It snowed on this past All Hallow’s Eve. That was a bit early. The garden was pulled out in the nick of time, and all of the ghoulish neighborhood decorations were erased with a blanket of snow. What a blessing. I stepped out the next day to begin my November visits to the cemetery. Emerald shards of grass and a sweep of blue sky made me think it more an awakening March than a dying November. Bright green leaves encased in white snow swirled the seasons together while a heavenly fragrance of evergreens wafted into the cemetery and charged the air with Christmas. I simply gave up on knowing the season and thought myself outside of time. I could not help but ruminate on the resilience of life. Life will not be conquered, and every blast of snow and wind brings signs of a certain and sure resurrection.
And so nature daily teaches me of the tremendous supernatural expanses of life—of the grandeur of salvation. Yet, in its inviting and whimsical charm, nature also teaches me about the minute particulars of how to journey in the little things of everyday life. Returning from my crisp and refreshing jaunt to the cemetery, a cup of tea by my side, I discovered that as I rested and looked around nature was still teaching me and nudging me to perfect the humble skills of this life. When I meditate on the wood grain in my flooring, the very patterns made by the growth of a living tree, I wonder that man did not achieve great heights of artistry sooner. Perhaps he had to wait until he had developed a pencil with a fine enough point or a soft enough graphite. Perhaps he had to wait to develop a smooth enough paper. Perhaps it took some time to develop a wood finish that really showed off the patterns of the grain.
It is a little habit of mine to study the patterns in wood grains. When you study the lines, your imagination begins to blossom and to produce images. I suppose it is something like what psychologists try to do with Rorschach tests, but somehow the studying of the wood grains seems safer and more wholesome. The lines greet you in soft, organic patterns, not in the hard, black and white clinical blots of ink presented in the mind lab. The contours in the grain are there to teach me, and should I choose to follow, to help me grow, improve, and perfect what I already hold, while the Rorschach test, at least in my limited experience, seems to be a rather invasive peering into my psyche. I prefer the lines that draw me out of myself to those that draw me into myself.
But back to the very practical. Have you not seen how very useful wood grains are as drawing models? How they teach us to use contour lines to create form? How they teach the very subtle nuances of shading which also create form? Consider the sketches of animals by Albrecht Dürer. I think he studied wood grains. In the flooring in a room of my home, I have exquisite tree-drawn images of a rabbit, a shark, and an angel. On a door upstairs is the image of a face—which I only recently discovered frightened one of my children all throughout her childhood. It is actually a pretty terrifying image, and her experience did lead me to think of fairy tales, of Tolkien’s Old Man Willow with the poor hobbits trapped inside, and yes, of the images in the Museum of the Souls of Purgatory in Rome. It might be time to paint that door. On the back of a pew in a local church, I found a tableaux of people streaming forward to hear Christ preach. On a buffet cabinet in a convent in Switzerland, I found the image of a very happy dog sitting up on his hind legs. Perhaps we see what we like or perhaps the trees, even though harvested, are still speaking to us. Perhaps as they grow, the trees draw what passes by.
Studying life forms is an indispensable aspect of learning how to draw well. So teachers present lessons instructing how to draw apples, pears, and human hands. There is more energy in your lines when you draw from life. Your drawing of an apple will always be more lively if you are drawing an apple sitting in a bowl before you then if you are drawing an apple in a photograph. Returning into vogue in art instruction is also the copying of masters. Imitating the styles of great artists is a tremendous benefit as you try to build your drawing skills. You learn a great deal about how other artists use line, and you expand your own use of line beyond your first natural impulses. The drawing models in the wood grain, however, seem to be a different teacher than the life model or the copying of the masters. I cannot quite explain it. Perhaps the grain is such a fascinating model because of the unexpected and mysterious appearance of images among its lines. A wonder attaches to them. In the wood grain, the great designer and artist of the universe is giving us a picture to copy. It is almost as if He is saying, not here is an apple to draw, but here is how you can draw an apple…though I have not yet seen an apple in the wood…just animals and angels and a great biblical tableaux.
I think that these hidden pictures are tucked in little places all around our natural world. If we look at the sand carved out by the great winter waves of the lake, if we look at the marble spiraling around the column, if we look into the clouds softly morphing into forms as they drift overhead, they show us figures with contours and shading of great artistic beauty. The artistic eye discovers that even as an object is never just one color, neither is an object just one image. These lovely lines in the wood grain are filled with pictures to copy and draw or simply to serve as a well spring of meditation.
I will put in the wilderness the cedar,
the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive; I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together, so that all may see and know, all may consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.