Bowing to the birds

Arctic Snowy Owl

Today, an especially beautiful passage from Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez describing tundra life in the western Brooks Range of Alaska:

"On the evening I am thinking about -- it was breezy there on the Ilingnorak Ridge, and cold; but the late-night sun, small as a kite in the northern sky, poured forth an energy that burned against my cheekbones -- it was on that evening that I went on a walk for the first time among the tundra birds. They all build their nests on the ground, so their vulnerability is extreme. I gazed down at a single horned lark no bigger than my fist. She stared back as resolute as iron. As I approached, golden plovers abandoned their nests in hysterical ploys, artfully feigning a broken wing to distract me from the woven grass cups that couched their pale, darkly speckled eggs. Their eggs glowed with a soft, pure light, like the window light in a Vermeer painting.

Golden plover beside her clutch of eggs

Lapland larkspur

Lapland longspur chick

"I walked on to find Lapland longspurs as still on their nests as stones, their dark eyes gleaming. At the nest of two snowy owls I stopped. These are more formidable animals than plovers. I stood motionless. The wild glare in their eyes receded. One owl settled back slowly over its three eggs, with an aura of primitive alertness. The other watched me -- and immediately sought a bond with my eyes if I started to move.

Snowy Owl and chick

Snowy Owl and chick

"I took to bowing on these evening walks. I would bow slightly with my hands in my pockets, towards the birds and the evidence of life in their nests -- because of their fecundity, unexpected in this remote region, and because of the serene arctic light that came down over the land like a breath, like breathing.

Caribou migrating across the Alaskan tundra by Joel Satore

"I remember the wild, dedicated lives of the birds that night and also the abandon with which a small herd of caribou crossed the Kokolik River to the northwest, the incident of only a few moments. They pranced through like wild mares, kicking up sheets of water across the evening sun and shaking it off on the far side like huge dogs,  bloom of spray that glittered in the air around them like grains of mica.

Caribou herd crossing a river

Caribou calf

"I remember the press of light against my face. The explosive skitter of calves among the grazing caribou. And the warm intensity of the eggs beneath these resolute birds. Until then, perhaps because the sun was shining in the very middle of the night, so out of tune with customary perception, I had never known how benign sunlight could be. How forgiving. How run through with compassion in a land that bore so eloquently the evidence of centuries of winter."

Four plover eggs on the tundra by Joel Satore

I like to chose an author for a major re-read each winter -- by which I mean not the general re-reading that I'm always doing (in between reading books that are new to me, of course), but digging out a writer's entire backlist and reading it all at once. This kind of immersion creates a very different experience than my first encounter with those same books -- which, if the author is contemporary, took place more gradually over time as each text was written and published. Last year, you may recall, I was re-engaging with Terry Tempest William's work (oh, what a glorious re-read that was!), and this year it's Barry Lopez, starting (unchronologically, I admit, but because it's winter) with Arctic Dreams.

I find myself reading unusually slowly, savoring every page, every paragraph of his writing, which is poetic and precise in equal measure. In Japan, masters of various art forms are honored as National Living Treasures. Here in the West, surely Barry Lopez is one of ours.

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

Photographs above: snowy owl, golden plover with her clutch of eggs, Lapland larkspur, Lapland larkspur chick in a tundra nest, a caribou herd crossing the tundra, caribou crossing a river, a frisky caribou calf, and a golden plover nest on the tundra. The caribou herd  on the tundra and the golden plover nest are by the wildlife photographer and activist Joel Satore, whose work I highly  recommend. The other wildlife images come from Audubon and Arctic wildlife sites, photographers uncredited.


"Into the Woods" series, 44: The Speech of Animals

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Many an old story begins with the words, "Long ago, when animals could speak...," invoking a time when the boundary lines between the human and the animal worlds were less clearly drawn than they are today, and more easily crossed. Animals play a vibrant role in the earliest stories from around the globe: tales of animal gods and guardians, animal nurses and paramours, animal thieves and tricksters, animal teachers and ancestors. In ancient carvings and pictographs we find numerous representations of the animal kingdom, as well as images of men and women with animal characteristics: stag-men, bird-men, lion-women, KP 2snake- women, and other beings both beautiful and monstrous. Shamans and wizards were said to be able to shape-shift into animal form, attaining these powers after spending some time living with animals in the wild -- sleeping in wolf dens, traveling with reindeer, learning their speech and their secrets.

