In Appreciation of Trees


I’ve missed my favorite trees from the past the way you might recall a friend who moved away and wish for their company. I’ll never see some of the trees again. They’ve been chopped down, they’ve fallen, been struck by lightning, or they are somewhere else I’ll never return to, or they’re on private property—trees that were my secret escape when I was growing up. I ran to them, sitting on their roots, my back resting on their trunks, and I’d tell them my frustrations. I’d ask where to go and what to do. Tulip poplars mainly. I followed the wind on a few occasions. I still love the flowers and the wonder of such a flower falling so far from the tops. 

Self portrait: Originally taken for an Instagram yoga challenge in 2016. #AsanArts
Tulip poplar flower. All nature photos by me. All yoga photos by Terry Morris.

There are trees that I knew only for a short time in my life—like a fun neighbor. We had a huge weeping willow, the largest I’ve still ever seen, and I could disappear underneath it. The canopy towered to the ground, as if Cousin It was a tree, and I loved it underneath there as much as I loved watching the Addams Family. This was my own special hideaway, and then we moved. I pass by that location every so often through my life on my way to visit my nana, and the tree is gone. There’s not even a stump that I can see from the road. I don’t recall when it wasn’t there on my drive—maybe in my twenties. 

I’ve never met a more gorgeous magnolia than one in my friends’ yard in Knoxville. It was impressive, old and large, uninhibited—the branches stretched low, medium, and high, filled with flowers and the tree held them up as candles. I picked my way through and underneath it until I reached an opening near the trunk—a circle of space, pristine for watching the birds flit up and around, for seeing the glowing yellow of the flower centers and taking in their fragrance, witnessing the tiniest insects and particles dance in the sunlight. I reached the trunk, straddling branches. 

Behind our last home, a small cluster of walnut trees grew with a hackberry. I watched a marsh hawk routinely perch and survey the ground. She flew down and grabbed lizards and small snakes. A gang of crows threatened to attack her one day. They showed up one by one. I don’t know how many there were in the end. Loudly, they cawed. They pressed around her, toward her, and they tried to take her branch. She defended by threatening her talon and hopping toward the crows as if in a joust. Eventually, she flew away. They could not catch her, though they pursued her. She returned the next day. 

Another Instagram yoga challenge photo. I enjoyed going out into nature for the yoga challenges.

Trees were my escape on playgrounds. If there wasn’t a tree, I felt exposed and anxious. The presence of a tree is calming to me.

The sycamore tree with the elephant’s face and trunk extending away from the riverbank. The roots that I walked upon, where I sat, and pools gathered between them, holding squiggly slimy life. The tree shedding as a snake, whorls of bark floating on the water. 

In college, the ginkgo behind Harned Hall that shines golden in the autumn. Looking out the window and daydreaming during class, seeing the leaves dance toward the football stadium. The band played, and the music drifted inside the classroom—ah, brass. Bright out there with a heavy discussion in here. 

After beginning our family, we leave behind the Japanese maple planted by the sidewalk of our first home. I watched it grow from knee-high to taller than me in five years, after my friend brought it as a gift. I was surprised and flattered by such a beautiful tree. The rich brown of the tree’s mahogany leaves tinted red and tipped yellow sometimes. I didn’t want to leave the tree, but it was happy. 

The sprawling oak with a hulking trunk—guardian tree watching the field and the barn where the mules emerge and trot up to the fence. Fat acorns beneath my feet, between the blades of grass crushed shells over the years as if pounded from beach waves. The seashells sprang to my mind—those under the mossy oak while the sea breeze blew the grey Spanish moss as beards on the beach. The trails alongside, leading away, but this tree, here, by the coquina quarry, how did it survive so? 

Holly leaves needled into my bare feet, one stuck there so I waddled on the side of my foot, limping to get to the trunk, to sit under its evergreen, but it defied friendship in my grandmother’s yard. No other trees were near it, but a whippoorwill called every evening from the cedar trees across the farm road. 

The sounds from the trees are often soothing. The creaking reminds me of hardwood floors or of rocking chairs and porch swings, again, sounds that I enjoy. The knocking of woodpeckers, tapping branches, scratching leaves, rustling limbs—all quite pleasant sounds in nature. 

