Dutch elm disease is one of the most serious tree diseases in the world. It is caused by the fungus Ceratocystis ulmi, spread by the European elm bark beetle Scolytus multistriatus and by the contact of the roots of healthy elms with those of infected trees. It produces brown streaks in the wood and results in the eventual death of the tree. The disease was first noticed in Europe in 1910 and spread slowly, yet no cure has been discovered. At present nearly all these trees, which often grew more than 45 m high, are gone. The species survives in hedgerows, as the roots are not killed and send up root sprouts or ‘suckers’. These suckers rarely reach more than 5 m in height before succumbing to a new attack of the fungus.
I truly enjoy making artworks in wood and have been studying trees intensely since 1982.
At that time I needed to use the wood of 370 species of trees in my 370-day Project. I looked for dead branches so that I could turn them into small carved plaques and to this end I joined the Dendrological Society of South Africa in order to differentiate between the species wherever they grew. Over the years I have amassed a myriad images of trees and plant species on my database. I have been to most of the major botanical gardens all over the world and my artworks Garden of Words I, II and III, now already exhibited in many countries, were created from these plant studies.
I have learnt that druids and dryads owed their names to the ancient Greek word drus which means ‘tree’ or more particularly ‘acorn tree’. They were intimately familiar with the trees in their areas, knew how to extract healing potions and were able to tap into the energies resident within trees. Druids were literally men of trees. Because of my love for wood and woodworking and because, like druids, I enjoy a close relationship with trees, I began to think of myself as a man of trees; a druid.
Dryads are nymphs or presences that care for and protect trees in general. Each tree has its own resident dryad, responsible for its wellbeing. It is fascinating to note some of the names: Karya was responsible for nut trees, Balanos for acorn trees, Kraneia for cornel trees, Morea the mulberries, Aigeiros black poplars, Ampelos the vines and Syke for fig trees.
The resident nymph of the elm trees and their Ulmaceae family is Ptelea. She became my primary focus in 2007, when I tried to find analogies for her desperate plight in my artwork. The well known white stinkwood tree of South Africa is of the Ulmaceae family. I began to take special walks to see if I might find some visual references of suffering and abuse caused by Dutch Elm Disease in the white stinkwoods. At that time I lived for four months at the NIROX artists’ residency to the west of Johannesburg in the Cradle of Humankind. My own health was at a low because I was learning to walk properly again after being rescued from years of life threatening lead poisoning. The photographs taken on the walks are arranged in the order in which they were taken and labelled Tree Walk. This exercise was also the first in a series of walks labelled Druid Walks.
It was cold and in the dead of winter the white stinkwoods were ‘undressed’; without their leaves. The stems and trunks of the trees were exposed to the sun. The soft winter sun was playing with their shadows. Because I walked so slowly, I had a good chance of discovering signs of suffering on the ‘naked’ trees. I believe I encountered the essence of Ptelea, the tragic nymphs of the elms.
My Druid walks posed questions about the way I look at the world around me. I have discovered that I need to be ready for my walks mentally, with no prior arrangements nor pressing agenda. My head does not seem to see anything if it is otherwise preoccupied. Breathing properly and taking care to think things through gives the walks a meditative aspect. Finding something unusual and noteworthy during the Tree walk caused me to forget about my legs. It was as if I was shedding my own weight. Moments of seeing true images led to a sense of great joy.