I want very badly to challenge the ease with which we succumb to the false divide of labels, that moment in which our empathy gives out and we refuse to respond openhandedly or even curiously to people with whom we differ. As I see it, to refuse the possibility of finding another person interesting, complex and as complicated as oneself is a form of violence. At bottom, this is a refusal of nuance, and I wish to posit that nuance is sacred. To call it sacred is to value it so much and esteem it so highly that we find it fitting to somehow set it apart as something to which we’re forever committed. Nuance refuses to envision others degradingly, denying them the content of their own experience, and talks us down tenderly from the false ledges we’ve put ourselves on. When we take it on as a sacred obligation, nuance also delivers us out of the deadly habit of cutting people out of our own imaginations. This opens us up to the possibility of at least occasionally finding one another beautiful, the possibility of communion.
― David Dark, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious
Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious.
He sighed profoundly, and flung himself–there was a passion in his movements which deserves the word–on the earth at the foot of the oak tree. He loved, beneath all this summer transiency, to feel the earth’s spine beneath him; for such he took the hard root of the oak tree to be; or, for image followed image, it was the back of a great horse that he was riding; or the deck of a tumbling ship – it was anything indeed, so long as it was hard, for he felt the need of something which he could attach his floating heart to; the heart that tugged at his side; the heart that seemed filled with spiced and amorous gales every evening about this time when he walked out. To the oak tree he tied it and as he lay there, gradually the flutter in and about him stilled itself; the little leaves hung, the deer stopped; the pale summer clouds stayed; his limbs grew heavy on the ground; and he lay so still that by degrees the deer stopped nearer and the rooks wheeled round him and the swallows dipped and circled and the dragonflies shot past, as if all the fertility and amorous activity of a summer’s evening were woven web-like about his body.
― Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Being connected to modern culture requires a certain amount of screen time. You and I, in order to share these musings, which are surely worthwhile, have to spend time on a device. The paradox of our reality is that, the more time we spend in this two dimensional, textureless yet very real place, the less time we spend interacting with our neighbors and our local, three dimensional environment. What do we do when we need to remember to get out of the box?
My cats remind me by snuggling up to me at the keyboard, rumbling, enticing me with a friendly purr. My husband and friends remind me when it’s time to go to the store, or hang out, or take a walk. Then there are those quiet moments that we long for: at the beach, in our backyard gardens, climbing a mountain. There are also moments brought to us by art. At a museum, in our own homes, in community spaces, physical art, especially sculpture, reminds us of our desperate need for texture, touch and connection. It helps us get out of our shell.
Placuna Anima Maris (Oyster Soul of the Sea), Rowan Mersh and Bob Lorimer. Photo Credit Frankie Pike
I’d like to share the immensely beautiful and exquisitely textured art of Rowan Mersh with you. The irony of sharing pictures of physical art online does not escape me, but the beauty of the internet is that it can show us things that would not enter our normal day to day lives.
Rowan Mersh is a multi-media sculptor living in London. A graduate of the Royal College of Art, he has created a variety of work, from kinetic and interactive installations to textile sculptures. Today I will concentrate on his work with shells.
Asabikeshiinh V detail
Mersh slices the shells, which are sustainably harvested, grinds and polishes them and reassembles them by hand into structures and patterns which he then coats with a fluorocarbon resin that preserves and fuses the piece. It’s a painstaking process; the larger pieces take months to create. These Doxander vittatus shells, common name Vitate Conch, look as delicate as lace. I love the way Asabikeshiinh V seems to flow and move. Do you see a school of fish, or maybe tropical foliage?
Asabikeshiinh II. Photo Credit Frankie Pike.
Asabikeshiinh II detail. Photo Credit Frankie Pike.
As the shells fit together, they determine the design of the piece. The turritella shells in the piece above were laid with the largest in the center and the smallest at the outer edge. Asabikeshiinh II recalls the graphic designs of M.C. Escher, but with the magical addition of texture. Seen up close, it looks remarkably like a lace textile.
Here’s another variation on the theme, this one resembling a light and airy chrysanthemum in full bloom. Does it surprise you that asabikeshiinh is an Ojibwe word for “spider? The legend of the Spider Woman who protects the Ojibwe people tells that, as the Ojibwe became scattered across North America, the Spider Woman instructed women to construct dream catchers to filter out bad dreams and hold them until the sun could destroy them. I knew this legend only vaguely through commercial efforts to sell tourist goods and trendy healing products. Mersh’s works seem to reclaim some of the dignity and significance of the original story. Can you see the webs?
Asabikeshiinh Praegressus shows the evolution, or progression of the dreamcatcher idea. This time, Mersh has allowed the form to curve in on itself, creating a sort of nest or basket. The turritella shells here look more plantlike, almost like reeds, but still retain their weblike pattern.
