Text by Michael P. Cohen, drawings by Valerie Cohen
From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2
A Map of Time
Cut across the body of an old bristlecone pine, as someone has done here above the Patriarch Grove at timberline. What you are faced with looks remarkably like a contour map, a map whose scale is time. Can you read this hieroglyph?
The record is before you: a manuscript of life here for a few thousand years. These ridges of wood were once living flesh: What is left is something else. For this map, for what was this tree, time seems fragmented.
Why should this introspection frighten? All around other maps expose bright stone, below a dividing and indifferent blue, and dark wind everywhere.
What were you expecting when you began this journey? Wonder or Horror? Both.
Maps with Trees: Trees Made of Maps
We live in a heroic age of mapping. Yet maps proliferate inside living beings in ways not like the maps humans make. Human maps sometimes aspire to impossible exactitude. Maps inside life might reveal a grasping for opportunity and a letting go.
Consider the well-known fable by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) “On Exactitude in Science”:
. . .the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that. . .those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations. . .saw that that vast Map was Useless, and. . .delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars. . . .
Of what was such a vast map made? One might wonder. Words and maps were once prepared with implements and media drawn from trees. People speak of tree rings, as if they were maps. Trees do not choose to scribe their own rings.
Mean Solar Time by Valerie Cohen. India ink, 13in x 10in.
Why draw an individual tree on an individual ridge unmarked on any map, unless what matters most is local knowledge? Why draw at all? This living entity, living in this place right here in the White Mountains, seventy miles southwest of Tuolumne Meadows, as Clark’s Nutcrackers fly, across the Owens Valley. Yes, we are told these days about the construction of nature, by which affluent people understand themselves. How indeed? If not in the broad-leafed trees and river paths of parks, then one goes to the tough and weathered pines, where no water flows.
People admire and count the rings, the wood, its texture, that they call grain. The grain of a map is made by using contours. These contours tell walkers where to go and how they will ascend or descend in a landscape. Landscapes are also constructed by words like mountain, gully, canyon, river, spring.
Maps dwell inside of things, in trees for instance, rocks, mountains, and at the bottoms of lakes. These maps are without names or symbols: it is an open country inside living objects, open in the ways of a bleached ribcage, the vertebrae of large beasts in the desert sun.
On a walk here, the trees are landmarks (to geologists. too) where one follows a path like a child whose attention is caught and lost and caught again. It is hard to believe there is a hurry among old trees.
The wind is always with you, always in the trees, from predictable directions. One sees a lenticular tree or cloud. Wind uncovers maps inside the trees. Wind tears the topographical map from your hands, turns it inside out, and reveals some hidden desire in the watcher who “nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
Up high, you can see lines of trees on limestone ridges—call them tree lines—and might consult a paper map. There are so many trees, and they have so many different things to say. So too with the maps. It has occurred to us that maps are, and always have been, stories. Trees do not tell stories. We tell stories: we draw maps. Story lines: Line drawings: Tree lines.
Tree lines have been segregated by scientists into various categories, Alpine, Desert, Arctic, and Antarctic—this last category being purely theoretical, since no trees presently grow in Antarctica. They grow here, but individual trees are not marked on most maps as, for instance, a favorite, Geology of the Mount Barcroft-Blanco Mountain Area, Eastern California by W.G. Ernst and C.A. Hall (1987).
Maps are made objects: they were once drawn with ink on paper and consisted of hand-drawn lines. Words are made, too—painstakingly—and were once drawn as lines with pens.
We use the maps lovingly; our walks guided by their lines; we use the words, we speak of trees that grow here.
As with the Earth itself, “The system’s not in the parts. It’s in the pattern.” So too, the writing must be of sentences. Good writing requires interesting sentences: good drawings require arresting lines: good maps require engaging patterns.
To which you might reply, “What’s wrong with a map that shows me the way back home?” Nobody high in the White Mountains is likely thinking about that use for maps. Nobody is at home here.
Why would one want a map? Is the impulse natural? What if we map change, of the trees, or of ourselves?
