Category Archives: Art

Art in a changing climate

A refugee is someone who survived and who can create the future.

Amela Koluder

Climate change does not respect border; it does not respect who you are — rich and poor, small and big. Therefore, this is what we call ‘global challenges,’ which require global solidarity.

Ban Ki-moon

There are myriad reasons why people set down roots along the Oregon Coast: “the ocean,” “the air,” “the laid-back lifestyle,” “the small town feel of the towns,” “no rat race,” “the geological and ecological beauty.”

For others, like First Nations cultures (Coastal Salish), or Nehalem, their roots were set down thousands of years ago, tied to land, sky, forest and the power of place.

Now, enter the term “envirogee” — derived from both “environment” and “refugee” — a displaced individual who has been forced to migrate because of environmental devastation. Some call themselves “climate refugees.”

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For Anja Albosta, and her spouse, Mark, relocating to Waldport is much more than a geographic upheaval.

In 2018 my husband and I left our home in the Yosemite area due to drought, the die-off of millions of ponderosa pines and fire evacuations three years running. The last year driving out through flames on both sides of the road. We then relocated to the beautiful coast of Oregon.

I’m in their nice home overlooking Alsea during the slack tide. Sand bars ripple under the big bridge joining two portions of the coastline over the precarious sand spits and intertidal zone that make this both a dramatic place to live, and precarious (think ocean surge vis-à-vis a tsunami).

They spent time researching places, using a climate change or global warming lens as part of their search. For them, the last time fires hit their neck of the woods, North Fork (31 miles from the south entrance to Yosemite National Park), they had all their important papers in containers as they evacuated.

The hardy Ponderosa pines in their former ecosystem were dropping like flies — creating a huge tinder box for tens of thousands of acres, putting home, roads and human and animal life in danger.

To be more specific — There are two and a half million dead trees within the 131,000-acre national park. Dead trees are a natural occurrence, but the higher number of dead ones now are attributed to warmer temperatures, drying periods, pine bark beetles. Climate has changed dramatically.

For Mark and Anja, after 20 years living in the area, they have the long view of how that ecosystem is degrading and at risk due to the results of climate change.

Enter the Beachhead of the Siuslaw National Forest

I met Anja a few months ago at Pacific Sourdough, where she had been working for around five months staffing the front counter and now also making some of those yeasty delicacies for which the Waldport bakery is known.

My SOP is learning about the various communities on the coast and digging deep into people’s lives quickly since I have been on the Central Oregon Coast barely one year. Big mouth, big heart, big ideas: I go head-first into this life with my background in radical politics, radical education, radical sustainability and journalism. I like people.

Not all my subjects are in line with my radical (rooted) politics or my deep systems thinking (the colluding negative forces of consumption/war/financialization/oppression/cultural genocide/environmental destruction/capitalism) approach to why things are a mess for not just the USA, but more importantly for the oppressed — second and third world (pejoratives by first worlders, but radically important descriptors to revolutionaries).

It was clear to me both the owner of the bakery, Katie, and the artist, Anja, were willing to riff about plastics in the ocean, acidification of the Pacific and the ragged state of American governance. In the end, though, Anja is a believer in America and Western Culture, whereas I know that America (North America) and Western Culture are pathogens against all sanity and sustainable cultures and lives and communities.

Note that this piece first appeared in the lifestyle rag, Oregon Coast Today, a gig for which I gain a few shekels for these feature columns — Deep Dive • Go beneath the surface with Paul Haeder

We swapped cards, and Anja’s piqued my interest — she’s an artist with a background in interior design. Artist-plus-envirogee- plus-world traveler makes for good fodder for my people profiles.

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Tranquility (sort of) in their hillside house overlooking the Pacific

I’m in the house Mark and Anja bought from the proceeds of selling their self-designed custom-built airy home with two-story view windows (eventually, a view made up of gray, brown charred trees) sited at the edge of the Yosemite National Park, which was made famous by photographer Ansel Adams, President Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, father of the Sierra Club.

She tells me Mark’s carpentry skills and both of their sweat equity turned the outdated and dysfunctional home into a wide-open floor plan with amazing built-in shelves and classy handmade doors and frames, as well as a new kitchen.

Anja’s paintings not only adorn all the walls — even the laundry room has three large acrylics hanging next above the laundry items — but she has many leaning up on walls that serve as a dining area a-la-painting studio.

Art for Art’s Sake

Anja’s youthful years include growing up in Germany and Switzerland, then Santa Barbara. She ended up back in Switzerland as an interior designer. “I had a fancy job, money, two months off each year for a vacation. But I wasn’t being fulfilled.”

That life changed when she was in her early 30s, propelling her to Yosemite for some outdoor adventure. She met Mark, who was rock climbing and asked Anja if she wanted to try her hand at climbing escarpments and the famous Half Dome.

Most of the rock now exposed in the park is granitic, having been formed 210 to 80 million years ago as igneous diapirs six miles below the surface. “Tis-sa-ack,” an Ahwahnechee phrase for Cleft Rock, is Half Dome’s pre-white man name.

She tells me that “coming to Yosemite changed my life.” In more ways than just her marital status, that is clear. Mark was a mountaineering guide in the park, and Anja threw in hard and fast as a painter while working 40 miles away in Fresno as an interior designer for clients who demanded style, panache and quality craftsmanship.

Her art from the Yosemite years is up in their house — broad horizons, silhouetted landscapes, with those rock features that Yosemite is known for. She tells me that much of the oil and water color creations ran parallel with the work she did as an interior designer — paintings that “went well” with various home settings.

On her website, her work is categorized as such — design; commissions and commercial art; watercolors, oils; mixed media.

For people living on the Coast, and others in our “green” Cascadia-Pacific Northwest, her latest evolution in her work really puts tread to the pavement when it comes to “statement art”:

From 2016 to the present, her art “has revolved around ‘balance’ and ‘the passing of time.’” Her art cuts into new emotional and societal space, for both the viewer and artist herself, reflecting her 52-years on Earth as an artist in transition. Succinctly, we might say she is looking for deeper meaning, a sense of purpose and creative inspiration — “climate, politics, religion, my own life.”

Climate Fight Should be Fight Again Capitalism

I go way back to the 1970s fighting against Sonora desert razing and scraping, against the shrimp bottom trawlers in the Sea of Cortez and the reckless, cyanide-laced explosive bait for such vermin as coyotes, puma, kit foxes, coatimundi.

I understand the long-view of how decimated the environment has become, due to rapacious capitalism and consumerism addiction. I never had much hope for humanity.

Anja sees the world from several lenses — one is hopeful as she plumbs the ideas of someone like Steven Pinker (psychologist, author of The Better Angles of Our Nature). The other lens is tied to youth and purpose, possibly hope, in the form of Swedish activist Greta Thurnberg. That third eye, so to speak, is occluded with darkness and impending catastrophe as Anja holds close to the research and writing of Elizabeth Kolbert (author of The Sixth Extinction and Field Notes from a Catastrophe, as well as Cataclysm Has Arrived: Man’s Inhumanity to Nature).

Anja galvanizes herself into that rarefied arena of being obsessed with painting —

I am an artist. I think at some point in my life I got to a place where it isn’t a choice for me. It is what I am and do.

That obsession isn’t without pitfalls, of which Anja is completely aware — tough to make a living selling paintings without a huge marketing push, and possibly a huge West Coast (LA, SF) or East Coast (NY, Boston) presence.

“I have other degrees [she tells me she is a self-taught artist from way back, in her teens] but at the end of the day I would paint.” For her, there are a thousand paintings in her head. She’s always thinking about images and color.

“I believe things are better. Women have the vote all over the world. Religion is shrinking. People are up in arms about this new attack on women’s reproductive rights, Planned Parenthood. We have all this gender awareness.”

Mixing Oils with Politics

Many in my artistic field — fiction — believe story has to flow from the common dramas of human compunction. I have had arguments with some telling me it is verboten to insert politics or a spin of political positioning in fiction.

We all have these universal stories set as conflicts, a sort of heuristic that defines how stories have always been told: man (woman) against self; man (woman) against man (woman); man/woman against culture/society; man/woman against god/religion; man/woman against nature.

For me, I add man/woman against science; and then, this new one, man/woman against Artificial Intelligence.

Interestingly, the climate change debate is political, psychological, cultural, economic, environmental and spiritual. For many now, like Greta, a collective trauma has set in. Many in my camp, however, have always questioned the fascist aspects of Capitalism holding sway over our personal, cultural, environmental lives. My cadre are also worried about climate fascism on all sides — a white Swedish teen — Greta with her Hulu special, Time magazine person of the year award, and fawning — lecturing the world on her idea of what should and should not be done in regards to climate we rebuff.

Anja sees the world in a type of collective cognitive dissonance. Anja understands that she comes from that privileged global group — white middle class American. She says she constantly thinks about how much pain and suffering will unfold in countries with less resources, less wealth and who are positioned on the front lines of extreme climate change effects.

Truly, though, when I look at Anja’s art, I see that vision of one woman who has traveled the planet emotionally, philosophically, creatively and intellectually. The art is influenced by artists such as Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe. The recent mixed media drive she is exploring is both passion and obsession, fear and darkness. She goes through hundreds of magazines like New Yorker, National Geographic, Scientific American and others — and then starts cutting out images. Her canvases can be part black and white sketches of her own, swirls of vibrant colors, dark silhouettes of trees and then this collage treatment rendering images or words not always recognizable.

We the viewer have to provide context to what she is doing in each work.

Collage, montage, mixed media, found materials and objects she incorporates, and Anja’s work is in the same league as Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Höch.

Putting my thumb on her work stylistically is challenging. California-based collage artist Eugenia Loli has some of the same techniques, but Anja is a true painter, whose canvases blend the collage with hyper evocative colors and transformed shapes from nature.

A fellow like Alexis Rockman, who has been imbuing climate change in his art since 1994, is also somewhat in the same vein as Anja. For Rockman, he uses his position as an artist “to visualize these things that were very abstract and remote in terms of people’s life span and comprehension.”

Again, Anja’s art is in its own league, tied to very specific issues of our current political, cultural and environmental zeitgeist, and when she shows me each of her works, her explication is as potent as the imagery by itself.

We talk about how to get her work “out there” — possibly in libraries, schools, restaurants, rather than this shoe-string, consignment sort of kitschy and retread art world for which she is competing.

