Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Crabapple Chapel

This short slide show and audio commentary by Lisa Wolfe documents the Crabapple Chapel. The project was the brainchild of artist/playwright, Dan Evans, and performance artist, LuLu Lolo. Although it began as a whim, the chapel has grown into a very special place. Viewing the slide show and listening to Dan talk about the project, one gets a sense of the chapel's quiet magic.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

"Mad Cow" Panel/Talks at NURTUREart

Christopher Reiger
"a retching"
Watercolor, gouache, marker, and sumi ink on Arches paper
42 x 42 inches

All's quiet on the HH front this week. I'm preparing a presentation for the NURTUREart panel this Sunday, January 28th (details and link below).

A relatively hermitic person, I'm comfortable writing and painting, activities that require plentiful solitude, but I'm a fish out of water when front-and-center in a public setting. The pre-talk jitters have adversely affected my preparation and, uncertainty prevailing, I keep reworking my talk. Initially it was to be a comparison of the contemporary socio-political climate to that of Bosch's day - the decades preceding Luther's Protestant Reformation in Europe. Even though I still believe that subject would make for a very interesting discussion, I soon realized that it would take much longer than the allotted 20 minutes. So now I'm just going to talk about some of my work, and it's relevance to the "Mad Cow" theme.

Anyway, if you're looking for something to do on Sunday, come to NURTUREart and heckle me. Kate Clark, Purdy Eaton, and I will be delivering 20 minute talks focusing on our work, ideas and processes. Afterwards all of the New York based artists included in "Mad Cow" will join in the fray.

NURTUREart Non-Profit brings its unique collaborative approach to supporting emerging artists and curators to a stunning new home in East Williamsburg’s hotbed of grassroots creative activity. "MAD COW, Absurdity and Anxiety in Contemporary Culture" is the inaugural exhibition at NURTUREart Gallery’s new space at 910 Grand Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. See this earlier post for map and more detail.

Artists Panel Discussion
Sunday, January 28, 2007 at 4 p.m.
Moderated by curator Joelle Jensen

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Creative Restraint and Responsibility

Artists, Documentarians and Copyright

"The kernel, the soul - let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances - is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them."

-Mark Twain (via Jonathan Lethem's essay, "The Ecstasy of Influence")
For a third time I've allowed all of my art magazine subscriptions to lapse. I'm forever waffling: one year, I feel that I should receive journals like ARTFORUM and Art in America in order to stay abreast of all art world goings-on; the next, I elect to save money by dropping the magazines and relying instead on Internet art resources, galleries and museums. These latter venues allow me to focus on the artwork without the burden of confounding commentary.

As an artist, writer and compulsive reader, I fancy myself the ideal subscriber, but I struggle to rationalize financial support of the sort of writing that Richard Dawkins describes as the "vacuous rhetoric of mountebanks and charlatans."(1) Dawkins was attacking the language of postmodern philosophy - the likes of Deleuze, Guttari and Lacan - but his critique of their obscurantism is also applicable to contemporary art writing. Most art-related articles, reviews, press releases and books are chock-a-block with esoteric nonsense.(2)

So, once again, I'm left with subscriptions to just two magazines: The New Yorker and Harper's. The articles published in The New Yorker are first-class - clear, intelligent and well crafted - and, even though the magazine is published weekly, it rarely disappoints. Harper's is less consistent and more ideologically biased, but when the magazine is on, it's incomparable.

The most recent issue of Harper's (February 2007) is exemplary; two related articles are of particular interest to contemporary artists. "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism," by the novelist Jonathan Lethem(3), follows a perspective piece, "On the Rights of Molotov Man," written by the artist (and fellow art blogger), Joy Garnett, and the acclaimed photographer, Susan Meiselas.
"Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself...Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos."

-Jonathan Lethem, cutting-and-pasting from the pages of Lewis Hyde's "The Gift" and Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"
Two quotations spring to mind whenever I consider copyright, originality or the avant garde. The first is so familiar as to seem trite while the second is indebted to sources uncredited by Bono, the lead singer and songwriter for the popular rock band, U2.
"There is nothing new under the sun."
-Ecclesiastes 1:9

"Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief.
All kill their inspiration and sing about the grief."
- lyrics from "The Fly," written by U2
Indeed, we are all borrowers and collagists. The honest among us could read the Mark Twain passage that prefaces this post, nod in agreement and leave it there...but for the law. Technology drives the evolution of copyright legislation. The Fifteenth century invention of the printing press necessitated consideration of an author's right to reproduction and the ideas contained within any text. Whereas reproduction rights are principally attached to capital (How does the author get paid for the dissemination of his or her ideas?), intellectual rights are attached to ego. Enlightenment thinking has it that ego drives invention as much as (if not more than) necessity. By granting innovative thinkers and craftsmen control of their respective inventions - be it a painting, a novel or a microscope - through patents and copyrights, lawmakers believed they were encouraging progress. And so they were, but today, living in the era of memes, emergence and the Internet, it comes as no surprise that there is renewed debate regarding intellectual property rights.

