I have just celebrated in the previous blog the great importance of the garden in terms of the meaning and quality of my life. I am sure that there are people who might read this blog that could provide their own testimony of great affection for their gardens. One vital component of any garden is its trees. I cannot imagine a garden without trees. One advantage of having a long residence at one particular home and garden is that you can spend decades watching young trees mature as they gain in both stature and size. Now there are many trees that tower over my home, still growing in slow, incremental steps that are not discernible or evident to the naked eye on any given day. A tree is an investment in the future, requiring patience when the young sapling is planted in the garden, knowing the extended time required to reach their full promise. Trees have been the sentinels of my lifetime, standing guard in my garden, spreading their branches out and over me and allowing me the gift of their shade. They will endure long after I am gone.
Trees form the rooted foundation of many memories of my childhood and youth. Here in Southern California, trees can inform us of much of the history of this area as that history has seen the successive replacement of one kind of tree by another. These changes have nothing to do with nature but everything to do with the increased waves of incoming human habitation and the impact of these rapidly growing communities on the natural environment. Like all other types of what has been called human progress, trees have often not been treated gently, often eradicated in clear-cut brutality or replaced by a more domestic variety as a profitable enterprise. The trees of my childhood have largely been replaced, or in too many cases, not replaced at all. I feel the cutting down of a grown tree should require a most serious evaluation and never become a casual decision. To remove a grove of trees or an entire forest must surely be a crime or require a very good excuse. In my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter”, I describe the history of my region and my personal biography in relationship to the changing fate of those trees that are the milestones of so many of my memories,
“In California, trees document the successive waves of historical change. Trees here have not fared better than the indigenous people. Their eradication was the indicator of progress or disaster, depending on your point of view. First the vast groves of oak trees, natural to Southern California, present here when the Europeans arrived. I remember my parents had a very old and huge oak tree in their back garden when they lived in the foothills. It provided a great swath of shade for us in the hot summer weather. It was an important and prestigious tree in that community, pride of my father. Thousands of oak trees are still being cut down in Northern and Central California to plant grape vines. Some counties and cities are trying to initiate laws to protect and regulate them but much damage has already been done. In Southern California the oaks were cut down for citrus groves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some oak groves still exist, mostly in parks. Later, after World War II, the next generation of trees, the citrus groves, once the very symbol of this part of the state were largely cut down for the suburban tract homes that filled the land. In my community, when the last orange grove in town was being leveled, after civic protest, city officials agreed to plant a few orange trees in a small heritage park in the southern end of town, next to an old house they moved there. They are both museum pieces, representatives of history, not the present. Even the tall spindly palm trees, planted along the parkways between sidewalk and street in Los Angeles during the first three decades of the 20th century are dying off, not being replaced. Their vigorous swaying on a windy day, fading memories of my childhood, made them look most unstable, with the heavy burst of palm fronds on the very top of a long slender trunk. Do the images of trees planted in childhood memories evoke special meaning of place and time for others? They do for me.”
History is not always kind to those things we treasure and associate with our lifetime of experiences and memories. We all know that change is inevitable and we cannot resist it. We of course also change, the aging process does not always bring good news but we adjust as we go along. In my pottery gallery, I can see examples of pottery that extend over 150 years, from many different cultures. Most of the antique pottery I have has not only aged in the physical sense but also in terms of style and appearance. That is, they are no longer creating pottery that looks like they look. There is often an inference that what is now considered obsolete or dated in terms of aesthetic fashion also loses it intrinsic value. Should we be embarrassed if we still find a ceramic artifact of great age moving and profound in its technique and beauty? Are we old-fashioned if we enjoy and prize old things?
Is what ceramic artists are doing nowadays better than what they did in the past simply because what is being done is new and thus has to be better? Can you respect and treasure the past and still wish to do original work that is not a copy of what has been done in the past? Here I think an analogy with the trees I have been talking about in this blog might be helpful. I can lament the wholesale removal of the oak tree, mourn the leveling of citrus groves, and miss the predominance of those palm trees, all symbols of a past that is no more. What about the efforts to rescue and preserve those species of plants and animals that are in great danger of being completely lost? What are the implications if we just shrug our shoulders and say that is just progress and there is nothing we can do about it? Similarly, doesn’t the invention of plastic containers provide a justification for abandoning containers made of clay? Are you potters out there working in a brave new world making obsolete things with obsolete materials? If you cannot find a reason for saving oak trees, how can you then justify continuing to make things out of clay?
This whole business of what should be valued and preserved needs some serious rethinking. I recently went to a zoo and saw that many of the animals there had signs in front of their enclosure that informed me that they were near extinction. They displayed maps on these signs that showed the original range of their habitation, often across several continents, then a second map that showed their present range, often just a few dots in one region of the world. Do you have a convincing story to tell about those things that never age, never become obsolete because what they offer us is invaluable and worth keeping? Can you provide a narrative that is compelling and persuasive in terms of those things we must preserve in order to have a human culture and civilization worth living? Does creativity always require novelty? And is that novelty always an improvement on the past? How can we value the past and learn from it while at the same time create refinements and innovation in our own work? Does the new always have to betray the old and overthrow it in order to establish it’s own credentials and meaning?
I will end this blog with another quote from my book that directly deals with this question and my great concerns regarding it.
“Is there some relationship between my love of trees and pots? Both face the same challenge. In this very practical and pragmatic society, trees and pottery need to justify their existence and value to survive. Both are endangered species. I once tried to save a grove of oak trees in my community by justifying their value: the lower temperatures by providing shade, the filtering and cleaning of air, reduced need for air conditioning, etc. I lost that struggle. The oak grove was destroyed. Pottery can pour beverages, hold food, receive liquids and hold flowers. So can plastic cups and plates from Wal-Mart. We must try to provide more convincing arguments. I love trees and pots for other reasons. I experience them. The sheer sensual beauty of a tree; the Jacaranda in my front garden where I sit on a bench in its soft shade, see and hear the movement of wind through the moving leaves, the sway of branches, the sunlight filtered through the leaves and branches. The creative form of the pot, elegant in its length and shape, cascades of colored glazes in subtle patterns, striking designs that represent natural or geometric origins. Why is that value not more convincing or conclusive in this society? What will happen to my trees and pottery after I am gone? Their destiny should not depend on my partisan or personal support, but their intrinsic significance to any worthwhile quality of existence.”