The Solace of Trees Posted by Henri Cole for The New Yorker
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
The Solace of Trees Posted by Henri Cole for The New Yorker. Read more at www.NewYorker.com
When the staple of life is suffering, I sometimes find it hard to believe in God, at least in any orthodox way, but in my darkest moments I pray on my knees, like I did when I was a boy. Instead, I believe in Nature, because when I stroll deep into the woods I experience what others describe as spiritual feelings. If it’s true that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, in Nature I can see the multiplicity of His being. None of us is excluded. I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Pied Beauty,” which glorifies all things “counter, original, spare, strange.” I want to write poems that are counter, original, spare, and strange.
I love the lines from Whitman’s “Song of Myself” where he says:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
One more reason to hate war is that it destroys Nature—the fields, the deer, the lake, the trees—and, with it, alas, the heavens, the resting place of our souls.
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In part, this is why I’m drawn to the watercolors of Charles Burchfield. Even the scary, brooding, romantic ones comfort me, like “In the Deep Woods,” in which dead tree trunks are juxtaposed with an abundance of ferns and flowers. The setting reminds us that we are, as biological organisms, simultaneously living and dying. There is an ongoing cycle of death and rebirth that is a part of our everyday lives, though it remains largely invisible. But in the dense forest, if you look closely, beyond the black pond, there is something lyrical (divine, like a stained-glass window) glowing there, too.
* * *
When he was twenty-one and still living in the small manufacturing town of Salem, Ohio, with five siblings and his widowed mother, Burchfield wrote in his journal, “As I walked along despising myself I was almost ashamed to look at a tree—they are so innocently sincere—I never saw a haw aspiring to be an elm. I have had my lesson.” He had considered becoming a nature writer, but instead attended art school, where he became an artist whose direct and faithful paintings evolved over time into hallucinatory representations of small-town life and the effects of industrialization, and of mystical trees aureoled abstractly with sunshine or moonlight. I think Burchfield was an ecstatic naturalist, or a folksy visionary, in the manner of William Blake—sometimes euphoric, sometimes depressive, but always original. Driving home from Ohio, I visited the little house, now a museum, where he and his five siblings were raised, and I looked through each of the windows just as the sensitive Burchfield had done when he was seeking things to paint.
Burchfield painted the things he saw around him every day—his streets and neighbors, his town and environs. He wanted to preserve the essence of a small Midwestern place, but also to imprint it with his own imagination, which is God for any true artist. On first looking at “Christmas Chimney,” you might find it nostalgic, but then you see, in the distance, a house on fire, and isn’t there just a little too much anxious smoke coming out of that chimney? In a letter, Burchfield wrote, “Remember how one chimney used to catch on fire? We boys used to think it was wonderful. Remember the night you … thought our house was on fire and nearly broke the side-door down?”
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After Burchfield graduated from art school, America was in a postwar Depression. He was briefly an Army sergeant and designed military camouflage. Then, in 1921, he took a job designing wallpaper at M. H. Birge & Sons Company, in Buffalo, New York, and his drawings and watercolors were made into bold wallpaper. Sometimes, these designs included birch trees and cottonwoods; they were well received, though nothing like them had been done before.
At Birge, a hundred new wallpaper patterns were created each year, with many different colorings. Eventually, Burchfield became the head of the design department, leaving little energy for his own paintings, but it was better work than in a factory, where salaries were eventually cut in half. It would be years before Burchfield earned enough from his paintings to leave this commercial work—after a show of his early watercolors at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York—and could support his wife, Bertha, and their five children. “I’d rather be poor and hungry than be a widow,” Burchfield’s devoted wife told him.
Between about 1935 and 1965, some of his paintings were reproduced as handsome Christmas cards, which today seem a little haunted, with no people present in them. “A picture has a life and direction of its own and the artist has to find out which way the picture wants to go, and follow,” Birchfield believed. The same is true for a poem, of course. In 1947, he wrote in his journal, “Working all three days on painting of Christmas tree, with our front room, the middle arch & part of the middle room. I strove to put into it all the joy of Christmas, of family love, and home life, peace and sweet contentment.”
It’s as if generations pass by while a tree stands watching without making a single noise. As Christmas approaches, I find it harder to comfort myself when I think about those who have passed on. Certainly, they would want me to be happy, I tell myself. It’s the absence of a mother or a father in Burchfield’s Christmas paintings that makes them seem elegiac. Brought down from a mountain, where it’s freezing, the Christmas tree—pine, balsam, or fir, from North Carolina, Virginia, or Oregon—appears almost like a flower, lushly blooming in the temporary glow of a warm room where there is love, too. “But what we think of as beauty in the natural world is something else in reality,” Burchfield said. A tree’s lushness is simply a manifestation of the “force struggle” (his words) to overcome its final destiny, which is to have its chemicals ploughed back into the earth.
One of Burchfield’s favorite authors was Willa Cather. In 1930, he thought she should have received the Nobel Prize in Literature instead of Sinclair Lewis. He loved her novel “My Ántonia,” in which there is a poignant Christmas-morning scene when the young narrator goes down into the kitchen and the men are just coming in from their chores—the horses and pigs having had their breakfast—for a meal of waffles. The narrator sits down at the table and listens to his grandfather saying grace:
He gave thanks for our food and comfort, and prayed for the poor and destitute in great cities, where the struggle for life was harder than it was here with us. Grandfather’s prayers were often very interesting. He had the gift of simple and moving expression. Because he talked so little, his words had a peculiar force; they were not worn dull from constant use. His prayers reflected what he was thinking about at the time, and it was chiefly through them that we got to know his feelings and his views about things.
Burchfield wasn’t a conventionally religious man. When he was a teen-ager, because his mother had said that she didn’t feel she was good enough to belong to the local church, he struggled with organized religion. Later in life, he made his peace with it, and painted the light. Looking back, he said that one of the supremely happy moments of his life was standing in the woods and listening to the wind soaring through the treetops.
This afternoon, twilight is coming down “out of the eternal heights of heaven on the earth,” just as Burchfield described it doing in a note written on the back of one of his paintings. Outdoors, the streets and sidewalks are fading into darkness. I can see into windows of the building across the road from me. A man and a woman are sitting down in the dark at a table. In the corner of the room, a little Christmas tree shines, bringing to mind the tiny electric Christmas tree that sat on Daddy’s hi-fi when I was a boy. It had colorful, electric bubbling lights that fascinated my young self just as the yellow haze on the horizon fascinates me now, coming down so early these days, over the rooftops at dusk, just before darkness nips everything.
Henri Cole is the author of eight collections of poetry, including “Touch.” A new book is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His Paris diary, “Street of the Iron Po(e)t,” can also be read on Page-Turner.
Photos courtesy of Henri Cole. “Black Tree (Gloomy Tree)” and “Christmas Scene” by Charles Burchfield, courtesy of The Estate of Charles Burchfield and DC Moore Gallery, New York. “In the Deep Woods” by Charles Burchfield, reproduced with permission of the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation