POG Talk: Part 2

Posted by on Nov 23, 2012 in Articles, Event | No Comments

As I was describing in the first part of this talk, a train of thought from Kant, Goethe, and Humboldt, and other romantic Germans from the past leads to a remarkable idea: maybe our subjective impressions and feelings about a place are part of that place; are part of the description of the physical world, just as the rocks and plants are. So to create a complete picture of a place, or a universe, both internal human data and external physical data should be collected.

Dealing with the subjective side need not be chaotic and undefined. There is a different kind of discipline involved with sorting through one’s impressions to craft a poem or a painting, but it could be as rigorous as that required to design a research project. Humboldt carefully edited out much of his own role in his narratives as observer, and he criticized other nature writers, mostly French, for including too much subjectivity. Humboldt was there on the spot, but didn’t record everything he did, only the essentials. He didn’t put down what he had for breakfast or his random thoughts or fantasies. He put in just enough, then kept out of the way. (Actually, I’d like to see a nature poem that included what the writer had for breakfast.)

PART 2 : Exploring Tumamoc

In exploring a place, one should get to know the history, what others have done there and thought about while there. The establishment of the Desert Botanical Laboratory on Tumamoc in 1903 by the Carnegie Institution of Washington was a signature event for Tumamoc. Their mandate was to learn how desert plants survived with so little water. These early ecologists chose Tumamoc after a survey of the SW United States and Sonora for its significant biodiversity, fenced it to protect it from interference, and made it an outdoor laboratory.

On of my heroes among these early scientists was Volney Spalding. This is the map he made of every saguaro on Tumamoc and A-​mountain, over 10,000 of them. The task is almost mythological, but shows the energy and enthusiasm of these researchers in wanting to understand the landscape, and the relations of plants to their environment.

Because of the work of these scientists, Tumamoc has become one of the most scrutinized places in the world. That is, by scientists. They have done a lot, yet they have still left many other layers of the place to be investigated by humanities explorers.

I went along with scientists this year while they surveyed the permanent plots on Tumamoc that Spalding set up to monitor long-​term vegetation change, a novel idea in 1906. These plots are still mapped every 10 years or so and are the oldest continuously monitored study plots in the world. I became very interested in this work and started a photo essay on this project.

Each plant in these 10 x 10 meter quadrats is given special attention. Here Ray Turner measures a barrel cactus. We will remember that measurement is one of those “primary qualities”.

This is one of Ray’s field sketches from the 1970s of one of the Spalding plots that I found in the old files at Tumamoc. Before the digital surveying equipment that is used now, they placed stakes at the 4 corners, with smaller ones at 1-​metter intervals. Strings are tied between these stakes to make a one-​meter grid. Using a meter stick, a researcher can estimate pretty closely to the centimeter the trunk location and canopy of each plant. Although this was not intended to have any visual or artistic appeal, I think it is very expressive as drawing.

These 10 x 10 meter squares staked out in the landscape have always reminded me of an artist’s canvas, though they are more dynamic and changing. This is a diagram showing the relationship of only two species in one plot as it changes over time. The colors are arbitrary, but again, it has an expressive quality as a series.

To me, this kind of work is an untapped resource for abstract expressionist painting. In a similar way that John Cage used random numbers or tossing I Ching coins to create music, an artist can use ecological relationships as a basis for expressive work, instead of relying completely on their own intuition as to where to place the brush strokes.

To explore it, one needs to know what scientists have already learned in a place. These researchers are scrutinizing the stages of growth over a growing season of tiny belly flowers in smaller “annual plots”. These plots have been studies for 30 years, that’s thirty generations of annul flowers. I felt humbled to see this, as I never bothered to learn the names of these flowers – they are indeed beautiful, but you have to get down on your knees to see them. Again, I’m impressed with the attention given to these tiny plants. It’s like Goethe listening to plants like they are his friends.

When I first came to the plot, the people were all kneeling like muslims in prayer, except facing all different directions. That’s a photo I missed.

I went out with Ray Turner to do some repeat photography. Here we were looking for the exact spot where Forrest Shreve had taken a photo in 1926 to monitor how long it took a wagon road to turn back into desert. Ray had replicated Shreve’s shot exactly in 1985, and we found the spot again in 2012, even measuring the height of the tripod, which was strangely lower than eye level. Ray explained that Shreve had had a camera on a strap that he held at belly level to take his photos. I was impressed again with the efforts made to repeat every detail and miss nothing.

