Big flakes of snow melted on our faces as we cross-country skied, breaking trail on the ridge above Cold Stream Valley watershed. The soft quiet storm shattered by the sound of the train swiftly rolling up the mountain to Donner Pass. Joyous, we made our way through the meringue-like forest. Deep snow, grey sky, frozen blue pond and the charcoal scrawled tree scape now frosted, defined the sunless day.
Like thirsty pilgrims arriving at a well after a long journey, we gave thanks, knowing each snow filled hour meant sustained water for drought stricken cities and fields. Magnetized, we were drawn to the snow, both day and night, awestruck by this magical and rare occurrence. Never again taken for granted. A midnight stroll found us by the bank of the Truckee, laughing in joy, as the river, roared her song into the night, balance restored. In the heart of darkness, the snow-covered landscape reflected warmth, restoring our parched souls.
John Muir wrote in My First Summer in the Sierra “measureless mountain days…days in whose light everything seems to show us God…the blessings of one mountain day; whatever her fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, she is rich forever.”
We sat by the bedside of our departed loved one. Moments before dawn, quiet stillness all around, we listened for the spirit’s touch before it crossed the river.
Hours later in the granite cathedral of the spirit that is Yosemite, I sat before the falls along the Merced River and listened. The recent rains brought needed snow to the mountains, birthplace of the watershed, singing a welcome song of falling water to the Valley. In Siddhartha, Herman Hesse wrote “the river taught me how to listen…..the river knows everything; everything can be learned from it…..how to listen with a still heart, with an expectant, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinion.” Along the river, I heard the touch of farewell.
Rainy days are magical. Swaddled by the silvery mist, the grey-like sound of the hoot owl haunted the coastal live oak and eucalyptus forest of the East Bay hills near Oakland. Enchanted by the muted colors and subdued sounds we hiked the muddy Laurel Canyon trail. Twelve hundred feet above the sea promises a fair prospect. But reaching the hilltop, we found Wildcat Peak cloaked in a thick woolly rain cloud. Playfully, I imagined the peaks marking the compass points obscured by inclemency: Mount St. Helena (North), Mount Diablo (East), Mountain Hamilton (South), and Mount Tamalpais (West). Few hikers joined us on this cold, leaden day, but we found great warmth in our companionship and the grey solitude.
The artist and writer David Batchelor in The Luminous and the Grey surfaced the painter Vincent Van Gogh’s thoughts about the colour grey. Writing to his brother Theo in the 1880s, Van Gogh came to grey’s defence pointing to the “endless variations of greys, red-grey, yellow-grey, blue-grey, green-grey, orange grey, and purple grey…..it is impossible to say, for instance, how many green greys there are, it varies endlessly.” Continuing on this theme, Batchelor quotes the Bauhaus painter and color theorist Johannes Itten “[grey] is mute, but easily excited to thrilling resonances.” Batchelor opines “a small amount of any colour can and does transform grey…..into something subtle, complex and even thrilling.”
The Japanese poet Matsuo Basho describes this atmosphere – the solitude of grey – best with his haiku:
Winter rain has brought snow to our beloved Sierras and the sound of Yosemite Falls echoes like thunder through the valley! A welcome sound for our California beset by drought. Gradually hiking to Glacier Point from the valley, each switchback brought another gorgeous view of the waterfall. In his 1871 journal, John Muir wrote “as long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”
Captivated, I painted the waterfall the next day. Setting up my easel by the Swinging Bridge, I tried to capture the rainbow created by the sunshine striking the water falling earthward. The song of the waterfall, birds, and wind was all around, complemented by the sound of human language, as peoples from throughout the world came to visit and wonder at the beauty of this sacred National Park. Yosemite, the great sanctuary, the heart of the world, welcomes us all, makes brothers of us all, diminishing our fear, giving us peace in time of pain.
In Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, Rachel Cohen describes how Berenson, revolutionized art history by his beliefs that “one did not need to be steeped in history or iconography in order to respond to paintings…one could be in an active relationship with paintings…one’s own private and profound experiences of them was not just for the rich or gifted but a natural capacity of the human mind and therefore available to everybody.” Paintings, wrote Berenson, “hate people that come to them with anything but perfect abandon.” This month an exhibit of my watercolors hangs at the Sweet Adeline Bakeshop in Berkeley. Watercolors lend themselves well to my life in transit: they are light to carry, rapidly used, and quick to dry. As I walk and bike near home and work, or travel, I discover stories in the landscape. Watercolors and brushes at the ready, I stop to capture the moment with quick sketches. Some of these sketches mature into more detailed works created back in the studio.
While I firmly believe historical context is not required to enjoy art, it does, without a doubt, add to the experience. Depicting wild or urban settings, my paintings draw inspiration from the Hudson River School and Tonalism, groups of artists who expressed their experience of nature in very different terms. Hudson River School painters – including Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt – wrought panoramic vistas celebrating the magnificence of the land in sharply defining light. Emphasizing mood and shadow, the breaking dawn, gray or misty days, or light bleaching out sharp contrasts, Tonalist painters – such as George Inness and James McNeill Whistler – softly rendered landscape forms in their paintings. Published in A Life in Photography, the painter and photographer Edward Steichen wrote “by taking a streetcar out to the end of the line and walking a short distance, I find a few wood lots. These became my stomping grounds, especially during autumn, winter and early spring. They were particularly appealing on gray or misty days, or very late in the afternoon or twilight. Under those conditions the woods had moods and the moods aroused emotional reactions that I tried to render…”For those of you unable to see the exhibit in person, I share the paintings with you now. Bring your perfect abandon and choose your perfect soundtrack to view the pictures at the exhibition. Some may choose Mussorgsky, but for today’s viewing I choose Rufus Wainright‘s Release the Stars.
“From this valley they say you are going…we will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile…for they say you are taking the sunshine…that has brightened our path for a while.” These are lines from Red River Valley, a song heard throughout John Ford’s classic film of the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath, and the melancholy theme for the Joad family’s hard-travelin’ exodus from dustbowl Oklahoma. Tenant farmers, the Joads head to California hoping for a better life, forced from their home by drought and economic hardship. With a few days off in early November, I am driving there and back, crisscrossing my great state of California from Santa Cruz to Nipomo, Los Angeles to Fresno, and Yosemite to Oakland. The many legs of my journey take me through the Central Coast, the Los Angeles Basin, the Central Sierras, and the Central Valley. The land is parched, thirsting for rain and relief from a multi-year drought; and Chicano, Latino and Mexican-American agricultural workers — immigrants and migrants – who came to California hoping for a better life, populate much of this land.
In the fields of the Pajaro Valley, near Watsonville in Monterey County, artichokes, strawberries and cole crops like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower are tended and harvested. Farther down the road, I arrive in yet another important agricultural county, San Luis Obispo, where avocados, citrus, and vegetables are grown. As I drive by the workers in the field, Gloria Anzaldua’s words from her book Borderlands: La Frontera ring in my ears: “To live in the Borderlands means you are neither hispana india negra espanola, ni gabacha, eres mestizo, mulata, half-breed caught in the crossfire between camps while carrying all five races on your back not knowing which side to turn to, run from…”
Today migrants of the borderlands make these agricultural riches possible, but some fifty years ago, “Okies” migrants from the 1930s dustbowl tended the crops of this county. Working in Nipomo, Dorothea Lange documented this earlier migration and plight of the workers in her famous Great Depression photograph of the “Migrant Mother.”
Further down the road, I reach Kern County in the San Joaquin Valley where, Buck Owens Boulevard crosses Highway 58, which leads to the Cesar Chavez National Memorial in Keene. The child of Texas sharecroppers driven out by dust and the Depression, Buck Owens found seasonal work following the crops from Gila Bend, Arizona through the Imperial and San Joaquin Valleys of California. Growing up listening to Mexican border radio stations and Baptist gospel songs, Buck made Bakersfield his home and became famous for singing the story of the “Okie” migrants who came to find work in the farms and oilfields of Central California. Owen’s contributions and the work of Merle Haggard are chronicled in Gerald Haslam’sWorkin’ Man’s Blues: Country Music in California. Ironically, just a few miles south of the road memorializing Owens is the final resting place of Cesar Chavez at the headquarters of the United Farm Workers (UFW) who started and led the farm workers’ movement to give voice to the next generation of poor and disenfranchised agricultural workers.
No matter where you find yourself, walking or cycling connect you to place. On foot or on a bike, life slows down and ceases to rush by in a blur. The smells, tastes, sounds, and sights of a landscape can be discovered, lingered over, and remembered. This rings true in both urban settings and the countryside where the aroma of paella cooking, the taste of locally made vermouth, the sound of church bells ringing, or the sight of the remaining fall leaves colorful against a winter sky are savored and stored like Proust’s memories of things past. Or as the landscape writer and teacher, J.B. Jackson wrote in his essay Sense of Place, Sense of Time the atmosphere…the quality of the environment…have an attraction…we want to return to, time and again.” So, after days of walking and gathering our own observational data about Barcelona, we set out to walk in some of Catalonia’s regions known as comarcas.
In the comarca of Pla de Barges, home to cava grapes, we arrived at Catalonia’s iconic mountain Montserrat to visit the Benedictine abbey Santa Maria de Montserrat in which the Mare de Deu de Montserrat – the black Madonna known as La Moreneta – greets pilgrim’s seeking to touch her hand to receive her blessing. The Montserrat range is Spain’s first national park and features formations composed of pink conglomerate and limestone rock visible from a distance as serrated ridges. The park draws hikers, rock climbers, nature lovers, tourists, and pilgrims to traverse the park’s miles of trails. On clear days visitors can see Mallorca one of Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean; unfortunately for us, it was hazy. At sunrise the rocks and abbey are bathed in pinks and oranges and the Llobregat river valley below the mountain is covered with a blanket of fog. The Llobregat river flows from the Pyranees to enter the Mediterranean at Tarragona, the Roman imperial city of Iberia. The mountains above the abbey host chapels and the ruins of hermitages dating back over ten centuries. We walked the Cami de Sant Miquel through a Mediterranean Oak forest to Sant Joan’s chapel, the hermitage of Sant Onofre and the Stairway of the Poor. On the trail to the hermitage, I was moved by the stones worn smooth by centuries of pilgrims climbing the trail. My thoughts travelled to the Zen Buddhist, Matsuo Basho, the great master of haiku who wandered Japan writing poetry during the 17th century. Bashho drew inspiration from his environment, capturing his experience beautifully in a few short lines. Reaching the summit, I heard the abbey’s bells ring the quarter hour hundreds of meters below.
Later in the trip, we visited the volcanic comarca of La Garrotxa, staying at the lovely bed and breakfast La Rectoria Sant Miquel de Pineda beside a restored 12th century chapel situated on the Ruta del Carrilet part of the itinerannia, a network of historical paths connecting three comarcs: El Ripolies (Pyranees mountains), La Garrotxa (the volcanic park) and L’Alt Emporda (rolling hills teased by the offshore dry, cold Tramuntana wind ). This network of trails is ideal for avid hikers and mountain bikers who enjoy exploring nature, touring farms, and sampling local cheeses, hazelnuts, pinenuts, honeys and breads, as well as learning about the history of the area. We walked the path leading to La Rectoria once the bed of the narrow gauge railroad connecting the ancient cities of Girona and Olot. We also explored the cobblestone alleys of the medieval towns of Besalu and Sant Pau discovering the traces of Jewish communities tragically expelled by their majesties Ferdinand and Isabella’s Alhambra Decree in 1492 after the Reqonquista of Muslim Iberia in 1491. We visited these towns on the celebration of Treis Reis (Three Kings day) or the Epiphany, when the Magi visited the infant Jesus celebrating the revelation of the Son of God as a human being. Parades arrived at the main town plaça where the Kings presented gifts to eager children and on January 6 we ate the Tortell de Reis. Each night at dinner our host Roy Lawson and his wife Garrotti created delicious meals featuring fare from local farms including haricot beans, truffles, goat cheese soufflé, and buckwheat pancakes. Roy and Garrotti’s hospitality, comfortable and welcoming accommodations, fabulous food are a must if you are travelling in Catalonia; and the people you meet at their B & B are great! Roy and Garrotti also have a blog for La Rectoria.
October’s government shutdown locked us out of our national parks. Fortunately, national forests are nearly impossible to fence in. Forest rangers closed visitor centers, but they could not padlock our public lands. The indifference, lack of connection, and abstract selfishness of a political minority – disregarding communities beyond their voting district – blocked passage of a federal budget, keeping government workers from their jobs – in this case stewardship of our natural resources – and held our country hostage, reeking havoc with local economies, such as businesses dependent on tourists to our national parks. Flouting our temerity, we voted with our feet gaining access to our birthright, our public lands. Entering Inyo National Forest, we found welcome amongst the wilderness of trees in the Eastern Sierra and Great Basin Desert, trees, blessed by their ignorance of Washington, D.C.’s theater of the absurd. I photographed our journey in addition to the watercolors in this blog entry.
When its fall in the Eastern Sierra, trees dress in dramatic and painterly yellows and gold accented now and then with a touch of red and orange. Near sagebrush scrub in the yellow pine belt bioregion found at approximately 7,000 feet above the sea, the yellowing leaves of black cottonwoods are jewel-like on the landscape. Thriving on moisture, the cottonwoods grow where their roots find water near lakes, meadows, springs, and mountain streams. Higher in the Sierras, in the 9,000 – 11,000 foot elevation range, forests of jeffrey and lodgepole pines, red fir and western junipers are found, as well as stretches of quaking aspens, simply breathtaking to behold. Finding water amongst rocks at cliff bases, these trees sparkle in the sunlight, and the wind reveals their white trunks and stirs leaves in a continual flutter. Farther East in the Great Basin Desert, the White Mountains host magnificent ancient bristlecone pine forests. Methuselah, the oldest tree on earth, estimated at over 4,750 years in age, thrives in this arid, exposed landscape, requiring minimal water and finding just enough nutrients in the dolomitic and alkaline soils where few other trees can flourish. Keeping only essential parts alive during times of stress, the living tree is dressed in dead branches, made smooth over time by the forces of wind, ice and fire. The sculptural bristlecone pines seem to form a community of dancers moving nominally in a minimalist ballet for the ages. The beauty is sublime; this place opens our living souls and we are filled with affection.
an inspired Forster sketched out the entire concept of one of his finest works, Howard’s End. Published in 1910, Forster explored several themes including developing urban industrial spaces juxtaposed with a rapidly eroding English countryside, and the human need toconnect. A century later, Wendell Berry, who like Forster appreciated the value of community and place, was honored to give the 2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, which he titled It All Turns on Affection. Informed by Forster’s Howard’s End, Berry described the need for integrated local economies connecting cities with their surrounding rural landscapes “to bring producers and consumers…back within the bounds of the neighborhood…[within] effective reach of imagination, sympathy, affection…[gaining] a measure of security that cannot derive from a national or global economy controlled by people who, by principle have no local commitment.” In his talk, Berry described Forster’s foresight: “the existence of small farms were limited and that an industrial ugliness, was creeping out of the cities and into the countryside, and that this ugliness was characterized by the withdrawal of affection from places.” In Howard’s End climactic scene Margaret Schlegel talks to her husband Henry Wilcox, “a plain man of business who sees life realistically with a hardness of mind and heart only because it is expedient and because it subtracts from reality the life of imagination and affection, of living souls.” Margaret tells Henry “it all turns on affection now…affection. Don’t you see?”
In Song of Myself a poem from Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman penned the line “the press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections.” May our political leaders in Washington remember their actions impact places and persons across our nation and the world. As they do their work, may they walk with affection, understand their commitments, and not trample – drunk with power – the places and communities – in the lands just beyond their own.
It’s spring on Orcas, in the San Juan Islands, and we are hiking from Cascade Falls via Mountain Lake to Mount Constitution; at the summit, the view of Mt. Baker across the sound is glorious. It is a day so hot and clear, that even Mt. Rainier, nearly 100 miles to the south, sheds the hazy cloak, granting a glimpse of inspiring wonder. The Pacific Northwest has a quality reminiscent yet distinct from the Grand Canyon. Looking across the vast expanse of Puget Sound, we are flotsam in time, humbled by the knowledge that our lives are defined by tides, wind and volcanism; at the Grand Canyon, we witness the passage of time humbled by the expanse of history portrayed by the simple act of water coursing the land. In these moments, when we glimpse our place in the scheme of things, we honor the greater forces at work on our planet.
On the trail, my feet seem to find every small cone shed by the Western Red Cedars populating this coastal forest;* the crunch seems deafening in the stillness. The air tastes salty, tinged by the scent of wood smoke, and the forest is quiet except for birdsong and the infrequent hiker or mountain biker. Rounding the turn, we discover a bald eagle perched on a partially submerged log near the shoreline, fishing. My friend whispers, “amazing to think that the removal of one chemical <DDT> from the environment made seeing this bald eagle possible.”
Today is Mother’s Day, a fitting day to honor women. According to Rebecca Solnit, in the early 1960s three women writers changed our thinking about the nature of authority and tradition in the world into which I was born: Jane Jacobs with The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Betty Friedan with The Feminine Mystique and Rachel Carson with Silent Spring. Jacobs assailed the postwar restructuring of cities resulting in suburbia; Friedan questioned the patriarchy of middle-class suburbia and the assigned gender roles of women; and Carson argued on behalf of ecosystems exposing fatal flaws in Big Science and industry’s broad stroke solutions. As Solnit describes in her essay Other Daughters, Other American Revolutions published in Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics, Carson was “the first to describe the scope of the sinister consequences of a chemical society, the possibility that herbicides, pesticides and the like were poisoning not just pests – or pests, and some songbirds and farmworkers – but everyone and everything for a long time forward.”
Rachel Carson was able to communicate very technical information and inspire the general public to care about the environment. According to Solnit, Carson’s “book had a colossal impact from the beginning and is often credited with inspiring the DDT ban that went into effect nationwide in 1972. Though some now challenge the relationship between DDT and eggshell-thinning in species, wild birds from brown pelicans to bald eagles and peregrine falcons have rebounded from the brink of extinction since the ban.” Rachel Carson’s closing words say it best “the ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man…it is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.” Thank you Rachel Carson; your “words are deeds.”** We honor your greater feminine force that gave us this bald eagle today.
* The San Juan Islands forest typically includes Western Red Cedars, Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, Big Leaf Maples and Pacific Madrone.
** Lord Risley speaking to Maurice Hall from E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice.
Brahms’ Requiem is a prayer for the living, and it begins “blessed are they that mourn, for they shall have comfort.” I’ve been listening to it for days, seeking comfort, because a dear friend passed away on Saturday night. Last week, I found myself standing in Stanley Park, Vancouver, awestricken before a totem carved by Haida artist Bill Reid. Recreating a pole carved in 1870 in the village of Skidegate, Queen Charlotte Islands, the totem honors the passing of the Raven Chief Skedans; images of the Moon, Mountain Goat, Grizzly Bear and the Whale grace its visage. The Chief’s daughter erected the pole as a memorial honoring her father’s passing. I was in Victoria when Laura Tatum passed away. In the tradition of the memorial totem, I offer these watercolors today in remembrance of Laura. My friend Laura brought an extraordinary sparkle and passion to all aspects of her life. Laura had a smile that could light up the darkest of rooms. She was a superb archivist who specialized in architectural records and broke new ground engaging architects in arrangement and description of their archival collections.
Work has brought me to the Pacific Northwest & British Columbia several times in the last year: Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria. I have attempted to capture the region’s beauty in my watercolors.
In my mind’s eye, I see Laura, a native Oregonian, flying magically and Marc Chagall-like in the heavens over the rooftops and green space of the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Her journey takes her northward from Oregon along the Cascade Range to Mount Rainier, westward to the Olympic Range, and northward again across the Strait of Juan de Fuca towards Vancouver and Victoria, her spirit living and loving, ever inspiring us to live life to the fullest. With this magic, I shall have comfort.