Remembering Northern California Near
This is a self portrait, but not one that is about one particular time or place. It is about more than one time. And it is about a number of places, more than two in fact, but in the title I mentioned two to simplify matters for the onlooker. The two places are the Midwestern Great Lakes area and the Northern California Coast, two landscapes I have lived in and thought about most of my life. The magic of art is able to evoke both places simultaneously, and evoke different times and memories as well. Art is more than merely realism, though realism too has its virtues. But it also can present multiple realities.
Many elements in this landscape, the Curly Dock and Queen Anne's Lace on the foreground field , for instance, are typical of the Midwest landscape, and one of the places that this painting pictures is near one of the Great Lakes. The place no longer exists, but once was a very small, semi-wild park near Lake Erie. It was destroyed by developers and some corrupt politicians who managed to extract the land from the public domain to build some very pretentious, oversized mansions on the land, which now is "property" and no longer a haven for birds and wildflowers as it once was. It was a small place, scarcely noticed by hardly anyone, but for a few years, to me, it became one of the central pivots of my life. I would get up at dawn to go there sometimes, before work, and listen to the birds, study the grasses and imbibe the spring air as the sun rose. I painted paintings there and wrote poems based on it and spent hours sitting on the shore, thinking about life and nature. studying the nature of water and color. Here is one of the paintings form those days.
The morning I first saw a heron flying over, I was so excited that even though it was three or four hundred feet above me, I ran underneath it for half a mile, trying to look at it as I stumbled over the rocky shoreline. in the distance in the painting, you can see the general area where I followed the heron. Their slate blue form, elegant and gracefully calm, filled me with awe, as each strong stroke of its large wings propelled the bird with ease and lightness. They are ancient, amazing and socially complex birds who nest in large colonies, colonies which I have seen in both Northern California and along the many rivers that flow north into Lake Erie.
So the painting is partly a painting of loss, in that it chronicles a place that has been destroyed. But this is not a painting of hopelessness. It is also a chronicle of a time of wonder and exploration in my life, where even a very small park could offer me deep solace. Nature does not just exist in large road less areas, and National parks, but also is in marginal areas, even in or close to big cities. Such places offer a many secret wonders to those who wish to learn and see them. Marginal nature exists on the skirts of even very large cites, and even in the city itself if one looks closely enough.
But it is important not to deceive oneself about what has been done to the natural world. Nearly all the land around the Great Lakes has been over-developed and turned into commoditized property, expensive "views" of the lakes, mostly owned by the rich or by industries who act as if nature existed only for their profits. There are a few areas in Canada or Lakes Huron and Superior that are not developed. The southern Great Lakes, Lakes Erie, Michigan and Ontario have houses or developments along almost their entire shores, with little or no thought as to the effect on nature and wildlife, and with a great deal of environmental damage resulting. Wetlands destroyed everywhere: concrete blocks poured into the Lake, high levels of pesticide, metals, PCBs. Large cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago dumb human waste in the Lakes when the rains are heavy. This is the result of combining waste treatment and storm runoff water systems which should have been kept separate. Whole bays have been destroyed as near the town of Sandusky, Ohio, for instance, preventing wetlands from spreading. In addition to pollution, there is over recreation, hunting and piecemeal conservation that has no real long term, restorative effect.
Lake Erie Twilight
I sailed on the Great Lakes in my teens, working on the iron ore ships, and saw first hand how beautiful these Lakes once were. In certain areas one can get intimations of what has been lost to greed and "capital improvements": Along the St. Mary's River between Sault St, Marie and Whitefish Bay in Lake Superior , for instance, I saw autumn visions of trees and wild forests much as what the ancient Huron Indians must have seen. I saw the beauty of the cliffs of the moose and fox-haunted island of Isle Royale at twilight: or the vast bulrushes of Lake St Clair.
My belief is that no development at all should be allowed to proceed along the shores of such lakes, rivers or other large bodies of water. All Lakefront, Riverfront and Ocean front land should be in the public domain with no private ownership. Riparian and coastal habitat should all be park land, forest, stream and floodplain areas. Bodies of water belong to everyone and no one has the right to claim ownership of them. There must be access to water for animals and humans. River mouths should be allowed to develop wetlands and deltas and dredged only in rare cases for shipping lanes. The mania for engineering that produced so many unnecessary dams that destroyed, for instance, the salmon populations in the western states or natural wonders like Glen Canyon, should now be reversed. Recreation should never disturb wildlife. Factories should not be allowed to exploit water courses, polluting the water downstream, in valleys like the Hudson or the Cuyahoga.
