Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ocean Etching

Photograph taken at Kittery Sea Point Beach, 12/29/10

I took this photograph at Seapoint Beach in Kittery Maine a few days ago. It is of a natural etching cut into the sand by ocean water flowing back down the beach after high tide. To me, it looks like a row of plants, some with long, luxurious roots.

Self-similar things in nature are fascinating. That’s what sparked my interest, years ago, with Benoit Mandelbrot’s work with fractals. Because fractals appear similar at all levels of magnification, fractals are often considered to be infinitely complex. Natural fractal objects include clouds, mountain ranges, lightning bolts, snowflakes, and coastlines. [1]

The Maine coastline is a good example of the self-similar nature of fractals. Whether you view the Maine coast far above from an airplane or up close walking down the beach, the shape remains the same.

It defies the imagination, doesn't it?

Mandelbrot’s theory became popular after he published a paper in 1967 entitled How Long is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension. This paper investigated yet another amazing fractal property: that the measured length of a stretch of coastline (because it is a fractal) depends on the scale of measurement.

Empirical evidence suggests that the smaller the increment of measurement, the longer the measured length becomes. If one were to measure a stretch of coastline with a 12” ruler one would get a longer result than if the same stretch were measured with a yardstick. This is because one would be laying the ruler along a more curvilinear route than that followed by the yardstick. The smaller the unit of measurement the longer it becomes until, carried to it's extreme, the length of the Maine coastline becomes infinite! [2]

This is exciting stuff, not just about fractals but scientific discoveries in general.

Contrary to conventional thinking, science doesn't necessarily lead to a loss of freedom through newfound abilities to predict and control. Neither does science necessarily lead to a secular life style that is amoral and non-spiritual.

Instead, as I have tried to show in this small essay, science has the ability to make us grow by shaking us up: reminding us that we live in a mind-blowing place of unfathomable mystery. The only constant in this brave new world is that we all are connected. The human embryo as it develops repeats the history of the evolution of life on earth–ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny–part of Mother Nature’s master plan: whether an image in the sand, a plant with fractal roots, a puppy dog or a human being, we are all the same.




Sunday, December 26, 2010

Chaotic Maelstrom

My father was a weather nut. He especially got excited by hurricanes, blizzards,big storms of any type!

The amped-up, monster storms of the 21st century wouldn’t have fazed him a bit. I think I take after him.

I couldn’t help myself tonight: I had to go out and play around: Here’s a photo I took with my tiny pocket camera: the flash illuminates the snow and the garden scarecrow in the foreground with our house fading into the chaotic maelstrom of swirling snow and darkness.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Hiking in the Ossipee Mountains the day before Christmas

Waiting for the Light...
Seitan mountain goose,
Soft and silky down,
 Evergreen pin feathers.

Return of the light!
Rejoice in the return of the sun,
 Longer days,
A new turn of the wheel,
The pagan New Year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Hiking on the Winter Solstice

Hiking over North Mountain on Winter Solstice
The sun like a cold LED light, dead in the sky.
My legs leaden, every step a chore
I stop before an imposing ledge, 
Much too high to scale,
Too tired to go on.

Three stone sentinels offer me sanctuary
Ushering me into a secret cave:
A safe haven to rest and reflect
with none of Plato's shadows
to play games with me 
about what is really real.

This sacred space resolves all doubt:
Winter Solstice is what's real.
I submit to it's power.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Just Being One With the Sound of My Skates

Just Being One With the Sound of My Skates
Skating on Jenness  Pond 12/17/10*

Rosy glow of sunset and fuzzy three-quarter moon rising
Both reflected on the glossy anthracite transparent ice.
Seeing the underwater rocks and weeds speed by
As if I were a bird, beyond time and space
Speeding effortlessly by

A sudden, sharp crack of ice expanding
Sounding like Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle
Breaks the spell
Causing me to seek safe passage
Around the gushing brook
Where incoming water makes the ice unsafe

Reminding me of my father’s tale
Of the farmer on the hot day in August
Who brought his workhorses here,
Still in harness, to drink.
Who could have guessed,
They would sink in the quick sand,
Never to be seen from again.

Life is precious, Life is short:
How better to celebrate it then
Just being one with the sound of my skates.

