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  • Writer's pictureMaureen Henry

From Anguish to Hope

I always thought that I wasn’t much of a writer. But I am an artist and people say that a picture is worth a thousand words – a phrase that means that a single image can convey complex ideas more effectively than language.

People have suggested to me that I should write a blog, and I was like… uh, about what?!

Well, the other day I was chatting with a friend in a coffee shop and she said something that struck me like lightning – thank you Kathy for hitting me with a hammer – I needed that!

My friend happens to be in the process of writing a book, and she blogs as well. She suggested I start a blog about my art, about what inspired me to do a particular piece of artwork for example.

I thought that was a great idea, so I went home and started looking through my website. When I scrolled through the photos of my work, I realized that I had many stories that I could tell about several of my works of art. The thoughts started flooding in, and here I am now writing my very first blog.

Since I love nature so much, I wanted my first blog to be about a tree that I have a very special relationship with. I met this tree in 2015, when my other half and I were on a leisurely bike ride along Pennypack Trail in Philadelphia.

We came upon a path that went off the trail so we decided to take a break from riding and appreciate the scenery along the creek. It was a beautiful fall sunny day.

The few years before this ride, I experienced some torturous, Hell on earth years for me, to say the least. I lost my sister to lung cancer, my mother’s sudden death is still an unsolved mystery, one of my best friends lost her battle to brain cancer, my dog died, my daughter was in the midst of modern high school horrors, and I narrowly escaped financial bankruptcy. The list goes on but I will spare you the remainder of it – I’m sure you get the idea.

I hopped off my bike and found a spot for it in the shade. I barely started walking toward the creek when I spotted this tree that caught my attention.

Tree’s home was right on the bank. It was October 25, there were many leaves that were still green, but most were gold to yellow.

Tree called to me. His entire torso was hollowed out. His bark looked good though, and he still had many leaves both green and gold. He was alive and well!

I went over to Tree, and stepped inside his hollow trunk. I could see all the way through to the top of the tree where his branches parted in many directions.

The inside of his trunk looked charred, as if there was a fire. I stepped outside of his trunk and walked around him, inspecting for some clues.

Toward the top of the tree, I could see a large split. It looked as though lightning struck this tree. I wonder if that’s how Tree became hollow. Maybe the lightning started a fire, and perhaps it self-extinguished, maybe from rain – who knows.

I thought, I can totally relate to this tree. The feeling I had after the series of losses I had, was a feeling that there was a huge gaping hole in the center of my chest. It sure felt that way to me, like I was completely hollow inside.

Yet, like Tree lives on, I have come through my hardships. Tree is a survivor, and so am I.

I had an immediate connection with Tree.

How does this tree survive, with its entire trunk non-existent? How do we survive when we experience such great losses throughout our lives?

A couple years ago I read a book by Peter Wohllenben called “The Hidden Life of Trees”. The author talks about how trees live in forests, in a network similar to a family system, and are maintained by the other trees around them through the underground root system.

I read that if a tree was cut down and left as a stump, it’s possible that it could survive as a stump for a very long time if it was with a family of other trees around it. The other trees can keep the stump alive by feeding it through the root system. Amazing.

I also learned later that trees have different layers that serve different functions. Most of the trunk in an old tree is dead wood called heartwood. The heartwood gives the tree support, but sometimes it rots away leaving a hollow, living tree. The layers between the trunk and the bark are what keep the tree alive and nourished. I find this fascinating.

So there are reasons why this tree is still hanging on, whether from its strength and nourishment from its layers, or from its “family” of trees surrounding and supporting it.

I thought and asked myself, how did I make it through my darkest hours? Like this tree, I survived with the help of my loved ones and friends, which gave me the strength and support I needed to function on my own. All the meals, hugs, and emotional support from friends and family provided the nourishment and strength I needed to get through those difficult years. For without them, I don’t know if I would have endured all I have been through.

I was inspired by Tree’s ability to persevere, and by how similar this was to my own experience.

I painted “Tenacity” a year later in the fall of 2016. Though I had been painting rocks with acrylics for about 2 years, I wanted to expand my artistic skills and learn how to paint using oil paints. I joined a class at Keith Valley Adult Evening School and met some new friends there. I needed a subject to paint, and knew right away what it would be. I didn’t even know how to start. Painting in oils is quite different than painting in acrylics, and I was really just guessing. This was my first ever oil painting. You wouldn’t believe it but I messed up a couple of times, and I became so frustrated with the process and how the oil paint behaved. But I stuck it out and kept trying, and this was the final result. I am quite happy with it because I was able to portray everything that I was feeling into one painting. That can be very hard to do!

Painting is great because you can take liberties and paint whatever the heck you want. So although I used the photo of Tree for reference, I added my own twist for the mood and emotion that I felt from the experience of meeting Tree.

Fall is my favorite season of the year, so I wanted to make the scene in my painting represent it. I chose to stick with all yellow, because of a couple of reasons, which I am only realizing fully right now as I write. First, yellow is an uplifting color which immediately brightens the spirit and stands for happiness. Second, yellow represents my mother. The opposing darkness of the forest and brightness of the yellow create the dramatic mood perfectly for what I wanted to portray.

The hollow tree is the obvious focus, with its Sleepy Hollow-like impression. You can see a face on Tree, even in the real photo, which further emphasized the life-like qualities that Tree has.

The hollow part looks like his large mouth, extended all the way down to the ground, as if he is empty and hollow inside from whatever experience he went through. He is anguished, in mourning, his entire embodiment is hurting and in pain. You can see it, you can feel it.

There is another tree across the path, just a little further up. This tree has a major branch missing and you can see that this tree has been through a lot as well. But one of his branches is reaching out to Tree, perhaps to comfort Tree and offer re-assurance that things will be okay. You see the path between them, with a light at the end. This represents hope. (The other tree and path were not in the photo. This is where my creativity took over.)

Friend reminds Tree that there is hope around the bend. Keep on the path and keep the faith. There will be others to guide you, loved ones, friends, family, and acquaintances. Faith and hope. That is what keeps us going, what gets us through to the light. Friends. Faith. Hope. Love. And a little bit of tenacity.

I like to visit Tree at least once per year. I didn’t get a photo of myself with Tree that first year in 2015, but I made sure I got one each year after that. I last saw Tree this summer in August 2019, and though his facial features have changed a bit (as mine have too), he is still looking good!

If you live in the area and want to see Tree for yourself, he is off the Pennypack bike trail, in Lorimer Park, between mile marker 1.75 – 2.25, you will see a path that leads to the creek bank, and he is there hanging out. Say “hi” to Tree for me if you see him! :)

Note: The original painting is hugely sentimental and will never be for sale. But I have had several people ask for a print. If you would like a print of “Tenacity” on canvas, feel free to contact me.

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