Monday, September 15, 2014

"It Thrills Me When Art Can Do This."

OK, here's some happy news:  U.S. Department of the Interior Museum (yes, the DOI actually has a museum) acquired a piece of art that Rika Mouw made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of establishing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "The Gift of the Arctic Refuge" is now on display in Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel’s conference room for the rest of 2014, and then will be displayed in the public museum starting January 2015.

"I am thrilled to think my work is now ‘working’," says Rika, "’speaking’ to a broader audience outside the state of Alaska.This is the intent of my work: to speak out, to have a voice to a broad audience. It thrills me when art can do this."
Here's a vimeo showing the artwork in action:

video


 

And here's the text of the video: 
The Gift of the Arctic Refuge
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most visionary and far reaching gifts this country has given itself, and the world.
This piece was made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of formally giving ourselves and future generations this remarkable gift. Through bird migrations alone, the Arctic Refuge connects people and places all over the world. The Gift of the Arctic Refuge is a hand fabricated box that unfolds and contains a necklace of hand-made paper birds, with each bird carrying a different quote in its wings from those who campaigned tirelessly for the establishment of the Arctic Refuge. The birds are strung on sinew and are clasped with a piece of carved caribou bone. The gift box is lined inside with the text of the Land Order that established the Arctic Refuge in 1960.

 

 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Doris Lessing: Do It Now.

“Whatever you're meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” 

~ Doris Lessing

Friday, July 25, 2014

Happy 50th to The Wilderness Act.

 
                                 Barry Glacier, Nellie Juan-College Fjord Wilderness Study Area,
                                                      Chugach National Forest, Alaska.

Fresh out of college, I visited my older sister, a ceramic artist teaching in West Virginia. She beckoned me to her yard to see her latest creation—a six-foot oblong curved shape, slightly hollow in the center. It was unlike anything I’d seen, and yet also strangely familiar. “It’s beautiful,” I said. She beamed, and walked over to another shelf, picking up a piece of wood, weathered and shined by time. “It was inspired by this,” she said, “that you gave me.” I didn’t remember this remnant tree limb, but she said I’d found it on a hike in the Smokies near Asheville, NC, where we grew up. That I’d given it to her, and it had inspired her art.

This was when I first realized that most, if not all, art has at its root inspiration the natural world. A few years later, becoming disillusioned with my work in renewable energy policy for the state of North Carolina, I began thinking of trying my hand at writing. I wanted to get at deeper truths, I wanted to reach people at a gut level. At root. The way Edward Abbey’s Monkeywrench Gang and Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea had reached me when I was navigating college.

I’d also come to realize that powerful works of writing had inspired policy makers as well; I’d listened to historian Donald Worster explain how The Wilderness Act -- signed into law 50 years ago -- resulted in part from a national attitude towards nature and wildness that was defined and nurtured by the words of Thoreau, Emerson, Carson, Muir – all the great early American nature writers.

Growing up in the Appalachians, I figured out early on that the natural world was my bedrock. Over time I learned that this bedrock is the most solid, clear, and unyielding in wilderness—in those places that remain the most unmediated by human activity or development.

By mediation, I mean a kind of buffer, like when we’re in a car or behind the glass of a visitor’s center, looking out—any human construct that comes between us and the actual physical world.

When a place is unmediated, I have that sense of being there, fully immersed. This is not easy, it’s often not comfortable, but it is where I feel most alive. All my senses are heightened by being where bears live, by being where I can’t control the tides, where I am put in proper scale with the rest of the living, breathing world.

So it makes perfect sense that, when I came to Alaska for a summer job nearly 30 years ago to sell tickets on the train between Portage and Whittier, I never left. Alaska is replete with places where I can feel in proper scale.

I still recall with crystal clarity some life-changing moments of my first summer in Alaska. That first afternoon in a kayak, paddling Passage Canal, drifting by the kittiwake rookery (the tides were with me) and hearing the sounds of waterfalls, of birds, appearing and disappearing, appearing and disappearing. And then that fall, the long daylit nights at Denali National Park, getting off work at the gift shop and taking a late night hike up into the hills. Driving out the road after the first snowfall, during the two weeks cars were then allowed in the park, and stopping, getting out of the truck, looking back--at a line of wolves, all black, trotting up a hillside, in perfect formation, perfectly fitting their world, and me, there, too, at least in that moment, in proper scale.

