POG Poetry in Action hosted an evening soiree on the subject of creating a sense of place with art and writing on Saturday, October 20, 2012. at the Drawing Studio, downtown Tucson. Eric Magrane read some of his place-based poems, including two written on Tumamoc. Paul Mirocha gave a slide presentation about his work as Tumamoc artist in residence.
At this event, POG also announced its Tumamoc Hill Writing Project, which inspired 16 local writers to explore Tumamoc through their writing this fall and winter. There will be a reading event to be announced for this work done on Tumamoc.
I’m publishing my slide talk and notes from this event in this post. I forgot to mention many of these ideas at the presentation or skipped over them because this was more like an 3-hour long talk condensed into 25 minutes. So it may flow a little better here, but I left its somewhat non-linear format. Exploration does not usually go in a straight line.
This is part one of two posts. Splitting it into two posts makes for an easier read. The sound wasn’t working for the POG event, so here is the full movie I showed as an introduction. It features some images from this blog.
I’m going to talk about creating a rich, multidimensional portrait for a place, as a painter would would for a person. It’s would be a description that allows all facets of that landscape to be considered, both humanistic and scientific, internal and external, so requires both art and science. Clearly it could not be done on one canvas or piece of paper. Not even by one person. It would have to include many people from different disciplines and outlooks, and would have to go on over multiple generations. Actually it would be ongoing and never complete by definition. Even a small place can seem almost infinite in scope, and the same kind of thinking extends to any larger scale. There is never any one final explanation for the universe, not even our own cosmology.
As a culture, we usually allow science to create the images for us describing what the world is like. Yet the scientific viewpoint leaves a lot out of the picture. These are areas that can be explored by artists and writers. A vision of the whole might have to be part scientific theory and part poetic metaphor.
When I first started coming up to Tumamoc as artist in residence in the Spring of 2011, my mind was almost blank, except that I came with an affection for the Sonoran Desert and knew that Tumamoc was a local icon. It was like being dropped into unknown territory. Not just to me. The Hill is relatively unknown to the general public because of its status as a highly protected research area for over a century. The only directive I was given was to draw near the road so I could engage the walkers.
As I followed the threads leading into the different layers of Tumamoc Hill, I found myself studying some of the first European explorers, scientists, artists, and writers exploring the then-unknown Americas beginning in the 19th century. From these examples I began to craft an approach to place-centered creative work that I will outline here. So first a little philosophizing as an introduction, then I’ll go over a few subjects I have been exploring on Tumamoc Hill.
Exploring a place is not a linear track. There is no map, but there is a method. It’s more like a web to borrow an image from Eric. It’s a whole piece, each node connected to each other node in a spiral path. There are many ways to get from one spot to another as you follow the path.
I already had a historical explorer to start with: Goethe, the poet, playwright, philosopher, and artist who died in 1832. In 2003 I had the privilege of illustrating a children’s book, Mr. Goethe’s Garden, by Diana Cohn. It is really an adaptation of Goethe’s poem, wonderfully titled, The Metamorphosis of Plants. He published his theory of botany in a poem because he felt that a dry technical paper would not do the subject justice.
Mr. Goethe’s Garden is a picture book based on Goethe’s poem, “The Metamorphosis of Plants,” which lays out his theory of botany. The children’s book is a fictionalized account of a young girl, Anna, who befriends the great man during the last year of his life and draws with him in his garden. I visited Goethe’s garden house with Diana Cohn while researching the book and we both did some drawing there.
I’ll read a few lines…
“I put down my drawing pad and asked, “Mr. Goethe, how did you ever learn to paint these plants so they look so alive?” Mr Goethe turned his kind face to m. “First,” he said, “I listen with my eyes. I giver each plant my full attention, as I do you. Like friends, plants tell you their secrets only when they know you care.”
Goethe considered the senses, primarily the unaided eye, as the most important instruments for scientific knowledge. The “revealing gaze” or just the patient contemplation of beauty would eventually uncover nature’s open secrets. In this sense, the works both of art and science help illuminate the laws of nature. It was not so much about uncovering new facts, as it was constructing a viewpoint or way of seeing. Not so much a new way of seeing, rather reinventing some ancient ways.
Listening to the big chunk of rock that it Tumamoc took a lot of time. A mountain speaks even slower than plants. So the first part of the method I was learning was: spend time. I went up the Hill almost every day and was there at different times and seasons.
I put together the movie trailer for this talk as a way to show certain aspects of the Hill that interested me, but were not of direct interest to scientists working there: the aesthetic compositions, the overall impressions, the emotional tone of a landscape. These data of the senses, so prized by Goethe, are considered too subjective to reveal true knowledge from the point of view of modern science.
