Sunday, January 27, 2008

Hawk High.

I found this picture in a dust covered discard pile in my studio. I have noticed that I often select the images that challenge me most to be at that hawk high place where dreams coalesce into form. Obviously, I had passed this one by.

Ink painting is eminently suited for this challenge because of the mind-set required. If what I create is going to work at all, I have to both leap off a cliff with abandon and yet remain perfectly still. The satisfactions, like the image, are subtle, interior and fulfilling.

I do understand though, why this picture was at first discarded. Its generalized tones of grey are not well defined in themselves and the symbolic bird shapes have been cut in with a razor with another sheet of rice paper placed behind. Once discarded as a failure, I now see with fresh eyes that it is the tension between the hard cut edges and the soft inky textures that really speaks to me. How often do we all dismiss as mistakes those thoughts and images that push our own limits, or we fear might not be acceptable to those around us, rather than simply welcoming them as valuable ideas pointing in directions of promise.

The sea, a wooded hillside, the strong winds and cloud layers of high places and the arrow flight of hawks are a message for me to always listen to the whispered dreams of new things striving to be born.

"And I still don`t know if I am a falcon,
Or a storm, or a great song."
Rainer Maria Rilke /1899
"I live my life."

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Falcon.

The following piece,"The Falcon," was begun last summer. I intended to submit it to a CBC Radio program called "This I believe". I planned to accomplish two objectives: by writing our sailing experience down, I would begin to understand what it meant to me and then by submitting it to the radio program I would be communicating a point of view I felt was missing in the usual human oriented perspective. Who would have thought that it would take me many months to bring nonverbal musings out into a coherent story. Only when the image of the falcon came to me did I have a core image around which to organize my fragmentary thoughts. The radio program was long over by the time this little piece felt complete.
At dawn the clouds beyond the bowsprit swirl aside and reveal faint but definitely hard jagged edges. Land! At last! After sixty six days at sea the mountain tops of Vancouver Island stretch before me. While our schooner sails herself steadily eastward I slip below to wake my wife, Heather, to take her turn on watch and I whisper the magic words "I see land!" I whisper, to avoid waking our daughter Anne, still asleep on the berth opposite. Over the past three years of our Pacific cruise we have passed this exciting message many times but this one catches at my throat. These are the hills of home and this last voyage from a coral island near the equator has been long and arduous. Even this long journey was only part of an even longer voyage from Australia. We have been sailing against contrary winds and currents for most of the way and have been ground and polished thin in mind and body.

Too excited to sleep during my own rest time below, I climb back into the cockpit when Heather calls softly .On deck there is now bright morning sunlight, sparkling wave tops and, perched just overhead on our furled mainsail, is a Peregrine Falcon ripping into the warm body of a small seabird. Just three feet away, his fierce eyes stare into ours. When he finally flies away towards the still distant land, we share a feeling of awe and say," A messenger! An omen!" and know it to be true. So close to rejoining the human race, we catch ourselves and glance thoughtfully around us and at the still half veiled land ahead. In the three years since we left home we seem to have been on an inner voyage of discovery as well.

Any journey is a stirrer up of lives, and these voyages of ours across some of the greatest watery wastes of our planet have been both a life struggle and a blessing. The ocean really is an elemental place; wind, sea ,sun and stars, served up in big impersonal portions. Big enough to swallow us up without a trace. At the beginning of our outward bound travels, as it was obvious that the ocean would not adapt to us, we began with difficulty to make our own adjustments.

Anne, our navy daughter, brought with her some basic rules of thumb. If she caught me whistling she would say, " No whistling, you will call up a wind!" The unspoken corollary being, "And it could be the gale that sinks us" Unspoken, because to name it would be bad luck too. I stop, but in a good natured smiling sort of way. I think,"Superstition!"
Away from busy shore- side thoughts, our imaginations worked overtime; flashing wave tops became distant sails and urgent imaginary voices woke us at night on our watch below. One moonlit night a big square rigged ship cut close across our bows and then dissolved into mist and shadow. We gritted our teeth and determinedly said, " Hallucinations!".

Slowly though, as we progressed through the weeks of our first long passage from Mexico to the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific we felt our awareness expand to the horizon and beyond. Those solitary night watches found us alone with the universe. The stars made us dizzy and pulled at us; our minds floated outwards. We held fast and focused on our guiding star, on Orion`s Belt perhaps, and kept it lined up with the dark edge of our big gaff foresail that pulled us along toward a dim, curved, ever receding horizon. Our minds slipped again and we were on the dark side of a stony planet on a craft that skimmed along on the interface between gas and liquid, both of which seemed to be stretched amazingly thin over the surface. We were lost in space.

One night though, a splash and a gasp startled us back to a more earthly and less celestial reality. The sea was alive with dolphins carving phosphorescent curves around and beneath the boat. Fellow creatures! Fellow mammals! Brothers!
That recognition was the beginning of the change that led us through the many long miles and months to the messenger, the Falcon.

