Art Hack

Art Hack

I cannot draw.

This is so true it’s not even critique. Playing Pictionary exclusively with non-artists, my work is irrefutably the most distorted, the least comprehensible. A horse may reasonably be interpreted as a capybara, a sailboat as a place setting. It’s one of those failings I’m no longer ashamed of, though of course I’ve always wished I could create a somewhat representative work, even if visual art is likely beyond my reach. Some people have trouble expressing themselves in words. I have not only been lacking in the ability to convey thoughts, ideas, or images in a visual fashion, I haven’t been able to successfully convey anything in graphite, paint, clay, crayon, ever.

Then, last summer, I started getting into trees. Not, like, physically into them (or just barely). But really falling in love with trees. I have to give credit to Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a book I would not have read if the author hadn’t had a remarkably forgettable name (a work I read of his years ago was one of my most loathed novels of the decade). For whatever flaws it has, The Overstory brought trees alive for me in a way that nothing in my child-of-hippies, nature loving, environmentalist past has done. I was suddenly thirsty with the need to know trees.

How does one meet trees? In the beforetimes, one would naturally show up at one’s local arbor social, chat up some tall, deciduous babe, maybe leaf together. But what of these pandemic times? Where does one socialize with a firmly planted, silent species?

Rather than returning to a method of learning that has, I now realize, always bored me, overwhelmed me, and failed me – that of book study and rote memorization (a methodology I think I may have repeated for decades because I saw it as a way to punish myself for my not knowing, ignorance being a sure sign of my laziness, ineptitude, and lack of intelligence, rather than an accident of circumstance), I sought another way in. I had been using iNaturalist at the recommendation of Jenny Offill’s ironically inspiring book, How to do Nothing in an attempt to identify local birds, so I posted some snapshots of trees in my area and begged the wisdom of the app’s community for identification, but soon found that there’s a lot more you typically need to identify a tree than a bird. A clear avian photo or song is likely to produce a positive identification from an avid amateur, but when I tried arborday.org’s tree identification gauntlet after iNaturalist failed to produce results, I found that with ~60,000 species on Earth, you need a lot of info to id a tree – info I didn’t even comprehend, let alone have the ability to produce (pettiole? pinnately compound? lobed margins? did they teach us anything important in school?). I had to gather data, and short of standing in front of a tree with my blech-inducing laptop to document objective information for long stretches of time, the best way to do that was to start sketching.

Not the whole tree. Too overwhelming for my detail-oriented brain, plus I am wary of attempting representation, for the reasons explicated at the top of this post. I was focused on essential pieces of the tree: the design and texture of the trunk, the exact shape of a leaf, the pattern of leaf placement on a branch, any acorns or fruits or other adornments.

Begin at home, they say. So I literally did. Not with the Black Walnut in my backyard – a tree I love so much I regularly ruminate on the heartbreak of its eventual demise (likely long after my own), much as I do with my dog (likely much sooner), but not with my partner (weird). I focused instead on the unknown boulevard tree, across the sidewalk from my front yard. I grabbed a camp chair and hauled my small stash of gear outside. I started with the trunk, carefully recreating every swirl, protrusion, and knot as clearly as possible with my new charcoal pencils in my new spiral-bound sketchbook. It didn’t take long to realize that not only was I not going to capture the 2×2′ chunk I had planned to draw, I would be lucky to finish 1/4 that much. It struck me that this was because I was essentially copying the details 1:1, that my brain hasn’t developed the skill to shrink the patterns down. I was literally just drawing what I saw, exactly as I saw it, to the best of my ability.

TREE!

Who cares? The year before, I didn’t think I could draw anything and now I had put something beautiful on paper. The intricacies of the trunk were engrossing. I could honestly have continued getting to know them for hours, if I had enough paper. Instead, I restricted myself to a small chunk of bark and moved on to a branch, being careful to accurately represent the characteristics I had seen on the arbor day site: how the branches grow out of the tree, how the leaves are arranged on the branch, the relative size, color, and texture of the berries all over it. Leaves are, bless ’em, portable, so if you tire of people’s stares, or worry about paranoid neighbors calling the cops, you can take a fallen leaf indoors for the rest of the session. My leaf was covered in little nipples (yep, that’s what they’re called), which I thought were bugs or disease, but turned out to be characteristic of my tree species which, after triple-checking with the Arbor Day foundation, a UMN list of common trees in my state, and a YouTube video for confirmation, I found out was a hackberry. As my first tree it is naturally special, but get this bonus: it has edible fruit! Those little berries that my dog regularly snacks on are tasty little morsels – very little, as the seed takes up almost all the space, but if you get them at the right time of year, the fruit tastes like fig. This was probably the best tree I could have started with, because I love to eat, and because I am always, in the back of my mind, looking for ways I might be useful after the demi-apocalypse. They’ll definitely let me live when I deliver these little delicacies.

Once I got to know this tree, I saw it everywhere. Not only because we were now acquainted, but because my block is lined with hackberries. Stupid human planning, and here’s hoping no hackberry disease comes to our lovely street anytime soon, but now I know.

This is the practical. I now know a tree. Several, in fact, as I repeated this practice some weekends while the weather was good – not as much as I’d like, but, you know, I know some trees, if you get my drift. The unintended but unsurprising bonus was how this intimacy breathed life into my spirit. I see trees differently now. I see the world differently now because I have paid attention to a handful of trees.

It can happen with any element of nature – birds, trees, insects, flowers. Once you really get to know a few of them, you are invited into a world in which the contrast has been turned up at least 100%. Once you know a thing, you literally see it in a way you could not previously. And once you can see that specific category of thing, you can use that awesome brain power to identify difference – how is this tree unlike my tree? What animals like to hang on my tree? What creatures prefer others? Which of my trees look healthy, which don’t? What in the immediate environment might influence that? The wacky thing, for me, is that all of these questions came from a place of curiosity, not of intellectual greed. The more I paid attention, the more my attention expanded. I started boring my partner on walks with my constant, simple observations like, Look at that beautiful trunk! What a scratchy leaf! Why aren’t there branches growing there? I don’t think one needs to know the name of something – cultural or scientific – to connect with it, but I do think I need to know some name, have some way to identify it so that it becomes real to me, and the ecosystem it interacts with becomes like the home town of a loved one – an abstraction now infused with meaning because it means something to someone you care about.

Until I started practicing it myself, I didn’t understand this apparent paradox: how can naming a thing, which is essentially putting it in a box and separating it from myself, bring me closer to it? I think of the neuroscientist who wrote about her massive stroke, explaining that the loss of words for the things around her allowed her to feel fully at one with everything. I don’t have a definitive answer (and don’t have to – I’m all about the nonbinary these days) but I think it has something to do with attention. For example, if we looked at all of humanity as nothing but people, it might keep us from stereotyping them as friend, enemy, good, bad; but if we resist any classification, we are left without an understanding of the whole or any of its parts. Once we start paying attention, we make note of differences, but also similarities and qualities and patterns. We start to see the object in relation to ourselves and other things we know, which connects it to us, even if only in difference and novelty. It’s not a perfect relationship, but it is a relationship.

Once I started paying attention to just the 1/2 dozen trees I’d sketched or otherwise identified in my neighborhood, I was also able to assimilate some of the knowledge I’d picked up from the books I’d been reading to theoretically connect with nature for years. For example, knowing that trees interact and act as communities to protect and defend themselves led me to predict and confirm that none of the Black Walnuts in the area would bear fruit this year because we had a remarkably dry summer and they were collectively conserving their resources. I felt terribly smart.

The living world has come alive for me in a way that is simple and tangible since I started sketching trees. I feel like I’m a part of my species-rich community, that we are actually connected in the sameness of growth and change and struggle and rest, and in the distinctions that live and breathe into and out of each other; our interdependence making each others’ existence possible. Knowing the plants and animals around you used to be essential to human survival in a quite literal way. Now those of us with a mediated relationship with our food and water can live without that, but it’s a lonely existence. As humans have isolated from the life around us, are we not like tourists in a foreign culture? Navigating our way through greenery and fecund landscapes either gingerly, not wanting to stir up trouble; or tendentiously, like an imperialist set only on extraction and exploitation. So many people are feel so lonely and disconnected. I think the massive pet adoption that swept many countries at the beginning of the pandemic was a wise response. Finding a way to connect to any of the infinite varieties of life that bloom in all but the most persecuted communities simply makes all life better.

How to Do Nothing – A Sort of Book Review

How to Do Nothing – A Sort of Book Review

I have so much to say about this book that I haven’t been able to write anything at all (well, that and the cast (#2!) on my wrist have been complementary barriers).

I loved this book and needed it. In the same way that A Field Guide to Getting Lost found me when I had left all my friends, gotten divorced, moved to a new city, and was underemployed; How to Do Nothing was kind enough to come out in paperback after I signed up for a year-long Socially Engaged Buddhism course, and had kicked off an effort to reframe my life through a lens of conscious, compassionate behavior, rather than the political chaos, urgency, and lonely echo-chambering of 2020.

Jenny Odell’s work isn’t long, but it’s quite expansive – a feature that some readers have found wacky, incoherent, or exhausting (good old Goodreads), while also hitting many of 2020’s best of lists. I won’t malign its detractors, I understand where they’re coming from, but I would also posit that her wide-ranging topics are cohesive under the banners of anti-capitalism and mindfulness.

