Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Putting New Scales on One's Eyes

The mid-summer sun has been pouring down nonstop on the meadow garden, a plot in my yard with a variety of native plants and some not so native ones: false indigo, phlox, Joe-Pye weed (not really a weed), meadow sweet, cone-flower, bee balm, butterfly weed (really a milkweed, which is also not a weed, except for some), hyssop, yarrow, cup rosinweed (also not a weed, except evidently in Connecticut), rudbeckia maxima (a black-eyed Susan on steroids) several varieties of bunch grasses, nettles, meadow rue, trumpet flower and the like.  Basically green things that like to congregate in crowds of green things.

Today the sun is hot, and the honey is coming. Non-stop.  The pollinators arrive in droves; a feeding frenzy ensues..

As the meadow's perennials have rooted in over the last decade and found their respective places among their fellows (with varying degrees of guidance on my part), I've begun educating myself about the many types of pollinators coursing through this patch.  Little insights accumulate.  For instance, at first one's eye, uneducated, is caught by the obvious: big burly bumble bees dashing here and there to alight on the purple crowns of bee balm and cone-flower; or multicolored swallowtail butterflies clustering on a leafy wall of scarlet runner making its home in the nearby vegetable patch.  Polaroid moments ensue.

But then one looks again.  And again.  And notices smaller bees and wasps, flies as well, some small and quick enough that the only hint they are there is the glinting of their wings as they dive into the perianths of blossoms no larger than grains of rice.  Sometimes even smaller than a grain of rice.  It's not for nothing that botanists and entymologists come armed with a loupe when entering creation.

And so the question of scale arises. Blaise Pascale, both mathematician and philosopher, suggests that humans are poised between two scalar realities--that of the increasingly large and the increasingly small. While Pascale was intent on thinking through how either direction leads to the infinite (a mathematical concept and metaphysical category with which he was especially conversant), for the time being and the garden's sake one could simply think of  the scalar magnitudes close to the middle ground characteristic of our all too human gaze upon the face of the earth.   Plenty of wonder can already be found in this neighborhood.

And that thought brings me to the image above, taken with a Pentax DSLR 5000 as I stood in the garden earlier today surrounded by buzzing pollinators.  The picture is of a wasp, yet to be identified, in mid flight after having gathered nectar from masses of miniscule pink blossoms clotted on an umbel of Joe-Pye weed. Up this close the intricate structure of the umbel finds renewed definition in the foreground, even as one's eyes are directed slightly beyond to the hind end of that wasp, its legs hanging freely and its wings shimmering with movement.  I am particularly fond of the two antennae curved above its body, indicating where the eating and seeing end of the wasp is located.  It is as if I have entered another dimension of creaturely existence, as if the gaze of those compound eyes located under the antennae have been delivered to me. Looking about the world from the viewpoint of a wasp, I find, is exhilarating. revelatory, something both very old and very new under the sun.

Of course, I did not register any of this at the moment the scene occurred.  Only the camera through whose viewfinder I was gazing had the quickness of eye and the exactitude of memory to bring this particular world to light.  What I saw was a wasp sprawling across an umbel, crawling busily from perianth to perianth, ravishing each blossom for its nectar before moving on to the next.  And then in a blur, the wasp disappeared. When this occurred, it was only happenstance, the click of the shutter repeating itself in fast mode, that found an insect in flight.  So as natural as this scene might appear, a tool was involved in bringing it to light, a tool that helps extend the scale in which my own limited and all-too-human eyes can operate. For in this case the very quick and the fairly small were at issue, neither visited with ease by the unaided perception of homo-sapiens.

All of this brings me to two thoughts.  The first involves how the image invites its viewer to enter concretely this fetching, even magical scene.  Indeed, as I gaze at the photograph, moments from animated films, both recent and old, come to mind, in which a winged insect powers through the intricate and miniaturized world of a meadow, bringing our all-too-humans eyes along for the ride.  The scene is, I realize, culturally familiar, even beloved, copyrighted repeatedly by Disney and Pixar.  But the scene is also archetypal.  For  reaching back deep into into our history, variants are found in folk tales, as fairies, elfin creatures the right size for riding on wasps and living on the nectar of roses and lilies, are revealed to us in story if not in fact.

These old tales offer, I suspect, wisdom in their very genre.  For humans cannot move down the chain of magnitudes in order to inhabit other levels of space and time without our existence becoming strange and stranger.  A human that effortlessly rides a bee is not one whose perceptions would translate easily into my own. Part of the axis of our humanity, an orientation that keeps us in check and checked in, is revealed to be the very size and speed at and with which we exist bodily.  We can visit the scene above briefly in our imaginations and fly with the bees; but remaining there would cost us much.

The second thought is more prosaic.  It has to do with the manner in which scale bedevils all questions ecological.  How does one measure the diverse populations of species comprising an ecosystem, for instance?  Does one stop with every footstep to take an inventory?  But if so, what particular line of inquiry should these footsteps take through the ecosystem to be measured? And how far apart are the multiple pathways to be set?  Should they be arranged in a grid?  And how small or large should the mesh of that grid be? Or should the lines of inquiry follow other sorts of contours suggested by variations in topography?  And again, how small or large should the mesh be?  And even as one stops at each place where the ecosystem is to be catalogued and numbered, at what scale of size does one leave off?  Do quarks count as much molecules?  Do molecules in stones count in the same way as they do in cells?  Do cells matter as much as organisms in which they are located?  And should the stars overhead be included automatically in the inventory as well? What of all the others creatures just passing through an ecosystem on their own particular lines of inquiry?  Not to mention the differences that occur, if one's line of inquiry is performed on any given day in a particular season, as opposed to all the other days and seasons. It turns out the very diversity of scales, whether temporal or spatial, through which an ecosystem can be approached is dizzying.  Inevitably, we must decide where to draw a line and keep to it.  In doing so, we also admit implicitly that whatever we know of the living world is always necessarily a fragment and so distortion of it.  In the intricacy and diversity of its scales and their interactions, a single ecosystem transcends all hope of fully perceiving, let alone fully knowing it.

This brings me, in conclusion, to a recent email from my colleague Michael Folkoff, a physical geographer who thinks a lot about the soil and topography.  His complaint: the criterion by which topographers determine the minimum size that must be reached for a "small water body" (otherwise known as a "pond") to be recognized and counted as one has been set fairly arbitrarily.  Since topographical data is stored digitally and mapped out at a scale of 1:24,000, the USGS has decided a small water body must be at least the same size proportionally on the face of the earth as the symbol for a small water body is on a topographical map. However much space the symbol takes up at a 1:24,0000 scale becomes the deciding factor on whether a pond exists or not in the eyes of the USGS.

To decide which bodies of water are or are not ponds is an unenviable task, fraught with the complexity of competing scales noted above.  Who can blame the USGS for cutting the Gordian knot in such an efficient manner?  Yet, as Folkoff notes, "hundreds of ponds in Wicomico County alone are excluded from SWB enumeration by this standard."

How small does a body of water need to be before it ceases to be such?  Droplets on leaves, for instance, are hardly ponds and not even puddles.  They're droplets. Which leads to yet another question: How many categories of the gatherings of still waters are needed to precisely mirror the reality of an ecosystem?  How many ponds can dance on the head of a pin on a topographical map?  As a philosopher this gets me thinking: Why not construct a scalar ontology, a theory of being that does not begin by enumerating concrete or even metaphysical entities or the relations between entities but with the diversity of scales by which entities can appear and be approached in the first place?  Size does matter.  In all sorts of ways.





Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Blue Mountains, Lyrebirds and Stories We Tell

Lyrebird Lyrates and Filamentaries
The Blue Mountains in winter: entire forests of gum trees, their spindly limbs crowned by green mops of leaves, thrash in torrents of air scouring the landscape. One image in particular comes to mind: perched on the heights at an angle against the gusting winds, I look out over a ledge into the depths of the Jamison valley. In massive gulps, the airstream around me is stripping water off the greenery after a rainy night, stripping the water, atomizing it into mist and then scattering it over the lip of an escarpment into the country stretching below.  And there in front of me a rainbow, really rain-ribbon, or rain-serpent, materializing and evaporating and materializing again, soaring up the steep slopes from below and anchoring itself in the red sandstone cliffs opposite me.  The Blue Mountains are, if anything, a landscape of rainbows, precipices and wind.

And yet. later, hiking down the escarpments to the wooded bottom lands of the valley, I was amazed to find that terrible wind dissipating with every step, the air becoming nearly still and birdsong audible.  As if the valley below were the permanent eye of an unending hurricane raging above it.

Actually the Blue Mountains are a massive plateau eroded away in great chunks to form a series of forested canyons and valleys framed by towering escarpments.  And the lowlands are, it turns out, a great  place to encounter a lyrebird.  At least in mid-winter during their their mating season.  Belying their reputation, the birds were not at all difficult to find: the racket they make, thrashing about in the forest as they dig in the duff for insects and salamanders, unabashedly signals their presence. And they are not concerned about exiting the scene, unless the human visitor is a bit too insistent about approaching near.  And even if one cannot see a lyrebird directly, the males, perched on their hidden thrones, mounds built up of dirt and leaves to impress a cohort of mating females, fill up the forest with whistles and  throstlings, cooings and tweets, twitters and buzzings and croaks in stereophonic virtuosity.

Blue Mountain Escarpment
At one point I did approach a male to capture a better image, in fact the one appended above.  Eventually, impatient with my insistence, he flew down the slope in a power glide (this particular set of wings being not good for much else), his body configured in a blue ideogram of feathers so perfect, so unearthly, that it surely had escaped from a special effects program for high end video games. The two lyrate tail feathers, as they are termed, are held, at least during flight, curved open in a shape suggesting the musical instrument after which the bird is named.   Mating is another business altogether, according to avian ethologists, with the tail feathers directed forward so that they hover over the male's head as he struts his stuff.

This plumage is hypnotic.  To call it beautiful obscures the fact that its most powerful virtue is that of dissemblance, of shape shifting.  As the male digs incessantly into the earth in search of goodies he tilts his rear upward--this ungracious posture unleashing a furious dance of feathers in which the two chestnut brown lyrates are transformed into a pair of hyperactive snakes writhing in mid air over the earth.  The lacy filamentaries also composing the tail confuse the light around the lyrates and render the ensemble ghostly, a mixture of form and void, uncanny flesh dissipating into shimmers of airy light.  Spellbound at this sight, I can sympathize with the fidelity of the mating females to such a display.  In some part of me, I'm seduced too and prepared to stay here as this male's consort for eternity.  Surely this is Eden and this lyrebird Adam.

Given the flamboyant feathers and preternatural talent for mimicry, the lyrebird not only fascinates humans but leaves us envious.  You Tube is filled with videos showing off the capacity of this species to ape everything under the sun: from kookaburras to car alarms.  In one of these, David Attenborough encounters several, obviously not in the wild (of this fact he is not forthcoming: see Hollis Taylor's blog on this issue), that can mimic camera clicks, the buzz of chain saws and men working nearby.. But this fascination with a captive bird's talent for simulation leaves me wondering: Why is the capacity in a living creature to duplicate the sound of a fire alarm so noteworthy?

Lyrebird Habitat in the Jamison Valley
To this question I have a hopeful and not so hopeful answer. I'll start with the hopeful and more subtle point first.  In giving voice to click of camera and whirring of electric-motored film advance, the captive lyrebird transforms the inert noises permeating his surroundings into something rich and strange. This power of living things to transcend the merely mechanical and efficacious has recently been christened "biosemiosis."  In this term one registers how the very stuff of life, from our genetic coding on up, involves the expression and reception of signs among the living kinds, as well as within the bodies of every living kind. The entirety of creation it turns out is full of messages in search of reception, which is to say, full of storytelling.  And so I am thankful for the closeup in Attenborough's video of the captive lyrebird's beak, as an electrical whirring emanates forth from its gifted voicebox: in my very hearing, a mechanical sound, an intricate, human-made contraption of moving metal and plastic gears, finds a renewed and uncanny dwelling place in living flesh of another living kind.  In this reverberation of a vibration, it turns out, something more than mere efficacy, the chief virtue of technological existence, emerges.  The camera leaves its imprint on the lyrebird's hearing not as machinery but as encounter, not as redundancy but as creative opportunity.  

