From Naturhistorisches – A Painting Series by Robin L. Chandler, 2021
the commons enclosed and the world a map
mastery, and possession
From Naturhistorisches – A Painting Series by Robin L. Chandler, 2021
the commons enclosed and the world a map
mastery, and possession
Patiently we live stream, waiting for Wek’-Wek’ the last Peregrine chick to fledge from Sather Tower.
On nearby Evans Hall, his brothers Fauci and Kaknu, and his parents Annie and Grinnell encouraged the youngster to join them.
At last, “this bird has flown.”
So the story ends, and so it begins.
In this our lost year-of-Covid, Annie and Grinnell have raised two families and unknowingly shared their intimate life with a world of humans.
In darkest March 2020, these beloved Peregrines were a gift to the imagination when four walls defined our world. With joy we watched as Annie laid her eggs, the chicks hatched, devoted parents provided food for their brood, and Grinnell kept the chicks warm at night while Annie took her rest. And then with excitement, in May 2020, we watched as the brothers Sequoia and Redwood flapped their wings, caught the wind and soared for the first time. And a few days later, with her brother’s encouragement, Poppy joined them and was airborne. And all was delight.
Another year has passed, and another family raised and fledged. Annie and Grinnell we thank thee for showing us that dedication and devotion will guide us through the darkness. Until next year dear Peregrines, good hunting and fair winds.
Thank you for the hummingbirds…a glimmer of hope we cherish in our gardens.
Hear our votive prayer for the bird souls, thousands dead in New Mexico, victims of the wildfires fueled by climate change:
“And when bird song is gone will earth be the only witness?
Will only rocks grieve the absence?”
Do we pray for a miracle
awake from the dream that our world consists of disconnected beings?
“Artists render things.” In my case, landscapes, cityscapes, human figures, combinations of artifacts, and even toys are rendered on canvas as they appear to me. Selecting a subject to paint calls upon both external and internal factors. Shapes, volumes, colors, and textures engage my senses – establishing my experience of the “thing” – while simultaneously my subjective connections, associations, and memories open a hailing frequency. For children (and grownups) toys (and art) are gateways to worlds we imagine where we are inspired to create a balance between what we observe and what we experience. And so play, and in this case, a painting, begins.
There were twelve toy animals on the table; the one that spoke loudest to me was the Bison. Though only inches in height and width, the expertly modeled Schleich toy called to me. I was captivated by the massive strong body, the tones of sepia, burnt umber, and yellow ochre, and the sense of the thick shaggy fur. Instantly my mind surfaced thoughts of John Muir’s wilderness and my associations with ecologically minded indigenous peoples, capitalist resource exploitation, and land stewardship combined with my memories of hiking and camping. I could easily imagine the cloud of breath released from the Bison’s nostrils on a cold winter Yellowstone morning. The “thing” reached out, grabbed me, and as all good toys do, brought a joyous smile to my face.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed “humans were like citizens of two worlds, occupying both the world of the Ding an sich (the thing-in-itself) which was the external world, and the internal world of one’s perception (how things appeared to individuals).” According to Kant “when we experience an object, it becomes a thing-as-it appears-to-us. Our senses as much as our reason are like tinted spectacles through which we perceive the world.” 
The world, unfortunately through other spectacles, is gritty and grim. I read this morning about how the Bison herds in Yellowstone Park are managed. Because this is the sole remaining place in the United States where the public can experience bison living free-range, sustainable herd percentages are identified (4800), and numbers beyond the benchmarks are destroyed by capture and slaughter or by hunting. Range management is rational, and yet I weep at the loss of numbers realized through our ongoing conquest of the planet. “According to the naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, North America at the time of Columbus was home to sixty million bison, thirty to forty million pronghorns, ten million elk, ten million mule deer, and as many as two million mountain sheep…incredible to imagine today, bison roamed from New York to Georgia.”
 Wulf, Andrea. The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World. (Vintage Books: New York, 2016). p.38-39
 Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. (Vintage Books: New York, 2006). pp. 282, 357.
