Call the Hollow Tree Line
September 25, 2009
I am collecting stories about the Great Plains for a sound installation at the annual Art Harvest here at the Art Farm in Marquette, Nebraska on October 24 and 25. Maybe you’ve lived on the plains for your entire life, maybe you arrived recently, or maybe
you’ve only traveled through in a bus, a train, a car. Maybe your grandparents passed along letters or stories about traveling the plains by choice or force or economic necessity. As a Californian with generations-ago roots on the plains, I experience the landscape here as a pile-up of stories, conflicting versions of similar events. How about you?
I invite you to leave a brief, anonymous phone message on The Hollow Tree Line voice mailbox ( 206-426-5613) about a prairie journey of any kind. You are welcome to talk about something handed down across generations or something all your own, to describe a long voyage or a small transformation or a change in perspective, to record ducks
flying overhead or imitate the sound of a cat giving birth in a barn, to sing-yell the words of a broken treaty—whatever you are moved to contribute.
The Hollow Tree Line got its name from a trip that I took with my family the year after my grandfather died. In Council Grove, Kansas, near where he was born, there is a hollow tree still standing where pioneers in wagon trains used to leave letters for travelers coming along behind them. We talked with hog farming cousins who had stayed
in the area and visited the old family house, and I later learned that Council Grove was the site of a treaty signing between the US Government and the Osage tribe, an important turning point in the often violent history of western expansion. What were we hoping to
find there? Maybe we went to Kansas as a way of trying to connect with Bert, as if the hollow tree might have held one last letter from him, sent across an impossible threshold.
Now I am spending two months away from my California home as an artist-in-residence at a farm on the Nebraska plains—not too far, relative to California, from where my great-great-grandparents homesteaded. There’s a dip in the prairie nearby where the Oregon Trail passed through. We rip out old phone lines and climb the barn roof chasing cell phone signals. In light of this weird confluence, I am interested in the traces we leave of the journeys that we take, and the ways that our efforts to communicate mark the landscape. How do we connect across this space of the prairies, whether we are the ones leaving home, or the ones staying behind?
I thank you so much for reading, and hope that you will call The Hollow Tree Line at 206-426-5613, and that you will ask your grandma and your neighbor and your kids to call as well. I will post the final sound collage on this site at the end of the project.
Excerpt from Jiji, a novel in progress by Lily Robert-Foley
One afternoon, while Jiji and Jel were visiting Jel’s grandparents house in the Great Plains somewhere, a small dusty town with no roads, no stoplights, the houses situated aleatorically like scatter point plots on a graph. The organization of community. Jiji sat on top of a picnic bench, her feet on the bench part. Jiji liked to appear different, sometimes by not using chairs, using other things as chairs, or using chairs in the wrong way. Jel stood across the “road” from her. The road here being the accidental space between buildings.
In Chinese Philosophy, the sky gives force, energy, light, whereas the earth makes things grow, gives things shape and being. Either things explode from these very small obits of light falling out through the sky, or as things are born the sky is pulled down and embues them with motion. Sky or heaven. The Great Plains was one of the few places Jiji had ever been where the Sky was larger than the earth, took up more space in comparison with the human body, seemed more important.
Jel stood across this unroad from her, separated only by the negative space between structures. The bond that held them together was a Sky bond, made from a charged, beingless, surround sound gray, a gray that gleaned like silver, infused with air as breath is, as the lungs are. Lungs, the organ of mourning, the organ that gives sigh. They looked at each other, were together, absorbed in this gray light, condensed by love. They perhaps loved the quiet so much because the quiet enabled them to hear one another better.
And as they stood there staring, seeing the golden animation of heaven emanate out of each others clay bodies, a tumble weed rolled out of nowhere, on a mission, and passed between them. Dense, hairy, monstruous obstruction, plowing through the molecular tether that held them together through centrifugal force, like a momento mori smeared across the base of a painting. So absurd, a deChirico, a chair alone in the middle of a room, a dog on a table, something unexpectedly falling from a window, not understanding betrayal, not understanding death.
And their faces like the surface of the soil, erupting with water, laughter, a tumble weed! And it went off comicly, to another planet.
And later, Jiji watched Jel as he stood on the crest of a plain, at his grandfather’s funeral, as he mourned next to the other grandsons, watcing the Sky colonize the Earth. And even though he is an alien, he had long assimilated into a family that moved on slow Plains time, the oddly round clock of renewable energy, and Jiji felt too that to be in love is not to own someone, or even to understand them. She who turned chairs upside down or backwards before she sat on them, made chairs out of mounds of earth, tufts of grass, window sills, washing machines, granite cornerstones or gravestones. Made chairs up because she had no time, no time to learn to be like others, no time to watch the Sky take over the Earth.
– posted by Lily Robert-Foley