This is not story telling. It is bodies.
This is story telling.
It is about turning away from bodies towards artificial ones. Is art an invasive species?
This is not story telling. It is bodies.
This is story telling.
It is about turning away from bodies towards artificial ones. Is art an invasive species?
At a certain point, when physical and social urban space is continually built out of practical considerations, usually the manipulation of people for purposes of efficiency and budgetary accountability, the city becomes an anti-human space. Witness this image from downtown Kelowna…
Anyone Waiting for a Public Bus Has to Stare at … Garbage.
(And walk past it to board the vehicle.)
… the city that defines itself as “The Okanagan,” i.e. the city that defines this …
(Okanagan, Not Kelowna)
… as itself. We can’t keep making excuses. The city attempts to humanize the space just around the corner from its insulting bus stop with this pretty image:
Notice how the landscape is portrayed as clothing on a youthful goddess figure, presumably Mother Earth, with apples (pine cones?) for breasts and a waterfall for a vagina, and a sacred rose spilling out of her fingers. Presumably, this …
… is viewed in this depersonalized view of Earth-Human relations in the Okanagan as clothing on Mother Earth. This city has a problem. Clothing is a human social affair. Dressing the earth in it is as much as manipulating people. I think it’s the city …
… that needs to be manipulated. Not this:
Creating parks is not the answer. It is only an opening proposition in an ethical conversation, and wealth held in reserve until the city can unify with the earth. We need to have that conversation. We can’t keep making excuses.
Sympathetic magic is a complex term for a simple phenomena: in pre-Enlightenment culture, the power of objects was believed to derive from similarities between them; knowledge of these similarities, and the ordering of them, allowed people not only to read the world but to control it. The Earth is sacred, because its soil is the colour of blood, for instance.
John Day Painted Hills
That the red is also the colour of fire and pottery, or that it’s also the colour of the seeds of the cheatgrass running up through the flows of spring water, is also part of the phenomena. This is precisely the form that poetry trains people in — specifically in how to read it from texts. Sympathetic magic is an Enlightenment-era phrase to describe how it has been used historically to read the world instead; poetry is the textual form of a far older form of reading. Here’s one way:
See that? You can pick up the stone, and the energy not only of blood but of the earth is in your hand. If you carry it with you, the energy will give you strength and guide you. This is the power of a different kind of “magic”: the power of the amulet. In poetry, it is the power of the word. What else, for example, are “man”, “woman”, “rock”, “sun”, “star”, “water”, “fire”, “head”, and so on, but such amulets, picked out of a beach as wide as the world?I picked up a number of such stones at Rialto Beach and Second Beach this spring, carried them with me for awhile, gave them energy by naming their colours with human rather than earthly terms, then threw them out into the incoming tides to add energy back into the depleted sea. It was a beautiful artwork.
I was reminded of the power of this aesthetic mindfulness yesterday, high above Kalamalka Lake. Here’s Terrace Mountain, peering up above the Commonage, covered in snow and lines of black volcanic rock from ancient floods of stone. The lake is a remnant of a 10,000 year old inland glacial melt sea. The bush in the foreground is a saskatoon, blooming and scenting the landscape with its creamy pear-blossom-like perfume: a warm scent, yet as cool as the water that gives it forth. The aesthetic correspondences are strong here, and include the mountain holding winter’s cold, the lake holding the sky, and the bush holding the cold water of the mountain, and winter’s snow, within its blossoms. Through the upcoming season of drought it turns this energy into spherical red and black fruits, each like an earth, each crowned with a star.
When the camera pulls back, the context of the saskatoon as a burning mountain, a fire made of water and winter, starts to pull in the balsam roots, now blooming throughout the bunchgrass on the slopes.
When it is pulled back further, the balsam roots, the pines, and the glacial and volcanic forms of the land start to reveal their complex combinations, complete with the forms called shoulders, heights and tongues, the land forms adopted by bodies, called lays, lees and beams, and the forms that language, given through poetry, has used to hold the mind, called pools, skies, thrusts, flares and so on.
