Saturday, June 15, 2019

Intersection 53

The last three weeks of May were owned by the selection of images from seventeen thousand, color correcting, titling, and finally writing statements for the exhibition of photographs made during my artist in residence experience at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. Below is the catalog for the exhibit that is still on view at the Waseca Art Center until June 28th. Please note that the PDF viewer may not display properly, or at all, on mobile devices.

Many events, both life and landscape, have occurred since my last journal entry, when we were still snowbound in mid-April. But these will need to be drawn at a later date -maybe soon, possibly not. Summer is now upon us and it commands within me an unceasing freneticism as it does all warmth loving life.

Thank you for reading.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Sometimes it Snows in April

Only once in my life had I seen an April snow. I was a child, there was thunder, and in a brief but hearty spurt of winter, giant flakes accelerated toward the ground. It wasn't magical, it was eerie.

Now, living in Minnesota, I can fully connect with the metaphor written into the Prince song I listened to as a teenager in New York. Here's why...

The arrival of the robins, first week of April.

Sunday, the southerly winds introduce warm air to cold ground; fog their conversation.

It was spring. The sap told it.

Fresh mushrooms and garlic mustard told it.

The chorus frogs playing their combs told it.

So pleasant it was, combative crows and hawks sat together in harmony.

But, then, it wasn't.

Day one filled out with about eight inches of heavy, wet, snow.

Day two, today, has been wind blown snow, ice pellets tink-tink-tinking the windows, and quickly arising thunderstorms. Not as much snow as last year's three day, April blizzard, but just as disappointing.

April, sometimes.

dust from texas falls on minnesota blizzard april 2019
There was several minutes, at various points of the day, when the skies turned distinctly darker, distinctly yellow. This phenomenon, you may have seen it, can be seen when thunderstorms pass overhead, particularly in winter. So the color of the snow, in those moments, seemed a reflection of the sky, until I noticed the different coloration, blue-white, on the leeward side of snowy features -the steps, the roof fall...

dust from texas falls on minnesota blizzard april 2019
The fire ring. Like a blurred image of a moon crater taken from an earth telescope, the snow took on the contours of the rocks beneath and then sculpted, softly, by wind and shaded in relief by red-beige particles blowing northward across the land. The color was everywhere, and the limits of my imagination concocted that it was created by wind-driven ice pellets scouring the trees. But I was skeptical, this felt familiar -that I had experienced this before -so I asked the Internet.

Brown is dust from Chihuahua Desert. Click for motion Gif.
Consider that the uncovered soils of the Mexico, Texas and New Mexico -in this season, their windy season (I lived in the Chihuahua Desert for three years; experienced the wind and the grit in my teeth), can be drawn all the way up to Minnesota by a powerful low pressure. What happens down there, then, also happens up here -their soils are now our soils.

Eastern Pheobe snowstorm
The Eastern Phoebe, an early spring arrival to our house and woods. We often have to chase its nest building off of doorways and gutters, and this year is no different. Our plan is to build a nesting site for this couple, but haven't quite gotten there yet. The blizzard has been a frustration for the bird, as much as us, as they mix a mud-like substance with twigs and dried grass to attach the nest to metal or wood, and these items are not available due to the new snow cover. Yet another way April can bring trouble to the arriving birds. The phoebes flew into our glass windows several times in the blizzard, looking confused, looking for a place out of the snow and wind.

Today, Friday, it continues to snow. I cannot clear the driveway as the gravel is soft from a complete defrosting, and the blower clogs immediately with the heavy, cement-like snow. I will move on to building raised beds for folks now that the wind has died down and I'm comfortable in the metal shed that sits beneath the soft-wooded, often hollow, basswood that rises 70 feet above it.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Preservation of Metaphor

"Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free... It is hard for me to believe that I shall find fair landscapes or sufficient wildness and freedom behind the eastern horizon. I am not excited by the prospect of a walk thither; but I believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly toward the setting sun, and there are no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me. Let me live where I will, on this side is the city, on that the wilderness, and ever I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness. I should not lay so much stress on this fact, if I did not believe that something like this is the prevailing tendency of my countrymen. I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progress from east to west."

