My under and overstory

Note: this is in response to an assignment from Sophie Munns, artist, as a participant in her Seed Art Lab Part II class. You can find her at http://seedartlabstudio.bigcartel.com/

My name is Heather Neilson and I am an artist. I live in Northwestern, Connecticut with my husband, two teens, a dog, and an infinite number of back yard friends. I feel a deep connection to the natural world, especially the trees, plants, sky and earth. I feel most alive when I am expressing this connection through my art and my soul feels most at ease here amongst all the sounds, smells and sights.

We bought our little house and property 10 years ago.  It was a bank sale and a bit abandoned but I knew immediately this is where I wanted to live. I could feel the rich history, memories, hopes and dreams of those who lived here. Shortly after moving in, I received my first letter from Joyce. Joyce’s parents built our house in 1928.  It was their summer home and the neighbors were their cousins. They owned a furniture store in Harlem and would come every summer. The boys slept in the cottage in the woods and the girls slept on the upstairs sunporch. This started a 3  year correspondence and a visit from her (she was in her 90s!) and her daughter.  I learned so much about their lives here, how her mother planted daffodil and crocus bulbs and the many memories of playing tennis and building the pool. In the spring, I always think of her when the daffodils pop up.

Joyce and her husband Walter liked to name the trees.  Now, after many years lamenting how challenging the property can be, I am enamored by this land. Especially the trees which is somewhat prompted by being home most of the time and having just read The Overstory by Richard Preston. I wonder which trees her family planted and which ones were brought by the wind, birds or reseeded where they were. We have tulip trees, a beautiful oak tree off the back porch (“Spaulding”) a big old Maple by the tennis court (“Ms. Maple”),the sweet Japanese Maple (“Lucy”) and a big Red Maple (“Ruby”). There is a still-to-be-named black walnut tree that I made black walnut ink from a few years ago. It drops huge walnuts most years.

When I take my daily walk in the woods, I feel surrounded by memory, mystery and a deep sense of place. I see the acorns, tulip tree droppings, and little saplings everywhere. How does the acorn know? It’s memory is stored in its DNA, genetic code and a feeling. Time is our greatest gift.

In 1600, Connecticut was mostly forest and largely big trees with little understory. It is thought that American Indians only used small plots for planting and is why much of the forest remained (however, this is disputed). The first decades of 1700s found settlers clearing land for crop. But here, in New Hartford, it stayed wooded. “as late as 1700 the hilly countryside that would become New Hartford was forest, river and lake, said William Hosley of Enfield, a cultural resource and marketing and development consultant who has studied Connecticut history for 34 years. There may have been native American trails in the area, but any other sign of human presence was unlikely, he said.” – Hartford Courant https://www.courant.com/courant-250/moments-in-history/hc-250-connecticut-landscape-20140705-story.html

The early 1800s saw a cry for more conservation of trees, as many were cleared and wood used to heat homes. By the mid 1850s, Connecticut was mostly farmland. The next few decades saw farmers move out west, thus returning Connecticut to a largely forested state, with just about 60% forestation today.

Connecticut forests
source: USDA Forest Services

Top 10 Trees in Connecticut
Red Maple – 27%
Black Birch – 10%
Eastern Hemlock – 6%
Sugar Maple – 6%
Northern Red Oak – 6%
Beech – 5%
Eastern White Pine – 4%
Black Cherry – 3%
Yellow Birch – 3%
Pignut Hickory – 3%
source: CTPA https://ctpa.org/connecticuts-native-trees/

Joyce passed away some years ago. When I learned she was ill, I sent a maple leaf from the back yard to her as a small sentiment. I’m still learning from Joyce’s daughter – what was here, what was planted, etc. And I feel all of the people who passed through here in the landscape. Meanwhile, I’m naming trees and figuring out how I can save them, let them self sow, or deciding where to transplant saplings. I am continuing the cycle and the inevitable march of time for my family and this land. There really isn’t much difference.

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