But that very closeup is also distressing, particularly given Attenborough's condescending take on the moment. It is a matter of the story, after all.  And the story Attenborough tells and enacts is one of a huckster:  "Look at this," his tone intimates. "Ain't it grand?"  But is this the story worthy of a species 15 million years upon the face of the earth, one whose forebears, unlike our own, are part of the very strata of the continents? Rather than questioning the process by which the vocabulary of a lyrebird is overtaken by the sounds of cameras, car alarms and buzz saws, the fact is simply sketched out as an elaborate joke, a trick.  This exchange of bird and human here is just one step up from trick dolphins jumping through hoops and elephants balancing on each other's backs.  Of course, what is different is that the lyrebird comes to this trick voluntarily via its own practices.  But the circumstances of those practices are not voluntary at all: he has been confined to a cage.  And this question haunts me:  Why is the mimicking of machinery so noteworthy in a living being?  And listening again to it, I realize this: This bird no longer is my Adam; his power to seduce these human ears has been reduced to one that amuses.  
The Three Sisters
Other stories, it should be noted, are told of the lyrebird, including stories by peoples who were willing to follow for tens of thousands of years the lines of song laid down by a living kind across country.  The Gundungurra people, for instance, who own the stories of what we whitefellows call the Jamison Valley, have something quite different than Attenborough to say about the lyrebird and its mimicry.  But their stories are for the most part kept alive and cared for, when they have not been annihilated by colonial violence, in the closed circles of their keepers.

Still one story might be told, a story that was falsely attributed to the Grundungurra and was actually authored by a whitefellow schoolgirl by the name of Patricia Stone. Her tale involves three sisters who are transformed into stone by their father, a powerful cleverman, to save them from a bunyip, a terrifying creature who lurks in the waters waiting to feast upon anything that comes by, particularly women and children. Angered at the daughters' transformation, the bunyip chases the father, until cornered, he transforms himself into a lyrebird with the same magic bone he had used upon his daughters.  And then, to his dismay, he discovers the bone has been lost.

If a whitefellow is to tell a story about country, this is perhaps not a bad start.  And it leaves its audience with important questions to chew upon. Why, for instance, does the clever man turn his daughters to stone, even as he chooses a lyrebird for his own moment of shape shifting? Parents, in protecting their children, can go too far and with tragic results. Yet by throwing rocks heedlessly from the cliff top (which is what initially alerts the bunyip to their presence), the daughters themselves are implicated in their petrification due to their own thoughtlessness. And there is the issue of that magic bone.  It is powerful but also limited in its efficacy. And it can simply be misplaced.  The contours of the real emerge here in an intricate interplay of themes and forces:  the ferocity of love, the carelessness of  youth, the outbreak of elemental violence, the limited means of wisdom and and the fragility of human power.   In the face of the bunyip's hungry maw the cleverman chooses song over blood letting.  Shakespeare would be pleased.

But what most intrigues me today is the cleverman's decision to become a lyrebird.  The ways in which humans find themselves affirmed in the lyrebird, even as the lyrebird finds its peculiar talents affirmed in human beings is worthy of more than a little thought. As I hear it, the telling of this metamorphosis, of man to lyrebird, gives words to the mystery of language itself. For words clarify the meanings of things, as the act of naming calls forth reality and reality calls forth naming. And like the lyrebird, are not humans in the business of singing their existence in borrowed song?  We clothe ourselves, both in body and in thought with the skins and voices of all the other living kinds. When all is said and done, we are made of words.  If a human is to become another animal, certainly becoming a lyrebird makes a lot of sense.  Thank you Patricia Stone for this thought.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Stone Markers of the Choisi-Michi Pilgrimage Route

   

180 stone markers, spaced 109 meters apart, line the Choisi Michi trail leading to Koyasan, the seat of Shingon Buddhism and the resting place of Kukai, its founder and most illustrious thinker.  Each marker has its own history and stories surrounding it. Photographing each pillar as I walked up the last 7 km. of the trail in the rain unexpectedly became a meditative practice. The inpouring of sensations as one walks among so many living entities and elements making their home in the environs of the trail can be overwhelming.  Cascades of ferns, innumerable branches of hinoki and sugi, the rushing of water among stones, the call of crows in the distance. The markers helped to steady me a bit. I thank them for that.


