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'Weeping Vulva.' Watercolor and pastel by Carolyn Newberger

Illuminating the Hidden Forest, Chapter 15: On the femininity of trees

By Sunday, Oct 13, 2019 Life In the Berkshires

To read the previous installments of ‘Illuminating the Hidden Forest,’ click here.

July 12, 2018

I wrote a few days ago about Lily on the hunt. I had been on my canvas stool painting a vulva-like cleft weeping from the trunk of an oak tree. Art book on my knees, brush loaded, I leaped up, stuffed my gear and took off to save my yelping dog from imagined coyotes. Yet it was she that was the predator.

Several days later, my observation of the cleft incomplete and the mystery of the weeping unexplained in the otherwise dry forest, I felt that I needed to go back. I found the tree with its cleft still moist. I put my finger in the juice and tasted. Bitter. Bitter tears.

Setting up my stool, water, paints and pen, I set to work to capture this apparition that somehow spoke to me so deeply. I struggled. My paints became muddy on the page; the opening looked cavernous, undefined. I couldn’t capture the wet.

Lily returned several times for a drink of water from the small extra jar I carried to keep her from lapping my painting water, full of cobalt and cadmium, before I could stop her. I was pouring sweat, a dripping, glistening human woman trying to paint a dripping, glistening cleft scarring an oak tree.

‘And Yet She Persisted.’ Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

I usually think of oaks as male, the fathers and grandfathers of the woods, strong, protective, taking care of others with acorns and shade. But this oak feels decidedly female not just anatomically, but because she weeps.

When I encounter a tree in the forest with a gaping hole in its aged trunk or a vine encircling its girth up into the canopy, squeezing out its breath — a tree for one reason or another clinging to life or patiently enduring — that tree, whether it be oak, pine, maple, ash or birch, is always female to me. These are the trees whose bark I stroke, or into whose hollowed interiors I squeeze, listening for the whoosh of juices that carry her life blood from the roots below through her damaged body and into the leafy canopy above.

On my stool facing the oak, I felt compelled to communicate the power and the pathos of that weeping wound. I looked at my muddy, messy painting, discouraged and disappointed. Somehow, though, I wanted to stay with it, not start over. After all, I was confronting a wet, oozing imperfection — something to be rescued, not abandoned.

At the bottom of my fanny pack, I found a few oil pastels thrown in but never used. In fact, I had never used oil pastels before, but they had spoken to me from the shelves of Miller’s Supply. I had bought a small tin of bright colors and thrown them into my fanny pack just in case.

I pulled them out and began to color in the soft greens of the mosses, the blues of the scaly lichens, some of the deep reds of the decaying cambium and the glistening highlights of the tears. The waxy colors lay over the washy watercolor — not of it, but creating a film of soft brightness and glistening highlights.

In the world of watercolor purists, this would never do. Watercolor should be clean, transparent, following the rules. In the inventive world of women, however, it is just fine.

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