Timelessness and Timeliness

There is a real urgency, real or perceived, in the climate change debate. My cadre is worried more about poverty, resource theft, subjugation of entire countries and areas of the globe to this thuggery of parasitic or disaster capitalism.

In any case, Anja’s art is of “the now,” emerging in tandem with the 24/7 news and attention span cycles of modern Western culture.

She’s 52, and we live in a time where her art once she has passed on will not be eliciting some miracle of resurgent interest . . . or that hidden gem producing millions in sales the art world still vaunts.

The culture she lives and works in is tied to planned and perceived obsolescence, and her work is actually beautiful, evocative and infused with those hidden or obvious images from magazine cutouts. He technique is to blend and then push a seamlessness into the entire canvas, where the viewer sometimes can’t figure out where her dense but light-filled vine-like shapes end and the National Geographic image of the giraffes begin.

Each art piece is also galvanized to “the telling” of the piece: how and why Anja conjures up the shapes and creates architectonics while also pointing out the subtle placement of magazine clips. Each piece is a story upon a story, relaying a complex overlay of where we are at now in this country’s and in the globe’s history.

Her most recent piece, “Sargassum,” reflects this globe as water planet, and while the cover of Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Sixth Extinction is floating in the sea, with a tether like tentacle, this piece is vibrant, evocative and something any individual or business should consider for display.

We talk about getting those magnificent explanations she does so well down on paper, and then having a piece like Sargassum anchored by the text, giving this mixed media art-form yet another dimension — words. Or a poem . . . or song lyrics.

“Galapagos Monsters;” “Alice — Looking Through Time;” “Let Girls Learn;” “Acquiescent;” “Betrayed;” and other titles are just the tip of the melting iceberg in Anja Albosta’s work. Try her out by going to her website, and then place yourself in the story unfolding in a world that without any doubt is challenged more and more daily with those cascading issues of injustice toward child-man-woman-mountain-animal-sea-lake-jungle-air-soil.

Luckily, Anja’s spouse, Mark, was willing to cross that hallowed ground of personal space — husband-wife relationship — and that of the art observer-aficionado. Here’s his take on Anja’s artwork:

Paul Haeder: What do you like about Anja’s work?

Mark Albosta: Anja’s art operates on several levels simultaneously for me. On the surface, the visual impact (color choices, images, shapes etc.). Then it pulls me in deeper to understand what the message is she is conveying, and finally I have my own interpretation or lasting effect that stays with me.

PH:  What role do you think artists — both Anja and you, as a musician — have in their communities?

MA: I have observed and think artists shape communities by revealing and delivering concepts to people that are only arrived at by doing the work as an artist. Expressing from the inside outward instead of engaging in the world from the surface. That translates outward to the community.

PH: What surprises you about Anja’s work?

MA:  Her originality in every piece. She is never at a loss for new ideas.

PH:  Define her work — her style, her final products/creations.

MA: Question 1 answers much of this but I will try and elaborate. Her style to me is of a dichotomy. Elegance and chaos. It is always present, similar to the world around us. There is a tense correlation to society and nature in her art but it is still easy to appreciate/immerse myself into every piece. The end result is passion.

 

Time #9 ~ Do You Know What You Are? ~ 18x24 ~ 2019

Art in a Few Hundred Words

All’s fair in love and art when looking at the artwork and intellectual and creative ethos of Anja Albosta. Her goal is getting her artwork out there, so to speak, and we can see that at age 52, in terms of chronological time, Anja has many good and inspiring years left. For me as a writer, this story will be read in the newspaper (part one) and then some will pick it up in the ether, reading the full-length people profile on line.

Anja’s art, however, if placed into environments where people can contemplate it, look at it, and discuss the meta-cognitive value of what she is paining/saying, well, that might be ephemeral too, but many more could be inspired by her art to move into some place of understanding or healing.

I’ll let her words speak for her. Her website can lead interested people into an entire world of depth, whimsy, provocation and beauty.

Paul:  What would you say your life philosophy is in as many words as you care to express?

Anja:  Stay balanced in an ever-changing world. Express myself as myself as best I can with the awareness that we are all always influenced by the world around us.

Find enough down time in our busy world to integrate events within myself. Feel, see, be able to truly listen when needed, to nature around me, people, sift through news and events and be authentic.

PH: Postmodernism looks at busting out of grand theories and concepts of art. What would you call your art given many in and out of the art world seem to be interested in movements, styles, expressive ideology in the artist’s own words?

AA: My paintings at this time, perhaps since 2015/16 have become a ouroboros of sorts, events happen and I create, at the same time I create and see events differently because of it.

Not sure what to call my art; labels help put anything in context. Yet I am not trying to fit in nor trying to be especially innovative. My paintings are just that, my process, my expression at this moment of my life. “Process Painting” comes as close to a label as I can think of perhaps.

PH: This is a foundational question that maybe I didn’t ask in so many words: what does your art mean to you?

AA:  It helps me balance all the cognitive dissonance in my own life, the worlds, past childhood events. In some strange way my art is everything to me, and yet how can that be true, it is just paint and bits of paper on canvas.

If I had no artistic expression, I would be lost, but if I only had art, I would be very isolated and lonely.

PH: What role does the artist have in society?

AA: Many artists have been recorders of history. Otto Dix, Kandinsky, Toulouse- Lautrec, Kate Greenaway. Recording their emotions of an era as well as actual events.

Current art and so many artists bring people together, social gatherings, ideas, philosophizing over the human conundrum of our best and worst. Art, music, innovative food, creating depth for the heart and soul that corporate consumerism can’t.

PH: What do you like about your work?

AA: It always feels like my art is an adventure, brings me completely into the flow of the moment.

My art is interesting to me as I work on it, consumes me at times over the weeks or months the oils dry and the painting is ready for the next layer of depth and expression. My work is what I want to do with my time. But I struggle with it too, question myself, then I paint again, hours pass and time is lost.

PH:  Are you ever surprised by your work?

AA:  Yes. I am continually surprised by my paintings. Creativity is organic for me. I read books and articles, see images and process in the moment.

Integrating the cognitive dissonance in the world around me. Always I find I have brought together opposites. Life and death, beauty and destruction, now and the past, humans and animals. Light and dark. Politics, religion, human choices. Questions, always questions … not so many answers.

•••

Should We Trust Science?

Scientists working on the issue have often told me that, once upon a time, they assumed, if they did their jobs, politicians would act upon the information. That, of course, hasn’t happened. Anything but, across much of the planet. Worse yet, science failed to have the necessary impact in significant part because of disinformation promoted by the major fossil-fuel companies, which have succeeded in diverting attention from climate change and successfully blocking meaningful action.”

— Naomi Oreskes, author of Why Trust Science? and professor of the history of science at Harvard University

There were 60 of us with four facilitators asking us deep questions about the best ways to protest, preserve, rehabilitate and reimagine Oregon’s rocky intertidal habitat.

“What does make a community resistant and resilient?” Steven S. Rumrill, Department of Fish and Wildlife shellfish program leader, asked us all.

In a nutshell, this breakout session was a microcosm of Saturday’s conference, State of the Coast at Salishan Resort.

Three other leads to this afternoon session titled, “Complex and Connected: Holistic Approaches to Management in the Nearshore” — Sarah Gravem, OSU Marine Ecologist; Dom Kone, OSU graduate student in Marine Resource Management; and Deanna Caracciolo, Department of Land Conservation and Development – challenged us to think about issues near and dear to not only the scientists, but to us lay persons. We held onto the anchor question: “What makes the Oregon Coast vibrant, healthy and a visitor destination.”

Rumrill posed key brainstorming questions:

1. What are the primary drivers of variability in rocky habitats?

2. What are the key stressors and threats to them?

3. What proactive steps can resource managers take?

4. Think of five words associated with holistic management of rocky shores.

Coastal Confab Inspires Next Generation

This was the sixth year in a row for the State of the Coast, but this past Saturday’s was the first sold out gig, according to Shelby Walker with Oregon Sea Grant, main sponsor of the Gleneden Beach soirée.

The all-day session included the requisite keynote – Bonnie Henderson, author of several books, to include “Day Hiking: Oregon Coast,” “The Next Tsunami: Living on a Restless Coast” and “Strand: An Odyssey of Pacific Ocean Debris.”

Even more compelling and intriguing — and dovetailed to the State of the Coast theme of looking into the future — 28 student researchers with their poster projects displayed in the Longhouse conference room, and the 10 student artists alongside their creative endeavors, with both groups being voted on by all the guests.

Projects tied to pollution, microplastics, the Pacific heat blob, hormone mimickers, ocean acidification and more are at the forefront of these highly motivated and interdisciplinary-steeped students from Oregon State University, University of Oregon, Portland State University.

 

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I spent time talking with Reyn Yoshioka from UO, as he explained the remarkable findings in his participation in Oregon Institute of Marine Biology’s BioBlitz in the Coos Bay area. We discussed how his team’s inventory of invertebrates would be ideal to present to city and county officials, as well as groups like Rotary clubs and chambers of commerce.

“The people with political and economic clout need to see not only the work you all do, but what really is at stake if anything threatens this incredible biodiversity,” I told many of the fledging scientists and artists.

Every single one agreed. Many asked me how they might connect to myriad other stakeholders and powerbrokers in their communities.

I introduced Reyn to OSU senior in arts Kenneth Koga, whose watercolors of various elements of a vibrant ecosystem bring the scientist’s eye in focus with a much broader scope beyond just the materialistic world and into the interpretation of nature through the artist’s lens. Reyn told me “it would have been cool” to have dancers, photographers, painters, sculptors and musicians as part of the biodiversity transect inventory.

The Arts Help Define and Contextualize Science

While we received quick teach-ins (one hour presentations of eight minutes each) from researchers looking at rocky habitats, the warm Pacific blob, Oregon’s five marine reserves, sea star wasting disease, threats to Gray, fin, blue and humpback whales on the West Coast, and the status of groundfish recovery, Marion O. Rossi, OSU Associate Dean of Liberal Arts, gave a quick snapshot of Republican Governor Tom McCall’s legacy in helping preserve our coastal habitats.

Author Studs Terkel asked McCall decades ago where the heroes of the political world are. “Heroes are not giant statues framed against a red sky,” McCall said. “ They are people who say, ‘This is my community, and it’s my responsibility to make it better.’”

