Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Huge Tree Pressing into the Atmosphere

I've been having another nostalgia trip these weeks while painting and drawing the details of sycamore bark; the project is the illustrated family tree for the clan of La Montagnes of the south-central U.S. with roots in Mexico. The American sycamore, Platanus occidentalis, remains dear to me because much of my first dozen years was spent beneath a sycamore at the edge of Marion County, Indiana, where a twisted, seemingly-mile-high sycamore shaded our pretend games out by the swings, and down along the White River grew hollow sycamores on a floodplain that now hosts a strip of stores. I wonder if the tree that I imagined housing a pay telephone still stands back there beyond a blacktop alleyway.

A favorite writer I remember on the topic of American trees was Rutherford Platt, whose A Pocket Guide to Trees : How to Identify and Enjoy Them I keep in the original paperback copy with pages warped and rippling from falling out from under my arm into Sugar Creek in southern Indiana when I walked there with the family as a young teen. Of the sycamore Mr. Platt wrote:
     "You know it at a glance by the white, purple, and gray patchwork of its bark. Upper trunk and lower  part of limbs may be smooth, bright white all over. This dramatic bark has unforgettable splendor. On a clear winter day, when lighted by brightness from snow, it is like nothing else in treedom. ... Sycamore grows only the inner layer of its bark every year. This living bark becomes white on exposure to the sun, and the bark of previous years, not growing, and therefore not expanding to fit around the bigger trunk, is forced off the tree in patches. In effect, the tree is bursting its breeches. Varied tints are due to the number of years' exposure of the older layers before they fall off. Sunlight turns bark chemicals gold, brown and blue-gray."
According to Rutherford Platt the state of Indiana is the headquarters of the American sycamore.

Many years ago, before and after I came to live in Minnesota I used to visit Owen County, Indiana where my friend the librarian Gisela Hersch (Gisela Schluter Terrell) lived on several acres of deep hardwoods not far from the town of Spencer. As we swept along the local gravel roadways in one small car or other I became filled with imagery of riverbanks sewn in place by coiling sycamore and wrote the following poem, titled Entering a Midwestern Capital:

Indiana! Indiana! One remembers knits of twiggage,
redness drained away in sky that vanished
uphill as the road was lowering, unfocusing the eye from
how the mud broke off in gulches or exulted up in trees that grasped the sudden uplands.
Indiana curved forever supple, around
its rivers that kept beveling the knolls that stood compelling them.
The outswept seats of weed thickened into
that wickerwork of pillars and their racks of leaf
but billowed with a roar beyond, off to the evening’s droop of shade
caught in a forest resurging, flaunting
the hard holds of the beech and ironwood, tautly hefting their limbs,
and sycamore, coiling in patchwork—oak, reaching elbows rustic in fractured silver.

A landscape painting in watercolor followed, sold in Wilmar, Minnesota some years ago but reproduced on the card available here at
The original painting had the poem inscribed on it; the card image does not.

My gratitude will go with me to the end of my days for the outdoor privileges I had in youth, spent in open spaces both in Indiana and in Ontario's Algoma District, a little bit of it virginal forest, most of it regenerating from agricultural frenzies that included grazing and lumbering. Seeing the loss of these places or their puncturing by new houses or other installations in support of an ever-larger network of human beings, and learning of the atrocities the American industrial mode of life in its insistence on spreading itself till water depletion and climate catastrophe impose their own limits, I have turned into a cynical middle-ager. I think that  all manner of modern societies are a curse to themselves, each other and the earth in how they assert that their control of land, resources and other people deserve only to grow lest they be treated as of no account, no matter the psychological and physical damage and deprivation to countless creatures, not just human. It ought to be so obvious that having large families and no limits on fertility bring shortage and warfare, for example, or that sulfide mining will spill over into a whole watershed, or that meanness begets meanness and retaliation, or that orgies of fossil-fuel burning do nothing but uphold the legitimacy and glory of that fossil-fuel technology (aircraft, trucks, heavyweight cars, etc.) and guarantee that people will go on in their dependence on it till the supporting economy for enough of it fails. What can we dispense with and what can't we, you would think everybody would be asking themselves by now. I sit back in my trust that what we won't resolve will sooner or later overwhelm us with our own excesses issuing from too many people taking too much out of a finite earth and infesting it with our own structures, even so that for an unfortunate many the world seems to offer no place to be oneself; all they detect near at hand is a wasteland.

It was breathtaking a few months ago to draw some conclusions from 'Whatever Happened to "The Good Old Days"?', an NPG (Negative Population Growth) Forum Paper by Chris Clugston. This essay is about the diminishing supply of 'NNRs' or nonrenewable natural resources, the "finite and non-replenishing fossil fuels, metals and nonmetallic minerals" that make up the raw materials of all our products, the stuff of all our urban and industrial structures and the main energy sources for our industrialized way of life. The NNRs are all in some way extracted from the earth, and Clugston goes on to show that despite recycling and reuse, conservation, materials substitution, efficiency measures and all manner of invention and innovation, annual rates at which NNRs are drawn upon rise without let-up as urban civilization keeps expanding. The essay is loaded with charts, figures, graphs and statistics with two pages of bibliography for anyone wanting to do an investigation on one's own.

Comparing historical prosperity with trends ever since 1960 Clugston makes his case that we are, amid the entirety of NNRs which he lists alphabetically, from bauxite to zinc, moving from an era of  'robustly increasing' to 'faltering' prosperity. Moreover in recent decades the diminishing quality of the NNRs we are able to access prevails over the ingenuity called for so the supply can meet the demand in terms of price. Global demand for NNRs, of course, knows no limit. In terms of material living standards he projects four scenarios through the decades up to 2050: a decline following a temporary improvement in which 'human ingenuity prevails over continuously decreasing NNR quality', versus a temporary reprieve, his likeliest scenario, in which 'decreasing NNR quality and human ingenuity remains at a standoff.' Otherwise we face either a continued decline in which 'geopolitical and geological barriers to currently accessible NNRs...are not overcome' or accelerated decline which is mostly a matter of the same outcome happening sooner.

Could it be possible for more and more people to see past the gloom and inevitably-compounding tragedy in any of these scenarios to welcome the changing of regimes back to what worked better for longer? It may be that a person has to dwell in a situation removed from the rising risk of, as my friend Dave Heinz calls it, the four horsemen, plague, famine, war and disease, to take any kind of welcoming attitude. Again and again I recoil from any prospect of horrors because I can imagine what is so far beyond my experience. But proceeding to what might await beyond mass societal and economic collapse, utopias come to mind. I can also imagine that forgotten societies of long ago may have paralleled forms of social organization that will arise in a future when the earth and surviving peoples are freed of control by mega-industry and its delusions about the viability of perpetual growth, if not that specific venture's growth, that of a specific industry. We can at best think large, of cycles of boom and collapse, and that everything has its heyday, decline and sometimes a rebirth...

1 comment:

  1. so wonderful a read ,an ice cream sunday of words
    with lots of nuts and cherries