Sunday, November 30, 2008

Missing the snows

Sunrise over Heron's Foot impoundment; November 2008

Friday morning at Heron's Foot was unseasonably warm. Even in the relative chill of pre-dawn, gloves were not necessary and, by sunrise, the temperature was in the upper 40s.

With the exception of a mid-November cold snap, the region's fall and winter temperatures are well above average this year. The warming effects are especially notable with respect to migratory waterfowl patterns. During my Thanksgiving visit in 2005, four to five thousand snow geese (Chen caerulescens) nightly took refuge in the estuary alongside Heron Hope. One year later, only a few hundred of the birds roosted there and, by the end of December 2006, the flock had grown to around one thousand individuals, at least three thousand birds shy of the previous year. 2007's numbers were similarly low and, astonishingly, I saw only a dozen geese this Thanksgiving! But I shouldn't be surprised. If the temperatures don't force the issue, what reason do migratory birds have to continue south?

I caught a ride back to New York on Friday afternoon. In southern Maryland, I spotted small groups of snow geese feeding in the roadside fields. As daylight faded and we approached the Maryland-Delaware state line, I finally saw the impressive flocks of thousands, trading in the half light from field to field. Soon, they would rise en masse for their evening flight.

These were the very birds that have made my childhood home their winter refuge but, this year, they've settled seventy miles north of Heron's Hope. I miss seeing and hearing them there, but I must also marvel at the rapidity of the changes we're witness to. Everything, always, is in sensitive flux.

Northern pintail decoy; Heron's Foot impoundment; November 2008

Photo credits: Hungry Hyaena, 2008

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Eric Beltz and "The Good Land"

Eric Beltz
"By this Axe I Rule"
Graphite on Bristol
27 1/2 x 23 inches

"All conservation of wildness 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."
-Aldo Leopold

The exquisitely rendered graphite drawings included in "The Good Land," Eric Beltz's recent exhibition at Morgan Lehman Gallery, are sophisticated responses to our American folkways and myths. As darkly funny as they are disarmingly earnest, the graphic works are both exhortations and critiques of our nation's inborn exceptionalism and romanticism.

Of particular interest to Beltz is our American relationship to landscape. In "By This Axe I Rule," a contemplative outdoorsman sits on a tree stump, ax in hand. The bodies of a white-tailed deer, a moose, an opossum, a raccoon and other animals are partially concealed by snow drifts at his feet; a turkey vulture is perched above, wings spread. The man bears a striking resemblance to renowned ecologist Aldo Leopold. The likeness may be coincidental, but is nonetheless pertinent. 2008 is the 60th anniversary of Leopold's death. Like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, Leopold is a lodestar for many contemporary environmentalists. His "A Sand County Almanac," published posthumously in 1949, remains a critical conservation text.

Unlike Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," the 1962 bestseller that catalyzed the modern environmental movement, Leopold's "Almanac" is not a call for corporate and federal responsibility. Although Leopold would surely support such measures, his book is principally concerned with our reforging an intimate connection to the landscape we inhabit. "We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in," he wrote.

It's noteworthy that Leopold's faith is not of the starry-eyed variety; his "land ethic" includes hunting, controlled burns, and other practices typically condemned by preservationists. Contrary to the romantic conception of wilderness, Leopold's ethic acknowledges that the tools invented by humans (the saws, shovels, axes, picks, and pitchforks that figure prominently in Beltz's drawings) are not simply cruel agents of mastery. Humans are animals and, as such, we are not apart, but rather a part of a complicated, messy ecology. No matter how we manipulate our environment, dominion remains a comforting delusion.