Rossi and I talked about what better things might be done to bridge the divide between the sciences (and technology, engineering and math – STEM) and the arts.

Part of the conference included a rather telling – possibly debilitating – aspect of science and various stakeholders. I counted more than 21 agencies involved in just managing and setting plans for our rocky habitats. Unfortunately, there are many more agencies, bureaucracies, boards, quasi-legal, legislative, non-profit, industry groups with some sort of skin in the game tied to our coast.

Think of tide-pools, habitat for many juvenile species, kelp incubators, biodomes to invertebrates such as anemones and sea stars. One issue we tackled was the fact that we can love our coastlines to death; i.e., since we have so many visitors and local aficionados wanting to get into these areas, so many species are being trampled upon.

Ecological balance, keystone species and the entire web of life also were prominent discussion points for the speakers.

For instance, the wasting disease promulgated deeper response in coordinated research projects called STARS – Seastar Tragedy and Recovery Study. Sarah Gravem of OSU discussed the implications of this species’ decline most probably attributed to a virus as well as ocean conditions (warming) spurring the virus’ growth. In some areas along the Pacific Coast, there had been a 100 percent die-off of sea stars observed in 2018. Recovery has been slow.

The ecological consequences from this wasting disease hitting pisaster ochraceus that once was ubiquitous in our rocky shorelines (purple, orange, brown many-legged beauties) spurred a kind of domino effect.

• this predatory sea star feeds on the mussel Mytilus californianus and is responsible for maintaining much of the local diversity of species within certain communities

• compensatory predators come in when a die-off hits

• low sea star prey growth occurs upsetting the balance of the ecosystem

All these pieces to the marine puzzle make up the coast’s mosaic of life. With warming waters, the bull kelp die off, and then sea urchins populations explode and any sort of juvenile kelp that might attempt a foothold on rocky bottoms gets gobbled up by the armies of sea urchins.

Everything is connected in the coastal life in and around the sea.

Whose Oregon Is It?

The Oregon Coast Trail is a hiking trail along the Pacific Coast. The length depends on the use of ferries, and varies between 382 miles (615 km) and 428 miles (689 km). The trail is set out on the beach, paved roads and tracks.

– Traildino.com

“You know, the funny thing about aging is you can watch entire forests grow,” author Bonnie Henderson said. “Fifty years is a harvest rotation. I can say to the students here you will watch forests grow thanks to those with vision and persistence.”

The author made it clear that her love of the Oregon Coast Trail could have only been germinated through the auspices and hard work of forerunners like Governor Tom McCall who pushed the 1967 Oregon “beach bill,” making all beaches accessible to the public.

She went back farther, 1913, to Oswald West, the governor who made all Oregon’s public beaches highways for wagons, horses and cars. Fellows like state Parks chief Sam Boardman (retired 1950) increased the acreage for coastal parks almost 20-fold. Then Sam Dickens, a Kentuckian who ended up running the UO geology department, saw the value in knitting together all the trails in Oregon, along the coast.

The well-known Pacific Crest Trail is more than 2,600 miles long and takes five months to traverse in snow-free conditions. It’s a wild back-country affair, whereas the Oregon Coast Trail cuts through cities, highways towns and waysides. Henderson has traversed it many times.

She is fighting for more camping areas. She is also keen on her other position as communications director for the Northwest Land Conservancy, trying to get more land set aside for a reserve in Oswald Park near Cape Falcon. That’s a $10 million fund drive, of which the NWLD has procured half.

With the snow season hitting the Sierras and rampant fires in California and Oregon, many people had to forego their Pacific Coast Trail adventure and ended up on the Oregon Coast Trail in 2017 and 2018.

She rhetorically asked how long people have been hiking and walking along the trail. Jorie Clark, OSU Geology and Geophysics department, has looked at the shoreline changes dating back 18,000 years when the oceans along the Pacific were 450 feet lower than today. It was around 6,000 years ago when the ocean hit the current level.

There were glaciers along the coast dating back 14,000 years, but also evidence of people from Chile up to Oregon, before the land bridge, who went along the so-called “kelp highway” where they found enough refugia to survive, Henderson told the crowd.

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Rejecting Cornell University — Art for Art’s Sake

Ram Papish apologizes to the group in his breakout session for a jump drive failure. He is wearing self-designed blue jeans with a collection of tufted puffins painted all over.

He currently lives and works out of Toledo, and his artwork is not only of interest to collectors. More importantly, he has worked with Oregon State Parks on 63 panels of interpretative work tied to our wonderfully varied ecosystems.

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All along the Oregon Coast, at waysides and other locales, these illustrated panels are set throughout the tourists’ pathway. Here are just a few of the illustrated large panels:

• Salmon Life Cycle

• Tidepool Explorer

• Sea Bird Island

• Tidepool Life

• Shorebird Stopover

• Mixing Zone

He tells the mostly young students in the session that he had to fight hard to become successful, and he said it was just last year when he began to feel somewhat secure in his artistic profession.

He has illustrated field guides, and in his early life he spent half the year as a guide in Alaska and then the other half as an artist – 15 years straight undertaking that lifestyle. He’s an avid photographer and he has worked sculpting into his life – with works including the walrus that sticks out of the wall at Hatfield Marine Science Center.

When I went to college, I didn’t think I could make a living at it. I sent out dozens of portfolios to publishers and children’s book publishers. I was really naïve.

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The introduction to art class at Cornell was a turning point in his pursuit: “The professor was basically trying to teach us how to be a snobby artist. I wasn’t going to have any part of that.”

Ram’s drive is to connect people to nature. He works mostly on commission, gigs assigned by Oregon State Parks, other agencies and publishers. His drawing avocation started when he was very young, and by age 14 he was designing dolls.

Questions abounded at his talk; he stated his interpretative panels follow the Rule of Threes –

It’s better to have less text. Over the years we went from textbooks on a stick to art pieces with no more than 300 words.

• three seconds to get the headlines

• 30 seconds to glance over the panel

• three minutes to read everything, including the captions

I ask him who his inspirations were. He rattles off Lars Jonsson and Robert Bateman. His number-one inspirator was a guy who wrote a book, Birds in Art. That was Larry McQueen, who ironically turned out to be living in Eugene where the young Ram lived. Ram saw his photo in the newspaper. It turned out Ram had been his paperboy from age 12 to 14. Ram introduced himself to McQueen and ever since he has been Ram’s inspiration.

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Our Collective Potlatch

There are many challenges to our coast – to the livelihoods of the people who make money off our coast’s marine resources. There are challenges to scientists who have to spend more time stumping for grants. There are many silos of people who are gatekeepers of information but fail to abide by transparency. Tourism and sustainable economies are debated weekly in city council meetings.

Unfortunately, for many coastal people, the elephants in the room are global warming, ocean level rise and ocean acidification and hypoxia. I’ve written about researchers diving deep into those topics.

But the bandwidth of the American public, lawmakers and industry is taken up by the stumbling blocks to progress – profits at any cost and doing business as usual for the benefit of a few rich people and stockholders.

The state of the coast, as seen at the Salishan Resort, is one tied to vibrant thinkers and activists; scientists and researchers; explorers and dreamers.

On the surface, some things look hunky-dory, but when we peel back layers as both naturalists and scientists, we see a more varied and complicated picture. The State of the Coast is a multivariant symphony of sometimes syncopated and discordant arias.

Music is in the eye of the beholder, but for our coast, the people dedicated to learning and sharing are really the bedrock for the rest of us who find some niche or dream or hope in this place.

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Maybe we need this sort of potlatch — the name given to most Northwest Coast celebrations – every month.

Imagine, State of the Coast as our potlatch, from the Nuu-chah-nulth “pachitle”’ (potlatch), which means “to give.” How much does the reader have to give to this vibrant and vulnerable coast? How much do you have at stake in ensuring future generations have a healthy coast?

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Note: Article first appeared in Oregon Coast Today, author’s copyright.

Political Correctness Is Getting Out of Hand

On June 28, the New York Times published an article by Bari Weiss that wasn’t moronic.

Titled “San Francisco Will Spend $600,000 to Erase History,” it was about the school board’s unanimous decision to destroy a New Deal-era mural by the famous Communist painter Victor Arnautoff that’s painted on the walls of a local high school. Called “Life of Washington,” the mural depicts Washington’s slaves picking cotton at Mount Vernon as a group of colonizers walks past a dead Native American. The painting is clearly meant to oppose the sanitized versions of American history that are taught in most schools.

So you’d think “progressives” would support it. Instead, some of them, at least, find it so offensive they want it gone. “A grave mistake was made 80 years ago to paint a mural at a school without Native American or African-American input,” the school board’s vice president told Weiss. “For impressionable young people who attend school to have any representation that diminishes people, specifically students from communities that have already been diminished, it’s an aggressive thing. It’s hurtful and I don’t think our students need to bear that burden.”

It seems that most students object to the mural’s removal, though a number of community members support the board’s decision. “We know our history already,” a recent high school graduate and member of the Tohono O’odham tribe said. “Our students don’t need to see it every single time they walk into a public school.”

Predictably, Weiss’s article confines itself to admonishing liberals and leftists for being “un-American” snowflakes, failing to point out that conservatives are typically far more eager to censor than the left is. Bashing hyper-sensitive leftists seems to be Weiss’s favorite activity, aside from hyper-sensitively complaining about supposed instances of anti-Semitism that are usually nothing more than criticisms of Israel’s horrifying militarism and near-genocidal policies towards Palestinians. (I didn’t see her write a column bewailing what a “snowflake” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was for advocating the destruction of an “anti-Semitic” mural in L.A. that depicts Israel as the Grim Reaper.)

But leaving aside Weiss, who’s nothing but a vulgar propagandist, her column does raise an important issue. Censorship, the destruction of art, and the sanitizing of history are appropriate agendas for reactionaries and establishment-types like Weiss; progressives and radicals should certainly oppose them. And yet, in the age of “political correctness,” there’s a disturbing tendency for those on the left to adopt the repressive tactics of their enemies.

