My 1968 leaf collection is a small metal box containing neatly alphabetized index cards. This 2017 leaf collection is going to be somewhat random organized, though using the same plants as the 1968 collection. I've decided to start with the pecan.
The house I grew up in had to be a lovely place in 1865 when it was brand new. When I lived there it was barely holding together. But it held together enough to provide a happy home. It stood on a high hill north of Windom in an area called Spring Hill. In our front yard there was a huge pecan tree. The house is long gone, but the pecan tree is still standing majestically. That pecan tree was my ally and friend.
I loved to read, and could spend hours immersed in a good story. When I wanted to avoid interruptions and I suspected my Mom had chores in mind, I would climb high in the pecan tree with my book, find a comfortable fork to rest in, and pretend I was out of earshot. I was never caught in this gambit, but that probably just means that my mother was indulging me. Looking back, I'm sure she had me figured out.
The tree also played a major role in the loss of some of my little brother's innocence. It produced long, paper-shell pecans. In those days, we didn't have fruit purchased in a store, we ate peaches and pears in season when our own trees produced. Apples we only had at Christmas. Our Christmas stockings always held fruit and nuts and hard candy (along with a fresh coconut) that my Dad bought on Christmas Eve at Smith Moore and Williams in Bonham - always Christmas Eve, always Smith Moore and Williams. Of course, we didn't then know about his shopping habits, we thought Santa Claus brought the goodies. I did until I was informed at school that Santa Claus didn't exist. My brother did until the Christmas morning that he declared, "these pecans came from our tree". With that, the jig was up and Santa Claus ceased to visit. But Daddy still shopped on Christmas Eve and we continued to have Christmas fruit. Along with pecans from our tree.
A question I have to answer with each entry into this gallery is what specimen from my 1968 leaf collection to feature next. I can't just write about all my favorites first. If I did, the end of this series would be pretty boring. For most of my adult life, I have considered the chinaberry to be an undesirable invasive species. I can't say that I have a fondness for it. In fact, if I happened to be collecting a bucket of leaves today, I'd give it a pass. My 14 year old self had no such prejudice. And I do have a particular memory associated with the chinaberry, so I proceeded to collect a leaf from a tree growing in our fence row. I was experimenting with a new paper and the soft pastel result appealed to me. Hence, the chinaberry is entry number two.
My brother and I spent a week with each set of grandparents every summer, and these visits were something we looked forward to. On my father's side, there was a gang of cousins that traveled in a pack every chance we got and when Jess and I were at my grandparents, the rest of the gang was often there too. We made hay forts in the barn, dared each other to lick the salt and mineral blocks set out for the cows, went hunting and fishing with Grandpa, and generally ran wild. As least as wild as you can run when you are on a farm in the middle of nowhere.
On my mother's side, there wasn't a gang of cousins, but there was a whole set of indulgent aunts and uncles. My mother being the second eldest of ten siblings, many of our aunts and uncles were teenagers when we were youngsters. That we would be entertained and spoiled was a given. The chinaberry tree figures in a week spent with my mother's family when I was perhaps 10 or 11. There was a chinaberry tree in the yard of the house they were living in, and we had had chinaberry fights all week. But the memory that sticks with me is of being incredibly homesick by the end of the week. Of sitting under the chinaberry tree, leaning on the trunk, facing east, and watching the road relentlessly, eyes glued to the top of the hill where the old red pickup would appear first. I have no idea what had led me to be so homesick, but I can recall precisely the joy and relief I felt when my parents crested the hill. And the chinaberry is etched into that moment.
In preparing the images for this series, I've used digital methods as little as possible. The images themselves are made in the sun on paper, so getting them here involves digital methods as a necessity. I use a scanner to create a digital file from the paper image. Once I've done that, I could go 'hog wild' with Photoshop, and when the image fails to meet my expectations, I'm tempted to do just that. Since this project is about connections to my deep past and to the history of photography itself, I'm trying hard to resist the temptation.
This image failed to meet my expectations. I left it in the sun too long, or chose my paper badly, or picked the wrong time of day for the combination of specimen and paper, etc., etc. - the lumen process is somewhat magical in that predicting what you are going to get is a tricky business. Though there were some lovely shades of bright rose and lavender in the leaves, the background was a dull and dirty blue. Wanting to salvage the image and wanting to hold true to my project intentions, I turned to chemicals. As much as the geek in me wants to pull out all the Photoshop stops, the mad scientist in me can get pretty excited about chemicals. In this case, I wet the print - the paper is fiber based and wetting it first helps to ensure an even response to the chemicals - and immersed it in gold photographic toner. After five minutes in the toner, I rinsed it and then immersed it for a few seconds in photographic fixer. I lost the range of colors, but I found this final result much more pleasing overall.
In more eastern and acidic areas, they have their stunning spring shows of azaleas and rhododendrons. In our black gumbo, we have the crape myrtle, a reliable explosion of summer color from palest lavender to deepest red, from beautifully maintained small trees displaying graceful limbs in stately yards to overgrown shrubs growing exuberantly wild in abandoned home places.
I have a great fondness for the old flowers, the plants treasured and shared - a volunteer seedling dug carefully and babied along, a handful of seeds here, a cutting there - by hard working rural women who made time in their demanding lives for a bit of beauty. I remember waking up in my grandmother's house to the smell of roses and mimosa. Almost no one had air conditioning then and the windows were always open. My grandmother also allowed me, on occasion, to pick a bouquet of zinnias, or Old Maid's as we called them, to take indoors. She grew a riot of them every year, but never seemed to want me to pick any. I'm still mystified by that.
My Aunt Vera could be relied on for four o'clocks and marigolds. Mammy Tarver, a neighbor who actually served as an additional Grandma, taught me to root a rose cutting when I was no more than ten - at least she tried to - I wasn’t a very disciplined student. Everyone seemed to have irises, althea, and japonica. My Mom was more practical, focusing on our huge vegetable garden rather than flowers, but we did have masses of hollyhocks in the corner formed by the ell of our porch. They stood next to the cistern where they thrived on bits of spilled water. When one of these old favorites blooms in my yard today, I feel a part of the chain of women who came before. My daughters and my granddaughter are gardeners. My little great-grandaugher loves to plant seeds. The chain stretches out before and behind me and I am blessed.
If the crape myrtle stands as a favorite yard tree in my neck of the woods, the redbud demonstrates what Mother Nature can do without the help of any landscaper. I don't know a soul who doesn't love this bright, beautiful harbinger of spring.
My favorite place for watching Mother Nature's spring show unfold was our hay meadow. Redbuds, hog plums, and wild roses graced the fence rows along the path from the house on top of the hill to the east end of farm, setting the stage for the open spread of grasses and wildflowers that was the meadow. It produced what my Dad referred to as "native hay" and I realize now that it was a remnant of the vast prairie that once covered this area. It had never been plowed and Daddy never grazed it. It was precious to him as a source of some of the best, most nutritious winter feed around, and to me as a wonderland.
In the beginning there were at least 4 trees in the front yard of the old house on the hill. I remember the big pecan tree, which is still there to this day. There were two trees that I think might have been cedars of some kind, and the vitax tree. I loved the vitex tree. Not only did it sport pretty spikes of purple flowers, it sparked my imagination. Somehow, in all my reading I had gotten the notion that the vitex tree was similar to an olive tree. I had never seen an olive tree, mind you, and had no real idea what they were like. I knew, of course, that the two could not be similar in fruit production, but I was convinced they were similar in form. This notion made the tree very exotic and special to my way to thinking. It anchored an entire Mediterranean coast in my front yard in northeast Texas.
Apparently the vitex tree held no special charm for Daddy. In fact, it held no charm at all. I came home from school one day and it was gone. I was devastated. My coast had been ransacked by pirates and laid to waste. In some small part of me I still grieve for that tree.
The leaf specimen that I used for this lumen print came from a vitex tree growing in the front yard of Mrs. Cyrus. She is long gone to her reward and the little shack she and her family lived in all but fallen in. The vitex tree blocks what was once the front door. The Cyrus family helped us pick our cotton every year. When we'd break for lunch, they would spread a picnic blanket under our pecan tree. I'd rush inside and wolf down my lunch so that I could go loiter in the vicinity of their picnic. Mrs. Cyrus could be counted on to give me a cookie, and maybe several. I got a scolding more than once for mooching part of their lunch, so I suppose it is fitting that I mooch a leaf from their tree for this project.
Bois d'Arc, or bodark as we would say it, is also known as the source of “horse apples”. As a child, the tree was simply a source of amusement due to these fruits. My brother and I and my cousins had horse apple fights. We hit the big hard fruits with baseball bats to see how far we could knock them. We stomped on the old, soft fruit lying under the trees. The more splatter, the better. However, this common and venerable hardwood has played an important role throughout the history of our area, prized by Native Americans and European pioneers alike for its hard wood.
In fact, the old house on the hill sat on Bois d'Arc stumps. It was about 2.5-3 feet off the ground - high enough that playing trucks, army men, and cowboys and Indians in the soft dirt under the edge of the porch was a favorite pastime. When I was a child the house was already a hundred years old, and it showed its age. It was a shambles, but the stumps forming its foundation were as hard as rocks, and as functional as the day they had been put in place.
Today, I see the Bois d'Arc as a marvel of nature, utilitarian in so many ways and yet full of beauty in its bright, glossy, dark green leaves, its yellow wood, and it pleasing form. Even those fruits we so loved to torture are a natural pest repellent.
In my 1968 collection there are two elms, on the same card, the Cedar Elm and the American Elm. Depicted here is the American Elm. I'm told (by Paul Cox and Patty Leslie, in Texas Trees, A Friendly Guide) that the grand champion American Elm in the state is in Wood County measuring 99 feet tall, 192 inches in circumference, and having a crown spread of 92 feet. Without question a towering beauty of a shade tree, but it is the Cedar Elm that figures more strongly in my memory. It's bright yellow fall color is a standout that has, and does, catch my eye every year.
The strongest memory I have of the elm, however, has nothing to do with the beauty of the tree, spring or fall, nothing to do with it's value in the landscape or to wildlife, nothing to do with it's majesty. It's an embarrassing one to confess, though if my intent in this project is to convey a sense of time and place, and connect the landscape of my youth to what speaks to me in my art today, it has a definite place. I read in books of 'elms'. I knew that I lived among 'ellums'. I was a teenager of 17 or 18 when it finally occurred to me that the two were the same thing. I've seen a good bit of the world since 1968, but that naive girl from deep ellum is never far from the surface.
The paper that I used for this lumen print expired in October of 1941. My mother was 7 years old in October of 1941. Pearl Harbor was a quiet military base in a unspoiled tropical paradise in October, 1941. It's hard for me to really get a grip on just how long this paper sat in its packaging until I opened it today.
I bought the paper as part of a lot on eBay, and I wonder about the path the paper has taken on its way to me. Did it spend years sitting neglected in some attic before arriving at an eBay auction or did it travel by a more circuitous route, changing hands time and again? I do feel that I know a bit about the photographer who owned this paper. The packages are precisely slit open at the end - no tearing of the flap in opening the envelopes. The interior envelopes are pristine, and often contain, in addition to whole sheets of paper, little bits and pieces that have been cut off and carefully saved. Some of the envelopes have notes written in a large and open, but neat hand. Clearly she - I imagine my predecessor to be a she - was meticulous in caring for her materials.
In one of the packages I found a negative for a family Christmas card. The image is of a young boy gazing at a candle. Does this indicate that my predecessor was a professional photographer, and this a negative created for a client? Is this my predecessor's son, now a man of 80 or more? The mystery will remain a mystery, but I like to think that she would be happy to know that her paper has fallen into appreciative hands. I like to think that she would approve the use I am putting it to.
When I was growing up most of our food came from the farm. We bought staples like flour, sugar, shortening, and tea at the store. We might buy the meat for Sunday dinner at the store, but were just at likely to catch and kill one of our chickens. My parents kept a huge garden and my mother canned and canned and canned during harvest season. The fruit we had came from our own trees, and in northeast Texas one of the most reliable fruit producers is the peach. My brother loved peaches. He could never wait for them to fully ripen and would gorge on green peaches straight from the tree. He paid for it with the inevitable stomach ache that followed each of his raiding parties.
The leaves for this lumen print came from my sister-in-law's peach tree, and that has me thinking about family and the role that families play in my sense of place.
I feel anchored here by a long chain of Medcalfs and Rigsbays, but I'm thinking more broadly now. Thinking of all the families that peopled my childhood and how the bonds of kin and friendship and neighborhood connected them. Thinking about the families that, though the generations may have shifted, still form the backbone of this community. Thinking of the new families that have joined the fold over the years. My thoughts spread out, trying to take in the vast network of human connections, the threads that bind us all into one great family. Then my thoughts contract again, and I find myself remembering the shock of discovery the first time I recognized my father's hands at the ends of my cousin's arms.
For lunch the day I wrote this, we had pinto beans (or red beans as they are known in my neck of the woods), fried potatoes, fried okra fresh from the garden, and a sliced garden onion. You could not have a meal more evocative of my youth. These were staple foods then, and are comfort foods now. Why am I describing lunch in a vignette on the black walnut? Because the black walnut is the anti-food.
With only a modicum of research, a long list develops of the benefits of the black walnut as a super food, a staple in the diets of the original inhabitants of these parts, and an important food for wildlife. I don't argue with any of that. In fact, I Iove black walnuts. Black walnut ice cream is in my top three, right up there with chocolate and natural vanilla bean.
I'm not sure how black walnuts are produced commercially, but I am completely convinced that you would starve to death if the only food available to you was our native black walnuts. The trees produce fruit in plenty, but the nuts are tiny, and the shells thick and hard as rocks. The meat is incredibly hard to get to and there isn't much of it when you do finally extract it. I've spent hours at hard labor - in the back yard with a pile of walnuts, a rock, and a hammer - to win only a few sweet morsels.
I had the patience to pick enough dewberries to take home for a cobbler, but if I ever picked a mulberry that made it into the house, it was a rare occasion. I love mulberries. Even today I will stand in the yard picking every berry I can reach and savoring each one on the spot. There are never enough. I learned, reading in Texas Tress, A Friendly Guide, by Paul W. Cox and Patty Leslie, that the tender green shoots can be eaten as a vegetable. Now I've been a fan of native plants for a long time, and I've tasted all kinds of native fodder, but this is the first I've heard of eating anything from the mulberry tree other than berries. I will definitely be giving this new vegetable a try.
As I work my way through the building of this new Leaf Collection, I am struck by how abundant our life on the farm was. We were poor, and my parents worked incredibly hard to provide for us, but I don't remember feeling poor. As a teenager, when I had to settle for off brand basketball shoes rather than Converse high-tops, then I had a pretty good idea that we were poor, but as a youngster what I remember are freedom and abundance. We were free to explore as far and as wide as we pleased. It never mattered whose land we were on, and no one ever worried about our safety. If we were needed at home, Mama would blow the horn on the truck. If we were within earshot, we knew to come home. If we weren't close enough to hear, we'd eventually find our way home in time for supper.
The world we explored was full and rich - woods & meadows, grasses, trees, & wildflowers, ponds, pets, farm animals, wildlife. There was no end of interesting things to seek out, no limit to our imagination. We were kings and queens of our own universe. Even carrying a drink of water to Daddy as he plowed a field, the smell and feel of the freshly turned black earth was a joy. I learned the word hosanna in Sunday School, and I remember making up my own hosannas as I walked on summer days full of grateful joy. I wish that children today had more of that wonderful autonomy.
The specimen in my 1968 collection is labelled Black Locust, and it is possible that I found a Black Locust growing in someone’s yard way back then. It’s a lot more likely that the specimen came from the farm and is actually our native Honey Locust. The specimen in the 1968 collection is just a single leaflet - too little material to allow a positive identification now. The specimen pictured here is definitely a Honey Locust. While the vitex evoked sunny Mediterranean shores in my youthful imagination, the locust said Africa. It said Serengeti. The notion had to come from something I read, though I have no idea at this remove what it might have been. I'm tempted to say that it was Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, but I'm sure that I read that book at a much later date. It could just have been a photo of an acacia in an African landscape in my geography book. The feathery, open form of the tree with its whorls of finely divided leaves and it's long, sharp thorns set it apart from the general run of broad-leaved hardwoods. That was enough to make it special, a symbol of another world.
Speaking of those long, sharp thorns, I consulted Texas Trees, A Friendly Guide, by Paul W. Cox and Patty Leslie, to confirm my suspicions about the identification of my old specimen. There the thorns of the Honey Locust are referred to as “awesome”. They point out the many uses the thorns can be put to by a resourceful people. I understand their admiration, but I would have said "cruel". I came within a gnat’s eyelash of stepping on one while collecting the specimen for this lumen print. If I had stepped on it in my plastic shoes - shoes that would have offered me no defense - I fear I would have had even more colorful names for those devils.
I chose this image for this entry in the Collection because it reminds me of a cold winter night. Perhaps, a cold Christmas Eve night lit by moonlight.
When I was growing up, Christmas trees did not come in a box, from a store, or from a Christmas tree farm. They came from the pasture. When we were very young, Daddy would take my brother and I out to search for the perfect tree. We picked it out, Daddy approved it, or nixed our choice and had us look for another one. When the right tree was found, Daddy cut it down and carried it home. Once we were big enough to cut the tree and drag it home, we were allowed to go collect the tree by ourselves. It was a heavy responsibility. The young cedars did not grow in perfect symmetry. This one was too misshapen, that one too short, the next one too tall. One was too open. Another one was pretty viewed from one side, but had a gaping hole in its shape if viewed from another angle. And since cedar trees weren't really welcome in the pasture, Daddy periodically rooted them out. Some years we had to travel far afield to find a selection to choose from. I always looked for a female tree, liking the idea of the blue berries forming part of the Christmas display. Eventually, we’d find a tree that pleased us both. At home, Daddy would nail the tree to crossed planks to form a stand. We had boxes of ornaments that Mama had collected over the years. We made paper chains from construction paper and chains of popcorn to form our garland. Mama bought new tinsel every year and we loved its shiny sparkle. It was a thrilling production and, in our eyes, the finished tree was always a thing of great beauty.
Years after I had left home and started a family of my own, my Mom, my husband, and my young daughter went out one year to collect the tree. We wound up in the boonies, so far off the beaten path that my daughter refused to get out of the truck. She asked very nervously if her Grandpa knew where we were. The trek had put me in my element, but far from seeing it as a happy adventure, she was hoping for a rescue. We preservered in spite of her reservations, and found the perfect tree. Back home we drug out all the ancient ornaments and repeated the familiar decorating ritual. The tree was a thing of great beauty.
To the south of the house on the hill, there was crop land, flat and fertile with deep clay soil. To the west, the hill dropped off and the land was more rocky. That area was used as a small pasture. To the north and east was the main pasture with its grasslands, woods, and ponds. On the northeast end of the property, a small creek cut through this pasture. The persimmon trees grew along this creek. My brother and I watched the trees carefully every fall. It’s easy to identify a green persimmon that is still hard and pale, but it’s very difficult to reliably avoid those that are almost ripe. And a taste of green persimmon, even a little bit green, is a taste you want to avoid at all costs. The unripe flesh is very astringent. It turns your mouth inside out and it doesn’t dissipate right away. You can’t spit it out. It’s as awful as the ripe persimmon is delicious.
We watched the cows who also loved persimmons and always seemed to know when they were ready to eat. We dared one another to go first. No matter how careful we were, we got a taste of green persimmon every year. And yet we kept coming back. The lure of the ripe fruit was just too tempting.
