The Thing-As-It-Appears

 

Bison

The Thing. Robin L. Chandler, 2020.

“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.” [1]

The world, unfortunately through other spectacles, is gritty and grim. I read this morning about how the Bison herds in Yellowstone Park are managed.[2] 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.”[3]

[1] Wulf, Andrea. The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World. (Vintage Books: New York, 2016). p.38-39

[2] https://www.newsweek.com/bison-migration-slaughter-yellowstone-1489558

[3] Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. (Vintage Books: New York, 2006). pp. 282, 357.

ember

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Luminous and the Grey. Robin L. Chandler, 2019.

“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor grey ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire or light…wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”

Marilynne Robinson Gilead

the spirits aren’t lost

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East Side of the Sierras. Robin L. Chandler, 2019.

In mid-January, we drove northward on 395 through the Owens Valley from Los Angeles to Mammoth Lakes. Late afternoon, the sun flirted among the storm clouds and the Eastern Sierra mountain peaks creating a dramatic bright yellow light shining on the valley floor turning the White Mountains a mysterious blue. Ahead, a red cinder cone, a volcanic legacy, grew larger as we made our way closer to the sleeping Long Valley Caldera. The cinder cone, a beautiful rich red, still captivates my imagination.

Rebecca Fish Ewan wrote in A Land Between: The Owens Valley“ the landscape…reveals that stability in the West is both precious and fragile; the relationship between people and the land is deep and passionate, yet the balance of this union can be shaken overnight.” When settlers brought cattle to the Owens Valley in the 19thcentury, the new grazing animal destroyed the grasses and marshland environment that had been vital to the lives of the Pauite-Shoshone. When Los Angeles Water and Power Department diverted and transported snow-fed lakes, creeks and rivers of the Owens Valley to the Los Angeles basin, the ecosystem of the region was changed forever.

The Buddha teaches that we must accept that impermanence characterizes existence. But the Buddha’s noble eightfold path also teaches us to have right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort right mindfulness and right concentration.  The recent damage to Joshua Tree National Park caused during the Federal government shutdown may last for centuries. It is difficult for me to grasp the consciousness of people who cause such damage.  Are they mindful of their actions consequences? Do they lack a relationship with place and community? Do they believe their “life” exists somewhere else in a different time and space? How can I teach that every moment is precious and our actions reflect our consciousness? We must understand our impact on the land and it’s inhabitants; our choices must be guided by sensitivity to the needs of others and not by our desires alone. Stewardship means never having to say your sorry.

In the 1970s, Gary Snyder heard a Crow elder say at a conference in Bozeman, Montana “you know I think if people stay somewhere long enough the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.”[1]

It is a tiny step, but all great things have small beginnings. I start my teaching by sharing these thoughtful commandments I learned recently from an East Bay Regional Park District Park Supervisor:

  • The earth is your mother, care for Her!
  • Honor all your relations!
  • Open your heart and soul to the Great Spirit
  • All life is sacred; treat all beings with respect!
  • Take from the Earth what is needed and nothing more
  • Do what needs to be done for the good of all!
  • Give constant thanks to the Great Spirit for each new day
  • Speak the truth, but only the good in others
  • Follow the rhythms of Nature; rise and retire with the sun
  • Enjoy life’s journey, but leave no tracks

 


[1]Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. “The Place, The Region, The Commons.” p.42 San Francisco: North Point Press. 1990.

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.

A long way from home

Long way from home

A long way from home. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

We live in an era where many people have ready access to technology able to track our current position in time and space. No doubt it took a long time and we travelled a long distance to reach this particular spot. We know where we are; we have the coordinates. But does this precise knowledge of when and where we currently “be” satisfy our soul? Do we long for a home, a home of memory or a vision of the future? If we are lucky enough to “be” at home are we shouldering our responsibility to care for and sustain it?

Claude McKay, Jamaican born, living in New York City, and writing during the Harlem Renaissance penned these words in his poem The Tropics of New York:

“My eyes grow dim, and I could no more gaze;

A wave of longing through my body swept,

And hungry for the old familiar ways

I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.”

Watching 24/7 news coverage of the destruction wrought by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, I despair at the loss of home, community and livelihoods for millions of people in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean Islands. For many, life will never be the same. Lives will be measured in increments of time and space: before and after the hurricane.

In June 2017, the scientists from thirteen federal agencies released a report revealing U.S. Citizens are feeling the results of Climate Change now. The reports states “the last few years have seen record-breaking, climate-related weather extremes, the three warmest years on record for the globe, and continued decline in arctic sea ice. These trends are expected to continue in the future over climate (multidecadal) timescales. Significant advances have also been made in our understanding of extreme weather events and how they relate to increasing global temperatures and associated climate changes. Since 1980, the cost of extreme events for the United States has exceeded $ 1.1 trillion, there better understanding of the frequency and severity of these events in the context of a changing climate is warranted.”

In a recent New York Times op-ed, London School of Economics Professor Rebecca Elliot asked “in a world of more Harveys, rising sea levels, heat waves and droughts, what do we owe each other? The political trajectory we have been on suggests that the answer is, “Very little.” Elliott urges us to develop a new social contract, a Green New Deal, calling for public investment in science and education to train the next generation of engineers to build new homes and infrastructure that will help ordinary Americans adapt to climate change, retrofit their homes, move to safer ground and at the same time address issues of local poverty as well as invest in clean energy, and public transportation. Elliott makes a strong economic case for wise use of our public funds.

Beautiful orb: Earth, the perfect gift – spinning and moving through time and space. I pray we do not find ourselves longing for a remembered home; a home squandered through our negligence and our failure to shoulder our responsibility to care and sustain this special planet.

 

Touch the earth

Touch the earth

Touch the Earth. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

“…..most ecocritical work shares a common motivation: the troubling awareness that we have reached the age of environmental limits, a time when the consequences of human actions are damaging the planet’s basic life support systems.” Cheryll Glotfelty Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis.

And yet most of us ignore the simple fact that our choices and our actions, in other words, our touch has a lasting impact upon the earth. “Wildlife is dying out due to habitat destruction, overhunting, toxic pollution, invasion by alien species and climate change. But the ultimate cause of all these factors is human overpopulation and continued population growth and overconsumption” writes Damian Carrington author of Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Event is Underway, Scientist’s Warn.

Last week the coastal city of Houston, Texas was devastated by Hurricaine Harvey resulting in catastrophic flooding to the region and countless lives changed forever. While climate change is not the sole factor, scientists observe that warmer seas evaporate more quickly and warmer air temperatures hold more moisture, “so as temperatures warm, skies hold more moisture and release this rain more quickly” writes Jonathan Watts author of Is tropical storm Harvey linked to climate change?

 The Earth bore witness to Buddha’s awakening. Sitting in meditation, his left hand upright in his lap, the Buddha touched the Earth with his right hand, and the earth responded, “I am your witness.” With his touch, the Buddha recognized the interconnectedness of all things and that humankind and the earth were parts of a shared community. How does our understanding change when we follow the Noble Eightfold Path and refrain from making choices and taking actions which cause the Earth to suffer?

Lost Dog

Mount Saint Helena after the rain. Robin L. Chandler 2017.

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?

 

Lost Dog.

Something ‘bout you breaks my heart.

Why you burying bones out in the yard?”