Sunday, February 28, 2010

Building a life #22. That old familiar feeling.

                                        Mt. St. Helens blows her top.

The children are still in bed when the rumbling starts and we gather them up and rush outside onto the rocky hilltop. Earthquake, we think, and start explaining to the children what is happening. Even as we talk about it we begin to have doubts - this is more noise than shake and it goes on and on. Heather and I glance at each other over the children`s heads: we are imagining what an atomic explosion would sound like if Seattle, only eighty miles to the south of us should be under attack.

After all we are the generation that have lived our lives under that sword, practiced crouching under our school desks, woken at night to hear jet planes and thought they were Russian bombers come to destroy us and listened to many false alarm air raid sirens. Heck, I had been born in the middle of an air raid during WWII. While in university we had lived through the surreal week of the Cuban missile crisis and seriously questioned whether we should bring children into this dangerous world at all. How much of our decision to move to the country and pursue a self sufficient life was due to a dread that this very thing we are listening to off in the distance could come to pass. We must be ready to survive by our own efforts.

The cabin is not falling down so I step inside and turn the radio on loud before rejoining the family on the rock top. Mount Saint Helens has erupted in a spectacular fashion with the power of many atomic bombs just down in Washington state to our south. Over the next few days we will receive a dusting of volcanic ash and watch scenes of devastation on our little TV.

It is interesting how the news gave the power of the explosion in so many units of Hiroshima atomic bombs, a whole society has been traumatized in the past thirty years. Imagine, zillions of bombs and missiles with the final button in the hands of politicians. Scary! Beyond scary, mind numbing.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Grey. A practice in relationship.

'A grey mist on the sea`s face and a grey dawn breaking.'
                    Sea Fever. by John Masefield

There is a painting called ‘Grey’ by a West Coast artist I have always admired - Emily Carr- and now I am once more walking the trails of Indian Point where everything makes me think of it: the power of art to channel our view and understanding of a place. There is the obvious relationship - it is an overcast grey winter`s day that casts its thin sad varnish over all- but that is not what I am feeling, something more nuanced than that.

I`m carrying my camera as usual but I wander past the subjects of water, wood and stone that usually bring me back for repeat performances and indeed I do not feel really fit for making photos today. My mind flaps feebly with other sad social thoughts and cannot come down to the present moment. To make the pictures that honour this place I feel that I need to do that. To let this place reach into me and do its work I surely must adjust my mood.
That painting of Emily Carr`s is the physical record of another walker of the woods and shores, her articulation of that meeting place of artist and subject that I can usually reach so easily. Perhaps that is in itself my problem today. Familiarity. This is a common kind of winter`s day in so familiar a place for me that nothing reaches out to flag my attention. Until this moment I have always took this as ultimately all my own responsibility but somewhere along the line today I am figuring out that for this to be a true relationship, I must see this wet world as it presents itself and the landscape must also accept me as I am today.

I methodically take photos of the overlooked places. The mossy logs and roots uprooted by a winter storm. The shattered remains of a long fallen tree. The leaves beaded with raindrops lying on the mossy forest floor. Emily Carr in her painting chose an ordinary tree in the forest and found the form hidden within, so could I perhaps if this wet dripping moment in the life of the forested shore could open to me.
The ocean surface is a smooth sheet of metal, reflecting the clouds overhead, sometimes lightly stippled by raindrops. At first I try too hard to make it into an ‘acceptable’ image but only when the surface resists me do I see that this is what is and either I accept or go away to come again another day. I must work with this flat grey light rather than try to modify and make it mine. This light that it is so very even, with no strong darks or highlights, that is creating forms that are smoothly rounded, the light flowing into the shadows. There is potential here for photos that transcend the ordinary, that reach into the private thoughts of landscape when its brightly painted public face is not on display. Not so different from my own mood in fact. My grey mood is a perfect match for this moment.

I continue to simply photograph without expectation of reaping the rewards of great looking dynamic photos, simply let my mood meet the landscape. A kind of practice: both the obvious practicing with the camera and training my eye, but also the basic elements of a spiritual practice carried out regardless of mood and with no expectation of personal reward. Grey, gentle, dumb, unexpected whatevers collect inside my camera and an hour later I emerge from the forest and drive off home. No high moments here today, but something more valuable, a deeper understanding of relationship.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Building a life #21. Nightlands.

Being a Park Ranger on night patrol has its advantages as well as its drawbacks. While I have to work all summer and miss camping trips with the family to Portland Island ( except on my weekly days off) and have a lot of hassles with ‘party-hearty’ campers I do get to continue work on the house building project during the daylight hours. Building a house all by oneself is an enormous project but I hope to get the building closed in by next winter. I will then get laid off from Parks work until next Spring and I can continue to work at building all winter too.

Work in the Park is not all bad either, because I find that talking to people as I collect their fees comes easily to me and there is so much basic education to be done about how people should behave in this natural setting. Hey, as a Park Ranger I`m a teacher again, but a more subtle, conversational kind than when I taught in the school system. The difference between the walk-in waterfront park, (Ruckle),where campers must leave their cars and carry their kit through the woods to the fields by the shore, and the drive-in campground in Ganges ( Mouat) is sometimes striking.

In Spring, before I start night patrols, I collect camping fees in the morning while doing the general maintenance. Early one morning in Ruckle Park I visit a young man sitting cross-legged facing the sunrise over the ocean. He is in bliss and I take his money as quietly as possible. Later that morning, having driven into Ganges to Mouat Park I find a big shiny car and silver trailer parked beside a roaring campfire. There is no one around. They have not put their camping fee envelope in the safe, so I tap on the trailer door. “Hello, I’m collecting fees.”, I say and the father digs out his wallet. As we deal with the paperwork I notice a strange bird song and look over my shoulder, puzzled. “ Do you hear that bird?” I say. “Oh, that`s on our tape deck” he replies. This family is so insulated in their caravan that nature comes from a sterio. The pity of it is that they think they are experiencing it first hand! And they are burning up all that free campground firewood I have split!

Some dry summer nights at Ruckle Park I must also fit fire patrols into my busy schedule. There are still many smokers who drop their butts or the occasional camper out of bounds busy lighting his own private fire amidst the tinder dry grasses. I walk the back trails at top speed and on bright moonlit nights I can turn off my flashlight ( so much the better for catching wrongdoers unawares) and stride quietly beside the sparkling ocean over sandstone ridges clothed in twisted Garry oak and arbutus. One night the moon is covered momentarily in a drifting cloud and, if I pause and set my eyes just right, I can watch tiny star ships leave the shore of one bright cloud and voyage across the gulf of space to the far shore of a new cloudland. I begin to dream of doing a version of that myself someday.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dream work.

                                                               The pool in the dry streambed.

Last night I dreamed of a new way to work with oil paints and so this morning I rush out to the studio, light the fire and, still bundled up against the cold, choose a piece of smooth pressed paper and gave it a spray of clear varnish. A few passes over it with a hair dryer`s warm breath and I am ready to carry out my experiment.

Yesterday I was working with oils on that same type of paper and found that the paint soaked into the surface and defeated any attempts to scrape away the paint back to the white paper - I had to cut deep into the surface to find white again and ended up with a sliced up mess. Now, my thought is to seal the surface with varnish so the oil paints will sit just on the surface and I will be able to scratch down to the white ground and achieve the kind of scratched engraved effect that I am seeking. Now, what to use as a design? I cannot just smear any old splash of colours down on this lovely white surface can I? Nothing comes.

I begin to brush some squiggles with the scraps of colour left from yesterday. Red, blue, a touch of black. Now, out with the knife point and scrape through the fresh paint. It works beautifully! It is time to see if I can now allow my technical thinking to turn away towards a creative solution as well; to make something worthwhile of this splash of colours. I start smearing the painted surface with my finger - such a lovely buttery feel- and blend the colours. Forms start to emerge, I gently urge them out of the background, start scraping the paint away in some places and darkening the edges of some shapes in the foreground. The reds come naturally towards me and the dark blue steps back. Soon it is finished, whatever it is, and gets another spray of varnish for good measure. I move on to some more picture experiments for the rest of the morning, gradually shedding my coat and sweater as the studio warms up.

