Stephanie V. Sears
Leopards in China: The wild card
Several years ago I embraced the cause of the Asiatic common leopard and as a freelance journalist I headed toward the northeastern region of Jilin in China which is, at present, the leopard’s best hope of survival in China. Unlike Patagonia, the Russian Altai or Costa Rica, China does not spring to mind as an ecologically friendly destination. Nor does one relate a large wide-ranging carnivore like Panthera pardus to the most populated country in the world, unless the animal is to be found cut up in parts for medicinal, decorative or sartorial purposes. Surprisingly, the big cat has survived in this heavily industrialized country, hostage to its vast human population and severe environmental problems. The survival of the leopard in China is a testimony to this cat’s remarkable ability to survive.
The seven-hour fast-train ride from Beijing to Changchun, capital of Jilin Province, reveals a flat, irresolute landscape, never quite weaned from urban/industrial domination and its spoliation of nature. Agricultural strips alternate with ‘brown field’ zones. Beyond, in every direction, high-rise housing, ever in the process of going up, casts menacing Mordor-like shadows over the ‘countryside’. It reflects China’s on-going real-estate boom bolstered by the improved buying power and desire of the Chinese people to acquire private property.
In this dismal panorama there are, however, signs of an ongoing change. With noticeable frequency, a number of ‘brown fields’ whizzing by the train rails have been or are in the process of being reforested.
In Changchun I am greeted by a frosty wind and a toad-colored fog erasing the outlines of the city: a typical sandstorm that might be coming from any of the regions in North China subjected to aeolian desertification. The wind, mixing sand with industrial pollution, fills the air with particulate matter scientifically named PM10 (or if less than 25 micrometers: PM25). The risk of lung damage has become common throughout most of China. The hotel management hands me the type of surgical mask I’ve seen Chinese people wear frequently. Breathing has apparently not become easier since my last visit to the mainland sixteen years ago; during the drive from the airport to Shanghai’s center. I had then found myself gasping for oxygen whether the taxi windows were open or shut.
Yet environmental concern in China has been brought to the fore. Not far from Changchun, in the best-preserved and most extensive forest in China, the government has recently officialized a 15000 square kilometer national park astride the provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin adjoining Russia and North Korea. The park will primarily benefit the Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) and tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), allowing these big cats to circulate freely between Russia and China as double nationals. Wildlife enthusiasts wants to keep it wild, and an international collaboration such as this appears to be an ideal solution to increase the size of a protected area. Juxtaposition to the Russian ‘Land of the Leopard Park’ greatly improves the chances of survival for the endangered cats. Joint ecological action between countries also suggests something of a shared culture, which may contribute to improved overall cross-boundary relations. The area chosen to be the tiger and leopard park based on ten years of consistent camera–trapping, has confirmed the presence of forty-two leopards, (the gender ratio being seven to eight males for forty females).
A few days earlier, in Beijing, I met Dr. Feng Limin, Associate Professor at the Beijing Normal University, and directing force behind the research and monitoring of leopards in the northeast. With vivacity and driving optimism he seemed to embody what I have come to see as China’s capacity to do a quick turnabout from previous policies when deemed necessary. I had derived from him a keen sense that conservation of the Sino-Russian Amur leopard was going to be a success.
Collaboration between Russian and Chinese scientists has become normalized through a yearly workshop during which the more experienced Russians in matters of Amur leopard and Tiger research, act as guides to the Chinese researchers, who willingly acknowledge their beginner’s status regarding big cat conservation. Since the end of the twentieth-century efforts to increase and stabilize a leopard population in the region have led the Chinese government to take steps to preserve primary forest and return some farmland and grassland to woodland. As a result, forest land has increased by some 165,414 hectares, contributing to the region’s Green Great Wall plan against desertification and floods.
Such radical changes in environmental policy, along with the plan to create 24 additional national parks throughout the country, signify that wildlife conservation has become a priority for the Chinese government, according to Aimin Wang, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society/(WCS) China. Beyond the focus on the northeastern leopard, a population that conservationists hope to see double by 2020, the policy shift will benefit other smaller leopard populations known in China. Though Dr. Wang admits that poaching and the manufacture of illicit medicinal products are not entirely eradicated from China, their slowdown has positioned China favorably compared to other Asian countries such as Thailand.
The quality of protected areas determines whether conservation will be a success or a failure, specifies Dr. Kong of the Jilin Provincial Academy of Forestry Science. Ungulates in China thrive on Korean pine. Wild boar, Sika, and Red deer need oak. Their prospering ultimately benefits the leopards that prey on them. Other leopard prey such as the wild Gaur, will have to be reintroduced in China, or officially protected, like the oft-hunted Roe deer. My faith in the new environmental measures taken by China meets with Dr. Kong’s more measured assessment of the future. He wants things to move faster. The large tiger and leopard park is indeed a great step forward but only if preservation can be sustained. The necessary funds for the project, secured by way of the real-estate boom, create a yin and yang dilemma where land is preserved thanks to money earned by wrecking nature elsewhere. Indeed, one can only wonder how in a country of 1.4 billion people, (the statistic inexorably ticking upward), an enduring solution for wildlife can be found. How, precisely, can building on land to shelter a relentlessly growing population guarantee the permanent conservation of land elsewhere in the country? How long can such a balancing act endure?
Hunchun is three and a half hours away by train from Changchun and the panorama flashing by shows, this time, many seemingly untouched forest patches. Previously informed that Hunchun was small, I am expecting a village at the fringe of the forest. In fact, it is a fast-growing town of broad avenues, inhabited by 200,000 people reliant primarily on its natural resources for income. Still, a feeling of wilderness lingers nearby. Russia and North Korea are, respectively, twenty and forty kilometers away. With the Land of the leopard Park on the Russian side and the unknown of North Korea’s wildlife the leopard may have a real fighting chance here.
Ren Yi, director of WCS/Hunchun, drives me to the Nature Reserve of Hunchun established in 2001. While he and his colleagues verify the camera traps I look around at the type of habitat that leopard and tiger may be roaming through at this moment. It is the same kind of Manchurian forest I have seen on the Russian side: well-watered slim, tight woods, vividly green in this month of May. Sunlight plays a subtle hide and seek where one can easily imagine the spotted coat of the Amur leopard invisibly slipping by. Fourteen leopards in a 1000 square kilometer area have been camera-trapped here recently, against eight to eleven in 2012. The camera traps, typically placed in pairs facing each other, at 45-50 centimeters above ground, every three to four kilometers on average – have captured no leopard this time. Perhaps this edge of the forest, regularly frequented by Hunchun locals, is not a leopard’s favorite haunt.
