The oaks were of noble bearing: they did not trail their branches on the ground like willows, nor did their leaves have the dishevelled appearance of certain poplars, which can look from close-up as though they have been awoken in the middle of the night and not had time to fix their hair. Instead they gathered their lower branches tightly under themselves while their upper branches grew in small orderly steps, producing a rich green foliage in an almost perfect circle — like an archetypal tree drawn by a child.
It’s surprising how often the subject of trees comes up in Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. The description above is from his visit to the Lake District in England, but while he is France he also notices trees with the help of Van Gogh’s paintings. I like the word pictures the artist himself painted when he was working on a series of sketches of cypresses, words that tell us about the trees and about Van Gogh, too:
They are constantly occupying my thoughts….it astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them. The cypress is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has a quality of such distinction. It is a splash of black in a sunny landscape, but it is one of the most interesting black notes, and the most difficult to hit off exactly.
Van Gogh was with his cypresses for quite a while, getting to know them. I have felt close to some particular trees over the course of my life, starting with a pear tree outside my back door, which for some reason made enough of an impression on my five-year-old mind that it remained the only thing I remember from that house’s yard.
We moved to another place with a significant tree, a huge oak that grew even bigger till it threatened the house in which I spent the remainder of my youth. So I can’t help loving oaks, and I do think trees in general worth a whole post from this book on travel, even if they aren’t that big a part of the book.
But, see here, Van Gogh couldn’t leave out the trees when he wrote about his house:
My house here is painted the yellow colour of fresh butter on the outside with glaringly green shutters, and it stands in the full sunlight in a square which has a green garden with plane trees, oleanders and acacias. And it is completely whitewashed inside, and the floor is made of red bricks. And over it is the intensely blue sky. In this I can live and breathe, meditate and paint.
De Botton notices some trees by a stream on another occasion in the Lake District, while he sits on a bench enjoying a chocolate bar, “a scene so utterly suited to a human sense of beauty and proportion.” But he didn’t pay attention to them for very long, and seemed to forget them entirely when his trip was over. But one day he was in a traffic jam and mentally stressed by the cares of everyday life, and
…the trees came back to me, pushing aside a raft of meetings and unanswered correspondence, and asserting themselves in consciousness. I was carried away from the traffic and the crowds and returned to trees whose names I didn’t know, but which I could see as clearly as if they stood before me. These trees provided a ledge against which I could rest my thoughts, they protected me from the eddies of anxiety and, in a small way that afternoon, contributed a reason to be alive.
I’m sad to realize that in my travels I’ve not spent enough time alone in one place to take proper note of foreign trees, but I do love them. And when we visited the Bristlecone Pines a year ago, I suppose it was the fact that they were the focal point of the place that enabled me to concentrate on them more than is typical for me. But instead of drawing them, I philosophized about them.
John Ruskin tells us, “Your art is to be the praise of something that you love.” Perhaps my first adult drawing effort will be of a tree.