In this painting I was celebrating the Great Lakes that once were so wondrous and now suffer, despite claims that they are much improved. It is true there is small improvement, but very small, and much over-rated in fact. I think often of the atrocious state of the Great Lakes and the rivers that feed into it, and how we need to pay nature back for all the harm we have done to it. My painting is connected not just to my emotional life, but also to my researches. The life unexamined is not worth living, Thoreau said, and enthusiastic celebration need not be separate from a critical awareness of harms. Indeed, the deeper one's love of the natural world, the more one suffers with what ails it. The history of art too much reflects the service of art to powers, states, kings or corporations. It is time that art and artists express some shame for this. Art need not be a slave to the mythical inflation of powers. It can also serve the powerless, animals and birds, the poor and marginalized, rainbows, rivers and wetlands.
To the degree that the natural world suffers, I suffer. As an old Omaha Indian put it, who had experienced the natural world before the white man began decimating it:"When I was a youth, the country was very beautiful... I could see the trails of many animals and hear the cheerful songs of many kinds of birds...... But now the face of of all the land is changed and sad. I see the land desolate and I suffer an unspeakable sadness. Sometimes I wake in the night, and I feel as though I would suffocate from the pressure of this awful feeling of loneliness"I feel the same way. I have gotten so I can hardly live without the birds, plants and animals. It takes a long time to know them. The numbers of animals and birds in the old days was HUGE. We have no idea now, and most do not realize that anything is even missing. We think we are fighting for this group of deer, that group of plants or that species of birds. No, it is much more than that. We are fighting for an earth that would keep us from becoming inhuman. We fight against the promoters of desolation, against the preachers of indifference, and even against those who see nature as no more than a pastime or an excuse to escape from their otherwise destructive lives. I have gotten to the point where I know a few species deeply and in a personal way. I can look in my heart and see Deer, or certain plants or birds there. I can look in it and see Orioles, who I have watched for days on end. I can see Barn Owls, Foxes, Canada Geese, Beavers, Elk, Barn Swallows and many other species of bird and animal. I can see Wild Hyacinth, Milkweed, and certain mushrooms, Mayapple, Spicebush, Buckeye leaves and flowers and cattails. I can see Redwoods and White pines, Wild Coast Lupine and Beach Pea I can see landscapes from Northern California to Maine. You know an animal, bird or landscape when it becomes part of your heart. It becomes an essential part of your life. You can look into yourself and think of them and see they are as dear to you as people that you love. Places become talismans: memories of being; recollections of my deepest self. This understanding cannot be gained in books or in the classroom. Love grows in the immediate locality, and knowledge must be personal to be meaningful and real. All life is local, and abstract knowledge, in a certain way, leads to alienation and indifference, and in some cases, cruelty and impersonal killing. It is this personal knowledge, experience of and intimacy with other beings that the old Omaha Indian was longing for. It is this that our society has largely destroyed and destroys more and more of everyday and that is why I will not let flowers and birds be merely an excuse or an escape or a pastime. I do not watch birds as a hobby or as if I were watching TV. I live with them daily. I help them when I can. I take their loves seriously and believe they have as much right to life as I. Our culture is increasingly abstract and alienated, a culture of mediated information. Real experience of actual lives and beings becomes rarer and more precious. When the white Euro-Americans killed off the buffalo and destroyed the prairie, they laid desolate a large part of this old Indian's life, and emptied out the loves of his heart. What is moving about his statement is that he makes clear that we have let our own society empty out our hearts. The Indian knew what had happened. Sadly, many of us do not even know what is lost. I begin to understand why he felt he was suffocating under the desolation of what he loved. I too suffer it. And sometimes others blame me for missing what I know is gone, as if it were my fault. I know it is not my fault. It is clear to me where the fault lies. I will not cease from trying to understand and celebrate what is being stolen from my world. I learn more everyday about what is being destroyed and taken away and by whom. This theft and degradation is what happened and is still happening in California, Ohio and all over the world. The makers of desolation are still all around us. We fight against the suffocation. We fight against those who would ignore it or who are defeated by the exploiters. We fight against those who do not notice the loneliness of the loss of beauty who do not notice the birds are leaving us and the forests are cut down who do not notice that they can not breathe freely.
So the self portrait above is about the love of the local and about personal experience. Sometime after painting this painting, I began researching the area called the Black Swamp in northwest Ohio, not far from where I live. I took pains to learn about what had been destroyed in the area where I live.
