Thursday, March 20, 2008

Beautiful Trash

I moved from the city to the forest. Cities seem a prison to me. They are tight places where nature is either planned into boxes in the form of parks or it sprouts out of the cracks of sidewalks, trundles in vacant lots and gets squashed on the pavement. Nature is across the bridge, over there, somewhere else, separate.

I live in a neighborhood with minimally controlled landscaping. It is landscape au natural. It’s a place that I consider to be the antithesis to city living. Nature is right here, in my face, when I walk out the door.

Still I feel the need to go places where I cannot see traces of civilization to get closer to nature. And in these seemingly untouched places I find traces of us everywhere, albeit much more subtly than in the city.

In my quest to get further and further into nature itself I continued to carry the city attitude that nature is over there, separate, a place I needed to find. And when I got there I found that someone else had already been there too. There is no such thing as a separate nature that is over there, untouched. This is a fabrication of an ideal, of some better, purer state of the world than that in which I currently find myself.

One of my favorite very touched-untouched places is the floor of the Grand Canyon. It seems to me about as remote and far away from civilization as I can get. Yet thousands travel the Colorado River through the 200 plus miles of majestic canyon each year. We carry out all of our waste, we try to leave no trace of our passage, we try to preserve that remote wildness that we yearn to believe exists so the group a day behind us can believe that they too are in the wilderness. And while we do that we marvel at ancient Anasazi ruins, and their literal writing on the wall. We stop at a boat abandoned on the shore by an expedition in a previous century. We feel a sense of continuity finding evidence that someone else was here too. We leave the traces left behind by their presence and call them artifacts. They were and remain a part of the landscape that we are moving through as visitors, separate.

In my own place, in the Yuba watershed, I can go to places that look untouched until I look a little closer. And there we were, here we still are. Sometimes the evidence is overwhelming – A hillside blown away by hydraulic mining; sometimes the evidence is subtle – a piece of screen sitting on the cobble under the water; sometimes the evidence can be almost invisible – the seemingly pristine watershed with a coveted ‘Wild and Scenic’ designation is actually one of the most complicatingly engineered water systems in the state of California, and therefore the entire country.

We rely on this nature for our very survival and our every action affects the environment. There is no separation between it and us. We are it. It is us. The environment reflects our attitudes, our views and our values. To explore the landscape is to explore the workings of the minds, attitudes and psychologies of our civilization. There is no standing separate observing the landscape; the viewer of the landscape is as much a part of the landscape as is the river.

I spend time in the wilderness looking for signs of ourselves. I take photos of the evidence of our own presence, our own artifacts. Much of what I find are the discarded, unwanted things that nature has begun to change, making it seem once again its own. From these photos I create paintings transforming trash into paint on a panel – bringing things back to ourselves in the form of art.