"Modern Lights, Ancient Flames: Avebury Flames Spirals" by Tucson photographer Stu Jenks, taken when he visited us in England last year.
"The word vegetable comes from the root that means the very opposite of immobile, passive, dull, or uneventful. Vegere means to animate, enliven, invigorate, arouse. Vegete means to grow, to be refreshing, to vivify, animate. From these roots come words such as vigil, vigilant, and vigor, with all their connotations of being wide-awake, alert, of keeping watch. 'The understanding...was vagete, quick, and lively," observed one critic in 1662. Ben Jonson described what he saw as desirable characteristics in woman, 'faire, young, and vegetous.' Such respect for the vegetable soul was not confined merely to a robust sensual life, but extended into the religious dimension. 'Man is righteous in his Vegetated Spectre,' proclaimed Blake when commenting about the beliefs of the ancient Druids. Elsewhere it was insisted that 'A vegetous faith is able to say unto a mountain, Be moved into the sea.'
"The downward pull of vegetables, of the vegetable soul, has also provided exemplary images of being placed, of being grounded, of having roots. For example, Jung said, 'I am fully committed to the idea that human existence should be rooted in the earth.' He bemoaned modern culture's lack of earth-based ancestral connections. As Henry Corbin put it, the past is not behind us, but beneath our feet. What better way to touch the ground than through cabbages, which the poet Robert Bly says 'love the earth.' The word root comes from the Indo-European root ra, meaning to derive, to grow out of. To be 'radical' is get back to the roots. Radish stems from the same etymological roots."
- Peter Bishop (The Greening of Psychology: The Vegetable World in Myth, Dream, and Healing)
Good People, most royal greening verdancy,
rooted in the sun, you shine with radiant light.
- Hildegard of Bingen (''Original Blessing'')
"A cornerstone of Hildegard of Bingen's spirituality was Viriditas, or greening power, her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the natural world that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine was manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone was God, though not the whole of God. Creation revealed the face of the invisible creator. Hildegard celebrated the sacred in nature, something highly relevant for us in this age of climate change and the destruction of natural habitats.''
- Mary Sharratt ("Eight Reasons Why Hildegard Matters Now")
"I'm a champion of subtley. The subtler something is, the more you have to pay attention, and that's a good thing. Remember, it's not always the big, loud species that are the best teachers. Sometimes it's the little, quiet, humble ones.
"Plants have the ability to transmit energy. Plants draw in and transform earth and water and nutrients and light and make their bodies out of them. Plants are a manifestation of these forces being woven together, and we humans have relied on them to sustain us since the beginning of our evolution. In cultures that are close to the earth I see a recognition of the power of plants to hold and draw energy and to move it along, thereby changing in a healing way. The plant world is constantly whispering to us, if we can hear it."
- Kathleen Harrison ("Women, Plants, and Culture," Moonwise)
" 'Eating is an agricultural act,' as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world -- and what is to become of it."
- Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals)
The photographs in this post are by Charles Jones, a Victorian gardener and photographer born in Wolverhampton, Staffordshire in 1866. His work was largely unknown (even to his family) until hundreds of his images were discovered in a suitcase at an antiques market in south London in 1982; since then his beautiful images of vegetables and flowers have appeared in major museum exhibitions and been published in a book, The Plant Kingdoms Of Charles Jones (1998).
A post related to the "roots" quotes in the picture captions: "Writing without roots" (Sept. 2014)
Today's Guest Post concerns the annual "Día de los Muertos" festivities in Tucson, Arizona. Started by a single artist in 1990, Tucson's All Souls Procession has grown into a weekend-long event with close to 100,000 participants, including numerous art instalation and altars and a pyrotechnic Finale. - T.W.
Tucson's All Souls Procession
photographs and text by Stu Jenks
Many in Western culture today seem to believe that we will never die. If we eat right, exercise and think good thoughts, we’ll live forever, and if not that, we’ll all die in our sleep, having been perfectly healthy the night before at the ripe old age of 107.
But we all know that’s not true.
