Chapter Three; Byfall

Published on 2018-10-28

When I collapsed that summer day in Maine, at first it seemed that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) would steal my life. It has not succeeded in stealing my whole life but it certainly made difficulties. Rather, than give up, the stubborn persistence I had internalized from my parents served me well. Eventually, CFS handed me the key to an entirely different world of artmaking that based in systems theory. The long hours I couldn’t act I spent on research. As I studied island biogeography, I began to understand another piece of the trigger point puzzle. I began to see more ways to initiate what some restorationists call nucleation: creating attractive lures for animals to disperse seeds. Before I studied the physics of change at the heart of complexity theory, I could see how systems worked but observing the site and considering ghostnets.

The summer day of my first CFS collapse was at least the third time it happened that my professional life was dramatically derailed by my physical vulnerability. The first time was in 1970, when my career as a dancer was cut off. I was hitchhiking from San Diego to San Francisco with a member of my performance group, the American Ritual Theatre. We were scoping out a venue when I tore the ligaments in my left knee in a bad car accident. The driver was eating lunch and lost control swerving to avoid a firetruck coming at us. I never danced seriously again. The second time was in 1979.  I never worked seriously with horses again after that accident. That second time, I was in a coma for two weeks. It took me a couple more years to recapture my skills as a painter. At that time I had felt irrationally angered that the universe had stolen two joys from me- intimate relationships with horses and the intuitive freedom I had enjoyed my entire life to be one with a painted image I was generating. Now, my life as a painter was threatened again.

The most important parallel I discovered between healing from CFS and applying trigger point theory to ecological restoration evolved from my experience of and research into acupuncture. As I sought healing for myself I began to think about parallel systems. Acupuncture is another system, backed by a complex and ancient philosophy, that echoes how to effect serious change from minimal intervention: that judicious attention to a very small point in a very large and degraded system could effect systemic transformation and the balance of forces. 

That summer of 1991, I fortuitously came into a very modest inheritance from the 1989 passing of my Father, that would pay my basic living expenses. I was finding my bearings in my new life. I had found a small circle of friends on the island but still felt adrift and lovely in a community of mostly hardy fisherpeople, with their own mysterious social protocols. I lived with the suspicion that a single, woman artist from New York City who spent a lot of time in bed and declined most social invitations might be a problematic mystery. It was even less socially useful that Bear was a large dog who became fiercely protective of me and our home. 

Gradually, new routines took hold in my new life. Survival required me to track every detail of my daily life or crucial data would vanish from an exhausted brain. Meticulous journaling became routine and an essential to backtrack and find patterns in the days when my energy was at its lowest or those fortuitous days when my stamina was high. I had begun using this means to care for myself after my horse accident. Now those careful records taught me what to guard against going forward to avoid a CFS collapse as best I could, I have often failed anyway. To this day, I keep these journals, tailored a bit more each year. Friends knew I was having a hard time and asked me if it wouldn’t be better to give up the project and leave the island,

Starting with my CFS diagnosis, as I came to terms with my new reality, I began struggling to wrestle hope from my new limitations. I began assembling some ideas about how to identify a landscape trigger point but my writing about those ideas was still relatively unformed. Most of my attention was going to basic survival. In retrospect, I think I could identify with the pioneer plant species determined to establish purchase in rock. The days when I was bedridden, my sketchy drawings helped me visualize relationships between color, texture, form and shape for the gardens I imagined would mature decades into the future and projected, or I drew schematics of the outcomes if the Ghost Nets were to trigger restoration work on a larger landscape. How might that work and why? With a little stamina and ability to concentrate, I studied large tomes checked out of the local library on ecological dynamics to better understand the processes I was trying to engage in to restore the site. When I could save up my energy, I attended mainland conferences to learn from others and present my own observations. I prioritized saving stamina for my daily walks of my site. Eventually, even on the days when my stamina was at its lowest, I was able to marshal the stamina to rise from bed and ritually walk the entire stony site along paths that were emerging at the four quadrants of the property, East, South, West, North, while listening intently to the sounds of small animals, wind and waves as I passed through the topographic dimensions, downhill, uphill and downhill again as the light shifted. Each traverse of the land took an hour. It was my commitment to the bruised land. Along the way, I noted the movement of water and wind, moving rocks to slow down spring streams as they rushed to the shoreline and planning where saplings might create windbreaks and defend more clearly defined microhabitats. 

In ‘before’ details I documented of the West quadrant of the Ghost Nets site in 1990, prior to beginning more systematic restoration work, it was obvious that there were no resources or shelter for either migrating or local birds. Neighboring homes and their homogenized expanses of lawn could be seen in the background. There were pools and potholes in the foreground created by the previous owner dynamiting the site collecting stagnant water. The land was barren of most vegetation and unwelcoming to biodiversity.

On the occasional days when my spirits and stamina were much higher than usual, I threw caution to the winds and was tireless, working in the nascent gardens or painting in my studio and photographing everything.