I’m sure many of you like Capitalism, or parts of it. I see some benefits, too, but Capitalism is built on competition, production, and growth, which are generally weakened by communal support, contentment, and “doing nothing”. Advertising appeals to jealousy, self-loathing, and unhappiness; social media appeals to all those plus loneliness and binary thinking. I feel those brief moments of satisfaction when I jump in to endorse a fiery political opinion on Facebook, quickly followed by a physical grossness, much the same spike and dip I feel when eating refined sugar, which I’m also minimizing these days.  For me, it’s essentially an excess of reaction – my critical mind is overwhelmed with judgement of every post I scroll past. Right or wrong? Genuine or performative? Good person or bad? I could give you a long list of Buddhish explanations of why this is generally unhelpful to our and humanity’s development and happiness, but the clearest deterrent for me is the feeling in my gut. I don’t know if I’d be aware of it if I hadn’t been meditating for over a decade, and maybe that’s why so many of us remained hooked on not only social media, but self-righteousness, anger, and judgment. The addictive nature of those behaviors in turn make it difficult to step away from them, stop, and center ourselves in the world, so the spiral into anxiety, conformity, and misery continues unabated.

If I had to sum Jenny Odell’s book into two words (and since I’ve just set that standard, I now do), I’d go with Mindfulness and Curiosity, in that order, though it’s more simultaneous in practice. All conscious change starts with awareness – whether that’s of a habit we don’t like, or a goal we want to reach. The greater the awareness, the more likely the change will stick. This is why people put reminders of diet motivations on the fridge, or download apps that check in on them. Our brains will always revert to the easiest, more immediately satisfying, most habitual thing if we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing and why. It’s the simplest and hardest thing in the world, because we’re modern humans wired for a short, constantly life-threatening existence that simply doesn’t apply to the vast majority of us anymore, and the imbalance makes us miserable. I do like the idea of Attention over what many perceive as the more ethereal mindfulness. It implies something more active. Odell’s subtitle is Resisting the Attention Economy, but it’s more an act of engagement than resistance, and a real, volitional something instead of nothing. By choosing to direct our attention to things that are outside of the economy, that do not generate wealth or power, we engage in an act of revolution.

I honestly found the whole idea ridiculously exciting.

She doesn’t end with attention, though. Attention is also a starting point for a better world (my squishy words, not hers). If we paid attention, would we know our neighbors? Would we change our jobs? Would we check our email every ten minutes? Would we keep stumbling through our lives, zombie-like, if we recognized how many other options were out there? Odell has a background in visual art, which I definitively do not, and her examples of disruptive art in the world were excellent windows into something I’ve been thinking about a lot – the life-sucking power of habit and conformity. Two examples: in the Twin Cities a few years back, some entity placed giant picture frames in strategic locations in the State & National Parks. It was framed (ha) as a photo opportunity – a way to get Instagram-obsessed youngsters to notice the great outdoors, I suppose, but in a more general sense it was marking out these non-productive spaces as worthy of notice. The beauty of nature which a lot of us seek to create in our own home with giant posters or representative paintings are actually all around us for free whenever we direct our attention towards it, but we are such creatures of goal-oriented habit, that we don’t notice them unless we recreate the style of the recreation and bring the picture frame to the source of the picture. Humans are hilarious.

Example two: B & I stopped at a coffee shop in an outlet mall on our way out of town last year, and as I was walking back to the car, sun bright and delicious blended matcha in hand, I had an impulse to pirouette. I didn’t, and subjected Ben to a philosophical theory on conformity and oppression when I closed the door. I was focused on racism at the time (as I often am), and interpreted in part as the dominance of a repressed White European culture (particularly the Scandinavian influence here) that sees any act that might call attention to yourself or disrupt norms as morally questionable. I still believe that, and believe it manifests in a racist way, since many cultures would embrace physical outbursts of joy, etc. But Odell calls attention to another aspect of nonconforming behaviors: they wake people up. We can make an hour’s drive from work everyday and remember none of it, but if we narrowly avoid an accident, those moments are emblazoned on our memories, and our actions at the time are present and fully conscious. Trauma certainly wakes us up, but a simple act of nonconformity, of creativity, of whimsy can do the same. Acts of disruption become acts of love, an invitation to stop and be in the world at that moment. As much as we shun this behavior in others (even being the only person in the movie theatre laughing at the dark comedy can be isolating), we also crave it. I would also argue that we need it, that unless we shake up the quotidian we don’t even see the maze we’re trapped in, and without recognizing it, we’ll never break out. Let me call back to White Supremacy for a moment and point out that pretty much everything that is considered “normal” in the US is a White cultural norm, so allowing these standards to remain unchallenged is itself a racist act. Who knows what other options are out there? I can feel my muscles relax just thinking about it.

So, less of a book review than a mulling over mainstream society, but I have to credit Odell for helping me explore and articulate it. If you’re looking for a how to get off social media, this isn’t what you want. If you want some ideas on how to consciously craft a better life for yourself and your people, I think you’ll get a lot out of it.