Death is many things: The end of long suffering and illness; a sudden death due to accident, violence or overdose; a child dying far too soon; a peaceful transition from one life to the next; a quiet entering into the void; a life everlasting; or simply a great big dirt nap.
Any, all, or none of the above.
But one thing is not mysterious.
We will all die, every single one of us, and after we have died, friends, family, and loved ones will remember us, and most will miss that we are no longer around.
Tucson’s All Souls’ Procession Weekend is a remembrance of those who have died and the mysteries that surround them.
The weekend begins with an afternoon for children, and finishes with Sunday’s All Souls’ Procession and Finale -- when the Urn of full of prayers gathered from the crowd is spectacularly set alight -- leaving people stunned and awake, crying and smiling, somber and laughing, fearful and full of faith.
Every one I know who has participated in a Tucson All Souls’ Procession Weekend, as a walker, watcher, or performer, has a story of being unexpectedly moved, shaken, or awed.
"I saw ghosts rising from that vacant lot. I swear I did," said one acrobat, pointing across the street toward where an old city graveyard once sat.
"I really miss my daddy, so I’m making this," said a five year old girl working on a mini-shrine of twigs and grass in Armory Park for her deceased father.
"I felt my mother’s presence beside me the whole way," said one middle-aged woman, waiting to watch the Finale.
"I was brought to tears by the sounds of the bagpipes," said a man in a kilt as we ascended from beneath the Fourth Avenue underpass.
"Every time I saw Lois’s face projected on that big wall, I burst into tears,” said a woman, who stood on the roof of a warehouse along the route.
These stories are at the same time both personal and universal.
"What makes All Souls’ so amazing to me," said a long time walker of the Sunday Procession, "is we are all having this very personal experience while walking with thousands of other people, who are also having a very personal experience while walking with thousands of other people. It’s really hard to put into words."
Yes, it is.
A book of All Souls images by Stu and other Tucson photographers ecan be purchased here, with proceeds benefiting the Procession.
Shaken by the news that the earth has lost 50% of its wildlife in the last forty years, I turn to the words of Terry Tempest Williams and the photographs of Joel Sartore. The following passage comes from a radio interview with Williams conducted by Justine Toms in 1994:
"I think about how, for all practical purpses, the Tahoe salmon are gone as we know them," Williams muses. "Less than a hundred years ago, according to the stories of native peoples [on the American west coast], you could walk across the backs of salmon to reach the other side of the river. Now we're lucky if we see one or two. What does that mean? What does that mean in terms of our idea of community? What does that mean in terms of the sustainability of our relations, deep relations?
"So much more than ever before, I feel both the joy of wilderness and the absolute pain in terms of what we are losing. And I think we're afraid of inhabiting, of staying in, this landscape of grief. Yet if we don't acknowledge the losses, then I feel we won't be able to step forward with compassionate intelligence to make the changes necessary to maintain wildness on the planet."
Toms responds: "You talk about the paradox of feeling the joy in what is still available and the pain of what we are losing. Let's stay with the paradox for the moment. How does it help us to stay there and feel both places?"
"I don't know," Williams answers frankly, "except that I believe it's a dance. And I believe that it makes us more human. I love Clarice Lispector when she writes in her book, An Apprenticeship, that 'what human beings want more than anything else is to become human beings.' If we don't allow ourselves to feel the full range of emotion -- deep joy and deep pain -- then I think we are less than who we can be."
How do we express, even use, this dance as writers, or as other kinds of creators? In "Last Days, Last Words" (Dark Mountain, Issue 3), John Rember advises:
"There's plenty to write about in this word, especially if you can keep existentially funny and honesty grief-stricken about it."
"You ask what gives me hope," says Terry Tempest Williams in a later interview. "Two words: forgiveness and restoration."
My heart beat faster when I read those words. They apply to so many things.
For further reading poised on that narrow ground between joy and grief, I recommend: The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds by Diane Ackerman, Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths, An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Williams, Singing to the Sound: Visions of Nature, Animals, and Spirit by Brenda Peterson, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World by Linda Hogan, A Field Guide to Becoming Lost by Rebecca Solnit, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram, Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea, & Human Life by George Monbiot, and the books produced by The Dark Mountain Project. This isn't an exhaustive list by any means, just a good place to start.