Whether on social media, on university campuses, or in cultural spaces of whatever sort, people are shunned, shamed, and silenced for not adhering wholeheartedly to a party line. A whiff of dissent brings down the wrath of the mob; a statement or an image that someone, somewhere, might find hurtful is enough to end your career or ruin your life. Magazine editors are fired for defending “cultural appropriation,” as in 2017 when an editor in Canada lost his job for the crime of defending the right of white authors to create characters from other backgrounds. Safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggression reporting systems, call-out culture, and other such devices become ever more ubiquitous, threatening to neuter culture and intimidate even fellow leftists into silence.

In the end, all this excess reaches truly farcical extremes: political correctness eats itself, as a wonderful old mural that tells a people’s history of the United States is destroyed for being “degrading.” A paradigm of identity politics that celebrates and weaponizes victimhood brings forth practitioners who claim they’re being victimized by having to be reminded of their history as victims. In the name of “empowerment,” they want to whitewash a mural whose existence is a blow against whitewashed history, which is the very thing to which identity politics indignantly objects. Political correctness chokes on itself and coughs up self-refuting paradoxes.

In this grotesque autosarcophagy we see the reductio ad absurdum of this whole mode of aggressive liberalism: it becomes a kind of void, a black hole of infinitely dense inhumanity, the postmodern left’s version of cultural totalitarianism. It becomes kitsch, virtually without content except to prevent members of “vulnerable” groups from ever feeling the slightest pang of discomfort. That’s the universal standard, the standard of acceptable art, acceptable speech, acceptable politics, and acceptable thought. And if you stray outside the bounds of acceptable thought, we’ll “cancel” you, hopefully most aspects of your identity: career, social life, public life, especially internet life, since the beautiful anonymity and atomization of the internet are what allow us to besiege you and call out your transgressions against orthodoxy. Ultimately it isn’t permitted—or at least it’s testing our good will—even to state manifest truths, such as that men on average are taller and physically stronger than women, or that, e.g., women tend to be attracted to male dominance (e.g., men taller than they) and the dominant male. No such truths we consider insulting to “marginalized” people can be acknowledged.

Now, as I said, these totalitarian trends are only the reductio ad absurdum of political correctness, and do not invalidate the entire phenomenon known as PC culture. Historically, this multicultural politics that emerged from the radical movements of the 1960s and ’70s has had very constructive effects on society. It has been integrally tied to the collective recognition of real history, the history of Native Americans, African-Americans, immigrants, women, and European colonialism. In educational curricula, it has effectively challenged the supremacy of the Western canon of white male writers, such that students now encounter voices from many different cultures and traditions.

Feminism has raised consciousness to a far more civilized level than in the 1960s, when Betty Friedan could write about “the feminine mystique” that dehumanized women. The MeToo moment is just the latest front in a long war to advance women’s rights. Similarly, we have identity politics to thank for the historic victories of the gay rights movement, which have at long last made homophobia disreputable.

Even the much-derided concept of “microaggressions” denotes a real situation that minorities and women face. Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs gives examples. When a female physician wearing a stethoscope is repeatedly mistaken for a nurse, that surely gets irritating and can be seen as offensive. When a white woman clutches her purse as a black or Hispanic man approaches, that’s a racist microaggression. A particularly egregious example is the time when a black student asked her academic advisor for information about majoring in biology and, “without being asked about her academic record (which was excellent), was casually directed to ‘look up less-challenging courses in African American Studies instead.’” Whatever the Supreme Court thinks, the U.S. is still saturated with racism, and unconscious racism is constantly revealing itself in trivial interactions in every social context.

Identity politics and political correctness are far from being the unmitigated evils Donald Trump and Bill Maher apparently think they are. And it’s true that in popular movements, excess is inevitable. From the French Revolution to the New Left—and now to the new New Left—popular enthusiasm has been apt to get out of control and become absurd and even violent (as with Antifa). But that doesn’t mean the excess shouldn’t be fought when it becomes truly damaging. When a mode of politics starts to ruin the lives of innocent people, discourage independent and honest thinking, and advocate the destruction of valuable works of art, it’s time to rein it in.

One of the most striking features of the extreme fringe of political correctness—a fringe that seems to dominate culture more and more—is one of the least talked about: often, it is just a sublimation of the very conditions of neoliberal capitalism that leftists hate. Interpersonal atomization and alienation, gleeful cruelty, schadenfreude run amok, censorship and suppression of dissent, a universal leveling that valorizes groupthink as the highest virtue, and surveillance of daily life and every interaction: these tendencies of late capitalism are somehow refracted into left-wing forms and concerns. The mechanism, actually, of this ironic ‘refraction’ is probably quite simple: society has become so inhuman and depersonalized, so bureaucratized and anonymized, that people all across the political spectrum—not only leftists—are made pettier, more insecure, sensitive to perceived slights, and mean-spirited (especially online).

We see the “Other” as oppressing us—however each of us defines the Other—and we lash out to punish it or those who we think manifest it at any given moment. This punitive mentality at least gives us little malicious pleasures that partly compensate for the indignities we’re constantly suffering.

But while it might be understandable, it’s hardly appropriate for people on the left to be so corrupted by the anti-humanism of a fragmented and paranoid capitalist society. From Karl Marx to Eugene Debs, from A. J. Muste to Noam Chomsky, the left has devoted itself to far more elevated causes than vindictively shaming people for, e.g., using the word fútbol despite not being Hispanic, or quietly telling a “sexist” joke to a friend within earshot of a woman who doesn’t like such jokes, or in general policing the world so that every space is “safe” and people are never uncomfortable. Some such policing, within reason, can be productive and important: people should be educated, to the extent possible, out of their unconscious biases and prejudices. But those who identify with the left should also identify with the tradition’s compassion and self-critical inclinations. Perhaps a little less puritanism is called for, and a little more understanding that even good people are imperfect and have lapses. And that no one, including the most eager shamer, is perfect.

Indeed, I’m tempted to say that the hyper-moralistic mindset doesn’t belong to the left at all. Its demand for purity is uncomfortably close to the puritan obsessions of the religious right, so vigilantly attuned to the merest indication of atheism, sex, homosexuality, coarse language, and humanism. At best, leftist puritanism represents an attenuated, enervated, decadent left, a strain of the left that has lost its love of people and become thin and narrow as a reed. Brittle, misanthropic, crabbed, ungenerous, ultra-judgmental, whiny, sickly—these are the words that come to mind to describe such a “left.”

How different from the humanism, compassion, and spiritual capaciousness of a Debs or a Chomsky!

The destruction of a left-wing mural for being “hurtful” may seem like a pretty minor affair, and compared to the catastrophes occurring every day all over the world, it is. But if the cultural tendencies that have eventuated in this crime against art are not checked, we’ll continue to see more such crimes, and not only against art. Against people, too, people who don’t deserve to be publicly shamed or ruined. The left should take care lest it lose its humanity and adopt the censorship-fetish of the fascist right.

A World is Right When We Learn to Preserve and Embrace the Word Like a Poet

Special for Dissident Voice and LA Progressive, part of National Poetry Month, 2019

*****

I’m thinking a lot about creativity. About young people, 6 or 7 years of age, so ripe for learning and how we as mentors and teachers should not only respect how their inner voices count, but allow them that exploratory space.  Words as expressions of rebellion. Empathy. Rage. Regret. Laments.

Words, sold now as marketing tools, have less and less power as we have devolved into a country of business-speak, unheralded words of death-ray politicians, tweeting twats and Tweedledum’s and Tweedledee’s. Words even in creative writing programs are branded, marketed and sold as, hmm, a type of group think. MFA (masters of fine arts) programs are destructive to the outsider’s realm of seeing, hearing, touching and his or her own consciousness and subconsciousness.

Poetry, of all the practices, seems the least understood and many times destroyed the most by instructors and teachers attempting to over-analyze or over-classify what it is they think poetry – and a poet – is.

Here, early on, I’ll forward a big slash to the market of the MFA – creative writing programs, their in-house literary journals, and the bourgeoises siphoning off any remarkable revolutionary thought in creative writing.

Rebellion, and Nicaragua, and the Sandinistas fighting against the dirty and perverted capitalist dictator, Somoza. Here, first, revolutionary, Gioconda Belli.

What Are You, Nicaragua?

What are you—
a little triangle of earth
lost in the middle of the world?

What are you—
a flight of birds
guardabarrancos
cenzontles
hummingbirds?

What are you
a roar of rivers
bearing polished, shiny stones
leaving footprints of water in the mountains?

What are you—
A women’s breasts made of earth
Smooth, pointed and threatening?

What are you—
Singing of leaves in gigantic trees
Green, tangled and filled with doves?

What are you—
Pain and dust and screams in the afternoon
“screams like those of women giving birth”?

What are you—
Clenched fist and loaded gun?

What are you, Nicaragua
To cause me such pain?

Thinking like a kid is what the credo should be for adults, especially in this lobotomized world of consumption and endless war and digital dungeons. Dreaming like a child. Sketching worlds and fantastical dreams like a youth.

Instead, many MFA programs are like buttoned-down harbingers of the generalized professing: “Believe us professors and grad students as we are the key to creative writing, and do not stray, as we are the arbiters of fine arts, the word, poetry, life.”

John Steppling:

The practice of writing, the philosophy is, Firstly, a resistance to formulas and solutions. Writing and art pose questions, and if the mystery leaves the work, leaves the process, then usually, the work has died. Institutional forces demand standardized steps and conditions in their creative writing programs … because the institution knows, deep down, that art is there to destroy it. Even the word “creative” is probably suspect, but such are the conditions under which writing is taught. It is an intuitive and unconscious process, and even if done, for some film work, in partnership – it is still solitary.

One cannot write outlines and then follow them. This is what CPAs do, or insurance salesmen preparing their district conference sales quota speech. If one were to know where a narrative was going, one would have a stillborn project on one’s hands. The play or screenplay has within its narrative, an idea of itself. Narrative provides a space for character. The truth of a character is at once indelible and totally opaque. This idea is the reason, I suspect, we have art at all.

Art is not about communication, nor is it about moral instruction. It is about awakening. But it is also a discipline, and a practice. Those Neanderthal cave paintings, found in places where only one person might see them, at a time, is worth keeping in mind, at least when audience questions arise. You don’t write for an audience. Nor do you write for yourself. That is the paradox and the riddle.

Being able to recognize the truthful from kitsch is the basic foundation for starting on having a practice.

