Witness Trees

Witness Trees

In a town 10 minutes away from me, a majestic red oak was cut down this week.

Majestic. It’s not often we hear that term anymore. The town paper referred to it as a” decayed icon.” The final portion of the tree left a stump three feet across and the last piece removed weighed 20,000 pounds. The inside was decayed leaving a three-foot wide gaping hole in its center.

In recent years, I have been drawn more and more to trees. As a child growing up in Michigan and Tennessee, I climbed them, picnicked under them, ate their fruit, and hung a swing from them, all while taking them for granted. It wasn’t until I recently started hearing the phrase, “Witness Trees,” that my thinking about trees took on a deeper meaning.

Robert Michael Pyle writes, “A witness tree is a large tree so situated that it can serve as the reference point. The Umbrella Tree, a huge Douglas fir near Deep River, Washington, was a famous witness tree saved from logging for that purpose. In his book A Witness Tree (1942), Robert Frost describes one in a poem called “Beech”: the title tree, having been “impressed as Witness Tree,” allows truth to be “established and borne out, /though circumstanced with dark and doubt.”

“Witness trees,” designated as such by the National Park Service, are venerable specimens on Park Service properties, trees that have “witnessed” key events and people in American history. These might be a Civil War battle, a president, or a runaway slave. When witness trees are so old they’re on the verge of collapse and have to be felled, they’re sometimes turned into wood chips — an ignominious end for something once so proud. The Park Service is legally bound not to sell wood from the trees.

Just think, the tree in my neighborhood was standing before the birth of our nation and before George Washington’s retreat over the Hackensack River to New Bridge Landing. When it was measured in 2010, it measured 80 feet tall and close to 200 feet wide. The trunk was listed as 70 inches in diameter.

In some ways the witness trees are like “The Giving Tree” of Shel Silverstein’s children’s book. But unlike that tree, which had nothing left to give by the end of the story, at least some of the Park Service’s trees can be reborn, thanks to modern science. They’re propagated through genetic cloning, and the clones are replanted where their parents once stood.

This past winter, National Geographic profiled the trees in Yellowstone Park, home to some of our nation’s largest and oldest trees. They had a two-page pullout that showed the size and grandeur of these trees made even more remarkable by the ant-sized scientist in a red jacket, perched high up into the tree, collecting data. National Geographic does this so well.

I carefully pulled out the photos and posted them at eye length of my nursery school students. The kids are naturally curious. When they saw those trees—-it takes a lot to impress kids these days, but that day they were wowed. Those photos were part of an ongoing conversation for many days to come. We learned that the trees were each named. And from the scale of the photos with the scientists in the trees the kids really got a sense of wonder and awe.

A living witness to history—-
Awe is a good thing at any age.



About Juan

About Juan

I don’t often get to talk to Juan but when I do, I often find myself replaying the conversations around in my head for days after we have spoken. He’s a laid-back guy who’s passion for photography starts my brain to sizzle.

Part of what I enjoy, is being able to “ping” across a lot of different topics with him. It’s the fluency, the improvisation with someone else that shares that ability that is so fun. Juan is a photojournalist student who, this Fall, will continue his grad studies in Chicago. He is also the big brother to one of my students.

Juan and I talk art, politics, life, stuff. One of our recent conversations was about his new business cards. They are really cool. Each card is a beautifully composed photographic work of art. Each one a photo from his “photo a day” project.

Yep, that’s right. Everyday the challenge was to take a photograph and post it online. There are lots of similar programs around. There is a ” meme” project circulating about handcrafted pottery mugs. You live with them for a while, drink out of them, take a photo with the mug and post it, then pass it on. Others are drawing oriented like the popular Zentangle projects.

So Juan took his daily photos and had them made into his unique business cards. It’s a great way to showcase his commitment to daily art creating as well as showcase the diversity of his photographic skills. I like his shots of our deserted mall late at night as well as flowers, landscapes and animals and fireworks.

A bigger picture, is the determination of anyone to commit themselves to creating something everyday. Wether it’s a collage, photo, or drawing the intent is the same. To force discipline, just like with any diet or gym work out. It’s doing it even when you don’t feel like doing it. Now I admit to being a total failure with the first two but for whatever reasons, I find it easier to respond to the creating one. Maybe it’s because it’s fun. But it wasn’t always that way for me.

When I was a young studio apprentice, the most widely repeated piece of advice I received from different artists across the board was, ” Force yourself to go to the studio every day. Even if your studio is a kitchen table. Even if it meant only 20 minutes, make yourself go”. And it is the advice that has served me best in my 30 years.

Along with fitness trainers and dietitians, I’m often told by aspiring artists I meet, “I don’t have time to create”. And believe me, I do understand the time thing. But people, it’s never going to get easier or be a better time to create. Like all disciplines you have to commit and make it happen. And the truth is, life is short and a future is never guaranteed.

So maybe not every day, but for now, try committing to creating 30 minutes a day for 30 days. Get up 30 minutes earlier, do it on your lunch hour, do it instead of watching tv or looking at dopey emails,(yea, we all do it at times). Just commit to 30 days. And don’t set up unreasonable expectations for yourself that you’ll never be able to succeed at, so the whole exercise gets written off as yet another artistic failure.

Start simple. Draw a cup. Or an egg. Or a plant. Don’t judge your work AT ALL.

It’s not about whether it’s a great drawing or not, it is only about keeping the commitment to draw or create every day……for thirty days. Watch what happens. Take notice of what you discover. Write a paragraph about your experience, a non- judge mental paragraph. Then, take a break for a day or two.

Next, ask yourself, “what do I want to do next?” You can always do another 30 days. Maybe this time try collage or watercolor pencils. Over time you will become aware of your areas of weakness, (but few of us can acknowledge or strengths). So maybe you can work on your areas of weakness. For some it might mean difficulty in drawing people. So try drawing from magazine photos. If you can’t figure out your problem, its time to talk to a teacher. We can help if you let us.

The thing I know most, is that people often set unrealistic expectations for themselves, give up to easily, and only see their faults, never strengths. Committing to a creative challenge can be a great tool. Why not start today?

To see more of Juan Saliba’s work, go to http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/511927image