 


Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Camphor Tree in the Dark


A Camphor Tree in the Dark

Sometimes the image does all the talking.  And sometimes the tree in the image is doing the talking in all the talking.  This aged camphor tree, a Shinto shrine in the very heart of Wakayama, is a must visit spot each time I return to Japan with a new group of students to hike the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route.  A sporadic stream of people, some homeless, some well-dressed, some young and some old, visit this site throughout the day and into the night.  Humans gather with crows and ferns and feral cats and all other manner of living creature to find a moment of solitude, to offer a word of thankfulness, to seek consolation.  Or simply to be in the presence of the tree's ministry.

I have photographed a series of images of this tree, mostly at night.  Interestingly, in this particular image the outpouring of light from the city illuminates the sky turning it into a spectral backdrop, even as the many lamps lining the paths of the park in which the tree is found provide foreground and accent lights.  The tree, it turns out, is posing in a vast photographic studio constituted by a flood of urban illumination.

Urban light pollution is often and rightfully mourned as one of a host of factors cutting off us denizens of the contemporary techno-imperium from the living stuff of creation.  Or at least cutting us off from how the world is shared with creatures far more accustomed to the dark than we are.  In wiping away darkness from the night, have we not lost contact with our own dark natures?  Which is to say those aspects of the world that befuddle our senses, or at least our vision.  The world is not always ours to grasp at a distance, the darkness teaches.  And when distances do appear in the unobstructed darkness of the night, they are the magnificent and harrowing heights of the stars spreading out and dancing in a great circle over the sleeping earth.  For us humans to look into the night sky that is full of the night calls for humility and daring. Losing the night diminishes us.

Yet, this image of a camphor tree, I must confess, is a striking one.  And I hunger to return night after night to see what new revelations it might have in store.  The urban night lights afford nature a shining forth that is not to be found otherwise for human capacities.  What to do then with this blasphemy that is also a blessing?    

Saturday, September 28, 2013

“This Land” – Exhibition at Salisbury University Galleries, August/September 2013


       
In 2004, Gochen Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche, a Tibetan Lama, was traveling through  Montana when he looked out a car window and recognized something from his dreams:  the massive shapes of mountains floating upon the earth like lotus blossoms on a pond.   From this initial moment of  encounter and inspiration, when earthly elements in the Jocko Valley and the mountain ranges surrounding it conspired to offer a vision to Rinpoche that he reverently embraced, something quite special under the sun has been emerging: a magnificent garden centering on a gold-leafed statue of Yum Chenmo, the Great Mother, a feminine instantiation of Buddha.  Rising two stories above a green meadow with her hands arranged in the mudra expressing the transmission of tradition, the Great Mother’s golden face greets the lotus-shaped mountains with a sublime smile offering limitless compassion and supremely active wisdom.   She in turn serves as the hub for a great wheel with eight spokes emanating from her multi-colored, lotus-shaped seat, each spoke inhabited by two ranks of white Buddhas sitting back to back in unbroken contemplation.  Beyond the rim of the wheel, whose wide arc is composed of innumerable, waist-high stupas, are arranged in the four directions four Buddhas in dark stone, each garlanded daily with freshly gathered blossoms, each gazing back in turn to the figure of Yum Chenmo at the center.  In all, the garden is home to a thousand Buddhas, a river valley and several mountain ranges.  To walk the garden pathways is not only to rediscover the manifold insights of an ancient and venerable religious tradition but also to confront the power inherent in the land here and now to inspire and instantiate that tradition, its aspirations and longings.

