Saturday, 13 August 2022

A Forest Sounds Like a Ship at Sea:

A requiem, a cry, a scream, a hope...

Day 25: Remote Residency at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen, Ireland, 7/18/22 to 8/13/22,  Maria Driscoll McMahon checking in from New York State

Life has a way of talking to the future. It’s called memory. It’s called genes.

                                                                                                Richard Powers, The Overstory

Tomorrow is the last day of my residency, so I guess it's time to wax philosophical after nearly a month of rapid note taking. It is also a good time to address the purpose of research for artistic pursuits for those who may wonder what any of this has to do with art.  The truth is that even though methods may differ,  many artists are like scientists in their curiosity and fervent desire to know stuff.  Research is one tool available to both scientists and artists. Another less recognized tool is drawing (or painting, sculpture, dancing...etc.) itself.  Drawing is a tool for learning. (It is also a tool for change, but hopefully that idea has become better establihed.)

Drawing helps us think better At its core, drawing is a problem-solving tool. Scientists are often avid doodlers, like the Fields-Medal-winning mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, for instance. “The process of drawing something helps you somehow to stay connected,” she explained in a 2014 interview. “I am a slow thinker, and have to spend a lot of time before I can clean up my ideas and make progress.”

Believe it or not, in my experience, the most interesting artists tend not to draw things they know - at least not completely. (The most interesting things seem to be unknowable anyway.) Rather, it seems that artists almost always draw things they WANT to know; abstractions they WANT to understand; things they WANT to learn - things like rocks and trees and the way the light falls on your face and planets and stars and BEINGS that walk and crawl and fly and speak by rubbing their limbs together until a fusion of bone or cambium turns them all into gemels emerging from shimmering portals of other  dimensions! (See yesterday's post about gemels and you'll see what I did there!)  

Thinking of art as anything other than a tool for the artist's exploration and expression of wonder, curiosity, thought, and feeling is, in my view,  misguided: it is an error in thinking that demands "expertise" but quells wonder in a world where information is instant and ubiquitous (and misinformation even more so!), but wonder is in short supply. 

What the world needs now is love goes the song... but wonder is a close second. In fact, I would say that wonder IS love. 

So...A Forest Sounds Like a Ship at Sea is, first and foremost, my vehicle for learning about forests and trees and lots of other things on its most basic level. Even more so, it is my vehicle for learning about the ways in which forests and trees are like ourselves in ways previously unknown or comprehended. 

It is also as I previously described, a requiem, in part, for forests past, a cautionary tale - no, a cry, a scream - for forests present, and hope for forests future. It is an "offshoot" of my previous project, By the Time You Cut Teeth You Are Already Ancient, which was one part meta-genealogical investigation, one part spiritual quest, one part cautionary tale.

A Forest Sounds Like a Ship at Sea was inspired by walks in the woods and reading Overstory, a book that forever changed the way I think about trees. In it,  Richard Powers, writes like a poet and anthropomorphizes trees in a way that is fully informed by science. It was the anthropomophism that changed me. 

My previous body of work focused on my Irish paternal ancestors; for this project, I wanted to focus on their habitats - those they left behind in West Cork Ireland and those that awaited in Pennylvania.

Also, in order to answer the deceptively simple question that resonated in my brain "If you were a tree, what would you be?"  I needed to learn a whole lot about them. Why is this seeming, but very unsilly question important?  Because we tend to care about things if we can see something of ourselves in them.  Richard Powers understood this in Overstory. Thus, these walks in forests with new eyes - and ears - these talks with conservationists, arborists, natural scientists, historians, artists, and fellow descendants of Cornelius O'Driscoll were essential. (I will name some names tomorrow!) 

Evil is the refusal to see one's self in others.
                                                                    Richard Powers, author of "Overstory"

During my residency,  I met a Chestnut Tree (among many other trees), an oddball overachiever which towered over many of the neighboring trees.  Sadly, the Chestnut, infected with blight, would soon meet the same fate as its predecessors.  Known as the "sequoia of the east," the massive old growth forests of "Penn's Woods" were frequently dominated by American Chestnut Trees. This would all come to an end by the end of the 19th century. 

Since then,  I have discovered that all the forests in the United States (and beyond) are in trouble in one way or another - almost all due exclusively to the short-sighted exploitation of natural resources by European colonists (including my own ancestors) - an exploitation that still happens today. 

Clear-cutting entire forests and burning fossil fuels has led to climate change which leads to extreme weather - including droughts and floods, creating conditions for which our delicately balanced habitats are ill adapted. Another scourge is invasive pests which can be exacerbated by climate change as well. 

Here in Pennsylvania and New York State stately, elegant ash trees are falling prey to the emerald ash borer beetle.During my trip to the F.R. Newman Arboretum at Cornell University, I was saddened to find many of them had been felled and chopped up into logs to prevent further infestation of neighboring trees. 