The tinkling chimes in the tree, little bells ringing in the forest, dangling from maples and hemlocks, an invitation. Chirps and calls, screech owls and hoots, hawk cry, wren scolding, dove coo, wild turkey laugh, gobbling above, flapping, leaves drifting down. 

“What kind is this?” I asked, touching its bark. I knuckle bump my favorite grapevines when I run on the trails. I pat the trunk of a burr oak and keep going. I feel a tap on my shoulder sometimes when I move through a cluster of young trees. My toes dance on the old roots, up, up, up as stairs—roots bigger than the young trees’ trunks. And tumbling down into creeks, cooling the feet in the summertime. We wade into the sunlit patches where trees with hairy roots drip into pools. Quick rush and cool down and on the move again, looking up into the branches, telling the motion of storms to come, of oceans far away delivering buckets of waves. The shelter of the trees from the blinding rain, the cove of dry, huddling very close to a big base, where there’s an almost steamy space to wait it out when no rock enclosures are nearby, feeling thankful for the tree while resting there. They host so many lifeforms–vines and moss, fungi, insects… us…

I could continue to write about favorite trees…

Finally—Pre-Orders on Ripe for the Pickin’

My new book is finally available for pre-sale here! https://thorncraftpublishing.com

This novel is past, present, and future—a road trip and musical journey inspired by nature, family, and storytelling. Years in the making, I am surprised when a book is finished. Usually, I’m in editing and revision mode so deeply that I don’t see the end of the process clearly. I sense that it’s coming, but I don’t finalize books based on schedules. There’s not one action that says, this book is complete now. Combinations finish books. I hope that you’ll check out my book, Ripe for the Pickin’, inspired by places I love in Tennessee and Tennessee stories, plants, and music. Here’s the book cover, designed by Erica Trout Creative. You can read all about the book on the Thorncraft Publishing website.

Ripe for the Pickin’ by Shana Thornton. Book two in the Family Medicine Wheel series. Available March 4, 2022, through all major booksellers.

Thoughts While Looking at Orchids

The orchid is a kaleidoscopic plant. I hold my face very close to its face. What combinations propel it to bloom as the sun turns, as the humidity shifts? Until, a striking pattern of color and form emerges and spirals open, lilting as a dancer into multiple characters with conversations in their bodies. The orchid is capable of holding the gaze for valuable time and resources, even for life itself, as tales of orchid hunters and smugglers are sure to prove. 

Picasso & Orchids Collage by Shana Thornton. Orchids photo by Terry Morris. Cheekwood “Orchids in the Mansion” 2021. Picasso photo from video at Figares exhibition. Frist Art Museum 2021.

What presses an orchid and an artist to create, even the simplest of forms into an expression? This is not a callow show and representation. 

Textures. This one with its grey bulbous wormy-faced ends growing over the edge of the pot, reaching out as short tentacles, root-like but partially airborne. The green wedge-shaped leaves are hard and I could carve words into the flesh of them with the tips of my fingernails ever so slightly, and they seal them up afterward. The leaves sit that way, maybe growing another. It’s a long time. A thin stem arches up, nimble threading of lifetimes, those folds, as if butterflies about to emerge, greyed by coming into form and existence at first, as nearly all life, grey casting—and the pallor catches upon opening and unfolding and growing and it deepens and becomes rich and bold, taking its browns and greens, taking blue and purple, expressing yellow and pink, mauve and cream, maroon and orange forms defying categorization. Air plant. Blooms pull the stems in acrobatics. Tree leaping and clinging simultaneously.

A tendril swivels and pauses, steady. Another tendril swivels and pauses, steady. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Steady gaze. A long time…

Just before Valentine’s Day, we visited “Orchids in the Mansion” while the sky threatened ice and snow. The frigid air was a contrast to the tropical reflections that greeted us indoors, and sweat slid under our coats. Later, at Picasso’s Figares exhibit, the artist is there—painting a vase with flowers first while wearing a coat and scarf in the video.

See the artist’s focus mesmerized. Is it any less evident in the orchid? Or, in my eye pressed to a kaleidoscope’s lens? 

When you behold a flower in a state of wonder. 

Does the orchid marvel at the world—life sky, canopy bodies, its mouth open and tongue flared out for catching rain and travelers, faces peering in as if answers to existence awaited? 

