Cedar Matriarch (oil on canvas 5 x 7 in.) Sold

7 March finds me in the high country near Russell, Ontario, sitting in the snow in a forest near the spring-fed lake which fills the famous old red shale quarry. The fabric of the air under the bright blue sky is woven with calls of low flocks of Canada Geese and several Crows, through the warp of trunks and leafless branches of Maple, Black Cherry, Yellow Birch and Aspens.  Distant dogs bark, and I hear the faint, ocean-like rushing of tires on roads - sounds washing against these forested hills from far across the flat agricultural landscape. This is the highest point of land in the South Nation drainage. Its spring-fed ponds, creeks, and forests are threatened by plans for a mega-landfill which local residents point out are on a major fault line and the headwaters of several subwatersheds. We noticed "Dump the Dump NOW" signs in yards and on fences all through the area.

As I scrub the red ochre underpainting into the surface of my canvas, somewhere down the road a dump truck works, snoring and beeping, reminding
me of the digging and piling many years ago that shaped the ponds and hillocks in these woods, now surrounded and grown over by forest. I have chosen to paint a giant matriarch of the Eastern White Cedar. The massive trunk is skirted by its downswept lower branches and with them, it choreographs a play of sun and shadow on the snow.

Near me stand a trio of young Yellow Birch, their bright brassy bark hardly beginning to curl, and three large Black Cherry trees, the scales of their rough gray bark closely overlapping. Beyond the old Cedar, a bright blue strip of shadow on the snow reflects the sky. Beyond it, twinkling white through the trees, rises the sunlit flank of one of the many piles that remain from old excavations, perhaps for the special red shale so valuable for brick-making.

Fred lies back in the soft damp snow beside me as I paint, watching high branches sway into the spaces between trees, as each defines its space by lashing against its neighbours. The crown of the great old Cedar I am painting is nearly stationary among these. Several Chickadees move through the grove of younger Cedars below us, "Dee-dee"-ing.

Tracks in the snow are all old (no Deer, no Hares, no Red Squirrel), a tracery of star-like Turkey foot prints and fewer, hurrying Ruffed Grouse, Fisher tracks in a straight line, and a the little barefoot prints of a small Porcupine.  The snow is sprinkled with brown and green Cedar branch tips, tiny seeds and dainty cones. Fred wanders off exploring, finding himself separated from his snails and Salamanders and my slugs by this coarse heavy snow which softens as the day goes on, from just above freezing to 12C. One in every 10 steps punches through into knee-deep snow. 

When Fred returns he calls me around to view the other side of my great old Cedar matriarch, so I take a break from painting, and find that we'd been so astonished by the size and attitude of its lower branches that I'd just sat down and painted it without circling around (and messing up its snow) to see what the back side looked like. Each of the dead downsweeping branches of this tree - mostly green with algae and with almost no lichens - could be a photoessay on its own. Fred wonders if they were forced down by the Great Ice Storm of 1942. The back of the trunk is perforated with a row of vertical Pileated Woodpecker holes. The trunk, 70cm in diameter at breast height, is hollow, and floored with dry flakes of rotted wood. There's no hair or scats evident - but the back of the lower trunk is all scratched up, as if by mammalian claws, to about two metres up. There are almost no signs of what may have done this, but then Fred finds a few tiny tufts of fur (perhaps Racoon) where they have squeezed in through the holes. 

This has not been an easy painting, and I've employed all the tricks I know, to differentiate the old Cedar's branches from each other and from the shapes of surrounding trees - but I'm pleased to have  finished it onsite.  Just as we pack up to leave the woods by the old Russell Quarry, "Conk conk conk" sound the first Raven calls we've heard here.


  1. This is a beautiful painting, Aleta. Are you at all tempted to paint the other side of this great old tree? It sounds fascinating.
    It's always so interesting to read the stories that go with your paintings, because you and Fred know so much about plants and seeds, animal tracks, bird habitat and bird calls.
    I certainly enjoyed this post.

  2. I'm thinking about painting the other side, on a larger canvas, from my photos. We'll see if I get the time to do that! I'd also like to return to paint in the area - it's a jewel in eastern Ontario and I sure hope they can save its forests and groundwater from the landfill industry!

  3. We would love to have you back in Russell and would like to facilitate a longer visit.

    Harry Baker


Post a Comment

What do you think of this painting, and what do you know about the subject that I have painted?

Popular posts from this blog

Cooper Marsh Late August

White Water Lily

Little Marsh in Limerick