-Thoreau,  Walking     

iew from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow, Thomas Cole, 1836
View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow, Thomas Cole, 1836
Nearly a year ago, Holland Cotter wrote a piece in the New York Times regarding Thomas Cole's 1836 painting "View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow." He re-imagined this 182 year-old work as a political gesture significant to our day while reiterating the psychological chasm between human activity and nature:

"The painting divides vertically into two atmospheric halves. To the left is a wild storm-soaked tangle of old trees and dense vegetation; to the right, far below, a flat terrain of treeless, square-cut fields running back to distant hills scarred by clear-cutting. The wilderness looks unkept and threatening, but seethes with life. The flat land, though cultivated and presumably fertile, feels as bare and bland as a tract-house town. And in the foreground of the picture is a tiny self-portrait of Cole at his easel. He turns away from his canvas and looks right at us, as if to say: Here are the alternatives; you choose."

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow, Thomas Cole, 1836
Detail view— The Oxbow, Thomas Cole, 1836
At the heart of Cotter's take on Cole's cultivated fields "bland as tract housing" and a hillside "scarred by clear-cutting" is the rejection of the cultivated and settled. He suggests that Cole looks back toward "us," prodding with a stark choice; Cotter's tone implicating settlement as fundamentally immoral. Wedding wilderness to morality is not new in the American experience. It is a deeply ingrained component of our split psyche. Here, Cotter's rhetoric provokes the split, backing us once again into a corner, demanding that we choose one of our two selves: wild or cultivated, good or evil, sacred or profane. 

As the words of Thoreau (top) suggest, this expression is entangled with our nation's creation myth. Annette Kolodny, in her book,  "The Lay of The Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Letters," deepens our understanding of this psychic frustration and its self-destructive impulse. In her chapter Unearthing Herstory, she explains:

"Eden, Paradise, the Golden Age, and the idyllic garden, in short, all the backdrops for European literary pastoral, were subsumed in the image of an America promising material ease without labor or hardship..." and further "...when America finally produced a pastoral literature of its own, that literature hailed the essential femininity of the terrain in a way European pastoral never had, explored the historical consequences of its central metaphor in a way European pastoral had never dared, and, from the first, took its metaphors as literal truths." And lastly, "Other civilizations have undoubtedly gone through a similar history, but at a pace too slow or in a time too ancient to be remembered. Only in America has the entire process remained within historical memory, giving Americans the unique ability to see themselves as the wilful exploiters of the very land that had once promised an escape from such necessities."

The American wilderness had been described as welcoming and fruitful; it's feminized prospect captivated the territorial impulse, yet it could also be a terrifying, risk-laden experience of the unknown, physical hardship, illness and death. In 1846-47, just as Thoreau comfortably reveled in his nature experience of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, Patrick Breen kept a diary of his experience as a member of the Donner-Reed Party trapped by the snow-covered Sierra Nevada. Stories of tragedy undoubtedly traveled east, but the symbolic impulse worked to suppress the terror and with it there was movement west, farther into the wilderness and then, by necessity of survival, there was deforestation, plowing, structures, and villages.

alexander hogue Mother earth laid bare
Erosion No. 2, Mother Earth Laid Bare, Alexandre Hogue, 1936
For Kolodny, the feminine image cast into metaphor and then into the lived experience of the American settler is not as much the problem as it is the key to understanding the predicament in which we find ourselves. In her chapter Making It With Paradise, she writes:

"We must begin by acknowledging that the image system of a feminine landscape was for a time both useful and societally adaptive; it brought successive generations of immigrants to strange shores and then propelled them across a vast uncharted terrain. For it is precisely those images through which we have experienced and made meaning out of the discrete data of our five senses (and our cerebral wanderings) that have allowed us to put our human stamp on a world of external phenomena and, thereby, survive in the first place in a strange and forbidding wilderness. And the fact that the symbolizations we chose have now resulted in a vocabulary of destructive aggression and in an active expression of frustration and anger should not make us assume that they may not yet again prove useful to us, or if not, that we have only to abandon them altogether to solve our ecological problems."