We began our sea change where the ancients of the Mediterranean left off. Anne`s maritime superstitions were just a remnant of an old and comprehensive belief system that had served humanity for thousands of years. The Gods! That bright necklace of stars we were steering by and called Orion`s Belt was just one tiny bit of a complex of constellations that stranded the night sky with story and meaning. To have our Gods to mediate with the omnipotent powers of nature seemed the most natural thing in the world.

The next difficult transition was to finally let go of our sense of human superiority. Those Gods, Nature Spirits, Archetypes, however we liked to call them, were not ours, not beholden to us at all for their existence. They spoke, in their essence, as the voice of the whole natural world and were not merely our own human invention. Belatedly, we remembered that all the old myths told us that the Gods came first and we were the junior members. That was a hard one to swallow, even in the wilderness. We adapted though, like Odysseus before us. Once thoroughly humbled, we got the message and worked with it.
That ethos saw us as far as Australia. We did notice however, that even though we felt and worked with this truth, we did not talk about it to our fellow voyagers except in the most humorous and offhand way.

Only on that last long struggle home did we make the final transition that even here I find difficult to describe .Some things it seems, you have to experience to understand. Essentially though, it was heart, not head, that helped us into the next phase. Simple really, and yet such a major journey to step into the essence of the Gods themselves. Every morning the mighty sun sprang over the horizon and turned the morning mist to clouds, and every evening we saluted his passing in a blaze of glory. The pale moon did her monthly cycle in the heavens. How beautiful she was. That trade wind, how we were tuned to every changing note in the rigging. Our fellow creatures that swam around us, the albatross that almost brushed us with her wingtip as she ran up a breaking wave crest beside our stern, the whales that paused to greet us before diving beneath the boat, all had a special shine. I would guess that even in our tiredness we also had that shine. Relationships though, flow both ways: while we were learning to give our human love directly to this wild world, the ocean in turn, was passing a very nonhuman wildness to us; the sea was still just as dangerous, our survival still as tenuous but now in this larger perspective we accepted our fate calmly. Like the ocean itself, there were deeper currents involved in our lives, greater concerns than mere life or death. In finding a new way of being in the world we had rediscovered the most ancient one of all. We were an integral part of the mysterious and intricate web of all life and matter on the planet. Somehow we had stepped beyond a purely conventional human understanding of reality.

As with our own now fiercer eyes we watch the Falcon fly ahead of us toward the land, we definitely know we have been welcomed home. We feel a familiar but stronger, end of voyage sadness: this is the end of a Great Thing. Ahead lies our home, our familiar islands, a safe harbour, but also the terrible buzz of a self- absorbed human society that we will need to rejoin. All we can be sure of, is that we have touched ground somewhere out here long before we will reach the shore.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Dream

In my dream, it was a dark and stormy night. Two giant birds of prey swirled around and lightning flashed from their eyes. The thunder was so loud it filled my little body. I felt torn apart. I was five or six years old, a solitary little white boy who still spoke with an English accent.

My family had recently immigrated to Canada and bought an auto court in the small B.C. coastal
village of Mill Bay. In those post World War II days, it was a full couple of hours drive north of Victoria. By far the youngest of five children, I was small enough to be overlooked in the rush of family life and so I happily filled my days wandering among the tall evergreens of the coast and playing on the beach. I played solitary little games, like seeing how far I could hop, hop, hop, from drift logs to boulders and back again without landing on gravel Sometimes I used long poles to lever and roll big logs down into the water. Soon I was building rafts and polling myself along the shore and later a mast and tarpaulin sail allowed me a greater range of travel. I fished of course, for rockfish at the near-shore reefs and for shiners through the cracks in the government wharf. I became skilled at throwing rocks at bits of driftwood or skimming flat ones to see how many skips I could get. I spent an enormous amount of time ( I had no idea of time) squatting beside tide pools and watching the miniature world of bullheads, hermit crabs, and limpets. I learned to row the family skiff around as naturally as walking. All this without benefit of life-jacket, swimming skills or adult supervision. I knew the tides and the sea-weedy smells of the breezes that blew. I loved that place.

About that time I got my first jack knife and started to whittle. I cut my fingers on a regular basis. At first, a whistle carved from a willow stick, later a spear, and then I started to carve totem poles: totem poles with the Thunderbird on the top with its wings carved separately and nailed to the back. No-one in the family remarked on this particularly, just little Billy keeping busy and out of the way. I`d not told of my dream of course: like my dangerously independent adventures on the bay, I sensibly kept this to myself. There were no words anyway in my own culture, no context within which to understand that powerful dream.

