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.

 

Memento Mori

Last fall, when Ted had a successful hunt and filled our freezer with elk meat, we wanted to do something to honor the magnificent animal that would provide us with a year’s sustenance.  We were not interested in making a trophy of it, that is not the spirit with which Ted hunts, so a head mount was out of the question.  Instead we took the skull to Big Sky Beetleworks where it was cleaned by a colony of dermestid beetles.

Dermestid beetles are a species of carrion beetles used by museums, taxidermists, schools and wildlife agencies to clean bones.  Gary Haas, who runs Big Sky Beetleworks was kind enough to let me watch the beetles in action.  He took me into a room which is temperature controlled–the beetles can’t fly below 80 degrees–and protected from the infestations of other insects, such as spiders which readily feed on the beetles.

The tiny bugs were swarming over several trays of small mammal and bird skulls, some provided by trappers and others by wildlife agencies.  The rotted flesh and ammonia smell was heady.  Haas doesn’t have a sense of smell anymore, but the stench stayed lodged in my nostrils for days.  Still, I couldn’t resist the chance to see the beetles at work.

Three months later our elk skull was finished.  People have always had a fascination with skulls and bones.  As Mark Elbroch says in his guidebook, Animal Skulls, “The diversity and complexity of life is ever apparent in the equally varied and beautiful forms that are animal skulls.  For skulls are sculptures in a vast array of shapes and textures that excite and inspire our imagination.”  Ever since Neanderthals, people have used skulls in rituals and ceremonies.  Artists have used the sculptural quality of bones in their work, probably most famously Georgia O’Keefe, whose bone paintings from the desert country first initiated me into an appreciation of bone’s beauty.  She said, “When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home…I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.”

In many medieval and renaissance paintings, a human skull is depicted as a “memento mori”, a reminder of our own mortality and impermanence.  For Ted and me, the elk skull which hangs above the entrance to the kitchen is a daily reminder of our dependence on the earth for our very survival, the interconnectedness of all creatures and our gratitude to this elk for our daily nourishment.  Looking at the skull I silently repeat the zen Buddhist meal gatha:

First,  Seventy two labors brought us this food.  We should know how it comes to us.

Second, as we receive this offering,we should consider whether our virtue and practice deserve it.

Third, as we desire the natural order of mind to be free from clinging, we must be free from greed.

Fourth, to support our life, we take this food.

Fifth, to attain our way we take this food…