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.
It is so easy to get lost in our hurry to get there- time dissolves as we browse the internet; as we speed from place to place, ingesting soundbites and tweets, directed to the fastest route possible by Google’s algorithms, by the voices from our phones. But, what, ultimately, do we lose in our quest for efficiency?
Poems slow us down and open us up by creating space in which we can navigate and renegotiate the terrain of our lives, explore the intersections between self and other, and imagine new worlds. Dwelling in poetry changes our bearings. Maps do the same thing. They create layers of time and place; they allow us to imagine multiple paths, alternative destinations, new worlds. Illustrating geography, history, politics, and culture, maps, like poems, serve as portals, like the map songs Harriet Tubman and others used to connect stars in the sky and moss on trees and people on the path to freedom.
Michelle Menting’s poetry and Margot Carpenter’s maps invite consideration of the consequences of haste, and they illustrate alternatives. Their work reminds us that many paths lie ahead, twisting and turning and intersecting and diverging, appearing and disappearing, again and again. Slowing down, dwelling in their work, we may feel the connections between humans and other mammals, consider the shared spaces we inhabit, and learn where to find what nourishes us.
AFTER READING “A BLESSING” BY JAMES WRIGHT
I pay more attention to life
along the highway. Literal life. Literal
highway. So often I’m consumed
by the death, the road-kill-carrion
smeared muscle of rodents, raccoons,
even bears. Oh my.
Before A Blessing, I noticed not
the Guernsey cows, so golden, so sweet,
and the deer that make it, that do
their best Baryshnikov over the ditch.
I noticed instead the porcupine’s needles
follicle-ing from asphalt pores, the fox’s tail
bobbing and stuck in a seam of tar,
and the feral cats who didn’t do their best
Martha Graham to avoid a Honda’s tire.
After A Blessing and learning about breaking
into flower, and the joy experienced
from observing two ponies nuzzling,
I pay attention. I see turtles living on the edge,
scooping the gravel to lay their eggs.
And my left arm greens to a stem.
I see frogs being improper in the road, right
in the middle of the road during a rain storm,
and I brush pollen from my shirt.
Those cows, those gentle Guernseys?
I see them, and the fingers on my right hand
become petals. I can’t step out of
my body completely and break
into flower, but parts do blossom.
After reading A Blessing I’m still no fool.
I can’t ignore the sadness of the road,
the literal road, the metaphorical one too.
One morning while running in Madison,
Wisconsin, I saw further up the street
the shape of a squirrel hovering over
some thing, some still but soft thing.
I caught up and the squirrel, that visible
squirrel, didn’t flee. It didn’t leave
its partner, the soft lump in the center
of the road, clearly hit, clearly dead.
This squirrel, this living rodent, this pest
to attics and garages, prodded its dead love.
Nudged her. Wouldn’t leave when I ran by,
and only fled to the grove of oaks
when another truck approached.
I kept running. I looked back,
and that squirrel had returned
to its partner’s side. That’s when I thought
I’d break. That my whole body and heart
would break, but not into blossom.
Instead, I would crumble like a leaf
in November. I would crisp into pieces—
some parts dirt, while others
would sparrow into the wind.
The odor was septic and made us speechless,
though we’d already lost our voices
when the sun napped dusk, when night’s sheet
hushed the traffic, the birds, our thoughts.
It was a peahen hit to the ditch
and decaying. Her left wing shielded
her breast–a draped cape, her final
comfort. The smell of turkey is not
always the same. If we cooked her carcass,
would the scent remind us of arugula,
of berries brined? Of autumn and wood fires,
or late summer’s chilled wine? This find,
this bird, we encountered on an evening
that made us question beauty, was she messaging
her last will and flight? Her lofted feathers,
those still sticking to live twigs weighted
with winter berries, lead us further still
into the meadow policed by the farmer’s
one black horse and one banded cow.
Land we did not own but that owned
our souls in its soil like all life its surface
sends meandering. Not listless in loss
but lustful for fresh discovery in beauty
found in failed crossings, we crossed
as wayfarers. We foraged through paths
in pastures of sorghum futures or would-be whey.
Our earlobes and nostrils, every follicle
of skin, set as seismographs collecting
fall rot and cyclic decay–any fresh
disturbance–in measurements of awe.
HOW, NOW FROM OUR FRONT DOORWAY YOU CAN SEE A FAIRWAY
Maybe the moon rises like this everywhere?
Wide, reflecting the pond in the middle
of a golf course? We laughed: how
coarse, a course of golf. How now
we went from a home in the woods
to puddle and turf. Now,
we look from a gate with wire
that wraps the remaining pines: how, now
they fence the land. Still, that moon,
once buck now harvest, is slow
but full over the tree line. Low
and looming. Too orange to be safe.
This time in my house, I’ll bring in the furniture, inside
this time, from the garage.
Years ago, our house–the one we lived in together, thought
how cool to be new in our twenties with a deed and a driveway,
that house, a brick bungalow with charm–stayed empty
for a year with bags as dressers, futon for our bed.
That house–hollow without tables or chairs, sofa or stools–
we didn’t know how to fill, except with our voices: inside
the air between rafters and thresholds, all that space, we’d loft
phrases, pastoral and poetic. You’d say lines
like, you shed our morning blankets like a dragonfly
molting, and I’d say, you’re wading along the lakeshore,
wielding a net. And back and forth, the words we tossed
echoed and faded, bounced in that space we shared
against emptiness. Maybe if we had created an alcove,
spackled a wall, constructed a partition, or just brought in
our furniture, we could have secured our words, trapped them
inside, filled our house like an aquarium of language.
Instead, after coffee that final August morning–our last
together in that house or anywhere, with windows
open, breeze traveling through–we sat in silence.
The only words were stuck on the refrigerator door.
In block letters we formed phrases, final and magnetic.
You linked: SHADOWS WE FELL THROUGH
TRUTHS WE LOST. And I linked: I KNOW
AND MISS A HOUSE A HOME.
And all around us, inside and quiet, the wind blew
our phantom voices from rafters to thresholds.
Remember when you could draw Ursa Major
from memory? How you knew to dip from line
to endpoint to line to endpoint? Ursa Minor was the same
across the sky, and Orion was a three-prong belt. Maybe
this was in third grade when string cheese was in lunch boxes
and string theory on TV. When space shuttles taught you
the word tragedy and you hoped your teachers would never
fly away. Something about outlining the stars—
forming constellations by connecting the dots, something
about endpoints— seemed necessary, like a new language
you could use in a future where everyone soared in cars.
Something about mapping those lines, and memorizing
the Latin, and that joy you got from asking, “how is that a bear
or an archer with a bow, and what is a big dipper anyway?”
Some things are so easy to forget once you learn tragedy by heart.
Stephanie Wade teaches writing and environmental humanities at Unity College. Her interest in maps and poems is part of a project to define narrative ecology, which posits narratives as living systems that include the stories conveyed by physical environments and material items; that shape our experiences and also respond to our actions; and that persist in layered, multiple, dynamic forms.
Michelle Menting is the author Myth of Solitude (Imaginary Friend Press, 2013) and Residence Time (Dancing Girl Press, 2016). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, The Offing, The Southeast Review, The Hopper, and the Deep Water and American Life in Poetry columns, among other places. She lives in mid-coast Maine.
Margot Carpenter creates digital and print maps for a diverse market. She has made maps for the Maine Department of Transportation; recreation, tourism and environmental groups; and for books published by Downeast Books, Dutton, Simon & Schuster, and Falcon Press. Her business Hartdale Maps is in Belfast, Maine.
Osprey of the Blue Refuge
Early this morning, I went to the visitor’s center to ask after ospreys. I shook hands with the ranger, whose name I could not recall. He knew mine. He stood up behind his desk when I came through the door. “If it isn’t John Cossman,” he said. He waited for his name. The visitor’s center is not air-conditioned, so he sweat. I sweat. Since I could not ask his name, I asked for a map of the island.
He was wearing a park ranger’s Stetson. If he’d taken off the Stetson, I might have known him. I knew we’d gone to school together, to the only island school. I knew he was one
He asked what work I’d been doing, and I told him I was working as a pathologist in Charleston. I did not tell him fifteen months ago, I diagnosed a cyst from the left breast of a woman—we’ll call her Ms. Lydia Harris—as a radial scar, benign. It was malignant. One year later, they diagnosed tubular carcinoma, stage three, metastatic in five of seventeen lymph nodes. You can’t know what might have been, but her prognosis now is nine months of hell and then fifty-fifty. They printed an interview with her in the local paper, covering the malpractice suit. She said, “I just want him to admit he made a mistake.” But a man doesn’t make a mistake like that. I have diagnosed tubular carcinoma more times than I can count and never gotten it wrong before.
He said, “Good for you.” He said he’d seen my father a few weeks ago at the food mart. My father lives waterfront on the island’s eastern shore. “Said he was thinking of selling the house, heading north.”
I shook my head. My father built that house fifty years ago. My wife Sandra has been trying to get him to sell and move up to Charleston, closer to us. She thinks he’s lonely. I tell her he likes his space, same as I do. I said, “We’ll have to pry him out of that house.”
“Lots of people are selling,” he said. “Going inland for work. I’ve had every fisherman on the island come through this office in the past three months. They stand just like you’re standing, asking have I got work for them.”
“I’m not looking for work,” I said.
He said, “I tell them like I’m telling you now. I tell them if I had work don’t you think I’d give it to you? In a minute, I’d give it to you.”
“I’m not looking for work.”
He rolled his chair back from the desk, tipped his hat up on his head.
I nearly had his name when Charleston called. I let my phone ring itself out against my hip. It was the lawyer, wanting to confirm tomorrow’s meeting. In the message, she said, “Eight in the morning, doctor.” She said, “See you then.” We are to meet before the deposition. The deposition is tomorrow. The deposition is at noon. I could have left
I walk east, skirting the loose sand of the dunes, because Russell pointed me east. He said there is a nest this way. “Keep to the shore. You can’t miss it.” I keep to the shore.
Sandra calls. I feel her humming against my hip. I take the phone and hold it in my palm. She will want to know what time she should expect me home, to know if I hit traffic in Mobile, construction outside of Atlanta. “Where are you?”she asks in the message. She asks twice. If I called her back, I would tell her, “I’m leaving now,” and she would say, “I’ll wait up for you,” and she would wait and wait.
Last time I talked to Sandra, she told me they could take our savings if malpractice didn’t cover the suit. They could take the Roth where we’ve been putting money every month for retirement. They could take the house. She said, “I’d hate to lose the house.”
Ospreys orient home by the sun on their biannual migrations. They come to this island from Cuba, following a trail of floating rigs, whose derricks offer places to perch, to rest their wings or lock talons and sleep. At night, when there is no sun, they fly by the stars—not single stars, star patterns, constellations. If clouds obscure the stars, they follow the grid of ultraviolet light. If they are blinded in the name of science, they use magnetic cues to find their way.
I haven’t slept in the house in Charleston in weeks. I wouldn’t mind if they took it. I could stay here, sell prints of my photographs, maybe work as a docent in the visitor’s center, make enough to keep myself in boots and canned peas. I’d enjoy that sort of work, put-your-feet-up work, work that doesn’t help anything, doesn’t hurt anything. When I get back to Charleston, I’ll tell them take the house. I’ll tell them take it all.
On the fishing pier, a man works a cast net, his cooler open and empty at his feet. His hands spider across the webbing—limber hands, young hands. My hands are stiff. About a year ago, I started having trouble grasping the fine-focus knob on my microscope. I took to working just with the coarse focus, playing it out and back until the tissue came clear. And I have thought about that. I’ve thought if the image was sharper maybe I would have caught it, would have seen the slight pinching of adipose tissue stained orange, a rusted carcinoma.
Behind the net fisherman, a blue heron skulks, hoping for a handout. Last summer, the pier would have been packed shoulder to shoulder, families sleeping at night in lawn chairs to keep their spot, farming their narrow patch of ocean. That was before the spill, before word came from the trawlers of eyeless shrimp, crabs without claws, two-headed fish, fish covered in boils, in black lesions, fish that bled black at the hook and were black inside, gills and muscle and bone, like they’d been charred.
Santa Rosa Island was spared the worst of the slick. Off the Louisiana coast, it is said the oil sludge was so thick you could walk between barrier islands without sinking into the water. They burned what oil they could off the surface.
On the shore beside the pier, a man wearing headphones plays a free line in shallow water, catch and release. He hasn’t bothered bringing a cooler.
My osprey has ceased his arcs and settled on a branch overlooking the waves.
“What are you after?” I ask the man with the free line. He pulls his headphones down from his ears, and I repeat my question.
He says, “Anything that’ll bite.”
“Retired,” I say.
“These things happen, John,” Gary said after the summons. Gary and I shared an office. We shared cases, the head-scratchers, passing them back and forth until we came to a consensus. The day I misdiagnosed Lydia Harris he wasn’t in the office. His son was pitching a little league game, and he had gone to watch.
“You’re a good doctor, John,” he said. I stood looking at my microscope in its heavy dust cover, at the slide trays stacked ten-high on the desk beside it. “You think you could take them for me, Gary?” I asked him. “Just for today?”
He had a stack of his own, but he took them. They asked me to resign the next day.
I tell the fisherman, “I’m living like I should have been all my life.”
He tells me he’s retired as well. He was a conductor, he says. “The Cincinnati Orchestra.”
The osprey leaves his perch, and I raise my camera. I watch him fly. “You miss it?” I ask him.
He shakes his head. “It’s the nerves,” he says. “You get so a body just can’t take it anymore.”
The osprey shades the water with his wings, searching the shadows for the flash of a darting fish. At that shine, he will hover, positioning, then plummet feet first, extending his head at the last moment so beak and talons enter the water together. He will miss just one catch in fifty.
The net fisherman has brought up three small herring and lowers them carefully into his ice chest. I lift my camera. I take one photo—the ice chest, man, and heron all in a single frame. The light is heavy, iron light.
I tell the conductor I’ve been photographing ospreys. “Keeps me occupied,” I say. He can understand that. He’s fishing just to toss the fish back. “Only found two nests so far,” I say. I tell him there’s some who blame the oil for that, say it’s made for bad fishing, say the ospreys are staying away. “Somebody cut corners,” I say.
He shrugs. He says, “Somebody wasn’t paying attention. That’s my guess.”
I shake my head. I’ve thought about it, of course, thought I might have been distracted. I’ve thought maybe the Saturday Gary’s son pitched his first game was the Saturday Sandra told me she was going to visit her sister for a few weeks, maybe a month, said she needed some time away. “I’ll come with you,” I said. She said, “You’ve got work.” I told her I’m ready, anyway, to be retired. “Work three more years for me, John,” she said. “Just until we pay off the house.” I told her she knows, doesn’t she, that I need her here. She said she knew. But it can’t have been that Saturday. That Saturday I didn’t go into the office. I stayed at home with her.
“Grossly negligent,” I say. That is the phrase the courts will use. I say, “They knew what they were doing.”
The conductor has caught a fish. He wades out into the water to take it by the tail, gets it unhooked and tosses it up to the heron on the pier. It is a fifteen-inch sea trout, one-headed. The heron does not, of course, want it. Too hard to get down and keep down.
The net fisherman comes away from his net to stand over the fish. “That’s a catch,” he says to the conductor.
The conductor shrugs. “Been at it a few hours. About time.”
The fisherman nudges the sea trout with one toe. “You see the herring out there?” he asks us, pointing over the water. “I bet this one was after the herring.”
He says, “Man tried yesterday to charge me three bucks a pound for skipjack. Three bucks a pound, and the fish so thick out there you could shovel them up.”
The conductor says, “I’ve never heard herring to leap like that.”
“Any fish’ll jump if he’s got cause.”
My osprey hovers above the school. I lift my camera. I catch him with kinked wings.
I shake my head.
“I’m in the market,” he says. “They took my seiner to Luling to help with the clean up. Might as well take my legs, I told them, but they just needed the seiner.”
“I don’t have a boat,” I say.
I’d lease her from you if you didn’t want to sell,” he says. “Schools like that I’d turn a profit quick.” He tugs at the brim of his ball cap. He is looking down at the trout, which has more meat on it than six herring. “You just going to leave it?”
“I was meaning the bird to eat him,” the conductor says.
“Bird doesn’t look interested to me.”
The conductor shrugs and pulls at the cord of his headphones, which dangles, cut, at his navel.
The net fisherman stoops and takes the trout by the jaw. “You don’t want him.”
The conductor says, “I wouldn’t eat anything out of the Gulf.”
The net fisherman lowers the trout into his ice chest and starts packing away his net. He says, “What else is there to eat?” He lifts his cooler onto his shoulder and makes his slow way down the beach. He stops once to rest, and I point my camera at his back, but the sun is out in front of him, shining directly into the lens. He is just a shadow, the world brightened to rainbow around him like oil sheen on water.
I turn back at a splash. The osprey is coming up out of the Gulf, shaking the water free of his feathers and gaining altitude. He is not carrying a fish, not carrying anything at all.
I tighten the belt of my jeans and wade into that marsh. The water is black and warm, folding around me. I come up onto dry land soaked and blooded and feeling altogether good, because a female osprey is perched on a branch just two yards ahead of me, and my eye is level with her lizard eye. She sees past me, past all the heavy-browed hominids right back to Homo erectus egg-snatcher. She knows better than to trust me.
I wander the sand pines, searching for her nest. Last week, I watched a nest fall from a sand pine in a grove like this. It was an old nest, a decade old or older—four feet in diameter, two hundred pounds at least, enough seaweed and grass to start a slow process of decomposition, generating heat for the nestlings. There were two nestlings. When the nest fell, I was squinting through my viewfinder at their snaking heads.
The fall was quiet, marked only by the whistled two-note alarm call of the female osprey hovering above the newly barren tree. I left my camera and crawled into the thicket of sweet acacia surrounding the trunk of the nest tree. I spent forty minutes working on hands and knees, searching for the fallen nest. I found it on its side—sticks and seaweed, down feathers, a scrap of denim.
zoomed in tight with the aperture wide open. I caught with my camera the vein of each pinfeather, the bristled legs of the bluebottle flies that swarmed the nest. In the pictures, the background is blurred. In the pictures those nestlings might be twenty yards up in the air.
I wander until I lose the light. I do not find a nest, but I know it is close, because twice the female osprey flies a tight circle over my head. I lift my lens to shoot her agitated.
I walk back to the campground along the narrow seawall surrounding the old naval fort. As a boy, I rode my motorbike along this seawall, picking up speed and lifting the bike onto its rear wheel. In those days, colonies of plovers nested on the island, thousands of them, stretched for a half-mile
One night I took my motorbike down onto the beach and through the center of the nesting colony, plovers blowing up before the front tire like scraps of shredded paper. I came away from the colony scratched and splattered with urea. My father, when he heard, was furious. In part, because the bike’s sprocket and chain had to be replaced, but mostly because I had proven myself capable of malice he had not expected.
After that night, I could not get within fifty yards of the colony without being mobbed by a dozen birds, sprayed with excrement. Every year it was the same. Even when I returned after eight years away, the birds remembered me. The plovers are protected now, the shells of their eggs so thin they shatter at a touch. They don’t nest on this island anymore.
Sandra calls. I answer. I don’t want her thinking something happened to me on the road. I don’t want her worrying.
She says, “John.”
I ask her if she thinks I made the misdiagnosis on purpose.
She says, “No.” She says, “Where are you?”
I say, “What other explanation is there?”
She says, “Have you left yet?” She says, “It was a mistake, John. They know it was a mistake.”
“You can’t miss the deposition. It’s against the law to miss the deposition.”
I say to her, “I know.”