Akin to wonder, to amaze, akin to bedazzlement, akin to bewitchingly cool. 

But, there’s a pressure to find and discover another expression. Not only of beauty, but of understanding, of appreciation for the connections of the artwork itself. Such complexity is wrapped into this simple sentiment—this basic need—as an artist that it is overwhelming, debilitating, and alienating at its most difficult, while it’s healing, exhilarating, and captivating at its most liberating to be aware of a creative state of being. 

Steady gazing to close until wispy as paper to ash by the burning of the sun the blooms fall away one by one. 

Orchids in the Mansion 2021

The original Picasso video on YouTube.

Foraging for Plants, Music, & Family

We toted the guitar out in the summer heat, after our beach vacation, while we picked blackberries. Silvia’s dress snagged on the thorns. I was writing about a heartache that constantly pulses reminders because of the realization that there’s no way to make up for a past that’s never coming back. I felt the pull of my characters, especially Robin, her confusion over both memory loss and memory resurfacIng, her dreams to rise above her family’s addictions, and the fire in her heart and her pen to write folk songs.

Image Title: Snagged Pickin’. Photos by Zoe Morris and Shana Thornton. Final image by Shana Thornton.

Foraging for plants and folklore, folk music, and family secrets are themes in the Family Medicine Wheel series, and they especially show up in my next book, Ripe for the Pickin’ (Forthcoming March 2022). In the first book, Poke Sallet Queen and the Family Medicine Wheel (2015), young Robin learns to forage for plants from her dad and other relatives. She also meets the friends who become her bandmates. In the next book, Ripe for the Pickin’, Robin shares more about foraging when she was growing up, and she begins her songwriting partnerships. Robin also makes a remarkable discovery in this book and that allows her to learn about her ancestors.

For the past seven years, I’ve been actively researching plants for the book, Ripe for the Pickin’. The research is a big part of my life, and my family usually participates. While we were out picking plants one afternoon, I asked our younger daughter, Silvia, if we could take photos for the book. I wanted them for inspiration. I also asked our older daughter, Zoe, if she would take some of the photos, too. These images are some of the photos we took, and they have been layered, and some even look quilted together.

Title: Pickin’ Tea. Photos by Zoe Morris. Final image by Shana Thornton

Eerily similar to the best ideas in the book is the life that I live:

“Is this the peppery chickweed?” Silvia asks me. A fluffy type grows by the river and has a stronger flavor than the more straggly plants nearer to our house.

She and I pick wild violets for tea every spring. This became the inspiration for a chapter of the book called “Backyard Spring,” and then it inspired a song. I crafted one like Robin might for her band, and I added it to the book. Writing songs was fun, and so different from narrative that I wanted to do it again. I tried. Ohhhhhhhh, I like Robin Ballard and her songwriting journals. I helped her to fill them up.

Silvia eats wood sorrel year round where it stays warm and green close to the house. This became the inspiration for a chapter called “Cowbird Blues” and another song.

We pick the creeping charlie leaves that grow under blackberry canes, and then we pick blackberry leaves for tea, too. And, you might have guessed already…another chapter called “Blackberry Winter Whistlin’ Tune” and another song…

This got us on a songwriting streak. And, I’m in love with it…


I was daydreaming one afternoon while placing images together. I don’t know what compelled me to choose the images or arrange them, but I liked the final result when I stopped my creative daydreaming. This final image contains four photographs with three of them placed on an image of the interior of the Frist Art Museum.

Image Title: Plant Music Pickin’ Compilation. Photos by Shana Thornton, Zoe Morris, and Terry Morris.
Final image by Shana Thornton

I enjoy the creativity that the books inspire in my family’s everyday life. We have a cabinet full of tea, a drying rack overflowing with leaves and flowers, and an experimental garden of wild plants, heirlooms, and seeds given to me by family and friends. We water the plants. We drink the tea. We sing.

Right now, as I finish this blog, someone is playing the piano and trying to write a song in the living room, probably Terry. I can hear Silvia singing from upstairs, her voice drifting off while she makes up words and when she finds them, it rises again. From the kitchen, I can hear the water boiling in the kettle for someone’s tea, probably Zoe’s.

Read more about the books here.