part of who you are and touches every part of your being; something the past ten years has taught me. Grief shuts off parts of yourself which are sometimes difficult to reopen and new pains trigger these old wounds, calling on and extending those neural pathways that are forged under durress, concretised in our psyches. It becomes difficult to trust and be vulnerable, but writing and art has replaced the urge to weep. Over a ramen lunch with a colleague, that day marked a personal turning point; a realisation that I long to connect more, to be more open and more vulnerable with my heart and my work. This is what the past year has taught me. Perhaps this marks a mental shift that coincides with the impending end of my PhD and a phase in my life which has not always been particularly pleasurable, for the ways in which it necessitates mental and physical isolation and a protective distancing from others to simply accomplish the magnitude of work in such a finitude of time.

We are like trees. Strong but vulnerable, bending in the breeze, full of sticky sweetness. Like trees, we too may be exploited for our strength. We have ways to protect ourselves from being cut down, from being used for our value according to others. Yet, there is strength in our vulnerability; in opening ourselves in such a way that we are exposed, potentially exploited, perhaps inevitably wounded. We are rooted but not immovable. Like trees, perhaps we are unaware of the depths of our strength and fragilities, of our applications and potentials, of our value. As the new year begins, I think that at the end of the day, all that really matters is kindness and love. Here’s to a 2017 full of poetry, full of more light and love, and here’s hoping that the kindness you extend to the world is reflected back and refracted onward.

Look up, luv is the reason, Lachine Canal, Montréal (2017)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *