On Trees

It has been noted by more than one person that I have a penchant for stitching trees onto quilts. This week I mused on this as I finished a small piece called Tree on Velvet #3, with Rising Moon. There is a simple and technical explanation, which is that trees are easy to represent in fabric and thread. But there is also a deeper, more complex reason, I realised, which dates back to my tree-climbing girlhood.

As the title suggests, this is the third in a series of tree quilts, made to the same size (A4, or 33 x 25 cm) and the same method of hand applique onto a velvet background. The trees themselves are constructed from various evening dress fabrics. Stitching these slippery metallic fabrics onto the equally slippery velvet background is a pleasurable challenge.

The binding was machine stitched onto the cotton backing, folded to the front then hand-stitched onto the velvet because even my trusty Bernina failed to sew straight seams across the slippery velvet. I quite like the slightly wonky effect, even though I hear the quilt police whispering in my ear about a squared-off quilt and perfect corners.

It is very nice that the friend I climbed trees with when we were girls insisted on purchasing the second tree. We lived next door to one another and spent many happy hours up the trees in our respective gardens. This must be when my fondness for trees was kindled. I am in good company. Thomas Pakenham, author of the three best selling books on Remarkable Trees, tells of his dedication and commitment to trees in a memoir The Company of Trees (2015). In his introduction to the story of planting a large arboretum on the family estate of Tullynully in Ireland he writes: “Why did I develop this passion for trees? Like most sensible people I find them irresistible.” (p.1)

Trees are irresistible. They are also essential and have been described as the lungs of the earth because they absorb carbon dioxide. Colin Tudge in his book The Secret Lives of Trees argues that wood, as the first serious fuel, changed the world through the building of ships and ocean travel. “We could say no wood: no civilization.” (p. 6) He adds:

Yet timber is not the end of it. Trees are the source of drugs, unguents, incense, and poisons for tipping arrows, stunning fish and killing pests; of resins, varnishes, and industrial oils, glues and dyes and paints; of gums of many kinds including chewing gum; of a host of fibres for the rigging and hawsers of great ships (whether made of wood or not) and for the stuffing of cushions — and of course, perhaps above all these days, for paper. All that, plus a thousand (at least) kinds of fruits and nuts and — in traditional agrarian societies — a surprising amount of fodder for animals, including cattle and sheep, which most of us assume live primarily on grass…

Tudge, p. 6

His surprisingly list of the things trees are used for reads like a poem. Tudge is also eloquent on the spiritual aspect of trees and so here comes another longish quotation:

Perhaps this is why we feel so drawn to trees. Groves of redwoods and beeches are often compared to the naves of great cathedrals: the silence; the green, filtered, numinous light. A single banyan, each with its multitude of trunks, is like a temple or a mosque — a living colonade. But the metaphor should be the other way around. The cathedrals and mosques emulate the trees. The trees are innately holy … and the roots of this reverence, one feels, run back not simply to the enlightenment of Buddha as he sat beneath a bo tree (in 528 BC, tradition has it), but to the birth of humanity itself.

Tudge, p. 7

I think it is time to go and plant another tree. There is a Spekboom (Portulacaria afra) waiting in a pot to be transplanted into a nice big hole in my garden. According to the The Spekboom Foundation, ‘Spekboom has enormous carbon-storing capabilities. Its capacity to offset harmful carbon emissions is compared to that of moist, subtropical forests. This remarkable plant is unique in that it stores solar energy to perform photosynthesis at night. This makes a spekboom thicket 10 times more effective per hectare at carbon fixing than any tropical rainforest. Each hectare of spekboom could capture 4.2 tonnes of carbon yearly.’

16 thoughts on “On Trees

  1. This essay is filled with info (personal and factual) presented in lovely prose and is beautifully illustrated with your (he)art…a deep pleasure to read this – feel this. Thanks.
    On the lighter side, I have to say it’s great to see something created upon a black velvet canvas other than portraits of Elvis…or do you not have those in SA?


  2. Oh good for you, Spekboom planter!
    It’s a bit of both. I look at trees carefully in real life, but don’t copy from a real tree or photograph when I stitch. The fabric plays a big part in the “construction” of the tree.


  3. I agree about the power and structural interest of trees in addition to their life-giving properties. You have reminded me to think back on favourite climbing trees from my childhood 🙂


      1. I confess, I have been know to hug a tree, or at least stroke it 🙂 Sadly, one of our favourite old trees (Halleria lucida) in the garden fell down last week after heavy rain. It had been ailing for some time, but what a loss.

        Liked by 1 person

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