It is all aesthetically-created. Here, this image should illustrate that well:
See that? Climb a few metres higher and a bit to the north and the correspondence is no longer between the white, watery fire of the saskatoon and the eagle crown of Terrace Mountain, but between a knob of ancient seabed, covered in hawthorns, and the mountain; it is now a correspondence of forms, rather than of energy that can be communicated by light. Everything changes from this …
… and different forms and narratives can immediately be seen with every shift. The shift below shows both correspondences, within their own relationship. Stories of winter water and sun are easy to read here. The lichen on those rocks colonized them as soon as the glaciers left. That’s the glacier there, molten in its bed, holding a reservoir of the sky. That sky, read by human bodies, is the mind. It is possible to swim in it. It is not something you think about. It is an experience of the world, all at once.
It is possible to read the world like that, all the time; to be in it and of it. To do so, however, does mean that the term “sympathetic magic” needs to be cast away. This is a form of reading, not a form of spirituality. It’s not in competition with Christian or Enlightenment traditions. The original statement that it was so was an error, based on a division between God and the Earth that simply has no grounds in scripture or human experience. This is our planet. Of course we can read it. Here’s Terrace Mountain from the next arm west, looking over Okanagan Lake this time. I stood about seven kilometres off to the left of this image, to make the shots above. Notice here, how the land reveals different forms against the same peak.
And in winter … And from lake level…
The changes are complex. Because they cannot be read by the tools of mathematics or science, they are called random. That’s not to say that they are, just that they are of such complexity that no tools have been invented that can read them accurately, predict them, or put them to practical use. Well, except for this:
The first is a human body living as the earth. The second is an eagle perch; without it, the birds with the heads of mountain snow, would not come to fish. The third is a ponderosa pine, as in the previous two images, but close up, showing how it weaves the light over the years, drawing it in through hollow green tubes, like reverse lightbulbs: an image of the human mind. The fourth is a path, which is all of the above images put to a particular social use; one way to move through them aesthetically. Yesterday, many young women were jogging along that path, and many middle-aged people, middle-aged dogs, and elderly people were walking along it. There were no young men. There were no children. It is time, I think, to rescue the earth, and poetry, for them, for the sake of those young women, if nothing else. One other point: once you have experienced these forms and languages in the world, which are called, variously, poetry, art or magic, and which follow the forms of ancient grammars, you can read them without the anchoring mountain. Typically, in Canadian culture, they are read\ as “nature” or “beauty” or, at times, recreated as “poetry”, to make them accessible to people trained only in how to read from books.
They are also, of course, readable as images, as photographs, as that particular art work. I find that a particularly exciting path, because while I have been making this blog over the last 42 months or so, I have presented something like 15,000 images. Many have been understood to be images of “nature” or “the earth” or “the Okanagan Valley” or “the grasslands” or whatever they might be, but what I’ve actually been showing you and finding the words to describe is this:
… and this …. … and this, which is what the world looks like without poetry:
That’s Terrace Mountain from a failed residential subdivision that destroyed the valley’s most pristine grassland for feeble images of Provence and Arizona and an American golf course. It wound up as barren gravel and dead rattlesnakes. In this context, reading poetry as a thing of words, as an intellectual and academic tradition bound with Enlightenment culture, with the kinds of meanings found in Enlightenment textuality, such as the narrative time lines of novels, is a misreading of our bodies, our selves, and the earth that we are. If our cities are such …
New Westminster Quay
Predator Ridge Golf Course, between Kalamalka and Okanagan Lakes
Kin Beach, Okanagan Lake, with Sterilized Geese and Invasive-Weed Mower
Kelowna Tourist District, behind the facade
Downtown Kelowna, a Global Playground
… that they cannot hold these conversations with the earth, it’s time to teach people how to read. As long as universities remain the bastions of Enlightenment thinking, within a global technological context, the answers don’t lie with them. The cities are, in fact, their products, not their solutions. So is this:
Pond, Turtle Mountain
That’s not Nature, by the way. That’s a rich grassland pond full of algae, its reeds trampled by cattle, its hawthorn nearly strangled by them, its grass turned to weeds and sagebrush, and its frogs absent. This is cattle country, the foundation of land ownership in these parts. It represents an idea of what the land can be, an idea that can’t even touch this one:
Biscuit Root, Turtle Mountain
This ancient food crop lives within the earth, in aesthetic balance with it. Any form of aesthetics that doesn’t acknowledge such balance, or that images of nature, and the balance required to make them work, are part of the language of biscuit root and paths into the deepest self and the strongest human identity, is not a house to live in. This is:
It’s not magic. It’s life. Until we see the 6,000 school children of Vernon leave their classrooms and sit amongst those flowers and learn to read them, we haven’t even begun to live here.
