In California, you know when you’re burning. The brightness hurts, and when you close your eyes, you see red. The cliffs are high and jagged, the ocean smashes the shoreline, and landslides really can bring you down. There you are dwarfed and powerless. All it takes is a five-minute drive down 101 or a glimpse of Mount Shasta to shatter what has become, since I’ve moved to the East Coast, my new disregard for nature, an indifference that my family places somewhere on the outer reaches of the autism spectrum. I’m chastised when I don’t pull over to look at the ocean view or when I fail to incessantly praise the virtues of Indian summer. What’s the matter with you? LOOK. It’s beautiful! Refusing to acknowledge the immensity of your surroundings in California amounts to blasphemy, and don’t think there aren’t higher powers waiting to punish you. There are earthquakes; and mudslides; and for about three months of the year, entire regions of the state threaten to spontaneously combust. You wouldn’t dare sleep naked in California—you might need to run outside in the middle of the night, awakened to a rattling house and a mile-deep fissure in your front lawn.
But I’ve learned that what the East Coast lacks in menacing spectacle it makes up for in a sort of scaled-down obedience. East Coast nature yields to us. With its lapping, Amagansett waves and sweet sugar maples, the wild here, such as it is, seems to be ours for the sculpting. Perceiving nature’s rhythms feels less daunting, and our observations can be quieter, more microscopic. There are no incisor-like mountains or blazing forest fires to blast your sense of self. It’s a place where a poetic feeling can be maintained in relative peace, where the flora, fauna, and mild geology make space for introspective rumination and a notion of society. You can nurture a private sense of romance. The East Coast does not demand that you bow down before it in awe, nor does it require constant, humble apology for being tiny and human. You can be surrounded by the quaint prettiness of nature, not terrorized by its beauty as you are in California. And nowhere is the dosage of this sensation more concentrated than in the poems of Mary Oliver.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning Mary Oliver has lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts (a tiny village on the tip of a tiny cape on the edge of a tiny state), since the 1960s. She sets most of her poems in the wooded, pond-studded acres that surround her house. People love these poems. The most recent poetry best-seller list leads with Swan, Oliver’s latest collection, published by Beacon in September 2010. The list includes seven other titles by Oliver, and this is not atypical. Week in and week out, multiple Mary Oliver books grace this list. It’s not just that she’s prolific, though she is (she has published 26 poetry collections to date, along with three books of nonfiction). Her verse is easy to digest, smooth and slightly sweet like pap. Mary Oliver’s poetry really sounds like poetry.Her images (branches, stones, sheets of clouds); line breaks (“the timeless castles / of emerald eddies”); and preoccupation with rural quietness (“I thought the earth / remembered me, she / took me back so tenderly, arranging / her dark skirts, her pockets / full of lichens and seeds.”) all confirm our earliest and least nuanced conception of verse. Even the most dunderheaded among us can read Oliver’s work and recognize that THIS IS POETRY.
Her corpus is deceptively elementary, though; it’s easy to be fooled by her frequent one-word titles—“Egrets,” “Dogfish,” “Daisies”—into thinking they are simply descriptive slabs. As a layman reading poetry, it’s tempting to be blinded by the more immediately visible parts of speech: the monolithic nouns, the dynamic verbs, the charismatic adjectives. Mousier ones—pronouns, prepositions, particles—go ignored. In “Cold Poem,” for instance, from her 1983 collection American Primitive, overlooking the “we”s and the “our”s, of which there are many, is almost irresistible. One is tempted instead to luxuriate in the broader strokes and be seduced by the wholesome imagery: “I think of summer with its luminous fruit, / blossoms rounding to berries, leaves, / handfuls of grain.” There’s a mental manipulation to Oliver’s rhapsody, a mesmeric quality, as though by conjuring these organic elements, she leaves her readers vulnerable to hypnotic suggestion. Do you feel relaxed? Are you ready for nature? But you miss a lot by allowing the large language to overshadow the more muted connective tissue. Paying such crude attention will not grant you the fortifying effects Oliver has to offer. It would be like receiving a souvenir postcard in the mail, staring at it, and appreciating the picturesque photograph, but never bothering to read the note or look at the return address, which of course is the entire point. And in Mary Oliver’s work, each lovely vista has a sender; it is signed. Nature, she seems to be saying, is a place for people.