Undeniably, all "career artists" are ego driven beasts. As Emily Nussbaum writes in The New York Times Book Review, "For so many artists, the act of creativity is intended as a Napoleonic imposition of one's uniqueness upon the universe." As a result, many artists are loath to own up to influence and are fiercely protective of their product. My father, a freelance writer and author, stressed to me the importance of copyright law before I was old enough to comprehend it. As Lethem writes in "The Ecstasy of Influence,"
"...copyright is revered by most established writers and artists as a birthright and bulwark, the source of nurture for their infinitely fragile practices in a rapacious world. Plagiarism and piracy, after all, are the monsters we working artists are taught to dread, as they roam the woods surrounding our tiny preserves of regard and remuneration."
Indeed, but the times they are a'changin'.(4)

Increasingly, artists working in all mediums and crafts - writers, musicians, filmmakers, painters - embrace influence and sampling with the same enthusiasm that jazz musicians and open source code advocates always have. Three factors contribute to the changing attitude: globalization, leaps in communications technology, and the expansion of corporate hegemony. The first two make the world seem smaller, allowing for accelerated cultural exchange. The Internet savvy among us have grown accustomed to speaking a language of pastiche - blog hyperlinks, Ctl-X/Ctl-V, YouTube - and we're exposed to a cornucopia of outside influence.

Unfortunately, and somewhat paradoxically, the shrinking world is no more comprehensible; in fact, each subsequent generation seems more anxious and confused than the last. The corporate fist, meanwhile, has engendered dissent, making reactionaries of every file sharer (soon to be, if not already, the majority of young people). The arguments from both sides - the prosecutors and the copyright violators - tend to be extreme. Again turning to Lethem:
"If I were to tell you that pirating DVDs or downloading music is in no way different from loaning a friend a book, my own arguments would be as ethically bankrupt as [those of the litigious corporations]. The truth lies somewhere in the vast gray area between these two overstated positions. For a car or a handbag, once stolen, no longer is available to its owner, while the appropriation of an article of 'intellectual property' leaves the original untouched. As [Thomas] Jefferson wrote, 'He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.'"
That passage is a brilliant summation of the issue at large, but things get complicated when considering specifics...and consider them we must.

Joy Garnett
Oil on canvas
70 x 60 inches
Collection of Nick Debs, NYC

The subtitle of "On the Rights of Molotov Man," the piece preceding Lethem's essay, is "Appropriation and the art of context." Indeed, the latter half of this subtitle is central to the dispute between Joy Garnett and Susan Meiselas. Garnett trolled the web for "images of figures in extreme emotional or physical states." One of the many .jpegs she saved showed a man hurling a Molotov cocktail. Garnett was interested in the act pictured, not the provenance. In fact, the .jpeg was a cropped section of a Meiselas photograph, originally published in the photographer's 1981 book, "Nicaragua." Garnett produced an oil painting based on the detail she had downloaded and, after the painting was displayed in a New York art gallery (and was featured on the exhibition's announcement), Garnett received a letter from Meiselas's lawyer informing the painter that she was "sailing under the flag of piracy." Taken aback and a little shaken up, Garnett turned to an online "new media" community, Rhizome.org, for advice. Aware of the legal cloud, however, she was careful not to "name names or post a link to Susan's photograph." Her situation drew a lot of attention, eventually leading to an international agitprop campaign dubbed Joywar. (The details are very interesting, but, in the interest of space, I'll simply recommend the following links: the full Harper's article; a relevant video lecture; an archive of all things JoyWar; a related photo set). Suffice it to say, although no lawsuit was brought, Garnett and Meiselas have very different perspectives on the matter.

