“Those are some funky acorns.”
“Do you know what tree they’re from?” I twirl a cutting of you in my hand, trying to find the perfect angle from which to start.
“You know, I’m not really sure. Let me check. Good choice though, whatever it is, lots to capture there.”
Sunday morning, and I’m inside looking out at the UBC Botanical Garden. The percolator permeates the studio with scents and sounds of coffee, shuddering in sudden fits as if attempting to awaken from a sweet and unyielding slumber. I yawn in sympathy.
On a whim, I had decided to sign up for a lesson in botanical illustration. The style had always struck me as very Victorian, very proper, a civilized fusion of science and art, both functional and beautiful. Perhaps the affinity stemmed from my British colonial roots. I was seven and living in Hong Kong when I last took drawing classes. A quarter of a century later in Canada, I decided to give it another go.
The morning light casts relief on the rents and etchings of my wooden desk and work surface. I smile at the sound as I close the metal case to my palette of pencils, freshly sharpened. Click. I feel like I’m seven once again, back at school in Primary Two, ready for a weekend dictation. After a brief history and a few tips from the instructor, it’s time to begin.
“Keep the light on your left, start from a central point and work outwards to avoid smudging.”
I situate you in the light, focusing first on your most outlandish features, those acorns fused together like a clump of barnacles. I round them into existence, each nut burnished and baby-brown ensconced in a bowl of wafer scales, shaping them with short dense strokes, memorizing , replicating, reducing them to paper perfection. For a while I feel clever and proud, believing that you are fully within my grasp. But one missed detail and the delusion fails, and with it goes the enjoyment of the exercise. I am not cut out for such work. There is too much pressure here to get things all right, all the time.
“Oh by the way, that cutting’s from a stone oak from Asia, Southern China probably. It doesn’t have a specific English name. Probably brought here as an ornamental.”
I pause. So you had your own journey too. Were you also taken as a sapling to lay down roots in strange soils? You grew into health, but are you content? Do you now thrive and prosper, make nice with others? Do you ever miss your native land, biota and brethren, yearn for your old secret names?
My mind cleanses itself with the white of the page. I begin again, this time tracing with eyes and pencil the thin line of branch connecting seeds to leaves. At the end of that journey lies an explosion of possibilities, and I’m not sure where to begin. Unlike the seeds, the leaves afford me space to breathe, freedom to move. First one long line, then two and six, each with their own edges and twirls, back to front and around again. I sketch your serpentine curves, switch pencils, click open, click close. You are beautiful in your preserved glory, resembling neither stone nor oak, and the work is smooth and breezy, a joy. Time passes unmeasured except by the quality of light.
Yet as you grow clearer, I grow hesitant. There are subtleties within you that I do not yet know how to capture. As the sun arcs you shift in gradient, but I cannot follow. My natural state is not one of impulse and spontaneity, for I began in the seeds, in a geometric realm, and am ultimately a creature that craves certainty, return. I fear I cannot fully do you justice here either.
“Your subject will change as the day goes on. Work with it.”
I do the best I can. At the end of the day, we go around the room and look at each other’s compositions. One woman spent the entire seven hours drawing a single chestnut. Compared to that pure distillation, you are a work in progress. There isn’t quite enough detail on the acorns, not enough shading in the leaves. But this is how I know you now, and I accept that there is much more to learn.
Back home, I continue by looking up your names. Lithocarpus pachyphyllus. Hou Ye Ke. I will speak them to you when next we meet in the garden grounds, if you like.
Isaac Yuen is a first-generation (well, 1.5) Chinese Canadian who moved from Hong Kong at the age of seven. His passion for sustainability is a lifelong one. As an environmental writer, he regularly publishes critical essays on Ekostories, a blog that connects stories to ideas of nature, culture, and self.