Part 2 of Chapter One, from Safety to Complexity

Published on 2018-08-10

Early November 1989, almost on a whim, I had visited Vinalhaven for the first time.  That visit took place at the end of three years of research and thinking about where to settle for a long time. I had studied the maps of the world to analyze where it would be cool to live but not where the water or other natural features would be contested, as they are in Taos or Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, it looked like the Colorado River steals water from Mexico. In contrast, Maine has abundant water and apparently stable relationships with Indigenous Peoples, which on the surface at the time, looked reasonable. 

In studying maps of places I might want to live, I applied what I had learned from listening carefully to my Father in childhood, about how to analyze trends in large landscapes as a developer. I would sit in the car next to him then as he drove through Westchester County and muttered under his breathe as we drove by a field, “good place for a development.” Then I would note how far we were from a railroad station, a school, a lake and put two and two together about demographics and locations. When I decided to come to Maine, I looked at different features to determine relationships, not transit points, but the number of edges between various habitats, like fresh and salt water or forests and meadows, because that’s where I knew from reading about island biogeography in Scientific American, that I would find the most ecological richness.

On the island that fall, I had scouted possible rentals to return in the winter, with a real estate agent who became one of my new friends there. When I returned in the blizzard, I had already rented and could move into a small, red, uninsulated house on a shallow bay on the islands' south east coast called Indian Creek. I immediately began work on a project I called, “Safety.” Safety has always been a theme in my life but it was an elusive experience. My Mother had often said told me she wanted me to grow up without fear. So she watched quietly when I was nine, as I swung myself around the porch railing to hang upside above the sheer drop to the driveway below, without saying a word. 

My Mother had good reason to experience fear as a young woman growing up in Poland. Joshua, my proud grandfather, had a violent temper he vented on her. In his stubbornness, and complacent assimilation, Joshua refused to leave Poland for Palestine, where many in my family were paving a way. He said, “the Jewish workers always made trouble,” in his Bialystok factory, and there, he, “would have nothing but Jewish workers.” So my grandparents stayed until the Nazis came for them. My Mother was still a teenager when Hannah saw the first signs of danger and sent each of her four children away to make their way in a foreign world. It was at least twenty years later that Hannah begged my Mother to send them the funds to leave. My Mother was married by then. My Father was an exciting but violent man. In my Mother’s fear of my Father, she never asked him for those funds that might of saved her parents, my grandparents. The story that came back to us was that Joshua met the soldiers at the front door, shot them dead, then shot my grandmother, Hannah, and then himself. I didn’t hear the story from my Mother until almost fifty years later. By then, I had settled into lifelong patterns of political and sexual defiance, inveterate risk-taking, persistent denial of my family’s violent past and my own occasionally dangerous or frightening experiences that made for an exciting but profoundly unstable life.

On Indian Creek, I set out to make a daily journal of images documenting the shoreland fog, ice and snow in my backyard where the cold made frozen waves. Each journal entry was a comment on fog as a metaphor for denial and illusions of safety. These were abstract meditations. 

From the time of my arrival, I began informing myself about contemporary fishing practices. I knew of danger on the beautiful seas, and how over-fishing had emptied the sea, making severe dangers to the ecosystems. My ex-husband had been an oceanographic graduate student at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in the late sixties when many of the scientific giants of that time presided there and at the Salk Institute. I had been particularly impressed by Roger Revelle, to whom we owe the law of the sea. Even as a child, I had guessed that fish had sentience, as biologists would later affirm and had a visceral understanding of how painful a fish hook might be in any animal’s mouth or how frightening net entrapment had to be. The one time I had gone fishing with my Father as a small child, I had come away horrified as much by the torture of a worm as the fish.

At night on Indian Creek Bear, Blue and I huddled under the covers together in bed. When daylight came and I rose from the warm nest of bed, I alternately wrapped myself in a blanket over my robe and nightgown to feed the wood burning stove, or I dressed and all three of us ventured out into the snow. My daily task in all weathers was to photograph and paint what I saw out my back door and keep a diary of my thoughts about safety. My modest plan was to spend six months on this project and come away with some interesting art before returning to my life in New York City.

Almost daily the ocean born heavy grey morning fog rolled over the ice slicked rocks and ice burdened grasses to show me an alternate universe. I noted the edges between rocks and where the waves lapped the shore and circled the grasses and let them teach me about how microhabitats interect. I had already lived in many places besides New York City: Switzerland, Venezuela, California. Vinalhaven Island, Maine in winter was different because where I lived in my little red house was almost always mystically silent and empty. It left me feeling open to whatever I might learn in this alternate world.

One morning, while cooking my breakfast oatmeal, I heard a National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast about ghostnets. The narrator was describing how fishing drift nets get the name ghostnets when they break loose from boats but go on fishing. He explained how often drift nets were lost overboard. He reported that they become lethal traps and aren’t ever retrieved; how the nets were kilometres wide; functioning as zombie nets purposelessly and indiscriminately harvesting life. He recounted how the nets caught so much bycatch (fish and birds without commercial food value) that the entire marine ecosystem was endangered. He described how the nets were designed to trap fish, who swam unknowing into the invisible monofilament wire and then were caught by their tails or on their gills, how the harder they struggled to escape, the tighter the nets trapped them until, desperately flailing for air and freedom, they were eventually hauled on board if the nets were still attached to a boat, suffocating before they left the water or dying miserably and slowly in ghostnet traps if the nets had come free. It was the first time I’d heard how seabirds, seals, whales and dolphins were easily trapped by beaks and mouths and fins and wings and flukes and suffered in impossibly mean ways. I was horrified. But listening inspired me to respond. I decided that the ghostnets metaphor would form the basis of my next project.

First, I did some research to learn more about drift and ghostnets, even as I continued to record the fog and contemplate safety. My social contacts on the island were minimal. I saw people at the one grocery store, at the post office or at what was called the new town dump where I took my trash for sorting and recycling. Soon after I had arrived on the island, I began seeing discarded monofilament nets at the new dump. I retrieved a couple nets to experiment with how they looked in installations and consider what they evoked for me, as I continued to learn about the industry. 

Drift nets have a long history in the fishing industry but have only recently been made of plastic monofilament wire. Before then, they were biodegradable. Now, they are indestructible. The nets are designed to suspend vertically in the water and drift with the tides. They are kept in suspension in the water column by floats and weights. The power of the implied metaphor was stunning to me: in the midst of contemplating safety and denial, I considered that I and others, like my Grandfather Joshua, mistake the familiar for safety, and like a blinding blizzard or just a fog of denial or delusions, the familiar only obscures the real dangers in our lives. We swim into those invisible dangers and they kill us in horrible ways. The ghostnets represented every danger to life to me that is a pattern of familiar, pointless traps. That is, when we think we are safe, we are often only blind to the invisible threats that might kill us.

Until the 1950’s, drift nets were made of organic materials, such as hemp. The mesh was large enough to allow small or younger fish to escape. That changed when net manufacturers created a smaller mesh, with monofilament wire, some over 50 kilometres long. The nets generated enormous changes in the fisheries industry. Many more fish could be caught, but also so many noncommercial or young of species bycatch were caught that international fish populations began a rapid crash. The estimate in 1994, was that 27 million tons of non-commercial fish were caught as bycatch. At just one location monitored, 30,000 sea birds were killed annually in the nets. The effect of drift nets became such a serious problem, that international bans were instituted. It was just as these regulations were being implemented, that I had come to Vinalhaven Island, started finding the discarded nets and began what became the Ghost Nets project. 

In 1987 the U.S. enacted the Driftnet Impact, Monitoring, Assessment and Control Act limiting the length of nets used in American waters to 1.5 nautical miles (~1.7 miles, ~2.778 km). In 1989 the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) placed a moratorium on the practice of drift net fishing.[4] In 1992 the UN banned the use of drift nets longer than 2.5 km long in international waters.[1]

Worldwide, retrieving ghostnets from doing their lethal work has become an on-going problem. Many are familiar with the horrors of the Pacific garbage patch, where wadded up nets, discard plastic wrappers and children’s toys create macabre installations with the skeletons of all kinds of animals. The nets aren’t the only death machines from the ubiquitous plastics industry, secondary killers, stepchildren from the petroleum industries that have caused climate change. We have seen dead birds and whales whose stomachs are full of plastic debris they mistook for food before they died of starvation. The ghostnets, however, were what caught my imagination before all the other plastic products because of the scale of their destruction. 

The devastating evidence of damage from the unchecked use of the nets led to a United Nations moratorium. In addition to the relative symbolism of the metaphor to my project, Safety, the ubiquity of ghostnets seemed consistent with what I already knew about anthropocentric attitudes. Drift net bycatch wasn’t the only problem fish and other marine life were negotiating to survive. In 1995, Rockefeller University estimated that 1/7 pf the world’s fish consumption was supplied by aquaculture, a practice that harvests wild fish to feed domesticated animals for human consumption while polluting the ocean with antibiotics and other chemical contaminants. Fish populations are thus threatened equally by aggressive and wasteful exploitation and habitat contamination. This damage is just one manifestation of what has come to be known as an extractive economy, which is manifestly impossible to sustain.

