Bone Spirits

 

Basho, the 15th century Japanese Haiku artist’s first journal begins:

bleached bones

on my mind, the wind pierces

my body to the heart

 

Our bones not only give structure to our bodies and permit movement, they contain our very life blood. Bone marrow produces more than a trillion red blood cells every day.

Throughout history bones have been sacred in many cultures. They are venerated, used in rituals and divination. There was a belief in 16th century Europe that bones revealed the relative nature of things, and the hidden affinities between all living creatures. The Chinese congi for bones also means deep truth.

Bones tell the stories of the lives they once supported.

And for many cultures, they contain the spirit of the dead and can therefore be reanimated. This belief was especially common among people in northern Eurasia, as well as parts of Asia and can also be found in the myths of Germany, Africa, South America, Oceania and Australia as well as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

I often come upon bones on my rambles through the woods and it always inspires a deep sense of curiosity of wonder. Who was this? How did they die? How did they live? Piecing these scattering of bones together, they come alive again in my imagination. Examined closely and isolated, it’s as if the individual bones, with their vast array of shapes and textures come to life under the eye of my camera as well.

My Bone Spirits are part of my show currently on display at The Montana Natural History Center through the end of March.

 

Cabinets of Curiosity

Wunderkammer (Cabinet of Wonders)

Modern day museums evolved from the Cabinets of Curiosity that originated as far back as the 1500’s and reached their peak of popularity in the Victorian Era. They were collections of extraordinary objects that categorized and told stories about the wonders and oddities of the natural world.

I have always been a collector. As Georgia O’Keefe said, “ I have picked flowers where I found them—have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood …When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too…I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.”

Working in the Morton J. Elrod Collection at the University of Montana I had the rare opportunity to work with specimens that dated back to Elrod’s original collections.  At the same time I was reading George Dennison’s biography of Elrod and his scientific curiosity and sense of wonder in nature became a part of my own vision.  I hope the three curiosity cabinets I created from my experiences as Artist in Residence at the Montana Natural History Center inspire that same sense of wonder in you.

 

Articulating a Story

Leslie Marmon Silko’s story Skeleton Fixer has been the guiding myth through my career as a writer, photographer and book artist. Gathering ideas, experiences and insights I strive to fit them all together to tell a story, a story that may intrigue, inspire and resonate with my “readers.”

 

Haunted by Owls

Last January I came across an owl that had just been hit by a car. I brought it to the museum at the University and was thrilled when Libby Beckman, the curator allowed me to be present as she prepared it as a speciman. Before she began she carefully checked it for molting, then separated the feathers on its abdomen to find the patch of bare skin where birds use their body heat to incubate their eggs. Opening up the owl’s stomach we discovered the half digested remains of a dove, whose own stomach contained the seeds it had just eaten. Removing the eye, I was amazed to see the long bony tube that encased it which protects the long rods they use to see in the dark.

Swan Song

The articulation of bones to create a skeleton has always held a fascination for me, so I was very excited when I had the opportunity to watch Larry DePute work on the trumpeter swan. The first time I met Larry he was making a magic wand from a bone for a baby shower, and I knew I had found a soul mate. Seeing the hollow structure of the bones that allows these birds such grace in flight and looking into the elliptical curve of it’s windpipe that gives it it’s distinctive call was a revelation.

All are on view at the Montana Natural History Center, along with my Bone Spirit series through the end of March.

Artist in Residence

This winter I had the incredible opportunity to be the Artist in Residence at the Montana Natural History Center.   It was truly an adventure in curiosity and wonder. The collections, both at the center and at the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum at the University of Montana opened up the natural world in new ways, with the diversity and complexity of the life contained in those cabinets and boxes

Being able to hold specimens in my hand was a completely different experience from glimpsing the creatures in the wild, or reading about them in books. It filled me with a sense of discovery. I could slip my finger into the razor sharp talon grip of an owl, see the way the edge of their wing feathers formed to allow for their silent flight, be surprised by the fine fur like feathering of their legs, or how their chest feathers parted to reveal bare skin where their body heat could warm their eggs. The sense of discovery was very different from learning “about” something. And I made those discoveries because I could spend time with the specimens and allow them to slowly reveal their secrets.

