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.
In his essay Thinking Like a Mountain, Aldo Leopold recorded the moment his ecological thinking evolved. “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and I have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because wolves meant fewer deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with me.”
Leopold spent a lifetime as a forester, a professor and an environmentalist developing his ideas and perspectives on the ethics of nature and wildlife preservation. Ultimately, his philosophy, evolving over years of observation and contemplation became known as his Land Ethic, which is at the core of his most beloved book A Sand County Almanac. Aldo Leopold joins Henry David Thoreau and John Muir as one of our three great American wilderness visionaries and writers.
This weekend March 15 – 17, 2013, Point Reyes Books (near Tomales Bay) is hosting its 4th Geography of Hope Conference entitled Igniting the Green Fire: Finding the Hope in Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. Typically held in March, these intellectual and spiritual gatherings are a gift to celebrate the coming of spring and rebirth encouraging us to think deeply about our relationships with the earth and our fellow living beings. At the conference’s center is the film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time, a wonderful film directed by Steve Dunsky, edited by Ann Dunsky, written by Stephen Most and narrated by Curt Meine. It was announced at the conference that the film would be shown on PBS stations nationwide in April 2013.
Surrounding the film is a series of panel discussions with writers, thinkers and doers engaged the building of communities, the importance of stewardship and discussing our responsibilities to the land and to each other. One of the most compelling conversations has been with Michael Howard, Director of Eden Place Nature Center (part of the Fuller Park Community Development Corporation). Inspired by Leopold’s belief in the importance of community and the land, Michael Howard has built a park and a farm for the African-American community on Chicago’s South Side. “Eden” is in a place that was the former site of meat packing industry slaughterhouses, also polluted with lead poisoning which has impacted the ability of children to learn for generations. Howard deeply moved me with his work to try to persuade a people about the benefit of having a relationship with the land; a people whose daily concerns are about having money to pay bills and feed their children and who have spent years running away from a specter of linking the land to sharecropping and slavery. Michael Howard’s experience evoked for many conferee’s Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest about the emergence of non-profit and community organizations engaged in the environmental and social justice movement.
There is so much wisdom flowing from this conference, I will need days, weeks, perhaps a lifetime to really grasp and understand it all, and to see my thinking evolve as Aldo Leopold has demonstrated. But what rings clear and true is this: we need to understand that change is something that happens gradually, and it comes by engaging in deep listening, exchange with and respect for both humans and the land. We must learn to “think like a mountain.”
On Labor Day I kayaked on Tomales Bay. 2PM and it was high tide when I launched near the town of Marshall and the wind was dancing across the water leaving whitecaps in its wake. It was the first time I would be taking my new single kayak on the water. Wave and I have safely captained a two-person kayack on many trips on Tomales Bay where the center of gravity is low and the craft moves very deliberately through water. In my watercolors, I’ve documented kayackers in singles paddling across this water and now it would be my turn. Wave ably helped me launch the craft, and just after my paddle cut through the water, I heard a voice from the shore asking if I had a plan should I capsize out on the Bay. Well, the truth was, no, I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t think I needed a plan. I felt I had the experience to handle any situation that might come up. I just wanted to get out and enjoy the last few hours of sunshine on a laborless day.
I was eager to feel the joy of moving across the water, and have the wind and spray on my face and see the sun dappling the water. I imagined the feel of my arms working hard to create forward movement against the wind blown waves breaking across the bow. I imagined the moment, when one turns and with the wind at your back, experience the joy of being rocked forward momentarily airborne on the back of a breaking wave. But the voice spoke a truth that suggested listening. One of the staff for onsite operations for Blue Water kayaks on Tomales Bay took a few minutes out of her busy life and reviewed with me how to manage the unimaginable. A little later I was on the water and the wind was strong and the waves presented a fun challenge. I was deeply grateful that a person previously unknown to me spontaneously showed concern, and I was able to hear the truth of the concern, put my eagerness in check and gently accept the gift.