Reading Meiselas's half of "On the Rights of Molotov Man," one realizes that copyright is less important to her than context. In other words, Garnett's unsanctioned use of the image is less troublesome to the photographer than the generalization of the image's content. There is an important distinction to be made here. The artist - Garnett, in this case - speaks the language of the universal. Hers is "a project born of frustration and anger" and the .jpeg of the anonymous rebel was "emblematic of the series." This is true of all the works that comprise Garnett's "Riot" series. Her inspiration was specific - the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 - but her paintings of "shouting demonstrators, angry skinheads, an Air Force pilot and his girl in an emotional embrace, frat boys jumping over bonfires, screaming punk rockers" are archetypes of the anxiety and anger we feel when powers outside our sphere of influence affect us adversely, especially when they steer the region (or world) toward further conflict. These misgivings are essentially equivalent, irrespective of culture, place or time.

By contrast, the photographs Susan Meiselas shot in Nicaragua are intended as documents of a particular place, during a particular conflict, in this case, the fighting between the Sandinistas and the ruling Somoza family. Although this conflict continues today in a different incarnation, the photograph in question represents the final hours before the Somoza family fled the country in July of 1979.

Meiselas's interest is specific and historical; she is a documentarian. Not all photographers are documentarians, but Meiselas makes clear her goals in the Harper's article. "Indeed, it seems to me that if history is working against context, then we must, as artists, work all the harder to reclaim that context." The Enlightenment thinker in me is inclined to agree with her, but most contemporary artists are not interested in reclaiming specificity. Rather, we are in the business of erasing it, sanding the hard edges of "fact" to reduce friction. Lethem, cribbing from David Foster Wallace's essay, "E Unibus Pluram":
"Today, when we can eat Tex-Mex with chopsticks while listening to reggae and watching a YouTube rebroadcast of the Berlin Wall's fall - i.e., when damn near everything presents itself as familiar - it's not a surprise that some of today's most ambitious art is going about trying to make the familiar strange....[by] paradoxically trying to restore what's taken for 'real' to three whole dimensions, to reconstruct a univocally round world out of disparate streams of flat sights."
In other words, we're learning to cope with the constant stream of information by boiling it down to an essential skeleton, be it celebrity gossip, dispatches from Iraq, undergraduate lectures on aesthetics or what have you. This process is more easily described than done. We've recognized for centuries that the historical record is ever growing, but recently the number of pages in our encyclopedias (and wikis) grows exponentially. Our circuitry is overloaded. Most of us turn away from the information glut or choose to concentrate on only a few areas - say sports, celebrities and the stock market or literature and fashion. Worse yet, many of us withdraw into one specialty and trust that boring ever downward in a given spot will prove more valuable to the whole than a wide, shallow excavation. Exceptional cases not withstanding, that trust is misguided.

Artists are rightly reluctant to relinquish an integrated worldview. As Lethem suggests above, artists are turning to the symbolic and the approximate in an effort to render experience again comprehensible. Certainly this is an important, even vital process, but it amounts to reductionism and, as such, there is great risk involved. What's lost in an abridged reality?

For a rather trivial example, consider Hollywood's botching of natural history. The vast majority of movies produced feature animal species or animal calls that don't occur in the depicted region. For most folks, it's no big deal, but a movie is ruined for me when I see an elk (Cervus canadensis) in North Carolina or hear a common loon (Gavia immer) calling in the tropical rain forest of South America. Hey, it's a movie, you're thinking, and a bird is a bird is a bird. Perhaps, but such generalization is indicative of our having lost interest (and knowledge) of the world we inhabit, the world that supports us. In case it seems that I'm making a mountain of a molehill, let's consider another example.

Of late, word mavens fuss about "the bastardization" of English more than ever. Often the critics are referring to the adoption of slang, be it from "the streets" or the world of technology. Unfortunately, some of their complaints are fueled by xenophobia. Two hundred years ago, the English rolled and howled in reaction to the crude American dialect, going so far as to suggest that Noah Webster's proposed American Dictionary of the English Language was an absurdity, as American English was a mockery of the mother tongue. To this day, the yearly dictionary additions generate more scoffs than agreeable nods. The human brain evolved to be skeptical of change and foreign influence but, the fact remains, language is ever evolving, like culture at large.
"[T]he commons of a language: altered by every contributor, expanded by even the most passive user. That a language is a commons doesn't mean that the community owns it; rather it belongs between people, possessed by no one, not even by society as a whole."