Ghosts of Lake Agassiz, Sophia Heymans, 2018
On a recent visit to a Minneapolis gallery, I looked over an exhibit of paintings by Brooklyn artist Sophia Heymans. I was intrigued by the Rhode Island School of Design-trained artist's landscape paintings that embraced a folk-arts styling. After spending some time with the work, I picked up the three paragraph artist narrative that described the work as "approaching painting landscape from a non-dominant perspective."

Clarifying the artist's intention, the statement goes on to say:

"American landscape painting, along with American history, has...ignored thousands of years of indigenous human history, acting as though this land was ours to tackle and overpower. Even when seemingly depicting the grandeur of the wilderness, as with the Hudson River School painters, the work still reeks of supremacy –peering ravenously down from a high rock at the wild young lands."

Then, as a counterpoint:

"Heymans flips the roles in her paintings, daydreaming of a time and place outside of human hegemony. In this post-human America, the plants and land forms are characters, able to express themselves after hundreds of years of White (European) dominance.  Their movements are those of freedom and festivity. Trees high-five each other knowing they are finally liberated from human devastation.  Smoke floats like reaching arms across borders that no longer exist.  Rain clouds release drops into a lake, creating towering columns between heaven and earth. The paintings are from a bird’s-eye view, or the perspective of a cloud or spirit, hovering somewhere outside of human perception and dominion."

Twenty Seven Waterfalls, Sophia Heymans, 2017
In this imagined post-human world, anthropomorphous plant forms celebrate the continent's return to (non-indigenous?) prehuman days where they are finally free of subjugation by humankind. Although only an artistic phantasm, it's rhetoric is of the same bifurcation Europeans cast about these shores a few hundred years ago. To Holland Cotter's question, Heymans has made her choice, only taken to the extreme -humanity must exit to restore what was our dream of paradise.

"The pastoral impulse, neither terminated nor yet wholly repressed, the entire process -the dream and its betrayal, and the consequent guilt and anger -in short, the knowledge of what we have done to our continent, continues even in this century to eat at the American heart like acid," writes Kolodny.

In describing the work as seen from "the perspective of a cloud or spirit, hovering ...outside of human perception," Heymans attempts to extinguish the only humans left -the viewing audience. Art can focus our attention on it so thoroughly that we exit our bodies, if only briefly, but the audience is always integral to the art. We are each, individually, the figure of an apparently figure-less art. Heymans' art becomes my experience of celebratory nature, my experience of water flowing freely to nourish the land. It is not nature, so titled, Without Us, as much as it becomes nature without every one elseIt is in this way that the work revisits the fantasy crafted by the early codifiers of the American pastoral -Hudson River School painters like Thomas Cole. Yet, to return to Cole's self portrait turned back to look at "us" in his painting The Oxbow, the painting is most compelling in its foregrounding of the audience -on the insistence that we be present.

"To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it." 

-Thoreau,  Walking

Frederick Church Twilight in the Wilderness
Twilight in the Wilderness, Frederick Church, 1860
Humanity in art, as represented by the figure, was minimized in 19th century landscape painting -the art often described as the inspiration for a national park system and even the environmental movements of the 20th century. The frontier dream, so effectively reiterated by Thoreau (in Walking) and so clearly demonstrated by Kolodny, had little room for civilization and no tolerance for the complicating narratives generated by throngs of settlers. Within the latter years of the century, the federal government began designating tracts of wilderness with national park status, effectively enshrining their identity within the ethos of the period. By the turn of the century, however, with little psychic or expansionist value after the close of the frontier, the unpopulated, monumental landscape painting of the 19th century had become all but forgotten. The wilderness dream that took its metaphors for truth would now be embodied in situ, in our national parks.

