Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Map Art

Yesterday I wrote about how painting might be considered Land Art; about my painting as map-making.  The primary function of art is the integration of unconscious material into consciousness. Nature and the unconscious are one and the same; hence, I think of my paintings as maps that integrate nature/wilderness into visual consciousness.

As a contemporary art map-maker, I am in good company. Google “map art,” and you will be overwhelmed with the volume that is out there. Elisabeth Lecourt folds maps into representations of clothing. Sara Cardona paints organic forms over topographical maps. Bill Gilbert, co-founder of Land Arts of the American West, transposes his travels, signified by dots and lines, onto topographical maps, with audio narratives, recorded while walking the routes marked on the maps, accompanying the resulting wall art. These he calls “Physiocartographies" (  I’ve been watching Gilbert’s art for some time, with considerable interest. It foregrounds the extent to which we have barricaded, fenced, poisoned, and covered the land. It makes me think of the difficulties encountered by wildlife just trying to get to a spring, a waterhole, a rabbit hole, wherever they happen to be going.  It speaks of the necessity, and the urgency, of  the wildlife corridor approach to land management.  Gilbert's Physiocatrographies are beautiful and engaging.  They make you think.

Juxtaposing Gilbert’s art with Cardona’s, I began to wonder if the dots-and-lines/geometric shapes way of making map art is a man-thing and the more organic designs, like Cardona’s and mine, are a woman-thing. I am probably on pretty shaky ground here, so I will stop, and retreat into my studio.

Monday, February 15, 2010

What does this have to do with art?

I’ve been writing about human coexistence with wildlife. What does this have to do with art? My art, my paintings, have everything to do with wilderness.

My paintings are reflections on my experience of wilderness. Without access to wilderness, I wouldn’t be painting. When people see my paintings, they often say things like “interior landscapes.” I appreciate that every viewer sees something different in my work. Some see emotions, some landscapes, others colors and symbols. Recently, at an exhibition, a woman said “these paintings are maps, aren’t they.” This was the closest anyone has come to divining what I do when I paint. I do not try to make maps, but map making is what happens.

My process goes something like this: I go out running, wandering, or skiing in the mountains, off-trail. I follow water or I find water. I avoid humans. I encounter wildlife. I try to be unobtrusive, but I am human--a giant ape crashing through the forest.  I meditate.  I listen. I explore the land with my body, traversing ridges, climbing scree, bounding down pine-covered spines in the snow, following streams, climbing waterfalls, falling still and watching deer, turkey, muskrat, pika, marmot, ferret, rabbit, raven, hawk. All the while, I am being watched, by mountain lion, coyote, bear; the more elusive beings. I stay out there as long as possible. Often, I think of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening,” the last stanza,

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”

I come back. I go into the studio. I paint. I remove layers. I add layers. Like weather, water, wind, time. I let the painting rest. I work on other paintings.  Layers come and go. At some point the painting is finished. I live with it for awhile. Maybe it is not finished. Or maybe it goes away. Sooner or later, I realize that it is a map of my wandering in the backcountry. I traverse the land with my body, never in a straight line, rarely on a trail, always following some inner map. I come back, and I paint, with little agenda; no conscious idea what I am doing--the same way I run. 

I consider my work land art. How can a painting be land art? My paintings wouldn’t exist without the land. Without forests, mountains, water, wildlife. They are visual chronicles of my interaction with nature. I make maps.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mountain lions, hunting, and, finally, those cougar book reviews

It’s snowing. You can't see it in the photo I just shot in the back yard, but it is. 

I've finished the shelf of mountain lion books at my local library, and a few other volumes on the subject as well. After a couple of slender glossies that were mostly photography, some of it quite marvelous, I moved on to those that contained no images. Interestingly, all of them were more about humans than lions--and all of them announced this in their titles or subtitles. Over the past few years I have read everything I could get my hands on about deer, and the deer books were in general more about deer than people--facts about feeding and rutting habits, growth, migration, etc. All did, however, make a pitch in favor of herd management, a euphemism for sport hunting. This has its roots in the Old Testament injunction that humans were created to lord over all of the beasts and are not beasts ourselves. I'm betraying my biases, but, in truth, I am ambivalent about hunting. I grew up with it, in rural upstate New York, just two hours from New York City, but it could just as well have been rural Alabama.

The KKK was active in every little town—they ran the volunteer fire departments, an historical connection that goes back to the Civil War. Poverty was endemic, and recession was a way of life. As far as I know, it still is. There was no interstate then connecting our county to the nearby cities of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, which were referred to collectively by locals as “The City,” and visited as little as possible. Hunting was as much a way of life as distrusting outsiders, Catholics, Jews, leftists, and dark- skinned people, few of whom ever ventured into the county.

Nearly every male hunted. Those who didn’t were suspect. The primary prey was deer, but folks shot anything that moved at every opportunity, whether it was edible or not, whether it was in season or not. Since humans wiped out all of the large predators in the Northeastern United States before I was born, and, hence,  deer do overpopulate and starve to death, I can see what leads people who study deer to conclude that hunting by humans is more humane than starvation.

It is the reality and culture of hunting that I find repugnant. The deer books I read made hunting sound noble, compassionate, legal, and sober. Where I grew up, it was none of those. I doubt that this is any different anywhere else in the U.S. I have not seen it to be, in my travels and changes of residence. Hunting is about getting drunk and cruising the back roads at night with a spotlight. It is about getting drunk, sitting in a blind by the side of the road, putting out bait, and waiting for deer. When they come, you take the heads, if they are bucks, maybe a steak or two, and leave the rest. It is about shooting animals, wounding them, and going back to the truck for another bottle of whiskey and a bag of pork rinds, because who wants to follow the damn things; that would entail walking. It is about wounding and torturing animals because it is fun; because it displays one’s masculinity and superiority. These practices were not the exception, they were the norm. I am aware that there are a few hunters who engage in the activity legally and are perhaps sober, who subscribe to some sort of ethics. Even fish and game department statistics bear out this gruesome picture, and they are the nation’s primary proponents of hunting; it pays their salaries.

End diatribe.

I was supposed to be reviewing mountain lion books. I was pondering why mountain lion books are primarily about people and deer books are more concerned with deer. There is a simple answer: we are fascinated with pumas in a way that we are not with deer, because pumas have been known to kill and eat us. The fact that we are much more likely to be killed by dogs (dogs kill approximately 24 people a year in the U.S., as opposed to 50 human deaths in the past hundred years in the U.S and Canada attributed to mountain lions), lightning, automobiles, and each other is irrelevant.

We are hard-wired to respond to large predators, we have exterminated nearly all of them on the continent, and the few that remain are potent symbols that light up our reptilian brains and collective unconscious with a thousand-watt jolt. We love to tell and to hear stories that confirm their existence. They confirm that maybe there is something left of nature, something we have as yet been unable to destroy. A kernel of our own nature, our own wildness.

In The Beast in the Garden, David Baron tells a story of cougars and humans in Boulder, Colorado in the 1980s and early ‘90s. It reads like a thriller, with mountain lions prowling on the edges of the city and growing in numbers, a menacing tabula rasa onto which human fear, anxiety, vulnerability, and superiority is inscribed.

Baron takes the perspective of indignant residents of Boulder’s mountain canyons, transplants from faraway cities, without acknowledging his biases. He cites, as evidence of the increasing mountain lion population, a log kept by two Boulder residents, of cougar sightings solicited from Boulder citizens, a notoriously unreliable tool of estimating wildlife populations. The main offense committed by the decidedly evil pumas is the killing of pet dogs kept in outdoor pens at night by canyon residents. That the trauma of pet death could have been avoided by educating newcomers to the benefits of keeping their dogs inside in mountain lion country is lost on him.

In my own city, Santa Fe, some humans built a house a couple of years ago in a scenic canyon with a year-round running stream, a wildlife oasis. A canyon where I enjoyed the sighting of my 5th mountain lion. These  humans left their old, infirm dog outside at night, a backlit MacDonald’s sign for hungry cougars, and they called Fish and Game when a cougar killed the dog. Fish and Game spent our tax dollars on a professional cougar killer and his pack of hounds, who dispatched an old male cougar within hours. This is the sort of response that Baron is lobbying for throughout The Beast in the Garden.  I would much rather have seen the Animal Control folks cite the humans for pet neglect.

With shaky science, much gothic scene-setting, like “the city had entered a cougar plague,” and cougars doing a lot of “lurking in the shadows,” Baron appeals to the pathos of human fear. The funny thing is that the cougar plague that he spends most of the book setting the stage for never happened. One human was, regretably, killed by a cougar, in 1991, a sad story that was apparently the raison d’etre for the book, but after that, the lions faded “inexplicably” back into Boulder’s canyons, forests, and network of abandoned gold mines.  Perhaps some people started keeping their pets indoors. 

If you want to learn something about pumas and cultural anthropology, read Chris Bolgiano’s Mountain Lion: An Unnatural History of Pumas and People. With none of the exaggerations, appeals to pathos, and anthropocentrism that Baron employs, Bolgiano traces the cultural history of cougars and humans in North America. It is a good read; at times tragic, at times entertaining, insightful throughout. Cougars have not fared well against human guns, traps, and cruelty.  The first few chapters are hard to read, if one has any compassion for animals.  Bolgiano’s studied observations on the puma as evolving repository of human anxiety, fear, myth, and romanticism make this book a fascinating and worthwhile read.