-Lethem, borrowing from Michael Newton, The London Review of Books
No one possesses language or art, but everyone impacts them. Pessimists will draw attention to the "tragedy of the commons," the notion that any property, object or resource shared by all tends to be exploited and debased, be it forests, rivers, oceans, or language. There's little doubt that the vocabulary comprehension of young Westerners is on the decline. Accusatory fingers can be pointed at computer instruction, instant messaging, struggling school systems and any number of phantom menaces but, whatever the "real" reason(s), language - communication, really - is becoming simpler. Some evolutionary biologists might argue that this is a good thing, that we are seeing a streamlining of an overdeveloped adaptation. (Is it really necessary to call Julia Roberts "loquacious" when we could go with "talkative"?) There is an argument to be made there, but, again, isn't something lost? Can't evolution, in some cases, be a degradation? When high school students hand in essays written with IM shorthand, the essential skeleton is looking a little thin. Language isn't merely being sanded down; we're whittling away and risk being left only with splinters and dust.

Susan Meiselas
untitled (Sandinistas at the walls of the Esteli National Guard headquarters)
Color photograph
Size variable
Magnum Photos

The same is true of history. We struggle to learn the lessons of the past because we suffer from historical amnesia. A generation ago, many college graduates could relate the events leading up to World War I or roughly describe the Hellenistic period. Without access to the Internet, I struggle to do either. Some technophiles argue that the Internet is a communal database that alleviates the need for memorization and "old-fashioned" learning. All the information is at our fingertips, right? Sure, but we tend to use online resources on a "need to know" basis. What did the guy who plays "House" say at the Golden Globes last night? Who was Cleopatra involved with? Does the Clash lyric "rock the Casbah" have anything to do with Algiers? Those hyperlinks will help provide an answer, but will you remember what you read there a month from now, or a year?

I doubt it. I recall only a small percentage of what I "learn" online and I grew up studying the old school way, in libraries with piles of books, card catalogs and reams of notes. What about students today, who research everything online? It's difficult to apply the lessons of history if we don't connect the dots, and no number of hyperlinks can replace the coded pathways in our skull PCs. The "new" knowledge is comparatively transitory, relatively soft.

So what does all of this have to do with artists and documentarians? Garnett asks, "Does the author of a documentary photograph - a document whose mission is, in part, to provide the public with a record of events of social and historical value - have the right to control the content of this document for all time?" Of course not. But we are all responsible, as citizens of the world, for the commons, be it that of language, ecosystems, or the historical canon. Lethem writes, "Honoring the commons is not a matter of moral exhortation. It is a practical necessity." We have to decipher the signs with care and the reading mustn't stop at approximation. As important as our attempts to frame events in comprehensible terms are, we must not plead ignorance to create a happy fiction of distressing reality.

"Who owns the rights to this man's struggle?," a blogger named nmazca asked, referring to the Sandinista rebel photographed by Meiselas and, in turn, painted by Garnett. We all do. I see no reason why he can not be both Pablo Arauz, a one time rebel photographed by Meiselas in 1979, who now has a family and "a pretty good job delivering lumber," and the anonymous, existential Molotov Man. It is, however, our responsibility to honor both incarnations. As it exists now, copyright law is a "gag order," as Garnett puts it, to global conversation, but as it erodes (and erode it will, like language and history), we will become responsible for the context. Are we ready to be vigilant in an open source world?

(1) From the essay "Postmodernism Disrobed," included in the essay collection, A Devil's Chaplain.

(2) There are, of course, exceptions. I'm partial to the art writing published in the pages of The Village Voice, The New York Times and other papers. For broadsheet (here loosely applied to The Voice) critics, apparently, clarity remains a virtue.

(3) It is works like Lethem's "The Ecstasy of Influence" that make Harper's so outstanding. The essay does a remarkable job of communicating the writer's attitude - and, indeed, that of the oft cited "founding fathers" - regarding copyright law, but it is a "collage text," an essay assembled from "extensive interlaced quotations" interspersed with Lethem's own material. Following the essay, Lethem includes a lengthy key that credits each source. I read through the key with glee, thrilled by the success of Lethem's little experiment. He stresses that the "collage text" is not an original notion; Lethem's approach here has predecessors, most notably "Walter Benjamin's incomplete Arcades Project."

(4) "Dylan's originality and his appropriation are as one." (Jonathan Lethem, "The Ecstasy of Influence")

Photo credit: Mickey copyright graphic ripped from Python.net (image by David Goodger); "Molotov" courtesy the artist; original Meiselas photograph ripped from The San Francisco Chronicle

Thursday, January 11, 2007

"Trail System"

Philip Pinch, a gifted writer and good friend of mine, has one of his short works featured in a recent issue of "Conjunctions," Bard College's literary journal. If you have ten minutes to read "Trail System," I highly recommend it. The piece is satirical, but Philip's sensitivity shines through.