As I work on this series, I grapple with the question of editing of the images I’m using digitally. I don’t have any issue with digital editing in general, I simply question the role it should, or should not, play in this project - a project based on a 19th century photographic technique, using photographic paper from decades ago, and that seeks to honor a life and a life style that has all but vanished. I have long debates with myself, arguing both sides. Since the question remains an open one for me, I’ve been intentionally pushing back on myself each time I’m tempted to crank up Photoshop. This image, out of the printing frame, did not please. I began applying all the chemical tricks I could come up with to improve it. They did not please. Finally, I looked around the kitchen asking myself if I had exhausted all possibilities, and it hit me - food coloring. The image you see here is the result of childlike play with food coloring, just squirting it onto the wet print intuitively and randomly, and allowing it to stay a few seconds before washing it off. I offer this image in that spirit of play, and with a bit of chagrin. After the print dried it was too dark. In the end, I brightened it digitally.
The Silver Poplar was clearly growing in the neighborhood in 1968 though I have no idea where. I have to believe that I collected it from a yard in Windom. I have no memory of the tree growing in our yard on the farm, and it almost certainly would have been a landscape tree. A bit of internet research reveals that it is a native of Southern Europe and Central Asia, where is grows along streams. It has been a popular tree in cultivated gardens since at least the 16th century and was included in the first American arboretum. I'm told it is weak of wood and short lived, and even considered a bit old-fashioned by today's nursery trade. Nevertheless, it has a venerable history and remains widely grown. It is a relative of the willow and the aspen. I was happily surprised by that last bit. While I have no special memories of the tree from my youth, I do enjoy it now and have often thought of it as "our aspen" without knowing that there was actually a relationship. I have a new appreciation for the bright, flashing leaves and gentle whisper of wind in the branches.
I lost a dear friend just days before writing this entry and she has been in my thoughts as I write it. I thought of her especially as I walked the back fence collecting material for future entries in this series. In our prime, we camped and hiked and rustled plants and organized to save unspoiled places and native habitats. Life eventually pulled us in different directions, and years passed without us seeing one another. When we would talk or visit after one of these gaps, it was as if we had just left off the day before. Our bond was strong. She has now cast off a failing body and is soaring on wings of light. It may seem odd to dedicate this project in the middle, rather than at the beginning, but that is what I'm going to do. Kunda Wicce, I dedicate this Collection to your memory, and will think of you with every leaf I pick up and every tree I meet.
The mimosa tree that I remember grow in my paternal grandmother's yard. My mother's parents were agricultural workers and moved around a lot. I have no particular memory of a home associated with them, though I remember bits and pieces of different places. My father's folks had fared a bit better economically. They owned their own land and when I think of a grandparents' house, it is their home that I think of. I can mentally walk every inch of the place - the house, the yard, the barn, the windmill, the garage, the pastures - all of it vivid and real to my mind's eye though there is little of it left to recognize when driving by today. We spent lots of time there, particularly in the summer months. The window of the room I slept in opened onto a red rose bush and a mimosa tree. I had sweet, sweet smells to take up to, the windows, in those days without air conditioning, being always open.
There is a second association of this particular tree with my childhood. In nudging it toward the vision I had for it, I added the reddish color in the leaves with poke berry juice. Poke salad was a staple of our diet when it was in season, and it seems an obvious omission from my leaf collection, though all the specimens in the 1968 collection are trees. Perhaps that was the assignment. I'm not sure why I would have had such a singular focus otherwise.
In addition to the mimosa and roses that I so loved, my paternal grandmother had a magnificent apricot tree. We didn't have an apricot tree of our own, and perhaps that helped make my grandmother's tree feel extra special. It bore heavy crops of delicious fruit. It was also the site, every year, of a mockingbird's nest. I like to think it was the same mockingbird and that she chose that tree with malicious intent, anticipating with delight the opportunity to harass anyone seeking fruit. In any case, picking an apricot required daring and careful planning. Otherwise, you were guaranteed a sharp and painful rap on the top of your head. I never knew whether she was protecting her babies or trying to keep all the apricots for herself.
The gang of cousins strategized like generals. We might be able to coerce the younger ones to rush in for the grab, but they might not be tall enough to reach the fruit, they might cry like babies and get the coercers in trouble, or they might refuse to share. If Grandpa was around, we could ask him gather some fruit for us - he was always more tolerant of our shenanigans than Grandma, who wasn't very likely to interrupt her chores to help. If we were sufficient in number, we might split into one gang to scare away mama bird and another to pick. We didn't dare throw rocks at mama bird though - even Grandpa lost his tolerance there and that was a line we knew not to cross. One way or another, we always managed to get our fruit even if we had to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Apricots are still a favorite, though I am seldom satisfied with the ones I bring home from the store. They just can't compare with the fruit warm from the tree, and the sweet juice dripping off your chin.