Although, not all fisheries are equally responsible for marine environmental degradation many countries or individual fishermen continue to use drift nets, determined to capture and profit from the last wild stocks, regardless of any future cost. As I considered what I was learning, my attention languished on a conceptual seesaw. The denial I was contemplating in “Safety,” segued easily from how ghostnets manifested the danger of some human patterns of behavior, as patterns of denial, to unraveling the practical consequences of that behavioral denial and tracking regulatory behavior in the fishing industry.

When I had arrived on the island, I learned that the fisherpeople of the Gulf of Maine are known for how the community self-regulates to coordinate their decisions to sustain responsible management, finding a balance between productive consumption and preserving the resources to sustain that viable economy. This conservative approach to extractions is often the case in small local communities who depend on what are routinely called ecosystem “services,” or “resources.” But as has already occurred elsewhere worldwide, even with that consciousness, it may have already been too late for the fish in the Gulf of Maine when I began Ghost Nets. In 1990, the fishing industry in Maine had already fished down the food chain, from the immense cod and swordfish recalled in the memory of still living fisherpeople I met, to the lobsters that dominated the catch in the nineties. The local historical society has photographs of ten-foot long cod, suspended and drying in the sun, selfies with the relatives and ancestors of islanders who still fish, but catch specimens that have genetically adapted to the predation by only growing to ten inches rather than ten feet. The isolation of the island neatly represented a paradigm for the complexity I wanted to study. It was the site of a rich fishing industry on the cusp of serious transitions and likely collapse. 

In the white world of that first Maine winter I began weaving and reweaving a landscape of metaphors while letting myself be a student of the shoreline. I imagined the key to unraveling the puzzle of how to save a threatened world was buried in those metaphors and illuminated by what lay under the ice. Artists are taught to trust our intuitions, to follow not our whims so much as that gut string that pulls us into the next curiosity, the next mystery, the next puzzle or question whether the edge between two colors, or as I was doing, a world of vanishing life on the edge of human assumptions and ecosystem truths. I had no doubt that the ghostnets were a clue to my next adventure and the end of that adventure would bring me not only to unexpected beauty but also to insights that might be useful to others.

When I was close to finishing “Safety,” and had begun handling and studying the driftnets I had retrieved, I began thinking about the kind of complexity that ties so many of us into knots with familiar patterns. The complexity of cause and effect represented by ghostnets spanned so many agents beyond all my first associations: the development of plastics as derivatives from fossil fuels, the drive for ever-advancing technologies to extract dwindling resources, pollution and the human population explosion is driving ever more disastrous consumption. 

The story of ghostnets made me think even more deeply about how denial works, sooner or later stripmining joy just as the ocean was being literally stripmined of other animal life, the whole trajectory of real destruction enshrouded by the same blind fog I had tried to document in, “Safety.” Even before I began my research in earnest for Ghost Nets, I ambivalently foresaw that it would take me well past the six months I had originally planned to stay in Maine and far deeper than any thoughts I had generated about safety in six months. I had already decided that following the thread of abstaining from the familiar might be a good experiment. I was willing to risk leaving a door open to the future but I still presumed that would be a short term experience from which I could escape if anything became really uncomfortable.

Within hours of my decision to commit to understanding the ghostnets metaphor, I began imagining how to apply it to my life. I was presuming that fortune had led me to a new opportunity to pursue wisdom. Even as my decisions were falling into a rapid intuitive sequence of place in my mind, the same real estate agent who had found my rental, phoned to tell me I might want to see a property that was on the market, even though it was well beyond my price range. Within a few minutes after the call, he pulled up alongside my rental house to pick me up. We drove east and north across the island a couple miles, finally down a long dirt road in fog so heavy I couldn’t see three feet ahead of the car.  Our car came to a stop in front of what he explained was a large abandoned sawmill. I was already entranced by the pale grey shimmer of fog over the landscape that muted the sounds of seagulls and waves, so much more intense than my experience of fog at Indian Creek. Indian Creek is a sheltered inlet. This site was a doorway into the wild Atlantic. Vinalhaven Island is 13 miles out to sea. The fog is different coming off the deep ocean than on the more protected Western coast.

We got out of the car and walked forward south and deeper into the fog towards the old sawmill. My friend opened the door of the building. We walked into an open space suffused by the fragrance of the spruce boards of the buildings wood construction and the seawater whose motion I could hear lapping the piers around us. As we climbed up a rickety ladder to a second floor, the wind drove between the wooden boards of the exterior walls and licked at my cheeks. Rebelling against the ghostnets of my own sensible inclinations to stay with the safe and the familiar, I announced, “I’ll buy it!” 

He replied, “you can’t afford it!” 

In a triumphant declaration of hope conquering realism and sealing my fate, I responded with, “I don’t care. I want it.”  That conversation with the real estate agent represented a fateful turning point in my life.