By far the best cougar encounter story I’ve read is a chapter in Craig Child’s most recent book The Animal Dialogues. Childs lays bare his own biases, emotions, and mythologizing, while drawing the reader inexorably in to his impeccably drawn backcountry universe and inside his head. Childs’s cougar story could only be his. It is the logical extension of his persona, his awareness, and his unsentimental and total absorption in the natural world. The man describes dancing with a cougar that is likely intent on eating him. Whether it is true or not—and I believe that it is--I don’t care. Like all of the narratives in this book, it’s one you can’t put down. I read the whole volume in a night.

It’s still snowing, it’s sticking, and my skis are calling my name.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mountain lion encounters

I've met seven mountain lions in the wild. They are also called cougars, puma, panthers, wildcats, and catamounts, among other monikers. I prefer mountain lion, puma, and cougar, which I use interchangeably. I recall each encounter pretty well. The first was 35 years ago, and the most recent was last fall. All but one were near my Santa Fe home, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (depicted in the last post). The first was in southern Colorado, growling across a high-altitude chasm. I was a young, foolish cougar neophyte from the Northeast. It didn’t occur to me that it could have jumped that crevice as easily as I could skip a stream, had it so desired. It didn’t occur to me to be afraid.

I must be lucky, or smell funny, to have encountered so many of them, when others who spend more time in the backcountry have seen none. I've a habit--as readers know-- of following and observing deer, the cougar's favorite food. But that doesn't explain the seven encounters. I was not tracking or observing deer when any of the lion encounters occurred. I think and dream about them frequently. I read in the Mountain Gazette last week that a Colorado Division of Wildlife officer, summoned after a cougar sighting, left a home-owner with the parting words “Most people who see them change forever” (Stew Mosberg, Letter to the Editor, quoting Agent Dorsey). I’ve been thinking about that.

I’ve changed forever seven times. That actually sounds about right. Each sighting has unearthed a new dimension of my dreams, poetry, painting, consciousness; my imagination, which is purring along in overdrive all of the time even without external stimuli. The puma is as potent a symbol of masculinity as it is femininity. It is a hundred pound (give or take) killing machine that can take down prey several times its size. It succeeds in 90% of attempted deer kills when it is able to conceal itself within 30 feet, researchers say. It kills by stealth. That’s feminine. It meows. I’ve never heard it, but I believe those who have. When in estrous, it screams and cries and wails like a grieving woman. Its movement is equal parts muscle, sinew, and, grace; it is a cat. Every time I’ve seen a cougar, it has made me feel intensely alive. It has brought dreams of a mountain lion bursting violently into my house to reveal herself as a heartsick mother searching for lost kittens. It has colored my paintings, inspired poetry, doubled me over with laughter at the absurdity of trying to outrun my station on the food chain, made me feel lucky, terrified, and hyper-aware.

I’ve no cougar photos to post here. I read in Chris Bolgiano’s Mountain Lion: An Unnatural History of Pumas and People, that nearly every published cougar photo was taken by a paying client on a hunt moments before the cat was treed by hounds and shot to death. A few, says Bolgiano, might have been snapped on the more recently popular photo hunts, on which professional hunting guides tree cougars with hounds for the benefit of photographer-clients.

My encounters with pumas were sufficiently visceral to preclude photography, even if I had had a camera in my hand when they occurred. Each one elicited the electrical adrenaline pin pricks of fight-or-flight and shut down all mental processes.  No doubt I would be a better Buddhist (less cognitive, more aware) if I had a cougar in my field of vision every minute. Which reminds me of a line from the Flannery O’Connor story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” Having just murdered the obnoxious grandmother whom O’Connor makes you want silent by the end of the story, The Misfit remarks, “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

My intention today was to review some books about mountain lions and people that I’ve read in the past few weeks, as promised in my last post. That will have to wait until a future post, as will my stories of cougar sightings. I’ll close with a poem I wrote five years ago.

The Easy Path

Riding my bike
up Mt. Shirley this morning
deer tracks everywhere

By the light of last night’s disintegrating moon
they had taken the path
I now traveled

Trailing them
all the way to the top
a mountain lion

Ascending in the quiet morning
I felt their fear
their restlessness

Near the top the lion caught them
Hoof prints in all directions
Front hooves splayed out
The mark of a dragged carcass

I stopped
of tracking what remained of the kill
to the place a lion would hide it
half covered with leaves and pine needles
while following its thirst or resting nearby
before going back for the legs
the face
having first opened the chest surgically
with one-inch retractable razors
carving a bowl
empty of heart
lungs, liver

I headed instead up the path traveled
by my own kind
the easy path