I've included the first section below, to whet your appetite.
"I flush out a bird. It hops along a branch and swivels its head to better accuse me, lash me with its chattery invective, the user says when he first enters Trail System. This bird is just one of a nearly infinite number of entry-level presentations.

Trail System as it occurs on a mountain range markets trails to several grades of consumer. Target audiences are: (1) older couples, (2) older isolated singles, (3) vigorous young couples or singles, (4) loafer young (“hopeful dieter”) couples or singles, or (5) general family.

The above target audiences converge on their assigned trail. Users rely upon the trail to provide them respectively relevant presentations they can’t find anywhere else; then they plumb them for meaning. If a user stumbles, a squirrel watches, rolling and chipping an acorn in its teeth, awaiting user interpretation."

Friday, January 05, 2007

On the Dike at Heron's Foot

Eating a Banana at Heron's Foot

“Rooting around on riverbanks and mountain slopes, we may be looking for that missing piece, or love, religion and the rest of it – whatever is missing in us – just as we so often are doing in the digging and rooting of sex.”
-Edward Hoagland, "Bears, Bears, Bears," 1973

I own 35 acres on the Atlantic edge of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, my childhood home. The property was originally purchased over thirty years ago by my father. It was then a fallow, frequently flooded soybean field separated from a sprawl of salt marsh and two brackish creeks by a faulty dike. My father’s conscientious stewardship (1) has since turned the acreage into a haven for wildlife and it is today protected by a Nature Conservancy Conservation Easement. In place of an unproductive field, the land now supports a mixed deciduous forest, two pine groves, a shallow water impoundment, and an extensive canal and fortified dike fringing the marsh, as well as some non-landform improvements, including a handsome, if humble bridge, a buried water control system, two hunting/photography blinds and two small docks.

My father refers to the land as “your property” and he relates to me news of recent or ongoing projects when we talk by phone. For example, he'll tell me, "I cut back some overgrown pines on your property this week, Christopher, and I'd like for you to let me know what you think of this surgery when you're next down." Until recently, though, I hadn't contemplated the significance of his appellation. In my estimation, "your property" meant only that I was the legal landowner, committed to paying the modest, annual property tax.

I blame my thoughtlessness on an earlier, biased relationship to the land. Although I spent many days on the property as a child – dove and duck hunting, planting trees, fishing in the canal, reinforcing the dike – I took it for granted. I dismissively referred to the area as "across the road" because the 35 acre parcel was set apart from Heron Hill, my father’s 250 acre farm, by a well-trafficked country thoroughfare. Heron Hill, so called because of the plentiful great blue herons, our family name (reiger is the Dutch and Middle Low German word for heron), and the homestead's relatively high elevation, literally rose above the low-lying, water-logged property "across the road." When my parents sold Heron Hill in the late 1990s, I was surprised that they held on to the marshy nodule, and even more surprised when they deeded it to me.

Fortunately, opinions change and attitudes evolve. Every winter I travel south to the Eastern Shore and, with each passing year, the property becomes more important to me. This is due, in part, to my having lived in New York City for seven years; the restorative powers of the outdoors are more profoundly felt.

Heron Foot Canal Bridge
View of canal bridge from northeast corner of dike

On my most recent trip, I walked “my property" with a camera. Often an interesting tree or shrub formation provides inspiration for a drawing or painting, and I take a snapshot for future reference. But after a short while, the photography became unimportant. Instead, I inspected animal sign. Three bald areas on the dike betrayed frequent use by white-tailed deer. Bucks displace the topsoil and fallen pine needles when they "scrape," a scent-marking behavior that requires the animal to rub his head and antlers on trees or the ground. I also studied the diggings of a raccoon (or fox) near the canal’s bank, and I spotted a little-used otter slide. The canal, home to a healthy largemouth bass and bluegill population and offering easy access to the marsh, is an inviting residence for a Northern river otter family.

To an outside observer, my activity would have appeared curious. I moved along the dike in a crouch, hopping-and-scurrying as I excitedly looked for further evidence of animal activity. The camera was now slung over my shoulder, and I gave no thought to picture taking. It was a windy morning and various bird calls – snow geese, black ducks, clapper rail, a belted kingfisher – blew to me from the marsh. A group of crows flapped just overhead, fussing about my presence. Thrilled by so much abundance and feeling totally at ease, I remained crouched in one place for a long while, staring at nothing in particular, just listening.