Rock gardening is the purest form of gardening in the Okanagan.
It’s native to this place, and very Zen. That makes sense for rock that started off in Japan and wandered here across the Pacific.
It used to be practiced by gardeners everywhere. This is the art form I grew up with in this place, back before university culture taught us that art was something else. Rock gardens were the thing, before our cultures were broken by the diasporas that began in the 1980s. You had to work with the earth to make them grow. You had to think like a painter and a monk.
That was the Okanagan. Up on the mountain it still is.
It’s no surprise, though, is it, that when volcanic rock grows, it flowers red, and its blooms are surrounded by the ash of the other spring that began in October and is now in its mid-summer drought, in April!
Don’t you think it’s time to put down your roots into native stone?
Windy day up on the hill. No bees, but many flowers making themselves all pretty for them.
That’s a beautiful flower. When you’re from this place, it’s the only one for you, the one that pulls at your heart.
She is arrow-leafed balsam root, which is a series of wrong names for a wild sunflower native to these hills. Yeah, no bees, but look who is braving the cold:
A butterfly growing up! Now, here’s the thing: these leaves taste like menthol. Reallllly strong menthol when they get this big. I guess menthol helps with the cold. Speaking of braving the cold of an extra-early spring:
Yellow’s the season. This Western Meadowlark is a cheeky guy. Here he was three days ago, thirty metres above the neighbour’s house up the hill.
A long time ago, there was an attempt to speak the language of the world. Ultimately, it came to look like this:
Gutenberg Bible of 1455
The idea was that that book had been dictated by a god of no name, because his name, not bound by words, couldn’t be contained by them.
Diagram of the Names of God in Athanasius Kircher’s Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1652–54).
What Kircher was really trying to say was this:
Eventually, by a sleight of hand, this god came to be represented as a man making man in his image which was not an image of a man. (It just looked like it to men.) As I said, a neat trick and good for getting past the censors who were trying to stamp out such sneakiness.
Michaelangelo, Sistine Chapel c1511.1512 Source
This man was born in a space called the world. He was the point at which this divine power touched the world. Eventually that notion was set aside in favour of an idea of a divine world, feminine, which didn’t need a spark of the (male) divine to set it into motion. We still call this space “Nature”.
Christian Morgenstern, Norwegian Landscape with Mountain Path and Seashore, 1829.
What was left for male power was to “develop” this nature, into this kind of thing:
Berlin City Palace, 1900
Notice how it is codified into rooms (chapters) in its body, and a domed head, with a cross (or lightning rod) reaching up to Heaven. It’s a lot like this, really:
Morgenstern’s representation of a human-god relationship as “nature” and “emotion” (i.e. human nature) was a revolutionary change — the world was within humans, not without them. Here’s the previous image of what Morgenstern’s landscape looked like. You will note that the physical narrative is subordinated to a human one, which is subordinated to a sermon. Everything here has a symbolic dimension, controlled rigorously by a pre-determined idea. It is, I repeat, the same landscape as the one above. It is also called “Nature.”
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, c. 1530
Morgenstern’s image (here it is again for your viewing pleasure)…
… placed all the intellectual material in Cranach’s Garden of Eden (again…)
…into the emotional imagination: it was the garden; there Adam lived with his god. About that, there are a couple important points. First, that emotional response is readable within the original image. It looks like this:
There is an apple picked from a tree, and beauty, and desire, and confusion, and the humour of a stag holding up Adam’s sagging, leaf-covered penis. Perhaps he needs some help in that regard, which Eve is, really, trying to help him with. A quarter century earlier, without such humour, Cranach portrayed that tree, and that apple, like this:
Lucas Cranach the Elder: Jesus on the Cross, c. 1500 – 1503.
