Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Feel of Having Been Someplace

Again there was no one else for distraction from a northern Ontario mood evoked along the waysides as I traveled by little-old-Toyota from west to east. In my mind's eye right now I am around Thunder Bay, though the window views have been scrolling since morning well to the west. Since I've been through the districts of Thunder Bay and Algoma in this province most years since I was barely of school age I've had half a lifetime of opportunity to build up a sort of mulch of vistas and bush-texture, the facades of cliff, the etches of deadwood standing up that belong to this reach of North America, with certain prospects characterized by a kind of light or weather that seem possible from many places but still tie me to this land in memory. They all could be the groundwork for endless landscape art, though who besides me would take much interest? Mainly the stubborn soul of the maker if that soul, seldom as productive as in its dreaming, counts for anything very much.

Land-mood like this has caught my notice for as long as I've been aware of places around me; it's the feeling left when I'm away from that place but recalling time I spent there. Maybe the abundant sense of it is a function of time alone in one's psyche, in the faith that these impressions are at best savored but wasted if talked about. One of the things I enjoy most about movies, even, as I remember favorite scenes is the mood of the setting, a countryside or a skyline along a city, that came to me from them, set to the filmmaker's exquisite choice of music.

Mood imparted to a person by surrounding landscape is called that land's spirit, the difference from place to place as stark as the opposing scenery is. What is there to account for that spirit comes, I have no doubt, of the leftover character of what drama unfolds there, influenced by what you would or wouldn't bump into--like air turbulence, heavy tree growth, profusion of other living or dead matter, humidity or aridity. What engenders the mood of the Canadian Shield, north of Lake Superior, in its peculiar sweetness emanating out of a quieter savagery--this is my theory--is inherent in the way all the big and little lives play out within that land. There is so much cover from ground level to treetop--there are cliffs full of crevices--there is a muffling expanse of forest cushy with needles in addition to paper-thin leaves, and there are sparse, ripped places bearing pockets and rivulets of water--so that living is secretive, hastily undertaken and sudden, often, in its curtailment by predator come unseen or heard. There is pain and stifling imposed by a long winter of nights that swallow up the wink of days whose sun arcs, there and gone again, far in the southern sky. Warmth, glints of winter blueness, autumn red and gold, resin-scented breezes are cause for seasonal celebration until, sooner and later, the participant freezes into winter's freezing dark. So much has lived and died there with an emotional framework borne of those conditions that the prevailing mood, conferred upon all nervous systems opened to it, comes of a deep sense that summer is short and death, mild or traumatic, hovers nearby. From forested mountain regions to the west the mood is bound to be similar, though in ways that can be guessed, subtly differing.

From decades ago I remember the broad-leaved hardwoods and farm fields of the lower Midwest, and now try recalling the character of what seems to have been a louder landscape. The crown of the forest hissed with summer's downpours blasted through, till winter changed the wind's voice to a roar, the gale in bare branches clicking or at times squeaking, hinge-like. Cicada sound in summer--was it the seventeen-year locusts?---pulsed louder then ebbed like a dying motor. Bird noise carried further among the pillars of those woods.

So a prairie, often gone to agriculture, has more of a spirit of the resolute--there is much less to obscure your view but you have to stand, peer, organize your intentions though in greater assurance than you'll likely feel in forestland--and on a shore, facing a sea or lesser water, you'll act similarly but pausing longer, taking scarier physics into consideration. And so the fabric of each of those places is patterned by whatever happens there, again and again and again but by assorted agents, lineages native to that place or come to visit and influenced by it. Microbial action in that fabric must both obfuscate and intensify the track of bigger and more forceful living agents.

