Images of the finished work, as well as my artists statement are up! You may now browse the tabs at the top of the page at your leisure. (The image above is just a teaser).
I was walking along the road a week ago and surprised a raccoon mother and her baby. The mother ran across, and the baby hobbled after, but immediately collapsed on reaching the other side, rolling in the dust and crying. I thought that maybe its leg was broken, but it didn’t even try to get up when I got near, and it continued to cry for hours. I later found out that it was rabid from those brave enough to get close and see the foam. One week later it is still here, although all that is left are most of the nearly clean bones and a pile of fur.
I know what happens to things that die. If you are not alive, then you are eaten, first by your own juices and soon after by bacteria, fungi, insects, and scavengers. I just didn’t expect it happen to happen so quickly. It is July, and everything alive is living, eating, and dying (and then eating the dying) at a rapid pace.
Myself another scavenger of sorts, I picked out the skull and neck vertebrae for my collection, leaving behind the rest of the bones still strung with tendons. I am not squeamish; I don’t feel sad for the raccoon, but that small butter tub that held my find was on my mind all day until I brought it back that night to the kitchen to clean it.
Cleaning means boiling. There was no noticeable flesh, but it still stank of rot, so I took out the soup pot and let it simmer for an hour. Tiny maggots rolled around in the water, and the dirt sank to the bottom. My housemates looked at me strangely.
There was no part of the process that bothered me particularly. I drained off the maggots and dirt, let the bones bleach in the sun, and cleaned the soup pot, but I felt nauseous for the rest of the night. It wasn’t that the bones constituted some sort of overpowering momento mori; even in its most concrete state, death still seems a faraway abstraction at this time.
This is the same nature that gave Wordsworth his daffodils. The rotting raccoon is the soil before it is soil, and the daffodils before they are daffodils. If Wordsworth had meet the raccoon in his wandering before that field of daffodils, would they smell the same?
My first attraction to the outdoors came from the experience itself; tiny toads the size of my fingernail, the perfect hideout provided by the base of a pine tree, strong winds that would nearly knock me off my feet. My experience was, and still is, highly sensory, but without the burden of worrying about my impact. I pulled at bark until I reached the soft white pith of the tree flesh. I stomped on as many ants as I saw and kept inch worms in jars until they turned brown and died.
When I was small I was told of the evils of pollution and deforestation. We were urged to “save the rainforest,” but these things seemed to have little impact on the tiny ecosystem of my backyard, so saving the rainforest became a vague mantra against an evil that was both distant and unstoppable. As a human being, I was at fault for this evil, but as an individual, I accepted no responsibility. From then on, nature in my mind became an ongoing tragedy of problems caused by my mere existence, with an ending as inevitable as the fall of Oedipus. This made my relationship with the rainforest, and the rest of the planet, for that matter, a very complicated one.
How does one live believing they taint everything they touch?
I don’t think you can. Not without some kind of delusion or distraction. There is always work to do and dinner to attend to, and the shades can always be shut. Even walking around outside can be a scenic diversion. I pick up pieces of plastic and garbage from the side of the road- the detritus that litters the grass and clogs the creek, and call them beautiful.
The Buddhists say that all of life is sorrowful, or, what is good for one is bad for another. I can eat knowing that my day will come, but l keep getting rain checks.
As an environmentalist of the modern age, I can manage my guilt with a list of problems. No more flailing my arms, list problems and solve them! I started my list.
But after all this, I don’t know that it is really useful to always think of myself as a problem. Too much focus on the problem (and by extension, the solution) does not help me understand what is around me. To believe I can just list the problems and fix them assumes I will emerge thinking I can fix my problems and still remain an exception to natural order.
I would like to participate in life, even if it means someday it won’t be my turn to eat.
Actually, they might not think of me as a friend. Not after I kidnapped them in the middle of happily gnawing on some decaying grass in the puddles left from last night’s rain, locked them into a tupperware container, and then forced them to ooze around on my dry, unpalatable piece of drawing paper.