These natural history collections are a tangible accumulation of generations of scientists and naturalists working and interacting with the world. I was able to hold a finch specimen from 1898 , some of the bones I worked with had been donated decades ago by Gene Miller, my hiking buddy.   Seeing those skeletons revealed another time in his life long before I knew him and connected us on another level by our shared fascination with natural history.

Drawer after drawer revealed it’s wonders and excited and inspired my imagination. They challenged me to capture those feelings in my photography. In 1833, on a visit to the Cabinet of Natural History in the Garden of Plants in Paris, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Here we are impressed with the inexhaustible riches of nature. The universe is a more amazing puzzle than ever, as you glance along this bewildering series of animated forms…the upheaving principle of life everywhere incipient, in the very rock aping organized forms…I feel the centipede in me, –cayman, carp, eagle, and fox. I am moved by strange sympathies; I say continually ‘I will be a naturalist.’”

Curiosity and Wonder

For the month of March the results of my artistic explorations will be on display at the Montana Natural History Center, 120 Hickory Street, Suite A, Missoula.

 

Refuge in Yellowstone

“It is important to attend to the outer world and your responsibilities in it, but sometimes it is just as important to attend to the inner, spiritual world.”  words from a tarot card

These last couple of months have thrown me into the outer world–the daily news, the obsessive tweets by our new leader, everyone talking of their outrage, incredulity, calls to action.  And we must respond and resist.  We cannot let things go unprotested.  

But in the midst of all this, Ted and I found refuge in a place where there were no TVs, no radios, no newspapers, no cell phone or internet.  We silenced the cacophony for 5 days, attending instead to the earth whose heart beat just a few miles below our feet, whose life blood boiled to the surface in hot pools which melted the heavy snow and ice clogging open water and offered forage to hungry bison and elk and refuge to trumpeter swans and geese.  For five glorious days the only thing spouting off were the geysers.  We could take a breath, take in the wonder of the snowy woods where the imagination stirring snow ghosts lurked.  An angel hovering in the pines, or a snow snail crawling upstream against the current of the pewter river reminding me that it is always slow going against the current, but like a snail, we must just keep plugging along.  The forces of nature–snow falling in gale force winds–drifts blocking the trails–steam billowing in the frosted air obscuring the sights, but giving the woods an etherial other-worldly quality were all there to remind us that beyond the walls of civilization were forces far more powerful and fierce than our own greed and self-centeredness.  

Of course, we had to return home to the turmoil of the latest news, but our experience was a strong reminder to take time every day to stop obsessing over the latest outrage, the latest tweet and go to the woods –pay attention to the real tweets and songs of the birds.  To reflect rather than react.  And most importantly, to not get distracted from what we really care about.  Focusing on the reality show going on in Washington means we might take our eye off of the crucial issues here at home.  And so I have limited myself to giving my attention to what’s happening in the state legislature and making sure that our representatives don’t forget that they represent all of us.  And with Montana’s representative Ryan Zinke up for Interior Secretary, it is incredibly important that we let him know how crucial these wild refuges are for all our souls.

Hope in the Dark

“F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,’ but the summations of the state of the world often assume that it must be all one way or the other, and since it is not all good it must all suck royally.  Fitzgerald’s forgotten next sentence is, ‘One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.'” from Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit

Synchronicity is a great thing.  I just happened to be reading another book by Rebecca Solnit and saw Hope in the Dark mentioned, so I found a copy and discovered it was just the elixir I needed to give me hope and a sense of purpose in these worrisome times.

Last fall I had the chance to escape the pre-election madness and drive a friend down to Jackson Hole.  A visit to the beauty of the Tetons was just the distraction I needed.  But when we arrived we found the Tetons had disappeared under a heavy veil of angry storm clouds.  And to make matters worse, our arrival coincided with a visit by Donald Trump Jr.  It seemed there was no escape from my despair.