Scientists are trained to pick and choose only certain details from the whole–those sometimes called “Primary Qualities,” to distinguish them from the “Secondary Qualities” of sight, sound, taste, smell, feeling, etc. Primary qualities are considered objective, not dependent on any observer, like number, time, shape, material, motion, atoms and molecules. According to this view, primary qualities can give true knowledge of things as they are in themselves, while secondary qualities are ephemeral and illusory impressions created by our minds.
Yet, if you consider these subjective qualities as also part of a place, scientists have left a lot of territory unexamined that may be explored by artists and writers to complete the picture.
I would say this applies to women as well. When I was talking to Cynthia Miller about this talk, she mentioned Charles Olson. I didn’t know of him, but I looked him up and he seemed a perfect place to start. I realized that I might be right in the modern train of thought advocating object-oriented poetry. Writing about the so-called objective world of things. This world that begins at the outermost layer of our skin, may be the ultimate unknown territory. Exploring it may require us to get to know our own inner world in a deeper way, as one world often mirrors the other.
No one I asked gave me the same definition of what POG stood for, so here is my nomination.
From Olson, the spider web brought me to Alfred Whitehead, a mathematician and thinker who greatly influenced Olson. In the 1920s and 30s, Whitehead argued against the growing mechanistic and materialistic views of nature as given by science. He said that although modern science and technology had vastly increased our knowledge of facts and produces fabulous inventions, it is fragmented and incomplete as a picture or account of the world.
Viewing nature with the cool eye of reason and logic alone gave a one-dimensional view, like when we lose depth perception when we close one eye. With both eyes open, maybe one is purely objective and the other seeing things more as a whole, we have a richer picture that includes more depth. Whitehead focused less on the world as full of objects and things, interacting mechanically, and emphasized instead, process and becoming as the essential nature of the world. He influenced many ecologists to imagine nature as like an organism, an infinitely complex arrangement of interactions that defied simple cause and effect.
I have always used science as a subject and inspiration for my artistic work. It saves me from too much introspection. It’s grounding and provides an infinite resource of images and ideas. I feel like I run dry if I go too far into art or science while neglecting the other.
Goethe’s poem called Gingko biloba (He even spelled the binomial species name correctly) uses the lobed leaves of this ancient tree as a symbol for something like this. As the poem ends, “Das ich eins und doppelt bin.” … that I am both single and double. He used this metaphor for the arts and sciences, the science of the objective as well as the discipline of the subjective view, blending both viewpoints as one, but keeping them distinct.
In a poem written to honor early cloud researcher Luke Howard, Goethe wrote the lines:
Dich im Unendlichen zu finden,
Musst unterscheiden und dann verbinden;
(To find the eternal, you must first take apart and then put together. My translation.)
For Goethe, the scientist’s job was to dissect things into smaller and smaller parts and the poet or artist was to synthesize or unify. Both work together to make a rich portrait of the world.
This is my version of Goethe’s symbol, of being doubled and single, using a Desert plant: the creosote leaf, the most common Sonoran Desert plant. This is part of my gigantic scan and print project.
Goethe, like Whitehead a hundred years after him, railed against the increasingly mathematical and materialistic description of nature created by scientists of his day. It’s not the use of rational thinking that Goethe objected to–only its exclusive use.
Usually a nice guy and everyone’s friend, Goethe singled out Isaac Newton for special venting of his spleen, stating that Newton’s 1687 book, “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”, called the most important book in science up to that time by historians, would make a “good nest for rats and owls.” Maybe Goethe will have the last word. Other historians have gone back and calculated the intelligence quotient of famous scientists of the past. You can see here that Goethe topped Newton, who had an IQ of only 200. I’d have to give Newton the vote for best hair, however.
Several threads of the web led me in a satisfying way to Alexander von Humboldt. I came to him in following the development of ecological science through early Desert Lab scientists. Humboldt then led back to Goethe again, his friend and mentor. Many historians consider Humboldt to be the person who tried to carry Goethe’s ideas into action in the main-stream physical sciences.
If anything, Humboldt was a mainstream scientist, the super-scientist of the 1800s, helping to form what we call the modern scientific method. Humboldt’s name-recognition has been compared to Einstein’s for the 20th century. It was often said that Humboldt was the second best known man in the world, second to Napoleon. He was that good at communicating science to both a popular and scientific audience.
The defining event of his life was a five-year trip to the new world with botanist Aimé Bonpland, in 1799. They explored the Amazon, climbed the highest peak of the Andes, and made their way through Mexico to Cuba, ending in Philadelphia where they dined with Thomas Jefferson.
Humboldt was also a trained artist. One can see from this self portrait that he passed “Drawing Fundamentals 1, 2, and 3.”
Humboldt’s life work was Kosmos, a five volume book that became a world-wide bestseller. And it was a science book. It was said that Humboldt was second only to Napoleon in name recognition. Napoleon even tried to humiliate him for collecting plants when the two men met.
