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.