Russian field scientists have taught their Chinese colleagues one of their tricks to get leopards in the camera frame: a piece of aluminum foil is left on a log placed in front of the camera (leopards like to step on logs) so as to draw the cat’s attention. The cat then typically investigates the shiny object on the log and is photo-trapped. The anecdote encourages me to draw from my pocket a bottle of a famous men’s cologne that is reportedly used by feline specialists to attract big cats into view when in the field. I spray it on neighboring tree trunks under the doubtful eye of my companions. But previous use on captive tigers and leopards has proved it to be irresistible.
Is it utopian to hope that such idiosyncratic practices based on close animal observation, foretell a new quality of relationship with wildlife? One closer and more attentive to a wild animal’s individuality?
Another consideration which, increasingly, must be concomitant with nature conservation, is human population size. How many people and how many wild animals can satisfactorily coexist, and for how long? Despite China’s outlawing of poaching, Ren Yi informs me that people gather pine nuts in the forest (thus competing for food with ungulates) but also place traps to catch smaller animals, in which leopards occasionally get caught. The urban limits of the expanding tri-lingual Hunchun are coming ever closer to the park boundaries. Destined to become a trade center for the three neighboring countries, (or four, including South Korea) Hunchun’s growth portends added pressure on the nature reserve.
The Amur leopard population over-flowing from Russia into China does not constitute the only leopard presence in the country. The north Chinese leopard (Panthera pardus japonensis), or ‘golden coin leopard’, a nickname alluding to darker rosettes, survives as a small group of some fifteen individuals on a small terraced area of the Taihang Mountains west of Beijing. Here, perhaps more so than elsewhere, one wonders how long they will resist the incursion of new roads and a highway linking this formerly isolated region to the rest of China.
Second only to the Amur leopards in terms of conservation priority is a surviving group of leopards in the northern Sichuan region of Ganzi, and possibly also in the south of the province, according to wildlife cameraman and collaborator of WWF and The Nature Conservancy, Zang Ming. Though the animal’s presence has been known to local rural people for some time, its occurrence in this region comes as a general surprise to a country that, in the last decades, has been concentrated on modernizing and expanding its economy to the detriment of nature.
Of the four common leopard species traditionally found, and hoped to be still found in China, this particular group, long isolated from other leopard species, would be either PP delacouri or PP fusca, according to Zang. Found living at high altitudes of 2500 to 4000 meters, the leopard has been caught on camera, sharing the same region of Qinghai, in northern Sichuan, with the snow leopard (Panthera uncia). Such an overlap of common leopard with snow leopard has been found in other parts of the world. A plausible assumption, in this case, is that leopards have sought refuge from human encroachment at higher than normal altitudes, taking advantage of warmer temperatures and a higher tree line. Though mating may take place between the two species, the probability of offspring, is very low, in Zang’s opinion. But an increase in their population would make the existing territory insufficient, thereby exposing a characteristic dilemma in today’s wildlife preservation: where to put the added wildlife if conservation succeeds?
The most effective solution to this problem, for both humans and wildlife, resides in creating a system of nature corridors. In view of the current modest number of leopards in the whole country, Zang thinks that such outlets would allow isolated leopard populations to grow without much risk of miscegenation with other leopard species. No formal nature corridors exist between China and its fourteen international frontiers according to him, save for the new tiger and leopard Park linking up with the Russian Land of the Leopard Park.
Elsewhere in the country leopard presence remains a mystery. No statistics are yet available indicating a total leopard number in China. A map of sightings across China given in the report ‘The Current distribution and Status of leopards Panthera pardus in China’ published in October 2015 in Oryx-The International Journal of Conservation, shows sporadic, unverified sightings near the south coast and confirmed sightings principally nearer to Nepalese, Bhutanese, Burmese, Laotian, Vietnamese, Russian and North Korean borders, along a northeast to west/southwest arc across China. The map also shows how the historical leopard distribution, once comprising some three-quarters of the country, has shrunk over the years.
The Wakhan corridor between Afghanistan and China, a sparsely populated area, with little road traffic culminating at 4923 meters, and Vietnam’s Golgong mountains near the Chinese border may serve as effective though informal corridors for wildlife. The main obstacle to the creation of nature corridors is widespread and dense urbanization. Even if the solitary and evanescent leopard, unbeknownst to the human eye, manages to cross frontiers, official trans-national corridors would bolster China’s planned park system and on-going efforts to preserve and reconstitute its wildlife. If leopard numbers in China continue to rise, corridors will improve the chances of avoiding human/leopard conflicts as presently witnessed in India due to human density and urban sprawl.
Zang Ming gave up his work at a large Chinese bank to become a naturalist and cameraman. Both he and his friend and colleague Luo Nei Qian personify a new Chinese passion and concern for national wildlife. This outspoken concern from the country’s people is in part responsible for putting pressure on the State to prioritize nature preservation and take strong measures to improve the environment. Yet the question remains: will those measures be sufficient to allow for the sustainable survival of the big cat?
With 19% of the world’s population, China is a microcosm of what the whole world is about to face in its efforts to conserve wildlife. Reality compels us to ask a few unsettling questions: Can we honestly speak of saving wildlife while we, as a species continue to multiply in overwhelming numbers that continue to intrude upon remaining wild habitat? Is human expansion and interference with nature a moral right? Before answering such questions, let us first consider some facts. Only two hundred years ago, we, as a species, represented a mere 10-12% of the earth’s total mammal mass. We now monopolize 96% to 98% of that mass, the rest of living mammals representing therefore a mere 4% to 2% according to an article by Russell McLendon in Mother Nature Network of October 2016: ‘11 startling statistics about earth’s disappearing wildlife’. According to the same article, over 3000 animal species are now considered critically endangered and a 58% decline in wild vertebrates since 1970 may reach 67% by 2020. An estimated 240 acres of wilderness are destroyed every hour according to Kelvin Thompson in his study ‘The impact of population growth on wildlife’ published in 2011 by Population Media Center. The statistical arc of human population growth fits neatly over the statistical arc of animal extinction. The prognosis for the world’s human population by 2030 is 8.5 billion, 9.7 billion by 2050.
China had a 1.3 billion population in 2008 on the basis of a one child policy begun in 1979 but which encountered some opposition. Since 2015 the one child policy has been abandoned to guard against an aging population, and possibly in reaction to accusations of ethics abuses. Consequently, birthrate increased by 7.9% in 2016, a rate inferior to what the government was hoping for, yet nonetheless leading to an expected population of 1.42 billion by 2020.
Despite global and heightened environmental awareness, such statistics imply that wildlife remains secondary to what we consider to be our innate precedence. When human and wildlife conflicts occur, as they do increasingly in buffer areas, communal woods, suburban and urban zones, they are often seen to be caused by the ‘bad behavior’ or illicit presence of the wild animal. For the survivalist leopard this has become frequent in India where they are removed and relocated, or killed, sometimes in cruel circumstances.
