Above: The entrance road, before and after
Most people probably feel, at one time or another, a jolt of connection with a painting by one of the masters, as perhaps to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” or, as was recently my case, to a scene painted by British landscape artist, John Constable entitled “Hampstead Heath, with figures round a bonfire” (ca. 1822) This painting resonated with me because this past March (2018) I had photographed, and subsequently painted a picture of, a bonfire in our local forest preserve, and the open air fire in my photograph bore an eerie resemblance to the bonfire in Constable’s painting.
I have no idea what emotions prompted Constable to paint his picture, but I do know the regrets that prompted my photograph. Such is life, But after seeing Constable’s painting, I decided to tell the story of my photograph and my painting. It begins with an entrance road with a 10 mph speed limit.
The 10 mph Entrance Road
Besides, they’re old
For chopping down the trees
That lined the pasture road
When it ceased to lead
To the retreat house
Which had morphed into a Nature Center
With a blacktop entrance drive.
The trees were burned
Over their severed roots
On that desolate pasture road
On a cold March day 2018
With snow for shroud.
I was out walking when I came upon the fire.
I stopped and photographed the trees
As witness to their cremation
I felt anger, helplessness, betrayal
Standing at the edge of the field
But there was nothing I could do.
And, in my acceptance, I saw beauty
In the flames
And in the smoke
Rising into the sky.
November 23, 2018
The road came into the jurisdiction of our local forest preserve district a few years ago, when they acquired a parcel of land that had once been an estate and later a chapter house for a group of nuns. There was a substantial house on the property, which the forest preserve decided to remodel and make into a Nature Center, a laudable and creative use for the dwelling. The house sat back from the county road about four-tenths of a mile, and the only way to reach it was by a dirt track shaded by various old and neglected trees – crab apples, junipers, firs, pines, and others planted in matching pairs on either side of the track.
The Nature Center, obviously, needed improved access and the county put in an attractive curved blacktop. This left the old entrance road as a quiet walk, frequented by dog walkers and strollers like myself who enjoyed the apple blossoms, the bird life, the shade, and the history that came with the trees.
When I heard from one of the ground crew, that they were scheduled to cut down the old trees, I was incensed. I wrote a protest letter to the powers that be, but it didn’t change the county’s resolve. The trees were not native species and besides they were old. They were scheduled to go. Knowing they were doomed, I took some pictures for myself and put them in a photo album.
Even thus forewarned, I was not prepared for the devastation I felt when the trees were cut down, the raw logs piled and burned–on a cold winter day, with snow on the ground. I did not approve of the destruction then; I still do not. I felt a very strong need to memorialize, to give testimony to the trees somehow. I went home and painted a picture of the fire and the smoke trailing into the blue.