Last week, I poked around a museum that I used to know well. When I lived nearby, I would drop in regularly, but it has been a while and it was nice to be back. I visited my old familiar favourites and enjoyed exploring the recently renovated galleries, but most memorable was a large wool tapestry of a snowy landscape. It hung on a pale stone wall in an empty internal courtyard, looking like a wintry window opening on a snowy field. A large, leafless tree occupied the centre of the woven image, its bare branches reaching in all directions. Fence lines cross the field and a figure hunches against the cold, but walks with purpose. It looked almost photorealistic, and perfectly composed – the balance between the dark bark, the figure and the openness of snow and sky. An evocative image of early winter.
The tapestry is based on a painting of the shepherd Jenny Armstrong by Victoria Crowe, and it was woven in 2013 at Edinburgh’s Dovecot Studios entirely from undyed wool. Every shade of shadow and snow is a natural – each chosen and spun for this image from 70 different wool producers across Britain. An information board sits near the tapestry, outlining its larger story. When the tapestry was first displayed, it was mounted so that the reverse was visible as well as the completed snowy scene, and each colour was marked with a tag detailing the breed and location of the sheep as well as the names of the producers and spinners. I stood for a long time in that museum courtyard, considering the subtle nuance of natural pigment and all the far-flung work of growth and craft that came together in capturing this stark and lovely image of a winter tree.
A good companion
In my own garden, I have a different kind of winter tree. My garden is small but dominated by an over-grown bay tree. I’m sure it was carefully planted by a thoughtful landlord in some previous decade, perhaps as a nice addition to an herb garden. Yet there is no hint of a haircut about this tree. It is simply enormous. I can sit in my upstairs bedroom and still look up at the top of this hardy tree. The neighbourhood sparrows love this tree. I am sure there is not such a crowded and chirp-ful tree anywhere in the neighbourhood. And, being a bay, it is an evergreen. We haven’t yet lived in this house through a winter, but when we moved in early last spring, we were impressed by its lush and lasting greenness. It will be a good companion as the days shorten and grow grey. In September, I cut green leaves to garland our Michaelmas dragon bread and now I have plans to use clusters of them in December when we decorate the house.
Grace upon grace
I find these two trees are in my mind as Advent approaches. They contrast, but they also speak to each other. One speaks of abundance and the other of emptiness. One of shelter, the other of revelation. Hiddenness, rootedness and fruitfulness to come. Flexibility and strength. Vulnerability and new growth. I think I’ll pin a photograph of the tapestry tree near the window in my study so I can, in a single moment, sit with both trees and consider the contrasts that winter brings. Warmth against cold. Light in the darkness. Word born as flesh and grace upon grace.
May all your Advent days be rooted, rich and reflective.
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