September 24, 2021

The Blasted Tree: A Visual Metaphor


On a recent walk through the woods I saw that a large tree had two of its limbs shattered, possibly by a lightning strike. The breaks looked violent, with jagged edges, and an aggressive split. It's startling to see this damage amidst calm, leafy trees. And yet, it's a part of nature's cycle of destruction, decay, and regrowth. I wrote about this pattern here. Seeing this tree made me think of all the images of blasted trees in landscape paintings, and their meaning within those landscapes. 

Jacob van Ruysdael, Landscape with a Half-timbered House and a Blasted Tree, 1653

In her essay on Romantic landscape painting in Hyperallergic, Allison Meier writes:
What's important is that the tree is usually still living, leaves clinging to its battered branches. To the Romantics, it represented the cycle of nature, from death to life, all at once. 

Thomas Hearne, Blasted Tree Near a Lake, 1803

In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, (1818), Victor Frankenstein describes himself as a blasted tree:
But I am a blasted tree: the bolt has entered my soul, and I felt then that I should survive to exhibit what I shall soon cease to be – a miserable spectacle of wrecked humanity,  pitiable to others, and intolerable to myself. 

William Blake, Blasted Trees and Flattened Crops, 1821

The idea of the blasted tree has great emotional weight. In Blake's wood engraving the tree is so much like a storm-tossed human figure, bent by the wind, with a few leaves clinging to its outstretched arms. 

Frederic Church, Storm in the Mountains, 1847

A solitary tree, its trunk split and broken, stands high above a turbulent landscape. It is as though Church is pointing to pride and resilience in the face of turmoil. 

Jasper Cropsey, Blasted Tree, 1850

Like in the Church painting, Cropsey situates his damaged tree high up on a precipice, overlooking a dark, foreboding landscape. This painting feels despondent to me, the blasted tree crushed, the light in the sky nearly obliterated. 

Lawren Harris, North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926 

In this painting––the only one I could find on this theme from the 20th century––Harris presents a more optimistic vision of a solitary damaged tree. The tall, central tree is bathed in light; its curving forms reach skyward, an evocation of positive striving. In the history of the arts, our relationship with nature has provided many metaphors, including this one of the blasted tree. Simon Schama wrote a brilliant book, Landscape and Memory, on the various myths and strong cultural connections that we have to the different landscapes surrounding us. In his introduction he wrote:
...the various ecosystems that sustain life on the planet proceed independently of human agency...But it is also true that it is difficult to think of a single such natural system that has not, for better or worse, been substantially modified by human culture...And it is this irreversibly modified world, from the polar caps to the equatorial forests, that is all the nature we have.

September 9, 2021

The Vegetable Garden: Aesthetic and Gustatory Pleasures

I love my vegetable garden. What could be more wonderful than bringing a basket of just-picked vegetables into the house for a meal? It's not just the taste that is important––you'll never buy a potato as good as one that's homegrown––but there is also the act of planting a seed, then watching the seedlings emerge, grow, and bear fruit. Even after almost 30 years of raising vegetables in this place, it still seems a magical process. It's a process of hit and miss––some years a great eggplant crop, another year hardly a one; sometimes insects go on the rampage––but there are always enough successes; it's a process of hope. As Margaret Atwood wrote:
Gardening is not a rational act. 
And May Sarton, in At Seventy: A Journal:
A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.

Although I've mostly given up on my flower borders, concentrating my energy on growing vegetables, I do plant some flowers amongst the the food crops. It's a delight to look out at my garden and see towering sunflowers, adding good cheer to the scene. These are Lemon Queen, and this plant grew to 8 feet tall this summer. But it's not just the sunflowers that I find beautiful; each vegetable plant has its own aesthetic qualities. Corn tassels pointing into the air are like delicate waving fingers.

A sweet pepper plant shows off its dazzling fruit, lovely to see, and to taste. 

Lettuces, with leaves of various shapes radiating from a center, are as beautiful as floral bouquets. 

Red cabbage, a grand leafy vegetable, has gorgeous leaves surrounding a stunning volleyball-sized center. 


I feel so much satisfaction in looking at my harvested crops. They are a reward of hard work, and I'm happy just contemplating them before eating. These three melons are grown from seed from Fedco Seeds, and are: on the left Alvaro, a Charentais melon; behind is a honeydew, White Honey; and on the right is a delicious hybrid, Sensation. Each of these has a different flavor, and they taste nothing like supermarket melons; oh, they are so much more delicious! 


The eggplants were very happy this year, probably because of the early heat spell that we had. I love eggplant, and it's a treat to have fresh ones to cook. Two food favorites: fried eggplant sandwiches, and eggplant salad, both family recipes. Click on the links for the recipes. The fried eggplant link has a bonus of a recipe for homemade pita bread. 


Sungold cherry tomatoes glow on the vine. They are so delicious that I stand and eat them in the garden, popping one after another into my mouth, so they rarely make it into the house. But I can recommend a way of cooking them: toss with olive oil and sauté in a pan until soft and caramelized; simple and quite tasty. 

Another vegetable that barely makes it out of the garden to a plate is corn. The kernels are so tender and sweet that cooking isn't necessary. What a pleasure to stand out in the sun, admiring the plants around me, while eating an ear of corn.

Winter squashes are like hidden gems, nestled under rampant foliage.

Preserving crops is an important part of gardening. Many of my crops will feed me through the winter into next spring. I make jam: rhubarb in the spring, blueberry and raspberry in early summer, and here: green tomato jam––recipe at the link––which is similar to a marmalade. 

I'm grateful for summers with abundant tomatoes, so I'm able to can, and to freeze sauce. I know I sound like a broken record, but home-canned tomatoes are so much more tasty than even the best canned tomatoes you can buy. I favor Juliet paste tomatoes for these purposes. For fresh eating I grow a variety of heirloom tomatoes.


I hang some crops to dry in the mudroom, here oat straw––which I'll cut into small pieces and use for tea––and garlic. "Awe", a perfect sentiment in regards to vegetables, is the top of a Bread and Puppet poster. 


Also in the mudroom are onions, with a Karl Blossfeldt photograph at the lower right, an image of gourd squash stems.

Finally, a peak inside my chest freezer, which is getting packed to the top with summer produce. You can see broccoli, green beans. zucchini, corn, whole green peppers for stuffing at the upper right, and some homemade bagels (these aren't from the garden; I don't plan to grow wheat). In addition to these ways of saving vegetables, I also have a root cellar where I keep carrots, beets, potatoes, and cabbage once the weather has cooled. 

I think about the winter ahead with satisfaction, when I can ruminate on what I'll eat for lunch or dinner and know that an abundant variety of vegetables is at hand. The pleasure goes beyond good food, into a feeling of life well lived.