Left: Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite, Albert Bierstadt, 1873                Right: Fallen Bierstadt, Valerie Hegarty, 2007
Above, the most quoted visual pairing from one of the more interesting nature-themed exhibits to come together recently: Nature's Nation, organized by the Princeton Art Museum. That this polarized pairing is used to represent the complex exhibit isn't surprising given how easily digestible it is. It reflects a simple narrative deeply ingrained in our psyche -Nature, then, was wild and beautiful -today, it's ruined. That the burnt image of a Bierstadt painting is as much about the state of a nation as it is about nature, is likely to be secondary. To my mind it reads as an incomplete dismantling of the wilderness metaphor or, possibly, an image of what may become of it.

William Cronon has observed:

"The critique of modernity that is one of environmentalism’s most important contributions to the moral and political discourse of our time...appeals, explicitly or implicitly, to wilderness as the standard against which to measure the failings of our human world. Wilderness is the natural, unfallen antithesis of an unnatural civilization that has lost its soul. It is a place of freedom in which we can recover the true selves we have lost to the corrupting influences of our artificial lives. Most of all, it is the ultimate landscape of authenticity. Combining the sacred grandeur of the sublime with the primitive simplicity of the frontier, it is the place where we can see the world as it really is, and so know ourselves as we really are—or ought to be."

Visitors photographing deer accustomed to being photographed -Devil's Tower NM, Wyoming
When Cronon wrote those words for his essay, The Trouble with Wilderness, in the book "Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature,"he could hardly have imagined the combined effect of social media and mobile phones on the wilderness experience. While the increasing number of visitors to National Parks and Recreation Areas might suggest that more and more people are discovering their "truest selves" within the cathedrals of nature, the selfie and instant gratification of mobile social media have proven that wilderness allows us, as Cronon said, "to know ourselves as we really are" and, at times, not live up to who we "ought to be."

That mobile-phone wielding visitors do not show "appropriate" reverence in the presence of wilderness reveals, to some degree, current attitudes about wilderness. On the one hand, it shows the importance of social relations (an image of Yosemite garners many hearts) as a basis for the valuation of an experience of wilderness. On the other it reflects the alienation inherent to a largely urban culture that venerates wilderness in the absence of direct experience with it.

Neal Herbert, National Park Service
We admonish people to leave only footprints, take only memories (pictures). In doing so, we must acknowledge that restraining a natural enthusiasm for physical experience with material nature reinforces the abstract, the photographic, the landscape view over lived experience of the world. For the sake of preservation, this may be a necessity, yet one wonders why, year over year, more visitors make their way to the edges of wilderness, to shuffle along boardwalks and clogged arteries in pursuit of a photogenic destination. If these excursions are a reflexive reenactment of the American frontier mythology; that it is then thwarted by hoards of visitors, commerce, filled parking lots and campgrounds has had minimal effect.

Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, Thomas Gainsborough, 1750 -the most cited landscape in the Marxist critique.
W.J.T. Mitchell, in "Landscape and Power," chapter one, Imperial Landscape, conceptualizes landscape and its valuation this way:

"Landscape is a medium in the fullest sense of the word. It is a material "means" like language or paint, embedded in a tradition of cultural signification and communication, a body of symbolic forms capable of being invoked and reshaped to express meaning and values. As a medium for expressing value, it has a semiotic structure rather like that of money, functioning as a special sort of commodity that plays a unique symbolic role in the system of exchange-value... At the most basic, vulgar level, the value of landscape expresses itself in a specific price: the added cost of a beautiful view in real estate value; the price of a plane ticket to the Rockies... Landscape is a marketable commodity to be presented and object to be purchased, consumed, even brought home in the form of...postcards and photo albums. In its double role as commodity and potent cultural symbol, landscape is the object of fetishistic practices involving the limitless repetition of identical photographs..."

iPhone case with Gainsborough's painting printed on the back ($24.99)
The image of Gainsborough's Mr. and Mrs. Andrews may be commonly known among art students or students of the Marxist critique of images, but among customers for mobile phone cases, I imagine that the number of knowledgeable buyers is quite small. No matter, because the image exposes us to what it must at a glance. At face value it reflects back to friends or family a model image of humanity in nature at the moment the phone it enshrouds captures their image in nature. Subtly, it reinforces what landscape really is to us -a staged scene.