Darkness punctuated only by the light emitted by stars hundreds of thousands of miles distant and the embers of our fire; and a quiet stillness, broken only by the sounds of waves crashing upon the beach and my wife’s slumbered breathing, measured exhales. The sound of the infinite, slow and steady. We came to Mendocino to slow life’s rapid pace and savor special moments, but, we were unexpectedly blessed to briefly experience the infinite.
Caspar is situated on coastal prairie between the communities of Mendocino and Fort Bragg. An active lumber company town in the 19thand 20thcenturies, it is now a quiet village whose headlands, once the location of a lumber mill, are now conserved as the Caspar Headlands State Reserve. The terrace grasslands are home to meadowlarks, white crowned sparrows and harrier hawks and the beach and estuary below host cormorants, gulls and oystercatchers and the endangered Coho salmon and steelhead trout.
From the balcony of our lodgings, we have a good view of the headlands and the Pacific and on Saturday we were rewarded with a sighting of a pod of gray whales migrating north. The whales were surfacing, exhaling and spouting warm, moist air before diving, their flukes breaking the surface as they plunged. Now as I lay in my bed after midnight, listening to the sounds of the surf, I imagined the gray whales swimming through a deep blue sea, and the sounds of their breathing as they steadily continued north to Alaska, guided by an ancient knowledge passed from cetacean to cetacean. The infinite.
“Close your eyes, prick your ears, and from the softest sound to the wildest noise…it is by Nature who speaks, revealing her being, her power, her life, and her relatedness so that a blind person, to whom the infinitely visible world is denied, can grasp an infinite vitality in what can be heard. ” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
For the past week, I have slept little…my nights spent watching the family of Gray Foxes living underneath the old shed near my father’s house. Sleepy days give way to frenzied nights, as the three kits turn acrobat and lovingly and relentlessly tease their doting parents. I will always remember this trip to Texas and my new friends who opened doors in my dreams.
In Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince the fox gives important advice to the Prince:
“One only understands the things that one tames….men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more… What is essential is invisible to the eye…It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important…[and] you become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
When I visit or talk with my father these days, the conversation turns to our shared stories. Several times he has with joy and relief told his version of a story about a day when I was three years old. Here is my version. Perhaps it was the call of the wild, but when my dog escaped, I followed, determined to bring her back home. Too young to venture outside my yard alone, but that fact never occurred to me. Single-minded, with purpose, I tracked my dog; when she crossed the creek, I walked into the water, unaware of the coming baptism. In a new world where the rules of gravity and locomotion no longer applied, my feet lost contact with the ground. Possessing no vocabulary to describe my new emotions, my grown self now describes the situation: panic flirted with me, but an increasing sense of calm flooded my body. Water felt like home, not enigma. I moved my arms and legs and reached the shore where my dog looked on; I grasped her collar and we began the walk home, my clothes completely soaked. Closer, fire engines wailed and police cars flashed. Neighbors ran excitedly in all directions looking for something. My frantic mother was yelling at my distraught father. I didn’t understand what was going on. Walking up to my speechless parents, I said, “I got my dog.” Suddenly strong emotions of happiness came from my parents. Once grown, I came to understand that adults thought I was lucky; they were probably right. But somewhere deep inside, some part of me understood my life’s journey had begun.
“Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the misermerman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps…”
“Only in the heart of the quickest perils; only within the eddyings of his angry flukes; only on the profound unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be truly and livingly found out.”
In the Sixteenth Century, French-Dutch mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes, launched the modern age with his words Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore, I am. With this new framework, he separated the mind from the body, freeing the mind from the body’s passions, and banishing the idea that sickness came from a sinful and impure mind. This concept complemented Francis Bacon’s scientific methods based on empiricism and inductive reasoning, and consequentially, humans gradually separated from ourselves as natural beings, no longer in tune with the spiritual gifts of wilderness. In Western society, animals became creatures to be feared or resources to be exploited, instead of interconnected beings deserving respect as cohabitors of our planet. Animals became veiled in our fears, our greed and our separateness.
And animal names became epithets hurled to mock and mark, or threatening masks donned to wield power.
