Monday, August 27, 2012


Thicket of River Gums at Fowlers Gap
"Art can never match the luxury and superfluity of Nature.  In the former all is seen; it cannot afford concealed wealth, art is niggardly in comparison."
- Henry David Thoreau

All too often our shared public sense of the earth is defined by  the world opened up in an image, by all the crap--leaf litter, fallen branches, rotting trees, ravenous mosquitoes and the rest--transformed into harmonious color and pleasing shape.  And so, we bring nature into our cultural existence through the iconic artwork.  But for Thoreau the directness in these works of art, that they seek from the beginning to reveal in one manner or another what is significant (even if that significance is manifested as a significant absence) in the scenes set before an audience is deceptive.  For whatever secrets a work of art might hold, they are nothing compared to those of nature.  As Heraclitus famously observes, nature hides; it does not manifest itself readily, if ultimately at all. But nature's holding secrets doesn't mean it necessarily appears deeply mysterious and compelling to the human eye, as if one were hovering over a swamp of primordial ooze from out of which ghostly creatures emerged fulgurating into a slightly more palpable existence. That's a romantic version of secrets.  And perhaps one version of the biblical account as well, the one before the one in which the Most High must dirty her or his fingers in the mud to get the work of creation accomplished.  Thoreau's notion of secretive nature is not romantic, even if it is often mistakenly thought so .  For Thoreau at first glance the natural world often appears dowdy and scrappy, scant and thin, in a word, disappointing.  And this precisely is its virtue.    

Thickets can be like that.  Upon being entered, they surround one so immediately, so inopportunely, that one  can't even get a vantage to see what's going on around one.  One's very body feels dislocated, arms and legs akimbo as branches push one's head in one direction while a thorn pricks one's cheek and suggests quite forcefully another path is needed.   The near and the far become cryptic and indecipherable.  In a thicket, that peaceful globe of vision, in which a world leisurely blossoms forth from a discernible horizon, collapses and withers.  The effortlessly attained vistas that are offered up to our gaze as we walk upon an earth contoured for our own immediate needs prove to be Baconian idylls of perception.  Finally, nature makes clear it does not desire an audience but our participation.  It wants us, body and soul.

Thus the image now sitting demurely at the head of this entry proves to be a performative contradiction.  For certainly it seeks, through aspiring to be artful, an audience for a moment undergone in my habitation of a dry riverbed, one wintry desert evening a few months back in Australia.  Amidst eucalypts, mulga and saltbush the artist found, before a thicket, an open space affording the luxury of exploring a thicket without being overcome by it.  Perched outside, the camera looked in and discerned how, in the impenetrable, rhythms and  shapes still abound.  In doing so, the image feeds my addiction and yours as well to see the world from afar, of our holding nature together in a single glance.  There is no photography, is there, without a focal length?

So how might I offer a defense of this simple act of bringing nature into an image, given Thoreau's objections?  This is to ask anew in what manner might the image play a positive role in our participation in the secretive domain of nature.  My next blog entry will turn to a recent artwork by environmental artist Janet Laurence to develop this question.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Living in the Gaze

"Nature, even when she is scant and thin outwardly, satisfies us still by the assurance of a certain generosity at the roots...bareness does not suggest poverty."
- Henry David Thoreau

A Brown Mantis Perching
Seeming like nothing more than a shabby twig, this brown praying mantis perched yesterday evening on the spent bloom of a butterfly bush in the garden.  She (or perhaps he) was waiting patiently, it appears, for the first passing monarch or swallowtail to drift into her ready claws.  What particularly struck me as I maneuvered around the mantis's  roost to photograph her was her gaze: It followed my every move.  Peering into the macro lens's viewfinder, the eyes of the mantis, two infinitesimal pinpricks in two wooden looking knobs were fixed directly on me.  The hair on the back of my neck stood up.  Imagine the menagerie of all those eyes--of crows, robins, flickers, squirrels, wasps, moths, stink bugs, mantises, hovering flies and all the rest--that fix upon one every time one wanders about in one's backyard.  And if not eyes, then noses and all the other sensory organs that perceive the comings and goings of the human being sharing these environs.

In Australia recently I was privileged to meet Simon Dower, a naturalist and animal trainer working at the Living Desert Park in Alice Springs.  He remarked that animals often notice our habits far more carefully than we do: exactly where we move, when we show up, how we conduct ourselves.  It is as if we humans are the blind ones stumbling about in a world bristling with perceptions of our passing.  Nature is not nearly so thin and scant, when one understands how many creatures remark upon our presence in it.

Brown Mantis Gazing