The photographs here are from Joel Sartore's Photo Ark project, sponsored by National Geographic. "For many of Earth’s creatures, time is running out," he explains. "Half of the world’s plant and animal species will soon be threatened with extinction. The goal of the Photo Ark is to document biodiversity, show what’s at stake and to get people to care while there’s still time. More than 3,700 species have been photographed to date, with more to come."
I highly recommend Sartore's beautiful (and heart-breaking) book Rare: Portraits of America's Endangered Species, as well as his other works on endangered animals around the world. You can see more of his photographs, and buy prints of them (to support the Photo Ark project) on Sartore's website.
Years ago I wandered into Etherton Gallery in the downtown arts district of Tucson, Arizona, and found myself surrounded by the work of photographer/painter/collage artist Holly Roberts. I'd never encountered her art before and it hit me with the force of a revelation: glowing on the walls with colors so rich, yet so subtle, I could have stood there forever.
I'm glad I first saw Robert's work this way, for the reproductions in books and online -- beautiful as they are -- don't begin to convey the power of the originals. Built up in layers of photography and paint, the images glimmer with an otherwordly light and contain hidden depths that reveal themselves slowly over time. Sometimes complex, sometimes simple as children's drawings, and filled with mythic and personal resonances, they touched the same place in me as good magical realist fiction: highlighting the mystery of the everyday world. I now own two of her marvellous pieces, the first major art purchases I ever made as a young woman.
Roberts was born in Boulder, Colorado; studied painting at Bellas Artes de Mexico, the University of New Mexico, and Arizona State University; and now lives in New Mexico. Some of her early work relates to the period of her life when she lived on the Zuni Indian reservation, where her husband worked as a doctor. Her art appears in museum collections across the U.S. and is reproduced in three books: Holly Roberts: Works 1989-1999, Holly Roberts: Works 2000-2009, and Holly Roberts: Untitled 50.
"I work intuitively," she says, "painting an abstract painting before applying bits and pieces of photo fragments on the surface. What I am trying for is a painting that can stand alone but that won’t dominate the photo collage that is to follow. Once I start forming the story (made primarily from my own photographs), I allow the photos that I’ve chosen to inform the image, starting with only a vague idea of what it is that I am trying to build. The collage works best when the pieced photos make up something that they aren’t about literally, but rather have a metaphorical or poetic connection, either through subject or texture.
"The large concerns in my life are at the core of my work: the degradation of the environment, spiritual meaning in a world of polarized and extremist religions, the stress and fear of aging, the daily fears and anxieties of being alive in the world today. These collages allow me to continue to do what I have always done with my art: by processing the world through my eyes and my hands, I am able to make some greater sense of the confusion and beauty of the world around me."
Robert's more recent work is focused on collage, still working with photographs as a starting point. The following descriptions of her art art are excerpted from her art blog One Painting at a Time, which I highly recommend. The titles of the pieces can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the image.)
"Two things helped shaped me as a child: riding my horse, bareback and alone, in the rural ranch land around my home outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico and the nature programs on the Public TV Station, PBS. The shows portrayed a democratic world where nothing was either all good or all bad (except man). Yes, the lioness killed the newborn baby gazelle, but she had (adorable) cubs to feed. The programs seemed always to be about the struggle of the animals to survive, be it weather or predators or loss of environment. An episode in which drought causes the rivers to dry allowing the crocodiles to attack and devour antelope with the speed of light as they nervously creep down the dry bank to drink is burned into my brain. One minute you're just about to stick your nose in the dirty brown water for a needed drink, the next you're being pulled under the water, trapped in the jaws of a prehistoric monster. There is no easy street in nature.
"When I would go out on my long solo rides, I would look for evidence of what I'd learned from those nature programs. The country I rode in was mostly ranch land, so I would see cattle, but not much wildlife. But still, I was always on the lookout. Circling birds meant something. 'Vultures,' I would mutter, then urge my horse into a canter, searching for whatever was beneath the floating figures. Usually it was just crows flying around, but every once and awhile I would find something dead, most often a cow. I had hopes of finding much more exciting carrion, but it was alright when I didn't. I loved being in a world where mysterious and unknown things were happening, and to be a part of that world all I had to do was pay attention."