The apple specimen in my 1968 collection is labelled, Winesap Apple. This is a Gala Apple from my mother's yard. Apples being somewhat uncommon in this part of the world, I decided to settle for what was readily at hand. I do wonder where I found the apple tree in 1968 - I have no recollection of any of our neighbors or family members having an apple tree back then, and my mother's tree (which I planted in 2008) is the only one I know of now. If I could remember where that specimen came from, I'd certainly track it down to see if it's still there. My research tells me that it isn't unusual for apple trees to live to be 100 years old. In fact, I found a reference to one in England that in 2009 was documented to be 200 years old and was still fruiting.
As I work my way through these specimens from 30 trees, I keep wondering why these particular specimens? Why only trees? Did I have some organizing principle then that is lost to me now? If I was a sophomore and it was 1968, I had to be collecting in the fall - I would have been a freshmen in the spring of 1968. That would explain the absence of my favorite wildflowers. But what about shrubs? Why aren’t there specimens of wild rose, japonica, althea, and honeysuckle - favorites from my earliest recollections. Why no cotton? Had Daddy quit growing cotton by then? Why so many fruit trees?
There is no way of answering any of these questions, but I can guess at that last one. We were a community that produced much of it’s own food and fruit trees were common. Just like today when I gathered the apple specimen from Mom's yard, I might have just been taking advantage of ready access.
Pears were special. Ours were hard pears that ripened in late summer or early fall when the other fruit had been long gone. We ate the crunchy fruit straight from the tree. Mama made pear preserves that we spread on hot biscuits. But it was Daddy who prepared the most succulent treat. He would wrap the fresh pears in newspaper and carefully arrange them in a large cardboard box which he then pushed under a bed. There the pears stayed for weeks. I don't know how he gauged that the pears were ready, or when exactly that occurred. In my imagination we pulled the box out from under the bed sometime near Christmas.
As you unwrapped a pear, the smell hit you first - it smelled like heaven, so sweet and fragrant. Then came that first bite. The flesh was soft, but not mushy, and so juicy, so delicious. Holding those golden orbs in our hands it was as if Daddy had performed a miracle.
As I look back on those times, I marvel at how skilled and resourceful folks were then. I'm grateful for the abundant life my parents gave us despite the challenges they faced. And I'm saddened by all the lost arts of everyday living. My grandchildren pluck a pear from the bowl in the kitchen without giving it a second thought. The bowl will be replenished with the next trip to town. They may enjoy their everyday treat, but they will never truly know a pear.
The farm we lived on in my youth was actually the property of my grandfather, though my father worked it and it wasn't until Grandpa died that I realized it wasn't ours. It was, and still is, my home place, the place that holds first importance in my heart. But it wasn't the only farm in my life, even in those innocent days. My father and his younger brother had purchased and split another farm a few miles to the west along Bois d'Arc Creek. So, if the house on hill and the surrounding property was my primary stomping grounds, the Bois d'Arc Creek farm was my second. The sycamores of my youth grew on the Bois d'Arc Creek property. They grew in single file down in the bottom near the creek itself, and they were magnificent - tall, and stately, proudly bearing their singular bark. I called them my cathedral trees. Walking among them, the universe felt immense and full of promise.
So it was frustrating that none of the images I made of sycamore specimens satisfied me. I tried again and again, but could not commit to any of the images I created. Then I ran across something Ansel Adams wrote in 1983. He used the phrase "reasonable catholicism of approach" in talking about his evaluation and tolerance of some of the changes occurring then in the field of modern photography. The phrase struck me and I decided to use some reasonable catholicism of my own. The image you see here may not qualify as a lumen print in the strictest terms. It is the digital blend of the original lumen print, which had lovely detail, with a chemically toned version of that same print. The toned print developed color more pleasing to my eye, but had lost detail in the process. There is something about the merger of the two images that I find appealing - not just as an image, but appealing in the process. Since the chemical process of toning irrevocably transforms the original print, capturing the original digitally and using it to restore what was lost feels affirming to me - a reclamation, a validation of sorts. Perhaps I need to coin a new label - let's call this one a DuoDigiLumen.
I love the peachy coral color that this old paper produces, but nothing I've tried has given me much botanical detail using it. I finally accepted that the best it was going to give me was a silhouette, and last night it hit me that the arbor vitae might be the perfect specimen for that treatment. I had tried it with other paper and had gotten muddy, uninteresting results. I decided to put the two misfits together and I'm happy with the soft, dreamy quality of the result. I wish I could step into that dream and relate some fond memory, but I have none to offer. I know that the arbor vitae was commonly used as a windbreak or screen. I can see in my mind's eye old home places with the house set off from the pastures and fields, and perhaps the road, with a row of tightly spaced tall green cones, but these are impersonal sketches. There were none in the yards that formed my playscape. At least, none that made a lasting impression on me.