The area of the Black Swamp was once of the last truly wild places in Ohio, and one of the last refuges of Native Americans who were fleeing the invasion of Ohio that followed the betrayal of treaties by the white Europeans. It was one of the greatest wetland areas that existed in North America and was very likely one of the most important ecosystems in the whole Midwest. This badly named area was destroyed for agricultural land between 1850-1890. Nearly all the trees in the area were cut down to pay for drainage.
It extended from Sandusky Bay to Indiana, in some places reaching 120 miles in length. and also reached up to 40 miles wide. It followed the ancient ridges that extend along the shoreline of lake Erie in geologic times. It roughly follows the contour of the Sandusky and Maumee rivers. Martin Kaatz, one of the few writers to write about this marvelous place, says that it was 1500 square miles in extent. Early explorers describe the area as being full of wild grapes, huge marshes of wild rice, fresh water mollusks, and huge populations of all kinds of birds and animals. The water of the marsh and of Lake Erie is described as being clear—and fish were extremely abundant. The destruction of the "Black Swamp" followed the same pattern of the killing and driving off of the Indians, the extinction of the passenger pigeon and near extinction of the Lake Sturgeon, all of which lived in proximity to the wetland. One source of information I looked at claimed that the destruction of this huge wetland destroyed an important filtering system of the Maumee River and its tributaries into Lake Erie. The resulting pouring of silt into the lake will hasten the Lakes eventual decreased water depth and long term demise.
The wetland was situated at the confluence of numerous migration corridors, and thus was central to the support of large populations of birds. The rather pitiful remnants of the "Black Swamp" west of Sandusky and east of Toledo, such as the Ottawa Wildlife refuge, Magee Marsh and Crane Creek, are badly constructed, over managed hints of what once existed. Many of the few remaining areas of the "Black Swamp" have been turned into hunting areas, or impounded wetlands that undermine fish spawning by rare species such as Sturgeon, and encourage Phragmites and Loosestrife, non native plants that drive out native plants. Together the remaining wetlands comprise nearly 40% of the remaining wetland areas around the Great Lakes , which indicates how much has been destroyed, since the current wetlands of western Lake Erie are pitifully small.. Many of these areas practice dyking and water level controls that, according to some environmentalists, has many negative side effects on the wetlands.
It might take a hundred years, but the majority of this once prolific wetland should be returned and restored to its original condition, the dykes removed, the drainage system and ditches filled in. "Conservation" of the existing rather pitiful remnants of the wetland is not enough, and moreover is done badly largely do to the intrinsic corruption of the Ohio Division of Wildlife that manages for hunters and not for ecological restoration. Restoring and not just "conserving" the majority of the original wetland and then preserving it from the ravages of both hunters and industry should be a high priority. This would not only contribute significantly to the health of Lake Erie, but it would aid in helping bird populations and restore a central part of natural heritage or North America.
Martin Kaatz, says that the phrase "black swamp" was first used by US military personal in the War of 1812, who considered the area a "frightful swamp", "morass", "terror" and similar terms of ignorance and opprobrium. The environmental hatred of the Black Swamp by the military goes back earlier to the "Indian wars", since the wetland was important to the Indians and feared by the whites because of its wildness and affinity to the Indian. It is a mistake to preserve a name for a place that is founded on race hatred and environmental ignorance. A better name for the area would be Tecumseh's Wetland . Tecumseh, the great Shawnee chief who tried to unite the Midwest tribes against the European invasion, apparently loved the area, and the wetland served as an important resource and hiding place for Native Americans harassed by the white invasion of their land. It was also an important area for wildlife of all kinds, who sought refuge in Tecumseh's Wetland from the brutality of white hunting and farming and capitalization practices. The name of the Black Swamp should be changed to be Tecumseh's Wetland,
The land that was the "Black Swamp" is now largely used for growing corn. There is no real need of this corn. Various economic interests profited from the destruction of the wetland, and gave little or nothing to the land in return. Indeed, today one of the most dangerous of all the nuclear reactors in the United States stands at the intersection of the area between Lake Erie and what was once the Black Swamp. It is called Davis Bessie and was closed down recently after a near disaster which could have polluted the entire area and killed many people, animals and birds. There has been enough destruction and exploitation. The land should be given back to itself, to the trees and wetland plants, colonies of egrets and herons, the foxes, crayfish, vast flocks of migrating ducks and birds.
Of course, my painting is not directly about Tecumseh's Wetland, but merely alludes to it in its praise of the wonder that was once the beauty of the Great Lakes. It is a self portrait, and a portrait of a state of wonder. I have felt this wonder in many places. Near Lake Erie and in Northern California. The bird in the painting is an Anna's Hummingbird, which is never seen near Lake Erie. In the painting I am remembering this marvelous bird and remembering the beauty of the Northern California Coast.