The power of Alaska’s wild to invoke this in me has not diminished with time and familiarity. A few years ago, on an artist residency in the Tongass National Forest’s Tracy Arm Ford’s Terror Wilderness, I felt that sense of proper scale once again, sitting on a swirl of ancient rock recently released from ice, taking in the vast view: a tidewater glacier rumbling to the sea, a seal diving in the cerulean waters at the base of a waterfall, a massive iceberg floating by our camp, big as an island I could live on the rest of my life.
 
 
                            Shining Rock Wilderness, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina.

I am lucky. I know this to be true. I grew up on family hikes to Devil’s Courtyard and Craggy Gardens and Wayah Bald, on wild rides down Sliding Rock—a 60' natural rock slide that ends in a deep pool—on rock climbing in one of the country’s first designated wilderness areas—the Shining Rock Wilderness. These places are as much a part of my childhood as my little brother laying down on the floor, poufing out his stomach, and yelling, “Hey, look, here’s Mount Mitchell!” Mount Mitchell being, well, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. And my brother, well, having a special talent. These places—Craggy Gardens, Devil’s Courtyard, Shining Rock—they are family.

And then I moved to Alaska, where I’ve been surrounded by wilderness—some designated and thus protected to varying degrees of success, some not designated but de facto wilderness because of how few people live here. We Alaskans have been lucky that way for a long, long time. But that’s changing, has been, my whole life here, and more and more I see how tenuous even those places designated wilderness hang on to the essential characteristics that make them what I, as a human and as a writer, need.

Two places in Alaska that are touchstones for me—family for me—have shown me this tenuousness: northwestern Prince William Sound, which has been a wilderness study area for decades but has not, it turns out, been managed as wilderness; and Denali National Park, where the iconic top predator, wolves, are decimated along the NE boundary on state lands. We draw lines, but for wolves those lands are part of their territory, the natural topography of their continuous territory. And then, of course, overlaid on all the other pressures human society puts on wild places is climate change.
 
As a writer, I owe it all to natural places, the birth of all my best ideas, images, stories. And Alaska’s wild places fuel my writing endlessly. In the wild, I enter into a conversation that’s always going on but is usually drowned out by my busy, noisy, human-centered life. I enter that wild conversation and am ignited, and new insights and images appear, and everything makes sense.

Making sense – my senses, all alert and awake—in that I find what’s real. And there are rare moments when I feel, as Mary Austin wrote about her experiences in the desert southwest, a “flash of mutual awareness,” when there is some apparent reciprocity between me and an oystercatcher, a wind-sculpted hemlock, a rock outcropping.

When I do my job right, I’m able to capture some small part of that conversation, that reciprocity, in words. That’s why, in The Heart of the Sound, I wrote short prose pieces in between the main chapters. In one, I’m boating back in pouring rain and heavy seas, wanting only to get home, when a Steller's sea lion pops up in front of our Zodiak, tosses a salmon into the air, catches it in its pink mouth, gives me a look, then arcs beneath the seas, home. These are moments of insight, reciprocity, shared conversation—and they are my attempts to give voice to the more-than-human world.


                             

                                       Polychrome Pass, Denali National Park, Alaska.

You know what they say about visiting wilderness: Take only pictures, leave only footprints. But I always take with me so much more. Not just my scribbles in my write-in-the-rain pad, but a host of experiential knowledge that carries on in my work, a subterranean river of knowing, that conversation reverberating in every experience I have after.

I’ll end with a quote from the late, great, Peter Matthiessen, from The Snow Leopard, which speaks to reciprocity: “The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share.”
 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Metabolism of Stars: A Guest Post by Scott T. Starbuck

Welcome to guest blogger Scott T. Starbuck, poet, teacher, ceramic artist, and fisherman, who says his blogging is an attempt to follow Ken Kesey's advice in a 1993 letter to Allen Ginsberg: "Ancient Advice Left in cave by Wise French Caveman: 'When Bigbad Shit come, no run scream hide. Try paint picture of it on wall. Drum to it. Sing to it. Dance to it. This give you handle on it.'"