Placuna Pro Dilectione Mea II
Placuna Pro Dilectione Mea II detail
Placuna Pro Dilectione Mea II detail
Placuna Pro Dilectione Mea II looks as if it is made of soft feathers, but it is actually made of the shells of the windowpane oyster, the same shells that we often see in windcatchers. The hard, brittle, transparent discs, also known as Capiz Shell, are abundant in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. The title translates Oyster(shell)s for My Love.
Turitella Duplicata II
Turitella Duplicata II detail
Turitella Duplicata II detail
Returning to the turritella shells, Duplicated Turitella II leaves them mostly whole, sticking out like some strange sea plant or perhaps a nappy animal pelt. The closer you get, the sharper and more amazing the spines look. An illusion of motion is created by gradually varying the angle of the shells. Mersh’s talent for shaping, which involves thinking of each shell as a painter would think of a brushstroke, is astounding.
Pithváva Praegressus I detail
Pithváva Praegressus I
Pithváva is a deity of the Yurok people of the California coast. He created the dentalium, or “tooth” shell, considered by the Yurok to be sacred. Dentalium shells were frequently traded among First Nations People. This piece is an exploration of both the dentalium and the god, a physical representation that is almost kachina-like in its significance. It is Rowan Mersh’s connection between his material, the natural world and the metaphysical legends of the past that give his work not only beauty, but a reverant resonance. You long to reach out and touch it, and through it to connect to nature and the past.
All images used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for educational purposes. Please spend some time on Rowan Mersh’s amazing website, where he has many more pictures and works to share.
For no matter whether the fairies are seen metaphorically or as real beings inhabiting their own real world, a study of them shows us that those who came before us (and many of that mindset still survive) realized that we are — no matter what we may think to the contrary — very little creatures, here for a short time only (‘passing through,’ as the old people say) and that we have no right to destroy what the next generation will most assuredly need to also see itself through.
If only we could learn that lesson, maybe someday we might be worthy of the wisdom of those who knew that to respect the Good People is basically to respect yourself.
Many African societies divide humans into three categories: those still alive on the earth, the sasha, and the zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living-dead. They are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead. As generalised ancestors, the zamani are not forgotten but revered. Many … can be recalled by name. But they are not the living-dead. There is a difference.
― James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
Thanksgiving Day 2018 was a memorable one. We spent the week in Blanding, UT. Unlike Moab to the north with its trendy, sporty persona, which I don’t much love, Blanding is unvarnished and unpretentious. I would rather feel like traveler as opposed to a tourist, if you get my meaning. In mock appreciation to the sporty set we took up the names Zook (short for Gadzooks) and Dag (short for Dag Nab It). We spent three full days in the area, hiking to House on Fire ruins, traveling Monument Valley, and taking the La Sal Mountain Loop over to Arches NP. It was all quite lovely. Those who know me well know that the desert, especially red canyon country, is the landscape that resonates most deeply with my soul.
I love the grim gaunt edges of the rocks, the great bare backbone of the Earth, rough brows and heaved up shoulders, round ribs and knees of the world’s skeleton protruded in lonely places. —Maynard Dixon
On Thanksgiving morning we decided to trek out to Moon House, a beautiful and well preserved ruin in Bears Ears National Monument. The guidebook advised us to budget 2 to 3 hours and to be ready for some “moderate scrambling”. Best laid plans of mice and men… We took Totoro, our Honda Pilot, 8.2 miles down Snow Flat Road. He did well–very sure-footed on the gravel–but it was a test of Dag’s skills and Totoro’s design, especially when parts of the road were along slickrock shelves. The second half of the drive we took very slowly, almost turning around at a particularly nasty rock that threatened our center of gravity. We managed to ease around to one side and get over it. Finally we made it to the trailhead, where the guide book told us to park and walk up the remaining couple of miles to McLloyd Canyon. Looking at this section of road, sandy and washed out in places, we decided that was a smart decision.
When we reached the rim we did not immediately locate the ruin, which is to the left part way down the canyon wall. There was a better vantage point along the rim to our left, but we didn’t confirm that until we were past the point of visiting that spot. Reaching Moon House is a dramatic descent down one side of the canyon and up the other. It’s an extremely picturesque place and the ruins are plentiful and attractive. About that moderate scrambling…
On the way down there is a rippled slickrock shelf that leans into the canyon and drops off. My husband and I are little people… Dag is 5’7 and I’m right at 5′. If we were a little taller, this might not have been as much of an issue. There are two possibilities. It looks as if someone has piled up some rocks under the lip of this shelf, but that means going straight out over the edge and you’ve really got to trust that the pile of rocks is there for your benefit. Option 2 is to walk to the right along the slickrock, which is steeper on this side, until you come to a small tree that you can grasp and lower yourself onto the trail below. At this point we were the only people on the trail (there would be two more parties behind us, comprised of taller folks) and we spent some time negotiating this perilous spot. I don’t think that a fall here, or more of a roll actually, would kill you, but you’d probably break something and getting help out here in the middle of nowhere is EXPENSIVE. Dag opts for the tree. After some moments of sheer terror, I follow, my running shoes slipping down off the slickrock as I manage to scoot across. I discarded my hiking boots two days earlier after they ate holes in the back of my heels. The tree takes a nice gash out of my jacket as I drop on to the trail. My legs are jelly. We spend a few minutes trying to ascertain whether or not the trail is going to get worse or not, but decide not to turn around after all that struggle. Moon House is closer now, and absolutely gorgeous.
