Bare Branches

When I was studying at Oxford I often used to walk through the beautiful gardens of the colleges, and I regularly came across an elderly woman there; her name was Zoe Peterssen. She had the appearance of a bag-lady, and from her accent I surmised she might have been from somewhere in Eastern Europe, but I have no idea what her circumstances were there in Oxford, or anything about her previous life; she always deflected any questions about herself when we got into conversation. She preferred to talk about her passion – her beloved trees in the college gardens and university parks, many of which she knew individually, and to whom she had ascribed names and personalities. I would come across her, mostly in the winter months, sitting on a park bench with an enormous sheet of paper draped over her knee on which she was drawing one of her extended family of trees. She drew them on a huge scale in order to get in the maximum amount of detail, and then had them shrunk down to a suitable size to use in the books of poetry and stories for children, which she hand-produced and sold around the town. She preferred to draw the trees after the leaves had fallen, because then she could really see the beautiful shapes of their limbs, which gave her the most important clues to their personalities.
          Here’s one of her poems celebrating the bare limbs of her beloved trees.

          Winking giggling
          Giggling in their own way
          in a very special way

          Numerous crystal drops
          numerous dew drops
          giggling whispering winking
          in their own way
          in their own gathering and display
          in a space
          a created space

          Space so created
          by a thoughtful winter
          Tree branches so bare
          a special space
          very special space
          for archetypal displays


I have tried to carry these images with me into the winter, and instead of cursing the cold and the darkness, to try to really see and appreciate the shapely beauty of the bare limbed trees – thoughtfully creating a space for the display of winking dew drops and rain drops. I love this idea of seeing winter as a thoughtful artist, stripping away the leaves once a year, in order to allow us to really see the beauty of the trees, to have the possibility of seeing archetypal display – archetypes those valuable symbols used in myth and storytelling with which we can begin to understand and make meaning out of the intricacies of our lives. Allowing us to make new shapes and new stories to enrich and explain our lives.
          For Zoe, the bare branches offered two aspects of deeper insight – revealing more plainly the personality of the tree, and also allowing the surrounding patterns of raindrops, spider's webs and ice-crystals to be seen more clearly.
          And so it is with many situations in life; when we strip away some of the layers of detail, which have been built up over years of use. When we strip away some of the accepted truths which have become second nature to us and which we do not question, we can sometimes see more clearly the fundamental nature of the situation, and we can allow fresh insights to transform our view of it.
          Maybe as we look up to the bare branches over the next few months, as well as admiring their beauty against the sky, we can allow them to remind us that by stripping situation back to the basics we can sometimes get a clearer view of what is most inportant.
          The Oxford Mail reported Zoe Peterssen’s death with these words:
          “Dressed in green, surrounded by rolls of paper and immersed in the natural world around her, she was part of the scenery of Oxford. But “the tree-drawing lady”, who created art from a bench in Christ Church Meadow, has passed away with the picture of her life incomplete. She was of Jewish descent, but is thought to have grown up in Norway in a Christian environment. Her date of birth remains unknown and attempts to contact her relatives have proved unsuccessful. Dressed in green hat and green boots, her bright face and penetrating eyes will be familiar to many who pass through the city. As she sat with pencil in hand, many a passer-by would be welcomed to the bench beside her to see what she was drawing. Details of how Zoe came to adopt this simple lifestyle in Oxford are hard to come by. She had studied and taught economics at university and had tried working in the world of international charities, but had become dissatisfied with these as avenues for a good life. Then, she took a decision and “went to nature” – as she always put it – with the result that, by spending her days outdoors, her mind clear and eyes open, she grew into a new awareness and sensitivity.”

Rev.Maud Robinson
Minister Fulwood & Underbank Unitarian Churchs