Pine Tree Ballads
Photographs by Paul Thulin
Candela, 2018
198pp., 100 plates, 9.75 x 9.75 in
Reviewed by Collier Brown

Pine Tree Ballads
by Paul Thulin

“Ballads wed story and song.
The ballad is communal. It belongs to no-

So writes the poet Dora Malech in her afterword to Paul Thulin’s Pine Tree Ballads, a book about family, about connection to place, and about the strange impulse we have to call into existence, by song or by image, some larger story that, on the one hand, describes real relationships, real lives, and on the other, dissolves those relationships into a coruscant and cosmic make-believe.

Lift the cover of this book, and the make-believe begins. On the inset, little spatterings of foil create the impression of fireflies, blinking unevenly just above a dark forest floor. We know this place. We have been there before. It belongs to Grendel, Little Red Riding Hood, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It belongs to the child’s imagination. She’s on the next page, fast asleep. “Some journeys are best taken with your eyes closed,” says the opening epigraph, jotted on the back of an envelope, like an Emily Dickinson poem.

From the start, then, Pine Tree Ballads invites a naïve sense of wonder, a suspension of disbelief. We see in one photograph the tail of a comet, in another, the immense, full moon, and in one more, the surface of rolling, green water—primary, elemental, like the opening of an origin myth.

Origins matter in these photographs. You’re looking at Thulin’s bloodline: his daughter, his mother and grandmother. And though not present in the book, Thulin’s great grandfather (the unseen bard) ought to get a mention, having carved out the family plot where these photographs were taken—a wooded cove in Maine called Grays Point, not far from Arcadia National Park. 

The genealogy, given only by Malech at the end of the book, underscores the ballad form. A ballad bridges song, verse, and history, often weaving into its stanzas the joys and sorrows of a particular community over long stretches of time. Time is key. Because the ballad often reaches us by way of oral tradition—recited, sung, chanted, performed—passed down from generation to generation, the original composer (in this case, Thulin’s great grandfather) sometimes disappears from the record. And the ballad’s story, which may have narrated something real, becomes lore, sentiment, fantasy, and at its strongest, art.  

But worth keeping in mind is the fact that these are the pine trees’ ballads, and through that lens, the genealogy expands to nonhuman proportions. From the perspective of a pine, what is a human family? A mother, a son, a great grandfather? Ghosts, trespassing beneath the branches.

We may be ghosts, you and me, but we leave traces. Thulin sometimes scratches the surfaces of his images. Or else he saturates the corner with too much light—atonal exertions in the ballad, amplifications of the present against obscurity. It reminds me of an experimental film by Bill Morrison called Decasia, where the corroded celluloid of old movies are spliced and scored. In Morrison’s collage, amoebic erosions spar with boxers or spin with Sufis. In other words, the film makes visible what was always there. Call it what you will: death, nonbeing, void. In Pine Tree Ballads, it’s us.

There are individual photographs that catch the story off guard. Something seems out of place. There’s a person in the woods wearing a bucket and holding a branch like a pikestaff (see title image above). Nearby: a “keep out” sign, which you would, wouldn’t you, if you happened upon this scene. Slightly unsettling, a tad absurd, you don’t quite know what to do with yourself, except remain still. But because the tropes in this ballad recur, like musical refrains, the photographs work best as a collection. Elsewhere, for instance, the bucket reappears, soaking someone’s feet, a far more comforting scenario than we encountered earlier—more domestic, more familiar.

That doubling and tripling of objects or personae gives the ballad momentum. A girl, robed in fur, mirrors the soft, blanketed shoulders of an older woman, but at a different time, through a different experience. Night and day, home and wilderness, heroine and outlaw all figure in the ballad, each symbolic double adding its own verse, which gives the newcomer to Thulin’s work a lot to digest—more, you might say, than the conscious mind can handle. Which is the point. Pine Tree Ballads refuses possession. It belongs, as Malech insightfully puts it, to no one—that is, to no less than everyone.