Infected ash trees at the F.R. Newton Arboretum at Cornell University (left), and in Ridgebury, Pa. 

There are also many threats to Hemlock trees including the wooly adelgig, hemlock looper, and borer among others. 

Beech Leaf disease affects Beech Trees.  Oak wilt can compromise the mighty Oak.  Locust Leaf Miner can maim a Locust. 

Climate Change affects the proliferation of parasites such as spongy moths and other pests (some invasive) as well rendering habitats too wet or too dry. Floods, droughts - all exacerbated by a warming planet can mean the difference between the survival of entire forests or death. 

"Ghost forests" like this one at Botany Bay, South Carolina, are increasing up the east coast as erosion is whittling away at the coastline.

The sad fact is that most every species of tree is under some sort of threat: almost every forest. Whether besieged by invasive pests, drought, floods, fires, logging, fracking, agriculture, human habitation, development for commerce, rising seas leading to erosion and drowned forests, the proliferation of diseases due to climate change, leveling rain forests for cheeseburgers - the list goes on and on.  

If we don't learn from the past and our indigenous forebears (whether in the U.S., Ireland, or anywhere on the planet - some of whom are still living in harmony with the natural environment), the habitats of the earth will decline and their inhabitants will vanish soon after. In the case of the trees of the forests, they are both inhabitants and habitat! If that is true of any other creation, I'm not aware of it at this moment. 


But, yes, there is hope through reforestation efforts worldwide. Planting with biodiversity in mind rather than monoculture will ensure longevity and habitats for diverse species.  Planting trees is not a panacea - we still need to work to reduce carbon emmissions through the use of green technology and energy systems to solve our problems (not to mention population control). But as trees eat carbon, they are a viable and beautiful part of the plan to slow and reverse climate change. Also, restoring forests will solve other problems as well. Restored forests will mean shelter for those who live there - human and non-human beings alike. 

I want to share a small reforestation effort happening in the O'Driscoll ancestral home in West Cork on Oileán Chléire (Cape Clear Island), home to Dún An Óir, one of the most romantic ruined castles you will ever see.  Cornelius O'Driscoll, the first of my paternal Irish ancestors to settle in the United States hailed from West Cork. This may be a small project, but if everybody did their part, the planet would become a less threatened habitat.
Alder and birch saplings at Oileán Chléire at his Cape Clear Woodland, Photos by Séamus Ó Drisceoil of Dublin, Ireland

Across the pond, a baby ash tree grows wild in the forest where the Suquehannocks once lived,  wolves roamed, chestnut trees grew, and Cornelius O'Driscoll - fleeing famine and hardship - would find refuge for his family in the mid 19th century "unbroken wilderness" of Ridgebury, Pennsylvania. 

*I found the Annie Dillard quote on the page of a wonderful artist, poet, thinker in her own right - Lucy Meskill - who has also studied trees in a most stunning way through her art.  This quote also reminds me how much influence Annie Dilliard had over my own perceptions of nature when I was much younger.  "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" is simply one of the most thrilling, meaningful meditations on nature ever.

Friday, 12 August 2022

A Forest Sounds Like a Ship at Sea:

Hidden Gemels 

Day 24: Remote Residency at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen, Ireland, 7/18/22 to 8/13/22,  Maria Driscoll McMahon checking in from New York State

 What you make from a tree should be just as miraculous as what you cut down. 

                                                                                                  Richard Powers, author of Overstory

Since beginning my residency,  I have explored but the barest minimum of trees. There are so many more species of trees to get to know - not just by name - but by their characteristics, their history, their stories. I have many books I am in the process of reading, but my residency will be concluding on Saturday; thus, my ongoing research will take place in private as is usual for me!  I may continue to blog, though, perhaps on a weekly - rather than daily - basis. 

For today, I'd like to share some of the more unusual trees I've come across. 

While searching for the trees of Ireland in Pennsylvania and New York State,  I ran into several that appeared to be "conjoined" or intertwined as if in a lover's embrace. Sometimes the trees appeared to be of the same species, but in other instances, they were clearly different.  I learned the term for this is inosculation, a natural phenomenon when two trees fuse together. Sometimes arborists intentionally graft trees together. Whether it happens naturally or through human manipulation, however,  these trees are known as "gemels" which translates to "twins."  Inosculation happens when trees grow so close they rub against each other until the growth tissue - or "cambium" fuses together. 

Several examples of "gemels" in Pennsylvania and NY State

This appears to be a very sick tree, but the large "tumor" isn't caused by cancer, but infestation of insects or fungi - usually harmless. They are called "galls" or "burls."