‘Land’ is one of those basic words in the English language, serving as a necessary staple, if you will, in our speaking of the world and our place in it.  Indeed, the very notion of finding one’s place in the world only makes sense if there is some land in that place upon which one can set one’s feet. In its most abstract sense, land designates a particular area on the planet’s surface, as long as it is not covered with water. Yet even underneath the waters, land abides, providing the stay by which the waters are upheld.   To simply think of land, then, as a circumscribed area on the planet’s surface trivializes its role in both human and planetary existence.  For we regularly go to war over land, or at the very least, end up in court with unremitting regularity disputing ownership, rights and covenants in regard to land.  And in the American narrative of westward movement, the dignity and freedom offered by land, recommended by Jefferson’s notion of the yeoman farmer and later codified into law through the homestead act, is a decisive and abiding element, for better and worse, of our culture.  Indeed, the very movement westward proved to be a wholesale usurpation of tribal lands of First Peoples, an act whose injustice and violence America has yet to fully admit let alone satisfactorily resolve.  And this latter point reminds us that in land we find concretely and uncannily at play the rights and interests and loves of other humans, indeed of all other humans, not to mention of all other living kinds, whether they be plentiful raccoons or endangered fox squirrels, unwanted poison ivy or the lovely though miniscule blossoms of draba celebrated by Aldo Leopold.

For better or worse then, human cultures have been defining themselves through the land in which they would reside since the beginning of human tenancy upon the face of the earth  As to the worse in our own time,  the gallery viewer might consider Eric LoPresti’s epic yet hellish (the Anglo-Saxon equivalent to the Latinate ‘dystopian’) landscapes, in which clouds of dust stirred up from atomic blasts scour the earth and yet reveal in that very alteration something sublime even if monstrous, something compelling and seductive, even if destructive and apocalyptic.   LoPresti’s work would remind us that not so far from Rinpoche’s beatific garden in the Jocko Valley – in fact, just over the continental divide 60 miles to the east – lies a fleet of minuteman missiles, cocked and ready to fire, ham-fisted weapons with the capacity to annihilate entire cities and indiscriminately poison the soil, water and air surrounding them for generations.  As a child growing up on the high plains in Montana I remember the sudden presence of men smartly appointed in Air Force uniforms explaining the massive construction project that was taking place all around us. One very personable speaker even attempted to ignite with a blowtorch a flake of the solid material fueling the missiles to show us locals how inert and harmless it was, at least until activated with an electronic impulse.  Of course, the nuclear warhead to be installed on top of a tower of that fuel was another matter and remained unmentioned in his talk.  Soon the earth was peppered with underground silos capped by great concrete lids and fenced off from any approach.  Constructed by army-green earthmovers and caterpillar tractors, beautifully graded roads for hauling the bombs and delivery vehicles to their duly appointed resting places appeared overnight stretching across the landscape.  In all of this was an effort not unlike in effect and exceeding by far in economic means that of Rinpoche’s garden: a re-envisioning of what it meant to belong to a human culture by a re-envisioning and reworking of the land upon which that culture makes its home under the sun.  

In viewing  the exhibition ably put together by Liz Kaufman and Marisa Sage, the onlooker might keep in mind the manifold ways in which the very shape and sense of our human existence is constituted by how we come to define our relationship with land and how land inevitably responds in its own way to that gesture.  It’s not just up to us after all.  The land also is apt at making itself know even in our most insistent attempts to turn it into the mere reflection of our own interests and desires.
     
Liz Kaufmann’s curatorial approach asks that the gallery-goer comes to deeper insights not only about the respective practices of artists in their approach to land but also to entertain what one learns from the juxtaposition of these different approaches.   Land is no more fixed in its meaning and possibilities, it turns out, than is the human imagination.   For instance, the epic gestures of LoPresti’s paintings, in which the immensity of planetary surfaces and the primordial forces unleashed in and on them, find an arresting counter-point in the deeply interior landscapes of Kevin Barnes.  In the latter’s work, the light by which tree, meadow or forest is illuminated and so land is revealed in its fullness to the human eye comes from within as much as without.  In his act of painting the land, Barnes would be true to its facts, to its given.  The land has its say.  But at the same time a “distillation” of vision and an intensification of reality takes place in these canvases that find a second life for the landscape in the hypersensitivity of the human mind to color and form.  Magical realism is at work here, although certainly not a magical realism merely introducing fantastic items or elements into an otherwise mundane world.  What is magical, Barnes teaches us, is color and form itself.  And for Barnes the land provides a peculiarly powerful initiation into this magic.