Folk tales from around the world tell us that the animals communicate with each other in a language unknown to men and women -- or else in a language that used to be known to us, but now is lost. The stories also tell of human beings who understand the speech of animals. Some are born with this ability, while others obtain it through trickery, or magic, or as a gift from the animals themselves, a reward for an act of kindness. In both Europe and Asia, snakes and dragons are closely associated with animal speech. In Norse myth, Siegfried tastes dragon blood and then understands the language of birds; in Arabian myth, one obtains this power by eating the heart of a snake. In eastern Europe, the snake must be white; in France it must be black or green; in Greece, the snake must merely lick the ears of the human supplicant. In some tales, humans blessed with the gift of understanding animal speech must never reveal their possession of it -- and often they lose it again when a careless word or laughter betrays them. Madness and the ability to speak the language of animals has often been linked, particularly in shamanic tales where the line between madness and oracular wisdom is blurred.

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In tribal traditions from all around the globe, animals are believed to have the power to cause or cure certain illnesses. Animal and their spirits are propitiated through gifts, prayers, song, dance, shamanic rituals, and the use of totemic objects. (I once watched a Tohono O'Odham friend sing to a wild hawk in the mountains near Tucson, slowly drawing the hawk within arms' length of where he knealt. The song, he said, was "hawk KP 4medicine," passed down in his family.) Animal tales are often told not just as simple entertainments but as teaching stories, or as part of healing rites intended to foster a proper relationship between humankind and the natural world. Today, in our rapidly urbanizing society, this teaching/healing aspect of myth -- and, by extension, of Mythic Arts -- has become more important than ever, while we stare ecological disaster in the face and while more and more animal species fall under threat of extinction.

Animal myths remind us that we don't own this earth but share it with others -- with our animal "brothers" and "cousins," as many tribal groups have named them. Some early Greek philosophers argued that animals, too, could reason and love, and thus were no less favored by the gods than human beings. To insist that man was the lord of all, they said, was the height of human arrogance. The Book of Job instructs us to "ask the beasts and they shall teach thee; and the Fowls of the air, and they shall teach thee; or speak to the Earth, and it shall teach thee," while the Qu'ran says, "there is no beast on earth nor bird which flyeth with its wings but the same is a people like unto you."

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In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram writes of the importance of re-learning the language of animals and re-telling the stories that bring us back into a balanced relationship with the natural world. "Human language," he notes, "arose not only as a means of attunement between persons, but also between ourselves and the animate landscape. The belief that speech is a purely human property was entirely alien to those oral communities that first evolved our various ways of speaking, and by holding to such a belief today we may well be inhibiting the spontaneous activity of language. By denying that birds and other animals have their own styles of speech, by insisting that the river has no real voice and that the ground itself is mute, we KP 6stifle our direct experience. We cut ourselves off from the deep meanings in many of our words, severing our language from that which supports and sustains it. We then wonder why we are often unable to communicate even among ourselves."

David goes deeper into this premise in his book Becoming Animal, which explores our role in the biological/ecological kinship web that links us with other animal species; and, indeed, with all organic life. "How monotonous our speaking becomes when we speak only to ourselves!" he writes. "And how insulting to the other beings – to foraging black bears and twisted old cypresses – that no longer sense us talking to them, but only about them, as though they were not present in our world…Small wonder that rivers and forests no longer compel our focus or our fierce devotion. For we talk about such entities only behind their backs, as though they were not participant in our lives. Yet if we no longer call out to the moon slipping between the clouds, or whisper to the spider setting the silken struts of her web, well, then the numerous powers of this world will no longer address us -- and if they still try, we will not likely hear them.”

The late naturalist John Hay expressed a similar sentiment in his influential book A Beginner's Faith in Things Unseen: “In a society so estranged from animals as ours," he said, "we often fail to credit them with any form of language. If we do, it comes under the heading of communication rather than speech. And yet, the great silence we have imposed on the rest of life contains innumerable forms of expression. Where does our own language come from but this unfathomed store that characterizes innumerable species?"

