hang up tree

IMG_20170716_055435.jpgThis picture was taken the morning of the August new moon and solar eclipse. It was also a Monday which meant it was our dark day at the theatre, a day off.

For over forty years on the August full moon this theatre company extends an open invitation to its greater community. Guests are invited to camp the night on the farm. The main event is a feast with a bonfire, when there isn’t a fire ban. Music is a big part of it and they’re encouraged to bring their instruments. Kids that are living on the farm that summer perform a shortened interpretation of the play. We also collectively participate in a Hang Up Tree. There’s a lot of ritual involved but as theatre folk we preternaturally excel at it.

Though, over the last several years the traditions of the event morphed. Rather than the exact night itself, it was hosted on the Sunday closest to the full moon as followed by our day off, focused an opportunity for recuperation. The feast whittled away. The night simply turned into a party, a faint whisper of its history, with a figuratively in-house cabaret. For the summer shows company these were sensible changes but the extended community felt excluded and like the spirit of its origins were being lost. With a changing back of the guard since last winter the origin story was reinvested in but with one twist, to host it on the new moon for new beginnings.

I was on board with most of this, except as an ethical vegan and the only vegan in the company. The main event of the traditional feast involves slaughtering a lamb and roasting it all day on a spit. As it was also the day off I decided I was getting off the farm as early as possible only returning later for the gathering. I wasn’t going to volunteer my help to set up for the party if there was going to be a body cooking out in the open.

Heaping on to my already fragile and frustrated state, early that morning I could hear the neighbors dairy cows wailing. It’s a distinct vocalization the females make after the babies are taken away so their mothers milk can be used solely for human consumption. The newly born females are kept to perpetuate the dairy industry. The males are shipped off as veal meat. The desperate cries from mothers who think their newborn children are simply lost and will find their way back to the call was ringing in my ears as I hustled down the hill carrying my wicker basket full of smoky, dusty laundry.

I got in the car that I’d borrowed from my sister for the summer, made it two miles down the road listening to Neko Case’s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You album and when Nearly Midnight, Honolulu came on I had to pull to the side of the road completely overwhelmed with a hatred for humanity and sobbed for the mother cows who would never nurse and likely never see again their calves again.

IMG_20170821_104644Emotionally spent, I went straight to the organic grocer the next town over and got an uber green juice: romaine, celery, cucumber, kale, broccoli, parsley and drank it while the eclipse happened. This far north I thought it was kind of a non event but everyone on the farm passed around the welding mask from the shop and said it was pretty cool. I dithered about town solo, drinking coffee, texting Lisa while doing my laundry, enjoying what was a rare day without murky air and took advantage of that by a wander in the provincial park woods. I got three separate messages from people warning me that the spit was gruesomely centered right in front of the cookshack. While that bummed me out, I also felt grateful to identify the friends there who respected my ethics. They might not follow suit (yet) but they get me and they care.

I headed back in the early afternoon and when I stepped out of my sisters car I could smell the cooking flesh saturating the air. The mothers next door were still calling. I scrambled the back route from the dirt parking lot up the deer path, past the cistern water fall, past Jason’s secret hammock, traversing my clean laundry behind the ATCO props trailer and popped out of the woods on the Blue Horse road behind the gazebo. I settled in the cabin for a few hours of reading before the social obligation of the feast.

IMG_20170806_150746I mostly wore black Toms all summer and got this ridiculous shoe tan. It’s kind of shocking how naturally pale I could be if I didn’t spend so much time in the sun. I got a few more texts cautioning about the gross spit. I started having visions of everyone eating the lamb with their hands, ripping chunks of flesh right off the carcass, fat juices dripping off their chins, fingers slick and greasy, all the while savoring the taste and talking with their mouths full.

Consumed by this I didn’t want to go down the hill at all. I wrote a long Instagram post about how much it sucked, then deleted it. I had to stop reading when a bag piper started warming up their instrument in the gazebo and the drone was so loud they may as well have been in the cabin with me.

I was laying on the bed staring at the ceiling when I heard a male voice nearby scream ‘Fuck! -aurgh- Fuuuuck!’ My first instinct was to run and see if someone was hurt, then I heard voices I didn’t recognize laughing. My blood ran cold. I locked the cabin door.

Locks were only added to the cabins a few years ago after a teenage girl in the nearest town was murdered on Halloween night. She was walking the railway tracks on route to a costume party, dressed as a zombie. It was months before the killers identity was uncovered. In that meantime some creep was sending threatening emails specifically to the female members of this theatre company, telling them that they were next and what he would do to them. Two weeks after the murder and with the killer still at large, I arrived on the farm for the winter show prep to a grimly, surreal quiet, everyone was weary of being scared. With November nights being longer than days, we each had a buddy system. I had my dog Luka, who’s silhouette cast like a large black wolf. Everyone had a knife on their belt, in their boot. Communal meal breaks were spent testing and discussing the action and speed of each of our one-handed, opener blades. In the spring, through DNA testing they caught the guy who stalked and murdered the girl but who’d sent those email was never uncovered.

