On Frequenting Sacred Shades

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Lately I’ve been working on several paintings and an installation for an upcoming group exhibition (6/15/18 – pictures to come). I thought I would attempt to write something around my contribution.

My aspiration as an artist is to express dwelling in nature. I choose to live in the countryside rather than the city. I am constantly walking through the land, driving its roads, and taking in the expanse of the trees and fields.

Nature is visceral. Out here you feel nature intensely. Out here you see and hear and experience certain events that you would never encounter if you lived in a well-populated area. When you see a coyote rip apart the corpse of a deer nature gets real. You quickly realize that life on this planet is born out of death, and that what is going on is a gigantic cycle. Nature is a constant ascendancy and de-ascendancy, constant rise and return – necrogenic energy.

The forest has long been abandoned as a natural habitat, at least since the rise of agriculture. The forest is a strange place to be if you really think about it. Even though our ancestors came from the trees, the wooded areas can intimidate us – you can’t see too far into the distance, and there are many things in the woods that want to eat you.

I’ve been venturing into the woodland for several years – enough time to get a grasp on the cycles of the seasons and to see the profound change that happens in the landscape. Walking through the woods (almost) every day, I observe that it is constantly changing. I begin to notice the changes – a tree has fallen since my last visit to a given spot. There are always new things arising from the old. It is a transformation.

How is transformation different than change? Transformation retains nothing of its previous state.

This has directly influenced my aesthetic sense.

My sensibility also begins to resonate with the symbolic lore and the Mysteries involving nature’s cycles. I am interested in cultus arborem. The worship of trees, or considering the woodland as the sacred grove, or this or that particular tree the axle tree of life, is a common and universal theme.  In the Greek Mysteries, Zeus composes the third race of humans from ash trees. In Scandinavian lore, the world-tree supports the branches of nine worlds. The Kabbalah of the Jews consists of nine branches, or worlds, emanating from the First Cause, and the single source and endless diversity of its expression has the symbolism structure of a tree. To the Druids, whose speculated meaning refers to ‘men of the oak trees’, the illumined philosopher-priests were referred to as as ‘tree men.’ In Freemasonry the branches of acacia and evergreen are regarded as the most significant of emblems, where in the symbolic resurrection of Chiram, based upon the Egyptian Mystery ritual of the murder and rebirth of Osiris, the sprig of acacia marks the grave of that quality that transcends death. In the Mysteries of Solomon’s Temple the cutting of the “cedars of Lebanon” could refer to the initiated mystics. Buddha sat under the bodhi tree and received illumination.

In my recent installation I’ve used pine trees as a material. I’ve explored it as representation, as physical artifact, and as abstraction. I’ve expressed it through photography, found objects and painting.

The installation is called Selva Oscura – dark wood.

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The title echoes Dante’s opening stanzas in the Inferno, drawing upon the Roman idea of the dark wood as a place where one lost one’s way. But my exploration of the woodland is also informed by (1) the emblem of the vernal equinox – the annual resurrection of the solar deity; (2) the form of the sensitive plant, signifying the vitality of nature; (3) the symbolic attribution of immortality and regeneration, under the form of the evergreen that represents that which ventures through the passageway of death.

The pine tree is frequently associated with the World Martyr. Pine made its way into Christology, and before that with Atys of the Phrygian Mysterties who died under the branches of the pine tree. Both myths allude to the solar virility at the winter solstice.

The dark wood is a place of adversity but it is not only gloom because it is matched by an inclination of vegetable nature to reach towards the light. All of vegetable nature reaches upward – symbolic of reaching toward the heavens. To be like the trees is to have origin in the muck of life and reach one’s branches towards the firmament. It is out of the darkness that one can better see light. One has to go through the underground, where the clod of the earth is populated with the deepest roots, in order to go upward towards the sun. I am reminded of Nietzsche and his theme of the serpent and the eagle.

Of course, the cultus arborem echoes back into Gothic architecture and the ancient origins of that sensibility, where the incorporation of botanical ornament grew directly out of the experience of the woodland. The plant forms, twigs, boughs, arbors, leaves, tendrils became forms evoking the ancient connections to pagan speculation. This aesthetic is  essentially a celebration of the life-giving aspects of earth – the Gaian force, the goddesses, or the maternal principles. Trees became the symbol of the world axis in association to such principles.

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The dark wood is also an evocation of the fecund earth. Its origins are expressed in the cults of rustic pilgrimage where the tabernacle of trees lend themselves to a spectacle of enchantment. The matter of the enchantment is a rapture in the vitality of life, as a sacred experience of the forces of the life-death-life cycle.

Other artifacts that allude to the symbolism are wreathes composed of tree and plant material, which have been worn during initiations into the Mysteries for thousands of years. This material has included foliage, lurel, olive, myrtle, ivy, oak, pine, etc. The symbol opens upon the idea of generative power, signiyfing the perpetuity of life’s vigor.

In folk medicine, Pine needles and bark have been used, in particular for the lungs. Inhaling the steam of boiled needles and cones were said to treat asthma symptoms. The bark was used to treat fevers. In early America, the plaster of the pine pitch was made up with slphyur, honey and brandy as a pain liniment, and Native American tribes had many uses for pine, including for coughs, colds and fevers, and many external applications – with the use of the pine pitch as a plaster for pain, dwelling, infections and spider bites.

Pine has also been a funerary tree, since as an evergreen it is symbolic of ‘everlasting life.’ A custom stemming from Russia includes covering a coffin being carried to the cemetary with branches of pine and fir. The diseased member of a Freemason lodge has a sprig of pine or acaia laid over their heart while laying in wake. The Chinese planted pine and cypress over graves.

Waller said in On St James Park,

In such green palaces the first kings reigned;
slept in their shade, and the angels entertained;
With such cold counsellors they did advise,
And by frequenting sacred shades, grew wise.”

What I have thought the arborem to be is the first principle of a natural theology, and what I have also discovered is that it appears as a result of ancient and primitive symbolical worship that was once universally prevalent.

As an artist attempting to express a dwelling in nature, I am drawn to the ‘sacred shades’ as it revolves around the vital or generative force of nature.

 

 

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