How Many Minutes from Yesterday: Garden, Early November © Iskra Johnson
In early August the garden tips from green to olive and then to ochre. With no help from the wind the magnolia drops its leaves. They dangle in the English privet like unmoored boats and drift down to form a dense impenetrable mat on the garden floor. Having put the moment off for weeks, I finally gather gloves and boots and rake and set to “clean up,” a phrase that makes me shudder with the full force of laziness. In moments my industry is interrupted by fascination; I am lost in looking, and remembering my life in leaves.
I lived for many years near an alley that had what I thought of as “the psychedelic laurel.” In the midst of this long, dense and mediocre shrub burned startling jewels. They fell into the dusty gravel and trash, and I collected them each morning on my walks. Soon I began recording them in watercolor, exploring how the variations in pattern and shape looked together in sequence. This marked the beginning of a long and obsessive affair with leaves as iconic specimens.
Each Autumn I am again struck dumb with fascination, although each year the tree of my affection may change, as does the light, the temperature of the air, and the method of capture. I may take photographs, make collages, or paint. When the effects of what is politely referred to a “climate change” first appeared in an alarming El Nino cresting in 1995 I made this journal page as I watched the fruit tree beneath my window experience the strange juxtaposition of relinquishment and bloom.
One September I noticed the Golden Locust, its perfect ovals and graceful fronds ever present on the sidewalk beneath my feet. I pinned the leaves to a board as you would butterfly wings and raced to paint them before the lamp curled them in the heat.
Several years later I started my current garden beneath two ancient Black Locusts, a distinctly different and less gentle breed. I traced my moods by their seasons, the snaking arabesques of their branches and the pods, which seemed to hold everything in their silver emptiness and swirling winds. I discovered unwittingly that the life span of an urban locust tree is rarely more than 80 years, which these had reached. Their lethal branches crashed down at random and terrifying moments, just missing my neighbors, and ripping the powerlines off my house. I had to take them down several years ago, and in the stumps we found pure powder at the core of one, and in the other a set of puzzle pieces, three trees in one growing away from each other and waiting to split off. For the three years since I have pulled out fifty young locust starts per day all summer. This tree, these pods, hold a relentless force.
This year the magnolia captures me, and the smoke tree. I know I should be stacking leaves in a bag, but I can’t stop looking….
The Cosmos is your basic “how to draw a flower-flower” with an upgrade. It has the round dot in the middle and the cheerfully radiating petals, but it has a subversive magic. Left to its own devices in a parking strip the stalks will grow five or six feet tall, their feathery leaves creating a diffuse haze that looks like smoke. The shade of pink transcends all others except perhaps the pink of sunset: it’s the good pink. I made this drawing the other day after studying the first one to bloom in my April garden. It’s good to see a bee show up and follow directions. Something is working in this world.
I have started a new drawing book that is having a big effect on every part of my life. I haven’t drawn from life in a long time. I had forgotten how mesmerizing it is, and how when you look up hours later at random things the world seems to glow with color, and the new knowledge of how to mix shadows and light. As an unexpected side effect my daily memory has radically improved. I no longer stand in the kitchen five times a day wondering where I put my keys.
How are you supposed to concentrate on work when you have a gargoyle carving an ice sculpture in your front yard? When the freeze began a few days ago it looked like this shape might turn into an apple, but now there is no doubt: it’s a heart, with teeth. Every bird in the neighborhood has come to visit and stand on his head. The morning brought a Steller’s jay and a very large crow. Hysterical to watch a normally dignified crow trying to gain purchase on the gargoyle’s icy lips, slipping and slipping again, looking up to see if anyone had noticed, and finally bending in a sly yoga pose to get a sip of water. To see more images from this sequence go to On Frozen Pond at Facebook.