Slugs are not the most adored animals, especially for the gardeners, but I sort of warmed up to them after they helped me make my drawing. Most people tell me that they don’t like them because they are slimy. Granted, I wouldn’t want that slime on me, but I’ve found that their trails of slime leave very beautiful shiny marks on paper, (or anything else in their path). They use the slime to lubricate their undersides as the rhythmic contraction of their “foot” muscles propel them forwards. Occasionally, especially when they are turned over on their backs, the slime takes on a vivid orange color not unlike dried shellac. I don’t know if this happens because they are stressed, or if it is simply pigment from their dorsal sides.
I let the slugs ooze around on the page for about an hour or so, picking them up from time to time and putting them back on the paper. After an hour I decided that they had done their time. I didn’t want them to dry up, so I took them back to their home and said goodbye.
Sometimes I am uneasy about my drawing methods because when I have spent years learning to create the illusion of what I see on a page, and at times it seems wasteful to ignore those skills so that I can go around collecting slugs. I am also fairly certain that the slugs made a more interesting drawing than if I had sat down and rendered them in watercolor, so I guess the slugs win.
Now that I have three books to tend to daily, walking has become somewhat of a routine. Walking is, of course, a way to get from one place to another, and also a form of exercise, but I don’t walk for these reasons. When I walk, turning the pages of my books are my excuse but not my purpose for walking.
I am not walking for pleasure, although I like walking. When I walk, sometimes my shoes get wet, the temperature soars. The humidity sticks to my skin. The flies buzz around my ears and the mosquitoes bite. Oerhaps part of why I walk is a desire for a richer experience than is offered indoors. I like to be reminded that I am subject to the weather like everything else. I feel more alive.
It may seem like a strange idea to some people to walk about in a seemingly aimless fashion, but it is not a purposeless activity. In some respects, I think it is another exercise in location. Instead of remaining in the small islands of buildings that are the indoors, I walk to remember where I am and who my neighbors are.
When I am at my apartment at school, I am reminded by the plastic cups and broken glass that my neighbors are the ones who thew the large party in the middle of the parking lot that stands in the middle of what might be considered my front lawn, and for this reason, I don’t go walking at school. Perhaps this is a mistake. Many people also don’t walk because they don’t value the place where they live. If they want the beauty of scenery, their televisions are much more accomodating, or if they have the time, they seek it in the “beauty reserves” that are our national parks where even those most adverse to using their feet are compelled to take a hike.
Of course, national parks are important places. They are our first attempts at conservation, but they give us the wrong idea. I have been reading Aldo Leopold, who is somewhat of a prophet in the world of ecology and conservation. Leopold writes that the problem with the national parks is that their existence is owed to their picturesque beauty. They give us the idea that conservation decisions should be based on beauty rather than ecological value. And where did this idea of beauty come from? It came from art. It is no coincidence that the word picturesque contains the word picture. Trails are routed so we can take pictures. Gift shops are built so we can have postcards.
The nature reserve mentality also suggests that nature and natural beauty are something remote and far from home. We do not need to protect natural beauty in our own backyards because the government has taken care of it somewhere else. It’s like putting your sick grandmother in the nursing home; she is not longer your problem and you can visit her any time you want. Maybe this is why walking is important. In walking we can see and appreciate the place where we live and how well we have done “tending the garden” so to speak.
To me, marks are what ultimately defines walking. Each footprint I make is a mark on the land. I mark the land but the land also affects me. Thinking about this interaction reminds me that I am not separate from the place that I am but an active part of it. The prints below are records of this interaction. I made them by dragging the copper plate with me as I walked. The plate was marked by the ground and inevitably left a mark of it’s own. The plate was then inked and printed to make the marks evident.
I finally finished binding my last book today and placed it in an area of wetland on the property. Just beyond the grasses in the picture is a marshy area surrounding Cedar Creek.