wilderness : self-willed flora, fauna & minera in the community of Earth
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The Schitsu’umsh (Coeur d’Alene) had at least six permanent camps near the headwaters of the St. Joe River in Idaho. The St. Joe is the Catholic name bestowed on this river by Jesuit missionaries. It's a remote place, but three presidents and several celebrities have visited the tiny town of Avery, nearby. Every summer when I was a child, I swam in The Joe when I visited my grandmother in St. Maries, but I hadn’t been back in years. When I finally revisited in June 2020, I was struck by how dense, deep, and steep that land is. You know so much is happening in these mountains and waters though you can't see it. As if to underscore the point, the night sky was new-moon dark. As my husband and I slept in our nylon tent, the Milky Way bowed over us like a river running through the heavens.
Who doesn't love maps? Condensed versions of places we've been or want to go. Directions for life. Orienteering for the soul. Dead reckoning with oneself. Map drawing is meditative. The elevation lines are like Zentangles, those loopy, spiraling forms that calm the mind. For this map, I drew elevation lines free form, looking at the map for direction but also letting myself feel the contours with my pencil. I then started layering on watercolor.
Artists and cartographers have always been close cousins—and artists’ maps are fascinating object, none intriguing than Rebecca Solnit's atlases.
Download this printable map to take with you if you happen to be up the St. Joe, or use it in one of your own creative transformations.
To depict trail #17 in the St. Joe National Forest, I used a combination of watercolor, oil sticks, and colored pencils to create the undulating elevation lines of the mountains and river. I finished it off with cut paper trees and a bridge to add the dimension of the forest, and, finally, a marker for the trail that started out easy and took a steep turn up the peak. What kinds of materials will you use to represent a wild space?
Monthly celebration of makers who are teaching / re-teaching us how to connect with the natural world and with one another.
Writer Andrea Clark Mason
Andrea Clark Mason is a writer and writing educator living in Denver, Colorado. Andrea specializes in fiction, personal essays, profile pieces, reviews, and reported journalism centered on the natural world. Her work has appeared in Outside Magazine, High Country News, Alaska Magazine, Modern In Denver, Permafrost, Weber: the Contemporary West, High Desert Journal, and elsewhere.
Jillian Mcdonald is a Canadian artist living in New York. She makes experimental films featuring remote northern landscapes that, through animation and editing, live events, or the presence of figures, appear haunted by paranormal events.
Anything that engages your creative mind . . . is good for you. --"Feeling Artsy? Here's How Creativity Helps Your Brain," NPR.ORG
Serious noticing, as explained by literary critic James Wood, means looking for the inherent contrasts and paradoxes in life’s little moments. Wood gives the example of a Saul Bellow novel where a character in his 40s helps an older man across the street by taking his arm, which he describes as a “big but light elbow.” That noticing, the elbow is large but light because the man is just “skin and bone,” stands out. This kind of attention leads us to see the world imagistically, metaphorically. It transforms us.
Engaging our world creatively can make us better noticers. It can nudge us into seeing in less conventional ways.
This week my serious noticing involved a mushroom that had grown to gargantuan proportions. So curious, so weirdly alien—had mushrooms grown like that in my backyard before? I seriously hadn't noticed. So I wrote about that lovely, spongey being, looked up a few facts about it. Then I painted the fungi on a 3 x 5 paper.
The pandemic has us focusing on small things. But even so small, they can lift us out of contracting worlds and help us see anew, think outside ourselves, and connect with the more than human world. What kinds of serious noticing are you doing?
1. WRITE about one concrete thing you’ve noticed for 10 minutes. If after 10 minutes you have more to say, keep writing!
2. DRAW, COLOR, or PAINT that noticing onto an index card.
3. A second look: FIND your noticing somewhere else on your horizon. Within a week of my mushroom freewrite and tiny painting, my friend Nung-hsin Hu announced her mushroom making pandemic project in Los Angeles with the following words:
"Mushroom is a species between plants and animals; between decay and rebirth...🍄" --Nung-Hsin Hu
STORY | Fierce
The shimmering leaf. Leaf of a kinnikinnick. No bigger than the tip of my pinky, an insignificant thing. Unintimidating, most ordinary. The leaf and I, both stopped in the middle of trail #17, refused to go on.
I wholeheartedly agree with ethnobiologist David Abram, that while the pandemic means distancing from other people, we can still "lean in close to other beings, gazing and learning—for instance—the distinguishing patterns of the bark worn by each of the local tree species where you live.” Yet we don’t all have the same freedom to explore the more-than-human world, something we all must work to change, as Jonas Sommer writes in “What Does an Anti-Racist Wilderness Look Like?” His idea is to continually acknowledge that Indigenous peoples have always cared for our wild/sacred places. Such acknowledgments step us toward reciprocity. As Robin Wall Kimmerer, Citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, writes of the Skywoman creation story: “It was through actions of reciprocity, the give and take with the land, that the original immigrants became indigenous. For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.” Of course, mushrooms can teach us about living, healing, and land as well as any life form, as Nung-Hsin Hu demonstrates with her mushroom art. For a glimpse of this new project, take a peek at her Eternal Return.
for more art, writing & reading about all kinds of things, visit my blog.