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While scientists ponder animal consciousness; and nature writers, the role of animals in our lives; artists, too, can strengthen the relationships between humans, animals, and the natural world...especially in the Mythic Arts field, where we daily work with the world's great wealth of myth, folklore, and ancient sacred stories.

KP 8There are a number of wonderful novels, for example, with animal/human relationships at their core: Second Nature by Alice Hoffman, Power by Linda Hogan, The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich, Bear by Marian Engle, Medicine Road by Charles de Lint, The Animal Wife by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Daughter of the Bear King by Eleanor Arnason, The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson, The Jaguar Princess by Clare Bell, East by Edith Pittou, The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia McKillip, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls by Jane Linskold, and many others. Whether set in a distant time, or a magical realm, or the modern world we live in, these novels draw from the oldest of stories to remind us of what we once surely knew (at least within our dreams): how to run the wolves; sleep with the bears; converse with the birds, foxes and deer; and reclaim our animal selves.

Animal tales

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Ama Eaton, the aunt of the young narrator of Linda Hogan's luminous novel Power, says "that animals are the pathway between humans and gods. They are one step closer to the true than we are. She says skin was never a boundary to be kept or held to; there are no limits between one thing and another, one time and another. The old stories live in the present. She believes in stars and their gifts, that the wind speaks in intelligent trees that look bright as bonfires to eyes that are open. For Ama the other world is visible. It lives beside us in trees and stone. She can see it, like a path of light across water, and hear it in the swamps at night.... And she believes her faintest move or thought is governed not only by spirits, but by the desires and dreams of animals who are people like ourselves, in different skins."

Stories are what we are, states Albert, a Trickster character in Charles de Lint's "Coyote Stories" (from his collection Moonlight and Vines). "Just stories. You and me, everybody, we're a set of stories, and what those stories are is what makes us what we are. Same thing for whites as skins. Same thing for a tribe and a city and a nation and the world. It's all those stories and how they braid together that tells us who we are and what and where we are."

''Stories nurture our connection to place and to each other," naturalist Susan J. Tweit agrees (in Walking Nature Home). "They show us where we have been and where we can go. They remind us of how to be human, how to live alongside the other lives that animate this planet....When we lose stories, our understanding of the world is less rich, less true.''

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The magical imagery today is by the Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova, whose work often evokes the old stories of Russian fairy tales and world myth. Go here for a interview with the artist (where she talks about the animals she works with) and to see more of her work.

Some previous posts on animal/human relationships: "Wild Neighbors," "The Peace of Wild Things,""Animal Stories," "Animal Stories, continued,"  and ""Word Magic." And I recommend Stassa Edwards' article on talking animals, "From Aesop to doge," in Aeon Magazine.


The beautiful place we call home...

The video above is "Dartmoor Timelapse," created by landscape photographers Alex Nail and Guy Richardson.

The year-long project, they explain, "ran from March 2013 to March 2014, with the goal of capturing the changing face of Dartmoor through the seasons. This 7 minute short film takes the viewer on a journey covering Dartmoor’s most iconic tors, villages, rivers, woodland and prehistoric sites. The film is comprised of over 13,000 images selected from over 30,000 stills and represents many hundreds of hours out on the moor and in post-production. The longest night sequences are captured over a 3 hour period whilst the shortest sequence lasted just 6 minutes. The result is a captivating film of Dartmoor's magical landscape."

If you're here in the West Country, you can see photographs from the project at the on-going Dartmoor Timelapse exhibition in Princetown.

The Dartmoor pictures below are my own, taken 0n a winter walk with Howard, Victoria, and Tilly between Christmas and New Year's Day. Our route was a disused railroad track above Princetown that's been turned into a hiking trail, a stretch of high moor that is oddly beautiful in its bleakness at this frozen time of year.