Driving through the park, we stopped at a number of viewpoints where disappointed tourists turned their backs on the shrouded mountains, thumbing their cell phones, or taking selfies in front of the signs that named the hidden peaks.  Undeterred, we went for hike in the frigid rain, getting soaked in the process, but rather than damping our mood, the walk through an aspen grove shimmering with saturated gold raised our spirits. 

That night we were scheduled for a fundraising dinner at a local restaurant.  I pictured a stuffy cocktail party atmosphere with the retired rich and well connected crowd I have come to expect at fundraisers.  But to my delight, instead I found myself in a room of engaged and enthusiastic young people dedicated to developing a sustainable food system in Jackson.  These members of Tetons Slow Food movement were farmers, ranchers, chefs and locals who were all committed to reducing the impacts of global industrial food. They were not just railing against the devastation wrought by corporate food, not just donating money so others could do something about it, but were all actively engaged in making the world a better place.  I sat across from a fourth generation rancher who was turning the family business away from a traditional cattle operation and toward raising sustainable, grass fed beef, using the most modern methods of land stewardship in the process.  

These young activists did not expect to put Con-Agra or Monsanto out of business, but they understood what Solnit talks about in Hope In The Dark: “The best way to resist a monolithic institution or corporation is not with a monolithic movement but with multiplicity itself…The counter to Monsanto Corporations’ genetic engineering and agricultural patents isn’t just anti-GMO and anti- patenting activism and legislation, it’s local farmers, farmers’ markets, seed diversity, organic crops, integrated pest management, and other practices that work best on the small scale.  A farmers’ market selling the produce of local farmers isn’t an adequate solution but ten thousand of them begin to be.” 

While the food was superb, the real nourishment of that evening was hope.  As Solnit says, “Hope and action feed each other.”  The next day I headed north towards home, and still the Tetons were shrouded in storm.  I stopped at Jackson Lake Lodge and stood on the deck overlooking the valley.  Standing in the freezing drizzle, which alternated with gropple, I took photos of the amazing palette of reds, russets and yellows that filled the valley floor, the colors made more intense by the rain.  I was alone in the cold wind, except for a herd of cow elk grazing their way along the river bottom.  My SD card was full, but I stood and watched as a rustle of willows behind the cows made their heads pop up and the branches in the willows resolved into the six point rack of giant bull.  On the other side of the cows a smaller bull approached and the big bull let out a threatening bugle.  Head down, the smaller bull tried to cut out a couple cows, but the big elk charged and there ensued a short, antler clattering battle that ended with the smaller elk turning tail and running off downriver.  The brash interloper had tried to steal the herd, but was sent packing in the end.

The drama over, I went into the lodge where everyone sat with their backs to the windows, sipping lattes and checking their e-mails.  I went into the gift shop for a new SD card and the clerk offered me one that already had 20 professional photos of the Tetons on it.  “It’s perfect for a dismal day like today when there’s nothing to take pictures of and nothing happening out there,” she said.  I turned down the prepackaged card and smiled at her. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of where you look,” I said.  As I left the park, the clouds began to lift and the Tetons peeked through.

My experience with the Teton Slow Food group has given me more than hope.  They have spurred me to take my own actions locally.  I have rededicated myself to growing and preserving as much of our food as possible, supporting the farmer’s market and sourcing as much as I can from local growers and ranchers.  But that is not enough.  I also feel like I need to do everything I can to resist the political agenda of the new administration, not by being angry, or wringing my hands over every outrageous tweet, but by supporting groups like Garden City HarvestThe Missoula Freedom Garden, and Community Food and Agriculture Coalition of Missoula.  And I’m going to become more active politically, as hard as that is for someone as introverted as me.  On inauguration night I will be attending  “An Evening Inspiring Hope and Action” with other local people hoping to turn our anger into action.  

“‘Resistance is the secret of joy,’ …quoting Alice Walker.  Resistance is first of all a matter of principle and a way to live, to make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.  You hope for results, but you don’t depend on them…struggle generates hope as it goes along.  Waiting until everything looks feasible is too long to wait.” from Hope in the Dark.