In Botany I class, we were given the opportunity to work on an incredible botanical feast project, which asks us to research the economic, ethnobotanical, historical, medicinal and culinary uses of a certain edible plant. Naturally, I can’t do anything right, so I chose to study conifer resins and set about finding the elusive pine tree in a landscaped Chicago.
Resin is part of the trees’ immune system; simply put, it is tree blood. The connection to the human body is not lost on me. I have been studying resin because I have been deeply concerned about violence against human bodies and what it might take to heal us all from these constant traumas. The sharp irony is that when faced with the alarming sight of human blood spilled viscerally in the public way, I’d imagine it might shock us into catalyzing change, but it doesn’t. We are used to it now. Instead, we absorb it and it becomes a part of us. How many times have I stepped over pools of old blood on the sidewalk in Chicago? How many times have I realized I was walking along the dotted path of some human’s blood drips along my way? Is there any way to know if these wounded people are safe? Are the kids I teach safe? Am I safe?
Because I believe that every living soul has power, I also believe that there is a solution, in fact, there are many solutions. For example, we can start with equal education and art for all and see how communities brighten and shift! So often, my mind creaks and churns as if circling hungrily inside the wooden belly of a quixotic windmill: We can’t ask for societal change from others–we have no reason to ask permission!– such change has always been ours, assuming that we want it and can organize around it. Enter poverty. Enter disenfranchised and abandoned communities. Enter selfish and cruel City leadership. Enter widespread anger and fear. Enter a hot day and flaring tempers. Enter illegal guns. And here we are. Windmill standstill.
Strikingly, acts of trauma inflicted on a conifer yields the same thing as it would in humans: blood. Like us, the conifer, if not mortally wounded, will heal, especially as its resin has anti-microbial properties and coagulates like blood to keep out bacterial and viral invaders. For medicinal and healing use, pine resin is anti-inflammatory, expectorant, and it is said to have superb drawing qualities for removing splinters and even embedded glass from skin. So even as pine resin marks the site of injury from a traumatic event, the substance itself is a broadly healing medicine beyond the skin of the tree.
It makes me wonder how human blood could be used as the basis of a treatment or antidote to solve the problem of spilled blood, following the idea of “like treats like,” as in homeopathy. From this concept, my resin meanderings migrated toward using the healing capabilities of resin in a way which would put people in direct contact with this substance through the mouth (as a site of resistance, emotion, nourishment and wellness).
Enter cast conifer resin vessels serving blushed pine needle tea. Enter the gesture. Enter community.
So I harvested a whopping 8.4 lbs of conifer resin from 14 bleeding Pinus resinosa trees, otherwise known as Red Pine, from Hyde Park, where I have taught kids K-12 interdisciplinary art for the past 10 years.
As with each of my projects, the location of the site is crucial to my research and project development– arbitrary locations feel thoughtless and ham-handed to me– I like to do the work of researching and seeking out particular, peculiar, taken-for-granted or forgotten locations in order to introduce site-responsive work, which is a step beyond site-specificity. Being responsive, listening to and engaging with these chosen environments integrates my hand into it, instead of imposing my work there, as is common practice. Working site-responsively also breeds a deeper kinship, understanding and awareness of the wild doctrines of my environment, which I deeply enjoy learning during my stay with the land. Immersion and integration makes for artistic innovation and all of this prods me ever forward in partnership with and stewardship of the land and her people.
After I harvested this raw resin, I cast my favorite whiskey glass in rubbery seaweed-based aliginate and wrapped this form in a plaster cloth mother mold for stability. I melted the resin in coffee cans, placing any miniscule stray spiders or curious weevils in my happy terrarium of lichens and epiphytes, strained the fragrant, darkened molten resin with cheesecloth and poured it into the alginate molds, rotating the resin around the inside of the form to make a hollow vessel.
My first pour was the most illuminatingly beautiful, at once rough and graceful, stunning and surprising, in colors and textures which resembled, of all things, transparent cockroach wings.
I live-cast some vessels for my Botany class and in them served nutritious and restorative pine needle tea. My classmates kept their cups, later reporting to me where they kept them like prizes, safe in their homes, on shelves, in cabinets. All of it melted my heart and let me know I was doing good work.
If I can solidly name one thing I live for, it is when my materials are smarter than me and teach me more than I could have ever imagined. This was one of those moments.
Even better? An observation from a change in weather: these vessels self-destruct.
So in the end, a bright truth: Even though I am calling for the healing of humanity, specifically Chicago’s beautiful, vibrant communities, I know that my own bones and my own blood are calling to be healed. Fragile eventually becomes brittle, and a shift in temperature can cause even the most beautiful, vibrant vessel to self-destruct.