They are often found by browsing. We find them in antique shops, or abandoned on that hard-to-reach shelf: forgotten. You can randomly encounter them preserved in an archival collection, displayed on a museum wall, or even in a digital library like Calisphere. The snapshot: a random glimpse of the world capturing someone you’ll never meet and a story you will never know. But yet, it draws us. We search for meaning. Vivian Maier’s street photographs come to mind. The composition, the lines, the color, or lack of, and the emphasis all conspire to spark the imagination and engage us.
Consciously or unconsciously made, art stands on its own authority; the artwork must exist successfully regardless of the creator’s context. The use of light, space, movement, rhythms, and textures must interact so compellingly that we gain insight on the human experience regardless of the work’s origin. The creator’s story can shape and enrich the work, but our engagement, that “snapshot” moment the work captures the viewer’s imagination, is the starting point. We want to understand the human experience. Can we solve the mystery?
The creation of and engagement with art is, among other things, a deep and personal search for knowledge, for certainty. It is a search for meaning. But this thirst for knowledge is a double-edged sword: overexposure can lead to wisdom or paralysis; underexposure to bliss or ignorance. Perhaps we must be both overexposed and underexposed to truly understand the meaning of being human. Understanding is not found in a single snapshot, but awareness is, and consciousness is a good place to start.
In Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World Jane Hirshfield writes about the Heian era Japanese poet Izumi Shikibu stating [his] poem reminds its reader that the moon’s beauty, and also the Buddhist awakening…will come to a person, only if the full range of events and feelings are allowed in as well.
“In poetry’s words, life calls to life with the same inevitability and gladness that bird calls to bird, whale to whale, frog to frog. Listening across the night or ocean or pond, they recognize one another and are warmed by that knowledge” writes Jane Hirshfield in her book Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. Waking in the night, each breath calls to yours, building a bridge between us, and I am warmed by that knowledge.
UC Santa Cruz is a special place; where else would you find a traffic sign flashing bright orange “be alert…deer crossing the roadway.” Cycling into work, I laughed lovingly acknowledging both the practical advice and the deeper meaning of mindfulness. Situated on a mountain overlooking the Pacific, the campus is replete with rolling meadows and coastal forests of tanoak, bay laurel, Pacific madrone and the regal Redwoods. An ecosystem intimately shared by animals, plants and people. After a quiet summer, September signals major events in certain campus populations: the academic cycle migration of homo sapiens and the advent of the breeding season for California mule deer. The traffic signal brings some needed intervention to manage the humans and deer inhabiting this space. All summer the bucks have roamed the meadows as a herd while their antlers grew big and strong preparing to compete for a mate. Next spring, fawns begin the cycle anew. Riding up the bike path through the thirsty meadow, I wonder from where the mountain lion watches these migrations and lifecycles. Will I ever see one?
Right mindfulness, an element of the Buddhist eight-fold path, teaches adherents to be alert, present, building awareness of the moment…the path to enlightenment. Earlier this year, I received a gift from the wife of a landscape painter whose work I greatly admire; she connected me to the work of Peter Matthiessen, Buddhist and writer of fiction and many well-respected books about the environment including the National Book Award winner The Snow Leopard. Trekking through Nepal with the ancient Buddhist shrine Shey Gompa on Crystal Mountain as their destination, Matthiessen and the field biologist George Schaller were seeking research data on the Blue Sheep and the Snow Leopard. Truly a book about his spiritual journey, Matthiessen finds the revered Lama of Shey who blesses him with a koan “Have you seen the snow leopard? No. Isn’t that wonderful!” Matthiessen writes “I feel great gratitude for being here, for being, rather for there is no need to hike oneself to the snow mountains in order to feel free. I am not here to seek the “crazy wisdom;” if I am, I shall never find it. I am here to be here, like these rocks and sky and snow, like this hail that is falling down out of the sun…the absurdity of a life that may well end before one understands it does not relieve one of the duty (to that self which is inseparable from others) to live it as bravely and generously as possible.”
It is the season when deer are on the minds of many. Last weekend we attended the fundraiser for the journal West Marin Review held by Point Reyes Books. Two great women poets read from their work: Kay Ryan and Jane Hirshfield and ironically among the many poems they read, they both chose to read works about deer. Selecting a poem from her book The Best of It, Ryan read “a buck looks up: the touch of his rack against wet bark whispers a syllable singular to deer; the next one hears and shifts; the next head stops and lifts; deeper and deeper into the park.” Hirschfeld choose a poem from The Lives of the Heart and read “a root seeks water. Tenderness only breaks open the earth. This morning, out the window, the deer stood like a blessing, then vanished.”
With the coming of the cross-quarter, winter begins. Leaves in artful decay proclaim the changing season. Gone are summer’s limbs heavy with ripened apricot and plum. From the corner of my eye, the persimmon, branches nearly bare, adorned with amarillo bangles and arancia hearts. Floating. Breathtaking in the fading light. I paint; a deep sense of connection between myself and everything. For the moment, I fade away, lost in the act. Later, steady cold rains: the kind we welcome to keep the drought years at bay. Mugs of hot matcha take the edge from chilled hands. In the oven, persimmon cookies bake, the golden taste of connection. (San Francisco) California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.
Legends tell us the heart-shaped Hachiya fondly called kaki was introduced to Japan from China in the 8th century by a wandering Buddhist. The monk traveled Japan subsisting on persimmons spreading seeds “Johnny Appleseed-like” throughout the land. Masaoka Shiki a 19th century Japanese author helped revive waka and haiku poetry and introduced the concept of nature sketching or shashei honored the fruit’s place in Japanese culture with this poem composed while stopped at Nara on his journey to Tokyo:
I bite a persimmon
the bell tolls
In her book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Jane Hirshfield writes that “every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections….it begins…in the body and mind of concentration….true concentration appears paradoxically at the moment willed effort drops away….the self disappears ….we seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself.” Echoing Jane Hirshfield, Phil Lesh lovingly described his life with the Grateful Dead in Searching for the Sound . “We were in the music and the music was playing us. To loose oneself completely in a spontaneous flow of music is one of the great human joys: one is creating, but being created. In fact, one no longer exists. At the same time, there’s a give-and-take a handing off of ideas that mimics the process of thought itself….Bobby and I left holes for each other’s notes, creating an interlocking constantly changing rhythm.”