Dartmoor walk 1

''Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.'' - Charles Dickens (Martin Chuzzlewit)

Dartmoor walk 2

Dartmoor walk 3

"The ache for home exists in all of us; the safe place we can go, and belong, and never feel questioned for who we really are.'' - Maya Angelou

Dartmoor walk 4

''What should I do about the wild and the tame? The wild heart that wants to be free, and the tame heart that wants to come home. I want to be held. I don't want you to come too close. I want you to scoop me up and bring me home at nights. I don't want to tell you where I am. I want to keep a place among the rocks where no one can find me. I want to be with you.'' - Jeanette Winterson (Lighthousekeeping)

Dartmoor walk 5

Dartmoor walk 6

''Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.''  - James Baldwin (Giovanni's Room)

Dartmoor walk 7

Dartmoor walk 8

''Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.'' - Gary Snyder (Turtle Island)

Dartmoor walk 9A related post (and landscape video) from the other part of my life: "To the Desert."


Veriditas and the vegetable soul

Bean Longpod by Charles Jones

"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)

Cabbages (Larry's Perfection) by Charles Jones

Good People, most royal greening verdancy,
rooted in the sun, you shine with radiant light.

Hildegard of Bingen (''Original Blessing'')

Potatoes by Charles Jones

"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")

Peas by Charles Jones

"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)

Turnips by Charles Jones

Onions by Charles Jones

" '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)

Plums by Charles Jones

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).

More information on the artist can be found here, and additional photographs can be seen here.

McGreedy's Scarlet by Charles JonesA post related to the "roots" quotes in the picture captions: "Writing without roots" (Sept. 2014)


Guest Post: Days of the Dead

Dionicio Remembered by Stu Jenks

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.


Dancing skeletons
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.

Annie Gordon by Stu Jenks

Leon's Mom by Stu Jenks

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.

Prayers Received by Stu Jenks

Fire-swinger by Stu Jenks

Prayer Collector by Stu Jenks

Prayers for the Urn by Stu Jenks

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.

Watching, Remembering by Stu Jenks

Honoring the Dead by Stu Jenks

All Souls Piper by Stu Jenks

"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.

Two Poi by Stu Jenks

Green Prayer Urn by Stu Jenks

Passel of Women and Urn by Stu Jenks

Lighting the Urn by Stu Jenks

The Urn Ignites by Stu Jenks

Prayers Burning by Stu Jenks

"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.

Cross and Candle by Stu JenksImages and text copyright by Stu Jenks; used with his permission.  The photo titles are in the picture captions -- which can be viewed by running your cursor over the images.

A book of All Souls images by Stu and other Tucson photographers ecan be purchased here, with proceeds benefiting the Procession.


The dance of joy and grief

A young Mandrill (Equatorial Guinea) by Joel Sartore

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?

Eurasian lynx by Joel Sartore

Kootenai River white sturgeon, Idaho, by Joel Sartore

Hawaiian geese by Joel Sartore

"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."

Young female snowy owl by Joel Sartore

Warthogs by Joel Sartore

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."

Pygmy marmoset by Joel Sartore

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."

Nebraskan coyote pups by Joel Sartore

"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.

St. Andrews beach mouse by Joel Sartore

Pronghorn antelope by Joel Sartore

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, Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild by Ellen Meloy, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram, The Outermost House by Henry Beston, Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea, & Human Life by George Monbiot, Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez, Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore, Findings by Kathleen Jamie, Language and Longing by Carolyn Servid, Scatterlings by Martin Shaw, and The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris. 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.

San Lucas marsupial frog by Joel Sartore

Coquerel's sifaka by Joel Sartore

Words & pictures: The interview passages above are from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). All rights to the text and photographs above reserved by the authors and artist.

* Although this post was published in 2014, please note that I've added a few books published since then to the Recommended Reading list (autumn, 2017).


Paying Attention: The Art of Holly Roberts

Man With Two Birds by Holly Roberts

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.

Deer With Angel by Holly Roberts

Man With Cat Jumping by Holly Roberts

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.

Women With Child and Water"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.)

Horse Resting by Holly Roberts

"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 Coyote Turning by Holly Robertsminute 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."

Fox With Fallen Eggs by Holly Roberts

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"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."

Fox With Hummingbird by Holly Roberts

Coyote With Thistles by Holly Roberts

"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)."

Mother and Daughter With Birds Leaving by Holly Roberts

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."

Quiet Horse by Holly Roberts

To learn more about Holly Robert's work, visit her blog and her website. You can also watch a short "Artist Talk" video of Roberts here.

Holly Robert's studio

Holly Robert's studio


Invocation

Terri Windling, Devon

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.