The Dream of Seven Tails

"Metabolism of Stars" was the line I remember from poet/fisherman Ted Hughes describing the silvery side of a steelhead he had just caught.  I think that image reaches deeper and truer than anything I've read or heard about this torpedo-blazing, tail-walking, much sought after cousin of the rainbow trout.  I think those words came from being in the presence of a fish momentarily lifted into sunlight.  I spent the last eight months fishing from Gold Beach, Oregon, to Kamloops, British Columbia, focusing most of my efforts in the Columbia Gorge; the Forks, Washington rivers; and close to the house I rented on Whidbey Island, trying to catch steelhead or salmon, and trying to find words to carry some of the brilliance of fish, and wildness of human spirits who chase them into my new poems.   Now that my sabbatical is over, I'm back in the classroom, finding myself eager to get back in the river, and near the sea, casting to monster kings and massive schools of pink salmon streaming up the western side of Whidbey at this moment, less than 10 minutes from my house there.  It is much more important to me to catch fish than to write about catching fish.  I once missed a David James Duncan reading in Portland, Oregon, even though he was one of my favorite authors, on account of fresh summer steelhead that wandered into my area.

Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum was widely quoted as saying "In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught." When I went to sixth grade in Oregon, my class went to outdoor school, which I still recall as one of my favorite childhood memories.  Later, the ten years I spent at sea as a charterboat captain or commercial fisherman reinforced my love for nature. My best poems, essays, and short stories are still rooted in this kind of direct experience which makes me want to go beyond admiring nature to become a defender of wild animals and wild places.

Just before my sabbatical, one of my creative nonfiction students at San Diego Mesa College complained of writer's block, and other students agreed. I told her and the others, "Drive north to the redwoods. Throw your arms around a big 2000+ year-old tree, and say 'Tell me what you know,' then listen."

October Chinook


Clearly, I come from a long line of others who feel the same.  In 1987 Robert Bly came to visit Tom Ferte's literature class when I was a student at Western Oregon State College (now Western Oregon University) where he was asked what the next major focus in poetry would be. Bly's answer was the environment.  He said a poet's job is to defend nature.  Later, I read Keats held Wordsworth in higher esteem than Milton for how Wordsworth understood human psychological development. Keats wrote, "Well--I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me--The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think--We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening the thinking principle--within us-we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one's vision into the heart and nature of Man--of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression--whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken'd and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open--but all dark--all leading to dark passages--We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist--We are now in that state--We feel the 'burden of the Mystery' To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive, when he wrote 'Tintern Abbey' and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark passages. Now, if we live, and go on thinking we too shall explore them."

I know this poetic/thinking/feeling process is not the same for everyone.  In the Voices & Visions, Walt Whitman, VHS, Allen Ginsberg describes how Whitman and Poe walked the same streets of Manhattan" but "Poe was a dream-generalist, that is a philosophical dreamer, who had phantoms that he described in detail" while Whitman "could notice anything you want, and could bring in all the everyday particulars of kitchen-ware life, dock life, skyscraper life . . ."   Therefore, it seems some poets/writers, like Poe, are better dreaming or daydreaming their visions, while others, like Whitman, have to get outside to write.

Socrates, like Poe, was well-known for loving books, but not the outdoors.  It is lucky for us Socrates never discovered joys of fishing, or he likely would have spent more time casting, and less time speaking things for Plato to write -- which reminds me of something else Bly said in Ferte's class in 1987: "The trees will carry what we don't say," (perhaps a quote from another author), which is another good excuse to go fishing.

Life Force

 

 

 


Water Cave Near Mogollon Rim

 

The baby in the womb knows the language of touch,
heartbeat, silence, movement, desire,
connection, water sphere, mother, life.
 
I rest in the crevasse of a watery Arizona cave,
hand on my chest and breath,
meditating on the words placenta and phoenix,
 
the bird that rises from ashes to live again
because soon I will be born
back into the world of those who have forgotten
 
where they came from, where they are now
and, like all animals, where flesh is soon going.

 
 
Scott T. Starbuck, a 2013 Artsmith Fellow on Orcas Island, feels destruction of Earth's ecosystems is closely related to spiritual illness and widespread urban destruction of human consciousness. A former charter captain and commercial fisherman turned creative writing professor, his newest book The Other History, on unreported and underreported issues, scenes, and events of the 19th, 20th, and 21 centuries, published by FutureCycle Press, was reviewed in the June 2014 issue of Amsterdam Quarterly. Starbuck's other eco-poetry blog posts appear at South 85, Miriam's Well: Poetry, Land Art, and Beyond, and on his blog Trees, Fish, and Dreams.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Stanley Kunitz: Your Fugitive Presence.


