Friday, January 17, 2014

Some Work Along the Way

It has been several weeks since my last post. Three holidays (five when you include Hanukkah and Kwanzaa) have come and gone. And I have not hiked since the last posting. I thought I would try to restart the momentum in this new year by posting some work I have done along the way. These ink paintings/drawings may or may not be the "official" work for this project, but I as these develop and change, I am beginning to see the shape of some work to come.


Ink and gesso on paper
30 x 41 inches

When You See Me Again, It Will Be In Mountains
Ink and gesso on paper
41 x 30 inches

Opening the Mountain
Ink and gesso on paper
41 x 30 inches

Monadnock Ice 1
Ink and gesso on paper
30 x 41 inches

Monadnock Ice 2
Ink and gesso on paper
41 x 30 inches

What Is It That Moves?
Ink and gesso on paper
41 x 30 inches

Monday, December 9, 2013

Mount Monadnock #3: What Is It That Moves?

Watching the snow fall gently on the cypress trees outside my kitchen window, I am reminded that I have yet to post my latest hiking experience. Early on a frigid Thursday morning, November 21, 2013, I headed up Mount Monadnock for the third time, third, that is, in relation to this project. I have retired the home-made GPS drawing device. It was a great experiment, but for whatever reason proved an unreliable tool. In the spirit of the project this is an acceptable outcome. So from now on, I am the device. I am (as always) a point moving in space.

November 21st was a day just like this... cold, cold, cold and clear, clear, clear; reminding me of something I had heard from the venerable zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, that the true nature of mind is always clear, like the bluest of skies. With this thought I decided to take the trail up the mountain that I had on my first time up for this project: White dot to Red Spot using the Cascade Link, then Pumpelly Trail to the summit. I was curious as to how this hike might be the same or different from it's predecessor. 

As I set off from the parking area I was relieved that this was a fairly calm day. The wind was at a minimum. Fortunate, as the temperature was well below freezing. Hat and gloves, multiple layers, hot coffee and spare socks, walking stick--check, check, check, and check. The air was crisp and it felt quite refreshing to step off on a brisk morning into the forest. Within the first hundred yards I encountered a fundamental difference from my previous time up this trail... ice. 

Frozen puddles and icicles were ubiquitous. It was not long before I began to see that a good deal of the trail was going to be like this:

And this:

And this:

And this:

So what I was seeing and feeling was the mountain passing through the season. Or was it the season passing through the mountain? Does this amount to the same thing? Can a mountain move? According to Dogen, in his Mountains and Waters Sutra, mountains walk. One may think he was writing metaphorically, but I think not... there is not a lot of metaphor in zen (and there is a lot of metaphor in zen). Or is it that the seasons are always there and the Earth turns into them? What is it that moves? I am a point moving in space. Or is the mountain the space that is moving through me? Same or Different?

These were the questions that arose and subsided with each step until they were just kind of hovering there with me, companions along the way. As Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet, "Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." I began to feel myself occupying the space between dualities, not the same or different, not outside or inside, not water, not ice; like a brook that is still moving, still water, but on the verge of being ice. The liminal or between space. A threshold.

In this space there is only hearing, seeing, walking, a heart that beats. It is not that I see, I hear, I walk, my heart that beats... the experience is outside that kind of dualistic thinking that separates, divides, categorizes. It is the mind that holds, "What is it that moves?" without trying to answer it. But the mind's function is to think and, so, then comes perception, formations, attachments, etc. I quite  naturally and somewhat without noticing the difference in mindset began to aestheticize my experience and think of it in terms of art. 

As I photographed frozen pools and hair/needle ice (see image below) I thought of William Henry Fox Talbot's The Pencil of Nature, not so much the book, which was an important and influential work in the history of photography, but the phrase, the pencil of nature or nature's pencil. Talbot's metaphor, to me, rings false, as wild nature does not make art or, more specifically, does not draw. Conditions are such that certain phenomena happen. We, the perceivers, aestheticize them but, beautiful and wondrous as they are, they are still, simply, instances of wild nature. Perhaps our need to call them art or art-like is a need to reconnect to our own wild mind (what I think we do when we draw). That being said, as I photographed the following images, I thought immediately, "these are like... drawings."

Hair or Needle Ice

Enso: In zen buddhism, an ensō is a circle that is hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited
brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create. The ensō symbolizes absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe. It is characterised by a minimalism born of Japanese aesthetics.

So what is it that moves? Is it the seasons? Is it the mountain? Is it the body (the point) that passes through space? I brought the question to dokusan (an interview with a zen teacher) at the Worcester Zen Center. His response, notice I did not say answer, was, "Yes. That is a wonderful question. Good for you."

Monadnock Ice 
ink and gesso on paper
30 x 41 inches

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Mt. Lafayette: The Way of Mountains

Amid ten thousand streams up among
thousands of clouds, a man all idleness

wanders blue mountains all day long,
returns at night to sleep below cliffs.

In the whirl of springs and autumns,
to inhabit this calm, no tangles of dust:

it's sheer joy depending on nothing,
still as an autumn river's quiet water.