Yet most of us do not conceive of Nature in this way. Just as we distinguish between the self and the group, so too do we draw a hard-line distinction between humanity and the “natural world.” William Cronon, a respected, if controversial environmental historian, argues that we must alienate ourselves from Nature before it can be understood as something pristine, virgin, or more wild than ourselves. In his celebrated 1983 book, “Changes in the Land”, Cronon reveals the quixotic quality of preservationist impulse.
"If the nature of Concord [Massachusetts] in the 1850s - a nature which many Americans now romanticize as the idyllic world of Thoreau's own Walden - was as 'maimed' and 'imperfect' as he said, what are we to make of the wholeness and perfection which he thought preceded it? It is tempting to believe that when the Europeans arrived in the New World they confronted Virgin Land, the Forest Primeval, a wilderness which had existed for eons uninfluenced by human hands. Nothing could be further from the truth....the land was less virgin than it was widowed. Indians had lived on the continent for thousands of years, and had to a significant extent modified the environment to their purposes…The choice is not between two landscapes, one with and one without a human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem."
The preservationists' dualistic attitude (i.e., Humanity vs. Nature) provides only simple answers to our complex questions. By contrast, Beltz’s allegorical drawings shirk simplistic moralizing in favor of contradiction, ambivalence and multiplicity. His scenes speak to an active communion with Nature, albeit one that includes suffering, death and a melancholy nod to the essential absurdity of existence. By turns, Beltz eulogizes, champions and satirizes Thoreau's self-sufficiency and Andrew Wyeth's rural romanticism.

Eric Beltz
Graphite on paper
17 x 13 3/4 inches

Beltz critiques America's religious and economic landscape, as well. Four of his drawings comprise a series entitled “Back to Eden.” In each, a headless body clothed in overalls, workman boots ,and a shirt with rolled up sleeves – the uniform of the outdoorsman-farmer - is slumped in or alongside a pile of cut logs and other vegetation. Above each of these tableaus, Beltz has written one word, in cursive: Asthma; Hysteria; Cancer; Delirium.

Considering the series, I recall Adam Smith’s ignored admonition concerning the dangers of loosely regulated capitalism. Smith, the 18th century Scottish philosopher best known for his influential treatise "The Wealth of Nations," is canonized by contemporary capitalists for laying down the principals of free market economics, but he entertained doubts about and acknowledged the shadows cast by such a system.

"Power and riches," Smith wrote, "are immense fabrics, which it requires the labor of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which, while they stand, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much and sometimes more exposed than before to anxiety, to fear and to sorrow, to diseases, to danger and to death." Smith’s misgivings were warranted. Contemporary life is rife with social ailments and, in combination with our alienation from Nature, secular capitalism is a principal causative factor.

Curiously, free market capitalism is close kin to Manifest Destiny, the divine doctrine of conquest and consumption. Capitalism is exported with no less zeal than our cruel spread west from the colonies. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the 19th century novelist best remembered as an outspoken proponent of abolition, wrote that America is "a nation specifically raised up by God to advance a cause of liberty and religion." She did not say “liberty of religion.” America was founded by Protestant fundamentalists fleeing religious persecution in Europe. Arriving on these contested shores, they took names like Ezekiel, Jacob, and Issac, and likened their journey to the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. These religious settlers are the forebears of a great many contemporary Americans.

Appropriately, Beltz’s drawings incorporate Biblical texts and his subjects are recognizable as America's founding fathers and God-fearing, anonymous farmers. But Beltz draws from a peculiarly American well, the proverbial melting pot. Each drawing is suffused with currents of Eastern philosophy and shamanism. His farmers and historical figures are also mystics. American philosophy is more plural than we care to admit, and Beltz's admixture of East and West, allegory and history, supernatural and natural is a fair reckoning. (American transcendentalism, for example, the philosophy so vital to Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a hybrid of Protestant Unitarianism, Romanticism, Hinduism, and European intellectualism.)

Eric Beltz
"Tree of the Evil Eagle"
Graphite on paper
40 x 30 inches

Still, the Bible is the first book of the United States, and many Americans regard the Constitution and founding fathers with astonishing reverence (to the extent that, in some circles, the former is sacrosanct). But documents and philosophies are of a particular time. Guarded by strict interpreters, the Constitution of the United States can become as regressively dogmatic as any primary religious text. Without thoughtful interpretation of Constitutional scripture, the significance and relevance of the founding fathers' enterprise will wane.