Looking back at this formative time of my early life, I wonder about what I choose to recall and give significance to. Is it simply me in the present, looking back and finding links to create a story retroactively? Maybe, but I don`t think so. The little Billy I remember is truly the essence of my present self. I`m still a poor swimmer, for example, and still mess around in boats without a life-jacket or even adult supervision. I still dream big dreams. Really of course, it is that first powerful Thunderbird dream that fascinates me. I have continued to carve throughout my life, my cedar box in which I keep my valuable stuff like journals, feathers, and interesting rocks, has the dream image carved and painted on it.

That Thunderbird dream though, surely if we believe that images like that come out of and are the story of a particular group of people, in this case the Native Indian peoples of this coast, then why me? I think that orderly ideas come out of a human-centered point of view. The other option is wilder, that the Thunderbird is a truly powerful spirit of this coast: it was here when the first peoples arrived in this land and came to know its voice and it was still here to speak to a little English boy who had slipped through his culture`s fingertips and fell into love with the spirit of this land.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Wooly sighting.

Wooly was sighted by Heather on New Years Eve. Just a casual greeting, while passing in the woods. She seemed fine, just looked over her shoulder as she headed over to Cat Hill, nodded, said g`day, the usual thing.
Cat Hill in Winter.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Fresh seeing. Fresh thinking.

Thirty-six views of Mt. Fuji

There is a problem with writing little pieces to twin with my paintings (or sometimes finding a picture to go with what I want to write about.).Everyone knows that a piece of art is a visual entity and ought to convey its essence in a visual way without benefit of language.

I was digging around in a drawer the other day, and found a gift set of postcards from a Japanese exchange student. They were compelling! A selection of five from the famous series by the wood-block print artist Hokusai, I looked at them for a long time. Mt. Fuji sometimes fills the whole frame, in others the mountain lies in the distance behind scenes from the human world; of fishermen perhaps, or forestry workers. Its always there though; through the seasons, in the minute to minute transience of sun and showers. Always there: tied intimately into the spirit of the Japanese people.

Now it turns out of course, that these splendid works of art were illustrations for a book (by Ukiyoe) about the lands around the mountain. The wood-cuts were made to go along with words after all, but I can attempt to understand them without language. The main problem really is that my mind wants to chat away while I look and surely the correct way to view them is as a meditation." Back, back, you noisy mind!" Or is this a kind of lazy thinking that automatically assumes that there is a correct way to experience anything. I find these pictures revolutionary because they ask me to see in a new way, to see deeply and freshly. If I would be true to the spirit of these paintings, I too need to let them enter my inner self just as freshly, without preconceived ideas as to how it should happen or what I should find. Across the years, the culture and the language, these images of Mt Fuji challenge my capacity for fresh seeing and fresh thinking.

I think that I am tired of oughts and corrects. They stand in the way.

Sunday, January 6, 2008


There is a dark side to our landscape of islands that calls most strongly in this winter season of wet cloudy short days and long nights of somber dreams. Long past is the expansive glow of flaming sunsets painting throngs of islands and glittering waterways with garlands of bright colours. Now grey seas toss sullenly under grey skies and flash white surf against black cliffs topped by forests of sober green. This island world makes time for its serious side to pace abroad and show its face.
Some of us islanders head south for more sunshine at this time of year Why not pile summer atop summer: an endless life of sunshine to keep our spirits bright. It seems a great idea if one can afford it and yet, if nature has a dark and stormy side, are we not missing developing an important aspect of our own nature if we skip out when darkness falls?
Summer too, can have its own dark side. The sunset that tints the world in golden light can twist so that the colours are just too sweet, the red arbutus bark too strident. The seagulls lonely calls can have a weird tone in the shadowy bay behind the brightly lit headland. Here the dark tide swirls high among the driftwood logs that are tumbled like bones high on the beach. To stumble on this nightmare unexpectedly on a summers evening can be more unsettling by far than meeting the dark in its own winter season.
The winter is serious, dark and stormy but it gives fair warning that we must harmonize our mood with its or, catching us in a momentary loss of focus, while boating perhaps, it will suck us down. Unlike the shadowy nightmare mood of summer though, the winter landscape is very straight forward and so, cautiously, I trust it more. I have come to respect tones of grey and muted greens both in the landscape and within myself.

To go in the dark with a light is to
Know the light.
To know the dark, go dark.
Go without sight, and find that the dark too,
Blooms and sings,
And is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
Wendell Berry.

Morning Ritual.

I have a routine on cold dark winter mornings. A new fire must be kindled in the still faintly warm wood-stove. Its an act I repeat in much the same pattern every morning. I kneel and place crumpled paper on the old ashes and follow carefully with a sequence of thin cedar splints and bits of bark. The flare of a match, a flicker of light and a few controlled puffs of breath to fan the flames. When the fire has caught I add larger pieces of wood and the ritual is completed for the day. Its chilly in the kitchen, my bare feet have sucked the cold up from the tile floor but I never wear slippers: feeling the cold reality of winter seems a necessary part of the process. I love this solitary act, this creative moment at the boundary between night and day.