This Spring in Corvallis, there were a number of events in which the unseen, the unheard, and the very, very tiny were observed and commented upon in especially poetic ways. There were a few art events and lectures revolving around microbiomes. I will quickly introduce you to two artists and a writer who are exploring our natural world which includes among its multitudes; microbiomes, animals, trees and us.
There is growing interest in connecting science and art, artists and scientists. In part, this is what our program at EAH is trying to accomplish. How do writers and artists and other creative types communicate issues of environmentalism? How do the humanities address non-human animals and other species of life? How can scientists work with artists to benefit both and strengthen the messages that people need to hear? What can we offer to each other and to the conversation? How is the very nature of the conversation changed by interdisciplinary voices?
The world is complicated. Life is busy. We tend to put blinders on just to get through the day. We rarely stop to consider the fact that our own bodies are made up of more microbiome DNA than human DNA. We rarely wonder at the masses of microscopic life that surround us, teeming in mud, saturating the form of every living thing. We tend to consider our frame of reference as Reality. But there are millions of different perspectives and perceptions. Some move very slow and experience time in a different way from the fast flitting creature. Some see the world from the sky, some see it from the ground. Some stay in one place always, some move constantly. Some do not see red, some do not see infrared, some see with sonar. Some navigate by smell, some by magnetic fields. There are as many different ways of being as there are beings.
Lisa Temple-Cox explores biology and the matter that is the meat, gut and bone of the animal, whether it be human or non-human. Her work peels away the skin, she examines the feather and the human skull with equal interest. Temple-Cox has done long term residencies at museums. While there, she explores and draws their collections. I was able to attend all four of her lectures at the University, including a private one for the school’s bird watching society. The names of many species were called out as we observed slides showing a plethora of silent birds in glass boxes.
Temple-Cox is a perfect example of an artist who is bridging disciplines. Her bio states, “ Her history as a mixed-race, post-colonial child informs a practice exploring interstices: between science and religion, the normal and the pathological, the familiar and the uncanny. Her visual research interrogates the aesthetics and histories of the anatomical museum, using its objects, collections, and taxonomies as metaphors for a contemporary subjective experience of the self and the body.”
One of the lectures had the intriguing title, My Head in a Jar. She had an entire body of work for each lecture. Some were documentation of the archives and their glorious decay, fatal malformations, disturbing implications of colonization, and excessive bounty. Her work is led and inspired by her research. One of these lines of research is through the preservation of specimens in jars. It was part historical and part medical, part archivist and part artist. For this lecture (archived here) she showed slides of many kinds of animals and humans, in whole and in part, preserved in glass jars. Through this exploration, she came to the idea of casting her own head and placing it in jars with different types of liquid matter. One jar is filled with kombucha, one jar is filled with milk, one is filled with oil. Over time the milk and kombucha transform as they are both teeming with the microscopic life mentioned previously. Interesting that she uses these two liquids in her experiment, the content of which is life and its companion, death.
Karin Bolender is a local artist who integrates the lives of her companion donkeys into her work. She did a long walking trip with her first donkey, a spotted ass, and that was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration. Bolender is a PHD candidate at the University of New South Wales but is located near Corvallis on a farm with the donkeys in question, and a horse. She is involed with a group of artists and environmental humanities researchers called The Multi-Species Salon. Her long term project is the Rural Alchemy Workshop. She also listens to her animals, not just to their vocalizations but to the rumbling in their guts, and has done work on this subject as well. Learn more about her brilliant line of thought in this concise (4 minute) video.
This Winter, she did a performative piece with her daughter at Optic Gallery in which a kombucha mother was passed around and questions from a Pink Floyd song were asked aloud. These mothers were also a part of her latest work which recently manifested as a workshop. She is investigating the invisible communities of life inhabiting the donkeys and the donkey’s milk. She has made soap from the milk of her donkeys mixed with her own. Interesting parallel between the artists Bolender and Temple-Cox, who have both used living and life-giving kombucha and milk to manifest their work.
I attended the workshop at her farm called Welcome to the Secretome, which was led by Bolender. A small group of us were led through a series of explorations around the animals and the land. We sat together on top of a manure pile and ate cheese and bread. We walked through a muddy field and a grassy field and made maps of what we found there. We touched the donkeys’ noses and the dirt and the barn and the kombucha mothers. I emerged clean and unscathed. (OK I didn’t go in the mud but everyone else did. I lingered in the barn with the donkeys.)
One more event in which the unseen/unheard was deeply, scientifically, and poetically discussed was the lecture by David George Haskell at the Art Center. He is currently touring with his new book, The Songs of Trees. He spoke about trees, individual trees. He traveled the world to visit a dozen individual trees. Each tree was carefully listened to and observed within the context of its location. One tree was in an Amazon forest, another in the middle of New York City. We don’t think of trees as making sound or having voices. Haskell records the vibrations that come up through the tree’s roots and the birds and other creatures who inhabit them, as well as the interaction with wind.
He spoke eloquently about understanding nature as that which is what we are. He points to the disconnect that humans feel with nature which is generally spoken of (in our society) as something outside ourselves; a bird, a tree, a place we go to when we go camping. We set the city and nature as two sides of a dichotomy, when in fact the city is actually just a human nesting place and encompasses nature, not just in the plants growing through the cracks in the sidewalk but in our own manifestations.
Haskell’s previous book is titled The Forest Unseen. For this book, he chose a one-square-meter spot of land in Tennessee and observed it meticulously for a year. Even within this very small circle of forest floor, he found a universe of life. I intend to read both books and can only report my impressions of the one hour I heard him speak. He spoke strongly against the standard dualistic thinking that separates humans and nature, a false dichotomy, as we are very much a part of nature. Our technology and industry are destroying nature. That doesn’t make us separate or better or worse. It just makes us powerful. We need to reconsider this power and our motivations and systems. They are not innate or inevitable
These artists and writers are asking you to open your eyes and ears and minds, to observe the life around you. In doing so, you will see both the kinship we share with life on earth and the consequences of our collective actions against it. Paying attention with all of our senses is a first step.
Footnote: For many years, I observed one small area of the Willamette River and shared it, almost daily on the social medias. I reported on the weather and what animals were passing through or living there and the ships that came into port. I called it The River Report. I have since moved away from that spot but it is archived on Twitter.