Monday, September 27, 2010

My enduring friend

My Enduring Friend

When I was eight or nine, I helped my father clear a path to the top of the land across from our house, land I later inherited. The land had been clear cut, almost denuded, a few years before by the previous owner to extract all possible value before selling the land to my father.

Almost every large tree was cut.  That’s why, a huge, ancient sugar maple tree, sitting on the boundary line at the very top of our property, commandeered my attention.  The tree also stood out in my young mind because I found it gross: deformed, decayed...dying. The old sugar maple didn’t make much of an impression at the time. After all, it was just a useless, old tree, soon to be dead and gone.

But I was proven wrong. 

Since then, I have walked that path to the top of my land thousands of time, and slowly over time, that old tree has become my friend.  It is not the same tree I first saw, but yet, it still stands proudly alive: A monument both to the tenacity of life and to the foibles of the human imagination.

Imagination is not a simple thing.

Imagining a tree as a young child is not the same as imaging a tree entering old age. It is a qualitatively different kind of imagination. A French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, wrote about these two forms of imagination, calling one formal imagination and the other material imagination. He believed that these two kinds of imagination were at work both in nature and in the human mind.

According to Bachelard, formal imagination in nature creates fleeting beauty such as flowers while the material imagination produces that which is both primitive and eternal. “In the mind, the formal imagination is fond of novelty, picturesquenss, variety, and unexpectedness in events, while the material imagination is attracted by the elements of permanency present in things.”

So it is with my old friend.  No longer is she the body-beautiful goddess, lush and symmetrically rounded, stretching sensually toward the sky. No longer do nineteenth century farmers visit her early each spring to tap her vital fluids. Yet, while she may no longer appear beautiful and useful in the formal, convention sense of the imagination, she magnificently endures, “in being, both primitive and eternal.”

The older I get, the more I value my walks up the path cut so long ago by my father and I to visit my dear old friend, my teacher, my initiator into the mysteries of old age.

Jean Stimmell ©2010 (424 word draft)
Photograph of my old Sugar Maple taken 9/25/10
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