The anthropocentric spirituality of the West and Middle East gives man priority over the animal and though man is instructed to be a compassionate steward of nature he is by the same token encouraged to dominate the rest of creation. It was not always the case in the West. The Greek mathematician and vegetarian Pythagoras believed in the transmigration of souls and in equality between man and animal, and such thinking converged with Eastern philosophy and with more ancient beliefs such as animism, Celtic or East Asian. ‘Chinese Folk religion’, referring to an aggregate of ancient animism and Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, was made official in China at the turn of this century. After a previous attempt to condemn it as superstition, the syncretic religion was defined as ‘intangible heritage’ and now rallies some 80% of Chinese people across the world. It could well serve as a foundation for less destructive and more harmonious relations with wildlife in China.
In fact, Chinese tradition has long established character and status equivalences between animals and men. The leopard was the emblem (hsiang) of fierce bravery in battle, worn as a badge by military officials of third rank. Also, associated with the magpie, the leopard (and the tiger) was a symbol of good luck.
In the West, in the wake of Pythagoras and later of Saint Francis of Assisi, the seeds of a change of attitude within Christianity were sown, and developed by the eighteenth-nineteenth century philosopher Jeremy Bertham for whom an animal’s evident capacity to suffer was proof of his ethical equality to a human being. In 1824 this type of thinking became formal with Arthur Broome’s creation of the SPCA in England (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and later, in 1980, with PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals). Animal rights have since been further advanced by the likes of Peter Singer, Australian author of ‘Animal liberation’ (1975), the American philosopher Tom Regan, author of ‘The case for animal rights’(2004) and by Andrew Linzey, British theologian and founder of ‘The Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics’. Such a philosophical evolution allied to scientific progress in wildlife preservation, seem, gradually, to bring us closer to our ideal of the garden of Eden in which all species live in mutual harmony.
For their part, some animals like moose, puma, bear, coyote, leopard and many others, seem to have already taken steps in that direction by adapting to suburban and urban areas. But what, one might wonder, can these animals ‘think’ of their new environment, when straying near an airport or into the subway of a big city? Has adaptation to a human way of life begun to make wild animals less than wild, or ‘semi-wild’ as Monika Fiby notes in ‘The future of wild animals’(2012 Zoolex.org)? The very idea that tigers in some areas are already semi-wild through frequent contact with humans is a repulsive one; not only from a deontological point of view of an animal’s right to his natural surroundings, but also from a deeply aesthetic, and, admittedly, human point of view. Adaptation to human proximity eventually leads to physical changes in a wild animal: a loss of sexual dimorphism, a reduction of tooth and brain size, a slower development from infancy to adulthood….Is it ultimately to our advantage to reduce an elusive predator like the common leopard (or any big cat for that matter) to the status of an alley cat haunting our suburbs? From a climatic and immunological point of view, it is now well established that the greater the biodiversity around us the better humans fare.
Yet it is perhaps the more intangible cultural attributes we confer on nature and its most beautiful and secretive inhabitants, such as the leopard, that are most crucial to us and capable of filling a human existential void. The leopard has long enchanted our nature with essential notions of freedom, beauty, and mystery. I, myself, have walked in forests where big cats still roam and the unparalleled thrill is akin to walking through a fairytale. Therefore, it is perhaps the stealthy presence and unhampered wandering of the leopard that will contribute to China ’s recovery from an overwrought anthropocentric environment, elevating the feline once more to his status of living symbol in China; but this time he will symbolize China’s capacity for self-reassessment and perseverance in regaining the full splendor of its culture.
Stephanie V. Sears is a French and American ethnologist, free-lance journalist and essayist who has previously been published, on the subject of nature conservation and wildlife, in E, The Environmental Magazine, Insula(UNESCO), CerisePress, The Montreal Review, Wildlifeextra, Zoomorphic.
Alison Gaines / Brian D. Cohen
The evening begins with the rain
clearing its throat: I’m sorry, I waited
as long as I could. Retreating
from every windowsill and bicycle spoke,
the lizards shy under leaves.
The wasps pause their nest
construction, carry it to an unpeopled
place, still sorry for what happened
last week on the porch. The palmettos
have whacked enough faces on the road,
and now lean away from it.
In the house, there’s you,
adding today’s infractions—
bicycle knocked over,
sharp pencil dropped,
thing said too loud
or too soon—to yesterday’s,
another layer under which
you will not sleep.
They fish for weeks at sea, hardly moving
a wing, then stumble on land, risk breaking
a leg in touching down to the cliff. They lay
one pointy egg on the rocky, sinking island.
Coleridge hung on them the idea that they
must hang on us, a yoke, a new way to feel
sorry for ourselves. Eight feet in wingspan
but only a few pounds, one begins helpless,
a bundle of brown shag carpeting, left
for all those weeks of fishing. Then they fledge
and move from one era of solitude
to another, years before returning.
I envy those dark eyes and their long sight.
These birds are terrifying. They mate for life.
When you will not see again
The whale calves trying the light …
W.S. Merwin, “For a Coming Extinction”
To be born at the surface
drinking 53% milkfat
Held up by mother
on her belly or back
in case of orcas
or something else with teeth
To migrate up and down a coast
one’s whole life
close to the surface
where light ripples ancient skin
To sleep there. To give birth
every two years or so
ending shallow and warm
To abstain from feeding
To feed by pushing along the floor
on one’s right side
making a cloud of sand
and spitting out the mud
How large, how slow
What to make
of the curve of the mouth
the expressionless eye
Ask their secret
They seem like creatures with secrets
They would probably tell us not to worry
not to feel bad
their medium being water, we think
not the future or last weekend
Alison Gaines studies poetry at the University of Florida. She is originally from Vancouver, Washington and has a BA from Knox College. She has attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as an MFA scholar, and written several textbooks for young readers. Her poems have appeared in Sweet Tree Review.
Brian D. Cohen is a printmaker, painter, writer, and educator. He founded Bridge Press, publisher of limited edition artist’s books and etchings, in 1989. Brian has exhibited in forty individual exhibitions and in over 200 group shows, and his work is held by private and public collections throughout the country.
And Again: Photography From The Harvard Forest
A Harvard Forest Sense of Place (excerpt)
It is an extreme sense of place. A feeling that a landscape is right, even as it changes. And comfortable. A comfort that is grounded in an emotional connection and ease with the land and vegetation and with the smells and sounds that fill it. But it goes much further than emotions. The attachment is strengthened through knowledge of the place today and what it has been, and through awareness of the people and events that have shaped it over time. The connection grows with familiarity and experience and with the insights gleaned through an inquisitive eye. It becomes extreme when it is rooted in generations of such experience and is passed from one person to the other and then on again through time. That experience is the Harvard Forest.