“No one thinks you’re a criminal, John.”
I say, “I knew what I was doing,” thinking not about the Saturday I misdiagnosed Lydia Harris, but about all the other Saturdays, the Saturdays I remember. The Saturday Lacy broke her wrist playing softball, and I signed out two frozen sections before meeting Sandra at the emergency room. The Saturday Sandra’s mother passed, and we stopped at the office on our way to the airport, so I could sign out a lymph node biopsy—sarcoidosis, benign. The Saturdays I bickered with Sandra over cold cereal and came to the office head-pounding. I imagine the day I misdiagnosed Lydia Harris was a Saturday like any other Saturday. I woke in the morning and left Sandra sleeping. I made a pot of coffee, put Sandra’s mug in the microwave, so it would be ready to heat when she woke. I drove twenty minutes to the office and parked in the lot reserved for doctors. The office was quiet, as it always is on Saturdays. It’s one of the reasons I like working Saturdays, you get the place to yourself. I took my time over the frozen, just the single frozen, and finished the handful of cases left from the week before. I returned home for dinner, and when Sandra asked how was it, I told her, “A good day.” I told her, “One frozen, benign.” I told her, “She got lucky.”
I call my father, because it is Sunday, because we eat dinner together on Sundays when I am on the island. He is free,
he says, and so I pick him up from his house and take him toJoe’s, the only diner on the island that doesn’t serve seafood. After dinner, I ask him if there is any place he needs to go, but he says Mrs. Parker took him into town that morning. She takes him once a week for groceries and to refill his prescriptions. On Saturday mornings, she takes him to the brunches Gulf Power puts on for their employees, past and present. He wears his denim work-suit and the gold star he was given at retirement for putting in forty years. He retired at seventy-two, though I suspect they kept him on, those last few years, just out of obligation. He’s the only one at the brunches with a star. The other attendees are all kids in their thirties. Pole boys, he calls them.
it. There are three chicks in the turnip nest. I steady my camera on its tripod, the viewfinder centered on them, just in case.
I didn’t move. It’s not something you expect to see, the man who striped your thighs with a Sam Browne belt panicked like a beetle on his back, swallowing water. Lacy was the one who pulled him to his feet, and after she stayed close right beside him. She put one arm around his waist, taking his weight, struggling with him up out of the water and into the dune fields. I came behind them, watching her, thinking she was going to be all right, Lacy, thinking kids mostly raise themselves, wondering at how easily she loved him.
I asked him this evening if he wanted to go out into the surf, but he said he’d rather not, so we are watching birds. The female is on the nest. If we watch long enough, I say, we’ll see the male fly in with a fish. He’ll have eaten what he can of the head and torn the rest away to lessen the weight.
He says, “I talked to Sandra this morning. She seemed to think you were heading home.”
I say, “She doesn’t need to worry about me.”
“When are you heading home?”
I tell him I don’t know.
I bend again to my camera, focus it on the silhouette of an osprey on the near shore. It might be the female from the nest that fell. I can’t be sure. She is perched high over the waves, scanning for fish. I wonder if she has abandoned the nestlings, and if some part of her is relieved to have finally failed, glad to have the evening to fish just for herself.
We wait another thirty minutes, though there’s no point. The nest is quiet, and the light is low, western light, rusted light. He is impatient, and so I drive him home in my car, which he does not like, crowded as it is with dirty clothes and an unrolled sleeping bag, canned food, camera equipment.
“Is there a restroom,” he asks me, “at the campground?”
We’re past the campground. “I can go back,” I say, but I do not turn around.
He says, “I’ll be fine.”
He wets himself three minutes from his house. I look over when I smell the ammonia, but he is backlit by the window, and I can’t see his face. When I pull up into the drive, he says, “You go on in.”
He comes in a few minutes after me, says, “I’ve got sheets put on your bed.” Says, “You sleep here tonight, and in the morning we’ll take your car to the wash to get the sand off of her. You’ll ruin her with that sand.”
I say, “This house?” He built this house after we moved down from Virginia. He was happy in those early years, living on a 34-foot sloop, trucking lumber over from the mainland. I was happy.
