Two shells at Herring Cove After the 4th Nor’easter March 2018
PROVINCETOWN ART ASSOCIATION AND MUSEUM
June 29 – August 26, 2018
It is the only thing louder
Beauty, mysterious mixes of nature and light, doesn’t have the power to stop gunfire or war, greed, or even the beginnings of fear. If we love the land, listen, hear the voices of the hurt, allow the other sides of the stories to be told: How do we hold on to hope, persevere, and continue to be faithful to the idea of justice for all?
Verging on hopelessness, despairing, crushed by political hijinks, anti-intellectualism, and reversals of protections to lands and peoples: we persist. We find beauty in the storm. Awe and wonder too.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”
Mary Oliver spent over forty years combing the landscape of the Province Lands. She describes these 17.5 square miles at the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts in her poems and essays. She would head out at dawn and walk, along the bay, through Beech Forest, down fire lanes, across dune meadows, and gaze at the blue pastures of the ponds and across the sea. She sat still and long enough to see a fox playfully batting at a butterfly, a turtle striding across the bottom of a pond. She always carried a hand sewn pad in her back pocket. Local lore says she left pencils in tree nooks in case she needed to scribble an idea. A squirrel stashes seeds for the next cold spell, but Ms. Oliver’s pencils won’t sprout the next generation of poets. That one of her pencils is around someplace, seems right. That’s poetry waiting for a word.
The image of Mary Oliver walking, and pondering, and letting ideas emerge, year after year across the same paths, offers a kind of permission and promise. I’ve been thinking that I need to photograph other things. Maybe I need a new perspective and new things to print, both photographs and in words. Actually, yes and certainly, no. Just as Ms. Oliver found new words while traversing well known places, every time I go out with my camera there is new light and striking shadows, shells, snow on dunes, leaves on trees, or tides high or low. Every time I start an essay, even if it is about the art of photography and my visual life, words about justice seep in. I am coming to realize that photography retains my balance, keep me from falling into the tyranny of despair.
From my toddlerhood to their last agile days, I would trudge along behind my Mom and our neighbor, Connie Clark. We would walk down tree canopied nature trails, around ponds, and across narrow boardwalks traversing swamps. Connie plied me with bowls filled with springtime pond water teeming with larvae or frog eggs, so I could witness the miracles of life’s transformations. My mother was patient until mosquitos started buzzing in the dining room and she demanded the research be returned to the source. These two women read voraciously and collected seed pods and vines for fall bouquets. Silent Spring shocked them. They were my first guides to Rachel Carson’s world view and respect for the universe right outside our door. In 1962 Carson wrote, “Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature… but man is a part of nature, and this war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
Carson’s “…this war against nature is inevitably a war against himself” sends me thinking of James Baldwin and all he endeavored in his lifetime to teach white people about their too frequent and thorough dehumanization, especially of people of color. Every one of us has a face that fits on the Pantone color scale, every one of us carries a glimmer of our ancestors in hair, eyes, nose, lips, eyebrows, the shape of our ears, or even a gesture with our hands. We are all humans, our skin our largest organ, and to deny one is to deny us all. The war against others begins with war within one’s own self.
As a youth, James Baldwin had a white teacher who guided him, offered him theater, literature and conversation. From her he came to know that not all white people were hate-filled, though some certainly deserved caution and contempt. He wrote every way he could through his lifetime to explain the conditions into which white Americans put Black Americans.
. . . If I’m not the nigger here and you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question.
That question only leads to more: Why Latinx? Why Lesbians, Gays, Transgender peoples? Why Asian? Why people with Disabilities of all kinds? Why Jewish? Why Muslim? Why Native American? Why Nature? Why people with little money? Why people with no home? Why Elderly? Why Asylum Seekers? Why Children?
Once this question gets going we have to wonder who is left to do the hating.
Terry Tempest Williams is another lover of the land, writer, activist, feminist, and conservationist. Her deepest roots are in the American West, yet they stretch to the coast of Maine. In The Hour of Land, she explores the tensions of mining, extraction, and conservation in the wilds of our National Parks. She declares three points for our immediate attention: “If we fail in this century, it is because we are too timid,” “If we lose our way in America, it is because we are too complacent,” and “There is a tradition of courage in our country and we must exercise it now.”