Our clichéd image of the artist—solitary, mercurial, all-feeling—becomes even more exaggerated when we imagine the life of the poet in particular. Poets might write each other letters—inky loops on parchment, a blotter always nearby—but in their daily wanderings, they are alone: scribbling in notebooks, peering across moors, feeding ducks, mooning someplace. Company, we presume, would distract them from the hidden patterns of the world to which only they are attuned. Virginia Woolf once described herself as “a porous vessel afloat on a sensation; a sensitive plate exposed to invisible rays.” This is how we think of the poet: noiseless, still, and absorbent. It’s comforting to think of them out there, monastic and alone, reactive to the minute stimuli we so often ignore.
But this speculative projection can lead us astray; it can prevent honest, critical reading of the actual work of these normal humans we treat like shamans.And the poems of Mary Oliver are not examples of solitude, as they might at first seem, but rather artifacts from a shared world. One of Oliver’s most famous poems, “Wild Geese,” from her 1986 collection Dream Work, is flagrant about this; it’s written in the second person and ends with an affirmation:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Or her poem “Breakage,” which begins with a lonely “I” naming the separate pieces of a landscape but then switches to second person with the hope of connecting, once again, to the “family of things”:
I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It's like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.
Besides recounting dreams, one of the most tiresome tics is the insistence upon taking snapshots of nature: drugstore-developed photos of sunsets, iPhone pictures of shining lakes. No friends or loved ones ever want to see them, and trick yourself all you want, but you’re never going to successfully evoke that blissful vacation. By misdirecting our attention away from Mary Oliver’s pronouns, prepositions, and particles—and toward her geologic features and dewy patinas—we can be wrongfully convinced that her project bears resemblance to these uninspired, unpopulated, literally uncivilized photographs. But her poems aren’t snapshots of nature. She observes conscious life, even beacons it.
Whether the company Oliver invokes is biographical or not makes little difference. For 40 years, she lived with her partner and literary agent, Molly Malone Cook, who died in 2005. Oliver is famously private about her personal life, but we can assume that Cook was often her meditative walking companion and, once Cook’s health declined, the first audience for Oliver’s descriptions of tidal shifts, first fawns, and mockingbirds. This real-life rapport becomes less exclusivein the poems; Oliver cultivates an audience of intimates. Her readers feel as though there is a voice scoring their solitary lives. There’s a reason that the word “ramble” refers to both walking and talking. Engaging in the two activities at once is one of the most sacred things you can do with another person. Shared words are animated. There’s a nice symmetry to it, too: as you get further along in conversation, you get farther along physically. Oliver’s poetry socializes nature, and her verses chaperone the imaginative time we spend in it.
To be silenced by your surroundings can be detrimental to a life of letters and language. Unlike in California, nature in rural Massachusetts is not overwhelming but manageable and hospitable, less a theatrical backdrop and more of an interactive diorama with thickets to peer into and polished rocks to skip. It’s not muffling or intimidating; it inspires poetry that sounds like poetry: spellbound but not shushed, contemplative but not cowed. This is why we buy Mary Oliver collections—why we read and recommend certain of her poems. She accompanies us in our ramblings. We like our place in the world to be affirmed as comprehensible and describable, one where even the quietest of people don’t disappear. There’s a kind of self-centered harmony to the East Coast, and a distilled version of it exists in Mary Oliver’s poems. Her fans perhaps do not consciously like nature so much as they unconsciously like themselves.
Having recently developed a photographic printing process which uses leaves as natural photographic paper, I am now embarking on a project using this method, which will focus on the changing relationship between man and his natural surroundings.
The project takes me to the north eastern Indian state of Meghalaya, which is known for its otherworldly natural landscape and home to the Khasi people. Here I am printing the portraits of the Khasi tribe onto native leaf species in celebration of their graceful but changing relationship with their natural surroundings.
Centuries ago the ancestors of these indeginous people trained the roots of native rubber tree species to cross canyons and form living bridges. Scattered amongst sacred forests and ferocious waterfalls, the living root bridges of the East Khasi hills are becoming a well trodden route for tourists; western and Indian alike. The village where I was based for one month is consequently in a state of flux, taut between tradition and modernisation, and seemingly on the brink of extreme change. I experienced a strong sense of ancestory and pride in the ingenuity of the living root bridges, and whilst not completely reliant on it, I felt a sense of reverence and respect for their natural surroundings. Many were proud to cook banana flowers and jungle leaf sourced from the forests that generously surround them; religiously they chewed the areca nut that grows abundantly.
