Week 21 Ligustrum Leaves

Yellow Brick Road -sucrose series -mixed media diam 30cm Niamh Cunningham 2020 image 17.1.2020


For this week’s tree story I’m very pleased to have a contribution from environmental photographer and writer Kyle Obermann based in Chengdu. He has been working with corporate partners since 2014 to promote and support local conservation groups protecting China’s last wilderness. I met him a few years ago giving a talk about his travels through mountains and forests in China……


My dad loves live trees. He would tell you so in a heartbeat. We grew up planting trees in hopeless places across our yard in central Texas and our jurisdiction somehow included across the street a sundried desolate park full of thorns. We were the only kids crazy enough to play in that park and my dad was the only neighbor crazy enough to stand outside for hours each summer with a watering hose giving life like an IV to those young trees as they wilted in the heat.

One summer, I made it my mission to climb every grown tree in that park and my yard. There weren’t many, they were mostly the scraggly, single limbed, delicately curving types of live oaks that you find across other places in Texas where the soil is too hard and the sun is too hot. They didn’t make for good climbing. I don’t remember if I succeeded that summer, but I do remember sitting in one or two of them for hours at a time doing nothing but feeling the comforting itch of the bark beneath my skin and flicking at little black ants as the shadows of clouds blew through the leaves. I think every kid in a too hot, too boring summer neighborhood has discovered at least one perch in a tree that seems perfectly suited to cradle every inch of the human body.

I went back to that park a few days ago while running through my old neighborhood. Many of the trees we planted were dead, removed, and probably turned into the same mulch we once sprinkled at their bases. Others seem to have not grown an inch, still carrying on the endless task of breaking through either rocks or rock-hard soil to make precious room underground. But one, a bur oak, has exploded. It stands nearly triple the size of all the others, and only a few feet apart. I wonder what made it so different?

Below the bur oak is a porous rock. During high school I once placed an uprooted agave in it to see if it would grow. It’s still alive. Did the other trees not try hard enough or was it an unfair setup from the beginning?

There was one type of tree that always thrived. On exciting and rare summer weekends, my dad would get out his saw and go down into the ravine behind our house to cut down ligustrum. They were invasive trees that won ground either by shading out from above or sucking dry from below any nearby natives. But their branches grew straight as a rod and made the best sticks for sword fights in the backyard. My brother and I bruised many fingers smashing stripped down ligustrum swords at each other, only stopping when mom called us in for dinner a second time.

It wasn’t until I started living in Sichuan that I learned ligustrums were native to that area of China. To my shock, I started seeing ligustrums proudly displayed in parks with species name tags hung like medals around their trunks. Teams of baby pandas learned to climb on them in the Chengdu Panda Base. Girls took selfies under them, mothers tried to find their girls husbands under them, and aged couples danced under them – all the while somewhere in Texas my dad was still getting out his saw and cutting them down. But my brother and I were no longer playing with swords. Thinking of my dad at that moment, it all suddenly seemed more futile when it wasn’t as fun.

But on lonely days in Chengdu seeing ligustrums line the streets outside my apartment brought me great, speechless comfort. Everything appeared more connected – the smell of the ranmian next door, the summer watering hose, bruised knuckles, and my dad’s rusty old saw. The ligustrum leaves seemed to rustle some unintelligible answer to the question why, and even though I didn’t understand it brought me great solace to know that a multitude of swords lay just across the street of my xiaoqu should I ever come in need.

Now, I find myself suddenly back home. My dad has moved, and since his new yard is ligustrum free he’s planted three young peaches and a live oak in the middle of the sunny yard. The live oak, he tells me, is to make sure when he’s gone, developers can’t come and turn our single lot with one house and one yard into two lots with two houses and no yard. There’s some bamboo in the back. Funny how things from familiar places follow you.

Every now and then, when I go on runs in the neighborhood I’ll pass a ligustrum tree. The wind will blow, its leaves will shake, it continues to shade out and dry out surrounding plants , and I catch myself looking up to admire the straightness and sturdiness of its branches against the piercing blue Texas sky.

This tree must go, I think to myself. And then I smell ranmian, and I linger a little while longer.

Kyle Obermann May 2020


Memory Palace of Trees 2020 is an ecological art practice which invites your participation to tell a story (or give some kind of information) about trees. It is a social enquiry of how to live better with the planet and with people by simply sharing stories. You are cordially invited to tell me your story of a tree or trees. (email : niamh@niamhcunningham.com) I would love to hear from you. Each week throughout 2020 a story will be posted with either an artwork already made or perhaps your story will inspire me to make a new work!