Like the old home places, the common use of the arbor vitae seems to have faded into the past. I had to search a bit to find a specimen to use in this project. As I think about that, it occurs to me that perhaps the arbor vitae can be given a more prominent role in my story after all. Most of the houses and yards of my youth are gone, even many of the roads are gone, fallen into disuse with the loss of an old wooden bridge that was too expensive to replace and fenced off. The family farms that sustained almost everyone then have all but disappeared. The physical landscape is greatly altered and the landscape of society utterly so. But I can always return in my day dreams to the world of those wonderful old places and their sentries of tall green cones.
it’s easy to find all kinds of flaws in this image, and yet it appeals strongly to me. The flaws, in fact, enhance its appeal in some way that I would be hard-pressed to explain. It’s fortunate that I create such an image every once in a while - one that I can't quite discard. I’m a Type A, anal-retentive person, and these sorts of images remind me to loosen up. They remind me to try to be a human “being” for a change rather than a human “doing” or a human “obsessing".
Some years after my grandfather died, my parents built a house on the Bois d’Arc Creek farm. I had already left home by then so I never lived there, but I made a bee line from the Metroplex to the farm every chance I got. Daddy planted all kinds of trees and berry bushes around the house, and of course there was a huge garden. One of the trees he planted was a fig tree. He must have chosen a particularly propitious spot because that tree grew like lightening. It became a giant, sprawling just outside the back door - a beautiful and magnificent specimen of figdom. It produced bushels of luscious, sweet and juicy fruit. A treat we enjoyed all the year round due to the fig jam my mother put up by the quart. It could transport you to another realm, it was that good.
As I come into the home stretch of this project, it’s getting harder. Harder to find specimens, harder to find stories, and also harder to maintain my enthusiasm. I find myself getting tired of the aesthetic I laid down for the project, and feeling the urge to move on to other work. But today I am rejuvenated. I needed a pyracantha specimen and I called a friend thinking she might have one in her yard - she’s an avid gardener and has a large yard full of flowers and shrubs and trees. As it happens, she didn’t have any pyracantha, but her husband knew someone in Bonham who did. On his next trip through there he collected some sprigs for me. Such a kind act of thoughtfulness is a reminder that community is alive and well, that goodness thrives even in the darkest times. I t restored my optimism and my energy to push through these last few specimens and finish the Collection.
Pryacantha did not figure prominently in my youth. It's another of those plants that I accept as a common landscape plant of those times without any specific memories of any specific examples. can remember collecting branches of pyracantha to substitute for Christmas holly, but again it does not figure as a strong tradition.
The paper I chose for this one is a paper that I almost discarded. My first attempts at using it for lumen prints did not produce anything exciting. Fortunately, the demands of this project, once I launched it, meant that I had to keep trying to better understand the factors driving my lumen printing results. I had to keep experimenting. In the process I learned how to use this paper to advantage. It was gravitating towards my "favorites" list, and this result cements its place there.
In search of a couple of my final specimens, I went for a ramble in the woods. I was trespassing in someone’s pasture, but I crawled under that fence confident that if I got caught I had an even chance of talking myself out of any serious trouble. I found my specimens, this Box Elder being one of them, but that became almost beside the point. It had been a good while since I went for such a ramble, and it did my heart so much good. Thank you to the folks who own the pasture behind the cemetery for your anonymous donation to my well being! I promise that I took nothing other than a few leaves and left nothing but footprints.
As I think about it, there is nothing that connects me to my childhood more than an aimless, carefree walk in the woods. I can't quite conjure up the same quality of freedom and limitless possibilities, but I can get close. It was good to be reminded of what a wellspring of joy there is in just being outside, having nothing pressing to do, and simply breathing fresh air in the sunshine. It is also serendipitous, in this little botany adventure of mine, that I just began reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s, The Signature of All Things. I am not a great explorer charting the bounty of Mother Nature in faraway lands, but I am charting my own Terra Firma, and in the process, reconnecting with truths at the core of who I am. My walk and my new read have both reminded me of that.
One of the things I've found interesting as I've worked on this Collection is the number of plants that I collected in 1968 that I question in 2017. Of course, in 1968 I was probably only interested in how easy a plant was to collect, not how desirable it was, and privet was a common landscape plant. Today I think of privet as an invasive pest crowding out native vegetation. Perhaps others share that attitude, or perhaps it suffered from insects or disease, or perhaps it was a fad whose time came and went. It does appear to have lost favor with a lot of folks compared to 1968 - I found it growing in only one yard in Windom when searching for a specimen. My search was not scientifically exhaustive, but clearly privet popularity has faded.
My changing attitude about privet could be seen as a metaphor for growing up, growing more insightful, developing a more questioning nature. For growing into yourself. For learning to see, interpret, and make judgments about more complex matters and more ambiguous situations. For all the innocence we lose as we gain in experience and, hopefully, wisdom. I find it fascinating that I can still be that young girl, and at the same time, someone she could not have envisioned. I move comfortably and confidently though the world today, at peace with my successes and failures, with faith to face the successes and failures yet to come. That young girl would leave home in a few short years, having never had a telephone in the house and afraid to use one. She could not have imagined me and I have to work hard to truly remember her.
