Saturday, 11 December 2010

o christmas tree: "K'Ayatcht'N! I hold my hands up to you, plant spirits!"

John Bollwitt photo, Culturally modified tree, Stanley Park BC

I first learned the term "culturally modified tree" from my friend Michael Blackstock, Gitxsan poet, forester, mediator, visual artist, and thinker, while participating in Poetry Train 2 which brought Heather Harris, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Michael and myself, together with our videographer sidekick Stephen St. Laurent, from Prince George to Prince Rupert and back again, an experience of poetry diplomacy that was one of the best teachings of my BC-based life. Given that I have lived in BC three times longer than in my home province of Manitoba and my third place of sojourn in southern Ontario, combined, that is a fairly extensive statement: it was a big learning feast.

I came away thinking, among other things, about the role of plants and trees in the ceremonies and festivities I have participated in, at various times of my life. Plant sacrifices, of flowers and for food, at weddings and funerals, in Taiwan, Manitoba, Ontario and BC, and the annual Canadian Christmas tree, featured prominently in my thinking. In what ways is it acceptable to take or change another's life? Michael's book, Faces in the Forest: First Nations Art Created on Living Trees, provides a respectful introduction and early survey of the interactions of humans and trees in BC regions.

Contemporary culturally modified trees, P. Colangelo photos
Wyss & Pan, culturally modified trees, Stanley Park

Cease Wyss is a local multidisciplinary artist-activist, featured in Kamala Todd's documentary short, Indigenous Plant Diva. She and Davide Pan collaborated in a beautiful contemporary exploration of the traditional, non-fatal plant-human interactivity, as part of a larger project, Stanley Park Environmental Art-- Ephemeral Works (from which the above two photos are reproduced). The "Artist Statements" read as paeans to our grandmothers, the project, and the place, and it is from Cease' celebratory statement that the quote in my title is taken:

K'Ayatcht'N! I hold my hands up to you, plant spirits!

Check out Tania Willard's exploration of roots and branching structures, in the same series.

What is important to children, I have noticed in these twenty-five years of schlepping through life in intimate proximity to my beautiful offspring, is that we do celebrate. Once a person lets go of that natural ebullience, that happy desire to live and be and grow, to affirm who we are and where we are in any possible form of expression, stagnation sets in, and passion becomes a more complex struggle instead of a simple human being. As a child I often wondered, "what is all of the fighting about?" Watching Wikileaks unfold, or any of the going concerns that fascinate our media pundits-- and what better than freedom of speech, lies and diplomacy, with conflicting contemporary sexual mores thrown in?-- I wonder the same. Watching the sea of life, the tides and the flows...

There was one good man.
To him Xá:ls said:
“You shall be a tree,
A good tree;
You shall be Xpá:y, the cedar;
You shall be houses, beds, ropes;
You shall be baskets and blankets;
You shall be a strong boat
In the flood that I shall send
To show this Syewá:l
That there is One other than he
In Swáyél, the earth.”

So Xpá:y, the cedar,
Gave his stem and his branches,
Gave his roots and his peeled bark,
And soon a boat floated upon the waters
Wherein sat the children of Xpá:y
And waited for what would come.

My daughter, Flora, each time the subject of a Christmas tree comes up, insists that a rooted tree is the only acceptable kind of pine or fir to bring into the house for these few weeks of celebration. While she finds a plastic poppy that has shifted so much in meaning over the years, entirely acceptable in November, the traditional lopped-at-the-knees type tree for late December and early January will simply not work for her this year.

At the same time, she expresses disgust with Canada Post Corporation, as they don't even show Santa the letters that they collect in his name, and so he can't answer any of the questions that young people such as herself may wish to share with him.

Whatever your inherited and chosen means of celebration, and whatever you celebrate at this time of year, the important thing is still and always, to celebrate. Winter is a time for storytell, and that is what my family gathers to celebrate at this time of year.

John Bollwitt, CMT photo, Stanley Park BC, 2008
Artist statements & P. Colangelo photos, Vancouver Park Board
Sepass Poems (Longhouse, 2009)