Monday, January 11, 2016

I Met a Legend in the Dark

Skiing mainly for exercise in the last low glow of a fair Saturday, river running open on my left, firs and oaks and ashes and aspen interwoven not so awfully high overhead, I heard a snap, not so much like the sound of dry wood as of live sapling, and stared to my right in search of the animal. I try and try to revitalize a memory of something, right away not deer-like, bounding probably a lot the way a deer does when spooked, then running southward, opposite my own bearing, on legs that were low and stocky--not deer, though as quick, and even quieter than deer, I thought right away. I knew to watch for a tail, a defining thing, since all image at that stage of late day was silhouette. And I must have seen a tail, intent as I was not to miss one and so make an ID, and then I must have really seen a long thin tail. The impression in memory is the tail, a moment's wink of added-on silhouette, shaped like a C in the way it was carried. I think I said, "oh!" before veering off the trace of path in a faint degree of shock.

Having cougar on my mind since viewing a neighbor's photo shots of cougar tracks the day before, I wanted for this fleeing animal to be that cougar or kin to it, whose face and coloring it was too dark to see. But what other kind of animal could that form have been in unfenced private forest in Minnesota, given the tracks and the momentary galloping outline, an animal at least as big as me or bigger, scared off by my passage on cross-country skis? But it was a silhouette, not a full and living subject. I had just missed a real sighting of another American wild animal I have never met anywhere before in the wild. Earlier in the same day I had, alongside Lake Superior, viewed a new species of gull so close up I thought I recognized expression in its face--what are you all staring at?? Really!--and watched it from angle after different angle in full flattering sun. This bird looked like a marble bust or an art-quality color photo brought to life.Then I had headed over to Pineapple Art Center to exhibit and talk about an art proposal making use of pencil silhouettes. This continuum of images--live and moving, to flat monochromatic and representational, to live but silhouetted against a night-dark forest--seems noteworthy now, full of room to talk of the impacts of the different kinds of image that smack our eyes.

For the first couple of nights as I lay awake after that startling encounter--in the urgings of many people, dangerous owing to the nature of that kind of beast--I troubled myself with the question: did I really see a long thin tail, held however it was held, like a C or uncurling into another shape--or did the power of suggestion, the desire for this spectre to really prove to be a cougar, add an imagined tail to the back end of the bounding-away form? Looking hard, I think, was probably its own reward: I really saw, however fleetingly, what there was to see. But the other part of the conviction I had had in those seconds as I stood on my skis came back to me--no bobbing white rump and tail of a deer, nor any other obvious tail of the bushy sort a wolf would carry. The animal sprang away like a cat, or panther, or mountain lion, all of these, because it was a cat, of magnificent size.

What is a silhouette when compared with a fully-formed image? I think it takes its place as the image of all of its kind, while a three-dimensional photo or illustration is of a specimen. Just below is decorative, contemplative artwork I have taken on as an assignment, hinting of types of human, suggestions of personality, categories of motion. I plan on doing another sheet not of human figures but our four-legged, hands-free relatives like the cougar or deer on the run. If I should be so lucky as to pass another mountain lion, or panther, or cougar in broad-enough daylight I wonder what I'll have to report beyond color pattern or perfectly supple, enviable powers of motion--attitude, say, of an animal in the way that we each saw the other and drew our conclusions. A different type of story and artwork must develop in those circumstances.

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