Metaphors aren’t hard to come by when you’ve pulled down more of a tree than you meant, but they feel even closer when you’re the one who chose the spot to affix the chain, and then affixed it. I could really dig into those metaphors, compare them to my own slash-and-burn history, my tendency to break things open in order to know how they got put together, to hurt when I mean to heal, but right now I just want to talk about the tree.
As far as I know it’s always been there. The family house was built in 1905, and the tree can’t have come along much later. I don’t know when it was born, but by the time I was, it was already massive. My first empathized tree-pain was when a branch fell off during a storm, almost hitting someone, and I wonder if the general worry directed at the person was sublimated into my empathy for the tree. I felt it again some time later when half the tree had to be excised to meet power line regulations. It always adjusted, filled out, retained its grandeur, and I marked my life by its presence like I did with the stars, the east mountains, and my parents.
Climbing it was a challenge. My brothers and I climbed all the trees that could hold our weight, but this tree was something different. You could get lost just climbing the folds of its bark at the base. The nearest branch was as big as any of the other trees, and it was a dozen feet up. We managed to find ways to get up there every once in a while, but it was like going through all the work to climb the beanstalk and only finding more beanstalk. It gave you the feeling that if you could climb long enough there was something to find up there.
More than one plan for a house-sized treehouse was half-drawn-up. My imagination outpaced my ability to draft plans, let alone execute them.
When I was very young we lived across the lot in a trailer house, and I fell in love with a cat I named Charcoal. I first saw it between the cottonwood and the tall Lombardy across from it, a tree deserving its own memorial. The last time I saw the cat I had left a family gathering to follow it around the back of the old house next door, the one I knew had been a brick house when my grandpa had lived there as a child, the one that was sold out of the family sometime in the vague past, to be stuccoed and wainscoted and orange-tiled and abandoned until my parents would buy and renovate it years later so that I could be sitting in it right now, and the cat disappeared through a gap in the brick foundation. For months I looked for it at that spot, and for years I thought of it when I walked by. Now it’s hidden by the house’s addition.
I stole a knife from my grandpa and buried it at the base of the tree so that I could dig it up later and claim I found it, and keep it. I never found it.
Before my grandpa died the land behind the cottonwood was what we called “the rock yard”, a landing for semi-trucks fresh from the rock quarries and diesel tankers filling up the barrels of my grandpa’s fuel supply. In the summertime as the sun set and the diesel drums cooled, they would contract with a bang. My bedroom window faced them, and I fell asleep to the crickets and the report of those barrels.
He would also gather stone from the hillsides, “float stone” he called it, and when he’d get back he would unload the stone from the back of his rock truck, a late 70s Ford with a diamond-plate bed, with which I would really learn to drive the summer after I got my driver’s license by heading up to pick float stone with my cousin, still pretty much the same five-year-old sitting in the cab eating the rest of my grandpa’s Vienna sausages while I watched him stack the green-lichened purple flagstones into tidy pallets in the shade of the cottonwood.
We used to gather up its cotton in piles and make plans to card and spin it into underwear. The cotton would get everywhere; sometimes it looked like it had snowed in the summer. We once dug a small pit and lined its inside with the cotton and its surface with cottonwood branches, leaves, and dirt: a trap, and I don’t know if we used it on anyone back then, but I’ve been told the trick was repeated later and caught me while walking around outside with a bowl full of cereal, which got upset, but I don’t remember if I did, because I don’t remember it happening at all.
I don’t remember a lot. A couple of my high school years must have been very eventful, but all I can recall without checking my journal or asking my mom is lots of Pearl Jam, computer parts, and Tolkien appendices. Aside from that, a deep, terrifying, comforting, overwhelming darkness. I don’t know how to describe my discovery of depression without sounding emo, which is all the wrong impression to give, because I was devoted to grunge, although I didn’t even hear that word until the end of the 90s, and I disapproved, because the music was sacred to me. At the time, to me, grunge was just what music was. You could keep your studio, glimmering, popular hits; I wanted it raw and immediate. I mean that didn’t keep me from singing “wasn’t me,” and later I’d spend time as a producer and recording engineer and find out that even the rawness was carefully prepared, but the sensation of immediacy was important to me. It was more than music; it was medication.
I was always a writer, but I started writing music because words weren’t enough. Now I pile words on top of words because nothing is enough.
At some point as I tried to figure out why existence was such a heavy thing for me when it didn’t seem to be for others, I grew to suspect that I didn’t just feel pain more deeply, but that I also felt beauty and love more deeply. There’s a danger in this line of thought; it can lead to the implication that that others feel less of those things, or reinforce the morbid fallacy that pain should be glorified. It’s easy to debate claims of a correlation between creative output and depression/anxiety/mania/altogether messiness, and I’ll do some of that in a bit, but to be honest at times I’ve needed the seeds of hope that these ideas offer in the face of despair. I’ve needed something to balance out the social stigma tied to that mess. I’ve needed to be able to see my particular emotional balance as a wholeness, an asset, that no one is right but at least I am not wrong.
I keep thinking that I could have climbed up higher, could have twisted the dead branch out from another angle, and saved the healthy branch. The sweet smell of its living flesh sticks in my nose. It was healthy to its core. I yelled for my dad to stop pulling when I saw its torsion and heard its creaking, but it was too late. We sat listening to it, and talking over it, until it all came down.
We had first tried pulling the dead branch by one of the down-hanging limbs, but it broke twice before we could get it out. So we got the long painting ladder and I climbed. I was greeted by that feeling, fainter than it was as a kid, of something hidden in its branches. Its arms kept me safe from falling while I chained up the dead branch. I worried that its removal would damage my tie-off branch, a beautiful fresh-looking offshoot four inches in diameter, and I planned to climb back up to the spot afterward to check on it. The spot was its parent branch, sixteen inches in diameter, soon to be shorn.
Unbeknownst to my parents, at some point during the extraction procedure I began directing a short film, positioning them to get the right angles, asking for particular shots. After it fell I crouched next to the shattered yellow bits and wept, and my mental edits went in another direction. Then I wept all the more because I couldn’t sort out whether I was crying more for the tree as a tree or for the tree as a memento mori.
My brother’s enthusiasm redeemed the event, his calls for a treehouse, reminding us that the swing remains, and putting it to use while I tried to capture something that was already gone. The tree’s still here, and we’re still here, for a while more.
I needed to portray all of that, and I edited obsessively until I had, and I showed it to everyone involved and people I love and they all loved it, and I felt empty.
The post-publishing blues? In part, and I anticipate it again later today when I post this essay. Appropriately so. Creating something, a film, an essay, a child, is going to be a sunk cost. Inevitably. No matter what positive reactions come from it, it’ll never match the energy the creator puts into it. Call it the law of creative thermodynamics. But there was something more to the emptiness this time, a realization.
Any claim to creative primacy is nonsense. Creativity is a human quality. All humans are creative and should create, and art comes from all sorts of minds. Different sorts of minds produce different sorts of art, and a part of the realization that I’ve been trying to sort through this last week is the way that various approaches to art are attempting to do the same thing: realism, surrealism, hyperrealism, romanticism, impressionism, expressionism, etc., etc., are all trying to translate one kind of reality into a form consumable in another kind of reality.
These are better seeds of hope. I shouldn’t balance stigma with aggrandizement; I should find what’s beautiful in the variety of human creation. Humans must differ. It creates strife, but it also creates—everything. Our creativity comes out of our confrontation with irregularities. Our minds are really good, when we let them, at sorting through those irregularities and coming up with something new.
So, whether more or less, I do have a different relationship to pain and beauty than some people do, and it introduces a problem for my attempt to express an artistic realism, a disconnect that sharpened that emptiness I felt the other day. If my sensitivity to an event produces a response that isn’t produced for others, then using realism in my portrayal of the event doesn’t communicate what I experience. One way to overcome that communication barrier is by translating. If my experienced reality is conceptually lurid, painting in lurid colors instead of the expected palette. If everywhere I look I see the capitalistic manipulation of sheeplike masses, approaching film editing with a Brechtian montage. It isn’t that these kinds of creators necessarily perceived drastically different qualia in their everyday lives, it’s that they met the mismatch by ramping up their presentation. That means, though, that even if I manage to communicate what I feel, it is only a translation; my realism remains buried. But why do I feel like I owe realism anything? What is it I want? For any human who desires to communicate their realism, I want it to be understood.
Translation is necessary for understanding, and literary translation is an art form itself. There are translations that arguably outreach their original. Translations that stick to the original too closely often fail to communicate, while more extreme renderings offer us dazzling looks at reality, with the translation superimposed over the original. The translation takes into account the context of the author, the translator, and the reader, and those who do it best create something that can’t be created any other way. These translations become a new piece of reality themselves, and in the same way, what was once shocking in the modernist starkness and post-modernist irreverence is now just life. This essay employs styles that would have been taken as unreal two centuries ago, and this film is carefully edited to compress time to communicate what the raw footage didn’t show.
At one point after I finished, posted, and screened the film, I felt disappointed in myself that I hadn’t gone for a more polished audio track in my post-production work; shouldn’t I have made it easier to listen to? It’s what I trained to do; why wouldn’t I give the viewer a slick, compressed, noise-gated experience? But in fact, I had labored for hours to produce the audio track as it currently stands. I had an original artistic vision to preserve the feel and sound of the experience as I experienced it, which was messy, at times hard to understand (I couldn’t tell what my dad said about my tie-off branch, and I still can’t tell in the recording), and saturated with nuanced ambient Oakley, Idaho sound, some of which I called out in my subtitles. So why had I insisted on this vision? Why didn’t I translate?
At its best or its worst, a translation is not the original. Of course some originals are themselves translations, but these layers eventually get back to a root of lived experience, the only original thing. In order to get to the lived experience of another, at a certain point there’s a new step to take. You need to learn a new language. It never occurred to me before this week what is lost in my artistic translations, and in all extra-real art: the creator’s actual experience of the real.
This essay is an attempt to pile on additional layers of realism to the realism of the film, to communicate more of it by slowly adding the context it lacks, the context that moved me to create it in the first place. It’ll be reasonably argued that this is just another translation, that all art is mediated, that reality in isolated real-time pieces is boring, that it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t communicate, it doesn’t engage, and it doesn’t have a place in our over-, under-, hyper-translated modern culture. But who else wants to get to the root of it, the boring and the beautiful?
What about something more immediate? Reality in the original?