The root bridges embody the deft handiwork of the Khasi people, of their understanding and elegant relationship with nature. This is why the bridges are important, and although becoming increasingly redundant in use, they are physical manifestations of Khasi ancestory.
By printing the portraits of Khasi people that I lived with during the research period, I aim to visualise their heritage within their natural surroundings. The work fuses alternative photographic processes with a more traditional role of photography; in documentation and storytelling. The portraits function to anchor and celebrate the association of the Khasi people with their ancient practices, before they cease to exist completely.
Thirst, land and people
The dissemination of holiday snaps through social networking sites is magnifying tourism to this area of India. This impact will undoubtedly ameliorate the villagers' quality of life and is welcomed by many that I spoke with. However it will also eventually inevitably throw out of balance the carefully preserved respect between land and human activity. The implications of this in ecological terms are severe; the situation may seem small scale and isolated, but it reflects an international, insidious attitude that is dominating our contemporary thinking and decision making.
This short essay briefly addresses some of the philosophy and psychology behind the changes in the relationship that man has with his natural surroundings. It also introduces the theory behind this current and ongoing photographic project.
Heightened tourism, climate change and ecological destruction are complex and wholly different in manifestation, but there exists some homogeny in their structure.The impact of human behaviour on the environment can be traced to society's obsession with immediacy, consumption and progress.
The global ecological crisis in its various forms is above all a cultural change that is established by our individual and collective behaviour. One of the features of contemporary culture identified by philosopher Charles Taylor, is the rationale behind society's propensity to prioritse and celebrate practices of maximum efficiency, and to measure these practices as success; Taylor names this instrumental reason*. The change in attitude brought about by modernisation and the pursuit for cost efficient practices can be recognised, in certain circumstances, as society's decline.
One consequence of instrumental reason is the emergence and propulsion of climate change, where infinite growth rises from industrial waste disposal and an an epidemic depletion of natural resources. The causes of climate change are labyrinthine, but arise from a collective inclination towards the notions of immediacy, consumerism and economic viability. These eclipse and discredit the tenet that the natural environment is valuable because of its majesty and precedence, alongside its more obvious and critical role in maintaining the equilibrium in biodiversity and the hydrological cycle of the entire planet.
In relation to photography, the jpeg exemplifies this shift in societal attitude, which combines advances in technology with appetite for immediacy. Photography as an exercise encompasses a hugely diverse identity, and whilst the reliance on jepg may not feature in fine art photography, it does epitomise Taylor's concept of industrial reason. Digital images are compressed for the convenience of a quick transfer through the realms of the internet. We readily favour the jpeg for its ease of transfer and instantaneous access, despite the image quality being severely compromised. For his JPEG series, photographer Thomas Ruff took digital images off the internet and printed them as large scale pixelated pieces.
The works are large-scale and have a jarring,blurry beauty. One interpretation is that the very components that served to construct the image ended up destroying it. It is this notion of compromising quality for practices in maximum efficiency that Taylor describes as one of the malaises of modernity.
In order to satisfy the interminable demand from international markets, the world's most majestic masses of forest are being devoured. Clearing land for cattle ranching to meet the local and global demand for beef is a huge contributor to deforestation. Increasing reliance on ready-made and fast foods is an insidious habit with grave effects on health and indirect consequences to the natural environment. Soaring global demand for palm oil as an inexpensive raw material for food and cosmetic products has been a monumental driving force to deforestation in south east Asia, the plantations of which have often been financed by the sale of timber from the cleared forests.
The acceptance of this contemporary thinking manifests itself physically in the form of global depletion of resources, extreme loss of biodiversity, unrelenting pollution and climate change. The severity of the change is such that the word anthropocene** has been conceived to describe the era of this phenomenon. It describes the effect of human activity on the state on the planet. One aspect of the anthropocene is that we respond to the ecological crisis with a mixture of astonishment and boredom. Because the change seems gradual, we are capable of not responding, and we are finding ourselves in a period of consequences.
Using native plant species and the portraits of the Khasi people, the leaf portraits created on site aim to resuscitate the severed links between man and environment, and function as a celebration of this ancient relationship. The works invite the viewer to re-establish a reverence for nature and reposition themselves into part of the solution of the problems we are experiencing.
* Instrumental reason: 'The kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical application of means to a given end. Maximum efficiency, the best cost-output ratio, is its measure of success.' As defined by Charles Taylor in his work The Ethics of Authenticity
** Anthropocene is currently a cultural rather that geological term: The Anthropocene defines Earth's most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans. Source: The Encyclopedia of the Earth