Sometime during this active meditation I lost track of myself. I remember, as if retracing a dream or excavating some buried memory, removing the camera and pawing at the dike. I wasn't looking for anything in particular. It was a purely sensuous experience; I was touching and seeing. And then suddenly I was rolling on the dike’s crest, pine straw clinging to my clothes.

When I "came to," I felt wild-eyed and crazy. I didn't even know where or, more alarmingly, who I was. It took several moments of looking around in mild panic before I recovered my bearings, my sense of self. I’m not sure how long the episode lasted. It was only after I snapped out of the experience that I was able to reflect on what led to my behavior.

I'm still uncertain what prompted it, but I do know this: for the first time, I fully belonged to “my property." For a spell (whether moments or minutes), there was no distinction between me and the rest of it. Afterwards, as is demanded by waking life, the experience was abstracted by reason. Yet something of the connection remains.

Dike View at Heron Foot
On back dike

What happened to me on the dike? Barring a neurodegenerative disease or serious head trauma, most people maintain their sense of self. Indeed, we are individuals, but healthy humans sometimes glimpse their multiplicity. Freud may have been subscribing to Occam’s razorone should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities needed to explain any phenomenon - when he proposed that the human psyche is composed of three competing parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. As useful as Freud’s psychoanalytic scheme remains, recent research suggests that he vastly underestimated the number of components.

In a normally functioning brain, distinct, specialized areas, called modules, go about the business of identifying, translating, commanding, and so on, enabling each of us to feel that we are the person, the individual, reflected in the mirror. But as Steven Johnson reminds readers in “Mind Wide Open,” "we can experience the modularity of the brain more directly by taking drugs that throw a monkey wrench into its machinery, causing individual modules to take on a new autonomy (which is why people on drugs often feel as though they hear voices).” The auditory hallucinations, or “voices,” associated with ingestion of psilocybin, LSD, and other psychoactive drugs or substances are not really hallucinations, then. They are only the normally ignored commands, thoughts, and impulses of our multitudinous brain. Drug use, in essence, quiets our inner, censorious interpreter and allows us to eavesdrop on the brain's gabble. Necessarily, acceptance of the many-voiced brain raises difficult questions about the validity of the individual.

But I was sober on the dike that afternoon, and I heard no interior voices. To the contrary, I heard only what was outside me, the crows, the kingfishers, and the wind. Still, I lost all sense of self. I was, for a short time, effectively erased. If my "I" wasn't erased by the inner cacophony, the question remains; what happened to me?

Impoundment View (Over Canal) at Heron Foot
Looking over canal to the shallow water impoundment

In this heyday of advertising for pharmaceutical panaceas, we're well aware of how fragile our mind and body are. Last night, standing up after a workout, I pushed and poked at the muscle of my abdomen and at the fat of my lower back, trying to imagine how the different organs were embraced by the ribcage and lower spine. I swallowed and then burped, involuntarily. What an interesting machine!

Like the mind, the body is an aggregate. In turn, the human body is part of a larger organism, and this radiating expansion continues infinitely. Each of us is an insignificant figure in an unfathomably grand equation. This design may seem terrifying, but it doesn't have to be. Contemplation of that grand equation is nullifying but, metaphysically speaking, there is comfort in nullification. The “me” and "I" are spread out such that everything blends into one moment and body. Everyone accepts that each individual is a fraction of infinity, and as Daniel Matt, a scholar of Jewish mysticism, points out, "since infinity cannot be quantified, no matter how it is divided and subdivided, even a fraction of infinity is infinite." Conscious contemplation of this expansive nullification is the intellectual equivalent of Nirvana, a rational rejection of the individual in the name of the Whole.

With respect to practical environmental and social improvement, though, contemplation does us little good. Much of the world’s population is concerned with day-to-day survival; my First World musings are the product of insulation and relative privilege. Rumination and good intentions do little to alleviate injustice abroad or to stave off another species extinction. Yet my experience on the dike can't accurately be described as contemplative. I was not meditating or concentrating on any question when I lost all sense of self. My experience began, in effect, with an absence of thought that was spontaneous, washing over me as I was “rooting around,” as Hoagland puts it, on the dike.