I started a repeat photography project of my own with a saguaro that fell over dead near the buildings in the freeze of 2011. These images were taken from a ladder and are a mosaic of many frames. Soon, I will take a third one.

A related project of my own is imaging desert plants in different stages of dying and decay. It is a continuation of an illustration I did in the 1980s for a Yaqui Deer song collected by Felipe Molina and Larry Evers. The agave plant in the song-​poem has ended its life with a flowering stalk, now holding seeds. “Still, I am beautiful…” says the plant. And it’s true of many desert plants – they dry up in beautiful progressions of colors and form.

This is a composite scan of the 3 species of rattlers that live on Tumamoc: Diamondback, Black-​tail, and Tiger rattlesnakes.

It also brings up an interesting thing I have noted. Usually scientists are less interested in collaborating with artists and writers than we are with them, except for technical science illustrations of their study species, or science journalism about their projects. Science illustration and science writing are creative expressions, yet are the only possibilities for art/​science combinations. There are many reasons for this reluctance on teh part of scientists, among them the increasing specialization and pressures to produce withing a narrow field. There is no credit given for a researcher to become involved in an art project – it may even be detrimental to their career.

This project of mine, scanning snakes, is a long term effort, requiring being on this hill at the right time, also making many scans before getting the perfect images for my compositions. It can only be done during the summer field season when Tumamoc herpetologists are collecting and inserting radio tracking transmitters into the snakes. In addition, I had to carefully work into their time sequence after the surgery, bringing my computer and scanner into the snake lab for the 15 minutes or so after surgery when the snake was still well under anesthesia. I was very aware of my need for sensitivity in my involvement.

I became fascinated with this process and the animals themselves, yet, this project ended abruptly last summer as the researcher was unwilling to continue cooperating. Art and science don’t always jive. I also guess it was just not interesting enough for him – he was looking at entirely different details than I was, and my work didn’t fit any categories. I have some hopes that this can be ironed out next field season.

This is (I think) a shovel-​nosed snake. (Which needs some clean up, I notice.) I wanted to make a series of technical reptile portraits using a scanner so there was as little of my interpretation as possible and the snake would speak for itself.

Know the plants. I am making a plant calendar/​field guide by scanning plants I collect as I drive or walk up the Hill. I put them into folders by month. This could become an electronic field guide by making it into a web application accessible on smart phones.

Some day I think I’ll give up art altogether and just study botany, maybe just doing drawings to help me study the fine details that distinguish species and give them their personality. Being an amateur, I usually am satisfied to know only the genus of plants I pass. Some of the seemingly nondescript or boring plants of the desert are a particular challenge to one’s powers of observation. For example, I made myself learn the difference between the two Lycium or wolfberry bushes on Tumamoc. Unless I’m wrong, this is L. berlandieri on the left, and L. excertum on the right.

Of course, no single person can draw the whole picture of Tumamoc. It needs many hands and eyes over long periods of time. Each person will respond differently to a landscape and that becomes part of that picture. One impossible project would be to draw every saguaro in the Tumamoc saguaro survey, over 5000. You’d have to draw it from different angles, so the project would become infinite. Then each artist would have to do the same task because each would have their own style and viewpoint.

Each drawing, painting or photograph, or whatever, becomes a small piece in the infinite picture. although it will never be complete, each piece adds to the growing equity of cultural value to the place, like putting dollars into an investment account.

These are some examples of work done by visiting artists on site. Barbara Terkanian, left, is working on a series of only saguaros. Meredith Milstead, stood in one spot for several hours making the pastel of teh saguaro fruit.

From the top of Tumamoc, one can see Baboquivari Peak, the center of the world and O’odham sacred mountain. Working forwards from the Hohokam inhabitants of the two prehistoric villages whose remains are visible on the summit, we connect to the contemporaneous cultures in Mexico as well as the historic and modern O’odham.

As usual, I follow on anything that happens on Tumamoc to see if it leads to other parts of the web. Basically, prehistory is a mystery. No one knows for sure, but we can make guesses as to who these people were and what they were thinking. For sure they were thinking about water.