~ David R. Foster
THE FOREST THROUGH THE TREES
How many trees grow in eighty-six acres—or about sixty football fields—of Massachusetts woods? Field crews at Harvard Forest can tell you: about 116,000. Over the course of four years, several teams of researchers identified, measured, and digitally mapped every woody stem in the study area—painting each one with a yellow stripe when it was counted. The plot will be remeasured every five years until well beyond our lifetimes. The result will be a publicly accessible map recording the growth and death of every tree in the forest, from saplings barely the width of a pinky finger, to massive hemlocks on the edge of extirpation, to towering, colonial-era pines. The Harvard Forest plot is part of an unprecedented global effort—involving hundreds of scientists from five continents—to measure forest dynamics in a time of rapid environmental change. More than forty of these large, intensive research plots dot the globe and are overseen by a partnership between the Center for Tropical Forest Science (CTFS) and the Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatory (SIGEO). The first such plot was established in Panama in 1980; the Harvard Forest plot, begun in 2010, expands the network from tropical forests into the temperate zone. The growing international network of sites, which now tracks more than 6 million trees, allows scientists to detect global patterns in forest health that would otherwise be invisible at local scales. Each measurement, over time, gives a better understanding of forest function and the impacts of global environmental change.
~ Clarisse Hart
John Hirsch: A photographer and educator, John received a professional certificate in photography from The Maine Media Workshops and College in 2002. He has taught photography workshops in Maine and Boston and is head of the Visual Arts Department at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Massachusetts. John’s work is rooted in a documentary style, illuminating quiet moments in emergent or changing societies as well as allowing us to probe and reflect on the ideas of community, recreation and land use in the American psyche.
John’s recent book is available now for purchase. This 136 page cloth bound monograph includes 70 images chronicling the research, scientists, and ephemera of the Harvard Forest―a 3,750-acre research forest in Petersham, Massachusetts. Essays by David Foster, Clarisse Hart, and Margot Anne Kelley expand the scope of this photographic exploration at the nexus of science and art.
This body of work is about a desire to understand, describe, and predict the evolution of our surroundings, while showing reverence for the possibility of sublime moments in a place. The forest is here a microcosm for the world in which we live, and this work helps us envision the future we may inhabit, making the book a useful and engaging vantage from which to consider pressing issues of climate change, ecosystem resilience, and land and water use.
For more information or to purchase the book please email johnphirsch(at)gmail.com
Explore the imprint left on the mind of young Caroline in a short fiction by Michele Valenti, accompanied by the prints of Elizabeth Claire Rose in the November Feature of Hawk & Handsaw, titled “Imprints.”
Kjerstin Anne Kauffman / Ingrid Ellison
My mother surreptitiously turns over peaches,
hiding the green ones, the bruised ones we ransacked,
I and my children, between the warm leaves,
before we can haul them to the scale.
Our plunder blushing in its cardboard crate
(yes, I crave it even now) does fail
to align. Big peaches jostle the small ones,
off-balance, or oddly oblate.
We have to respect the orchard, she’d said,
and she’d meant—suddenly, I understand—
produce culled, cradled, and basking
in ripe uniformity.
A pity we’ve left her to salvaging
what order she can, then bearing, with relative
grace, old Yaryan, who stoops,
weighs, and condescends
to advise: don’t turn up the stems, now.
Maybe we all of us, knowing best, err.
But who’ll forgive us our clumsy possession
of this fruit, these yielded gems?
Morning in the Cascades
The suburban smells like teenage boys
and coffee. But I’m in the back,
I’m the queen
of this expedition, who gets to sprawl
with Ebony, the dog, behind
the back seat, on the sleeping-bag-bed
over rucksacks and ski gear. I get
this envied seat, because when I read
The roads glisten
with ice. This drive is dangerous. Yet the whole,
parentless carload’s in thrall to Watership Down
though mostly they’re too old
for it, not bold
enough to admit they like it. I know
it bothers them—maybe it should—
that it’s a story about bunnies.
But it’s funny,
right now, no one wants to stop. We all
want to hear the world, like we thought,
is our enemy. We have to have cunning,
around in it. We have to have tricks.
Maybe they think, these brothers,
and these brothers’ friends, while I read
they don’t need—
But look. We have such power then. The sun
stands over the mountains. The snow
is everywhere. And my voice, as we are cresting,
is full, is arresting.
Turning, in Winter
Come inside, winnowing. Two months
this house has been in and out of a fever.
This room has asked me to bend
and whisk away: mucus, peevishness, sorrow.
Now the snow concentrates, heavy, tossing
on window and door. All day
I’ve been brooding the blue-light dispatches
of my phone—is this odd? some mother
had her children whisked by mistake,
by her benevolent state, by god—
The narrowest of passages, the most
impenetrable door I incline to survive as.
Nevertheless, I invite you,
flurry subsumed in this cavern, this room.
Ingrid Ellison is a painter working in oil and mixed media. Born in Boston, Ingrid has made Maine her home since 2007. She has exhibited at the CMCA, AVA Center for the Arts, Cynthia Winings Gallery, and Frank Brockman Gallery. Ingrid has a passion for sharing what she does with students both school aged and adult.
Kjerstin Anne Kauffman has taught creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and Hillsdale College. Her poems, essays, and reviews appear in many periodicals including Literary Matters, Gulf Coast, 32 Poems, The Cresset, Salamander, and The American Poetry Review.
Hon. Dr. Jimmy Chin / Jacob Gaposchkin
Well isn’t this a bright-eyed looking group!
Thank you for having me here on such a special day, this special moment. It is a great privilege to speak to you and I have not taken it lightly. In fact, you might not think someone that has spent the last 20 years climbing in the Himalayas, hanging from high altitude alpine walls and skiing first descents in no fall zones around the world would lose any sleep over speaking to a few college students. Well, for the record, I’ve spent quite a few nights over the last few months lying in bed sweating it out wondering what in the hell I was going to say to you all. Breathe Jimmy Breathe!
But today isn’t about me. It’s about you. So yes, take a big deep breath…and take it all in. You’ve worked hard to get here. And let’s just take a moment to appreciate all the people who have helped you get here, your teachers, your brothers and sister, your friends, your family, and your parents.
“But today isn’t about me. It’s about you.”
Well, before you panic, which you will if you haven’t already, I have a few things to say. And please, take whatever I say with a grain of salt. Some of this will strike a chord with you, and some of it may not, or you may never remember a word I say…but hopefully, hopefully, some of it will become useful down the road. I am simply here to share a few observations about things I’ve learned from my own personal journey…
The first thing I want to talk about is taking risks. I know. I know, some of you must be thinking, this is the last guy on the planet that should be giving advice on taking risks…he spends most of his time ridiculously dangerous situations, he almost died in an avalanche! He’s insane!
People often assume I knew what I was doing…that the path was clear to me. Hell no! I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew I wanted meaning and purpose in my life and I set out to find it by following my heart.