--Han Shan (Cold Mountain)
   translated by David Hinton

On October 16, 2013, I "walked" up Mount Lafayette (5260 feet) in  New Hampshire via Little Haystack (4760 feet) and Mount Lincoln (5089 feet) along the Franconia Ridge. I reached the ridge by ascending up the Falling Waters Trail. The descent took me down the Greenleaf Trail to the Old Bridle Path (Thoreau's way up). It was a nearly 9 mile loop through mist, clouds, bright sun, and wind. It was an arduous hike; steep ascents on slick rock and crossing Falls Brook several times on the way up. While Mount Katahdin was a strenuous climb and the mountain's being, bearing, and views were spectacular, my time with Mount Lafayette and its companion peaks has proved, so far, to be my most aesthetically stimulating and spiritually moving experience.

For all that this project will eventually result in artworks, this hike is the first in which I actually thought about art. From the outset, as mist rose off the cascading Falls Brook into the tree tops diminishing visibility to about 25 yards, I felt that I was walking through a Sung (or Yuan or Tang or...) Dynasty landscape painting. 

I have often felt kinship with the "mountains and waters" painters and poets and the aesthetics that underpin their work. Taoism  and later Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism very often informs their choices both formally and in terms of content. In his book Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China, David Hinton, outlines the philosophy behind, not only the poems (and, by extension, paintings), but more significantly the lives of the makers. What one finds is no separation between poet/subject and form and content/object. The human is melded with the wild: one cosmology. This point of view elides with my own which despite its ancient roots, I believe, to be intrinsically relevant to today's aesthetic discourse and notions of the marriage of process and content. Hinton writes, "... the importance of the rivers and mountains poetic tradition is not by any means limited to Chinese culture, for it is a poetry suffused with a worldview that is, however foreign (to Western sensibilities), remarkably contemporary and kindred: it is secular, and yet profoundly spiritual; it is thoroughly empirical and basically accords with modern scientific understanding; it is deeply ecological, weaving the human into the "natural world" in the most profound way; and it is radically feminist--a primal cosmology deriving in some sense from Paleolithic spiritual practices centered around a Great Mother who continously gives birth to all things in the unending cycle of life, death, and rebirth." The animating principle of this paradigm is tzu-jan. Again, Hinton, "The literal meaning of tzu-jan is self-ablaze... But a more revealing translation of tzu-jan might be occurrence appearing of itself, for it is meant to describe the ten thousand things (or the stuff of the universe) emerging spontaneously from the generative source, each according to its own nature, independent and self-sufficient, each dying and returning into the process of change, only to reappear in another self-generating form."

From Hsieh Ling-yun (385-433 C.E.)

As for my
homes perched north and south
inaccessible except across water:

gaze deep into wind and cloud
and you know this realm utterly.

And to add a contemporary "voice": Pat Steir

The ascent took me over boulders, roots, and watercourses and often I found myself climbing straight up. I was more tired out (though exhilarated) after only about 3 miles than at any time on any previous hike, including Katahdin. At times there were only the stones in front of me. Great stone upon great stone. Moss and stone. Water and stone. Root and stone. 


And then I turned around.

As I approached the tree line I found myself above a cloud forest... like Han Shan:

If you're climbing Cold Mountain Way,
Cold Mountain Road grows inexhaustible:

long canyons opening across fields of talus,
broad creeks tumbling down mists of grass.

Moss is impossibly slick even without rain,
but this far up, pines need no wind to sing.

Who can leave the world's tangles behind
and sit with me among these white clouds.

( Georgia O'Keeffe. Her view was from an airplane, but I did think of this painting briefly)

Coming out on Little Haystack I was afforded a view of the Franconia Ridge and the trail leading over Mt. Lincoln to Lafayette. A flock of about a dozen ravens soared up and down the face of the mountain. Great shaggy birds gliding through a curtain of cloud. Clouds were pouring into the valley and onto the peaks sometimes obscuring the trail. But a gust of wind would raise the curtain and reveal views of the surrounding peaks... like Washington and Mount Liberty.

I'd met a few hikers along the way, those going up and coming down. And I was put in mind of how there is always a human presence in those ancient paintings, whether it be a figure, a boat, a hut, pagoda, or temple. We often tend to think of nature in its so-called pristine state as being devoid of human presence, but we occupy this planet and live all over it. It's just that we have lost the way of living lightly upon it. If we can remember that we belong to this place, not vice versa, then perhaps we can re-inhabit it, or rather join with it again... seeing it and being seen by it as mutual embodiments of each other. Or as American poet Gary Snyder wrote in his essay Opening the Mountain, “Nature, not in the abstract, but (like anybody) a kind of being, actually there to respond to being seen in the moment.”

Coming over Mt. Lincoln I came upon the most unusual flora I'd yet to encounter on any hike; a spongy purple moss that I've yet to identify, but believe to be a type of sphagnum or peat moss. The Franconia Ridge is an alpine tundra zone and is home to a variety of flora, including the same phosphorescent green lichen that I found on Katahdin. In fact, all along the trail I encountered mosses growing on everything and fungi aplenty.

I ate lunch on Lafayette peak in the company of ravens, wind, and four lichen coated angular stones that I dubbed the Four Immortals. Hot tea, apples, PB&J.

Mount Lafayette as seen from Mount Lincoln

 Four Immortals

I made my way down through clouds, cairns, and scree. I looked back a few times at where I'd been and noticed I still carried the feeling I'd had at the outset. It wasn't a grasping or trying to hold on to something intangible, but rather a kind of continuous flow... like falling water, like wind-bourne clouds, like seeing and being seen.