Tree Book 6: As Above, So Below
July 19, 2012
Both new tree drawings are Velvet Ash, Fraxinus velutina. Young trees are very straight, with smooth gray bark, supple whiplike branches, and opposite compound leaves. Mature trees have a broad, vase-shaped crown and long straight branches. The oldest trees have a swollen base and gnarled exposed roots. Velvet ash is one of the most drought-tolerant of riparian trees and grows in bedrock canyons, broad bajada washes, and grassland creeks. It is closely related to the Green Ash, Fraxinus pennsylvanica, of the eastern U.S. A desert ash grove has a high canopy and provides open, spacious shade in summer. The abundant drifts of fallen leaves provide cover for insects and small animals. Every few years, desert washes may be scoured by flash floods that uproot trees and rearrange boulders and sandbars. Velvet ash can repopulate a gravel bar with dozens of young trees within a decade, though only a few of the strongest will survive to maturity.
I have continued to refine the plan for the Tree Book; part of it will be a journey among desert trees. It will begin in the lower desert, among palo verde, ironwood, and saguaro. It will climb through bajada washes up into the mountains to the shady canyons in Madrean oak-pine woodland, where I will rest under a madrone.
There are no fairies or elves or wood spirits in these pages. If you are looking for a mirror to carry into the forest, or craving an imaginary humanoid as a buffer against the Otherness of wild nature, you will not find it here.
These are portraits of real trees, not field guide abstractions or fantasy creations. They are waymarkers along real paths that can be marked on a map, yet they also anchor my personal inner geography of precious places. Some of them grow on roadsides or public trails. Others are hidden far in the back country. Many are only a few steps into the wild, yet nearly invisible.
PENCIL DRAWINGS: The top drawing shows the base of a very large tree growing in the canyon where I collected the pebbles for my stone beads. The lower drawing is a winter view of a tree in the same canyon as the Braided Hackberry.
For yesterday’s New Moon, I went on an appropriate field trip to Kartchner Caverns State Park. This is a fairly new commercial cave and photography is not allowed, nor are there many pictures for sale at the park. The cave is being used for various scientific studies and is still being mapped, so presumably there will eventually be a collection of high-quality photos available. My drawing lacks accurate details and is a just a sketch from memory of some of the prettiest travertine speleothems: thin “soda straw” stalagmites, helictites (curved, branching stalactites), drapery, a multilayered “totem pole” stalagmite, and a large flowstone column that looks like a vertical stone forest, with the “trees” stacked on top of each other. They resemble the gnarled desert oaks that grow in the wash near the cave, but I have been drawing ash trees this week, so I couldn’t help thinking of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. I have always imagined it as a single, ridged trunk, straight as a spear shaft, with a broad crown above and a maze of hollow rootcaves below. But yesterday I could see it as a vertical grove of desert trees – 0ak, ash, and others – formed by microbes and calcite and water dripping in the dark. It is a secret stone forest hidden in the hollow mountain, below roots and limestone outcrops and agave stalks and bright, hot sunlight.