Humboldt’s writings had a major influence on the young Charles Darwin, the writings and world view of Ralph Emerson, Henry Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, and later John Muir and Aldo Leopold. Humboldt inspired landscape painter Frederick Church and the so-called Hudson River painters. In this series, Humboldt wanted to coordinate from all the various disciplines of science all that was known about the physical universe, from the outermost nebulae to the geology of the Earth, to the lichens growing on those rocks.
The title Kosmos, was carefully selected. Humboldt noted the dual meanings in Greek of the ancient term coined by Pythagoras. Kosmos had the meaning of “the sum and ordering of all parts” as well as “an orderly arrangement, or adornment.” The second definition is where our word “cosmetics” comes from. A beautiful arrangement, as in a piece of jewelry.
This work was more than an encyclopaedia, it was a vision of the universe as a unified whole, yet the sum of infinitely many parts. His idea was remarkable in that the Kosmos included humans and their conceptions of it. Side by side with scientific theories, Humboldt discussed the views of nature in ancient and modern poetry, myths and religions, and art. Even as conceptions change, ancient astronomy is just as much a part of the Cosmos as Big Bang theory.
This fusion of science and the arts was not just an old-fashioned holdover from a romantic era before rigorous science was invented. Humboldt had a bust of Immanuel Kant on his desk where he wrote his travel narratives and his Kosmos, and it was not just because of the handsome features of that philosopher. Kant’s ideas were as much a guiding light as was Goethe. I’ll try to give an idea of how I understand his concept of what can be known about nature, as given in the Critique of Pure Reason, and why it is important.
Kant cast a reasonable doubt on the objectivity of the “primary qualities” the aspects of nature considered to be independent of the observer which science selects as the only sources of true knowledge. Since everything we can know about the world comes in through our senses and is heavily processed by our minds (as modern brain science would confirm), it may be that solidity, space, time, and number are our own constructs, and therefore also subjective in a way. Things “in themselves” were ultimately unknowable.
So, to the thinkers and explorers our perceptions are part of the real world, as much a part of the description of the cosmos as are atoms and stars. It’s a subtle point, but changes everything. And Kant has not yet been refuted. Intellectually, I can often understand his consepts for only a few minutes, then I loose hold of it. But I can still feel it working through the photographs I take and the drawings I make.
I’ll read an excerpt from Humboldt’s description of Taquendema Falls in Columbia. A good example of his method of describing a place, keeping with these ideas of unifying the subjective and objective.
The traveler, who views the tremendous scenery of the cataract of Tequendama, will not be surprised, that native tribes should have attributed a miraculous origin to rocks which seem to have been cut by the hand of man; to that narrow gulf into which falls headlong the mass of waters that issue from the valley of Bogota; to those rainbows reflecting the most vivid colours, and of which the forms vary every instant; to that column of vapour, rising like a thick cloud, and seen at five leagues distance, from the walks around Santa Fé. The sixth plate can give but a very feeble idea of the majestic spectacle. If it be difficult to describe the beauties of cataracts, it is still more difficult to make them felt. by the aid of the pencil. The impression they leave on the mind of the observer depends on the concurrence of a variety of circumstances. The volume of water must be proportioned to the height of the fall, and the scenery around must wear a wild and romantic aspect.
I succeeded, but not without danger, in carrying instruments into the crevice itself, at the foot of the cataract. It takes three hours to reach the bottom by a narrow path, which leads to the ravine of La Povasa. Although the river loses in falling a great part of its water, which is reduced into vapours, the rapidity of the lower current forces the observer to keep at the distance of nearly one hundred and forty metres from the basin dug out by the fall. A few feeble rays at noon fall on the bottom of the crevice. The solitude of the place, the richness of the vegetation, and the dreadful roar that strikes the ear, contribute to render the foot of the cataract of Tequendama one of the wildest scenes that can be found in the Cordilleras.
Other than enjoying this mixture of scientific observations and poetic descriptions, I’d like to point out the topics he typically covers.
• The local stories and oral traditions about the place, including a study of native languages in which they occur.
• Descriptions of the sense impressions of the place, as accurately as possible, without being overly subjective or about himself.
• Measurements with the most advanced instruments available and the compiling of vast amounts of data by many different workers in different fields, collaborating over many generations to form a coherent picture where everything is interrelated, like putting together a puzzle.
• A keen awareness of the context and observer’s point of view, even when taking measurements.
A recent article in Smithsonian Magazine caught my eye as proof that there is still a kernal of Goethe and Humboldt in modern science.
Many of Alexander von Humboldt’s books are online and downloadable for free here: http://www.avhumboldt.net/humboldt/publications/
A good biography of Humboldt came out last year: The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America, by Laura Dassow Walls