It was early October in 2010 that found this little girl pensively navigating the as-yet uncharted territory that was Chester County, Pennsylvania in her black 5 speed VW, sunroof open, heat full blast on the floor while the sun dipped below the horizon. I do my very best thinking while driving as it’s a practice handed down to me from my father; wander lusting, on new-to-me roads and I headed north from Delaware on rt. 52 past Winterthur and just kept going.
I knew from art history and regional celebration that I was in N.C. and Andrew Wyeth territory and I knew that the serenity of those rolling hills and curving roads called to me. I had just completed two of the biggest photography assignments I’d been invited to do up in New York City and thirsted for solace, a recharge, from the fight and fury of having spent so much time steeped in such a frenetic, frenzied metropolis. My cells required it of me. And, after the completion of those assignments, I felt a bit empty. I needed to suss out a new direction for myself.
Enormous farms, unadulterated fields, roaming horses, the road weaving through with meandering abandon; I felt a great exhale.
Somewhere in between the surreal dusk and the beginning tendrils of starlight I rounded a curve and magically, poetically, a tree standing lone on the top of a steep hill emerged. It was a perfect unassuming silhouette against a navy nakedness so true. I pulled over to admire it and to snap a quick image of it with my iPhone so that I could do a watercolor of it later back at home. It stood, isolated, beautiful in it’s inaccessibility. A painting in real life.
I sat alert and gazed up at that tree until it was barely detectable in the night and the autumn chill became uncomfortable. Inexplicably affected, I climbed back into my car and drove away.
I had no idea where I was or it was or how to find it again.
Over the course of the next six months, I made regular trips to explore the rustic beauty of Chester County, hoping to happen upon that tree. I was so inspired by it that I wrote journals-full of prose about it. I even began to sketch it out for use with a fable I had written years ago that I unearthed and have expanded upon as a major and dear-to-me project. It became a profound visual metaphor for the very beginning of a special story about a journey and the evolving understanding of the Universe, and the backbone of a lot of the creative work I’ve done since which I’ve umbrellaed under the moniker “The Tree Grows”.
It wasn’t until I had posted the only evidence I had: a terrible, grainy, rude iPhone image to my Facebook six months later that someone took notice of it, and (miraculously- seriously) knowing exactly the tree it was, contacted me about it. I had just begun doing a lot of tree research and was looking for two particular styles of trees for my project. A few days later I was whisked away by motorcycle (!) for a Grand Tree Research Journey with a guide who knew the County all too well. We observed trees at Loch Nairn, we looked at trees around Unionville, north of Kennett Square, and eastward toward West Chester.
On this brisk Sunday afternoon tour I met my great wise friend that many in my close circle have become acquainted with as “Mr. Quercus Alba”, an enormous oak older than the state of Pennsylvania itself that sits next to a Quaker meeting house just off of Newark Rd. As a vast old tree with so many branches it dominates the sky when standing nearby. Mr. Quercus was perfect for the end of my story about the journey. I have returned religiously to sit with, sketch, storyboard about, evolve my story around, visit when I’m celebrating and when I’m mourning, and introduce to those closest in my heart as if he’s a member of my human family.
The very next tree I was taken to on the motorcycle tour emerged just as it did the very first time I experienced it. We rounded a lazy curve and there it came to be, up on the horizon, lone, perfect. In wonderful spring daylight. At last!
All in one Sunday I had met both the Alpha and the Omega for “This Little Girl” (https://www.facebook.com/thetreegrows)
Since that re-discovery of the Tree Up On the Hill, I’ve learned that it’s been a regional favorite for years and has been photographed countless times by professional and leisure photographers alike. It is a stone’s throw from The Whip, and just around the corner from Blowhorn.
Since that re-disovery, a whole new corner of the world has opened up to me and embraced my heart and captured my soul. I sometimes wish I could drive along the roads of Chester County like the Robert Frost poem with new eyes. Both Quercas and The Tree Up On the Hill have given me countless gifts of inspiration and love. For instance, in November of 2011 I was hungering for the inspiration of Chester County and took a drive from Chestertown, Maryland where I had been hibernating for ten delicious days on a writing retreat. After visiting “my” trees, I ended up decompressing with a glass of wine at my most favorite restaurant in the region, Sovana Bistro. It was here by absolute kismet that I was introduced via a mutual friend to two beautiful people, one of which is my incredible beau whom I consider the best birthday present I’ve ever been given as it was just a handful of days before our shared day that we met!
Many lazy-sunny Sundays since then my guy and I have languished in a drive past the hilltop tree and stopped for an early supper at the Whip. Each time I carried away from it some little spark that would fuel me (or haunt me, if I was procrastinating) creatively through the following days and weeks. At the suggestion of my significant other I began a photography project about that tree, a sort of long term study in film.
Unfortunately, it will go unfinished.
If you’re in the region or if you’ve been watching the US Open then you certainly know about the unexpectedly intense weather situations with which southeastern Pennsylvania contended the past seven days. A tropical storm pelted the 95 corridor last Friday. Northern Delaware experienced a small tornado touchdown and Chester County, PA grappled with flash flooding along the Brandywine and ancillary waterways as close to 3 inches of rain came out of the sky in just sixteen hours Monday. Monday’s rains brought comparisons amongst friends to the climactic frog scene at the end of the film Magnolia. I personally am enthralled by extreme weather- the electricity and erotic drama of it- so I was perfectly happy to batten down the hatches and feel it unfold around us.
The electricity held on faithfully as the basement’s sump pump ran constantly from Monday through a rainless and sunshiny Tuesday clearing water out and it seemed like the worst was in the past. Oh but it was not.
Yesterday morning at about 9am the Chester County skies turned black. Small flecks of hail pelted the roof and violent lightning jutted from thick rolling clouds and stabbed at the land. I was at the studio with friends around lunch time when I got a call from another photographer about our beloved Tree Up On the Hill.
The tree was down! It didn’t really occur to me until a few hours later that this was very sad news. I don’t think I was ready to process it until later in the day. I took a drive up to it early in the evening to see it for myself. It was sad, mournfully sad.
I stayed until sunset contemplating the tree and the beautiful adventure it gave me these past few years. Then I went over to the Whip where I had the bartender pull a draught for me and I raised a proper pint to the tree. Several surrounding acquaintances commiserated. It was a favorite; the landscape just isn’t the same now.
I’ve never grieved a tree before. On the outside it may seem rather silly to do so- that’s of no concern to me.
I’d really like to see them plant another one in it’s place.