Mourning a Tree That Has Lain Down

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Mourning a Tree That Has Lain Down

The story behind the piece “Fallen” (2021) by Jean Shin is that a hemlock tree, now horizontal, cut from its roots, and suspended above the ground by two boulders, was going to die anyway. The groundskeeping team at the Olana State Historic Site couldn’t heal it. Because of the tree’s size it was feared that in the upcoming winter storms it might fall and damage the nearby main house. Shin determined to commemorate this one death that stands in for many.

The ongoing pandemic has felled hundreds of thousands of people, their lungs ravaged by a virus they couldn’t see, borne on the air we must breathe. Many of these people (including my grandfather) were buried hurriedly, without the presence of family to wave them on with loving rituals from this shore to the next. They did not have the benefit of being properly mourned, held, and released. So Shin gave this ritual gentleness to a tree.

She coordinated with the state’s parks department to salvage the trunk and bark after they had cut it down. Working with William Coleman, the director of collections and exhibitions, Shin reenacted the stripping of the bark and then, using leather (which they term “dead stock”) sourced from fashion houses and the upholstery industry, she clothed it in that animal skin riveted together to form a funeral shroud. Her plan is to convene a later gathering during which they will cremate the tree so it returns to the wind and land from which it came. Thus, that body will be completely at rest.

The poet Sylvia Plath wondered what it might be like to be a tree in the poem “I am Vertical”:

But I would rather be horizontal.
I am not a tree with my root in the soil
Sucking up minerals and motherly love
So that each March I may gleam into leaf,
Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted,
Unknowing I must soon unpetal.
Compared with me, a tree is immortal
And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,
And I want the one's longevity and the other's daring.

Jean Shin’s “Fallen” bids goodbye to that longevity, mourns it, so that we might let it go, so that we might face our own sudden fragility. And in letting go we look to a March yet to come when we might gleam into leaf again.

“Fallen” by Jean Shin is located on the east lawn at the Olana State Historic Site (Hudson, NY) through October 31.

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