A Book of Trees in a Dream

January 17, 2012

I have always wanted to write an illustrated natural history book.  It began long ago, when I began to see scientific illustration as more than just an old-fashioned art form, and started to work on it as a spiritual practice.

Morel - watercolor, 1984

Morel - watercolor, 1984

Science. Nature. Art. Spirit.  For me there is no division between these things, although Science typically argues otherwise, and continues to shatter Itself into smaller and more isolated fragments.

“Things just get further and further apart, The head from the hands, and the hands from the heart.”
– Lhasa de Sela (from the album “The Living Road”, 2004).

 It recently occurred to me that I have been looking for this book all of my life, subconciously searching for it in libraries, nature centers, bookstores, and even online.  But I’ll never find it there, and my unusual combination of interests probably means that it must be purely a personal project.  In years past, I’ve made several attempts to plan it, and succeeded only in writing a few disjointed paragraphs to go with a handful of random images.  But it began to crystallize about a year ago, as I refined the Lichen Oracle and decided to let it evolve into a larger project.  A diverse collection of notes, lists, and drawings – some of them years or decades old – slowly came together, like iron filings drawn by a magnet.  I drew a huge diagram that evolved into a tangled net of tiny interconnected sketches and single words.  It sat rolled up in my studio for months as I conjured inspiration to fill in the gaps.  New sketches accumulated on the shelf above it.  One day I unrolled the chart, intending to make a second draft, more organized and detailed.  I realized that half of it was sketches for four drawings that I had since finished.  I rejected some of it as no longer useful.  Only a small piece was left.  I added it to the pile of recent sketches, put them all in an empty, newly-prepared drawer of my flatfile cabinet, and went back to work on a pencil drawing.

Slowly and quietly, all the bits and pieces began to speak to each other.  Irrelevant or duplicated ideas vanished.  Hidden connections surfaced.  A simplified structure emerged.  I began to see it, like a path through a thicket.

A book of drawings, paintings, illuminations, and writing.

The Graphis Lichen Oracle and the Oracle of Sticks, Stones, and Bones.

A record of sacred natural treasures:  trees and precious pebbles, seedpods, shells, fungi, pieces of wood.

How to look at a deer antler, or a desert fern, or a quartz crystal, or a turtle shell.

A Creekwalker’s account of the Gates into the Otherworld:
The Lichen Cloak, the Thorn House, the Wheel of Hawks.

And other pages, still unspoken here…

Of course some of it is already finished.  A lot more resides in the drawer of rough drafts, waiting.  A new red ochre drawing lays on my desk.  One night I saw a version of the book in a dream, a sure sign that the project is well on its way and ready for more energy and a tighter focus.  In the dream, the pages held only pencil drawings of sacred native trees and their wood:  oak, hackberry, saguaro, swamp tupelo, beech, and others.  Its purpose was to “banish the fear of death” in the viewer.  (I expect that would take a very special and unusual viewer, given the incomprehension, unease, fear, or hostility with which most people view this type of art).  But it was good enough for me.  The work continues, more seriously now, as the path rises into the desert oak forest.

Tree Book - Wood Drawings

Tree Book - Wood Drawings

O’bon L’Artiste pencils in a Moleskine large sketchbook.
LEFT:  weathered live oak wood (Quercus virginiana), Nags Head, NC.
RIGHT:  part of a walking stick made from Arizona black oak root (Quercus emoryi), Santa Rita Mountains, AZ.
TOP:  saguaro “boot” (scarwood), baldcypress driftwood, and rockmat (Petrophytum caespitosum), a miniature shrub.


Fourth in an occasional series of natural history book reviews.  Books reviewed here can be purchased through Amazon.com by following the links from my Southern Arizona Desert Botany homepage.

LICHENS OF NORTH AMERICA, by Irwin M. Brodo, Sylvia Duran Sharnoff, and Stephen Sharnoff.  2001, Yale University Press, 828 pages, hardbound.

This is certainly one of the most beautiful and ambitious natural history books ever published.  Printed on smooth, sturdy paper and lavishly illustrated with hundreds of stunning photos, the “Big Book” is an important addition to any naturalist’s library.   It contains keys, descriptions, and spectacular photos for about a third of U.S. lichen species.  The introductory material stands alone as a significant up-to-date work on lichen natural history, and includes detailed background information on lichen biology, chemistry, ecology, and a fascinating and useful section on geographic distribution.  The text is carefully prepared, well organized, and very readable.  It is designed to reach the broadest possible audience, from professional  scientists to beginning naturalists, and succeeds very well.  This is a wonderful browsing book for the armchair naturalist, a useful and informative guide for lichen enthusiasts of all levels, and an inspiration for nature photographers. 

The book is dedicated to the late Mason E. Hale, the American lichenologist who wrote How to Know the Lichens, which was the first detailed guide to American lichens that was written for the general public.  Dr. Hale bought and autographed a copy for me in 1984, when I worked for a summer as his intern at the Smithsonian Institution’s Botany Department.  It’s a spiralbound paperback, filled with meticulously detailed keys and descriptions, and illustrated with very high quality black and white photos and line drawings.  Despite the huge difference in size, Lichens of North America borrows several design elements from its predecessor, including the square page format, the colors used for the cover art, and the font style  used for the title – a respectful yet whimsical touch.  For comparison, both books are shown in the photo.

Lichen Books

Lichen Books

A photo gallery and other information is available at the book’s website: