Chapter Four: The Music of Change

Published on 2018-12-18

Music organizes sound in time. CFS changed my perception of time. The future attenuated and fractured into impossible long corridors like musical lines and painfully small segments of individual measures of time with little change inflecting its passage for long years. The perception of music is also about time. The stages of the restoration before me seemed like attenuations of the sonata form I would play out, changing my foci and mood as my life unfurled before me. CFS also changed my experience of my own presence. I experienced myself by absence: absence from the artworld I’d known most of my life. I retreated into another kind of knowledge gathering and began teaching myself about the science that could inform my restoration work. Scientists go out in the field and carefully measure what they gather there. Competent artists just mostly LOOK. We also listen, wait and stay with our perceptions of what trained and thoughtful sensory perception can capture. This is not statistically quantifiable so not equally credited by the science community to make impartial sense of what we see. It had been in 1970 in California, that I began conceptualizing a four-word mantra, “Stay Wait Look Listen,” as a 4-part sonata. Now I applied that mantra to restoring my Ghost Nets

My years in California had shown me how intricate patterns of wildlife relationships knit landscape elements together to preserve fresh water. Under golden noonday light, I had watched small animals eat seeds, and studied the evening scat of coyotes and cougars before it became part of new soil and vegetative life. I had pulled invasive pasture grasses called devil’s weed from my berry garden in San Marcos and tracked the above ground stems to the ends of taproots to discover how deep they burrowed before they hit moisture. In Maine, I learned how those taproots pulled minerals up to the surface for plants with more horizontal root systems to use and how all the various kinds of extensive root systems of grasses built new soil when they decomposed. Decades before commencing Ghost Nets, I knew before I read the scientific studies, how nucleation might be applied to effect a trigger point restoration.

Even earlier than the seventies, I saw without the language for what I knew yet, watching the movements of cougars and listening to coyotes in the night, how large predators fill important management roles in animal and plant species communities, based on fear-aversive evasion and adaptation. Decades later, in Maine, as I made friends with and listened to local fishermen and eventually made more friends in the mainland science community, I learned how animal mobility and scale functions differently in different marine zones, modifying the behavior of other animals and even, geomorphic features, such as the shape of rivers. 

Ocean communities are subject to human behavior. Finfish larvae are vulnerable to the predation of invasive green crabs (C. maenas), but C. maenas is vulnerable to sediment desiccation during different tidal regimes in various geomorphologies. The green crabs reached North American shores when ships emptied their ballast in shore where it was more convenient than further out to sea. The crabs had simply hitch-hiked from other continents. What the careful scientific reading taught me was how to understand the critical details and implications of what my senses had taught me.

With time, I learned that the configuration of the estuary I planned to restore at the Ghost Nets site was typical of estuaries in the entire upper half of the Gulf of Maine. They are rocky intertidal marshes impacted by dynamic (high impact) tides. In conversations with the scientists I’d come to know, I began to wonder whether such consistent differences between the marshes might also play roles in the life cycles of the finfish that lived in the vast and still fertile Gulf. 

I thought that supporting the integrity of one such marsh in the Ghost Nets project might reveal something that could affect fish stock declines in spite of the contamination and overfishing. I thought if I could model how one ordinary site, even, as I bowed to the limitations of my illness, as one limited person, as the restoration of that one such marsh, might lead to more restorations, and in a chain effect could start re-knitting the “biotic mosaic patches” that were fragmenting in coastal zones all across the planet. 

I saw this task as aesthetic research and the pursuit of that knowledge as performative, making my research part of my artmaking.  Performatively, my broad intention included developing the site as a model that was also a habitat proscenium to watch animals. My audience was local and non-human. Sophisticated theatre people refer to the fourth wall, the distance of a psychological separation between audience and performers. I was curious about how my observational skills might be heightened by my introspection. My intention was to create a participatory (fourth wall) experience with local species. It was part of my research. 

My first task was to create a container for the performance I imagined. Rituals were the most accessible form and the most familiar from the early years of my career.

In California, from the mid-seventies, I had participated in a number of Native American ceremonies and workshops. From childhood, I had read and thought extensively about the beliefs and art forms of the Iroquois Peoples who had once inhabited the then semi-rural land where I grew up in Westchester County, New York. In the beginning, my interest was romantic and sentimental. I spent hours in the woods near our house with my dog, Duke, a beautiful tri-color collie, trying to walk as silently as Sir Walter Scott’s Hiawatha had across dead leaves and twigs, listening to identify each birdsong caller. The first three years of Ghost Nets were guided by my studies of Native American practices as models for the idealized relationship I hoped for with other species that would be more mutual than extractive.

Shortly after I had arrived on the island, I learned of a healer who had been trained in Sweet Medicine, the healing rituals of Native American women I might work with. I began studying with her on a weekly basis and continued working with her throughout the ten years of Ghost Nets. She taught me how to think allegorically about the Winds driving through the gardens I was building out of bare rock and how to glean wisdom from the animals making their homes there.