Marsh View at Heron Foot
View of marsh from northeastern corner of dike at Heron's Foot

There is, fortunately, a counterpart to contemplation that offers some explanation for what occurred. In his 1943 landmark work on aesthetic theory, "Art As Experience," John Dewey writes:
"To grasp the sources of aesthetic experience it is...necessary to have recourse to animal life below the human scale. The activities of the fox, the dog, and the thrush may at least stand as reminders and symbols of that unity of experience which we so fractionize when work is labor, and thought withdraws us from the world. The live animal is fully present, all there, in all of its actions: in its wary glances, its sharp sniffings, its abrupt cocking of ears."
I'd like to think that my antics on the dike were those of the live animal. The self-conscious human was, like the camera, for a short time forgotten. The resulting realization that I was intimately tied to the land makes sense; the live animal is indivisible from the rest of it. This concept can be described in more concrete terms. For the live animal, conceptions of property as capital aren't applicable. Ownership as we understand it - taxes and fences - is meaningless without the socioeconomic contract; no one can own property if the currency of power, both literal and figurative, isn't supported by all participating players. Many animist cultures, most of them no longer with us, interpreted land and borders in this more equitable way.

To elucidate the Native-American concept of land ownership in his book, "Changes In The Land," environmental historian Bill Cronon distinguishes between natural and civil rights. The Puritan settlers believed in civil ownership, with strict boundary demarcation and control of all rights to resource consumption within a defined area, whereas the Native-Americans understood land as shared, like water. As a result, settlers often believed they were buying land from local tribe leaders while the Native-Americans instead understood the "deal" as a trade for shared hunting and fishing rights. For the Indians, these deals were "more a diplomatic exchange than an economic one." How does one sell land, after all, if no one possesses it to begin with?

Fred Bird Watching at Heron Foot
A friend birdwatches over the marsh at Heron's Foot

It's difficult to discard cultural mores. The assumptions we are raised with inform us at the most fundamental level, and property accumulation is for Westerners the ultimate measure of self worth. It's curious, then, that it took a temporary erasure, or warping, of self awareness (and, therefore, self assessment) for me to appreciate the land that (on paper) is attached to my name. Indeed, there is a world of difference between ownership and stewardship. The owner is a possessor, a member of a hierarchal system that determines an individual's societal value by calculating the market price of all their accumulated property. The steward is merely a manager, an agent of another. The conscientious landowner does not think of himself as a title holder first. He is a steward working for the land.

As Bill Cronon insists, true wildness is no more; all land will be marked by man, but we can decide what sort of signature we leave. Aldo Leopold, the beloved godfather of modern conservation, was among the first to write at length of the paradoxical, but vital relationship between the steward and the land. Leopold was a Romantic pragmatist(2), a type as well-suited to diplomacy as to conservation, and he was a proponent of hunting and controlled burning, complicated practices deemed wrongful by armchair environmentalists today. Resource use, like the economy, can be regulated thoughtfully (though it rarely is), but the Romantic in Leopold was dismayed by the dark side of our equating land with money.
"I suspect that the forces inherent in...economic evolution are not all beneficent. Like the forces inside our own bodies, they may become malignant, pathogenic. I believe that many of the economic forces inside the modern body-politic are pathogenic in respect to harmony with land."
He deemed his heroically optimistic response to the increasing pressures of population and market a "land ethic." Despite the difficulties of cultivating such an appreciation of the natural world in the twentieth century, Leopold insisted,
"That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics...A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of land...We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in."
Prior to my experience on the dike last week, I lacked a land ethic. I appreciated my father's attachment to the land, but I did so from an intellectual remove. Slogging through the marsh mud with a canvas sack of duck decoys at nine years of age, I didn't think to myself, "This land is me." Returning home tired from middle school, I wasn't buoyed by any natural high when my father and I crossed the road to plant eight hundred small pine trees in fading light. But, rolling around on the dike this winter I understood something new. I felt as I imagine a first-time parent might when cradling a newborn. The experience shook me up.

Rereading bits of Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac" this week, I was struck by his explanation of what a land ethic entails. It "...simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land." Is that what happened to me on the dike? Was I absorbed, for a few moments or minutes, as a live animal, into the greater community, into the integrated universe?

Back Dike at Heron Foot
Back dike at Heron's Foot

I very much doubt I will return to the Eastern Shore of Virginia to live. In fact, I'm looking northward, to Maine, as my disposition is more suited to cold weather and the rolling northwoods. All the same, I will keep the land in Virginia, and do my best to ensure the conservation easement is maintained and that the land is thoughtfully managed. I feel attached to the property in a way I never did before. I am responsible for the species which thrive there. Reciprocally, they are responsible for my well-being. Some readers will argue that this exchange is a selfish one, that the work a steward puts into the land is driven by pride and want of pleasure. I agree, but the pride and pleasure derived is akin to the satisfaction we feel upon completing a rigorous workout or after we introduce a child to a new idea. It satisfies because we are one body; in some cases what feels good to one person is good for the whole.