I was pleasantly surprised to find this specimen in the 1968 Collection. I don't remember Prickly Ash as a plant of my youth, but it is one of my favorites from my time spent in Central Texas. You may know it as ToothAche Tree, a name that honors the medicinal value of chewing a leaf. Decoctions of the bark are also medicinal. It's a lovely small tree, with lots of useful properties - just the thing to win a place in my heart. In the 80's I ran with a pack of native plant enthusiasts from in and around Austin. My story about the Prickly Ash is from a hike led by one of my buddies at the Wild Basin Nature Preserve - an Austin urban oasis. Judy was leading a public tour of perhaps 30 people and I had come along for the opportunity to spend a Saturday morning in the woods.
We came across a Prickly Ash and Judy duly explained to the group that chewing a leaf would numb the mouth. The tree also had some unripe fruit, and I asked if the fruit had any particular value. Judy said she didn't know, and I did the only thing any self-respecting plant adventurer would do - I popped one in my mouth and starting chewing. I immediately began to salivate like a mad dog. Judy knew me too well to become alarmed as I spit and hacked. But I might as well have been a mad dog as far as the other hikers were concerned. They politely and discreetly moved away and ahead down the trail, avoiding eye contact. I foamed at the mouth for a good 20 minutes and firmly secured my reputation as a complete weirdo.
There are only two more specimens to collect after this one - my Leaf Collection journey is almost over. As I bring it to a close, I'm breaking out of the traces a bit. I collected this specimen in a nursery. I did buy the plant and I will plant it in my yard, but this specimen is not "free range". I also amended the scanned Lumen Print with a bit of a free hand. The paper I used produces lovely colors, but it exposes really quickly. The plant specimen needs a certain amount of contact with the paper for any detail to develop, so a careful tradeoff is required. I exposed this one in mixed shade, trying to slow it down. Despite my efforts, the print came out of the frame very dark - dramatic purple and pink colors, but not what I wanted. I brightened the image by a full stop and enhanced the color contrast. The argument could be made that the result no longer strictly qualifies as a Lumen Print. I can live with that.
After bringing my new plant home from the nursery, I've discovered that it might be at the edge of its range here, and would most likely be happier a bit to the south. On top of that, it is considered a short-lived plant even in the best of conditions. I can live with that. I found it growing here in 1968, so I give myself an even chance at success. And if I get a few seasons of its beautiful blooms, I'll feel more than compensated for my purchase.
There were at least two Italian Cypress growing at one time in the front yard of the house on the hill. I remember them more vaguely than a lot of the other plants that populated our immediate surroundings, so I'm a bit unclear on the actual number. They were in a row at the front edge of the yard, forming a screen between the house and the road, so there could easily have been more than two. In fact, there probably were more than two, even though in my mind's eye there are two of them. My memory is vague where they are concerned because they were early to fail Daddy's test of what was a worthy tree, and down they came. Daddy loved plants - he was planting walnuts and pecans from seed when he was in his late fifties (something I did not understand then, but completely understand now) - but he didn't have much use for frivolous things. And, apparently, the Italian Cypress were frivolous.
As far as I was concerned, they were exotic. Daddy smoked cigars that came in a box with a dark-haired, dark-eyed lady on the inside of the lid. She wore a colorful dress and a black lace mantilla. She was exotic. I would have given my right arm to look even remotely like her. I thought I was plain and mousy, my life ordinary and maybe even a bit dull. I was a happy kid, but i had a vivid imagination and my imaginary worlds were full of beautiful people and exciting events taking place in far away, mysterious lands. A farm in rural Northeast Texas was a pale shadow of a place in comparison. As I come full circle, it's not the exotic I seek, it is the serene, the peaceful, the sense of being home. That pale shadow is a place of deep abiding and contentment.
This is the final image in the Leaf Collection project - number 30. It should be Salt Cedar, but try as I might I cannot find it growing in Fannin County in 2017. I have two reactions to that. First, I am reassured that almost all of the plants I collected in 1968 can still be found here today. That gives me a sense of continuity. The 2nd reaction is relief that if one had to fall into oblivion, it is the water-loving, invasive Salt Cedar. I decided to substitute a plant that figured prominently not only in my youth, but in the history of this region. The days of cotton being King in Northeast Texas were already passing away in the 1950's and 60's, but almost everyone I know from those days had some experience of the cotton patch. And so much of the lifestyle of the home place and the family farm - so much of that echoing loss - was based on the cultivation of cotton. It has become a plant of almost mythical proportions for me, one that I plant in my flower beds from time to time just to see an old friend.
This series has been a number of things to me. On the surface it has been a homage to my beginnings. It has been an organizing principle in my evolution as a photographer to encourage me to think in terms of bodies of work rather than individual images. It has been a headlong plunge into the depths of alternative photography - a plunge that I began a year ago and that I expect to swim in for the rest of my days. On a skills development level it has been a deep look into the variables and techniques of lumen printing. it has been a coming out of sorts in that I have begun to share my work more broadly through the vehicle of this project.
But it has been a much deeper journey also. It’s been a journey of understanding what it means to have voice, and of exploring the relationship between my work and my voice. It is said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. I feel that this project has been an important step for me in my journey as an artist. The journey is long and I have only begun, but it is a step.