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Playing with Bark

Tree bark fascinates me, with its wrinkles and crevices, subtle color shadings, lacy lichen, furry moss. For a long time when I’ve found a piece on the street or a path, I’ve brough it home, to tuck somewhere in my garden.

Now that our maple is dying, huge pieces of bark are peeling off the trunk. What to do with them? Perhaps a new kind of bark mulch: something more interesting than the plain, homogeneous chips you buy.

In the bed by the porch where I got rid of all the plants and started over, two patches of miniature “Miss Jekyll” periwinkle sat in the middle of a lot of bare dirt. I think they’ll cover it easily in a year, but in the meantime I decided to put down some of the maple bark. I carefully laid it pretty side up, and I used big pieces because that’s what I had.

But when I got the dirt covered, and stood up to look at the effect, I was
taken aback by how strongly the bark grabbed my eye. For one thing, I had laid the pieces down next to each other in the easiest manner, which made lots of parallel lines in the composition. Not quite straight lines, but the repetition made such a strong rhythm I felt I was being tossed by sea waves.

Line is a powerful element in composition. In my garden, I try to soften edges, so they’re not too stark. I’ve found a good setting for rose campion with its straight, bare silver flower stems. But not yet for Verbena bonariensis, with its long straight bare stems that give its common name “Verbena on a stick.”

I broke some maple bark into smaller pieces, and laid them down in a random manner on top of the first layer. Now the effect was not so much of movement, but the gray bark and silvery lichen still stood out visually: the bed looked like an arty collage, not like a garden.

What is it that bothers me about it? I haven’t figured it out. The bark is beautiful, but the bed is strange. Oh, well. The vinca will cover it. And perhaps somewhere in the process, the two elements will blend more gracefully, creating one of those precious garden moments you can’t hold onto.

In the meantime, I have lots more bark to experiment with.

Photo by C.H. Clark - Maple bark overwhelms the patch of periwinkle.

Text and photos © Copyright 2005 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 7 January 2005

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