Mitchell goes on to say:

"As a fetishized commodity, landscape is what Marx called a "social hieroglyph," an emblem of the social relations in conceals. At the same time that it commands a specific price, landscape represents itself as "beyond price," a source of pure, inexhaustible spiritual value. "Landscape," says Ralph Waldo Emerson, "has no owner," and the pure viewing of landscape for itself is spoiled by economic considerations: "you cannot freely admire a noble landscape, if laborers are digging in the field hard by." Raymond Williams notes that "a working country is hardly ever a landscape." Further, "Landscape" must represent itself, then, as the antithesis of "land," as an "ideal estate" quite independent of "real estate," as a "poetic" property, in Emerson's phrase, rather than a material one."

Wedding photography of this sort is the contemporary, American application of the Gainsborough standard.
Wedding photography staged at the edges of wilderness has become common. In Mitchell's terms, it commands both the specific price of a photo shoot in a hard to reach location and the poetic property of the ideal estate. As these images suggest, the practice reflects an American ideation of nature and relation to it -grandeur, no vulgar indication of work or commerce (in sight), and a comfortable, elegant exhibit of mastery over wilderness. This wilderness, of course, is a stand-in for other material and personal hardships not so easily objectified that must be mastered nonetheless. The image of wilderness continues to hold value for there is no other readily understood, easily consumed, aesthetically appreciated backdrop for a life lived boldly.

If you detect a note of cynicism in the Marxist critique of landscape, you will not find any argument from me. Yet, I do think it offers important, if limited, insight into reasons why wilderness maintains its value in a mass culture that lives almost entirely within the bounds of civilization. It also illustrates how deeply abstract the conception of wilderness is among most Americans.

As this article has circled back to Holland Carter's false choice between wilderness or civilization and because I cannot fully come to terms with all there is to consider on the subject of the wilderness landscape ideal, I will end with the quotes below.

From William Cronon's The Trouble with Wilderness:

"The dream of an unworked natural landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living—urban folk for whom food comes from a supermarket or a restaurant instead of a field, and for whom the wooden houses in which they live and work apparently have no meaningful connection to the forests in which trees grow and die. Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land."

Paul Shepherd, from his book Man in the Landscape:

"My point is that their [cities] origin is inextricably associated with a surplus agriculture, that cities tend to grow beyond what the local agriculture will support, and that there is an urban attitude toward nature which is insular, cultivated, ignorant, dilettante, and sophisticated. At the same time, by virtue of the very polarity in the landscape that cities create, they contain and educate and produce men who retreat to nature, who seek its solitude and solace, who study it scientifically, and who are sensitive to its beauty. The very idea of a sense of place is an abstraction, a sort of intellectual creation ...which is impossible except in a world of ideas whose survival depends on the city. "

Related Posts: 

Previous: The Land That Time Forgot                                           Next: Not Yet Published

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Osiris Rising

Winter began at the end of January. The low temperature, early Wednesday morning, January 30, bottomed at -34℉ with a high temperture of -16℉. In February, temperatures did not get very much above 10℉, and were often below zero.

My wife described these low temperatures in this way -one feels surrounded. Imagine you stepped outside of your plane on a flight across country...

When it's minus thirty you can play around with making clouds with boiling water.

I retreated to Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve one last time to work on some writing. The moon rose, and later that night, the second of several significant snowfalls began.

The snow piles higher; sliding off roofs, snow blown, and accumulation.

The icicles grow longest on the upper floors -some over six feet long.

Ice dams form where house heat melts roof snow, where the weight of snow compresses it at the edges of a roof.

By February 20th we had the snowiest February on record -with still more snow to come. By the same date, however, one begins to think of what else may come -warmth! With it comes melting, wet snows, even rain. The weight on the roof is probably okay under the cold regime, but snow is like a sponge -lighter when dry and heavier when wet. Ordinarily welcome, the warmth could become a problem.