I’ve been a poet a long time, since, of course, virginal youth, and then into my teens, until death do me part. My journey has been, as Steppling states above (referencing story and play/screen writing), a series of awakenings.

The shadow of lamentations, too. Nothing heroic is happy and set upon a political or moral frame without first forcing us all to ask primal questions – questions about self in a world that’s insane. At least now, from pre-Industrial, or I imagine, starting with the ripping of tribal tides with so-called conquest societies, colonizers, we have to ask those age-old questions how to live through the mother and father haven been ripped up by superstitious and perverted religious and economic principles (sic). Insanity now, but our own relocation of the disconnected, by artists, is our sanity in an insane system, capitalism.

Words expressed – poetry – is the shaping of the amphora on the potter’s wheel. That wet healing clay, squished between fingers and synapses. The remarkable lifting of sediments from earth into the shape of creation, imagined first, then reimagined with each pump of the pedal of the wheel, each turning, each fingering and palming of clay into a work of art. Poetry.

National Poetry Month Poster 2019

This month, April, has been generally deemed as National Poetry Month. In the schools I’ve taught at. In some of the libraries I’ve perused, the posters and highlighted books are prominent. In many ways, pushing the word, and celebrating this form of creative expression is both herculean in the sense that almost everything in the USA has been co-opted by consumerism and blatant crass middling thinking and presentation; and it’s worthy of effort to have people leave the business world, the world of making money, into one of making stanzas. In addition, many slam poetry or spoken word events have been tied to the National Poetry Month, started almost a quarter of a century ago in the USA.

Here, National Academy of Poets has the month branded:

National Poetry Month each April is the largest literary celebration in the world, with tens of millions of readers, students, K-12 teachers, librarians, booksellers, literary events curators, publishers, bloggers, and, of course, poets marking poetry’s important place in our culture and our lives.

While we celebrate poets and poetry year-round, the Academy of American Poets was inspired by the successful celebrations of Black History Month (February) and Women’s History Month (March), and founded National Poetry Month in April 1996 with an aim to:

  • highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets,
  • encourage the reading of poems,
  • assist teachers in bringing poetry into their classrooms,
  • increase the attention paid to poetry by national and local media,

I’ve had some good opportunities to be around poets and live with them and their words. Heck, just a few weeks ago, here I was, in the Central Oregon coast, with Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Kim Stafford, whose own skin is tattooed with the words of his famous poet father’s literary gravitas – William Stafford. Here, my piece in LA Progressive and elsewhere, including the literary journal, Cirque“A Poet, the Pacific Flyway, and a Sonora Flash Flood Memory.”  And my poem about reconnecting to Stafford’s son, Kim, here on the Oregon Coast, a new home for me: “Somewhere in a Writer’s Workshop He Learns the Lines from ‘Oregon Trail’

Over the years I have front and center cajoled with poets, seeing myself as one of their peers while living in precarity and calling forth lamentations as a poet. It started seriously when I was an 18-year-old in Tucson hanging out with poets and fiction writers, as part of the University of Arizona’s poets/writers series. I used to hang out at and take classes in rooms at the Poetry Center at the U of A. I’ve helped out poet Richard Shelton with his writer’s workshop at the Arizona State Prison, and he wrote a book about his big project that involved many different cohorts and writers with some tough-living inmates: Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer.

Here I was, still a youth in 1975, when Shelton taught me in poetry classes and started his trips up to death row at the Arizona State prison. I got to be a part of that, Richard’s prison workshops. Not so ironically, shortly after graduating and becoming a journalist and part-time college faculty, I started incorporating that “prison workshop” ethos in so many other of my writing gigs with my own students in a federal prison, La Tuna, NM. I’ve done writing workshops, including poetry, with gifted and talented students in Austin, TX, and with gang-influenced youth in Segundo Barrio, El Paso. I’ve carried through with writing workshops in a life-long learning program at the University of Texas—El Paso, where I had, as an example of some of my students’ histories,  survivors of Dachau write about their lives, and women who knew Pancho Villa, and other interesting older folk, write poems while we worked on their memoirs. Writing workshops for just-released inmates in a homeless program in Portland, and writing projects with homeless veterans and their families, and poetry workshops for fourth graders, and more, have cascaded into my life.

Poetry teaching was always the razor edge way to get people to open up that creative and deeply drawn area of their humanity that is more etched with meaning than their own epigenetics or more fluid of their self-worth than the corpuscles flowing inside– the embedded humanity and horror of being alone in this world. Poetry, as Sapphire shows, can be triumph, momentarily, over evil and the scars evil produce in us all.

Here, though, some quick turn of words to express what poetry is from poets themselves:

Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before. —Audre Lorde

I grew up in this town, my poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forests. —Pablo Neruda

Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution, and the raising of consciousness. —Alice Walker

Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful. –Rita Dove

As a direct line to human feeling, empathic experience, genuine language and detail, poetry is everything that headline news is not. It takes us inside situations, helps us imagine life from more than one perspective, honors imagery and metaphor – those great tools of thought – and deepens our confidence in a meaningful world. —Naomi Shihab Nye

Luckily, Angie with Dissident Voice and Dick with LA Progressive and Hollywood Progressive are opening up the digital venues for my limited standing column (in the month of April), as a format for some musings and personal and monumental ideas around the power of the word, poetry. Call it a cry out for something more real than the echo chambers of modern America.

More real than all the stuff I end up writing about in LA Progressive’s Terminal Velocity – Man Lost of Tribe or for Angie at DV which usually is tied to the politics of negotiating our own humanity and community and self inside the war that is killer capitalism. The most creative and psychologically real and satisfying things come to me as people I’ve touched and who have touched me, and, of course, learning to think like a mountain, as Aldo Leopold calls it in his Sand Country Almanac – imagine the poetry in this excerpt by Leopold, one of the fathers of conservation and environmental sanity:

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.…I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

It’s not a quaint thing, this poetry. Actually, many people do write poems, and see themselves as poets. Really, not just MFA students or older ladies waxing religious rhymes, but plumbers, construction workers, nurses, bookkeepers, and every form of human life.

The poem is a distilled world, as Rita Dove says. Neruda also has it right – it’s where you are from, inside the body of the world, as in forests, oceans, inside rain: that’s the germination of a poem. And, poetry should be rebellious and about revolution as Alice Walker states, and lived, as she told me twice when I’ve been to her readings and workshops.  That poetry is a bridge over fears, as Lourde states, makes so much sense. Bridging humanity over the troubled waters of the inhumane.

The direct line to human feeling . . . . and making our lives deeper in confidence, so much so there is transformation, even for the oppressed and imprisoned, giving meaning in the world and life is meaningful, no matter the circumstance, as Shihab Nye states.

I remember talking with Czeslaw Milosz at a reading in Austin, Texas. I was trying to drill down what poetry was, how I could parachute into the lives of gang members, spooks (inhalers of volatile compounds like gasoline), homeless war vets, young adults with developmental disabilities, survivors of sexual assault and invoke some solid concepts on why the poem – no matter what form it takes – is what Naomi states: imaging life as it can or should be or is honoring the word and creative practice of language in the art of detailing.

He was near the end of his life when he told me, In reality, whatever the poet attempts to say, all words are a type of lamentation. Despair, maybe, colored by something else that pushes down the blackness of humanity in this age of destruction.  Something like that. He went deeper, though. As seen in this interview in the Paris Review:

Of course, it’s true that people talk too much and without restraint. But poetry imposes certain restraints. Nevertheless, there is always the feeling that you didn’t unveil yourself enough. A book is finished and appears and I feel, Well, next time I will unveil myself. And when the next book appears, I have the same feeling. And then your life ends, and that’s it.

Two poems by Czeslaw Milosz to start the month:

In Black Despair

In grayish doubt and black despair,
I drafted hymns to the earth and the air,
pretending to joy, although I lacked it.
The age had made lament redundant.

So here’s the question — who can answer it —
Was he a brave man or a hypocrite?

A Felicitous Life

His old age fell on years of abundant harvest.
There were no earthquakes, droughts or floods.
It seemed as if the turning of the seasons gained in constancy,
Stars waxed strong and the sun increased its might.
Even in remote provinces no war was waged.
Generations grew up friendly to fellow men.
The rational nature of man was not a subject of derision.
It was bitter to say farewell to the earth so renewed.
He was envious and ashamed of his doubt,
Content that his lacerated memory would vanish with him.

Two days after his death a hurricane razed the coasts.
Smoke came from volcanoes inactive for a hundred years.
Lava sprawled over forests, vineyards, and towns.
And war began with a battle on the islands.

Next: Poetry as environmental sanity and rebellion!

Flotsam Central Oregon

Simple communitarian spirit, tied to serendipitous moment listening to this artist a month ago talking about climate change, tide-pools and new earth emerging. His name is Bill Kucha, 74, originally from Cleveland. He was trained as a classic artist in Boston, BU, and he married at 18, had a child, and ended up on his walkabout single again. He ended up in Portland years later, new wife, Dorothy, two children, a grandchild, and more than 47 years later, Sitka roots and multi-variant artwork with creator, artist, struggling with the weight of climate like a storm over humanity, over all of nature and over his personal connection to mother earth.

He talks a lot about this new time of chaos, the opportunities for change, pushing the old — fossil fuel “economy,” dreaded Capitalism — into the dustbin of history with the energy of new minds, new ideas, new sense of identity. Where ego desiccates and a new giving gift society rises from the ashes of the Phoenix that once carried the tools of greed and war for the elite. Here, a piece I wrote about his talk along with a conservation biologist’s posted on several places on the Internet — Tidepools.

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[Paul K. Haeder, photographer]

I was invited by Bill and his wife Dorothy to their home overlooking the Pacific, South of Depoe Bay, near Newport. Their home in 1972 was once a broken-down old drafty ramshackle of a beach house, and then 47 years of TLC and a dramatic setting down of roots — spiritual, creative, and holistic. Bill has worked the land, the side of the hill sloping toward the Pacific, moving rocks and pilings and earth to make an amazingly healing place, terraced, gardens, swales for graywater and rainwater for consumption. The transformation of a man who has gained friends galore but who has worked in solitary brushing on paints and chipping into basalt and welding metal to stone, Bill has been intersecting with youth and old, playing his guitar and composing songs. He helped found 350.org Central Oregon Coast.

