SketchWalking among Beech Trees

Walking among beech trees cooled by the night’s rain, air moist fresh whipping and sifting through the leaves, dappled light and shadows casting dynamic mosaic patterns on a familiar dirt path, tree trunks painted in rain water drippings glistening in striped shades of umber while body shifting quietly to the rhythm of a poem, a chant, or imitation of a bird tweet while ruminating a problem seeking a solution. Then in an instant to pause when it strikes and capture a moment in watercolor or pen is quite instinctive to me, adding a whole other dimension to the cadence of walking invoking an incorporeal feeling, one that’s hard to attain whilst sketching in the studio. This is my personal space that I’ve carved out over years of sketchwalking as a means to thinking and seeing. Invoking curiosity and keeping that sense of wonder alive and fresh even in well acquainted places. Especially in well acquainted places. The familiarity of a place can be shattered at a stroke through the intimacy of ‘seeing’ again while sketching just at the immediate instant when body and mind are primed to receptivity through the rhythm of walking.

During this lock down, it’s been no different…or perhaps I’d say it’s been immensely relevant that walking and sketching done in tandem can still be a part of my life, a blessing I don’t take lightly. Our local county park has remained open during lockdown and it is but a stone’s throw away, facilitating an easy means for my quotidian sketchwalking. 

2020 March through May was a rather wet-Winter-into-wet-Spring transition. Inundated with relentless downpours, tempestuous thunderstorms and even a vagrant polar vortex that sprung in to play havoc in its wake. The terrain has been in a continuous state of water-log. And the wind, incessant remorseless wind at 20-25 mph incited its gusty role of terror and destruction as well. Watching trees sway like pliant bamboo, creak and groan like a violin out of tune, sing and susurrate in loud whispers then, just as sudden quieten to a gentle murmur, but not for long. Like an impetuous child unable to decide its mood of the day resumed with renewed fever, whipping and howling through night and day. Maple samaras that prevalently ripen to dry feather-vaned wings and propel down clogging gutters, sprouting wherever they land are now being snatched in their prime, fresh, heavy, pliant and red-green, still attached to sprigs, flung and scattered about like yesterday’s urban detritus. I gathered armfuls and stuck them in a vase so their life didn’t seem trifling. 

Despite this forewarning you might call it, my usual walk in the beechwood that day was brought to a instant halt by a tall majestic beech that lay toppled over on the path by what I can only presume was the recent storm. It was snapped at its base like a twig, inconceivable, yet even as I stood looking stupefied impossible to believe, staring down at the jagged edge still attached to the root the smell of fresh green sap wood wafted up my nostrils, the very scent and essence of life itself. This was one of the few tall mature trees I’d walked by often, on occasion stopping to run my hand along its bark, staring into its eyes wishing it to reveal the inner secrets of a long and fruitful life. Ive passed silently under ear refreshed to the flutelike melody of the wood thrush spreading into the forest air from its canopy, I’ve stood under it gazing up at a squirrel or two sampler up its branch, and sketched white-tailed deer graze in its understory. It has stood there for over two hundred years, this and a few other matriarchs of these woods, nurturing other beech saplings, sheltering wildlife, and offering up shade scented breeze on sultry summer afternoons.

How long has it lain here now I wondered as I circled around this giant looking down it length from the top end for the first time, it’s leaves still fresh and springy. Leaves that grew zig-zag on their thin twigs. It’s massive trunk weighted in it’s history, stored but now lost, bark smooth but for the scars of branches that fell and the large eyes that have kept watch in the woods. I picked up a piece of its bark about a foot wide and foot and a half long, that lay splintered beside it as though it had been cracked open from the trunk and flung apart like a walnut shell. It’s inner cambium layer in brilliant burnt orange like a broken terra-cotta tile lay curved and exposed while still attached to the phloem and greyblue outer bark. It took my breath away. What perfect symphony of form and function. I walked around in silent homage to this beauty, sketching it and it’s many branches and leaves, it’s eyes still vigilantly watching me as I did. And as I came around, to sight a young sapling sprouted at it’s root base, a quick gasp, a single consolation. Perhaps the old beech had been nurturing this spritely offspring prescient of its forthcoming fate. This thin spindly sapling, upright and eager will now have the light open up onto it and will flourish and grow in its matriarch’s place for another two hundred years or more. I leave with my little sketch and this thought to mull over proceeding down the path. 

Yet, I was quite unprepared for what lay ahead. Walking on, my mind still in a haze of unrest I came upon four other beeches that too had succumbed to the storm. These trees had been uprooted soil and all and lay strewn blocking the rest of the path. One of them whilst on it way down took its neighbor with it and the two lay in an entanglement of branches, two silent sentinels now at rest together.

I had never witnessed rootballs this large. As I stood beside one it towered over me three times taller and at its base a concave impression to the converse of its rootball, a pit where once it’s root had filled now filled in its place with rain water that had yet to drain, reflecting in perfect color harmony the sky that had opened up from the drop of the canopy. This isn’t right I thought, it shouldn’t be sky here but effervescent leaf green. And yet in the puddle water seemed already to be sustaining new life, a small wood frog had claimed it as its new home while a butterfly was basking in the nutrients at the puddle’s edge. Perhaps other facultative species might take advantage of this new resource too. And what about the life that was existence in and around the root ball, more questions to speculate.  

These American beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) were over two hundred years or more in age with had many more years left in them. As I stood in awe fighting back tears I thought of all the life that depended on them. Like this wood thrush freshly returned from his wintering grounds on an adjacent tree singing his heart out calling for a mate. And the distant call of the red bellied woodpecker, had he drummed on these tree trunks I pondered. What birds and creatures had made their home in these canopy now lost, butterflies and caterpillars that once feasted on their leaves and eaten their nuts, what understory had thrived in their shade and provided nourishment to the white tailed deer that frequent these woods. So many questions….

What is it about trees that capture our minds so and stay with us long after we no longer are in their presence I wonder. Is it because they’ve preceded us and will still be standing, keeping watch even after we’re gone. I leave you here with this percipient poem by W.S.Merwin

PLACE

On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

what for

not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit

is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands

in the earth for the first time

with the sun already

going down

and the water

touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead

and the clouds passing

one by one

over its leaves

— W.S. Merwin, from ‘The Rain in the Trees’

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