veil

Masks and labels

Mock or Mask? Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

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.

  • You are a vulture: They were tearing themselves to pieces, and their vulture lawyers, were picking at the carcass of their marriage.
  • You are a snake: You’re nothing more than a lecherous snake in the grass.
  • You are a wolf: Who do you feed to the media wolves?

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.

Women: a greater force challenging authority and tradition

View of Mt. Baker from the Anacortes ferry landing. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

View of Mt. Baker from the Anacortes ferry landing. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

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.

blessed are they that mourn

Chief Skedans Totem. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler.

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.

Mount Rainier, Seattle, Sunrise. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler

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.

View of the Olympic Range from Victoria. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler.

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.