The talk we had Sunday February 17 was anchored in transference, a new or very old expansion of the universe talk about evolutionary principles tied to the noosphere, the creative connectivity of humanity in this time of crisis. I’ll be writing about Bill and Paul’s Lightness of Being Adventure, but yesterday, Dorothy opened up, first a teacher in Portland and then a social worker. Her parents fleeing Austria under the saber of Hitler. Her father has been featured in Portland historical news for his own migration to this new land.

Gentile and Jew, Bill and Dorothy live in balance, as the artist Bill is tied to his mistress: the land he has sculpted nail by nail, stone by stone, shadow by shadow. Their own relationship and lives in Mexico, the lightness of being now calm in a state of upheaval, great lessons passed forward to their family and friends. He is unsettled by the crisis in climate and politics and humanity.

We talked about story, about narratives, and then, bam, we headed in our separate vehicles to Newport to be with Kim Stafford, Oregon Poet Laureate, who talked with around 50 people crammed into the Newport library. Kim talked about story, too, and my interpretation of that two hours will be written about in another blog here soon. For now, read about his father and me here, at Cirque Journal: A Poet, the Pacific Flyway, and a Sonora Flash Flood here! Kim was kind enough to pair up some of his poems with my non-fiction piece a few years ago in the Cirque issue, which if you open up and read my piece from the hyperlink above, you’ll see it is largely about my own poetic rites of passage tied to his father, William Stafford, and my own life moving from point to point in my as of yet revealed journey back to some imagined place in my literary soul. Three poems, Kim Stafford, Cirque Journal. This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is imgp1325.jpg

[Paul K. Haeder, photographer]

Much of what Kim said in his Newport, Oregon, talk I have been practicing all my life — writing, thinking, inventing my perceptions of life, and the daily practice of writing, photographing, teaching, giving, struggling. I look to words as lamentation and personal narrative. The poem below is my spiritual word journey, after Bill and Dorothy shared their lives and home, and ruminating from that point where I listened to and talked with Kim among all these Central Oregon Coast writers and writer-wanna-be’s. I sent the poem to Bill and Dorothy. I also sent it to Kim, now on a busy schedule as Oregon’s poet of record, a two-year stint where he has to meet with people throughout Oregon; Kim still has his gig as professor at Lewis and Clark University.

I am now intersecting with much of my own scattershot history, unfolding narratives, collapsing beliefs, a new revised personal relationship, and I am about to be married, yet we’re looking for some solace in Mexico, maybe, but now, living and breathing in Otis, Oregon, near Cascade Head, the shape of life molded into the refracted light dancing in my cones and rods. I am teaching now, and working on a couple of book manuscripts. I am beach combing and photographing and just pushing out some terrible times as a social services professional in the Portland arena for more than a decade. Read at your own peril below!

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[Paul K. Haeder, photographer]

Insanity of Social Work as Human Control

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[Paul K. Haeder, photographer]

Related image
[Bill Kucha art]

Rodea Point, Broken Circle, A Nautilus Shaped from Basalt and Pig Iron

By Paul Haeder

words like slow trowel
wet alabaster, cupped hands
incantations of synesthesia
as loud as basalt
prodded by lichen
he comes to me with law of time
universal expansion, he feels
cosmogenesis transmuted
drawn into climate crisis
his sensuality cuts, chips, digs
stone, earth to loam, stone to bricks
patterns shaped into lamentations

the weight of geological time
expands, he expresses yin yang
Chinese character “crisis”
a point where things happen
or change
artist from Cleveland flays
canvas with acrylics
the ebb like spiritual
floe, trapped in vortex
this synchronicity, the calcifying
old world new world noosphere
emancipation for him

transmogrifying nature, he paints
biological fractals, polygons of betrayal
conjures up seeds as ghosts-
dances, perennials perma
culture as long as soil
finds impregnation, Gaia
increasing complexities
he culls crisis in triptych
weight of Egyptian prophecies
curses, earth flagellated for a new
creative evolution
he covets hope

he watches river burst
flammable memories, Cuyahoga
dreams, Cleveland boy
“jawbone” for Seneca
“crooked river” for Mohawk
white man’s trash heap
emblematic of a million
trails of tears, eviscerated river,
time
space entropy land of holy
benedictions as interlopers
condemn new rivers to oil slicks
dams slough off unholy
metals, fossil hunters’ distillates

now slower in his gait
overlook of Pacific more
than germination, gestation
new age ancient he holds
paint brush hammer trowel
welding stick
old hands pushing yanking flogging
weight of 4 billion years
earth lifts to 74-year-old touch,
he flavors temporary home
in poppy lilac cruciferae
abundance
bounty shared by wife
friends
air soil water soul

she comes from Diaspora
Austrian Aryans finding
Hebrew enemies
her parents fled in 1939
warnings of Crystal Night
broken glass Kristallnach
weight of futures
death camps

she parts words between teacher
social worker, life flowing from
Mexico, weight to his fanciful
ruminations Jew with Gentile
family prayer Shema Yisrael
inscribed on grave of a Jewish
infant in Halbturn 3rd century
Roman slavers tossed Jews
into all corners of empire
Austria, land remembered
now she finds father
recriminating her to
not marry artist
you’ll be working for his art
not a dime he’ll make

migration from Cleveland-Portland
New York-Depoe Bay
islands in the stream
couple’s migratory passage
monogamous galvanizing
I his poet one step away
into pure light of chaos
she asks me if pain
of bearing witness
of finding center in political
turmoil takes joy from
living . . . the smile on my face

a million light years back
my future written when
I was nine, earlier
vision quest long walkabout
dreamtime more than
weight of ions breathed in
the soiling people
are minor actors
this artist comes to me
fielding a new love
old passions

he calls me brother
we part for another beach town
as we hold another poet’s words
speak to all his relations
we share the amen
as laureate reshuffles our
game, moments trapped
between cerebral connectivity
and laws of co-evolution
harmonic convergences
sharing food, opening spaces
we stay as one
momentarily, Pacific high tide
receding for another passing:

“I want to thank all my relations
for this chance to be on Earth
in her time of flourishing; to thank
the First People of this place,
to honor their sovereignty in long
and continuing relation, still teaching us
how we might be here together; to thank
my mother and father, moon and sun,
for setting me forth before their own
passing on; to thank my grandmother
who listened to me so eloquently I learned
to listen to my own heart and mind, to find
stories and songs there; to thank my family
and friends, and all citizens and travelers
who study and work for deeper kinship
in this place, with one another, and with
all creatures, one Earth, visible, palpable,
fragile, intricate, resonant, in need of our
better stories. I want to thank you
who have gathered to receive what I have
carried here—in hope that something
I have may meet something you need,
so all our relations may be strengthened
for this life we live together.

Amen.”

– Kim Stafford, “All My Relations

 

Image result for Bill Kucha Oregon Artist

Bill Kucha artwork

What Are We Working For “At Eternity’s Gate”?

One also knows from his letters that nothing appeared more sacred to Van Gogh than work.

— John Berger, “Vincent Van Gogh,” Portraits

Ever since I was a young boy, I have wondered why people do the kinds of work they do.  I sensed early on that the economic system was a labyrinthine trap devised to imprison people in work they hated but needed for survival.  It seemed like common sense to a child when you simply looked and listened to the adults around you.  Karl Marx wasn’t necessary for understanding the nature of alienated labor; hearing adults declaim “Thank God It’s Friday” spoke volumes.

In my Bronx working class neighborhood I saw people streaming to the subway in the mornings for their rides “into the city” and their forlorn trundles home in the evenings.  It depressed me.  Yet I knew the goal was to “make it” and move away as one moved “up,” something that many did.  I wondered why, when some people had options, they rarely considered the moral nature of the jobs they pursued.  And why did they not also consider the cost in life (time) lost in their occupations?  Were money, status, and security the deciding factors in their choices?  Was living reserved for weekends and vacations?

I gradually realized that some people, by dint of family encouragement and schooling, had opportunities that others never received.  For the unlucky ones, work would remain a life of toil and woe in which the search for meaning in their jobs was often elusive.  Studs Terkel, in the introduction to his wonderful book of interviews, Working: People Talk About What They Do all Day and How They Feel About What They Do, puts it this way:

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body.  It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around.  It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations.  To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.

Those words were confirmed for me when in the summer between high school and college I got a job through a relative’s auspices as a clerk for General Motors in Manhattan.  I dreaded taking it for the thought of being cooped up for the first time in an office building while a summer of my youth passed me by, but the money was too good to turn down (always the bait), and I wanted to save as much as possible for college spending money.  So I bought a summer suit and joined the long line of trudgers going to and fro, down and up and out of the underground, adjusting our eyes to the darkness and light.

It was a summer from hell.  My boredom was so intense it felt like solitary confinement.  How, I kept wondering, can people do this?  Yet for me it was temporary; for the others it was a life sentence.  But if this were life, I thought, it was a living death.  All my co-workers looked forward to the mid-morning coffee wagon and lunch with a desperation so intense it was palpable.  And then, as the minutes ticked away to 5 P.M., the agitated twitching that proceeded the mad rush to the elevators seemed to synchronize with the clock’s movements.  We’re out of here!

On my last day, I was eating my lunch on a park bench in Central Park when a bird shit on my suit jacket.  The stain was apt, for I felt I had spent my days defiling my true self, and so I resolved never to spend another day of my life working in an office building in a suit for a pernicious corporation, a resolution I have kept.

*****

“An angel is not far from someone who is sad,” says Vincent Van Gogh in the new film, At Eternity’s Gate. For some reason, recently hearing these words in the darkened theater where I was almost alone, brought me back to that summer and the sadness that hung around all the people that I worked with.  I hoped Van Gogh was right and an angel visited them from time to time.  Most of them had no options.

The painter Julian Schnabel’s moving picture (moving on many levels since the film shakes and moves with its hand-held camera work and draws you into the act of drawing and painting that was Van Gogh’s work) is a meditation on work.  It asks the questions: What is work?  What is work for?  What is life for?  Why paint?  What does it mean to live?  Why do you do what you do?  Are you living or are you dead?  What are you seeking through your work?

