Chapter Five: Ecotones

Published on 2019-02-13

Many themes I studied from one area translated into understanding where the dynamics of another research area overlapped and colored my perception, for example between plant biology and acupuncture. Observing the Ghost Nets site taught me to understand in some depth, the practical implications of ecotones, those complex transitions between ecosystems defined by geomorphic features. Ecotones were like the edges between forms that determines any line on a 2-D surface. Accepting my experiences of CFS required me to take responsibility for my personal needs and limits. Studying Native American lore became a lesson in boundaries between my beliefs and those of others. Early in my studies, I had encountered the writings of the Native American activist and author Ward Churchill, who angrily denounced “Anglos” who had appropriated Native American culture. It took me most of the decade of the project, and many serious talks, long and short, with Native peoples around the world at conferences and other gatherings, to clarify what seemed to be appropriate boundaries between a culture I recognized as a deep well of inspiration and guidance for me, my independent thinking and drawing on my own cultural history. The most detailed guidance on recognizing those boundaries emerged from lengthy conversations with individuals, in addition to my island teacher, such as a MicMac Elder who advised me to ground myself in that part of my culture that seemed to have the most integrity in their human relationships to land and other species. For me, during the decade of making Ghost Nets, that first meant the aesthetic values I had been trained in my entire life and the environmental knowledge I had gleaned from others, my Father, the scientists, farmers and fisherpeople I had known. I also encountered and reflected deeply on the ancient wisdom in some Judeo-Christian traditions about caretaking other species and “mending” the Earth (what Judaism calls Tikkun, the idea that we must mend what we encounter that is broken).” 

In 1990, a year before my spectacular morning collapse with Bear, my friend the artist Paul McMahon was the Firekeeper for Grandfather ThunderCloud, a Cherokee Elder. Paul suggested they could come perform a Medicine Wheel ceremony on the site. I invited them to come initiate a healing to launch Ghost Nets. Grandfather, his wife and Paul traveled to the island the summer of 1991 to guide a public ceremony, shortly after my collapse and subsequent diagnosis from three different doctors that yes, indeed I was very ill. It had been while I was preparing for their visit that I had been conducting the vigil in my studio when I was felled by CFS. The vigil had been guided by my teacher. During the vigil, I gathered rocks from as many points of the island as possible, which would be used in the ceremony.

The summer Grandfather came to the island, I was completing the construction of a tiny house on the site with a 400’ footprint. During the time I was being diagnosed with CFS, despite my low stamina, while ritually monitoring the site I began reaching out to find a community for myself by participating in the town’s life, attending meetings to protect the water supply and make decisions about the ferry system. Each small decision I made on the island positioned me to learn more.

When they arrived, I was still coming to terms with my new physiological reality and grappling with a seething anger over the injustice of my bad luck. I thought, however, that the ceremony might help me recover if not physically, then perhaps, spiritually. I understood the Native American Medicine Wheel to be a particularly powerful metaphorical ritual that expresses our formal relationships with other species, landscape features such as wind, and human qualities, such as innocence or wisdom. The layering of various systems (poetic, biological, geological and spiritual) was what I wanted to apply to Ghost Nets. In the traditional Medicine Wheel I was first introduced to in California, participants walk counter clockwise starting at the east between four compass points at four quadrants of a wheel whose circumpherence is delineated with rocks across a fairly wide, flat space. At each quadrant, participants pause to reflect on a number of attributes of animals and humans, how the winds from each direction inform our spiritual development and correspondences with symbolism, such as specific colors associated with each quadrant, such as how some Plains Indians associate white in the north with wisdom. As each quadrant became a focus of my meditations, simple, evocative words became chapter headings for volumes of thinking on the days I was bedridden, housebound and struggling with feelings of isolation and consummate self-pity inflected by resentment and fear. As in Shinto thinking, which had also long fascinated me, the premise of the ceremony I understood was that every element of existence is sentient and we must constantly strive to find our proper alignment in a universe populated by all that sentience. As with acupuncture our individual health depends on how we embody that holistic understanding.

After they left, I continued to contemplate my experience. On the site, before their arrival, I had already designed the bare bones of my restoration approach. I intended to establish physical setbacks around key features and reinforce the ecotones around the surface fresh water supply at the main quarry, for several smaller quarries, and at the ocean shore. I knew that each of those zones would continue to be modified by the microclimatic conditions I was studying and would have to make available for adequate animal corridors. I resorted to the forms I knew best as I contemplated these ideas.

Before I had fallen sick with CFS, painting was where I had found holistic clarity. It had been exhilarating to work on large paintings, feeling immersed in a world pf color and form emerging on linen, dancing with my brush and palette knife into the space of emerging images. After I got sick, no matter how hard I tried, that experience was rarely accessible because my body was always weighed down with exhaustion. Painting is a far more physically and mentally demanding activity than walking. Under the regimes imposed by CFS, my physical freedom dwindled to simple tasks that required less stamina. Besides walking, listening, and watching, I could do some limited writing, make very small drawings, and take still photographic snapshots as I studied environmental science and learned from the Ghost Nets site. But my mind still roamed free. Each day I added a small patch to the world of fecundity and complexity I was planning on for the barren soil of the former town dump. Gradually, I began to realize that I was still painting on a large scale, but now it was three-dimensional, with the soil, the trees, the winds and the complex associations I was infusing into Ghost Nets. It was also more systematic than any painting I had ever planned, because all the work enhanced the complexity of the biogeographic systems I found.