Thinking of this as I locked the door I sat on the edge of the bed and my feelings on the night were souring deeper and deeper until Lisa messaged that she was on her way up from town. I couldn’t let the introvert support club down. I pulled on my worn out Toms which I’d unsuccessfully tried to fix with black hockey tape and headed down the hill just in time for the hang up tree’s bag pipe procession out to the stud pasture. The sun was just setting. The feast was over.

IMG_20170821_223331.jpgThis was originally welded a decade ago as the Three Witches cauldron for Macbeth. It was dragged each night on stage with a stone boat by two draft horses. Right before its entrance I would crack a couple road flares and drop them into the bottom of its belly, sending up smoke and casting the witches in an ghastly, orange glow. Jill and Aiden used a truck to drag it up to the tree grove in the stud pasture and filled it with water so people could rinse the paper mache off their hands after pasting their hang ups on the tree.

IMG_20170821_222858.jpgTraditionally with a Hang Up Tree you write something on a piece of paper you’d like to get rid of in your life, tie it to the tree and the whole works gets lit on fire. Sometimes people throw in photographs and letters, occasionally money; once Dragoslav tried to burn his leather jacket. With a strict fire ban this summer Aiden and Jill had to work around it. Aiden collected drift wood from his secret beach and constructed the tree. Jill then ‘lit’ it with battery powered LED’s. They had a bowl of paper mache and pens with non permanent ink. When you smeared the paper on the tree it would work the ink into the paper keeping the hang up private but still infusing the intention into the process.

They hadn’t anticipated the size of the crowd and ran out of paper mache long before everyone could wrap the whole tree. Though it did get pretty well coated from the other side. They had hoped everyone would wrap it on the horizontal encasing the tree but most people ran their paper along the vertical. This picture doesn’t capture just how massive the structure was. Linz hung his hat on it. When I found him playing his guitar on the porch the next morning I asked him why he did that, he said ‘I’m done with being a cowboy. I’m going back to being an Indian.’ The tree will likely be burned during the Walk of Terror at Halloween.

IMG_20170821_222909.jpgMy favorite part was this gnarly root.

When I caught up to the crowd Maryke wrapped her long arms around me and wouldn’t let go. I saw so many old familiar faces, I was happy I’d come down. I never made it over to the paper mache bowl but even if I had it would have long been empty by then anyway. Jill had lit installations along the path and we walked the far eastern side of the stud pasture through the timber barn field over to the show site where the kids put on their version of the play. I walked with Mark, my old carpentry buddy and he said he could tell it was me coming down the hill because of my gait. I asked him what he meant, he elaborated ‘Your gait, your legs their muscular stride… like a horse…’ I looked up at him as his grin widened ‘Like a Clydesdale.’

We started the kids play with the funeral prologue and moved to the main seating area on the bleachers. It went super meta and involved a prequel they called The Ballad of Jacobs Ladder. One of the kids tried to release the stages trick walls. I cried out from the bleachers ‘No no no you can’t trip the walls!’ I was grateful I’d asked the technical director back in tech week for safeties on the latches but I also shot him a dirty look from across the bleachers remembering how much he’d resisted that same safety request. I checked the walls after and luckily the mechanisms hadn’t broken when the kids reefed with all their tiny weight on the cords. We still had a week of shows to do, the last thing I wanted to be doing the next day was fixing the set.

It’s an unusual aspect of this outdoor theatre, we can’t close and lock the the stage doors each night. We don’t have any doors. Everything is exposed, available to be tampered with twenty four hours a day by humans and animals alike. Comparative to regular theatre a healthy sense of humor helps with this kind of chaos. In retrospect, it’s pretty remarkable we pull this off season after season at all. Some burn out, some never come back but those of us that lingered this long start to crave the unexpected that it constantly presents and as we say, those of us that stay become part of this weirdly dysfunctional family.

IMG_20170805_060602The party trickled back to the cook shack when someone sat down at the piano. A stand up bass followed, along with an accordion, guitars, banjos and a mandolin. Lisa and I turned off the lx by the tack shed and watched the northern lights pulsate across the horizon. Our eyes caught the occasional star shoot across the sky. We silently appreciated the dance of yellows and greens in that way close friends feel each other without needing words. I rolled out my hang ups and fears and dispersed them up into the vast, moonless night. Past midnight we we’re both frozen from standing in the dewy grass and too tired to engage with the ramping up party. I walked her and Buddy to their car and tried to stealth my way through the shadows around the front of the cookshack up to the cabin but got called out by the smokers around the fire pit doing, as we called it that summer ‘The Gypsy Fade’. Regardless, satisfied with the nights events and being a part of this community that are like family. My proverbial wolf pack. I smiled and waved from under the crab apple tree and went to bed.

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2 comments
  1. Kelly said:

    I really enjoyed reading this. You create such a strong sense of place when you talk about your theatre work. Thank you for sharing.

    • lysette said:

      Aww, thanks Kelly! I’m so glad you got a sense of the place. I’m bummed I missed out on MoFo this year, your contribution was awesomely impressive! Hopefully I can join in the fun next year ❤

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