"I've always made images that combine people and animals, turning them into one being. I've never questioned these images, but I've also never known where they came from. Now I'm excited by the possibility that it's a 10,000 year old subconscious remembering of being part of that older order when we were all mixed up together: animals, humans, plants, the weather -- all that was alive and vital to our existence. I imagine it to come from a time before there was a separation, before humanity created a civilization where we could distance ourselves from anything that was alive. What I'm remembering is only a glimmer, but a glimmer none-the-less. And I like to imagine that when people see these images, they may also have a bit of that same glimmer."
"Several years ago, while driving down our quiet, semi-rural road, I noticed a dog trotting in the middle of the road. It was about 10:00 in the morning, a typical, bright. sunny, New Mexico day. Dogs, for the most part, don't run loose in our village, so I was curious to see who he was. However, as I got closer, I realized it was not dog at all, but a coyote. Held firmly in his mouth was a large, fat hen, clearly no longer in the land of the living. The coyote moved to the shoulder to get out of my way, never interrupting his brisk, efficient trot. When I remembered that morning, I was glad I could bring the memory back to life: his insouciance, his pleasure, and most of all, the fact that he had been alive and well and taking such good care of his coyote business (of course it wasn't my hen)."
In collage work, Roberts works primarily with her own imagery...but occasionally, as in the pictures above, she'll incorporate borrowed imagery as well. It can be a fine line between "borrowing" and "stealing," and she tries not to let her work cross that line; her intent is to marry "diverse images to make something completely new and original. I'm hoping that Rembrandt, were he to walk into the room which held Mother and Daughter With Birds Leaving would, in seeing the head of Agatha Bas that he had painted so many years ago, not be angry at me. Instead I hope that he would be intrigued in seeing how I had used Angela's head to tell a story about a mother who is about to lose her daughter to the outside world. He would understand that the birds spoke of the eventual freedom of the girl, but he would also see the snake-like figure at the top, and would know that as well as freedom there was also implied danger. He would see the pride, but also the sorrow, that the mother feels. He would see that, in so beautifully capturing the face of Angela Bas, he gave me the perfect mother to tell this story."
This quote from Lewis Hyde's brilliant book The Gift has been running through my mind today:
"An essential portion of any artist's labor is not creation so much as invocation. Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received; and we cannot have this gift except, perhaps, by supplication, by courting, by creating within ourselves that 'begging bowl' to which the gift is drawn."
In stressful times, like the one I'm in right now, it's important to remember this. To stand quiet and still, soft as well as strong, receptive as well as active, open minded, open hearted. To "walk in beauty," as the Navajo say, breathe deep...then carry on.
The ongoing Life Stuff I've been dealing with lately is demanding my full attention again, and so posting will be sporadic for the next week or so. Thank you for your patience. The fairy-tale-like picture above, which I call "The Begging Bowl," was taken by my husband, Howard.
From Madeleine L'Engle's A Circle of Quiet:
"I am part of every place I have ever been: the path to the brook; the New York streets and my 'short cut' through the Metropolitan Museum. All the places I have ever walked, talked, slept, have changed and formed me.
"I am part of all the people I have known. There was a black morning when [a friend] and I, both walking through separate hells, acknowledged that we would not survive were it not for our friends who, simply by being our friends, harrowed hell for us.
"I am still every age I have ever been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be. Because I was once a rebellious student, there is and always will be in me the student crying out for reform.
"This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages, the perpetual student, the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide; my past is part of what makes the present Madeleine and must not be denied or rejected or forgotten.
"Far too many people misunderstand what putting away childish things means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I'm with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grownup, then I don't ever want to be one.
"Instead of which, if I can retain a child's awareness and joy, and be fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be a grownup. I still have a long way to go."
As do I, but it's what I strive for.