The blood red of the apple, Eve’s menstrual blood no doubt, has drenched the women here and the priests, but not Jesus, born this time of woman and not God’s …
…erect finger. Sound confusing and ancient? It shouldn’t be. A few billion people still live within this story — chances are, even you who are reading this. It contains the namelessness of this god, written as mathematics and represented as geometry (or the bonds holding atoms to other atoms), as here in the ceiling of the church in the Monastery of Maulbronn, one of the sites where monks invented Gothic architecture…
… and here, in the more feminine image of a window, with its roses turned to stone, rising above monkish shapes, all very gothic and again in Maulbronn…
… and finding perfection, as an idea, here in the cloister library at the monastery of Saint Galen, in Switzerland, where western handwriting was invented and the elaborate, geometrical roof was turned into a series of symbolic paintings (without losing their geometry) and all the world was transformed into book form, catalogued and categorized, with the hope that when the task was done Eden would be recreated and the perfection of God’s creation would be viewable by humans, whether they knew his name or not.
Until that point, humans would remain characters in a ruined book …
Farm Women Returning Home in an Evening Landscape, Eugen Kampf, before 1933
It was actually a revolutionary idea: instead of human identity being controlled by the will of a man trained in the tradition of God’s geometry, people could live out their own emotional lives, within that geometry, while remaining unaware of it. The geometry would not longer be portrayed mathematically, but as arrangements of colour and form on canvas, or what is called ‘art’. The faculty of reading human identity, or vision, out of such arrangements was at the same time being transferred to the feminine image of “Nature”, with results like this:
Thomas Moran, View of the Rocky Mountains
Despite its appearance as “physical” reality, it contains all the information of Cranach’s image…
…just subsumed into the emotional world (when present in humans, who hold the position of Adam/Eve/Christ/Mary in this story), or in the “natural” world, when concentrating on the garden, in which the story is told. An exemplary example of this reading of the book of the world and all of time …
… in the physical world, is Yellowstone Park, which sometimes looks like this :
Brooks Lake, Yellowstone National Park
I’m telling you this story, because I think it’s important to keep in mind that for all the modernity in modernity, and all the progress in progress, there has been no replacement of the old story. The identities given to contemporary humans remain as much symbolic constructions within a story as this…
They don’t look like this anymore….
…but in a time in which Nature has been constrained within a full book-like persona …
… instead of the purer, geometrical one, rising organically into human social life through art and artifice …
Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Michael Angelo
… so have humans adopted the romantic notion of an (emotional, “natural”) self, even though it is a supreme artifice…
… in place of a self as a body…
Lucas Cranach the Elder, again
Playing around, as usual.
… in place of who they are, which is as unknowable as the God who has no name.
Kin Beach, Okanagan Lake
Just try to name that as your self, even though it is.
Whatever else can be said, we are not our selves, and whatever ideas we have for selves come from traditions of books, of reading the world as a book and reading books as the world, all with the goal of revealing the hidden energies of the universe.
The fact that that sounds strange, and that the image of the pond above is not seen as an image of contemporary humans (because it is not an image of a self) is an indication of how much humans have been trained to think like books, using book-selves to animate bodies, just like Cranach pointed out …
… so long ago and the poets and philosophers of the Enlightenment put into place. What the world, or ourselves, look like remains a mystery because that un-knowing is built into human identity and from there into the nature of the original quest to name the god that has no name. What if it’s not a god?
That changes everything.
The colour of the grasslands in the fall is the beginning of art.
The colour used by marketers to stimulate your reptilian brain is its end:
It was said that the Great War of 1914-1918 killed the culture that sought for refinement through art. No, it looks to me that it was a symptom. There is a life, still, outside of drugs.
Otherwise, the dead died for this:
They didn’t die for anything. They died, often horribly, mostly for nothing, usually because of gross incompetence on the part of their leadership, and honourable adherence to duty and friends. We can live for them. There is honour in that.
Either that, or the killing machines won.