These thoughts easily sidetrack me into recalling a bit of a memoir from my neighbor Joan Skelton, a Canadian author and playwright, who wrote of traveling into Michigan to join friends in a discussion group. Joan keeps a rock garden, which she describes as an outdoor horde of geological finds, not a planted garden. Every stone in the garden has its far-off point of origin, someplace where Joan has been. For a long time wanting a Petoskey stone, a type of fossilized coral, she was invited into the countryside by a group member; this was in a part of Michigan near Petoskey and Little Traverse Bay where it was still possible to unearth Petoskey stones. Joan surprised herself by digging up a chunky specimen which she brought back with her to Ontario. It was rusty-toned, smudged all over by the soil it came up from, so she chose to soak it overnight in soapsuds, noting as she handled it that it looked like brain tissue. She went on to tell how the oddly colored and patterned stone refused to leave her thoughts that whole night, affecting her with sleeplessness and haunting visceral visions. At one moment she could hear wind, then a knocking at the main door, but a walk to the door revealed nobody there and no wind either moving the treetops. Everything troubling her she felt traceable to the lurking of that stone hauled out of place, so she ended up, a day or two later, scooping it up in a coffee can and taking it to a landfill, and rolling it down an embankment in front of a bulldozer in the act of burying stuff. She summarized that she had always considered all personal experience fare for rational explanation, but that the Petoskey stone proved to her that some things in the world really do lie outside of that whole normal approach, tied to realms beyond our senses or understanding.

                                                                     Petoskey stone

I can go on from there with an ancient childhood memory of my own, taking place when I was about seven, on a family hike south of Indianapolis in a dry limestone ravine inside Shades, one of Indiana's state parks. We must have been walking the regular trails for a while but when my parents decided to drop down into the ravine and follow it, I was perturbed to the core for no reason I could give when asked, even though we could see the trees and sky above our heads the whole way. I cried and sobbed like a forsaken little girl the whole way though in arms' reach of my annoyed parents, who did all they could to ignore me. We were a party of five, I think, including my sister and a boy, George. After we climbed out of the ravine I myself could only wonder why--what threat since none was present?--was I so upset in those surroundings. Was it the feeling of caves under the lip of land only maybe as high as my parents' heads? If there were caves or crannies we were in no danger of getting trapped in them, nor did we stop from just following the pathway of the ravine.

I'd been reminded of that day previously, already many years back now while I stood in a bookstore and paged through something I can't so far tie to a title or an author, about phobic people--first, a little boy who loved the fireworks and fanfare of the Fourth of July, till when that long-awaited showtime came around again he went into panic and screamed inconsolably to the mystification of his elders. His parents took him to a hypnotist whose process of questioning narrowed down his fears to a specific admission something like: when I was a soldier. Further questioning turned up evidence that the little boy, who was maybe six years of age, had some recall of being in a bloody battle full of cannon fire and the like, though no war that could be named--it could have been an American Civil War or colonial battlefield, or European. Speculation in the book was that his extreme youth kept an impression from another's life, reincarnated in him, from complete burial amid his present-day consciousness.

In the same book there were other phobics--the other one I remember was an adult with a sickening fear of heights. A questioning process from the same hypnotist uncovered another linkage with a long-ago life lost, not a blood ancestor's, but just someone' specific death, and the terror of it somehow revisited on a soul from our century. What haunted this person was a nightmarish fall from the steep gabled roof of a Gothic structure with a sharp peak and a spire. The victim had slid, then caught on or just beneath the spire, then finished falling to his or her demise. All are tales, probably having more worth than just as entertainment, drawn from tales drawn from memory, but if founded in people's true experience they do hint at things we are commonly kept from knowing about who we are, what we come from, and likewise about the earth and cosmos.

Here I am trying to relate the spirit of place with sequences of animal movement (it could be human) that has typified them, with ghostly dramas that nobody would probably think worth their time trying to verify. The mystery common to all these categories of encounter is sensed, real, not supernatural but a current holding the universe together. (Supernatural, I think, is a term to keep for these phenomena when they're not sensed but just recorded or itemized.) But the mystery is the vitality that drives us from the material world, as far from it as we can pull ourselves, then, inevitably, back to it since we are material ourselves. Art is the momentary and recurring habitation of the mystery, moved into view in order to be shared.

Because I'm seized by mystery in the phenomena of birds, I like to paint birds in weather or sky mood conveying an energy that capitalizes on the prevailing spirit of a habitat, wherever that may be.

    Watercolor :  12 x 16" tableau of finches--Redpolls--(and vole) against a wind-carved snowbank - framed, @$225

                                 Watercolor, 5x7" on glossy Yupo paper : 'At the Very End' - with Crows and Cardinal - unframed, $50

                                Watercolor : 'Wayfarers from the Arctic Night' - Long-tailed Ducks - 21x28" framed, $495