And by the way, people always talk about following your heart as if it is easy. Oh, follow your heart. Well, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s not that easy. It’s not always clear what your heart is telling you. You have to examine your intentions endlessly. What are you passionate about? Who is it you want to be? What do you want to do? And most importantly, why? These are big questions and these are questions I still ask myself every day. Just know that there is always doubt…that is normal and that is where you have to take the risks to understand yourself and what your heart is telling you…in life and in love. Being willing to walk away from the expectations of others and of society was the biggest risk I ever took. I cannot overemphasize how important it was for me to have taken that risk. It was a commitment to that unknown path that eventually led me to one small opportunity and another and another and another that finally brought me to where I am today. As I was once told, “You have to commit and figure it out.”
The next thing I want to speak about is failure. Failure is an interesting word. It has obvious connotations. However, in my experience, I have learned the most profound lessons in life through failure.
For most of my career, I have been recognized for my successes. Oh, he skied Everest. He climbed Meru. Well, what people don’t talk much about are my failures. And I’ve had many. When I first looked up at Everest to try and ski it and the first time I gazed up at the icy flanks of Meru, both times, I almost turned around and walked away. They seemed too big and too outrageous to comprehend. I was convinced that I would fail. But I stayed and I tried and I failed spectacularly on both of them. Through those failures, I learned it was okay to be scared, even good to be scared. I deconstructed the failures; thought about how I would do things differently; and how I could do them better, move faster and more efficiently. I learned what I needed to do to come back and eventually ski Everest and to climb Meru. I not only learned how to better prepare for them, train for them and refine my strategies around climbing them, I also was able to apply what I learned on other mountains. In essence, those failures gave me the confidence to fail more and in turn to seek bigger goals and objectives in climbing but also in other aspects of my life as well, like in filmmaking. I learned not to let the big objectives overwhelm me and that just like in climbing big mountains, it’s about the three feet ahead of you, putting one foot in front of the other, keeping the bigger objective in mind, and doing the work right in front of me. As my mentor, Rick Ridgeway, once said to me while I was starving and feeling hopeless on an expedition where we were attempting an unsupported crossing of the Chang Tang Plateau in Tibet. “You know how you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
But back to failure, the great irony is that failure is often the best way forward, the best way to succeed. And of course, without failure, there is no such thing as success. And the more you fail, the sweeter the success. I often think the greatest failure in life could very well be never having failed. It means you never dared to dream big, never tried something extraordinary, never stuck it out there and never took the risks. Learn to embrace failure and be proud of failing, because there is such a thing as failing upwards. Just don’t let failure debilitate you, learn from them, let them motivate you. Embrace failure and in some ways, you will never fail. In my life, I have had many failures and I am thankful for every one of them.
Finally, I want to speak about compassion, empathy, and respect. We live in a time with more forms of communication than any other time in history yet our country and our politics are more divided than ever. I truly believe, without compassion, empathy, and respect, there is no ability to have true discourse. You will not be able to hear others and in turn, you will not be heard. Remember, we are all in this together, regardless of color, race, sexual orientation and religion. We are all trying to make sense of the world, struggling to find meaning and purpose and to get through our own existential crises.
In particular as a graduating class from Unity College, you know, we all lose if we politicize the protection of our environment. Yes, there are a lot of perspectives on how to protect our environment and yes, you need to take a stand for what you believe in, but you also need to have compassion, empathy, and respect to take down the barbed wire fences between differing opinions and worldview to have real dialogue. Intelligent dialogue. Right now we need dialogue that will actually lead to solutions as opposed to deepening the divides.
You are the future and you hold the keys to the preservation and conservation of our environment. You have the chance to make the world a better place. To leave it better than you found it. That is part of your responsibility.
I just saw this African Proverb carved into the wall at the natural museum in New York. It said, “The Earth is not a gift from our parents. It is a loan from our children.”
How will you use your voice? How will you use your education to find solutions to the environmental issue we face today? Frankly put, if you can’t de-politicize the discussion and facilitate intelligent and meaningful discourse about protecting our environment, we’re screwed.
People will have their opinions and so will you. Be informed. Examine your opinions carefully but examine the opinions and perspectives of those around you even more carefully. It is only through understanding the bigger picture that you will be able to form an intelligent opinion. Have the humility to recognize you might not always be right.
You are graduating today but learning doesn’t end here. In fact, graduating only means you have now been given the tools to think critically and to continue to learn better. Life is about learning, about making mistakes and about shifting your gaze, about growing intellectually and growing as a person. Without compassion, empathy, and respect, you will not be able to truly see the world through different lenses, or place yourself in someone else’s shoes. And, you will have missed some biggest opportunities to learn and grow.
On that note, compassion also means being compassionate towards yourself. There is likely no one that is going to be harder on you than you. Remind yourself to take it easy on yourself. Just as you should treat others with respect and compassion, you need to treat yourself with respect and compassion too. We all make mistakes. Learn from them. But don’t spend all your time beating yourself up. You can use that energy in much more productive ways.
In conclusion, I encourage you to think big when you go forward becoming the person you want to be. The one great privilege you have is the privilege of creating a meaningful life for yourself. And when I say a meaningful life, don’t sell yourself short. Go big! Never stop reminding yourself that every day that passes is one less day you have to live, so get out there, take risks, fail spectacularly, be compassionate, empathetic, respectful, be patient with yourself, put one foot in front of the other, create the life you dream of and become the person you want to be. You have no one to do it for you but yourself.
Dr. Jimmy Chin
Hon, Dr. Jimmy Chin is an image-maker, filmmaker, and athlete specializing in mountain sports. He was Unity College’s 2017 Commencement speaker.
Jacob Gaposchkin is a recent graduate of Unity College’s Wildlife & Fisheries Management program. After graduating in May, Jake hopped in his truck and made a beeline for Alaska for his third consecutive summer in the state. Jake returned to Denali National Park and Preserve for his second summer working as a wildlife technician for the National Park Service. Jake works with all wildlife in the park but his primary focus is grizzly bears; specifically managing their interactions with humans. “It is an incredible opportunity to learn a lot about about the wilderness and a lot about myself”, says Jake. The job is a unique chance to work on both sides of wildlife management issues and learn about the crucial balance between humans and wildlife.
Jake is a dedicated outdoorsman with a passion for photography; making the most of all that Alaska has to offer. To Jake, there is no one specific thing that draws him to Alaska, it is how everything comes together to make it such an extraordinary place. In Alaska, every day is different and every day Jake is set back by the unparalleled and anomalous beauty of the state. He always brings a camera with him to try and capture these moments so they can be enjoyed and experienced by others.
Chelsea Wagenaar / Sal Taylor Kydd
—divination by frogs
crouch in clear waters, their mottled skin
as dew brilliant as the spiderwebs were the spring
my father saved them. They don’t know how
they were spared, of course, the wrist-thin skin
of their throats pale and pulsing to sound out
the hours, each other. Perhaps only a few
still survive that spring twelve years ago,
when their mother trekked up from the wooded stream
that bordered our yard and emptied her belly
in our swimming pool—nebulous cluster
of milky globules suspended there, each an eye
with its black, pinpricked center. There,
to our spellbound disgust, they hatched—
the pool a frantic bevy of heads and tails,
the luck or curse that placed them there.