Look again below. Culturally, in Canada, people have the right to cut sumacs down like this and stack them up beside the street so they look like this the whole winter through, to be hauled away in the spring time and chipped up into a kind of sawdust called “mulch,” which is mixed with sewage waste, fermented, and sold back to gardeners and landscapers. This is called “green thinking” and “dealing with weeds” and, look, it is green, isn’t it!
I think the cause of such behaviour is just the inherent gap between clear thought and the kind of populist thinking that passes these days for science. Here are some other sumacs, male like the ones above, up higher on the hill, and like them gone feral.
The first step of populist scientific thinking is a kind of triage: value assessment. It could, perhaps, be put like this: “What can I do with those things?” Most of the effort in considering sumacs these days goes into research into spraying chicken breasts with sumac juice in slaughterhouses and butcher shops, and measuring how much longer the things stay fresh (i.e. don’t smell baaaaad) on a supermarket shelf. Important, for sure, but, please, don’t tell your chicken friends about it, ‘kay?
The first step of true scientific thinking, however, is observation. Notice how some of the leaves below are one colour in the early Autumn and some are another. The second step should be asking if there is a pattern. Perhaps you could compare the colour differences to the patterns of shade that the leaves produce, and then compare that to the patterns of shade over the years that these bushes have been growing? A painter would, so we know it can be done. You are now, I trust, ready to move to the third step of scientific thinking: asking an answerable question. It might be this: is there a relationship between the two? (Well, yeah, there is, sure. Anyone who has observed trees over time knows that. The female stag horn sumac around the corner knows that.) See? Look at her, with her multiple years of branches and fruiting structures. Last year, the dead twigs here at her crown were sprouting leaves, but time marches on, wood ages, and, look, that’s a spider web way up there, isn’t it. Why, yes it is. All of these relations gets expressed in the leaves (well, maybe not the spider; she’s not there very long), and look at them! They’re very fine.
But the scientific game is a little different than just experience and observation: it wants to be able to demonstrate, in a yes-no question, one step of that process, and then another single step, and then another single step, and so on, so that, eventually, all the steps can be put together, and a process, or flow, can be known: not observed, because observations would then have to be proven, but known, textually or figuratively or in tables and graphs and data, and a simple statement that says precisely under what conditions, at what time, chemicals are laid down, or stripped out of, leaves to produce these effects, under which other specific conditions. A tall order. Now, a tree person might just say,
yeah, look, dude, I know that already, eh,
but that’s not the point. Those are different forms of knowing. The point, though, is that “science” is just a word. It stands in for “a process of rigorous, ordered thinking”, but it is a little different than that. Here’s it’s pedigree:
science (n.) mid-14c., “what is known, knowledge (of something) acquired by study; information;” also “assurance of knowledge, certitude, certainty,” from Old French science “knowledge, learning, application; corpus of human knowledge” (12c.), from Latin scientia “knowledge, a knowing; expertness,” from sciens(genitive scientis) “intelligent, skilled,” present participle of scire “to know,” probably originally “to separate one thing from another, to distinguish,” related to scindere “to cut, divide,” from PIE root *skei- “to cut, to split” (cognates: Greek skhizein “to split, rend, cleave,” Gothic skaidan, Old Englishsceadan “to divide, separate;” see shed (v.)).