Hemlock Shelf Varnish Fungus

Trees that show these unusual growth patterns are known as rippled beeches. The cause isn’t really understood, but theories include internal damage when the tree is young, water stress or hormone issues. Rippled beeches remain stable as they grow so there is no safety issue.

Evil is the refusal to see one's self in others.
                                                                    Richard Powers, author of "Overstory"

Nothing, however,  is stranger than "normal."

 It’s a miracle,” she tells her students, photosynthesis: a feat of chemical engineering underpinning creation’s entire cathedral. All the razzmatazz of life on Earth is a free-rider on that mind-boggling magic act. The secret of life: plants eat light and air and water, and the stored energy goes on to make and do all things. She leads her charges into the inner sanctum of the mystery: Hundreds of chlorophyll molecules assemble into antennae complexes. Countless such antenna arrays form up into thylakoids discs. Stacks of these discs align in a single chloroplast. Up to a hundred such solar power factories power a single plant cell. Millions of cells may shape a single leaf. A million leaves rustle in a single glorious gingko.

Too many zeros, their eyes glaze over. She must shepherd them back over that ultrafine line between numbness and awe.

“Billions of years ago, a single, fluke, self-copying cell learned how to turn a barren ball of poison gas and volcanic slag into this peopled garden. And everything you hope, fear and love became possible.” They think she’s nuts, and that’s fine with her. She’s content to post a memory forward to their distant futures, futures that will depend on the inscrutable generosity of green things.     


                                                                                                     Richard Powers,  Overstory 


Gemel or Inosculation (

Beech Tree Facts: Purple Leaves and Rippled Bark - Woodland Trust

What Are Burls And Are They Bad For Trees (

Photosynthesis | Reflexivity

The Overstory - Richard Powers

Thursday, 11 August 2022

A Forest Sounds Like a Ship at Sea:

Weep of the Willow 

Day 23: Remote Residency at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen, Ireland, 7/18/22 to 8/13/22,  Maria Driscoll McMahon checking in from New York State

My love for the Willow Tree precedes my current obsession with trees in general.  I lived on a property with ponds surrounded by Weeping Willow trees which, not only provided beauty and shade, but sheltered various species of birds; a pair of baltimore orioles nested in the tree year after year. Cedar waxwings, little green herons, great blue herons, yellow warblers and more would visit or wade in the pond beneath the willow's branches. I painted Escape more than thirty years ago inspired by the trees.

The willow tree is easy to anthropomorphise.  Its leaves blow in the breeze like long hair.  It droops over ponds - its limbs even dip into water like tears.  Weeping Willows "weep" after all!

It is no wonder the Ancient Irish found the willow tree to be enchanted. It is associated with the feminine, the moon, and is known as the Tree of Immortality.   

Being near willow trees is said to inspire visionary streams of consciousness and is why poets and priests of Ancient Ireland would love to sit in their presence. It was also a tree favored by ancient healers - a predilection not without scientific basis - as there is a substance in the tree that is similar to aspirin. 

Willow trees were frequently planted on grave sites because they were thought to absorb the spirit of the departed. Their deep roots enable the expression of deep emotions which is a sublimation of the pain. 

Willow catskins by Margaret Manning, Skibbereen-based artist.
The male and female catkins are produced on separate trees

Many thanks to Margaret Manning for the photograph she took of  the Willow catkin as it grows in Ireland.  See the Post from FRIDAY, 5 - Day 18 - Irish trees in Ireland! devoted entirely to Margaret's photography and poetry. 

"Wispering Willow Tree Boston Public Garden" by Captain Kimo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A neighbor Willow tree!

There are many different species of willow tree: the  Weeping Willow is the one most familiar to me. The Weeping Willow grows up to 40 feet tall and it grows fast. What it lacks in height, it gains in proportion as the tree is frequently as tall as it is wide.  It prefers wetter, acidic soil as the tree acts as a sponge. Its root system can spread out far and wide so it is not advised to plant them close to houses or septic systems.  Rabbits, deer, beavers will graze on the trees - although some claim the trees are "deer resistant." 

The Ancient Trees of Ireland - (

Wednesday, 10 August 2022

 A Forest Sounds Like a Ship at Sea:

Birch: symbol for a fresh start

Day 22: Remote Residency at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen, Ireland, 7/18/22 to 8/13/22,  Maria Driscoll McMahon checking in from New York State

Birch trees found at Cornelius' clearing, Ridgebury, Pa. 

Beth, meaning birch, is the first letter in the Ogham alphabet and the first month in the Celtic Tree Calendar.

My research tells me that the birch tree - a tree with bark of many layers - is a hardy tree that has the ability to persevere in soils where other trees cannot grow.  This is why the Ancient Irish considered it to be the symbol of new beginnings.  Birch trees can even grow in the Arctic tundra or in areas that have been damaged by fire.  For this reason, they are known as "pioneer trees," and are frequently found at old ruins or in marginal lands.  They capture carbon from the sky and when the leaves shed in the autumn, the soil is enriched. The fortification of the soil year after year eventually renders the soil viable for dominant species - such as oak - to get established. 