If I follow them back through their afterlives,
bellowing and skin-darkened to herald
a coming rain, voluble with warning
when storms approached, some lost,
perhaps tweezed apart in junior high labs,
or caught again by my father, cupped too tightly
in the hands of his new daughter—if I follow them
back through their chorused, forested lives,
I can trace them up the garden hose
that poured them in synchronized frenzy
into their rightful waters, the hose
a sinuous lifeline climbing the yard to our pool,
where its other end siphoned the tadpoles
from a water thrilled with their darting chaos.
Look harder, farther: I see my father
by the stream, kneeling in damp clay,
his lungs full, his mouth around the hose
inhaling a deep, slow gasp, then another,
until the summoned water met his mouth.
The bodies pouring out into the life
they had not known to imagine.
And his watching them arrowed away
in the current like undoused green flames.
And the bitter, secret taste on his tongue.
Lullaby in a Drought
In the drawers, in the cabinets,
we find pecan casings and pellets,
the answer to the question
of what patters in the walls at night.
We are not the only lovers here.
If the lights go out, we used to say,
you pour the wine and I’ll find
the matches. But we dare not tempt them
in this tinder town—where sycamores shed
parched unready leaves, where yards are fringed
with thistle barbs. If the waters rise,
we used to say, you pour the wine
and I’ll tear out the best pages.
But now the baby’s in her seventh week,
pulled from the secret waters
of my body into a rainless topography.
Who is more sorry?
She sleeps the sleep of rivers.
In the nights I sit cradleside when she wakes,
humming Brahms’ famous notes—
a song he wrote to sway an old love.
So we are always singing
what we cannot change.
The walls fill with patter, rain clouds
form somewhere else. The wine
grows older, finer. If the funnel forms,
if the hail falls.
The Gospel According to the Ant
You unbeautiful unwelcome creature,
I find you
mired in malbec spatter,
freckling the sugar bowl,
a moving pixel among the strawberry’s
Little needle threaded
with these traces of my life,
you sew me
to the whirring world underfoot.
In perfect sync with the 5 o’clock train’s
you bear your crumb freight—
a piece of rind nearly twice your tercet body—
with what I have no word for
except maybe grace. Grace
that stays my hand, grace
that doesn’t lessen your load
but lets you carry it
until you reach your pocket of earth
where the others rise, finally,
to help you set it down.
Sal Taylor Kydd writes of her photographs from Origins. My work is primarily an exploration of memory, how we preserve memories and how they shape our lives moving forward with sometimes illusory certainty. It is also a reflection on time, and an examination of the fleeting moments where we behold change within ourselves and the world around us. I see the photographic object is a keepsake of our experience, and as such is a way of recording discoveries that serves as a reminder of what we have lost and what we are attempting to preserve.
In my most recent work I have been looking at how memory shapes and distorts our understanding of what is real. Specifically it is an exploration of truth through the lens of our relationships – how what we know to be certain about ourselves and the other, changes in the course of that journey. What do we keep for ourselves and what do we share? In a world where everything is shared and exposed, what is left that is sacred.
Chelsea Wagenaar is the author of Mercy Spurs the Bone, selected by Philip Levine as the winner of the 2013 Philip Levine Prize. She holds a BA from the University of Virginia and a PhD from University of North Texas. Her work appears recently or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, The Normal School, and Poetry Northwest. She currently lives in Indiana, where she is a postdoctoral Lilly Fellow at Valparaiso University.
Artist Sal Taylor Kydd has a BA in Modern Languages and an MFA in Photography from Maine Media College. She has exhibited nationally, with shows at A. Smith Gallery in Texas, Gallery 69 in LA, and Pho Pa Gallery in Portland ME. Sal is also a book-artist represented by Priscilla Juvelis, Inc. She resides in Rockport, Maine.
Shannon Rankin: Where the Dragons Lie
Maps are flat; the earth is round. This essential conundrum has bedeviled mapmakers since Ptolemy. How to wrestle the complexities of the three-dimensional world to the two-dimensional mat of the map? Mercator gave a valiant try and his cylindrical projection has withstood the test of time despite vast distortions of landmasses at the poles because a line drawn on his map is a true direction. Charting a course, plotting a line, voyaging from point A to B, sailors traverse the world. Goods move, people travel, knowledge expands; the world grows larger, then contracts, at once vast and infinitesimal.
Where are we? How do we get there? Is there another way?
Shannon Rankin (b.1971) is an artist who uses the language of maps to explore the complexities and interconnections between the inner and outer worlds, between that which is known and that which remains beyond the field of knowledge, that mythical place on medieval maps where the dragons lie and cherubs blow the wind. The duality of our human capacity for imagination and reason, for creation and destruction, for being of nature and apart from it, is a rhumb line that courses through her work.
Using maps as both material and metaphor, Rankin creates installations, collages and sculptures that play on the parallels and connections found among geological and biological processes, patterns in nature, geometry and anatomy. For instance, Synapse | Diptych, a relatively large two-part piece from 2011, presents a flat circle composed of a web of delicately cut-out red roadways connecting variously shaped bright yellow population centers, the whole sliced down the center to create symmetrically sized halves, the same yet different. The right half has a wide blue river snaking through it, the left has a pronounced branching highway. The title and the divided composition make apparent the analogy to the human nervous system and the cerebral hemispheres—the right and left-brain. Another more macro reading suggests a satellite image of the Earth at night, with the bright lights of city centers illuminated and connected by the electrical grid.
“Maps,” says Rankin, “are everyday metaphors that speak to the fragile and transitory state of our lives and our surroundings. Rivers shift their course, glaciers melt, volcanoes erupt; boundaries change both physically and politically. The only constant is change.”
Course, another work from 2011, takes the form of a meandering soft blue line created from cut and folded polar maps. Presented vertically on the wall, it flows circuitously downward, its accordion pleats compressing glacial time, slowing but not halting the implied melting.
A recent series of collages, Compression 1, 2 and 3, 2016, picks up a similar theme. All are made from reassembled nautical charts of the arctic, sharply cut, sometimes overdrawn in graphite, the multi-layered triangular forms shift under and over each other, referencing the process of the warming and cooling of the polar ice sheets. That they are somberly toned in shades of grey, white and black reinforces their elegiac quality.