Engaging the land in magical realism of another sort are the photographic performances of Megan Crump.  As with Barnes, the intimacy of one’s contact with the land is paramount.   But in Crump the magical is worked out not so much in color and form, although they have their say, as in personal ritual and shamanistic

transformation.  David Abram, a philosopher who has written tellingly about animistic perspectives on a more-than-human living world identifies the shape-shifting qualities of perception, its metamorphic, protean capacities, as crucial to indigenous frames of mind.  Crump’s photographs work out Abram’s insight by introducing her own body into the land and so into the photographic image she produces of the land.  But this is accomplished so that the very appearance of Crump’s human form tricks the eye, unhinging its assumptions of what might be occurring.  For me a powerful moment of recognition took place when what appeared to be a rather pedestrian fallen tree trunk next to a creek in “Roots” turned out to be Crump’s naked body, carefully arranged to emerge from the undergrowth to appear like a pedestrian fallen tree trunk next to a creek.  In that uncanny and shamanistic transformation, I found myself challenged to see that seeing is itself unhinged by powers at work when land and body become radically open to the possibilities they call forth in one another.


Yet another tack on the role of the land in defining human culture comes in Dan Mill’s “Quest” series, which is composed of abstract portraits of actual maps derived from colonial history.  His paintings invite the gallery-goer to become enchanted yet again with the artifice of map-making, its love of lines and colors as they divvy up the space of a two-dimensional surface.  Indeed, humans of all cultures love maps of all sorts.  Aboriginal painters from Australia, for instance, often transpose traditional maps tracing storylines through country into scintillating fields of color and space on a canvas. But underlying and subverting this enchantment in Mill’s case is the historical provenance of the particular patchworks of color in which he is interested.  The classification and parceling out of land in the history of European map-making has all too often meant the dispossession of others.   The colonial map is a map of discovery that quickly transmutes itself into a map of usurpation.   Indeed, the map in an Air Force file that locates the minuteman missiles scattered about the high plains of Montana overlays a landscape inhabited for some 10,000 years by tribal peoples whose place under the sun has been constricted only since the European arrival to the stingily drawn lines on yet another colonial map defining a so-called Reservation.

Perhaps as well the gallery goer should remember that her or his very footsteps tread the land once part of the Tundotank Reservation of the Wicomico People.  What artwork would be sufficient to register that fact, bear witness to this strange doubled vision of land that is at once home and stolen, at once the land of 
Tundotank and of Tony Tank (a Colonial name derived from the former Native American one) Creek?  Mills leaves that question with us.  And Peter Stern's "Nentego," a mural composed of aerial photographs of land once inhabited by the Nanticoke People takes the gallery viewer one step closer to answering that question, although I cannot imagine, in contradistinction to the artist's own view on this matter, that anywhere on the Eastern Shore a forest unaltered by European incursion remains.


In spite of the historical violence and ecological devastation that is being played out across the surface of the planet, including our own Eastern Shore, the land can still glisten.  And its weathers can still flourish, even if altered in terrible ways by Global Climate Change.  Through the digital arts informed by computer software, data recording and image projection, Mark Nystrom’s alchemical transformation of the winds blowing over the roof of Fulton Hall is not only beautiful in its aesthetic impact but also deeply informative of the remarkable complexity of the wind’s movement, its mercurial gestures with their varying intensities and orientations. All too often the living world has become a vague presence to the denizens of contemporary technocratic culture, who have all too often reduced the earth to a green blur passing by its car windows, or an entertaining flickering of colors and shapes on a computer screen.  But in “Air Current(s)” Nystrom, rather than abjuring the omnipresent technological processing of the living world characterizing our time has challenged himself and his audience to embrace it in a manner that is more rather than less heedful of the land and its many subtle qualities.  Electronically illuminated screens need not always be a way of veiling or blunting our interaction with the elements of land.  They can also uncover truths about it that would otherwise go unnoticed.   In offering the winds for the gallery-goer’s discernment and contemplation, Nystrom’s work is not unlike Gochen Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche’s garden mentioned above, which is itself ringed by eight prayer flags perpetually fluttering and falling with the winds.















