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I am often asked about the meaning of the tree that looms large in my painting.  I normally stumble around while trying to explain what feeling, what meaning I find in this form.  But I recently came across an extraordinary short essay from a favorite author of mine, Herman Hesse, that expresses all those things I have tried to say about trees with my own words and images.  From Trees: Reflections and Poems, this is just a beautiful piece that rings the bell for me:

GC Myers- Moon Communion smFor me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

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When he reached the ferry, the boat was just ready, and the same
ferryman who had once transported the young Samana across the river,
stood in the boat, Siddhartha recognised him, he had also aged very
much.

“Would you like to ferry me over?” he asked.

The ferryman, being astonished to see such an elegant man walking along
and on foot, took him into his boat and pushed it off the bank.

“It’s a beautiful life you have chosen for yourself,” the passenger
spoke. “It must be beautiful to live by this water every day and to
cruise on it.”

With a smile, the man at the oar moved from side to side: “It is
beautiful, sir, it is as you say. But isn’t every life, isn’t every
work beautiful?”

——-Herman Hesse, From “Siddhartha

****************************

This is is a new piece, also from the upcoming Principle Gallery show.  It’s a small piece, 6″ by 18″ on canvas, that I call simply Ferryman.  I have used the image of the ferryman through the years, usually in very simple, quiet compositions.  It would be easy to associate the image with that of Charon, the boatman of Greek mythology who carries recently deceased souls across the river Styx in Hades.  There is that feel about this image,  especially with the red chair sitting empty in the boat, an image I have often associated with the dead and memory of the past.

 But I see this particular ferryman in a different way, more like the philosophic ferryman of Hesse’s Siddhartha above.  The passage with this ferryman is  more about transformation than transportation, a spiritual crossing from existence, one state of being,  to another.  The brightness of the light breaking through in the sky seems more attuned to this reading of the image as well, as though the passage is taking one across to a state of higher enlightenment.  There’s still a somber quality but it is different than that which is often attached to death.  It’s more the feeling of knowing that you are being transformed on this voyage and the past you is no more.  Gone forever.

As always, this is just how I read it.  You may see more, you may see less.  All views are equally valid.

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