In large part, we are divorced from nature. Wilderness and animals have become our adversaries instead of teachers with whom we share time and space. Indigenous peoples embraced animals as a bridge to the liminal, lifting the veil into the spirit world.
Hilary Stewart in Looking At Totem Poles writes “the people’s understanding of the interconnectedness of all living things and their dependence on certain animal and plant species fostered belief in the supernatural and spirit world. Life forms, especially those taken for food…each had their own spirit…certain birds and animals were associated with particular behaviors, powers or skills, and people sought their help to achieve success…in the dark of long winter nights, when fires burned…then the spirits drew close to the village…a time of ceremonies, speeches, singing, dancing and feasting…through costumed spiritual transformations and re-enactments, they brought past histories and adventures into the present…thus the carved beings of crest and legend portrayed on the totem poles, often recreated in masks worn by dancers, sprang to life.”
On this Halloween, as you engage in the ancient rituals of Samhain welcoming the end of harvest and the return of winter’s long nights, contemplate the true meaning of the mask you wear to celebrate the season. And while I will never advocate for discarding the benefits of the Age of Enlightenment, I would argue for the necessity of balance, and a framework that envisions humankind as a part of the natural world, instead of outside of the natural world, where it is all to easy to don the mask of conqueror and exploiter.
On a recent trip to paint the landscape of Chalk Hill, Sonoma County, I had the great fortune of encountering a coyote, a flock of crows and a rattlesnake. The summer grasses were golden and red with just a few hints of winter’s green. Sketching in an oak tree’s shade, I could see the sun drenched heat rising from the land. As afternoon became evening, I walked amongst the new grapes and vines and met coyote, crow and rattlesnake. We, all of us, were not immune to our physical presence and we each, gave the other, a respectful berth, content to observe from a distance. I reflected on their spiritual meaning, because forms and symbols are the essence by which many live and breath. Indigenous peoples of the American Southwest consider coyote, a trickster or the one who brings gifts but sometimes takes those gifts back; crow, the one who warns of attack or is the harbinger of change; and rattlesnake, a messenger carrying prayers for life-sustaining rain and one whose dens are portals to the spirit world. As the evening shadows deepened, I packed up my paints, and headed home, considering the meaning of these encounters.
This week’s total solar eclipse brought a great shadow to our land, both literally and metaphorically. It was a magical experience; a reminder of our planet’s dance within the universe and a chance to participate in an event that has captured the imagination of humankind for thousands of years. But for many of us the shadow brought by the solar eclipse, served as metaphor. We see trickster roaming our land spreading lies and hate and laughing at the results, causing a shadow now darkening our democracy. We see the warning signs; and soberly we know the situation will worsen before it gets better. But we must be strong and have resolve. We must act and make our voices heard to sustain the social and environmental justice principles we hold dear in our communities, in our county, and on our planet.
This morning brought another glorious day of painting here at my Chalk Hill Artist’s Residency. For the last three weeks, I have walked acres of vineyards cradled between the Russian River and Mount Saint Helena here in beautiful Sonoma County. During this time, I’ve forged deep connections with this beautiful landscape and the people, animals and birds that call this place home, and I’ve tried my best to put those feelings into my paintings.
The morning also brought a couple of “lost” dogs: Okie and Shadow. Out in my yard, I found these two out and about. They weren’t really lost, they were just not where they were supposed to be. But that said, I was happy they graced my porch and gave me their joy and friendship on such a beautiful day. Dogs and people soon all fell in to place, and they were on the next stage of their journey, and I was off to my studio to paint and paint some more!
Recently, my good friend Pam introduced me to a very talented musician Sarah Jarosz who is also a gifted songwriter. I can’t get this beautiful song Sarah wrote out of my head: Lost Dog. Maybe it sticks with me because all of us, bury old bones and find new ones, and all of us lose ourselves, and with determination, talent, good friends, and a wee bit of luck, find ourselves, again.
“ Lost Dog.
Where did you sleep last night?
Under the cold street light.
Who last called you by your name?
Where did you leave your peace?
Other half of your broken leash.
Why did you run so far away?
Something ‘bout you breaks my heart.
Why you burying bones out in the yard?”