Plate 1 and Plate 2, are two other recent works by Rankin that continue the theme of environmental harm. Plate 1 is made from ink and graphite on collaged ocean maps and is one of her most abstract and solemn works. A mere 7 x 7 inches, its impact is larger than its scale. The heavily wrinkled and abraded surface is entirely covered in graphite and black ink, producing a sheen and density akin to an oil slick, a mourning veil for a dying planet. Plate 2 is larger at 16 ¼ x 16 ¼ inches and the underlying geometric grid of the collaged map squares is visible beneath a deep sea-blue. The surface of work is a web of lines and texture, suggesting a net afloat in a turgid sea. Taken together, Plate 1 and Plate 2 are a powerful testament to the Earth’s fragility and its endurance. Can we rescue it from ourselves?
Time as a metaphor and a component of making is embedded in Rankin’s art. Her processes of creation and methods of installation are slow and meditative, involving careful painstaking cutting, the accumulation of many small repeated forms, and the meticulous pinning, stitching or pasting of pieces to form a whole. Sometimes an idea or method is revisited or is carried further in a series, but every work is unique and individual, every installation new to its time and place.
A comparison of Artifacts 1 and Artifacts 2, for example, is instructive for the changes that appear in the four-year interval between their makings. Artifacts, 2011, is made from water-soaked map fragments, torn and adhered to paper measuring 44 x 30 inches. Artifacts 2, 2015, is the same dimensions but presented horizontally. In this later work, the scattered shards of paper are undercoated by hot red orange acrylic, visible along their curled edges. The implications are clear, the world has turned a corner, the Earth is heating up, we are scattering our ashes.
Originally from California’s San Joaquin Valley, Rankin moved to Maine to attend the Maine College of Art in Portland, where she received a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree in 1997. A stint working in graphic design in San Francisco, where the work was almost entirely computer based, led her back to Maine to take a job as a pattern cutter for a fashion designer so she could again work with her hands. It was this experience that gave rise to the cutting and sewing techniques that she uses in her art.
Rankin now lives in Rangley, in western Maine’s lake district, surrounded by mountains. When asked recently by an interviewer, “Who is your role model or mentor (alive or dead)? She responded, “Does nature count?”
Lately Rankin has been consciously pushing herself to work outside her comfort zone, challenging herself to making art that is “nebulous, amorphous, ambiguous.” Since April 2016, she has been in Roswell, New Mexico, participating in the yearlong Roswell Artist-In-Residence Program. This “gift of time” has allowed her to take risks and experiment with new materials and methods of working, as well as to respond to a landscape vastly different than Maine.
“For a while now,” she says, “I have worked in a way that has been very controlled and precise. Often the compositions are based on underlying patterns or grids. That hasn’t changed for every series, but I am attempting to shake things up a bit more. Let go of some control. Explore chaos, the unplanned and mysterious.”
Earth Embroideries is a series she began before she left for New Mexico and has continued there, the work is becoming more abstract and more macro in viewpoint with each iteration.
They are an obvious departure from her earlier work in that they are not created from the physical material of maps, instead she is distilling satellite views of the artic into minimal line drawings created in thread on paper. She says, “I’m transcribing a vast amount of physical space into something I can hold and stitch by hand. In some of these I am also incorporating digital glitches which are visible when zooming in on Google Earth.” In a very real sense, the Earth Embroideries are about mending the world.
Unearthed, is another new series Rankin is exploring in Roswell. Inspired by the soil, sediment, light and texture of the New Mexican landscape, these richly patterned works are composed of cut and collaged maps hand-colored in jewel tones, mossy greens, and earthy browns. The compositions are loosely rectangular shapes with open irregular edges; they are her most painterly works to date. “I’ve always had this fantasy of being a painter,” she says, “but I’ve never really loved using paint. Instead, I’m using topographic maps, ink and pigmented graphite.” Haunting in their abstract beauty, the Unearthed collages collectively sound a Greek chorus to our frayed yet lovely planet.
In her most recent work, Rankin moves beyond the known into uncharted territory. She has been experimenting with creating landscapes out of soil, casting them in plaster, then using them to create press molds for ceramic forms that resemble fossils, moonscapes, or the surface of other planetary bodies. “I’m trying to squeeze, combine, merge and overlap the macro and micro,” she says. “I’m always looking in and looking out.”
A map is not the size of the earth its describes. Scale must be determined, as well as which features to include and which to leave out. You can’t include every tree in the forest; generalizations have to be made. Artists are familiar with these considerations and choices. A work of art is not the thing it describes, but something other.
“To put a city in a book, to put the world on one sheet of paper—maps are the most condensed humanized spaces of all,” writes Robert Harbison in his book Eccentric Spaces. “…they make the landscape fit indoors, make us masters of sights we can’t see and spaces we can’t cover.” Likewise with art.
Suzette McAvoy has served as director and chief curator of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art since September 2010. She previously served as chief curator of the Farnsworth Art Museum and has lectured and written extensively on the art and artists of Maine. McAvoy received a B.A. in Art History from Hobart & William Smith Colleges and an M.A. in Museum Studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program. She lives in Belfast.
You can view more of Shannon Rankin’s work via her website.
Kristin Keane / Harris Fogel
I am not sure who made the Grand Canyon so wild—it is hot, petrified, ready to bake you alive. In summer, the air strangulates, suffocates, smothers. The way it takes you by the neck, you must dip your entire face—your whole body, even—into the Colorado River for relief, the residue evaporating from your skin as quickly as air releases from a punctured balloon. Dehydration comes regularly and the canyon takes lives that way. Sixty-five to be exact, lifeless and seized on the switchbacks off the rim. Some come for the beauty, but usually it is for the risk.
Once a man waited out the heat by resting, foregoing the hike down towards the river because of fatigue. When his friends returned, they found him dead. I would like to ask that man: Were his last moments with the canyon as intimate as two hands pressing together? Did he see inside himself? Was there a choice?
Lately I’ve been thinking about the Grand Canyon because deep in the gorge I fell into a rapid and the river and I had a moment with one another. I traveled with an outfitter one hundred twenty-six miles in, two billion years of geological history and layer upon layer of eroded rock, a deep gash inside the Earth’s crust. A silty river, colored like chocolate milk rests below the rim, one hundred twelve rapids dotting the surface, shifting and changing every moment; it does not die. The crests of them are entirely whitewater, turbulent and frothy. Formed by holes, formed by heavy, collapsed things; formed by blockages; formed by waves themselves—breaking white-capped haystacks. They are not all the same of course, and a guideline indicates their power by numbers one through ten. We went there to ride across them, hang on for dear life and fly through them, the river guides cowboys armed with wooden-oared reins. The danger was the draw: it made us feel more alive.
The water, remarkably, is not the only peril inside the canyon. Dust storms take you by the throat and during monsoon season, the way the river sweeps into the craggy channels between the rocks, you can get pinned against a boulder and drown. That’s not to mention others: sunburns so intense the layers of your flesh become as powdered as a cigarette sleeve’s ash. The winter temperatures drop so far below zero, the frigid water can freeze your extremities so they snap off the way you break a candy bar in half. Sheer cliff edge’s hairpin turns and rattlesnake bites, the thorny ends of catclaw acacia brushing against your bare legs, poisonous scorpions, the bulls’-eye shaped targets of mayfly bites, left for other animals to sink their stingers inside. It goes on.