It is easy to imagine the return of glacial lake Agassiz, forming as rainfall accumulates between a snow pack of thirty inches, four foot snow mounds, and the frozen ground. I begin to clear areas previously left untouched -in front of the greenhouse, the sidewalk between the house and front yard and six feet beyond the walkway between the house and the backyard.

I even cleared a path to the compost pile -you can almost make it out on the far right, above. This was to keep us from trudging knee deep to dump the bucket, but also to give the melt water a place to travel down slope, away from the house.

Then it was time for the inevitable: clearing the roof. Wind helped keep some edges below sixteen inches, but other spots were above eighteen inches. This view is akin to a core sample -each storm depositing more snow, compressing under the weight of the next. The upper portion is the thickest and lightest, the bottom crispy and snow-cone like.

One of my better purchases: insulated rubber boots: good to -20℉.

When climbing out a window into a thirty inch snow drift, mind the space above your head. This icicle was disturbed by my head, broke, and dropped on my noggin -not a good way to start shoveling snow off of the roof.

On March 10 we woke up to another six or seven inches of snow. This time the temperature was in the mid to high twenties and the snow sticky: aka wet snow -a sign of things to come.

A six foot tall azalea has little positive things to say about six inches of wet snow. We have noticed that between -30℉ and 30℉, the azalea leaves change form. Warmer temperatures show leaves that are open wide and flat. At colder temperatures, the leaves are tightly rolled.

By Tuesday, March 12, the air was a warm and dewy 37℉. That's when the rain started to fall. By Wednesday, we had a morning fog with near white out conditions. It continued to rain through Thursday -leading to flood reports across several Midwestern States. 

There is little moderation in the Midwestern climate -at times, we can span 70 degrees in a couple of days. On the coasts, even within a three week period, to experience below zero temperatures at the beginning and sixty degrees Fahrenheit at its end, is unheard of. With over thirty inches of snow on still frozen ground across the entire state, days of rain, and the increasing temperature to near 60℉ by Saturday, we will see large scale flooding.

Like Osiris rising from the dead, so too is spring. The geese were heard flying over just a few days ago. The birds, winter friendly, are spring noisy. The popping of basswood, Tilia americana, trunks were heard echoing among the woods on a sunny afternoon of twenty-five degrees -calling us out to tap sugar maples for sap.

From winter weather to spring in bird song.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Momento Vivere

icicles minnesota cold winter
Forty five days beyond the solstice in this coldest of states...

geranium bud blooms in winter potted overwintering
 ...buds form on plants dug up this past October.

salvia overwintering potted plants in winter blooming
The sun's elevation is high enough to energize plants placed below the sills of windows; the salvias and pelargoniums, the capsicum and rosmarinus.

pelargonium over wintering geranium house plant potted plant
In the long winter everyone has their coping strategy, but a good dose of sunlit snow, long blue shadows, and eager plants are a reminder at five degrees below zero.

pelargonium over wintering geranium house plant potted plant
 Pelargonium, otherwise known as geranium, will go into its third outdoor season, late this May.

overwintering capsicum, hot peppers, potted peppers as houseplants
Three weeks back, this pepper plant was profuse with blooms. Now it is, as far as overwintering peppers that were dug from the garden can be, profuse with fruit.

overwintering peppers, potted peppers, capsicum, winter fruit
 The petals stick to the fruit without wind to shake or rain to wash them toward the ground.

overwintering capsicum, jalepeno peppers, potted peppers as houseplants
Last year, this jalapeno, a thick and woody stemmed specimen twice ripped from its raised bed, produced winter flowers but no February fruit. It is now getting ready to produce flowers again. Time will tell if it is as up to the task as its cousin across the room. Two summers running, this pepper has produced a fine crop of jalapenos.

flowering blue salvia overwintering in a pot taken from garden bed as a houseplant
A long raceme of indigo blue flowers emerge from near-black calyxes seen in the second image above.

