Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Trees. Trolleys.

My Trees multimedia installation project is about dormant, dead and decaying trees. I spend several hours a week on field excursions, imaging trees with four different types of cameras and a digital audio recorder.

Monday, 4pm. I am on my way to give two back-to-back lectures on high definition videography and audio at the Art Institutes of New England, in Brookline Village. I take the Riverside Line trolley.

The waning light of afternoon casts long, golden shadows on the end-of-winter backyards, woods and wetlands as I ride.

As the trolley hurtles through Newton, my nose is suddenly cold. I realize that it is pressed up against the glass. I am standing, bolt upright, leaning into the door, transfixed by what rushes past -- Trees. Hundreds...thousands of naked, grey, broken, dormant, dead, decaying trees. And tangled undergrowth, thickets, brambles, bushes. All moonscape grey in early March.

The carefully landscaped front yards that I see as I drive around the neighborhoods give way in the rear to dangerously steep hills that descend to the trolley tracks. No one bothers to manicure these grounds.

The Trolley fence is hurricane style. Mile after mile. Couldn't be uglier. Several trees had apparently tried and failed to deal with the metal links. It is a sad sight captured here in FenCed.

Nature takes its course back here. A 60 foot conifer, needles still green, jerked out of the ground by who knows what massive, inexorable force, lies on its side, bloomers showing, root ball humiliatingly exposed to the unforgiving sunlight and drying winds. I am embarrassed for her.

Everywhere there are cracked, bent, breaking and broken bits of trees, as if an actual hurricane had come through. Discarded cleanly sawn limbs and stumps clutter the area closest to the tracks.

The wetlands around the Webster Conservation Area are particularly intriguing. I immediately begin scheming on how quickly I can come back to tramp through these woods with my cameras and audio recorder. I also note several promising stumps that I hope I'll be able to find when I return.

Tuesday morning. 6:19am. Sunrise is at 6:07, so I feel I'll catch the light just right by the time I arrive in Chestnut Hill.

I am imaging sidewalk trees in West Newton Square when a cute little female gets my attention. Wet nose, huge eyes, perhaps 8 inches high at the shoulder. Her owner, a friendly woman in a stylish coat, tells me she is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. 

"Shall I pose her next to a tree?" She asks, helpfully. No thanks, no posing. Bending down on one knee, I snap away as the Spaniel dances about. I get a couple of blurry shots. It's a wonderful way to start the day.

TreeGedy is a typical sidewalk tree. I imagine the iron bars are there to protect the tree from humans, but the sight is almost unbearably painful. "We've imprisoned you in order to protect you." 

I decided last week to start photographing the dogs I meet, because I have met dogs on every single one of my Trees excursions. The pattern is usually the same. I am lost in thought, working my camera gear, when I feel a presence. I turn around and there he/she is, four feet, furry and curious.

The owners soon follow, either amused by their dog's interest or apologizing for the intrusion. Either way, conversations ensue. I have scientifically concluded that dog owners are among the nicest people in the world. On the other hand, that's nonsense. I bet Atilla the Hun had a dog, too.

Repeating all the steps I had taken the day before, I take the Riverside Line to the Chestnut Hill stop. It slowly dawns on me that I have no idea how to get back to that felled 60-footer.

I start walking and see no path that goes next to the trolley tracks. High fences everywhere. I consider striding along the railroad bed and then picture myself being arrested by MBTA police. Veto that idea.

I see a small road that might lead behind the tracks. A woman is walking her dog and waves. I wave back. The dog sniffs the air as I approach. She tells me that the "small road" I am on is a private driveway. Whoops. She's pleasant though, and helpful with directions.

I ask for help in finding the way behind the tracks. She directs me to the eastern entrance to the Houghton Garden, buried deep inside a warren of streets. The photo you see here is of the western entrance. By the way, her dog is a Cairn Terrier.  No picture, as I am now getting anxious at the fast rising sun.

I stride off and lope about a half mile, winding back into streets with no sidewalks. I'm beginning to doubt her directions when I suddenly see the entrance, exactly as she described. Thanks, Nice Woman.

The Houghton Garden is a lovely 10-acre Victorian style garden featuring a brook, a pond and a thick stand of rhododendron -- verdant and lush even at this time of year. I stop to record water, bird, insect, squirrel and wind sounds.

The garden is gorgeous, but I'm jonesin' for that deceased conifer, so I move on in what I hope is the direction of the trolley tracks, stopping to notice an empty bottle of Amstel Light rudely thrown underneath a bush. No picture. Too sad.

The sound of a passing trolley snaps me out of my reverie. After  crossing the top of a hill I see a woman standing below with her back to me. I shout out "hello" so I won't scare her by seeming to come out of nowhere. She turns, waves and I see a man and a very well-coiffed grey dog. They are a family. I walk down the hill,  high-resolution camera in one hand and digital audio recorder in the other, headphones in my ears. I imagine I'm quite a sight. Unfazed, they strike up a chat. The dog is a Schnauzer.  Fraulein Schnauzer is not curious so much as annoyed with me. I feel like I am interrupting something.

We all exchange pleasantries and they eventually move off. My theory about nice people and dogs continues to hold true.

For the next two hours, I traipse about the Houghton Garden, the adjacent Webster Conservation Area and the Newton Deer Park.

Fungus is growing everywhere with a vengeance, and the sight of the plump, juicy mushrooms makes me hungry. AwNing, though, looks like a shady overhang in a condo complex.

Mmmm...garlic, onion, olive oil and fresh-picked Newton mushrooms. Except that I never pick anything on these trips. It would seem like a violation.  Not to mention that I don't know which ones are safe. I'm content with taking their images and leaving their bodies intact.

On this day, it's several miles, 4 hours, 82 exposures and many digital audio recordings of the sounds trees hear, plus the sounds trees make as they rub against each other.  I never do find that 60-foot downed conifer, but that's okay.

Utter bliss. ###

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