PUTNEY — Over the course of a recent tree spirit-making workshop at Sandglass Theater, Harper Brown, 6, and I shared a similar trajectory: We both started out quiet, sharing more camaraderie as our intrigue grew.
A tree spirit is hard to define, and can be different for every person who takes on the brave task of making one. Ines Zeller Bass, co-founder of Sandglass, provided each workshop participant with a base: a small, freestanding “tree,” kind of like a “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree, assembled from branches from her wood pile. The participants, of which there were three that day, then used recycled materials, large colored pencils and paint to design their tree spirits as they envisioned them.
Bass said that for her, a tree spirit is simply a celebration of trees, but that everyone is free to one’s own interpretation.
“It doesn’t matter what it is. For me, what is most important is that we have a relationship to a tree, that we understand it is a very important plant,” Bass said.
“It’s more than a plant. It gives so much life and shelter, and thought to communities. Trees themselves are incredible communities.”
Trees, she explained, are “not only taking care of themselves, they’re also taking care of what’s underneath them. And the root systems, all that connection, for me, is like we as humans should live. And we don’t. And on top of that, we are destroying beautiful examples of that spirit.”
Saturday’s workshop was part of the town library’s Putney Big Tree Quest, educational programming paired with a challenge to find the town’s largest trees through the start of November.
My new friend Harper, of Putney, was there with her grandmother, Mari Peterson, visiting from St. Joseph, Mich. Though Harper is a few years younger than the suggested age for the workshop (10 and up), she made her own tree spirit from what appeared to be a birch base. She called her spirit a “fox deer,” attaching pointed ears and antlers. When her grandmother asked her spirit’s gender, Harper said her spirit is a “they.”
The tree spirits mirrored the whimsical nature of the puppets at Sandglass Theater. Participants created a face, kind of like a small theater mask, with a circle cut from a manila folder and facial features sculpted from crumpled up old Reformers. For arms, they attached and sculpted handles from brown paper shopping bags. They added fringed paper for hair.
“Mine is a happy spirit, and she loves her trees — mine is a she, I think,” Peterson said. Peterson spoke of her experience as a special needs educator. A third participant was an art teacher.
Each spirit also contained a pinwheel, and Harper added a paper birdhouse and bird, and invited me to help color each with multiple colors. She painted a whole side of her tree trunk pink.
I didn’t attempt a tree spirit myself, but I did get a souvenir: Before we all parted ways, Harper asked Bass for a second pinwheel, which she gave to me.
Reflecting on how the workshop went, Bass said, “I think it was sweet. It was a small group. It had a small group dynamic.”
She said she hopes participants will continue adding to their tree spirits as they see fit.
“You start with an idea and then you provide some material, and then everybody puts their own needs in there and whatever they want to express,” Bass said. “Maybe some will keep putting things underneath it. Who knows, right? For me, everything is process — never finished.”