But most Americans (politicians and citizens alike) are in the business of denying the inevitable, be it the death of a loved one, an unregulated economy, or an ideology. Rather than confront our heavy history (and with it our future), the United States cloaks itself in exceptionalism. We remove ourselves from a fact-based historical narrative so that the road to future success is understood as an unyielding continuation of the present, divinely-ordained course. Like the empires that rose and fell before us, America's clarity of vision is obscured by global power and a history that privileges mythic glory over fact. Because we make history, many of our leaders feel strongly that we don't need to know it. Moreover, the history we make is irreproachable because it is consecrated.

Yet the secular capitalist world view strives to replace religion and the supernatural with consumerism. Manifest Destiny Version 3.0 is not ordained by God so much as by the Almighty dollar. And the replacement worked, more or less. The secular capitalist model is today the global standard. But sociologists, anthropologists, and, now, some neuroscientists agree that the substitution is inadequate. This deficiency is most apparent in a religious nation like the United States, where fundamentalism and cultism, reactionary responses to the secular world, are thriving. Despite our founding fathers' dismissal of the New Testament's Book of Revelation (Thomas Jefferson described it as "the ravings of a maniac"), a 2002 CNN/Time magazine poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe the prophecies therein are real and that the gruesome judgment of the Second Coming is imminent. James Watt, former President Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, is among that majority. He famously stated that protecting our nation's natural resources was not a priority because Jesus Christ would return only "after the last tree is felled."

Yet some evangelical fundamentalists are more fair-minded. They focus instead on the Bible's call for stewardship, and argue that the success or failure of the environmental movement depends on which interpretation gains the upper hand. Will we embrace a dominionist or stewardship theology?

The crux of that question is the American notion of wilderness. Cronon writes, "the flight from history that is very nearly the core of wilderness represents the false hope of an escape from responsibility, the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate...and return to the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world...Non-use is not an option: to live in nature is to use and change it by our presence. The choice we face is not to leave no marks - that is impossible - but rather to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave."

Eric Beltz
"The Good Land"
Graphite on paper
30 x 40 inches

Beltz's meticulously rendered works don't offer any answers, but neither do they shrug off the dilemma. With a richly ironic sensibility and a sensitivity to the complexities of our national character and (natural) history, Beltz embraces our clusterfuck approach even as he skewers it. "The Good Land" is sublimely ambivalent.

Photo credit: all images ripped from the artist's website

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama's Inheritance

Jehad Nga
"Operation Steel Curtain, Iraq 2006"

Art collector, patron, humanitarian advocate and all-around-great-guy James Wagner is also a longtime blogger. Every so often, he posts a short essay on that warrants wide distribution. (Lacking significant broadcast reach, I can only recommend those posts here.)

James' thoughts regarding the election of Barack Hussein Obama parallel my own, and he states the case much more succinctly than I could. I include some excerpts below.
"We endured eight disastrous years of a Bush presidency, years which saw both the haughty ascendancy and the ignoble collapse of the unmourned Late Capitalist, Neoconservative and Republican regime. Nothing of importance or worth in our own Republic or in much of the rest of the world has escaped the depredations of its arrogance, its sententiousness, its dominion and its greed. I had believed for years that no fundamental political change would occur until we had sunk into a genuine economic depression, and I had gloomily predicted the change would be toward some form of Fascism."

"I hadn't anticipated the confluence of the dramatic events of the last year and the exceptional capabilities of Barack Hussein Obama...But in order to rebuild institutions, restore well-being and a belief in the future, the new President will have to pull off something like a major revolution."

"Without that full recognition of the seriousness of our crisis, and with the continuing strength of contemporary skeptics, dinosaurs and reactionaries, including the fact that almost as many people didn't vote for him as did, Obama will almost certainly have to push through what must be, and almost certain will be, an extremely progressive agenda while not making it look too radical, and he will have to do it in a way that will disarm and even enlist on its behalf as many of its potential adversaries as possible."

