I don't often feel confident enough to put my own work on these pages; playing the role of 'critic' is much easier. But I've been encouraged by kind feedback on the story of 'Olimpo' that is the first entry on this blog. So, with baited breath, a short story of ecology, participation and imagery.
On Saturday afternoon I cut down a tree. I had threatened it last year when Kate and I stood beside it and I said I thought it was dead and that it would need to be felled. Within two days it started to bud and a week later it was festooned with pink blossom. But no leaves grew and so I imagined that the beautiful flowers were a last gesture of life. This year I didn’t give it a chance. No comments, no questions. I stood with it for a moment, the chain saw snarled into life and the tree was done.
This kind of intervention in the ecology of our home always seems to draw me into a thoughtful and often creative mood. The lower trunk of the tree seemed quite alive compared to the dry, brittle upper branches and I began to wonder if, in fact, it was really dead. I became confused and wondered what tree death would actually look like? Maybe it was simply dormant, secretly preparing to ready to burst into colour again? There is a tree a short walk from our house which was planted when Henry VIII visited the village. It’s now decrepit branches are supported by props and it does a good job of looking fairly poorly, but then each year it sprouts into new life. Maybe tree death isn’t quite the binary alive/dead construction that I was imagining.
As our tree lay on the grass, I realised that the upper part of the trunk was scarred by the work of a woodpecker. The frame that I briefly held was ‘woodpecker damage’ though I quickly realised that I could also detect holes in the wood caused some sort of insect. The woodpecker knew its craft, every pecked hole had a smaller hole at its centre, and so maybe it was the insect which was the agent of ‘damage’. My thoughts then slowly drifted out of my head and moved down and along my arms to be surprised by the gently idling chain saw. I began to notice the warmth of a low winter sun through my heavy jacket and suddenly felt closer to the ground. Who was I, saw in hand, to stand in judgement? So rather than grinding the tree trunk down to ground level (easier for the mower) I decided to leave it alone; a memorial cast of its own form and life. I will, of course, curse it later in the year when I’m trying to cut the grass.
After the significant drama of a tree falling to the ground, cutting the logs and clearing the branches and twigs always seems to take a long time. Our twelve year old tree provided us with 19 logs and a TV sized box of kindling; I bought the state-of-the-art-multi-something-or-other-Panasonic TC-25AS1R more than 9 years ago and, though we no longer use it, the cardboard box has been superb. And so, with any reference to time or utility delightfully dislocated, I thought again of my nineteen logs. On a cold night we might burn two or three an hour. Twelve years of growth, a deft piece of chain saw work and some collecting/stacking, for maybe 7 hours of warmth. It would only take a moment and I could ‘One-Click’ 2000 litres of oil and heat the house for months.
It seems to me that to virtually ‘click’ is to participate in the world in a way that is entirely different from cutting trees to burn for heat, and that I shouldn’t stand in judgement here either. And yet I do. Apart from Monday, I have spent the whole of last week in a virtual world. Emails, telephone calls, writing, pictures, video but no real, personal contact. When I do this I am aware that I slowly begin to disassociate myself from what I now feel as my sense of grounding, participative ecology. Slowly, I get anxious and frustrated, overly critical, angry with myself, with the world.
And I know this intimately; and... my own photography and imagery is always a view of a tiny ‘selection’ that reflects a conflated mix of my feelings and thoughts. I wonder if you, as reader, enjoyed the photograph of the logs and the story that accompanied it? A simple image. A simple truth.
Except that I know that I stacked those logs intentionally and then took 13 photographs to get the one I liked. I bounced light from my flashgun into the roof of the barn so that it would give definition, shadow, and, not approving of the way that the combination of Nikon, Photoshop and iMac had translated the colours, I manipulated them to make the wood seem warmer. Warmer? Perhaps warmth which might reflect the relationship I have with the wood or the tree, or perhaps an aspiration of evenings by the fireside with the children and our dog, who would be so close to the heat she would singe her fur. Then I have darkened the edges of the image to direct your attention to the centre. This is an adjustment that I find looks clumsy and overdone yet we are so culturally attuned to this stylistic device you might not have even noticed. And so this is my truth. And, if you looked at the logs on a computer monitor, then remember that there is a good chance that your monitor, unlike mine, is not colour corrected (whatever ‘colour corrected’ might mean) and so the more subtle aspects of my efforts are already gone. Of course, if you have printed this work on your cheap bubble jet printer then you have completely blown it. And in case you are now separating yourself away from all the images, videos and TV screens that assault you each day, suddenly realising that they are not real, while you cautiously hold onto this text, then realise too that my practice as a writer is to drift into fantasy and mess around with the ‘verifiable data’ of memories and imagination. So maybe I didn’t even take the picture, perhaps I downloaded it from Google... Maybe.