I have spent the last 30 years of my life living and working in west Sonoma County at a place called the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC). I am one of the founders of this 80-acre community and retreat center. It is also a center for the study and practice of permaculture. It was there that I came to love oak trees and also came to know Erik Ohlsen, the author of The Regenerative Landscaper, which features my art on the cover.
It was at OAEC that Erik was introduced to many of the core concepts of his natural philosophy. Over the decades, our friendship has deepened as our roots have grown in the ground we share. Fundamentally my Great Oak series and Erik’s new book spring from the same source; many years of close prolonged observation in nature, decades of study in and out of the field and countless hours of practice. I am so happy and honored to see one of my oak portraits on the cover and to feel such profound alignment between the image and the content of the book.
The Summer Oak painting on the cover is one in a series of 33 large portraits of ancient oak trees. All of the works can be seen in this gallery. This work is undertaken during a perilous time of species loss, deterioration of whole ecosystems, climate change, war, pandemic, and economic inequality and uncertainty. We are also experiencing dramatic social polarization and disconnection, health-threatening stress and trauma and an epidemic of Nature-Deficit Disorder in our youth. For me, this context is part of what makes this work relevant and interesting.
In the context of current multi-crises, the symbolism of a mighty ancient tree seems especially potent. Images of great trees are filled with meaning in cultures and religions throughout the world and far into the past. For me, these trees symbolize life, wisdom, growth, abundance, generosity, prosperity, community, and healing. Like so many artists before me, I am aware that when I paint a tree, I engage in an ancient practice. I hope in this time, in this society, the paintings represent not only great oak trees but models to emulate and a set of important values. These include conservation and regeneration, resilience, and community. These trees nourish and shelter us, offering shade, water, and food to whole communities of organisms. They increase the biological carrying capacity of place. They clean the air and share their resources. They teach reciprocity. They live and die in integrity with place, connected and interdependent. Trees show us how to be good citizens in the web of life.
These paintings are large oil paintings either 4’x6’ or 5’x7’. Fundamentally this work is rooted in deep, prolonged observation in the presence of the trees. In time this leads me into relationship and even into love. When I come into relationship with these trees, I know we are both part of a greater whole living system. I hope the viewer will share some part of my experience of slowing down and connecting in this way. In one sense the subject of the paintings is as much my relationship to the tree as the tree itself.
These paintings honor the living but also memorialize the dead. Starting in the mid-1990s thousands of great oaks in northern California have died of Sudden Oak Death (SOD). Part of the inspiration for this series has been witnessing the dramatic disappearance of these beloved beings. It has been shocking to see how vulnerable these mighty ancient trees are. In many locations they are irreplaceable. In this way, the work moves me to feel more in touch with the true nature of the world. Perhaps it gives me a container to both honor and grieve. Of course, the natural cycle of death and rebirth is integral to all natural systems but in this case, there is a serious imbalance. In spite of these and other challenges, we can all be inspired and filled with hope when we read Erik’s book and open our eyes and hearts to the vast regenerative power of nature and of our collaboration with her.