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Archive for June, 2010

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.

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On Walking

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.

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Wetland Pages

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.

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Prairie Book

Book two of three has been bound and place in an area of prairie on the red trail. See earlier posts about the books below.

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I am sitting inside writing this post, temporarily transfixed by the glow of my computer screen. It is an easy thing to worship. It contains and frames the experience into a small, 12 inch window that speaks my native language of simple shapes and flat planes. Although the stimulation offered by the screen is compelling, it is the junk food of the visual world. Everything is visually clear, ordered, predicable, and rather unamazing.

I’d much rather be outside.

Or, rather, I know that I would be better off outside. To be inside is comfortable, visually relaxing, and immediately gratifying, so my first inclination is to stay here. However, once outside, I will be rewarded with the richness of an infinity of visual minutiae and a barrage of sensations so enveloping that if I stop to notice, it is hard not to feel wonderfully lost, at least for a moment. I cannot help but think that this is what a newborn child must experience before it can organize its world into words and everything is but pure sensation.

Of course pure sensation is not at all what I experience. What I see and feel is ordered according to a complex system that organizes my experience according to physical experience, cultural conditioning, and accumulated knowledge. At first this realization seems to cheapen it. All of these filters seem to be a removal from my actual experience of the world. Why can’t I just see it how it is? How can I truly understand anything as it is if I cannot bypass my own tunnel vision?

I’m not sure if this is the answer to that question, but these two exercises usually help me accept that I am stuck in my own mind:

1. I Walk in the woods. Into the field. Outside somewhere unfamiliar and seemingly unordered. I Concentrate on the sound and feel of my own footsteps so that it is all I hear. Then I stop suddenly. I Look around. I  Don’t think. If I have entered the right state of mind, there is a moment where I have utterly lost myself. I know that I am alive, but I am indistinguishable from the rest of everything else. My individuality is irrelevant, my life is insignificant. It is terrifying and calming. This may be what I am outside of the world interpreted by culture, if such a thing is possible, but they are only moments, and I would not function in this state for very long.

2. I then pick a large tree. I try to count the leaves. There are too many; there are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands. Each leaf has one petiole and many veins; many large ones and thousands of small ones. Contained within the skeleton of veins are millions of the leaf’s cells, and within those cells are chloroplasts, made of thousands of molecules of chlorophyll, each made of many atoms, which are in turn made of even smaller parts. Infinity. I am still amazed but not lost.

This is where culture has value. Although the knowledge systems that mediate my experience of the world are constructed by humans, and cannot be said to constitute any absolute truths, it has enriched, rather than robbed my experience of the tree. I cannot know the tree on its own terms but I can be amazed.

I am convinced that I need to practice both these exercises when I go outside.  They are not simply meditation or lovely thoughts to have about nature, but they are exercises in location. They tell me where I am, perhaps not geographically, but in a larger sense; just in case I am tempted to believe I am in the middle of nowhere.

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Clearing Book

I am guiltily writing after two weeks of silence to share my first project, lest anyone reading this blog believe that I have spent my time idle. After spending a lot of time “orienting” myself in the property, increasing my plant knowledge ten fold, and nosing around the other research projects, I sat down to begin my own. Admittedly, it has been very difficult to begin. For someone who spends the majority of their time inside in a studio drawing from pictures and isolated objects, to experience the forest, wetlands, and prairies of the PCCI is visually overwhelming. Without the trained eye of a ecologist versed in taxonomy, each living thing seems as relevant as the next. I look across the meadow and can differentiate trees from grass from sky, but I have a difficult time telling one green thing from another, let alone understanding how they all interact. Despite years of learning to “see” in art school, it looks like I will have to learn all over again.

And I have been. Slowly. Thanks to some very knowledgeable people, especially Professor Dave Warners from Calvin College who has let me tag along on the hikes he leads for his ecology class, I can identify some flora and fauna, differentiate a field from a prairie, and a early secession forest form a late secession forest. I can hear the call of a veery and can feel the temperature drop as I walk into the ravine from the field. To walk the property is to experience the world in the abundance of many dimensions-not the planes and space of the inside world, but a total environment made of the many layers of birdsong, wind, dense foliage, biting insects, heat and cold, humidity, dirt and sand, and all the less tangible things in between. The experience is such that even in an unproductive day or two does not end leaving me feel unfulfilled.

I am still left with questions and problems to (try to) solve. Aside from my purely sensory experiences in what I call nature and what can also be called the outside world of the PCCI property, my attitudes toward nature have been almost wholly shaped by culture, specifically Western, American, and maybe even suburban ideas about what nature is and the nature of our (humanity’s) relationship to it. The idea or word “nature: itself is even a cultural construct, used loosely to describe what is not human or part of the human constructed order. According to Christianity, we may have dominion over the earth, and the psychologists will tell you that a human has a more developed consciousness, but humans are not unnatural. They are not supernatural. We are animals too.

A nature/culture debate by this time may seem stale, but it seems both unavoidable and crucial given the current state of our host planet. What if humanity decided that we were, in fact animals and just as “green” as any tree? Wouldn’t this give us a new responsibility to environment in which we live? If this were so it would mean we would need to completely change how understand nature.

Allen Carlson asserts that the way to aesthetically appreciate nature is through the ostensibly objective fields of science and natural history. Only then can we quit projecting our own ideas of what is beautiful or important onto nature. We can stop trying to fit nature into a frame; science provides the focus for our eyes. Although I have found science to be very helpful in this regard, I can’t help but believe that science is its own kind of mediator. It is necessary to be sure, but it is still a human system of understanding. Nature “on its own terms” is not necessarily in the languae of science.

What, then, is nature  “on its own terms,” if nature is even an appropriate designator. Can art understand it this way? Images and representation brings with it its own problems of history and semiotics. Objects can be just as sticky.

I tried anyway.

My first attempt is an experiment. I made a set of three books, 12×17 bound with heavy paper into 60 pages: one for each day. One was placed in the forest, the other two will be placed in a prairie and a wetland. One page will be turned every day.

It is partly to explore a curiosity about their physical outcome. What, if anything will happen to the pages? Inevitably they will be rained on. Leaves will fall. They will begin to rot, either in an imperceptible fashion or very quickly. It is also a gesture. I offer the page no ideas about what nature is, or how it looks, or how it should be seen. I try to let the environment act, “on its own terms.”

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