When we arrived at Lava Falls, one of the most technically difficult American rapids, the guide turned and said right before the drop, “You really don’t want to go over, so grasp the raft tightly,” after I asked what we should do in case of emergencies, in case the whole plan fell apart down there. In fact I asked this just moments before we got slammed, before the raft lifted up and licked the sky one last time and we hit the wave train in a way that we might as well have been striking the stony surface of the canyon wall. She had also said, “Just make sure you have thirty seconds of air in your lungs,” and something else about not getting caught on anything.
But thirty seconds is a big stretch, after all. It is enough time to forget why you’re there, to make a terrible choice, yield to something. When I saw the guide fumble the oar as the rapid approached, bending down towards us high and glossy in the arch of a snakes’ tongue, I thought: that’s really beautiful; and then: it’s over.
The rapid. Days of getting beaten down by swells of water, pummeled at the edges of the rafts’ frames, made it hard to tell we had flipped, but then I felt my feet looking for a place to anchor themselves where the foot straps should have been. I opened my eyes under water and saw the detritus the canyon spit out floating around inside, brown as a nut. It was quiet under there. I was quiet under there, twisting around the places where the water’s velocity shifted me. I realized I couldn’t really hear the rapid because it is thing you feel, even after breath has been knocked clean out of you, even when your ears are wide open. My heart met the rapid’s heart, they fastened, and we slid down a drain together.
It was a bludgeoning like a baton to the right cheekbone with the rush and force of two magnets’ poles: a tethering that could not be undone. Days could have passed under there, who knows? We compared notes. Bodies: my extremities to its jagged, pencil-thin twigs; the mosaic of its bedrock to the freckled constellations of my shoulders. We have both dreamt of butterflies. In mine their crab-shaped bodies fluttered inside my grandmother’s antique jewelry box; in the rapid’s, their wings were made from weighty arrowweed, sinking them in the river just as soon as they pitched themselves into the sky. The rapid lined my regrets and secrets up like smooth river rocks and held my face up to each buried one: I’ve toiled too long in places I should have left sooner, spent too much time in worry. I hide from myself. It is hard to weep in water, but right then I found a way. You might not believe me, but the rapid shifted shape and showed me myself.
I paused trying to recall what Betsy had said right before the drop. (Be careful not to get caught up, or be careful not to get caught on, anything?) The rapid and I agreed this was a moment when time appeared to fold in on itself.
I don’t know how I came up, or where. I remember immediately trying to commit to memory the things felt inside: arousal, pulling my heart from inside of its heart. I turned back from the rescue raft and suddenly it was gone. The waves barked up from the other side, and considering the mess of the current, there was no going back. You might tell me that a wave never dies, but it also never doesn’t.
The last night on the river, a guide is struck by lightening. Chasing pineapple upside-down cake with thimbles of bourbon, we sang “Happy Birthday” while fingers of electrostatic zipped across the canyon’s edge.
“Lightening rarely comes off the rim, so we’re fine,” someone actually said right before a bolt hit the umbrella we stood under to keep dry. The passenger we were singing to still held a plate of cake in his hand, seven candles stuck into the slice, one for each decade. At first I thought the struck guide was gazing at the lightening from his back like he was watching clouds form—unicorn, bear, ice-cream-cone-riding-turtle. I was reminded of the rapid, how it could reshape itself into anything. But then someone said, Is Jim dead?, just like that. A few of us stepped towards him. He was blue as a starling egg, but breathing.
I went there to bake under the sun, contort myself up rope ladders, travel into something famously perilous. I went there not to be remembered of death but to push against it, to ride the river’s wild edge and feel more alive. The awakening was supposed to be in the risk of the rapid, not in falling for it: it lives unapologetically, moves the way the stars and shifts of the moon’s gravity go, careens and turns and bends for itself because what makes it up is everything else—it is the rapid, but it is the river, the dirt, the rocks—living by its own accord, unafraid and unapologetic of what’s next. We see danger in the way that light flashes against a rapid’s foamy ridges, and the rapid just sees the light.
I could have done things differently down there. I could have reached harder for a handhold, pinched the tips of my fingers between a slot in the rock bed’s surface, wedged my feet inside a gap, bowed my head to exhale. I could have punished myself, ended things. I could have caught razorback suckers with my bare hands, ripped their heads clean off with my teeth. Under is where fear finally stops. Under is an uncomplicated surrender. Under is a good place to hide. The guide got struck by lightening that night, and he went back the very next summer. I wanted to ask him what he experienced inside that streak of electricity, how he felt underneath the pulse. I didn’t get the chance to, but I’m guessing I probably already know. If the opposite of cheating death is dying, then what do you call the place in between?
Somewhere along the way we learn fear, we worry for what’s coming next, relinquish ourselves to control, to loss of pure unrestraint. Then we hide from ourselves. I’m no good at learning from the past, but I know now there is a place under that rapid more powerful than the roar of the water ricocheting between the canyon walls, a place where you can go get caught. A rapid doesn’t drown anyone: it lives primal and intrepid, unafraid of broken bridges.
Here’s a trick I’ve found to feel more alive that is not in dodging rattlesnakes, their forked, smelling tongues: I imagine heading for the edge of the vertical drop, but do not ask what will happen next. I see the rapid ahead, prettily misshapen and speeding towards me. I do not sink my feet into the footholds of the raft; I do not grip the straps so tightly my knuckles go white. Instead I let go, press my hands together. I think about time, butterflies, drain holes. I pull my fingers apart and set the palm of my hand against the place on my chest where my heart is under. I listen. I wait for time to fold.
Kristin Keane lives in the Bay Area where she teaches at the University of San Francisco. A Vermont Studio Center writing resident and LitCamp juror, her fiction has been shortlisted for a Glimmer Train prize in fiction and has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly and Fjords Review.
Harris Fogel. These photographs were made using an 8×10-inch Deardorff view camera; for most of the images the camera was fitted with a Fuji 250mm F6.8 lens. The original book maquette of a Few American Cultures was created in 1993 at the request of the late Reinhold Misselbeck, then curator of the Museum Ludwig in Köln. Housed in a black plastic negative binder, it was filled with one-of-a-kind Cibachrome 8×10-inch contact prints printed on the glossy print material when I lived in Palm Springs, California. The advent of digital imaging allowed me to revisit the work and reconsider it in a larger framework.
The project began in the 1980s, with several themes; water politics in the West centered in California, the western landscape, portraiture, the South, etc., all cultures unique to themselves, but overlapping at the same time. I have continued to work on the project, creating new images, evolving and expanding. The shift to the 8×10-inch view camera not only slowed me down, but it allowed an exploration and description of texture instead the rough jottings of texture that smaller formats provided.