Concerning Milford Zornes
The artist asks, “Why do I like to draw the dead and very aged forms?” as she looks through her sketchbook, seeing that she likes them—and now she is speaking of her drawings—because they are so simple. These forms attest to the fact that all drawings are based on only four types of lines—the horizontal, vertical, diagonal, and curve—and these lines are all you need to convey an emotion. Hook them together right, said her teacher Milford Zornes, and you get something that looks like Arabic writing; you get moving lines. Milford said: Horizontal is your foundation. Vertical is your support that conveys power. The diagonal supports, but not so well. Diagonals are subordinate to horizontals and verticals, and “can do mischief if you don’t keep them under control.” Curves are connectors.
These lines are inspirational, not only for what they show, but what they do not show. “When,” one writer asks, “is drawing a line a means of escape?”
Their spaces are openings where desire enters: “Now, when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration.”
Some of us agreed with Aldo Leopold when he wrote, “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”
Maps, we are told, are also supposed to be accurate, informative, and useful to think with, especially about time and space and changes occurring through time and space.
Whatever is happening in the woodlands of the White Mountains is real, though perhaps frightening. One of the things happening now: An artist is drawing trees. Not too long ago a friend (Kay Ryan) wrote to her:
“Thank you so much for showing me these arresting drawings/paintings. What powerful lines the trees offer, a kind of writing itself. You can’t possibly exhaust this wealth.
It takes a long time to be able to draw well, write well, or map well. Like living trees (to compare great things to small), people must grow incrementally, and you can see it in the way their bodies, eyes, faces, correspond, but also in the congruence of thoughts, crafts, arts, writing, painting.
Yet we are also told that maps are for strangers.
It has been said that humans “can be in ecstatic contact with the cosmos only communally. It is the dangerous error of modern men to regard this experience as unimportant and avoidable, and to consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights.”
These are not private affairs, according to Walter Benjamin’s One Way Street—just as “food must be divided and distributed if it is to be well received,” so too this other sustenance.
To be in the presence of so many old living beings is puzzling and strange, and must be shared. Why? If not to keep the darkness at bay?
Anyone looking at these trees sometimes might think that those who live should be dead, but I have continued to think that those who die would be better off alive, if only for the sake of their companions.
But trees have no companions. They suffer alone: only a human observer may think, with Emily Dickenson, “I like a look of Agony, / Because I know it’s true—.”
Sharing and strangers: you might say that these trees with their spaces are strangers, unless we choose not to make them so. They may seem estranged by the spaces they inhabit and by the spaces between them. Pascal, we are told, said that “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies” or, alternately, filled him “with dread.”
How large or small must a space be to be terrifying? How close must one be to agony for it to seem “true”? One may stand next to a perfect stranger, or watch him die, or get into bed with him. But he may well remain a stranger.
Trees do not open their hearts out of choice. Perhaps people do.
Mary Austin claimed that “The Shoshones live like their trees, with great spaces between. . .,” as if the choosing of estrangement were a dignity or virtue in the environment of the Great Basin. Maybe it is.
Trees as Maps
You might think of maps as trees or trees as maps, and you might ask what is revealed and what is concealed.
Dendrochronologists also speak of tree lines in these mountains. They inventory tree rings of one particular species, the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine. Very few trees of interest to scientists grow round in shape or ring themselves with living tissue. Scientists speak of “frost rings,” where the flesh of the living tree, the cambium, has shattered in sudden cold during the growing season. You might imagine that these tree rings map trails of change as climate varies, year after year, and variations have their own patterns, no doubt.
There are built trails here, too—one is called “the Discovery Trail,” where most of the photographers set up their tripods. Maps are texts. Texts of empire.
Trees are named—so many trees, so few names! Such an arrogance in naming (or even numbering) even these few trees that catch someone’s fancy, trees that have lived for thousands of years. An arrogance or a weakness that requires mnemonic aid.
How many of these trees live in the Great Basin? How many of these trees grow as old as we imagine them to be? They are not our children or our pets. Their locations are determined not by our maps but by the conditions under which they have grown. There are so many of them. and they are so artfully or craftily dispersed among the limestone ridges.
To see them or even to walk among them seems to create them. But this is not true. The trees say where to go.