flowering salvia elegans pineapple sage blooms indoors overwintering garden bed houseplant
Salvia elegans, or pineapple sage, pushed into perenniality in my New York City garden, is now pushed into houseplant duty every October. We usually get a week or so of blooms in the garden beds before a freeze forces it into a pot, then into the greenhouse, then into the studio, and finally resting in the sunny south window, where it blooms in February, once again.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Land That Time Forgot


Between March 2018 and December 31, 2018 I was the artist in residence at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, an important site dedicated to the study of ecology, located in central Minnesota at the intersection of North America's three major biomes -prairie, eastern deciduous and northern boreal forests.

Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve Google Maps Big Bio Satellite View
Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve's Big Bio experiment as seen on Google Maps.
I found Cedar Creek while "flying over" Minnesota using Google Maps' satellite view. The peculiar vegetative patterns initially piqued my interest, and the more I looked into it, the more curious I became about the site. In September of 2017, I contacted Caitlin Barale Potter, Education and Outreach Coordinator at Cedar Creek, to begin a discussion about making artwork on site. Right away I could sense Caitlin's enthusiasm for Cedar Creek. Through her, I came to understand the significance of the research, the site, and its history. The idea was intriguing, and with a leap of faith in the value of art, she developed a program to accommodate artists in residence.

In February of 2018 I was selected as one of two artists in residence for the coming year. I set simple parameters for my project: Digital micro 4/3 camera, sharp lens using only 50, 60, or 70mm field of view, maximum depth of field, and incorporate  research elements into landscape images. Not interested in special conditions or the right light, my goal was to envision landscape free of the limiting conventions of the "photographic moment." The images were to avoid simple illustration or flattery and be consistent in creating a sense of place.

Constraints are only valuable in as much as they help an artist find their way to something more. What that more is can otherwise be described as content, meaning, or its cultural relevance. Like scientists, artists have a base of knowledge specific to their interests. We bounce ideas off of a history of art, contemporary art, and our unique understanding of the cultural moment -ideas our audiences do not always have access to. To build a bridge to my work, it can be helpful to first provide context: some art history, alternative and contrasting artistic viewpoints, and current attitudes about nature and our relationship with it. Below is the first in a series of three posts that aim to frame the conversation about my work at Cedar Creek.


Panel of Hell, The Garden of Earthly Delights, (detail), Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1480-1505
In 1988 Bill Mckibben published his book The End of Nature. In his prescient, but gloomy outlook, the author insists that we have moved beyond the idea of nature, that nature no longer operates completely independent of human actions, but is a world infected, if you will, by the product and waste of humanity. Within this scenario one can see no way out -the damage has already been done, and cannot be undone. Mckibben makes clear toward the end of his book that it has been, and will continue to be, difficult for an ideology of nature to take root. We are accustomed to, and have systemically integrated, the conveniences of our time and we are hard pressed to deny these to the rest of the world.

 Expulsion from Paradise, Thomas Cole, 1828
Has nature truly ended? Or has climate change revealed to us that our conception of nature as independent of humanity, self-correcting, too massive to spoil and too close to the deity's firmament to defile so thoroughly, has ended? It is still taboo to take responsibility for the world we've inhabited, there are still too many cynical or sentimental appeals to paradise, and a deepening sense of loss that parodies the mythical expulsion from the garden.

Time Landscape, Alan Sonfist, 1965-1978-Present (Photo: Allison Meier)
This profound loss has found contemporary expression in images of nature prior to humanity, colonialism, or the industrial revolution. Artist Alan Sonfist's "Time Landscape," 1965-1978, in New York City, is a melancholy evocation of what can no longer be. Fully revisited in a 2016 gallery exhibit, Time Landscape is a lamentation, caged as it is by iron fencing and concrete, surrounded by a bustling humanity, occupying the semantic space of the zoo; a melancholic specimen forever incomplete.

