Friday, July 5, 2019

Jumping Free

Monhegan in the evening golden hour
CC Jean Stimmell  7/3/19

I haven’t written much lately, but it has been of no concern. I’ve been happy to tend the garden, build my waterfall, and take walks in the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of spring.

But spending a week on Monhegan Island, a magnificent little gem 12 miles off the coast of Maine without the distractions of modern life – without TV, Twitter or social media – was a revelation to me.

Without conscious awareness, I had become like the frog in the proverbial pot on the stove who didn’t notice the heat had slowly been ratcheted up until it was too late to jump, and he was cooked. 

Luckily, unlike the proverbial frog, I jumped out in time. And landed on Monhegan to join close friends.

Soon after arriving here, my mind cleared, like the sun breaking through morning fog: I felt viscerally alive – I guess like a groundhog waking up from a long winter’s hibernation.

It came to me how much our country is, indeed, a giant roiling pot, a cauldron rife with tribal culture wars and incessant fear mongering , all conspiring to boil away our essence.

On the island, without the restricting leash of conventional society, I found myself becoming disoriented and lost. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: Getting lost can be a liberating experience as Rebecca Solnit illustrated in her classic book, “Field Guide to Getting Lost.”

I identified with the Thoreau quote in her book about how only when we become lost “do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. Not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”⁠1 

As I became increasingly lost, I saw how in our culture, our left brain has been worshipped to such an extent, it has become our supreme idol, the new god of modernity. By privileging our left brain, we have become, cognitive, computer-like creatures who can calculate anything that can be commodified for pleasure and gratification – or to gain power over others.

 But, in the process, we have forsaken our right brains, the seat of our spiritual souls; we have forgotten, how to inhabit our bodies and be grounded with a sense of place, prerequisites to rest comfortably in the bosom of Mother Earth.

As I was musing, it struck me why my writing has tailed off.  It is because words in my life have become optional.

 Rebecca Solnit describes having the same epiphany during a desert meditation: she was enveloped in “a kind of humming silence in which solitude seems as natural to your species as to any other, words strange rocks you may or may not turn over.”⁠2 

Day after day, watching the sun rise out of the ocean, reconnected me to what is really real:  the mythic powers of the earth and the cosmos beyond:  It is the deep intelligence of Mother Earth that regulates the tide, wind, and climate which will determine our future– or if we will even have one.

It is that deep intelligence, beyond the power of any computer, which choreographs the movement of giant flocks of migrating birds, gyrating and whirling in ever-changing patterns, flying millimeters from each other, but never touching:

The same deep intelligence that guides a child’s joy as she leaps with abandon from one rock to another on an island paradise to celebrate the end of a perfect summer day.

1 Solnit, Rebecca. A Field Guide to Getting Lost (pp. 14-15). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Solnit, Rebecca. A Field Guide to Getting Lost (p. 131). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

A Postmodern Crossing of the River

"Oh Oh, Who Got Wet", 2019, oil on canvas
by Janiva Ellis
I went to the Whitney Biennial in New York City last week. Rather than floors of paintings depicting the western history of white man art, I was bombarded by outsider art: constructions, animations, videos, sculptures, and lots of digital celebrating the diversity and dysfunction of the postmodern world that we really inhabit.

While paintings were in a minority, one was my favorite: A gigantic,  20-foot-wide panoramic, landscape by Janiva Ellis; it was surreal with psychedelic colors and menacing red sky.

An indigenous woman wades toward us through a river, dissolving as she comes closer; she is carrying, a shape-shifting cartoon-like character, perhaps her baby. Awaiting on the shore in front of her is a goddess-like figure, dead or wounded, lying motionless on the ground.

In religious circles, crossing a river represents a major transition. For instance, the Buddha taught that right living and meditation was like building a raft, which if successful, could ferry one across the river of life to enlightenment.

To my eye, this painting depicts the abortive nature of the type of transition that technology – our new god –  promotes today.  It is a betrayal of what is really real. Rather than an indigenous spiritual quest grounded in our own flesh and blood, sense of place, and Nature, this digital transition connects us only to empty pixels.

Technology is like a siren, luring us to cross the river to a digital heaven that dissolves before our eyes like the person in the painting.  Digital paradise turns out to be a chimera, an illusion, a world without substance.

In another vein, perhaps this figure represents a black American slave escaping to freedom; in that case, then today she represents all of us in our fruitless quest for transcendence in the illusionary age of technology. 

Technology is no longer a benign force but a frontal assault on Mother Nature who has taken all the abuse that She can stomach and is now ready to fight back. Perhaps that goddess-like figure laying dead or wounded in the foreground represents Mother Nature!

It’s not a pretty picture: I think the painting is telling us the future is as grim as the prophecy James Baldwin recreated from the Bible in a song of a slave:

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign,

No more water, the fire next time!”

Finding Sanity

A version of this essay was published in the Concord Monitor, May 30, 2019

A Work In Pogress: The Waterfall and Me

Finding myself increasingly lost in the wilderness during these dystopian times, dominated by clashing views on what is the truth, I’ve been urgently searching for familiar landmarks to help guide my way home.

One  landmark came into view from reading the Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, who lived through the chaos of the first half of the 20th century: The whole world was in armed  turmoil and his government in transition –   as I fear ours might be now –  from  democracy to dictatorship.

His solution was to take time out to turn inward to find the truth:

Few are the people who in these latter days still enjoy that tranquility which permits one to choose the truth…. Almost all the world is in tumult, is beside itself, and when man is beside himself he loses his most essential attribute: the possibility of… withdrawing into himself to… define what it is that he believes… 

Without such respite, Ortega continues, a person becomes “beside himself,” a zombie, “forced to act mechanically in a frenetic somnambulism.” 

That describes my psychological state, especially since the advent of the present administration: somewhere between zombie and frenetic sleepwalker. 

How do I withdraw inward to regain my tranquility?  That became the question. As I looked back over my long life, I came across another landmark: One other time when I felt as I do now.

The first time was  during the 1960s. After a euphoric beginning when my generation idealistically – but naively –believed that we were the leading edge of a wave that was going to going to sweep in a new era of peace and justice, simplicity and sustainability.

Tragically, the wave stalled as the Vietnam war dragged on endlessly, killing tens of thousands of us and hundreds of thousands of peasants;  meanwhile  our heroes were assassinated, one after another, including JFK, MLK, and RFK; our out-of-control, imperial president then enlarged the war, invading Cambodia and students were gunned down by the national guard. 

Metastasizing polarization turned peaceful protest into armed mayhem.

The feeling I had then was what I feel today and what Ortega y Gasset was feeling in his time and place.  A breaking point comes when it all becomes too much and one must withdraw into oneself.

I dropped out of my sociology graduate program where I felt like a faceless cog in an academic machine and joined the back to the land movement, along with many of my compatriots. 

While still advocating for peace and justice, my personal peace came from being nurtured by nature and the land. We grew what we needed: vegetables, chickens, pigs, and children while I earned my living as a dried-laid stone mason.

That was my tranquility, away from the hustle and bustle of a world gone mad. 
Without forethought or planning, that is what I find myself slipping back into today. 

This realization has become the third landmark back to myself as I find  myself rededicated to my gardens and tree farm, even buying a new tractor. But the final element was a big surprise, even to me.

The germ of the idea materialized when Russet and I were put in an altered state by the patter of a waterfall at a Buddhist retreat two winter’s ago. 

The vision gained momentum  when an old friend recently gave me an eight foot long pane of frosted glass from the door of an old bank. Indestructible, almost one inch thick, it had the makings of a momentous waterfall.

To incorporate the majestic glass into a worthy water feature required some serious stonework. Lucky I have my new tractor.

A final gift came after starting my waterfall: how becoming reacquainted with the rhythm of working with stone in the web of nature erased time back to a blissful era long past.


Saturday, May 4, 2019

Friendly and tipsy, worn and hip

Walking along a mostly deserted P-town street,
we came across a faded, disheveled bar,
a flashback abode to my unruly youth

As we passed, the woman (pictured below),
appeared from the bar, crossed the street
to invite us in because, she said,
we looked like old hippies

The floor sagged, the tables tipped
at strange angles, the juke box blared
60’s music.The patrons fit right in:
friendly and tipsy, worn and hip –

just like us  

Provincetown 4/29/19

Sunday, March 24, 2019

What does tangible really mean?

Newburyport MA 3/18/19
CC Jean Stimmell
A chair is the definition of a tangible asset:
A physical object that gives value.
But that’s not always the case…

When I took this photograph of these faded chairs,
abandoned outside an old warehouse,
they weren’t tangible…

What grabbed my eye were the two shadows
like sharks about to attack
And the slithering snake underneath

Friday, February 15, 2019

Trapped at the Ocean

Hampton Beach State Park 2/14/19

Hemmed in between crashing breakers
on one side and surging waves
of beach grass on the other

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Fear of the Other

Coyote at Squam Lake Nature Center 5/29/14
CC Jean Stimmell

The House Fish & Game committee voted this week to reject a bill that would have protected coyotes from being hunted while raising their pups. If the mother coyote is killed during this time, the pups die a slow, agonizing death by starvation.

The committee’s rationale is that only they, not the whole legislative body, have the wildlife expertise to make the correct decision on this bill.

The committee is right about one thing. Coyotes never used to be an issue, because they weren’t here; they didn’t start migrating into NH until around 1945, the year I was born. Nature abhors a vacuum: coyotes arrived to fill the niche after we exterminated the wolf.

The committee was apparently swayed by testimony from citizens contending coyotes are a primary threat to our pets and from farmers who feared for their livestock, although I have never heard about any such widespread carnage.

Fish and Game committee’s major focus was on protecting the deer herd. They voted against a restricted hunting season because they feared this would increase the number of coyotes who would, in turn, markedly reduce the deer population. 

This seems unlikely since – even with unrestricted coyote killing – the departments own studies[i]have shown herd size increasing year after year, most likely due to our milder winters.

We have personally witnessed the increase in deer each year until we now have our own herd of deer living behind our house. They lay in wait until food gets scarce each winter and then descend in the dead of night to devour our rhododendrons and ornamental shrubs. In the summer they eat our garden.

I haven’t hunted since serving in Vietnam but I’ve been tempted to start again to help trim our herd down to size. Three cheers to the coyotes if they could – and would – do it for me. But, no, they just laugh at me and howl at the moon.

Many years ago, my father was chairman of this very same Fish & Game committee. He was an avid hunter, a committed sportsman, and most important, someone who could see the big picture.  I believe he would have helped lead the committee to consider a different verdict if he were here today.

He would have relied on acknowledged authorities like John Harrigan,[ii]legendary sportsman from the North Country and Chris Schadler, UNH ecologist and coyote expert.[iii]  They both offer proven remedies whereby farmers, coyotes, and the public can peacefully coexist.

It is important to stress that, in a functioning pack, only the alpha male and alpha female are allowed to mate, nature’s way to regulate the population. However, if hunters kill the alpha animals, everyone in the pact starts breeding and the population escalates. 

Killing the alpha coyotes works as well as what fishermen historically did, attempting to eliminate the starfish, who they blamed for attacking their mussel and oyster farms, by cutting them in little pieces: They didn’t realize that they were creating more starfish because each part replicated into a new animal.

My biggest fear is that our crusade against coyotes is not a dysfunctional outlier, but a fundamental part of the American character. The quintessential American idea that we are special, unique among nations, has lead us down a path where we believe we can do no wrong.

From the time white settlers first arrived in North America, we have anointed ourselves as “the chosen ones.” Exercising power over life and death, we have attempted to exterminate whoever got in our way: grizzly bears, pumas, wolves, and, especially, the indigenous Americans whose land we stole.

Our rallying cry became, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

The last existential threat to American Exceptionalism was when Osama Bin Laden and his fellow Saudi terrorists attacked us on 911.  It was an affront to our delusional fantasy that we are untouchable, impervious to harm. 

In total denial, we had to strike back hard.

We attacked Afghanistan, quickly rooting out Bin Laden but somehow today, almost 20 years later, we are still fighting there, in the same misguided manner we are now fighting the hyped-up coyote threat.

For good measure, we invaded, not only Afghanistan but Iraq, even though Saddam had nothing to do with 911 – neither did he have the nuclear weapons. The only thing in common between the two countries was that they were both Muslim.

Our fear of the other is a violent, counterproductive way of being, whether we are talking about Islam, our neighbors south of the border, or our furry neighbors, just trying to fill their niche in nature.


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Donald Trump and Andy Warhol: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Digital Image in the Style of Warhol's Famous Marilyn Monroe Diptych
CC Jean Stimmell

When the Museum of Modern Art hosted the first Andy Warhol retrospective back in 1989, his work was considered to be derivative and superficial by a variety of critics.

John Updike’s opinion was typical: “Warhol’s art has the powerful effect of making nothing seem important.”1

He quoted Warhol’s own words: “Some critic called me the Nothingness Himself and that didn’t help my sense of existence any. Then I realized that existence itself is nothing and I felt better.”

Updike goes on, “His great unfulfilled ambition (he couldn’t have had too many) was a regular TV show.”

How times have changed.

The Whitney Museum of American Art is currently hosting a new retrospective exhibit of Andy Warhol’s work and, this time around, he is widely considered to be the most consequential artist of the 20th century.

Apparently, he has earned this honor, not because of his art’s intrinsic greatness but because he is a ultimate representative of what society has become:

As the director of the Whitney writes in the show’s catalog, “Because we live in a culture of display and consumption, where the personal and the public are virtually inseparable, Warhol was the perfect artist for his time and our time.”

I agree he personifies what our culture has become and, in the process, transformed what we consider art to be? 

But, if that transformation elevates nothingness to a supreme value, won’t the end result be that nothing is sacred, for us as individuals or as a society.

In Warhol’s world, alternative facts become as acceptable as actual facts. Transactional one-upmanship becomes as acceptable as our age-old moral and ethical values.

As Steven Metcalf writes in the current Atlantic Magazine, Warhol2 negates what we have always held dear: “An inner life, a distrust of fame and a special loathing for speculative fortunes, and a personal relationship with God (or nature)” that the artist’s image may reflect but never replace.

He accuses Warhol of a blanket nihilism that “creeps out” beyond his personal work to speak for all art and even modern society itself.

By now, I am sure you know where I am going with this: everything I’ve written about Andy Warhol, applies to Donald Trump.

To my way of thinking, they are twins!

Both are narcissists lacking redeeming social values, obsessed solely with fame and making money. Not surprisingly, they knew each other.

Trump once commissioned the artist to create silk-screened portraits of Trump Tower, but Trump didn’t like them; Warhol, annoyed at this rejection, responded by calling Trump “sort of cheap.”

Trump continues to promote Warhol, quoting the artist in two of his books: “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art”.3

Without a doubt, the commonalities between Donald and Andy are all around us. As Trump would say, “many people are talking about it.”

Asked about how Trump dominates the news cycle today, Donna De Salvo, the curator of the Whitney show, says: “I think many of us didn’t expect we would be where we are now. There may be some who see Warhol as the cause of it all.”4

May the gods have mercy on us.

2 Warhol’s Bleak Prophecy by Steven Metcalf. Atlantic Magazine, Jan-Feb 2019