"I know there will be mistakes, as FDR made mistakes, but, and call me Pollyanna again, I believe he will pull it off, partly because of what I have just written, but also because he will have so much help (both enthusiastic and skilled), and because we have come to such a pass that we all really want to see him to succeed: Regardless of our diversity, and despite the vast range in our individual conditions and current fortunes, none of us can afford the cost of failure. We'll have to be in there with him."
Pony up, people. We've got work to do.

Read the full post here.

Peter van Agtmael
"A teenager injured as his house is searched by US forces, Iraq 2006."

Also, I recommend James' post on the Battlespace project's unpublished photographs from our "three wars." I have included three of the images in this post, but I highly recommend readers visit Battlespace to view more of the profound images. Be forewarned that many of the images are deeply troubling. I feel cold and wretched looking at some; it's hard not to cry, and sometimes the only thing for it.

Balazs Gardi
"Kunar province, Afghanistan. Survivors of a US airstrike."

Photo credits: all pictures ripped from Battlespace website

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Rothko's Darkness

Interior photograph of Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas
Completed 1971
"It is at once a reduction of the whole of the universe to the infinitesimal point of the anxious self and an absorption of the self in the eternal calm of the sea of being." 
-Rabbi Jacob B. Agus
In the September 26th edition of The Guardian Weekly, the opinionated British art critic Jonathan Jones describes his visit to Mark Rothko's chapel in Houston, Texas, as "a pilgrimage to the greatest marriage of art and architecture in the US." Jones worries, though, if the chapel is misunderstood, or even misused, by American visitors.

For the British critic, the Rothko chapel is "one of America's greatest and strangest monuments: a chapel created by a modern artist who had no religious beliefs." Jones is dismayed, then, to find that many visitors to the chapel are anything but irreligious.

Inside Rothko's master work, a fellow chapel-goer asks the critic if he sees in one of the over-sized paintings "the figure of Jesus Christ our Lord on the Cross?" Jones writes, "I look into the gigantic abstract work. It contains no images, Christian or otherwise."

Jones is clearly bemused that the chapel is today regarded by so many as a sacred space, and he chalks this interpretation up to our American religiosity.
"Locals use this place. They love it. They come not as tourists but to meditate, pray and talk sombrely. They see it as a religious place and the art as spiritual. It is called a chapel, and most Americans believe in God."
Jones feels Rothko would be similarly befuddled by the religious interpretation. The critic explains that Rothko designed the chapel to take "his pursuit of...the 'tragic' to its ultimate extreme" and that the artist "believed that all serious art was about death." Undoubtedly, Rothko had a fatalistic, deeply melancholic streak - he killed himself in 1970, one year before the chapel opened - but I'm not sure that the artist would, like Jones, bemoan the religious significance of his chapel.

A Russian Jewish immigrant, Rothko (originally named Marcus Rothkowitz) certainly didn't intend visitors to see Jesus Christ in his large canvases, but he was not, as Jones contends, a man "who had no religious beliefs." In fact, Rothko's father was an Orthodox Jew and the young Rothko spent time in Russian cheders before his 1913 emigration to the United States. After his family settled in Portland, Oregon, Rothko became active in the local Jewish community. Whether the future artist's connection to Judaism was principally cultural or spiritual, I do not know, but later in life he frequently described the making of his paintings as a religious experience.
Interior photograph of Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas
Completed 1971

So what was Rothko thinking when he undertook the chapel project, and what did he intend the space to be? We can only speculate.

For his part, Jones asserts that the paintings act as doorways or portals. I agree, but the British critic insists that they are "portals of death." Jones sees the blackness of Rothko's chapel paintings as "utter desolation," blackness that shatters "any illusion of paradise." The chapel overall Jones describes as a "theatre of emptiness, death's antechamber, the self-expression of a suicide." He dismisses other interpretations, claiming that, if the Texas oil barons who commissioned the project understood more fully Rothko's deathly intentions, the chapel would not have been built.