Copyright Welikia Project
Another current expression is the Welikia Project (formerly Manhatta Project), a virtual recreation of Manhattan circa 1609. Not a random date, its creators declare it a "pivotal point in the island’s history" as Henry Hudson sailed into New York Harbor. Does the time traveler occupy this date because it places Europeans on the scene, ready to retake ownership with so much hindsight? Can we begin again, this time staying true to the American promise of Eden? What of the Lenape civilization? As William Cronon reminds us in his book, Changes in the Land, North American peoples had been altering the land for generations.

Despite Welikia's stated goals of fostering a more "livable" urban center, the digital recreation of a lost natural world doesn't do much to alter Manhattan's current livability. Under the heading 'Why Go Back?' the creators confuse common urban planning ideas with motive to virtually return to the year 1609:

"For instance, maintaining natural waterways like streams and incorporating more open space and tree plantings into city planning would increase a city’s aesthetic value, water quality, and air quality for city folk. Making cities more pleasant and rich places for people to live will increase city folks’ standard of living, attracting more people to cities and minimizing sprawl development between cities where the ecological gems, the “Mannahattas” of today, currently reside."

If only conceived as an exercise, its core power lies in the imagery contrasting dense urbanity and unpopulated forest. By invoking the American narrative binary of virginal or despoiled, Welikia is simultaneously a wistful and self-loathing conception rooted in a sophisticated, urbane point of view. 

Thomas Cole Hudson River School Painting Mountain House
A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning, Thomas Cole, 1844
Does solastalgia explain 19th century attitudes as New York's Hudson Valley hillsides were deforested? Perhaps the landscape painters of the Hudson River School shared this experience as they looked away from growing industrialization to focus instead on wilderness. The 19th century experience of these works has little to do with how they function today. Lacking context and widely misunderstood, Hudson River School paintings are often interpreted quite literally. To view these 19th century works as factual and, in light of such visual facts, pursue policy is absurd. Art is not comprised of facts, art is indirect, realism is not reality, we can not fully know what the artist has intended, and art's meaning is always in flux. That Hudson Valley School landscapes are, now, a wellspring of dreams of a continent lost, reveals how easily landscape can be conscripted to bear what burdens us.

Cave Art Prehistoric Art Chevaux Cave Art Drawings
Copy of Horse Panel, Chauvet Cave, France
A cartoon I saw recently in The New Yorker shows a group of cave people looking up at animal drawings on a cave wall, illuminated by firelight. In front of the group, a standing cave dweller says, "Let's look at projected earnings for the next quarter." The cartoon insinuates that humans have not changed much over thousands of years. It also underscores how little we can know about these early drawings. If I imagine that these cave visitors, some 30,000 years ago, were not all that different from us, today, perhaps I can open my mind to their drawings being akin to those 19th century American landscape paintings.

fayum portrait funerary art
Fayum portraits are paintings on wood attached to Egyptian mummies during the Imperial Roman Era
Prehistoric drawings are so often described as spiritual or ceremonial, yet I wonder if it is possible that the Chauvet drawings were a coping mechanism, a way to deal with the deep sense of loss of something profoundly meaningful. Like funerary art, the Fayum Portraits, or other visual manifestation of mourning and loss, do these cave drawings conjure a visage of the lost?

Cueva de las Manos, Cave of Hands, Santa Cruz province, Argentina, possibly 9000 years before present.
In the simplest way these hand stencils powerfully summon people who joyously, possibly desperately, reach out into the future. Lost to time, yet so present, these hands carry an ecstatic experience of humanity over thousands of years.

Et in Arcadia ego, Nicolas Poussin, 1638. Tracing one's shadow, even in paradise -death.
In Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca's lecture “Theory and Play of the Duende,”  he says of the making of art: "With idea, sound, gesture, the duende delights in struggling freely with the creator on the edge of the pit...and the duende wounds, and in trying to heal that wound that never heals, lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of a man’s [art] work. [italics mine]" What wound, never healed, lay at the heart of artists of Lascaux, Chauvet, or the Cueva de las Manos? What wound could make us do the same?

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