“You don’t want the house,” he says, “and I’m getting too old to live like this.”
I say no to the first, no to the second. I say, “You’re doing fine.”
He works his scissors around an advertisement for turkey sausage. His hand shakes.
“If you want a smaller place,” I say, “I can find you a smaller place.”
“I thought I’d go with you to Charleston. When you go.”
“I don’t know when I’m going.”
He nods. “When you do.”
“We don’t have the space,” I say, “in Charleston.”
“All I need’s a place to sleep,” he says, but his house is full of things, and our house is full of things, and we might not have the house.
I say, “You built this place.”
He says, “I had a son to raise and no place to raise him.” He says, “No one would build it for me.”
I drink my coffee.
He says, “I watched them bury Lutt Parker in sand so shallow next storm he’ll be above ground again. You hit an age you start thinking practically about these things.”
“There’s time and time,” I say, “to figure all that out.”
“You came to this island. You left Virginia.”
“I came to this island to raise a boy up. And I did that.” He raps his finger down on coupons offering fifty cents off Selma’s Blueberry Spread or two stone-baked pizzas for the price of one. “Island like this, you want to be just passing through.”
The visitor’s center at the refuge is closed. I walk past it, east into the pine forest, toward the place where the nest fell. I pass a park ranger headed the other way. “You can’t sleep out here,” she says. “You have to stay in the designated camping grounds.”
I tell her I’m just walking.
She wants to know if I have a camping permit, and when I tell her it’s in my car, she wants to walk with me back to my car. We walk together. She stays behind me, as though given half a chance I would turn and bolt. She says, “There’s no camping in the park without a permit.”
It takes me ten minutes to find the permit. While I’m looking, she bends the brim of her hat in her hands. It is the traditional park service hat, the Smokey Bear hat, the lemon squeezer.
I hand her the permit. She looks it over.
“I haven’t broken any rules,” I tell her.
She hands it back. She says, “Have a good night, Mr. Cossman,” and I do not correct her.
“At the campground, the conductor has built a fire using two-by-fours as fuel. When he lifts a hand to me, I go to sit beside his fire, though the sun has just set, and it is still eighty degrees at least. We sit in silence. I pinch the sand flies that
case and starts to strum, he puts on his headphones. He leans over and tells me to have a good sleep. He stands, offers his seat to a woman standing behind it, and ducks into his tent.
There is nothing at his campsite but an army-issue tent and the chair he is sitting in now. “Where are your things?” I ask him. “Your car?”
“Sold the car,” he says. “Ten years ago, it was.”
“How’d you get down here?”
“I had a buddy coming as far as Atlanta. I got down all right.” He kneads his hip with one hand.
“It’s the wet,” I say, because my knees have been aching and slow to bend.
He shakes his head. He tells me he shattered the joint years ago. He fell off the podium halfway through Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. “Ten feet. Down into the orchestra pit.” He tells me they don’t list his name with the other conductors for the Cincinnati Orchestra. Every other name, but not his. “Nine months I waved a baton for them, and they can’t be bothered to remember my name.”
“I ask him what is his name. Daniel Hartzog, he tells me, and I say it back to him to be sure I’ve got it right.
“What about you,” he says. “Think they’ll remember you?”
“I say, “Yes. I do.”
“Well then,” he says. “That’s something.”
The other campers come from their air-conditioned fifth wheels and Winnebagos to join us. They would stay in the cool if they could, but the conductor has built a good fire, and so they come with folding chairs and children and easy
case and starts to strum, he puts on his headphones. He leans over and tells me to have a good sleep. He stands, offers his seat to a woman standing behind it, and ducks into his tent.
Award winning artist and storyteller, Jessica Hines, uses the camera’s inherent quality as a recording device to explore illusion and to suggest truths that underlie the visible world. At the core of Hines’ work lies an inquisitive nature inspired by personal memory, experience and the unconscious mind.
Morgan Thomas graduated with an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Oregon. She is currently a Fulbright student, teaching English and creative writing in Darkhan, Mongolia.