Later that day driving home, I thought of learning life lessons aknew. While one gleans much knowledge over the years, one must embrace daily life with the openness of a beginner. Christopher Benfey in his book The Great Wave describes an essay by Shuzo Kuki called “Considerations on Time.” Written in 1928, the essay describes two Japanese responses to the theme “man and time.” These are the Buddhist annihilation of the will, i.e. extinction of desire, and the Samurai’s bushido, i.e. affirmation of the will. Kuki saw the myth of Sisyphus as the very embodiment of the moral ideal of bushido. “Sisyphus rolls a rock almost to the summit of a hill, only to see it tumble back down again. And he is, thus, set to perpetually beginning anew. Is there misfortune, is there punishment in this fact?….Everything depends of the subjective attitude of Sisyphus. His good will, a will firm and sure in ever beginning anew, in ever rolling the rock, finds in this very repetition an entire system of morals and consequently, all is happiness…..he is a man impassioned by moral sentiment…..he is not in hell, he is in heaven.” Camus, describing Sisyphus, would write some years later “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
Sunday morning and I wake up hot. Again. For the last few days, Southern California has been dominated by a High Pressure system and we won’t see relief until later this week. After moving part of my life to San Diego last year, I came to understand there are only three seasons in the southland: rain, hot and fire. The season of fire has come and several fires are tragically raging now in the Los Angeles Basin. Still horizontal I begin to dream of shade trees and my mind wonders again to cooler climes of the Spring and my visits to Tomales Bay just north of San Francisco. On Inverness Ridge, the west side of Tomales Bay and the gateway to Point Reyes National Seashore, there are coast woodlands of Bishop pine and Douglas Fir. On the eastern side of Tomales Bay are the open oak woodlands and grasslands with dairy and beef ranches — often visited by families of deer. Much of this land on the eastern side has thankfully become conservation easements protected by the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT).
On this side we also find the non-native Blue Gum Eucalyptus and the Monterey Cypress planted by early settlers in this community to provide shelter from the winds.
On my visits to Tomales Bay, I’ve tried to quickly capture the trees and grasslands of the eastern side in watercolor and ink with a bamboo pen.
Daydreaming still, the words come from several Wendall Berry poems I’ve read in his book A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979 – 1997. “I go among the trees and sit still. All my stirring becomes quiet around me like circles on water. My tasks lie in their places where I left them, asleep like cattle.” Then as a hot breeze comes through my open window I think “of deep root and wide shadow, of bright, hot August calm, on the small, tree-ringed meadow.” At the end of a long, hot day last Thursday, I cycled to Leucadia and then returned home. It was a beautiful evening, and the air was still warm even as the sun set in the West. As I started up the Torrey Pines hill on the coast highway suddenly the temperature changed drastically. The pines nestled among the canyons of the park create a blessed coolness — the air felt like cool water lapping against my skin as I swam up the hill. I was thankful for the trees whose kindness helped me ride that hill. Rooted in the earth but reaching towards the heavens, trees give us life.
In the Spring of 2009, we returned to Marin County just north of San Francisco to visit what I consider to be one of the most heavenly places on earth — the region near and around Tomales Bay — a land preserved by a mixture of sustainable agriculture and state and national parks. A place of peace where thoughtfulness comes as easily as breathing. It is always a homecoming of sorts for me. It has been the site of many adventures over the years: the kayak trips to Hog Island, the hikes through Bear Valley to Mt. Wittenberg, the cycling past Nicasio and hours spent painting and sketching the area from many vantage points. The watercolors posted here are two of my attempts to capture the beauty of the place. It also brings to mind for me Wallace Stegner, a writer who always opens my mind to the landscape through which I travel. In 2008 the Point Reyes Books sponsored the “Geography of Hope” conference focusing on the environmental writings of Stegner.
In his “Wilderness Letter” dated December 3, 1960, Stegner wrote “we simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”