There are trees on the acequias near my home that I am in relationship with. They are a constellation of felt energy in a pattern that binds many creatures to this space. I started climbing the cottonwood trees when the pandemic began. They had been calling to me prior to the pandemic, but the quiet that ensued when the world stopped buzzing so fiercely allowed me to awaken more fully to their voices. I share with them and they share with me: existence, shape, purpose. If I am wholly honest, the tree community saved me. They were the only bodies giving me physical comfort through a time of complete lack of physical human contact. This was the time almost two years ago when so much was uncertain about the virus, and people turned away from each other. We hadn’t yet learned how to talk to each other with a mask on. It was uncertain if the virus was airborne. Even on the trail in the open air, people would not reply to my hellos. I felt myself disappearing and started to wonder if I exist. People turned away from me, sometimes with disgust. At times the fear energy directed at me and apprehensive cringing away was intense and my body felt as if it got punched. It took some time for me to admit and articulate what my body already perceived: fear of the China Virus was landing on me.
I share this with you to contextualize how I perceive and am in turn perceived by the trees. We embrace one another. They perceive me as energy, not as a racialized body. They do not disdain my Asian face and body and do not fear I am diseased. They invite me into their boughs. Gifts are given and received. They sometimes sparkle with a resonance I can only describe as laughter when my pup and I run by in a hurry to get back home for a call or appointment. “Tomorrow!”, I tell them, or “Sunday, I’ll come climb!” For all my attempts at slowing down in recent months, they still chuckle at this buzzing around in what must feel like hyper-drive in comparison to their slow and steady existence. They remind me of my value as an energetic being, and honor my human form even as they are humored by its eternal movement. The trees saved me during the height of the pandemic and continue to liberate me from toxic constraints.
I also share this with you because a tree tethering ceremony took place shortly after the winter solstice and it is the commencing bookend for my show, 나의 형체 (This is the Shape of Me), that opens on January 21 at Kouri + Corrao. The tethering ceremony was for a healing-wounded tree.
She leans far to the north over a curve on the waterway and released a large branch in the summer of 2020 shortly after the pandemic shut-down began. The release aided in counter-balancing her lopsided posture and exposed a lumen: a hollow into her core.
The lumen is beautiful and vulnerable. This tree had not invited me to climb her until after she released the branch. She needed care at the place of the wound and I climbed to cleanse it with sage. I also met her human neighbors and they generously gave me a remnant from the bough that she had released. It is a sliver shape that infers the lumen in its center.
This healing-wounded cottonwood teaches me to honor infinite change rather than hold tightly to a shape as a static thing. She showed me that a shape holds an energy vibration that anticipates an impending shift into something new.
Another ritual took place last summer at the site of the wound, one in which sweetgrass was used to welcome in healing renewal. While not intended, a harm took place as well.
This leaning cottonwood was flanked by a community of elm trees. They had a collective, protective stance for their wounded neighbor and were shading her south side. They must certainly be entwined underground in a network of interlaced, hugging roots that reflect the care they give each other above ground. After a storm snapped one of the elms, the community was cut down to stumps. Only three of the trees were allowed to remain to grow.
I am not an arborist and do not pretend to have science-based knowledge of trees. What I perceive is something different… and disregarded by many as shadowy or mirage-like. This is the space of the margins. It is not concrete or objective, and is thus dismissed by a society that values the rational over the intuitive. I understand this inclination, and also know deeply that not seeing something doesn’t make it unreal or untrue. The unseen exists, whether we are able to acknowledge it or not. The spirit of this healing-wounded tree was disrupted. She let out a wail of sorrow and fright when her community was cut down.
Yes, I understand and acknowledge that I have a corresponding truth with this tree.
During the tethering ceremony, ribbons were placed that honor and trace the lines of energetic communion between what remains in physical concrete form: the healing-wounded tree and the stump remnants of the elm community. She needed a reminder of what was in order to remain in her shape with a feeling of safety and communion.
Sometimes, the energy of healing lies outside the boundaries of what is seen as 'real.' The ceremonial tethering creates a symbolic enclosure for healing through delineation in space and acknowledgement of energy ties. This alignment of seen and unseen is where the hidden colors emerge: what was opaque and hard becomes transparent and subtle. Space for nuance is created and the icons vibrate into emergence.
The trees remind me that alchemy between the human world and nature is possible through respectful interaction, and a liminal space between erupts that includes spirit. This is the space of animas cultural traditions around the world, including Korean folklore traditions such as 당산나무 (Village Guardian Deity Tree). I discovered that the Korean village deity tree is most often a birch tree. Birches are closely related to and sometimes indistinguishable from cottonwoods, and the frames for my artwork are made of poplar (which are in fact cottonwoods). I experience so much joy in these connections.
Even through the specificity of tradition and cultural symbols, this domain is four dimensional and reaches across cultures, language, time, and spaces.
Recognizing and illuminating the universality and pervasiveness of cultural symbols is a personal imperative as an artist, as this is the domain of the symbol, icon, and archetype. The icons and symbols are whole and hold the power of a creative force unto themselves. They illuminate spirit and transcend form and existence when they become visible. This is the source from which my artwork becomes exterior. Abstraction takes place in everyday life and is manifested in music, art, movement, and other energetic expressions, whether the expression is human, animal, plant, landscape, or of the divine. This is the shared language that we grasp for in knowing one another across the boundaries of cognition. There is collaboration between nature and the human world in being known, creating purpose, and connecting. Energy does not know the delineations we have defined.
We echo one another. The trees are gateways to other spaces, other languages, other ways of being that are accessed in the shadow seam in-between. They reach for the light of the sky and the dark richness of the earth and create a bridge between an inner space and external shape.
This is why I climb, and why I have traced the lines of symbolic support for the healing-wounded tree.