For at least 25 years I’ve been doodling trees–in margins of notebooks in high school English, on my flared jeans in Sharpie during Survey of the Old Testament in college. Near home in Tinley Park, Illinois, there was one particular tree, deep down south on LaGrange Road, in a soybean field between the Speedway and 17st Street that always drew my attention and affection on the way to the mall. The field would flood around that tree making it look more sad and scruffy and alone than usual. I adored that tree. I once loaded black and white film into my camera, took it’s picture, framed it, and kept it in my room on the table my dad built for a desk–a hallowed place some teenaged girls reserved for pictures of their boyfriends.
It’s therapeutic to see what shape a tree will take as you draw it. You start with parrallel-ish lines at the bottom of the space and see where it takes you, what kind of tree you’ll end up with. It’s sort of labyrinth-esque maze-making, the artistic original ancestor of those intricate zen coloring books. What kind of tree will you end up with–a young spindly seedling with a few small leaves or an old stately oak? Most tree sketchers aim for the latter.
In general, it’s about division, this tree drawing. From the trunk you divide into branches, then divide and divide and divide again until the branches are but thin pencil lines. If all goes well your tree is proportionate with a beautiful crown, a full canopy. Just make sure it isn’t all too uniform. Make sure you have some unpredicted but balanced bends. Add a crooked or broken branch here or there. It is a fallen world, after all. Trees are as imperfect as the rest of us. Try to envision real trees you’ve seen as you draw.
You might have misjudged your space and your tree is growing off the page. Maybe your tree time was interrupted and your tree looks leafless and dead, like an ash boarer beetle victim, or a diseased elm or like the utility company had to saw off a major limb so as not to crowd the wires and it’s looking rather imbalanced. It’s all good. You still made a tree–or at least part of one.
If you have extra time–in my case if class wasn’t over–you might add a tire swing to a low branch or a bird’s nest in a choice crook to give it that lived-in, finished look.
As a teenager I knew where the only gingko was in our Valley View subdivision. It was very young with not many leaves. I took a few fallen yellow ones, rubbing that soft midrib-free leaf texture between my thumb and fingers. When I moved out of the house I found those leaves, lighter and more brittle but still as bright, between the pages of an old dictionary.
“Do you ever pray for your future husband?” I was asked from the drivers seat of the minivan. I was maybe 15, riding shotgun, getting delivered home after babysitting. I politely declined and didn’t mention that I didn’t even know if I wanted to get married or even thought about it very often. But perhaps just her just saying it aloud was a kind of prayer. Years later it was her daughter who said I should meet her best friend’s brother, a fine young lad who had yet to discover his tree man identity.
I never dreamed back then that one day I would have my own tree man–a man who spends his corporate bonuses and vacation time planting trees. I never dared to dream that one day I would share a life with a man who would plant me a ginkgo, like the one in Oak Park at the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio. Who wouldn’t love a tree that adorned the gray November with its hundreds of sunny yellow leaves–looking for all the world like a quiet celebration of Japanese fans? And who wouldn’t love a man who would plant that for you with his own hands?
And then nine years ago, to pass the afternoon hours until he got home, I would sing to our baby a church song from my childhood by Ken Medema called “The Tree Song.” It’s a song I still sometimes sing to that baby’s restless little sister at bedtime. The verses are about a riverside tree, then a wintertime tree and then a city tree. After each verse is this beloved chorus:
I’ve got roots growing down to the water / I’ve got leaves growing up to the sunshine / and the fruit that I bear is a sign / of the life in me (echo: life in me!) / I am shade from the hot summer sunshine / I am nest for the birds of the heavens / I’m becoming what the Lord of trees had meant me to be / a strong young tree
And then in my best sweet-mommy voice I always say at the end to my little one: “And you’re becoming a strong young tree!”
There isn’t much I wouldn’t do for the tree man. If he wanted me to stand here barefoot with soil between my toes until they grew roots deep down into the dark earth I would. If he asked my arms to be branches, to be shade for him, like a prophet in the desert sun, I would. If he asked I would grow tall as a tulip poplar and thicken my bark like a cedar and photosynthesize the sun for food. I would drink rain and bend in the wind but only for my citizen forester, my Jonny Appleseed, my one and only tree man.