For Vincent the answer was simple: reality.  But reality is not given to us and is far from simple; we must create it in acts that penetrate the screens of clichés that wall us off from it.  As John Berger writes:

One is taught to oppose the real to the imaginary, as though the first were always at hand and the second, distant, far away.  This opposition is false.  Events are always to hand.  But the coherence of these events – which is what one means by reality – is an imaginative construction.  Reality always lies beyond – and this is as true for materialists as for idealists.  For Plato, for Marx.  Reality, however one interprets it, lies beyond a screen of clichés.

These screens serve to protect the interests of the ruling classes, who devise ways to trap regular people from seeing the reality of their condition.  Yet while working can be a trap, it can also be a means of escape.  For Vincent working was the way.  For him work was not a noun but a verb. He drew and he painted as he does in this film to “make people feel what it is to feel alive.”  To be alive is to act, to paint, to write.  He tells his friend Gauguin that there’s a reason it’s called the “act of painting, the “stroke of genius.”  For him painting is living and living is painting.

The actual paintings that he made are almost beside the point, as all creative artists know too well.  It is the doing wherein living is found.  The completed canvas, essay, or book are what is done.  They are nouns, still lifes, just as Van Gogh’s paintings have become commodities in the years since his death, dead things to be bought and sold by the rich in a culture of death where they can be hung in mausoleums isolated from the living.  It is appropriate that the film ends with Vincent very still in his coffin as “viewers” pass him by and avidly now desire his paintings that encircle the room that they once rejected.  The man has become a has-been and the funeral parlor the museum.

“Without painting I can’t live,” he says earlier.  He didn’t say without his paintings.

“God gave me the gift for painting,” he said.  “It’s the only gift he gave me.  I am a born painter.”  But his gift has begotten gifts that are still-births that do not circulate and live and breathe to encourage people to find work that will not, “by its very nature, [be] about violence,” as Terkel said. His works, like people, have become commodities, brands to be bought and sold in a world where the accumulation of wealth is accomplished by the infliction of pain, suffering, and death on untold numbers of victims, invisible victims that allow the wealthy to maintain their bad-faith innocence. This is often achieved in the veiled shadows of intermediaries such as stock brokers, tax consultants, and financial managers; in the liberal and conservative boardrooms of mega-corporations or law offices; and in the planning sessions of the world’s great museums. Like drone killings that distance the killers from their victims, this wealth accumulation allows the wealthy to pretend they are on the side of the angels.  It’s called success, and everyone is innocent as they sing, “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s off to work we go.”

“It is not enough to tell me you worked hard to get your gold,” said Henry Thoreau, Van Gogh’s soul-mate. “So does the Devil work hard.”

A few years ago there was a major exhibit of Van Gogh’s nature paintings at the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts – “Van Gogh and Nature” – that aptly symbolized Van Gogh in his coffin.  The paintings were exhibited encased in ornate gold frames. Van Gogh in gold.  Just perfect.  I am reminded of a scene in At Eternity’s Gate where Vincent and Gauguin are talking about the need for a creative revolution – what we sure as hell need – and the two friends stand side by side with backs to the camera and piss into the wind.

*****

But pseudo-innocence dies hard.  Not long ago I was sitting in a breakfast room in a bed-and-breakfast in Houston, Texas, sipping coffee and musing myself awake.  Two men came in and the three of us got to talking.  As people like to say, they were nice guys.  Very pleasant and talkative, in Houston on business.  Normal Americans.  Stressed.  Both were about fifty years old with wives and children.

One sold drugs for one of the largest pharmaceutical companies that is known for its very popular anti-depressant drug and its aggressive sales pitches.  He travelled a triangular route from Corpus Christi to Austin to Houston and back again, hawking his wares.  He spoke about his work as being very lucrative and posing no ethical dilemmas.  There were so many depressed people in need of his company’s drugs, he said, as if the causes of their depression had nothing to do with inequality and the sorry state of the country as the rich rip off everyone else.  I thought of recommending a book to him – Deadly Medicines and Organized Crime: How big pharma has corrupted health care by Peter Gotzsche – but held my tongue, appreciative as I was of the small but tasteful fare we were being served and not wishing to cause my companions dyspepsia.  This guy seemed to be trying to convince me of the ethical nature of the way he panned gold, while I kept thinking of that quote attributed to Mark Twain: “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

The other guy, originally from a small town in Nebraska and now living in Baton Rouge, was a former medevac helicopter pilot who had served in the 1st Gulf War.  He worked in finance for an equally large oil company.  His attitude was a bit different, and he seemed sheepishly guilty about his work with this company as he told me how shocked he was the first time he saw so many oil, gas, and chemical plants lining the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and all the oil and chemicals being shipped down the river. So many toxins that reminded him of the toxic black smoke rising from all the bombed oil wells in Iraq.  Something about it all left him uneasy, but he too said he made a very good “living” and that his wife also worked for the oil company back home.

My childish thought recurred: when people have options, why do they not choose ethical work that makes the world more beautiful and just?  Why is money and so-called success always the goal?

Having seen At Eternity’s Gate, I now see what Van Gogh was trying to tell us and Julian Schnabel conveys through this moving picture.  I see why these two perfectly normal guys I was breaking bread with in Houston are unable to penetrate the screen that lies between them and reality.  They have never developed the imaginative tools to go beyond normal modes of perception and conception. Or perhaps they lack the faith to dare, to see the futility and violence in what they are working for and what their companies’ products are doing to the world.  They think of themselves as hard at work, travelling hither and yon, doing their calculations, “making their living,” and collecting their pay.  It’s their work that has a payoff in gold, but it’s not working in the sense that painting was for Vincent, a way beyond the screen.  They are mesmerized by the spectacle, as are so many Americans. Their jobs are perfectly logical and allow them a feeling of calm and control.

But Vincent, responding to Gauguin, a former stock broker, when he urged him to paint slowly and methodically, said, “I need to be out of control. I don’t want to calm down.”  He knew that to be fully alive was to be vulnerable, to not hold back, to always be slipping away, and to be threatened with annihilation at any moment. When painting, he was intoxicated with a creative joy that belies the popular image of him as always depressed.  “I find joy in sorrow,” he said, echoing in a paradoxical way Albert Camus, who said, “I have always felt that I lived on the high seas, threatened, at the heart of a royal happiness.”   Both rebels, one in paint, the other in words: “I rebel: therefore we exist,” was how Camus put it, expressing the human solidarity that is fundamental to genuine work in our ephemeral world. Both nostalgic in the present for the future, creating freedom through vision and disclosing the way for others.

And although my breakfast companions felt safe in their calmness on this side of the screen, it was an illusion.  The only really calm ones are corpses.  And perhaps that’s why when you look around, as I did as a child, you see so many of the living dead carrying on as normal.

“I paint to stop thinking and feel I am a part of everything inside and outside me,” says Vincent, a self-described exile and pilgrim.

If we could make working a form of such painting, a path to human solidarity because a mode of rebelling, what a wonderful world it might be.

That, I believe, is what working is for.

The People’s Christmas: Art, Tradition and Climate Change

COME, bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
The Christmas log to the firing;
While my good dame, she
Bids ye all be free;
And drink to your heart’s desiring.

With the last year’s brand
Light the new block, and
For good success in his spending
On your psaltries play,
That sweet luck may
Come while the log is a-teending.

Ceremonies for Christmas by Robert Herrick (1591–1674)
(Psaltries: a kind of guitar, Teending: kindling)

No season has so much association with music as the mid-winter, Christmas celebrations. The aural pleasure associated with the tuneful music and carols of Christmas has been reduced in recent years by the over-playing of same in shopping malls, banks, airports etc.. yet it is still enjoyed and the popularity of choirs has not diminished.

However, the visual depictions of mid-winter, Christmas celebration have also been popular since the 19th century through books, cinema and television.

The depictions of Christmas range from religious iconography through to the highly commercialised red-suited, rosy-cheeked, rotund Santa Claus.

Yet, between these two extremes of the sombre sacred and the commercialised secular lies a popular iconography best expressed in the realm of fine art and illustration. Down through the centuries the pagan aspects of mid-winter celebration and Christmas such as the Christmas tree, the Yule log, wassailing and carol singing along with winter sports such as ice skating and skiing have been depicted by many different artists. These paintings and illustrations are also beloved for the visual pleasure they afford.

More importantly, they show aspects of Christmas which are becoming more important now in our time of climate change. That is, their depictions of our past respect for nature.

In recent times, as we gradually learned to harness nature for our own ends through developments in science we also became less and less worried about the vicissitudes of nature. Our forebears, however, knew all too well hunger and cold in the depths of winter and in their own religious and superstitious ways tried to attenuate the worst of winter hardship through traditions and practices which would ensure a bountiful proceeding year.

For example, the Christmas Tree is a descendant of the sacred tree which was respected as a powerful symbol of growth, death and rebirth. Evergreen trees took on meanings associated with symbols of the eternal, immortality or fertility (See my article on Christmas Trees here). Evergreen boughs and then eventually whole evergreen trees were brought into the house to ward off evil influences. Burning the Yule log was an important rite to help strengthen the weakened sun of midwinter.

The Christmas Tree (1911), Albert Chevallier

Wassailing, or blessing of the fruit trees, is also considered a form of tree worship and involves drinking and singing to the health of the trees in the hope that they will provide a bountiful harvest in the autumn. Mumming has also been associated with the spirit of vegetation or the tree-spirit and is believed to have developed into the practice of caroling even though mumming is alive and well in many places in Ireland and England. All these nature-based practices seem to have been banned by the church at different times and then gradually integrated into church rituals (presumably because the church was not able to stop them).

Therefore our relationship with nature was demonstrated through winter activities both inside and outside the home. Outside activities consisted of ice skating, caroling, wassailing, bringing home the Yule log and the Christmas tree. Inside activities consisted of large gatherings of family and friends eating, drinking and parlour games. The indulgence of Christmas activities was balanced by an overriding concern that nature had been propitiated or appeased.

One aspect the many depictions of these activities have in common is the festive gathering of large groups of people. Modern depictions of Christmas tend to emphasise the nuclear family gathered around the Christmas tree with the focus on what Santa brought for the children. Thus Christmas today is experienced as a more isolated experience than in the past. The decline of the nuclear family in recent decades with single parent families, divorce, cohabitation, etc. has created extended family gatherings more akin to the past village groupings. Outdoor activities have also declined though one can still hear carollers singing on occasion, though still common in city streets.

Many artists of over the years have tried to depict the essence of Christmas and midwinter traditions (see my article on midwinter traditions here) and thus helped to keep them in our consciences.