But the blackness in Rothko's late works can also be understood as nothingness. Negative theology, more commonly referred to by the Latin via negativa, breaks down the word "nothingness" into "no-thing-ness." God, according to negative theology, is ineffable; literally, It, that is to say, God, is No Thing. As Lao tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, wrote in that essential text, "The unnamable is the eternally real...Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding."

This mystical conception of God or Being would be familiar to an educated Jew like Rothko. The Jewish Kabbalist notion of Ein Sof springs from a medieval Spanish Jew's exposure to Eastern philosophy. (Most historians agree that Moses de Leon, a prominent Spanish rabbi, composed the Zohar, the central text of Kabbalah, in the late 13th century. Some of these scholars argue that de Leon's work is a syncretic project, injecting tantra and other Eastern thought into the ever-evolving Jewish tradition.) Ein Sof, translated from Hebrew to English, literally means "there is no end." It is the unquantifiable, ambivalent and infinite energy that exists before, within and after the more mundane conception of God. The kabbalists, though, take their negative theology one step further. Ein Sof is the ineffable All, but Ayin, or "nothingness," is Ein Sof rendered finite. Some Jews consider Ayin the cosmic potential extant prior to the Big Bang.

Daniel Matt, a leading scholar of Kabbalah, writes in "God and the Big Bang":
"The paradox is that ayin embraces 'nothing' and 'everything.' This nothingness is oneness: undifferentiated, overwhelming the distinctions between things....This mystical nothingness is neither empty nor barren; it is fertile and overflowing, engendering the myriad forms of life. Medieval philosophers - Jewish, Christian and Muslim - had taught that God created the world 'out of nothing.' The mystics turn this formula on its head, reinterpreting it to mean that the universe emanated from divine nothingness."
For some religious individuals, concepts like Ayin and Ein Sof allow a point of entry. Rabbi Richard Rubenstein, a Jewish scholar and writer, speaks of God "as the Holy Nothingness." Detailing his turn from secularism to faith, he writes, I "replaced my atheistic nihilism with a mystical nihilism. To be all that there is, as God was in the beginning and will be in the end, is equivalent to being, so to speak, absolutely nothing. In the beginning, God dwelt in the womb of his own omnipotent nothingness." I love the contradictory nature of such a God!

Likewise, religious mystics of all persuasions believe that individuals must embrace darkness in order to find spiritual integrity. They must, as the prominent Rabbi Arthur A. Cohen put it, "...[surrender] to unknowing, [enter] the 'dark night' of which all mystics speak - a metaphor for the condition of desperate ignorance - and there [identify] a frail connection between the emptying of the self of all knowledge, the abandonment of knowledge, the perfect unknowing which enables the process of knowing to be renewed and the being whose existence renews. It is the passion of thought and the desire to know which presses us to the limit where thought cannibalizes itself in despair, where knowing ceases, where the emptying of the self is undergone and the fullness of God may commence."

Those chapel-goers who claim to see in Rothko's paintings Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Buddha, or any other religious hero are guilty of unimaginative literalism but, if their experiences are real, they are "seeing" through darkness into spirit. I believe that Rothko, an artist much invested in mythology and mysticism, would respect and even commend that.

Jones writes in The Guardian, "[The chapel] is not an austere, dead, modernist monument. It's a living chapel. People sing and play music. But maybe they should look around a bit more - because this is one of the most compelling rooms I have ever been in."

But why should these religious visitors have to stop worshipping, singing or otherwise participating in the work to take (what Jones considers) due notice of the room's quality? Given the power of the space, might not the room compel their behavior? Rothko insisted that he was no mere maker of abstract paintings. "If you are moved only by their color," the artist said of his mature works, "then you miss the point."

Photo credits: images ripped from HASTAC on Ning