The rest of the way down is rocky and a bit steep but far from scary. There is a lovely wide place to cross to the other side of the canyon, passing by a large boulder. It is a great place to catch your breath before the last moderately difficult task of pulling yourself up to the next ledge. The route goes between two rocky protrusions that keep you from feeling as if you are going to go tumbling. Once you traverse that, you find yourself on the Moon House patio. The ruins are right in front of you.
The BLM allows visitors to enter the outer wall, although we did not feel right doing so. As we came up the ruin side there was a gnarled tree. Usually if anybody sees or feels something weird, it’s me, but in this case Dag swore that he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a Native American man sitting on it. He seemed a friendly presence, but he commanded some respect as well. Moon House was visited by looters many times before it was set up as a park site. There was a smuggling ring in Blanding that was broken up a few years ago, resulting in some suicides in the community. Several of the items recovered came from Moon House. It didn’t feel good to identify in any way with that kind of activity. Instead I thought about my mother, who is very unwell and dealing with end of life issues. I said a little prayer asking for help as we walked the canyon. There was much to be seen, and we certainly missed some things along the way. I feel it is important not to be greedy in the wilderness, be it for loot or experience. Greediness gets you into trouble–gets you over-extended and over-burdened. Perhaps it is not so different in everyday life.
Saying goodbye to the friendly canyon spirits, we hauled ourselves out of the canyon and headed for the car. We arrived at 11am and it was now nearing 3:30. We were several hours overtime and the weather forecast had indicated a 20 percent chance of snow in the late afternoon. As we walked the two miles back to the car, the snow arrived, a gentle dusting. As we took Totoro back over Snow Flat Road, it started to snow in earnest. We managed the 8.2 miles of gravel without incident and were very glad to reach pavement. We jokingly cried out “Tarmac!” in homage to Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman in Long Way Round and headed back to Blanding for our Thanksgiving feast of prime rib, mashed potatoes and megasalad, topped off with pumpkin pie with whipped cream (the real thing, baby!) There’s nothing quite so satisfying as the meal that follows the accomplishment of a quest.
What did all that scrambling tell me, other than I should keep myself in better shape? That I need to let myself risk falling and failing. I’ve always fit Synkroniciti into my other schedules, letting them set her pacing. Part of this is the result of putting my life back together three times, part of it is a legitimate fear that Synkroniciti will fail, or, perhaps more frightening, that she will succeed and draw me into a new place. One does not simply jump off the side of a cliff, neither will I quit everything else I am doing to follow Synkroniciti into thin air. But it is now time to edge my way toward new sights, to puzzle out the landscape before me and, if needed, create new trail.
Nothing is achieved alone. Would you like to join me on my journey for a while? We all have different goals and different challenges such that we can never truly comprehend each other’s journeys, but we can certainly lend a hand when we cross paths and root for each other from our separate vantage points. Let’s get out there and find what 2019 has to offer. And if you slip along the way, take comfort in knowing you aren’t the only one out there.
But the Phoenix is not remarkable for its feathers or flames. It is most revered for its ability to climb from its own funeral pyre, from the very ashes of its old charred body, as a brand new life ready to live again once more. Life after life, it goes through this cycle. It absorbs human sorrow, only to rise from death to do it all again. It never wearies, it never tires. It never questions its fate. Some say that the Phoenix is real, that it exists somewhere out there in the mountains of Arabia, elusive and mysterious. Others say that the Phoenix is only a wish made by desperate humans to believe in the continuance of life.
But I know a secret.
We are the Phoenix.
―Courtney Cole, Every Last Kiss
I thought I would try a new approach this year with my favorite quotes. This is always the most difficult list to compose, and, with the sheer number of quotes published in 2015, it was an even larger challenge than in the past. I decided on twenty of the three hundred and some odd posts and then arranged them in an order that provides an interesting flow. It isn’t exactly a story, but a meditation connected by themes and wordplay. I hope it is both meaningful and fun for you. Click on the author to read the quote. Love to you and yours in 2016!