A few days after the dike incident, the property was properly named. I no longer refer to it as "across the road." The new name honors the original farm, of which the land was a small, but vital part. It also references the property's low elevation and, lamentably, my discovery of a dead great blue heron, feet bound together by knotted fishing monofilament, the day after I was embraced on the dike at Heron's Foot.

(1) The full story – or most of it, anyway – can be found in my father’s book "Heron Hill Chronicle."

(2) The realist in Leopold forced him to contemplate the greater ambition of conservation as most environmentalists will not. "All conservation," he wrote, "is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish."

Young Pine Volunteers On Heron Foot Dike
Young pine tree volunteers on the dike at Heron's Foot

Photo credit: all images Hungry Hyaena, 2006 (More pictures from Heron's Foot can be found here.)

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy (warm) new year!

I'm a cold weather man. Winter days and nights possess an obscure magic that buoys my spirit and heartens my constitution. I'm particularly sensitive to this variety of dark enchantment when I'm alone in winter woods. We humans have grown complacent in our throne atop the food chain, and I enjoy my body's reaction to harsh conditions as I also appreciate occasional haunting by the specter of predation. Both are humbling, gratifying reminders of what we've come from, and of what we are.

But this winter has been unseasonably warm. As always, I traveled south to Virginia to visit my parents. The temperature on the morning of my birthday, December 29th, was 52 degrees Fahrenheit; by late afternoon, it was over 60. Yet still the talking heads on the local news speak of global warming as if it may be a fiction! Skepticism serves its purpose in science, and shouldn't be dismissed offhand, but whether we're attributing warming to human activity or to natural fluctuations, an examination of the data shows that the general trend is all too apparent.

Snow Geese Beyond Morning Trees
A flock of about 800 snows departs the estuary in search of morning food

Because of the warm temperatures, the travels of migratory species are unusual this year. Last Thanksgiving, I watched four or five thousand snow geese (Chen caerulescens) pitch into the salt water estuary alongside my parents' house. The birds arrive in last light to roost, and they depart just after dawn, moving on to feed in the fields of winter wheat.

This year, by contrast, the late December roosts were limited to one thousand birds, give or take a couple hundred. The weather is warm enough that the geese, heading south from their Arctic breeding grounds, don't need to fly so far to find food and refuge. The spectacular flocks that I watched in the fall of 2005 probably took up winter residence this year in Delaware and New Jersey, or points farther north.


Great Blue Heron Feet Bound 2
Photo of the heron's feet; monofilament already cut away

Walking my Virginia prpoerty two days before my birthday, my father and I came upon the decapitated body of a great blue heron (Ardea herodias). The beheading was likely the work of a fox or raccoon, but the predator was not responsible for the bird's death. The heron's legs and feet were knotted with monofilament fishing line. Two "toes" on the right foot were tied together. More serious was the mass of line that bound the left leg to the knot on the right foot. The bird had eked out a living by hop hunting. This is handicap enough for any animal, but, for a heron, a creature that specializes in water stalking, hopping surely cost the bird a great many meals.

Apparently this individual was tough. Just as a tree grows around a collar left on too long, so had the heron's flesh swollen around the fishing line as the bird continued to grow. I'm not knowledgeable enough to estimate the heron's age with any accuracy, but, by the looks of it, the line had bound the bird for at least a year. My father cut the monofilament away and we placed the heron's body in the middle of a trail, hoping that the vultures already circling above would descend once the two humans moved on.

Oddly, when I returned to check on the progress the following afternoon, the heron's body remained untouched. No raccoon or fox had returned to finish what they began, and the vultures had apprently elected to pass up this meal in favor of more filling options. (This winter's warm weather has left scavengers at ease and relatively heavy-bellied. As a result, they are less thorough in their clean-up efforts.)

Great Blue Heron Foot w/ My Hand
Photo of heron's left foot w/ my hand, for scale

I examined the heron again, this time photographing the bird's marvelous feet. As far as I'm concerned, anyone familiar with both reptiles and birds must accept their common ancestry. The great blue's long toes and legs share much with those of some lizard species. As a friend remarked upon seeing the bird, "It reminds me of an alligator." Indeed. Ain't evolution wondrous?

Great Blue Heron
Photo of heron's left foot w/ my hand, for scale

Photo credits: all by Hungry Hyaena