I am thankful to the curator of this show and the artists included in it for having given me the opportunity to renew my own all too thoughtless relationship with the more-than-human living world.  As these works remind the gallery goer, the land requires much of us if we are to abide heedfully upon it.   While in no way do any of the artists involved in this exhibition advocate for a simplistic nativism, neither do they counsel that we ignore the place upon the earth in which our existence is offered its colors and forms, its depth and meaning.  That enduring and profound struggles emerge in this process, that the outcome is at time times ambivalent and even disturbing does not excuse us from the challenge these works pose for us.    The land is waiting for our reply.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

First People's Buffalo Jump


Buffalo Jump in foreground with Square Butte in background
The First People's Buffalo Jump, the largest of its kind on the North American continent, lies to the west of Great Falls, Montana.  A low lying butte with sandstone cliffs ranging from 10 to 30 feet and extending along three of its sides, this place is revered by all the tribal peoples - Blackfoot, Crow, Salish, Kootenai, Bannock, Nez Perce, Shoshone, Assiniboine, Gros Ventres - who gathered together and hunted in this area long before the arrival of Europeans.  Richard Hopkins, the affable and visionary director of the State Park preserving this site, explained to me how the rich soils deposited on the high prairie surrounding the Jump during the last ice age sustained grasses having an unusually high protein content.  The harshness of the weather and the lack of trees may not remind a current day observer of the biblical paradise, but in many senses these rolling hills were one.  Immense herds of bison, along with a coterie of their predators, including coyotes, grizzlies and wolves, flourished here.  And humans too.  

At the Jump, the stories involving buffalo and humans lie buried 6000 years deep.  In ravines carved out by seasons of rain and snowmelt, one can sometimes spy weathered bones returning to the light after a long sojourn in the earth.  As I followed the paths lacing the hills below the cliffs on a cold October day, I came to realize the very earth upon which I stood was built up from the once living bodies of buffalo now resting below my footsteps. And not only buffalo died here.  Humans too continually risked their lives to hunt buffalo during what are called "the dog years" by tribal elders, the years before the horse entered into the world of tribal peoples.  Hunting buffalo before the horse was a dangerous activity that required all the tribal peoples of this area to work closely together.  As a result, the Jump is still acknowledged as a place in which a great power resides, the power of peace and survival, a place where the intertwined stories of Buffalo and humans were lived out and now reside.  Even if the bison have departed, their stories and so their spiritual presence on the face of the earth remain palpable here.

But in our time and place, the bison have departed.  By the end of the nineteenth century only two thousand remained.on the entirety of the North American continent.  Once they had numbered in the tens of millions. As I walked along the path overlooking the cliff face, I felt a peculiar loneliness.  For here precisely where the stories of bison reside most powerfully in the Montana landscape, no living animal was to be found.  This disjunction is a painful one, a persistent reminder that this place under the sun, even as it remains sacred, has been subjected to immense violence, to a genocidal impulse that flooded over the high prairie during the last two centuries with the the arrival of my European kin, their guns, their booze and their railroads. Even today a minuteman missile silo housing a nuclear payload just a mile or two down the road from the Jump site is a powerful reminder of the modes of life dealing in death that still persist here. Yet today a resurgence in the numbers of bison is also afoot.  One walks these hills hoping that in the not too distant future, buffalo will again graze the grasses and keep company with the prairie dogs living on the top of the butte.  What a story that would make.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Monoculture on a Pilgrimage Route

 
These cedars on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route near Chikatsuyui Japan have always struck me as particularly beautiful, precisely because they grow in such preternaturally straight lines.  As a result the energy of the mountainside seemingly bursts upwarded unimpeded to the heights.  It is as if one is witnesing uninhibited enlightenment.  And the landscape bordering the Kumano Kodo is for Shingon Buddhists preeminently an exemplar of Buddha mind.   

Does it matter then that these trees are also textbook examples of monoculture, cedars arranged in straight rows supplanting the rice paddies that once were cultivated on this terraced mountainside?  The forest is managed to eliminate scraggly trees and undesirable competitors.  Is not then this grace deeply flawed? 
 
And still I am moved.