"When you look back on a lifetime and think of what has been given to the world by your presence, your fugitive presence, inevitably you think of your art, whatever it may be, as the gift you have made to the world in acknowledgment of the gift you have been given, which is the life itself. And I think the world tends to forget that this is the ultimate significance of the body of work each artist produces. That work is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life."

~ Stanley Kunitz, The Wild Braid

Friday, February 14, 2014

Writing Wild.

 
 
Two summers ago, I spent a week kayaking in the Tongass National Forest wilderness with two rangers and a photographer, Irene Owsley. Irene and I were artists in residence, there to experience the Tracy Arm Ford's Terror wilderness and create art from that experience. As soon as we landed in Holkham Bay, Irene got busy with her camera and tripod and an array of gear. Me, I sat on a rock and stared at the water.

A writing friend once noted that writers often look like they're just wasting time when really they're working. Being a writer means spending lots of time thinking, imagining, noticing, experiencing, staring out a window, she said, but to others it looks like you're just, well, staring out a window.

And that's why I sometimes felt awkward on that kayak trip. Irene was so obviously working, sitting under her umbrella changing lenses, switching filters, clicking away, while I mostly looked like I was goofing off. Sure, I had my rite-in-the-rain pad and pencil always at the ready, and scribbled whatever little image or phrase surfaced in my consciousness, but mostly I was just there, kayaking, looking, listening, letting my hand dip into the cool glacial waters. Not until I got home did I get down to the part of writing that looks like work.


 


 

                                                

So, on this past summer's kayak trip to Shuyak Island in the Kodiak Archipelago, I did my usual thing: while out there, I was just there. Rite-in-rain pad, check, and morning pages most days, check, but mostly I just soaked up the experience like the sphagnum moss that lined the edges of forest and pond. I paddled through sea otters bobbing among bull kelp so thick it was like paddling through spaghetti; I walked outer coast beaches resplendent with wildflowers and washed up treasures; I climbed into old-growth Sitka spruce forest, padding upon layers of moss so soft I could have slept away my life there; I brushed my teeth at water's edge while watching barnacles and sea stars and hermit crabs carry out their lives.

This trip didn't come with any outside expectations that I would create anything from it, since it wasn't an artist residency but was simply an adventure with three friends (one of whom, Carol Hult, is also a writer.) Still, I did what I always do: soaked it up, scribbled down a few things, and then, once home, stared at a blank page.

After an adventure, I try to devote at least a full week's worth of writing time focusing on nothing but that adventure time. I want to do it right away while the experience is still so fresh in my mind that the seas still sway me and the forest wet still drips on my head. I sit in my familiar office, in front of my familiar blank screen, and let the images flow. I recreate scenes. I capture bits of conversations. I describe each day with the detail of a diary entry, eyes open to the outer events of the day and the inner responses of my own mind and heart. I move from this sort of freewriting into essays, poems, short stories, scenes for a novel... I let the work take shape as it wants. In the poet
A.R. Ammons' words, I "look for the forms/things want to come as."


 


 

   

This pattern works for me. For the Tongass trip, I ended up with two poems, an essay, and a magazine article that was published in Canoe and Kayak magazine and graced with Irene's incredible photographs. For the Shuyak trip, so far I've got a brief essay and three poems. I'll share below one of the poems, as long as you promise to see it as a work in progress, but one that nonetheless captures some of the feel of that time on the water.




The Outer Coast

I have dreamed
this have dreamed
long swells rocking
and the light swaying
westward have

dreamed the round blue
of sea meeting nothing
but lambent sky. from
where this longing for
something beyond the
familiar? where
this dream of floating
far from what I love
to call my own? remote
as stars glinting among
undulations of kelp
these seas and yet
home to some deep
sounding of the heart,
a primigenial memory
of a time when I, like
these moon jellies I
paddle softly through,
spent my days adrift
aimlessly aimed for what
i could not yet see.




Saturday, January 4, 2014

Doris Lessing: An Artist's Job.


"I think a writer’s job is to provoke questions. I like to think that if someone’s read a book of mine, they’ve had—I don’t know what—the literary equivalent of a shower. Something that would start them thinking in a slightly different way perhaps. That’s what I think writers are for. This is what our function is. We spend all our time thinking about how things work, why things happen, which means that we are more sensitive to what’s going on."

Doris Lessing, the Art of Fiction No. 102, excerpted here.