Where one is from but has never been to holds a talismanic hope to those who have no sense of home. I say this with half a life in one place, half in another, perhaps on the verge of travelling somewhere, for a brief period, where my father’s people are from. People seems generous to me, the idea that stepping foot in that known-unknown country would flood the self with a sense of belonging, return, wholeness. To be whole—is there anyone who is? I look at my name, my complete name, which are a forest of names: Japanese, Japanese, Czech, Japanese, Danish. Six if you count my current surname, Hill, an English—if not, then English-bestowed, the result of a disastrous marriage—name I admit I hide behind, a name which allows me to pass through life with, if not no questioning, then less than if I had not kept it. Each name is a tree, each tree a history of variety and hybrids.
My birth surname is, to be brutal, a bastardisation: either an attempt at assimilation or an escape from questioning from a few generations back. Skow is an anglicised version of skov, meaning forest, the v pronounced as w. Generations later, my parents would change the e in my anglicised forename to é, in order that people might pronounce it more easily. In neither case have the efforts been particularly successful, which have the effect of seeing oneself as simultaneously alone while still being part of something others share. Even my Czech middle (family) name, Bures, is a change from Bureš. I came long too late to realise our Danish name, once relocated to middle America, held some brief standing for a few generations. By the time I did, it was a relic like ‘Ozymandias’, a cautionary tale of the illusion of power. I walked among the stone forest of its ruins as the traveller, but with the echo of the King’s ‘wrinkled lip’ in my reflection, not knowing whether to build my name again or walk away, cover it with another.
When I think of my names, both untouched and changed, I am reminded of Vilhelm Hammershøi’s paintings and drawings of trees and forests, as solitary as his celebrated interiors but also showing a wild restraint. It is not as contradictory as it seems. We can only guess as to the inner lives of his human subjects—what lies in the thoughts of any person alone in a room are nesting silences. Outdoors, that interiority is exposed, but no less reflective. Nature is simply a turning-out of the mind. Seasons change in the way contemplations shift; sometimes gradual, at others, abrupt. What is verdant and synchronistic (Forest Interior, and Young Forest in the Summer, Trørød), can in an instant become sparse and even unwelcoming to behold (Slender Trees on a Hill), and likewise, represent the abilities to be present in solitude, and assimilated while retaining an originality.
There is no doubt, in spirit, I am my father’s daughter. We are both friendly but prone to withdrawal and long periods of solitude which have appeared extreme. Is it are or were when one of two is dead? I say are, because only lack of presence in the eyes of others changes how I refer to him. When alive, we had the uncanny ability to predict each other’s thoughts, one uttering a sentence the other had in their mind. Neither of us believed in astrology or superstition, but he held a never quite articulated idea that women were possessed of a particular atmosphere that was capable of something. It was the closest to a belief in mysticism that I was witness to, and that he would pointedly but cryptically look at me when he said it left me wondering throughout my life what he had been witness to himself, if not in me, in other women. If I never asked, it was as much because even though we divined each other’s thoughts, we admired each other’s silences. We were part of a forest but also trees, alone.
I knew that when he was not quite a young man, but still of youth enough, he went to Denmark as part of his travels—if one can call a sudden disappearance from home and family travel. To hear him tell it, by day he had a job in a glassworks, at night was content to stay in his room and read until the early hours. It appeared that he had no need of people in either a familial or social sense. He and his name were there; it was enough, neither land nor man imposing on the other. Unlike Helga Crane, the mixed-race protagonist who flees to Denmark in search of the respite of acceptance in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, he seemed to feel a pleasant indifference throughout, not the joy of a return to an expectation of embrace, and certainly not the ‘indefinite discontent’ she feels on realising that one’s people are not always the equivalent of home. A tree does not always belong to a forest. If there was an embrace, it was fleeting, and as such, to leave meant nothing but to go elsewhere in the same casual spirit. And I ask myself, which would I be, George or Helga? Would I look about me, a stranger settling into yet another quiet room to survey the unfamiliar landscape, or stake myself in the ground with a violence of claim, the need to possess something of my blood?
I had a great-uncle by marriage, another example of variety in our forest, though I do not carry his name. Helmut Summ was a German artist, born and studying in Hamburg before he moved to Wisconsin the 1920s. His paintings and prints tend towards the abstract, many with a haze reminiscent of a half-remembered memory. In our house hung paintings by him of ships in docks and cities sometimes with people but often without. To me they conveyed the restlessness of leaving but not knowing one’s destination, of staying and not understanding one’s purpose. I know his work is displayed in museums back home, and when I consider the disconnect of it—a family album somehow exposed to the world—alongside the art from my childhood, I think we were all destined to travel and never find home; to understand we were a strange trees in a strange forest, existing only on the peripheries of the embrace of people.
My names were meant to be a metamorphosis: an acknowledgment of new cultures, an offering from another. They have come to feel like Daphne’s transformation into the laurel, chased until she was pitied and given respite, each a tree, once a woman. I have sat in Hammershøi’s solitary rooms, content to be alone with my names. The interruptions of other’s desires, to know and probe the things which I cannot give them any more than I can give to myself, make me long to change and stay the same. Who do I cry out to for release, to become one of Hammershøi’s trees instead: return to a state where what is inside me is there for the world to see, but where their reverence for the sheer loneliness of it prevents them from seizing me? The room which is mine is none but the vastness of nature—where I might be one of many, returned to both the the é and the skov.