It took me an embarrassingly long time to stop being terrified of trees. When I was a young child, that scene in The Wizard of Oz with the talking apple trees sent me into almost hysterical fits of screaming and crying. Even as an adult, playing videogames like The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, trees made me deeply uneasy. The Great Deku Tree, with its almost-human face and bizarre mustache, followed me into my nightmares despite the fact that it was intended by the game’s designers to be some kind of benevolent presence or nurturing “earth spirit.”
During the summer of 2012, as I was beginning work on these illustrations for Heart of Darkness, I was spending a lot of time jogging in Highbanks Park, near Columbus, Ohio. Several of the most challenging trails led through patches of forest so deep and dense that the silence was almost total. Even on a brutally hot summer evening, in the immensity of that solitude, the forest was a presence. Simply put, I did not feel welcome there. Not by any stretch.
I’ve always been struck by the way that Conrad elevates nature, or Nature, from a concept to a kind of character in Heart of Darkness. The presence of Nature is subtle, but constant, and Conrad minces no words in positioning Nature as cleanly, unmistakably, and unapologetically hostile. Of the forest, he writes “…this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.” I knew that I needed to address this very early in my illustrations, to begin building, through repeated but consistent visual symbols, the hostile presence of Nature.
Since ultimately all of my illustrations are conversations with myself and references to my own inner world of image and meaning, all of those terrors from my earlier years came back to me very intuitively – the snarling trees from The Wizard of Oz, the brooding Great Deku Tree, and even a being from my own early self-Xeroxed comic book Spudd 64. It was almost as if I was aware of Conrad’s ideas about Nature before I was aware of Conrad. Or perhaps, as with all the best writing, there was such universality in Conrad’s ideas that they would continue to resonate with all readers for all time. I’ve long since given up trying to dissect and deconstruct why these things affect me so deeply, because to do so drains the sense of wonder from reading in such a way that a book becomes little more than a machine to assemble.
So, Conrad’s “greenish gloom” became my first intimation at the role Nature would play in my exploration of his work. The Africans in this “grove of death” are little more than empty husks, abused and assaulted by the invaders, spat out and rejected by Nature, at the intersection of a trinity of hostility, hatred, cruelty and greed. Which needed a face. Like those trees from the movie, like that Tree from the game. A face that could pull the attention of the viewer down and in from the sky and the leaves and the wooded hills and banks and in to a single baleful threatening presence. This tree. My tree. Nature.
Matt Kish was born in 1969 and lives in the middle of Ohio. After stints as a cafeteria cook, a hospital registrar, a bookstore manager, and an English teacher, he ended up as a librarian. He draws as often as he can, often with whatever he can find. He has tried his hand at 35mm black-and-white photography (with real film and real chemicals), making comics and zines, a bit of collage, and lots of pen and ink.