My usual work is teaching, talking, and writing about issues that precipitate and perpetuate misunderstanding and harm. This includes: toxic expectations for men and powerlessness assumptions for women; whiteness and racialized violence; queerness and violence toward LGBT folks; Power and Fear. The stuff of race, class, sex, gender expression, and sexualities. The ways all stereotypes about these issues–as well as disability, ethnicity, religions, education, access—keep a whole lot of hurt and hopelessness alive. My usual work is to educate to illuminate the possibilities of compassion and awareness. I don’t want to change the world. I want to transform it.
Wandering the Outer Cape brings me courage, especially off-season when the beauty is stark, and the beaches are empty of sunbathers. Extreme winds push my body as I make my way down the beach and the booming waves after a storm surprise all my senses. I feel the crashing of the waves in the sand under my feet and the spray of seawater in the wind; smell the metallic of the ions and cold salt in the air. My fingers work the camera as snow and sand blasts the beach clean, seaweed flying. Ironically, this is soul soothing nourishment. My photographs bring the viewer bluster and balm.
James Baldwin wrote, “Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”
My photographs reveal all the colors in the sand. Not beige at all, but bits of black, pink, blue or purple. No combination of seaweed on the beach is the same, in the wrack line there are souvenirs from waves and human negligence. Color is in every shred of sea hay, every dried seaweed curl, every feather fiercely intact after flight from the bird. The camera lens captures one second of this wildness; to realize we are nature our minds can come to know courage, the revelation of our own oppressions will make us all free, if we are not afraid.
In my heart, I hear James Baldwin sighing in agreement as I read these lines by Rev. angel Kyodo williams:
the great fraud of the construct of whiteness is that it has coerced and convinced most white folks to no longer see their own oppression: by men over women, by straights over LGBT, by hetero fathers over their sons in arbitrating their masculinity, by capitalist values of personal acquisition over the personal freedom of one’s soul. white folks have been duped to trade their humanity for their privilege. the most insidious lie is that racism is a Black problem or a colored folks problem. white folks wake up: not only oppressed people are complicit in oppression. it’s your problem, too.
How do we become love and freedom? Is it by walking the same beach and being willing to see something new? Changing our point of view, moving our lens from the grain of sand to the clouds above the horizon line, moving the entire body, looking, focusing, attending. Click, the shutter opens and closes. Philosophy professor George Yancy writes, “As James Baldwin said, Black history “testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”
Who could we be without the weighty anchors of social norms, constructions of race, gender expressions, the colonialization of privileges? Can we find the freedom, liberate our deeply entrenched biases, unexamined assumptions, and fears? We are waves, constantly moving, rising and ebbing. We are humans who have everything to lose and even more to gain.
Be courage. Create beauty with words, graphics, photographs, and actions. We are the world we want to live in, this is our one wild and precious life, and we aren’t afraid of the impossible.
In Order of Appearance
Shout out to Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog. Incredible integration of ideas, stunning graphics, as well as reminders of things read in the past and their immense value to thinking about the present.
Andrea Gibson (1975-) Take Me With You (2017).
Mary Oliver (1935–) Blue Pastures (1991).
Maria Shriver asked Mary Oliver what she has done with her one wild and precious life. Oliver replied, “I’ve used up a lot of pencils.”
Rachel Carson (1907-1964) Silent Spring (1962).
James Baldwin (1924-1987) I’m Not Your Negro (2017)
film and text by Samuel L. Jackson, Raoul Peck.
Terry Tempest Williams (1955–) The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks (2016).
Ions smelling metallic. I’m not sure if this is at all accurate. What do you think? From The National Science Foundation: https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/water/index_low.jsp?id=ions
Maybe it is cold salt one smells in the mists of the storm surges.
James Baldwin found in Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/08/20/james-baldwin-the-creative-process/ From The Price of A Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction (1948-1985) on the Creative Process and the Artist’s Responsibility to Society.
Rev. angel Kyoto williams, Sensi (1969–) Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation (2016) with Lama Rod Owens and Jasmine Syedullah.
George Yancy, Dear White People, New York Times, 2015.