*Unfortunately, I forgot my camera when I was skating this evening. The best substitute I can provide is this photograph I took of an icy puddle in November '07– with a shape similar to Jenness Pond.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Oceanic Feelings

Photograph taken at Old Orchard Beach 11/13/10
“There on the beach, with no sound but that of the ocean waves…I experienced dreams of a new sort–soft and shapeless things, marvels that made a deep impression, without images or emotions, clear like the sky and the water, and reverberating like the white whorls of ocean rising up from the depths of a vast truth: a tremulously slanting blue in the distance that acquired glistening, muddy-green hues as it approached, breaking with a great hissing its thousand crashing arms to scatter them over darkish sand where they left dry foam, and then gathering into itself all undertows, all return journeys to that original freedom, all nostalgias for God, all memories (like this one, shapeless and painless) of a prior state, blissful because it was so good or because it was different, a body made of nostalgia with a soul of form, repose, death, the everything or the nothingness which – like a huge ocean – surround the island of castaways that is life.”[1]

Many sections of The Book of the Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa are beautiful and evocative, but because the book is built on shifting fragments, it never coalesces into a coherent whole. Instead, the book is filled with disparate parts and voices, “all swirling and uncertain like the cigarette smoke through which Pessoa…watched life go by.”[2]

I was particularly drawn to the passage I quoted above of being “there on the beach, with no sound but that of the ocean waves.  It resonated with me because his poetic description of the ocean is, for me, a perfect metaphor for mindful meditation: being there on my cushion, with no sound but that of my breathing, watching disparate thoughts and feelings, rise up and fall away, all swirling and uncertain like the smoke from the incense, none having any independent reality. Often, during meditation, I become enveloped in a warm glow, and without any forethought or volition on my part, a smile will magically appear upon my face, growing wider and wider until my cheeks hurt, as I make, what Pessoa calls, that blissful return journey to original freedom, or what religious people call finding God, or what the Buddha calls becoming awake.

Pessoa wasn’t the first one to equate this feeling of spiritual limitlessness with the ocean: no doubt the two have been paired since the first human stood in awe of the ocean’s roar. However, it was a contemporary of Pessoa, Romain Rolland, who first coined the term – oceanic – to describe this primal spiritual energy in a letter to his friend, Sigmund Freud in 1927.

Pessoa was a contemporary of Rolland. I wonder if they knew each other, corresponded, or read each other’s books. They seem to me kindred spirits.

Both were humanists sharing the same spiritual outlook.  While Pessoa wrote in poetic terms, Rolland wrote in prose, asserting that the oceanic  feeling is the primordial source of all religious energy, defining it as an indissoluble bond. In Rolland’s view, a person may justifiably call herself religious on the basis of this oceanic feeling alone, regardless if he renounces every belief and every illusion.[3]

Practicing mindful meditation has convinced me, beyond doubt, that Pessoa and Rolland are correct in their assertion that the oceanic feeling is a profound, ‘lived experience’ and, indeed, the basis of all spirituality.  It’s too bad Freud, wrongly, got the credit for coining the term, oceanic, especially since he distrusted it’s validity, trying – as he did – to pass it off as merely a leftover fragment of infantile consciousness.


[1] From The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (text 198)., published by Penguin Classics in 2003.
[2] Quote by Richard Zenith, the editor and translator of this edition of The Book of Disquiet.
[3] The Ontology of Religiosity: The Oceanic Feeling and the Value of the Lived Experience

photograph taken at Old Orchard Beach 11/13/10

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Winter Solstice Trilogy, Part III: Winter Solstice Reflections

Winter Solstice Reflections

Twenty-five years ago, I took a photograph of my son, Ian, at the lake in front of my parent’s house, the house I grew up in. It was in the beginning part of December, right after Jenness Pond had frozen over. This year, Jenness Pond is right on schedule: it froze over for the first time two days ago. 

I've always loved this photograph, not just for the composition but because it connects me, simultaneously, back to my roots and into the future through Ian.  

This year I reworked it in photoshop and entitled it Winter Solstice Reflections.

If you are interested in the reveries this photograph stirred in me, you can read about them in my Novermber 3, 2010 blog entry entitled Be Careful What You Wish For.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Winter Solstice Trilogy, Part II: Observations from my back yard

Back yard photograph, 12/3/10
It's long overdue...  
Anxiously waiting for that soft blanket of snow

Pale sun radiating no heat even at noon.
The bare garden soil exposed to the cold
like a hand without a mitten.
Leaves rustling loose, still unraked.
The woodpile’s once comforting bulk,
evaporating to wispy chimney smoke.

The deer skeleton Coco found,
now mounted on the barn,
stares down from empty eye sockets,
reminding me
that you don’t always get
what you bargain for –
as if one needs reminding
at this time of year.

Winter Solstice Trilogy, Part I: A coiling darkness

Photo of a Laconia Church as seen from the river, taken at 3:30 on 12/2/10
A cold, bleak, blustery day
Light already fading at 3:30 P.M.
A coiling darkness tightens it's grip
Threatening to engulf the spirit.

A person I respect told me I needed to post entries in my blog more often if I expect to draw readers. So, Dave, I hear what you are saying and I am going to try, starting with this 3 part trilogy.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Shadows of the Season

Photo taken 11/20/20 while walking the dog near the Merrimack in Concord
Shadows of the Season
On a cold November afternoon
Looking out at this backwater channel to the Merrimack
The last leaves of autumn are casting their muted colors on the still water
While the grasses, bleached almost white, anticipate the starkness of what is to come.

A lone gray birch tree, scraggly and bent from the rigors of living on the edge
Hovers over the fading landscape like a mother hen, wings spread,
Attempting to shelter her brood from the inevitable:
Death's looming dark shadow.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Are we becoming a shell of our former selves?

Photo of deserted amusement park, Old Orchard Beach,  11/13/10

Thoughts about our country:  if we don’t want to end up a desolate shell like this amusement park, we need to start leaning on something more substantial than consumerism.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Breath a soul into the newly formed...

Sunrise over Jenness Pond 10/27/10
“Be pleased yet once again to come
 down and breathe a soul into 
the newly formed, fragile film
 of matter with which this day 
is to be freshly clothed.” 
(Quote by French paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin)

Photograph taken at Cape Cod summer of 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Hidden Hand of the Marketplace

The Hidden Hand of the Marketplace

Fishermen in the beginning of time
Sacrificed a symbol of themselves to The Great Spirit
Praying for the welfare of the fish
Who sustained them and gave their life meaning
Within The Great Web of Life.

Fishermen at the end of time
Sacrifice all the fish to the great god of Moolah
Praying to get paid back enough bucks
To keep afloat and survive another month
Without being washed up on the beach with the fish–
Yet another victim of the Hidden Hand of the Marketplace.
This photomontage consists of three photographs, two of which I took this summer: The first is of a blue fisherman glove that washed up on the beach at Fort Foster in Kittery. The second is a wild ocean shot I took on Cape Cod. I got permission to use the third photo, the image of the fish skeleton, from

I’m sorry about the gender bias.  It just didn’t fit the cadence to say fisher people or people who fish or people who live from the sea. And alternating fisherman and fisherwoman would have changed the meaning.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In the end, everything returns to the earth

This photomontage is my second attempt to tell a story about my connection to a certain sugar maple tree. The first attempt was my last blog entry. You can see it by scrolling down or by clicking here: photograph with accompanying essay.  While the first image is visually accurate, it does not connect to the complex array of memories and emotions that this tree brings to life in me. Hence, my second attempt: the collage that you see above, which merges 15 different photographs, some taken for this project and some from the past.

I took several photographs of different trunks which had fallen off the sugar maple tree and were strewn around in various degrees of decomposition. To me they represents various stages of life. One of the trunks (seen at the bottom left of the collage) is turning to compost, ready to support lady slippers and maple flowers producing new life, while the leaves (on the bottom right) represent the obvious, the autumn of life.  Likewise, the photo on the left of me as a young child present the spring of life while the current self portrait represents again, the autumn of life.

Along the top half of the collage I wanted to show the stages of the old maple's life. Not having old photos of this tree, I took photographs of other maple trees which, in my mind's eye, looked like my old maple, going back in time, at various times of the year.

Finally, I needed a way to make a transition from the forest floor to the towering maples above. I chose to use photographs taken of stonewalls from elsewhere on my property; they not only fit seamlessly into the scene but are appropriate since I used to build them.

I merged three photographs of stonewalls in various degrees of disarray to show a progression from the rigid order of civilization to the flowing entropy of Mother Nature. Or, to put it differently: to show in the end that everything returns to the earth.

Monday, September 27, 2010

My enduring friend

My Enduring Friend

When I was eight or nine, I helped my father clear a path to the top of the land across from our house, land I later inherited. The land had been clear cut, almost denuded, a few years before by the previous owner to extract all possible value before selling the land to my father.

Almost every large tree was cut.  That’s why, a huge, ancient sugar maple tree, sitting on the boundary line at the very top of our property, commandeered my attention.  The tree also stood out in my young mind because I found it gross: deformed, decayed...dying. The old sugar maple didn’t make much of an impression at the time. After all, it was just a useless, old tree, soon to be dead and gone.

But I was proven wrong. 

Since then, I have walked that path to the top of my land thousands of time, and slowly over time, that old tree has become my friend.  It is not the same tree I first saw, but yet, it still stands proudly alive: A monument both to the tenacity of life and to the foibles of the human imagination.

Imagination is not a simple thing.

Imagining a tree as a young child is not the same as imaging a tree entering old age. It is a qualitatively different kind of imagination. A French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, wrote about these two forms of imagination, calling one formal imagination and the other material imagination. He believed that these two kinds of imagination were at work both in nature and in the human mind.

According to Bachelard, formal imagination in nature creates fleeting beauty such as flowers while the material imagination produces that which is both primitive and eternal. “In the mind, the formal imagination is fond of novelty, picturesquenss, variety, and unexpectedness in events, while the material imagination is attracted by the elements of permanency present in things.”

So it is with my old friend.  No longer is she the body-beautiful goddess, lush and symmetrically rounded, stretching sensually toward the sky. No longer do nineteenth century farmers visit her early each spring to tap her vital fluids. Yet, while she may no longer appear beautiful and useful in the formal, convention sense of the imagination, she magnificently endures, “in being, both primitive and eternal.”

The older I get, the more I value my walks up the path cut so long ago by my father and I to visit my dear old friend, my teacher, my initiator into the mysteries of old age.

Jean Stimmell ©2010 (424 word draft)
Photograph of my old Sugar Maple taken 9/25/10

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Politicians spewing detris* pollute the clarity of our inner wisdom

Politicians spewing detris* 
pollute the clarity
of our inner wisdom

*  the partially decomposed remains of living things

Elements of the collage: The background is a photograph I took in July of an imperceptibly slow- moving eddy in a backwater cove of the Merrimack river in Concord. The metaphor of the white politician is a photoshop manipulated image of a found-art sculpture I put together this summer.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mother Nature marches to the beat of Her own drummer

Even though the grass is still green and the leaves have barely started to change color, fall is coming as I have attempted to document by putting together this composite of photographs, all taken in the last 24 hours:
A broadwing hawk migrating
A Milkweed plant luxuriating in her fullness
A garter snake looking for a warm winter den
And a perfect pumpkin growing contentedly in our garden
Every day brings new surprises
But one thing for sure:
Mother Nature marches to the beat of her own drummer.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Afterglow at Great Bay Estuary

Afterglow at Great Bay Estuary 

A lone sea gull squatting indolently on a rock
Two Blue herons frozen like lawn ornaments
Three cormorants, wings spread out to dry:
Not just black caricature cutouts
but witnesses to the sublime.

No sounds of songbirds or sea gulls
Not the slightest breeze
An earthy fragrance burns like incense in the air.
Mottled worn leaves hang limply
Overripe plants droop, weighted down with seeds

Mother Nature’s languid repose after orgasm:
A magical interlude between summer and fall.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In Memory of Mark Hingston

In this modern age of mass media and instant communication, we all have become a part of the “I” generation. The individual reigns supreme: the ultimate goal is to express our “true self.”  But what if this “sense of self” is not a concrete reality? What if this sense of  ‘I’ that feels so solid is only an illusion.” Instead, what if what we call “our self” is only a maze of shifting reflections, representing the sum total of our total life experience, dynamic and ever changing.

The Rig Veda, an ancient Hindu text, has a name for these reflections: Indra’s Net.

There is an endless net of threads throughout the universe…
At every crossing of the threads there is an individual.
And every individual is a crystal bead.
And every crystal bead reflects
not only the light from every
other crystal in the net
but also every other reflection
throughout the entire universe.

I was struck by this image yesterday, attending the funeral and reception for a long-time, special friend, Mark Hingston.  I was lucky enough to have had him work with me for several years when I was structural designer/stone mason.

Saying goodbye to Mark had a profound effect on me: Finding myself, once again, immersed in the wonderful, caring community of Mark’s friends of which I am no longer an integral part, and which until yesterday, I didn’t know how much I had missed.

I think many of us would agree that today we place too much emphasis on the individual and individual achievement/and or celebrity status.  It wasn’t always so, even in western society.

In the 19th century Europe, the emphasis was much more on the importance of the community. In fact, Emile Durkheim, prominent sociologist of that era, concluded that individuals can only transcend their mundane existence by connecting to the collective mind of society.

According to Durkheim, society contained a collective consciousness with “marvelous properties” beyond the capabilities of any individual.

This collective consciousness of a community is: “the result of an immense cooperation which stretches out not only into space but into time as well; to make them, a multitude of minds which have associated, united, and combined their ideas; for them, long generations have accumulated their experience and their knowledge...infinitely richer and complexer than that of the individual…It is only by tapping into these collective social realities that individuals can understand each other…

Whether we call it Indra’s Net or Durkheim’s collective consciousness, I was privileged enough to be able to tap into it yesterday, reconnecting to a community “infinitely richer and complexer” than I.  It was the perfect setting to remember Mark who embodied all the best virtues of his beloved community: kindness, compassion, loyalty, consideration for others, all combined with an extraordinary blend of humility and humor.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious

Setting sun seen through the eye of a raven on Cape Cod 
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed"Albert Einstein

Photograph of Trullo beach on Cape Cod taken August 2010. 
Photograph of raven taken in Marin Country, California June 2009.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Dreamcatcher and the Raven

While walking the dog along the Merrimack river today, I took a photograph of a gypsy moth web silhouetted against the dramatic, post-tropical storm sky. I was attracted to the web and wanted to make it part of a Photoshop collage, combining it with a photograph of a raven I took last year in California.

But I wanted to know more.

 By googling “gypsy moths,” I found out they are one of North America’s most devastating pests. Interestingly, they are not Native Americans:  They are immigrants who, much like the White Man, were accidently introduced into Massachusetts.

One reason I took the photograph was because, to my eye, the gypsy moth web looked like a dreamcatcher.

I had always thought dreamcatchers were an old Native American custom, but upon looking on Wikipedia I found out that traditionally, only the Chippewa tribe had something similar: protective charms made of real spider webs hung on tiny wooden hoops over sleeping infants to catch “any harm that might be in the air as a spider’s web catches and holds whatever comes in contact with it.”

Dreamcatchers, as we know them, didn’t come into existence until the 1960s during the Pan-Indian movement. And now, many Native Americans have come to see them as over-commercialized: “sort of the Indian equivalent of a tacky plastic Jesus hanging in your truck.”

And what about the raven?

I have long felt a connection with crows and, even more so, ravens. I consider these birds to be my spirit animals: my guide to the mystery of Nature and what lies beyond.  I can identify with the great painter, Morris Cole Graves, who came to see the bird as “psychedelic, mystic, en route to transcendence.”

So far in my research, none of the elements of my photographic collage has been what it appears to be. And the raven is no exception. As opposed to my romantic feelings about my spirit animal, many view the raven not as a guide to transcendence but as “a bad omen which foretells unhappy events which are going to follow soon.” 

After my research, I am now more in touch with a deeper truth underlying these surface contradictions, a truth I have attempted to express in my image:

The raven is here as our spirit guide to issue a dire warning: Depleting the earth while pumping the atmosphere full of carbon dioxide and toxins of a million kinds is rapidly unraveling the protective web of the great cosmic dreamcatcher essential to our continued existence:

"Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'"–Edgar Allan Poe

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Alone, almost hidden, an outsider

Wandering in the area where I grew up, I was drawn to some mushrooms growing on a bed of bright green moss. One caught my eye: it was a different species of mushroom than the others, alone, almost hidden, an outsider, the way I felt growing up.

Don’t get me wrong.

My parents loved my brother and I to death, doted on us, and bought us everything kids could want.  But, at least as their first-born, my parents sheltered me and were so protective I didn’t learn to stand on my own. My mother was a fine woman who believed with all her heart in the protestant ethic and setting high goals; she believed in being a good Episcopal and solidly middle class; she was obsessed with respectability.

Because my parents were private people and lived out in the sticks, I hadn’t mastered socializing with others when I started school.  School was so awful I threw up before school for weeks: I was self conscious, shy, and totally inept: kids picked on me because I was clueless, because my mother made my clothes, one ear was bigger than the other…

I had to get away and I did!

I went to a different high school in a different town and changed my personae.  I acted assertive and tough, like I knew what I was doing. Amazing, it worked: I was immediately accepted and found real friends at last.  But as a child of the 1960s, instead of assimilating and becoming part of the American dream, I rebelled.  I rebelled in general against the status quo and, in particular, against anything smacking of the middle class.  The working class became my idol along with raising hell and drinking beer with my peers.

From one extreme to the other: I went from trying too hard to please to total rebellion.

In retrospect I can see now, I ended up like this mushroom. The teeth and thick folds on the outside of the mushroom represent the calloused thick skin I grew to protect myself from the hostile outside world. The smooth delicate inside–vulnerable, sweet, and trusting–I hid so well that I even hid it from myself.

I took the photo of the mushroom today. 
The image of the puppy is a photograph Mark Ledgard took of his puppy, Hazel.