I grew up in Northern California not far from a mountain called "Mount Diablo". Just as the "Black Swamp" got its name both from a hatred of nature on the part of the US military in the campaign to defeat the Native Nations, so Mt. Diablo was named by the early Christian Spaniards, and their militias, who wanted to discredit the mountain which was important to local Indian religion and culture. The missionaries wanted to heap blame on a symbol important to the Miwok and other tribes who lived within the fifty mile radius from which the mountain is visible. The Name "Diablo" was given to the mountain in 1805 when some Spanish soldiers were trying to capture Indians who were "resisting missionization". The soldiers allegedly called the place where some Indians escaped from them "Monte Del Diablo" which means "thicket of devils". Of course the phrase "resisting missionization" is a euphemism for resisting slavery, since the Mission at San Jose and other mission at that time were actively involved in using Indians, who they called "neophytes" as slaves, and kept them in what amounted to cattle pens where untold numbers died of disease from starvation diets and poor sanitation. The name Diablo was thus originally a racist slur and a cover up for atrocities against Indians.
The name Mount Diablo arose when the Americans mistranslated the name Monte del Diablo. This was done, apparently, by Admiral Charles Wilkes, about 1840. Wilkes' expeditions to Hawaii, the West Coast and other places was accomplished, among other motives, to assess the soon to be annexed and colonized state of California. Wilkes, typical of many at this time, was a racist, who referred to native Americans as "savages". He was inspired by the ideology of "Manifest Destiny" that had justified the racist and Imperialist expansion of the United States into many Indian and Spanish lands. Wilkes primary interest during the few months he spent in California in 1841 appears to have been the discovery of gold by others, and incidentally he named the Mountain, no doubt picking up the racist name from the Spanish and mistranslating it.
In fact, this mountain was very important to Native Americans of the San Francisco area, who considered it a sacred site and who held ceremonies there. It figures as the central peak in their creation myths. In the beginning, according to these myths, and there are a number of variants of the myth, this mountain was the only piece of land anywhere, all the rest of the world being submerged under the sea. Coyote was the lone existing creature, until a feather floated across the sea, landed on the mountain and became Eagle, who was later joined by Hummingbird. The three of them create the world by first teaching Coyote to find a wife, which he badly botches, in his usual foolishly wise and ambiguous way, but finally succeeds in finding a wife . After that the world comes into existence. In other words the mountain was a sacred place and is closely associated with the mythic powers of the hummingbird, eagle Coyote, and in some variants, the endangered condor. It is certainly not the "Devil's mountain", and the fact that this name persists is a testament to the insensitivity of the white race, who have not noticed that there is nothing malignant of malevolent about this mountain. Any sensitive viewer of this beautiful mountain ought to notice that its name belies its beauty. It is the Rainbow mountain, the mountain of Coyote and Hummingbird. In my childhood it was visible sometimes from our yard, and other times if we climbed a tree. It was pink, almost scarlet at times, and turned purple and deep blue towards sunset. It was silhouetted against the sky like an enormous jewel, surrounded by twilight and the lilac and yellow of the setting sun, a sunlight somehow more beautiful in California that in other places. It was not a devil's mountain at all, and even as a child I knew this was a lie: it was crystalline twilight, a mountain of hummingbirds. One could call it Hummingbird Peak or Mount Coyote, or simply, Rainbow Mountain, which is what it sometimes looked like from the vista across the valley of my childhood. Yes, call it Rainbow Mountain.
We need to take back our language. The Black Swamp should be renamed Tecumseh's Wetland and a process of celebration and restoration of this wonderful area should begin. And Mount Diablo should be renamed Rainbow Mountain and cast off the heritage of racism and hatred of nature that gave it such an awful name.
I was trying to celebrate the rainbow colors of existence in the self portrait above, and to recall important places in my life where the many-colored song of existence has sung me its lovely song. Yes, the painting is partly about loneliness and loss, the loss of the beauty of the Great Lakes, the loss of unpolluted skies, the loss of places and homelands-- but mostly it is about wonder and wandering. I have wandered through the Northern California landscape just as through the Great Lakes landscape most of my life. Sometimes, my visits to Lake Erie at sunrise or sunset reminded me of the marvelous color and expanses of the sky out West. The sky in the painting is a sky that I have seen over both the Pacific and over Lake Erie. It is sky of hope, like a rainbow of wonder.
Copyright © 2002 Mark Koslow. All Rights Reserved.