I’ve been studying the rock art on the summit within the old village site. The water symbol on the left is easy to understand, as are the dancing figures of humans and animals around it. Nearby the glyph on the right reminds me of the Aztec rain god images of Tlaloc.

At dawn last June 21, a few of us went up to watch the ancient solstice calendar stone perform. This is a time-​lapse sequence of the event, which lasted about 10 minutes.

In prehistoric times from Mexico all the way to Central America, the calendars remained consistent in basic structure from one culture to another. The Hohokam are considered to be both related to and connected via trade routes to this broader Mesoamerican scene that spanned many centuries. These calendars were not just for keeping track of time – they were a sacred system containing the story of their cosmos and connecting to the gods, something like astrology, only much more complex. Calendar keeping was closely tied to timing of ceremonies, which marked different parts of the agricultural season, and the records were kept by an élite class of priests.

The ancient Aztec and Mayan calendars contained cycles for the moon and sun as well as the longer cycles of Venus as it alternates between morning and evening star, and the cycles of the star cluster, the Pleiades. It could predict the solstices and eclipses. All its interlocking cycles met in sync every 52 and 104 years.

Another interesting connection to the unknown people living on top of the Hill are these dancers holding hands. This glyph faces a wide prehistoric trail that went straight up the Hill from a village site that once existed where the St. Mary’s hospital parking lot is now. We know that the ancient Mexican people were very fond of religious processions.

Emil Haury, an eminent Archeologist of the Hohokam, once speculated that trincheras hilltops like Tumamoc look a lot like eroded pyramids today. Maybe they looked that way to ancient people as well. Natural hills might have served the same ceremonial purposes in the north as a built temple-​pyramid in southern Mexico. Interestingly, the Aztec, or Nahuatl, word for pyramid means “man-​made mountain.”

To see for myself what the view from the village would have been, I took a photo of Tumamoc’s north face from the top of the parking garage for St. Mary’s.

I swear this is true: Just as I was putting this part of the slides together, I heard the sound of bells and rattles and conch shells outside my office. I walked out to see what was going on, and as if to confirm my hunch, I saw a procession of Aztecs stopping to rest in the Desert Lab parking lot. I followed them up to the summit, where they performed an ancient Aztec ceremony. Apparently these Chicanos had read some of the same books that I had and were making similar connections.

One of the mysteries on Tumamoc is the modern people who walk up and down it, estimated at around a thousand daily. It like a parade around sunset. One count put the numbers of women at almost twice that of male walkers. It also is clear that the afternoon and evening times have become a kind of Latin-​American paseo, where people largely from the barrio neighborhoods downtown walk to meet their friends and neighbors, chat, be seen, and even flirt.

Starting before dawn, a different group of people walk to the summit and back. Overall, almost all segments of the greater Tucson population comes to the Hill. There are many reasons, both spoken and unconscious and none of them are written down. The thoughts of these walkers, as a whole and individually, is a story more complex than any Russian novel, but we may unravel parts of it.

I see several projects available here for the recorder of oral histories and the street photographer. In this case it would be a “road” photographer.

Finally, a good Humboldtian scientist will publish, even popularize the work done exploring a place. www.TumamocSketchbook.com is an ongoing archive and record of art and writing, inspired by scientists. Everything contained there was done specifically on site at Tumamoc Hill. From here it could take any number of expressions, publishing, exhibitions and slide talks being but a few.

So science and the humanities share a common goal of describing the world. Creating these rich pictures of reality taps the highest levels of human creativity, whether it is a portrait of a small place like Walden Pond or Tumamoc Hill, or an account of the whole universe. The result is a combination both of poetic metaphor and the objective analysis of huge collections of data. This idea of teh cosmos is never complete or final because nature is always changing and evolving, and so are our views of it.

To show that there is still a current of poetry within science, I’ll end with a quote I read recently by Jonathan Cirtain, an astrophysicist working on Nasa’s Hi-​C space telescope that is taking spectacular pictures of the sun’s corona.

“There’s something inherently beautiful about understanding the nature of the universe.”

You can see a gallery of Hi-​C images here. Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-suns-swirling-green-gases-of-wonder-174843451.html#ixzz2C3y5TYuD

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