After lunch I wander back and discover my little experiment looks like something after all: a dry stream bed with a deep hollow in which sits a pool of water. There are rocks on my side of the empty channel with a suggestion of a sandbar and vegetation on the far side. This is what our stream bed looks like in the summer before the deeper pools dry up completely, even though right now it is full to the brim and noisily rushing down into the valley below. I could never have achieved such an effective representation if I had started with this as my objective. I would never have thought to picture this mysterious scene at this time of year. How does the mind work its magic anyway and why was I not completely happy to just think of it as an abstract little sketch? Did part of my mind know what it was doing all along and, with my thinking self signed off, was free to get on with the job?

After all, the technical solution came in a dream and it would seem that this is the dream that was meant to be painted. I am always amazed with the images that come out of the mist and settle themselves comfortably on the paper but am happy to have the help. You do the work, whoever you are, and I`ll work on the framing. What a team.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Building a life # 20. Swallows and Amazons forever.

                                         Waiting for the ferry wake.
A ferry crosses between my canoe and dark outline of Saltspring Island. Its bright lights destroy my night vision, but I know that in a few minutes it`s big wake will send me bouncing around for a while so I slip forward off the seat to kneel securely on the bottom of the canoe. With this cold ocean water I cannot afford to tip over, and besides, no one would see me if I did. I am returning home to start my week`s work as a park ranger and reluctantly leaving my little family to continue their summer camping holiday without me. I have stayed for supper and an evening by the campfire and am now paddling back by myself.

A week ago we and the Coombes family hauled all our camping gear across the channel and set up camp at Arbutus Point. It is a spectacular place and there is plenty for the children to do. As for the two mothers, well they were busy at home raising their children, so adding camping duties simply adds more work. But things are different here on holiday, watching all the boat traffic, the whales, the splendid sunsets and star filled nights. The girls take turns to go fishing in the evenings with Heather. There are no alarm clocks for the mornings, they are not needed with the crows cawing overhead in the arbutus trees at the crack of dawn. The kids love it!

These days we are reading a series of children`s adventure stories written by Arthur Ransome called ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and all the children are deep into acting out the characters. Fittingly, the children in the stories are sailors and adventurers which is what we hope our own children will become. When it is time to take our dory, Swallow, for water they row around to a nearby bay, lash the water barrel to an oar and march through the woods to the only well on the island. They are learning to sail as well and already can paddle the canoe. This is not a big leap for them, they are used to a self reliant kind of family life and take it for granted. It is not long since they lived in tents, and then a little shack in the big woods and even the log cabin that is their present home is pretty basic by normal city standards.

                                         Walking to the water pump.

The next night, on duty down at Ruckle Park, I stare hard across the channel and can just pick out the faint flicker of our campfire. Right now they will all be singing around the fire, drinking their hot chocolate and preparing to crawl into their tents to dream of another perfect tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Salutation to the dawn.

                                                A foggy dawn in Fulford Harbour.

I am part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough

Gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades

For ever and ever when I move.

From ‘Ulysses’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

It is the end of January and the days are already lengthening. As I drive Heather down to the 8am ferry in Fulford, for her regular day across the water of caring for a grandchild, it is early dawn and not still pitchy black as it was at Christmas. A foggy, grey dawn, but Spring cannot be far away. Already this morning, the snowdrops and aconites were flowering like bright stars on the dark earth as we walked down the garden path and out to the van. I take my camera along and stroll around the docks that are catching the first misty light of day.

On my way home up our winding and hilly country road I stop at two lakes to find more delicate moments as the mists rise. The calm waters reflect the clouds overhead and the overhanging leafless trees. I look for relationships among the elements of the landscape and hold my breath a moment as I click the shutter. It is a kind of communication I am feeling, something here that crosses from the landscape to myself without benefit of spoken language. This morning is all about relationship.

 Just the other day I listened to a radio discussion on a science program about brain and mind. Usually thought of as synonymous, the concept was up for review: our mind, it was said, extends out beyond ourselves, is part of all that we have met. That is exactly what I am experiencing this morning, a co-mingling of my deeper self with the breath of a new day.

Back home again, I see the watery sun rising into a narrow gap between land and cloud. A brief moment of lemony light. I raise my hand high to acknowledge our relationship. “ I see you, yes I see you, coming from afar.”