Birch trees live from 40 to 100 years in general and are also prolific! They produce a lot of seeds which can float on the wind for long distances. 

Birch trees have black streaks on their trunks to facilitate the exchange of gases between the atmosphere and their internal tissues. These black streaks are scientifically known as lenticels and are porous tissue with large intercellular spaces. Lenticels promote exchange of water vapour, oxygen and carbon dioxide. Lenticels are directly proportional to growth of birch trees.

The trees support a diverse range of wildlife which will feed on the shoots and leaves. 

While Ireland boasts two species of birch tree - the Silver and Downy Birch - there are several varieties of birch trees in the United States.  I've represented some of these species below as seen in Ithaca and Cortland, NY, and Ridgebury, Pa., with Irish specimens at the end.  I am just beginning to learn how to identify different varieties without the help of accession tags or from people with much more expertise than I have, but there are several challenges even for experienced arborists; 1) the canopy is frequently so high that leaf structure and shape can be hard to discern; 2) there is considerable variation within the same species; 3) even the same tree will change appearance with age. If I am not sure of any species of tree here, I will just label it as "birch."

Birch Catkins, Photo by Margaret Manning, Skibbereen based artist

Many thanks to Margaret Manning for the photograph she took of  the Birch  catkin as it grows in Ireland.  See the Post from FRIDAY, 5 - Day 18 - Irish trees in Ireland! devoted entirely to Margaret's photography and poetry. 

Yellow birch with impressive exposed roots found at Lime Hollow Nature Center near Dryden and Cortland, NY

Clockwise from top left: white birch, white birch, river birch, grey birch
at the F.R. Newman Arboretum at Cornell University 

Birch trees found at the clearing in Ridgebury, Pa. 

Birch tree found at the clearing in Ridgebury, Pa.

Birch tree found at the clearing in Ridgebury, Pa.

Black birch at the clearing in Ridgebury, Pa.

Birch trees of Ireland - Silver and Downy

Tuesday, 9 August 2022

A Forest Sounds Like a Ship at Sea:

The Clearing

Day 21: Remote Residency at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen, Ireland, 7/18/22 to 8/13/22,  Maria Driscoll McMahon checking in from New York State

From left: Yours truly, Margaret Walsh, Dixie Gross, Christine Bedford - all descendants of Cornelius O'Driscoll. Margaret, Dixie, Christine met for the first time on this very day! Margaret, who was born in the house that Cornelius built, allowed us to walk the property which was the "clearing" Cornelius had commenced nearly 200 years ago! Cornelius, from West Cork, was the first to arrive in what would become the "Irish Settlement" of Ridgebury, Pennsylvania. 

Check out those long views from "the clearing." The only thing missing is the Atlantic Ocean!


From the time I read this excerpt, the mentioned clearing has resonated in my mind. Aside from the lovely alliteration - Cornelius Commenced a Clearing - I couldn't stop wondering about its geographic whereabouts; what trees were cleared? What animals lived in the unbroken wilderness?  How did the world in which Cornelius lived appear to him - the County Cork, Ireland he left behind and the Ridgebury, Pa. he would find? These questions, were, in part, the impetus for this project.  Some of these questions would be answered today - just a few hours ago - in the company of three other descendants of Cornelius O'Driscoll (their first meeting!) and one self-made arborist... 

It was a magical day!

I think this is as close as one can get to Ireland on the North American Continent

My jaw dropped to see these walls built close to 200 years ago by my ancestors of the Irish Settlement!

In some spots trees or limbs have fallen, but the wall has, otherwise, stood the test of time. 

Christine Bedford, a descendant of Cornelius O'Driscoll, walks where Cornelius walked.
Perhaps some of the trees were also present when Cornelius tilled the soil. (And, yes, of course he grew potatoes!)

Dixie Gross, a descendant of Cornelius O'Driscoll sits with our guide, Scott Greene,
who knows the land like the back of his hand - as well as the names of all the trees.
An ancient old-growth maple tree looks on and enjoys the company!

I imagine building stone walls would have come quite naturally to Cornelius O'Driscoll and his family and neighbors...

Top and Bottom Right: "Ancient Chapel Ruins" by Bold Frontiers is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 Bottom left  "Stone Walls Everywhere" by jpverkamp is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Some of the trees on the property are those that are common to Ireland.  

Clockwise from top left: Birch, Ash, Hawthorn, Cherry

More about the trees tomorrow! It was an amazing day which will take a while to process!

 *Through lots of digging around,  I figured out that Cornelius bought land off a Mr. Patrick and some off a Mr. Williston which he distributed amongst his kids.