The images in this post are, of course, by the American photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) -- best known for her work among migrants, sharecroppers, and displaced families during the Depression years, and among U.S. citizens of Japanese heritage forced to live (to our country's lasting disgrace) in internment camps during World War II.
"Art," said Lange, "is a by-product of an act of total attention." And she was a great artist indeed.
From May Sarton's Journal of Solitude:
"In a period of happy and fruitful isolation such as this, any interuption, any intrusion of the social, any obligation breaks the thread on my loom, breaks the pattern. Two nights ago I was called at the last minute to attend the caucus of Town Meeting...and it threw me. But at least the compionship gave me one insight: a neighbor told me she had been in a small car accident and had managed to persuade the local paper to ignore her true age (as it appears on her license) and print her age as thirty-nine! I was really astonished by this confidence.
"I am proud of being fifty-eight, and still alive and kicking, in love, more creative, balanced, and potent than I have ever been. I mind certain physical deteriorations, but not really. And not at all when I look at the marvellous photograph that Bill sent me of Isak Dinesen just before she died. For after all we make our faces as we go along, and who when young could ever look as she does? The ineffable sweetness of the smile, the total acceptance and joy one receives from it, life, death, everything taken in and, as it were, savored -- and let go.
"Wrinkles here and there seem unimportant compared to the Gestalt of the whole person I have become in this past year. Somewhere in [my novel] The Poet and the Donkey Andy speaks for me when he says, 'Do not deprive me of my age. I have earned it.' "
I've long used the term "embracing the bear" for those moments when I'm moving forward into something I fear, but don't want fear to stop me; thus I was intrigued to encounter the same phrase in Terry Tempest William's An Unspoken Hunger, where it has a slightly different, but related, meaning. In a gorgeous little essay on women and bears, Williams includes a description of Marian Engle 's Bear, a highly unsual, memorable novel which portrays a woman and a bear "in an erotics of place":
"The woman says, 'Bear, take me to the bottom of the ocean with you, Bear, swim with me, Bear, put your arms around me, enclose me, swim, down, down, down, with me.'
" 'Bear,' she says suddenly, 'come dance with me.'
"They make love. Afterwards, 'She felt pain, but it was a dear sweet pain that belonged not to mental suffering, but to the earth.'
William writes that she, too, "has felt the pain that arises from a recognition of beauty, pain we hold when we remember what we are connected to and the delicacy of our relations. It is this tenderness born out of connection to place that fuels my writing. Writing becomes an act of compassion toward life, the life we often refuse to see because if we look too closely or feel too deeply, there may be no end to our suffering. But words empower us, move us beyond our suffering, and set us free. This is the sorcery of literature. We are healed by our stories.
"By undressing, exposing, and embracing the bear, we undress, expose, and embrace our authentic selves. Stripped free from society's oughts and shoulds, we emerge as emancipated beings. The bear is free to roam."
"We are creatures of paradox, women and bears, two animals that are enormously unpredictable, hence our mystery," Williams continues. "Perhaps the fear of bears and the fear of women lies in our refusal to be tamed, the impulses we arouse and the forces we represent....As women connected to the earth, we are nurturing and we are fierce, we are wicked and we are sublime. The full range is ours. We hold the moon in our bellies and fire in our hearts. We bleed. We give milk. We are the mothers of first words. These words grow. They are our children. They are our stories and our poems."
The sublime images above are by the Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova, based in Moscow. The pen-and-ink drawings are Victorian illustrations, artists unknown.
Other recommended bear fiction, in addition to Bear by Marion Engle: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman (the woman-bear relationship in this book completely slays me), Her Frozen Wild by Kim Antieau, "Bear's Bride" by Johanna Sinisalo (in The Beastly Bride), "The Brown Bear of Norway" by Isobel Cole (in Black Thorn White Rose), Tender Morsals by Margo Lanagan, East by Edith Pattou, Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede, and Ice by Sarah Beth Durst. There's also a magical story tucked into the stanzas of Theodora Goss's poem, "The Bear's Daughter," and a very beautiful children's book by Jackie Morris, The Ice Bear. Others?