Let’s look at some of the illustrations and paintings that depict mid-winter festivities over the centuries.

Carole

Carols

Poetry and song are our earliest records of Christmas celebrations. According to Clement Miles the word “‘carol’ had at first a secular or even pagan significance: in twelfth-century France it was used to describe the amorous song-dance which hailed the coming of spring; in Italian it meant a ring- or song-dance; while by English writers from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century it was used chiefly of singing joined with dancing, and had no necessary connection with religion.”1 The word carol itself comes from the Old French word carole, a circle dance accompanied by singers (Latin: choraula). Carols were very popular as dance songs and processional songs sung during festivals. In medieval times the Church referred to caroling as “sinful traffic” and issued decrees against it in 1209 A.D. and 1435 A.D. According to Tristram P. Coffin in his Book of Christmas Folklore, “For seven centuries a formidable series of denunciations and prohibitions was fired forth by Catholic authorities, warning Everyman to ‘flee wicked and lecherous songs, dancings, and leapings’” (p. 98). 

Mummers by Robert Seymour, 1836

Mumming

The processional aspects of caroling are linked to mumming, an ancient tradition which was mentioned in early ecclesiastical condemnations. During the Kalends of January a sermon ascribed to St Augustine of Hippo writes that the heathen reverses the order of things as some of these ‘miserable’ men “are clothed in the hides of cattle; others put on the heads of beasts, rejoicing and exulting that they have so transformed themselves into the shapes of animals that they no longer appear to be men … How vile further, it is that those who have been born men are clothed in women’s dresses, and by the vilest change effeminate their manly strength by taking on the forms of girls, blushing not to clothe their warlike arms in women’s garments; they have bearded faces, and yet they wish to appear women.”2 The original idea of wearing the hides of animals, Miles writes, may have sprung “from the primitive man’s belief ‘that in order to produce the great phenomena of nature on which his life depended he had only to imitate them’.3 

Indeed, in Ireland, mumming is a tradition that is still going strong. In a recent article in The Fingal Independent, Sean McPhilibin notes that “In North County Dublin the masking would be traditionally made from straw and would have been big straw hats that cover the face and come down to the shoulders.” McPhilibin also states that mumming was “a mid-winter custom that in Ireland and North County Dublin and in parts of England as well, the masking element is accompanied by a play. So there’s a play in it with set characters. It’s a play where the principal action takes place between two protagonists – a hero and a villain. The hero slays the villain and the villain is revived by a doctor who has a magical cure and after that happens there’s a succession of other characters called in, each of whom has a rhyme. So every character has a rhyme, written in rhyming couplets.[…] The other thing to say about it is that you find these same type of characters all across Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, over into Slovenia and elsewhere.”

James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, discusses at length many international examples of people being completely covered in straw, branches or leaves as incarnations of the tree-spirit or the spirit of vegetation, such as Green George, Jack-in-the-Green, the Little Leaf Man, and the Leaf King.4

Wassail

The word wassail comes from Old English was hál, related to the Anglo-Saxon greeting wes þú hál, meaning “be you hale”—i.e., “be healthful” or “be healthy”.

There are two variations of wassailing: going from house to house singing and sharing a wassail bowl containing a drink made from mulled cider made with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, topped with slices of toast as sops or going from orchard to orchard blessing the fruit trees, drinking and singing to the health of the trees in the hope that they will provide a bountiful harvest in the autumn. They sing, shout, bang pots and pans and fire shotguns to wake the tree spirits and frighten away evil demons.

The wassail itself “is a hot, mulled punch often associated with Yuletide, drunk from a ‘wassailing bowl’. The earliest versions were warmed mead into which roasted crab apples were dropped and burst to create a drink called ‘lambswool’ drunk on Lammas day, still known in Shakespeare’s time. Later, the drink evolved to become a mulled cider made with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, topped with slices of toast as sops and drunk from a large communal bowl.” (See traditional wassail recipe here)

The Lord of Misrule

The Lord of Misrule was a common tradition that existed up to the early nineteenth century whereby a peasant or sub-deacon appointed to be in charge of Christmas revelries, thus the normal societal roles where reversed temporarily. The Lord of Misrule “would invite traveling actors to perform Mummer’s plays, he would host elaborate masques, hold large feasts and arrange the procession of the annual Yule Log.”

The Mount Vernon Yule Log
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930)

The Bean King

During the the Twelfth Night feast a cake or pie would be served which had a bean baked inside. The person who got the slice with the bean would be ‘crowned’ the Bean King with a paper crown and appointed various court officials. A mock respect would be shown when the king drank and all the party would shout “the king drinks”. Robert Herrick mentions this in his poem Twelfth Night: or, King and Queen:

NOW, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here ;
Beside we must know,
The pea also
Must revel, as queen, in the court here.

Twelfth-night (The King Drinks)
David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690)

Merry Christmas in the Baron’s Hall (1838)
Daniel Maclise (1806-1870)

Merry Christmas in the Baron’s Hall (1838)

Daniel Maclise’s painting Merry Christmas in the Baron’s Hall (1838) contains many aspects of the traditional Christmas festivities. The Lord of Misrule stands in the centre holding his staff and leading the procession of musicians and carolers coming down the stairs. Father Christmas, ‘ivy crown’d’, sits in front of the wassail bowl and is surrounded by mummers (the Dragon and St George sit side by side) and local people. On the left side of the picture we see a group of people playing a parlour game called Hunt the Slipper.

Maclise was influenced by Sir Walter Scott’s poem Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field, published in 1808. Marmion is a historical romance in verse of 16th-century Britain, ending with the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Marmion has a section referring to Christmas festivities:

The wassel round, in good brown bowls,
Garnish’d with ribbons, blithely trowls.
There the huge sirloin reek’d; hard by
Plum-porridge stood, and Christmas pie:
Nor fail’d old Scotland to produce,
At such high tide, her savoury goose.
Then came the merry maskers in,
And carols roar’d with blithesome din;
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note, and strong.
Who lists may in their mumming see
Traces of ancient mystery;
White shirts supplied the masquerade,
And smutted cheeks the visors made;
But, O! what maskers, richly dight,
Can boast of bosoms half so light!

(See full text here)

It seems that Maclise was also taken enough by the poem to pen his own poem about his painting which was published in Fraser’s Magazine for May in 1838. The poem is titled: Christmas Revels: An Epic Rhapsody in Twelve Duans and was published under the pseudonym, Alfred Croquis, Esq. The painting includes over one hundred figures covering many different traditions of Christmas and in his poem Maclise describes most of the activities taking place as some these excerpts from the poem demonstrate:

Before him, ivied, wand in hand,
Misrule’s mock lordling takes his stand;
[…]
Drummers and pipers next appear,
And carollers in motley gear;
Stewards, butlers, cooks, bring up the rear.
Some sit apart from all the rest,
And these for merry masque are drest;
But now they play another part,
Distinct from any mumming art.
[…]
First, Father Christmas, ivy-crown’d,
With false beard white, and true paunch round,
Rules o’er the mighty wassail-bowl,
And brews a flood to stir the soul:
That bowl’s the source of all their pleasures,
That bowl supplies their lesser measures

(See full text here)

Winter Landscapes

Winter Landscape near a Village
Hendrick Avercamp (1585 (bapt.) – 1634 (buried))

 

The Hunters in the Snow (1565)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1530–1569)

 

Outdoor Activities: Skating, Markets and Fairs

Patineurs au bois de Boulogne (1868)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919)

 

 

Russian Christmas
Leon Schulman Gaspard (1882-1964)

 

The Christmas Market in Berlin (1892)
Franz Skarbina (1849-1910)

 

Christmas Fair (1904)
Heinrich Matvejevich Maniser

Nature-Based vs Anti-Nature

Polydore Vergil (c.1470–1555), the Italian humanist scholar, historian, priest and diplomat, who spent most of his life in England, wrote this about Christmas:

Dancing, masques, mummeries, stage-plays, and other such Christmas disorders now in use with the Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalian and Bacchanalian festivals; which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them.5

However,  Clement Miles takes a more positive view of these traditions. He writes: “The heathen folk festivals absorbed by the Nativity feast were essentially life-affirming, they expressed the mind of men who said “yes” to this life, who valued earthly good things. On the other hand Christianity, at all events in its intensest form, the religion of the monks, was at bottom pessimistic as regards this earth, and valued it only as a place of discipline for the life to come; it was essentially a religion of renunciation that said “no” to the world.”6

Now we have a religion of consumerism and mass consumption with Santa Claus as its main protagonist. The one extreme of the sacred St Nicholas has flipped over to the other extreme of Santa, the corporate saint. Either way the pious and the consumer pose no threat to the status quo.

Catharsis

There is no doubt that the Christmas festivities were used by elites as a form of social catharsis. The Lord of Misrule and the Bean King, encouraged by raucous mummers and lively caroling, allowed the lowly to throw off pent-up aggression and feel what it was like to be in a position of power for a very short period of time. This brief social revolution was an important part of midwinter celebrations such as the Roman Kalends and the Feast of Fools. Libanius (c.314–392 or 393), the fourth century Greek philosopher, wrote:

The Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil, and allows men to give themselves up to undisturbed enjoyment. From the minds of young people it removes two kinds of dread: the dread of the schoolmaster and the dread of the stern pedagogue. The slave also it allows, so far as possible, to breathe the air of freedom.7

The survivals of an ancient time when man and nature were at peace (see article here), and not enslaved and forced to overexploit our natural resources for the benefit of the few, were allowed to resurface briefly at the time of year when the labouring classes were mostly idle and, once sated, posed little threat. Yet, retaining the memory of past respectful attitudes towards nature and old traditions of social upheaval will go a long way towards healing our damaged home into the future.

  1. Clement A. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance, Dover Publications, 2017,  p. 47.
  2. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, p. 170.
  3. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, p. 163.
  4. James Frazer, The Golden Bough, Wordsworth, 1994. See: The tree-spirit p. 297, Green George p. 126, Jack-in-the-Green p. 128, the Little Leaf Man p. 128 and the Leaf King p. 130.
  5. Hazlitt, W. Carew, Faiths and Folklore of the British Isles, 2 vols, New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1965, pp. 118-119.
  6. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, p. 25.
  7. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, p. 168.