In other words, it is a process that began with shedding information deemed excess, like cutting apart a corpse to see how it was put together. At heart, science today is just what it’s popular image takes it to be: “a process of determining the use of things and practical applications of materials in the world,” with the caveat that “practical applications” means “technological or material applications” or, in a more modern sense, also “psychological applications.” The selection process, the cutting away, has cut away everything but “usefulness,” however that is defined. That’s cultural. That’s not the other side of what is taken to be science, which is: “life, the universe and everything, as it really is, not how people see it to be.” In this popular conception, this is science:
No, it’s a moose in the sagebrush. To science, the art of shedding personal information, how a sumac makes Harold feel in the fall can be psychologically measured, and then put to use to help Harold feel better or worse or make him buy a camera, maybe, eh: planting more sumacs, perhaps, or having a sumac festival or something like going down to London Drugs and plunking down some cash. Cheating is allowed. In fact, it is encouraged, because, let’s face it, there’s no way that all of the trillions of connections between those leaves, space, light, gravity, water, air, insects and times are going to be worked out into a complete system, especially when Harold is involved, sheesh! You have to let some things go. For example, in the images of sumac (and a sagebrush moose) above, the bias is, well, contained in the apparatus that made the image. Here it is:
Here’s the cheating: instead of measuring all of the different light and chemical values, displayed by the colour differences in leaves, to work out a pattern of a tree’s life and how it interacts with the person holding the camera, that discussion is temporarily set to the side, the camera takes an “image” of the tree, which can then be passed around as if it were the tree or as if it were all the trillions of connections contained with the colour patterns of the tree and even with the observing human, looking through the lens, like this…
Ape Up to No Good
The photographic process exists because it has a “use”. Sumac trees have traditional human uses, too, such as (depending on species): tanning leather, making sumac tea, flavouring and preserving food, making medicinal teas and smoke (yes, medicinal smoke…that’s why it’s called a “smoke bush”), decorating gardens, making wax, creating ultraviolet light (fun for kids and 1970s black velvet painting aficionados) and so on, but a sumac tree? In and of itself? We don’t know, because our science doesn’t look at that. That has been sorted out and “shed” before we even began. Instead, that data set is what is called an “existential” question, a question of “being” or “is-ness” or, if you like, “identity” or “self” and is left to philosophy, religion and, especially, to art, which are, in and of themselves, also processes of rigorous, ordered thinking. Well, except in the romantic conception of science, which sees all of this hard thinking as “the world” when it’s in science and “personal values” when it shows up anywhere else, with the caveat that “personal values” have only personal uses. Poets aren’t even as romantic as all that, but that’s the world we live in in 2015. Now, hey, maybe, you might think that all of these kinds of thinking might easily fit together, into a system in which an artist (let’s say) could look at this sumac…
… note the colour patterns and, because of observation and experience (the first steps in science), and skill at “reading” colour and pattern, (the second steps), make an image of the tree’s “being”, or the totality of its presence. There’s even a word for this, as you probably know, a German word, because, well, Germans worked all this out first: “Gestalt”. An artist will claim the completeness of the pattern (its gestalt) as proof of its authenticity … and then pop culture science steps in, and instead of working out a system of questions and experiments, integrating, perhaps, some of the artist’s patterning processes, asks a few questions to sort out the worth of this investigation: does it have a “use”, can I get funding to study it, and how is that not just an emotional response, and since the mythology of science says that “emotional responses” must be shed, to get at the true, underlying forms of things, that’s that. The thing is, this “use” thing is a cultural bias. If “science” really does have to shed information, to make itself possible, and to build up a body of knowledge, that’s not necessarily the shedding that has to be done. In fact, it biases what follows in terms of technological processes, and that’s all fine and good, but an earth that can support humans well is dying, which is to say, that a conception of the earth that doesn’t include non-technical values is dying, and making it difficult for humans to survive.
We can do better. Let’s.
There’s no water in this well. It’s art.
In the interest of environmental goodness, to create art like this the land must first be covered with a continuous sheet of woven black plastic mesh, so that nothing grows from the soil beneath. It’s true that a rocky landscape like this catches dust, which turns to mud, and collects seeds, which turn to weeds …
… which grow on top of the continuous petroleum sheath, but, hey, that’s what weedkillers are for, right? The planet, however, wants to do this …. … and this … … and ultimately this (below). Don’t look at the moss swallowing this grassland rock as growing on top of the soil. It is the soil. It will soon cover the stone.
Life is the expression of Earth’s identity. The ultimate goal of “rockscaping” is not to turn back the environmental clock 4 billion years, to the time before life spilled around the planet, or to rebury petroleum in layers, as it was before it was pumped up in the first place, or to artfully wrap the planet in oil, but this:
Houses like these are million dollar artworks. This one has an exceptional amount of rock. Most rockscaping, though, looks more like this:
(look at that rose — after one season it’s already making a break for it)
… and this …
…and this …
It’s the ultimate expression of car culture: landscaping looking like the gravel shoulder of a highway, where, you know, you can park and get out and admire the view, and where houses are situated, anyway. Nice. Practical. Living in the “now”. Solid Canadian values, all of them.