From the beginning, I thought of the project as a series of musical movements and a trajectory of performances. As with any work of music, the complexity of chordal structures communicated many different ideas. The “chords,” in this case were composed of the many notes playing in my mind, from the rocks I was placing to the sounds of new life. Each three-year segment of time was named. This was a precursor to work that would become more synesthetic with time, that is, at an intersection between sound and visuals and all of it was transdisciplinary at an instinctive intersection between art and science.

Two simple musical ideas had long fascinated me, since long before I began Ghost Nets.  The first is the experience of sound as an intuitively reflective experience in time. Composer John Cage’s 1952 4’33” delivery of silence when I first attended one of his concerts at the New School in the early sixties might have been the clearest inspiration for me of that kind of performance. I vividly recall sitting besides my boyfriend in the New School theatre in 1964 and listening to the small sounds of rustling life all around me as a major revelation about how art might frame life.

The second is the relationship of tempo to emotional understanding. Having studied classical piano since childhood and listened to my Father and sister, a pianist, perform music all my life, I had taken the felt nuanced experiences of harmony and tempi for granted. When I became sick, time and emotion took on new elasticity. CFS made time as elastic as taffy, unpredictably stretching long and short.

Time crawled and tantalized me as my mind fidgeted to the sounds of gulls and waves and my feelings ran a cyclic gamut from rage to frustration to grief and finally, resignation and acceptance. Days, months and then years slipped away like rain falling on my roof, sound as emotion muffled by winter snow and ideas navigating the roads of summer daytripping bicyclists. The trees I planted grew and took on a life of their own. I spent time on the phone with my therapist or colleagues from California and New York talking about challenges and ideas and tried not to feel sorry for myself. I often failed that goal and then resorted to ice cream to the point that I gained over seventy lbs., a typical weight gain or comparable loss for people with CFS.

These abstract concepts about time, sound and music in a state of duration had been important to me for decades before I began Ghost Nets. Arguably, culture had also been lifelines for my parents: how to cope with catastrophe. The United Nations has since referenced the importance of culture for communities facing what many people presume will be the unprecedented catastrophe of climate change. In the late eighties and early nineties, as I prepared to launch Ghost Nets, I naively presumed that educating people about the threat would turn hearts and finds to effect change in behaviors. I did not factor for denial. I understood that we were in a crucial decade and said so in my public writings from that time. I called the time frame for Ghost Nets the determining decade. When I got CFS, it wasn’t only a personal catastrophe. I understood the setback as a new challenge for any work I might do to address the urgent threats life on Earth was facing. And yet, I was equally clear that the tools of artmaking I meant to apply to the site would need to be methodically applied if there was going to be any useful outcome. There was no way for me to control time in that process. I needed to accept the tension between urgency and process and trust the universe. Trusting the universe was compromised by lessons from my family history and my experience of denial and acceptance was compromised by my own defiant stubbornness. However, thanks to my Mother’s determination that fear would not hold me back, I trusted the process of artmaking and was willing to allow insight to carry me over the threshold of denial to hope. The tension of Anthropocene challenges has almost reached the breaking point today, but I have also grown a lot of trust and patience.

Formal concepts from a number of disciplines, such as visual art or music continue to carry power for me today as an interdisciplinary approach to problems and possibilities. My problem in 1991, after the formal launch of Ghost Nets, was how art might address the environmental urgency I saw before me despite my personal limitations. Time was then and continues to be the most serious challenge. Time is important in music, dance, literature or performance as much as in the physics of change or ecological restoration. It is less important in painting or sculpture to determine relationships with an audience but my deepest training has always been in those two disciplines. As a person who had enjoyed early training in a number of fields throughout my career, it was instinctive for me to conflate perceptions. But conceptually, I organized my perceptions and insights the same way I made a painting: I started with sketches. 

A passage in Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks has informed and stuck with me.  He advised the young art student to stare at the surface variations in a wall before falling sleep at night and imagine a composition out of those variations. When I worked on restoring the Ghost Nets site, I automatically applied what I learned from my Father, to hold an image in my mind of the probable patterns of demographic expansion overlaying geography and consider the implications in any choice I made just as I might have studied a wall. It was a perception of random factors that was as much about making sense of complexity as contemplating a wadded-up driftnet. In my 4”x4” daily sketches, I tried to make sense of complexity by applying my own imagination.

Physics has taught us that time can be very complicated. As I considered time passing during the decade of choice, I routinely organized my experiences into poetic categories and associated them with parts of a sonata. In developing trigger point theory, I came to think of time dualistically: there is all the time in the world, there is no time at all. Both Ghost Nets and then what became the Blued Trees projects thirty years later layered experiences like Baroque melodies layer formal musical lines, chords and key signatures to find resolution to the conflicts of dissonance in time in the same conceptual process I learned from data mapping in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping. The dissonance in Ghost Nets was between the devastation of the land driven by anthropocentric values and the capacity of the land to return to a biodiverse ecosystem but layering information revealing promising ways to move forward making modest progress. Every time I made progress restoring the Ghost Nets site, I could celebrate another humble step towards landscape consonance and develop my patience muscles.