Image result for corvallis art center photo
Photo credit: Corvallis Arts Center

I approached the church-like structure and hesitantly opened the tall, wooden door to the Corvallis Arts Center. The floor creaked as I walked toward the open room where all the guests were mingling. The chairs were placed in the center, intimately arranged with the podium just a few feet from the front row.

A wave of nostalgia hit me as I walked through the entrance of the First Presbyterian Church of Mankato. Memories of my grandmother taking me to the church filled my mind. I would’ve never expected to be here again, especially not for his memorial service.

I saw a few people who I knew, Carly Lettero, Charles Goodrich, and some other familiar faces who I couldn’t quite place. I walked around the perimeter of the room, viewing Dawn Stetzel’s I could live there exhibit on its last day. Then, Michael Nelson walked in, and he, Carly, and I exchanged some pleasantries. I was ready to get to the poetry and was a bit wary of how I might respond to Alison’s works given my recent loss.

Surrounded by six of my family members, I walked up the church’s lobby steps and greeted the few people I didn’t know, those who saw enough good in him to pay their respects or who wanted to support the family. As I smiled and shook their hands, each of them just couldn’t help but say, “Wow, you look just like Bill.”

Everyone was seated, ready to hear the latest from the well-respected author. After a quick introduction from Spring Creek Project’s director, Alison prefaced her Stairway to Heaven reading with a few comments about the book, then, to my delight, she broke into song:

“There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for
Ooh ooh ooh ooh and she’s buying a stairway to heaven”

Just a week ago, I was listening to Alison Hawthorne Deming’s poetry, engaging in someone else’s brilliant and creative way of coping. Now, I sit in a smaller room with fewer people, and a slight air of solemnity for my father, a man with whom I spent less than a few hours of my life. His high school friend approached me and said, “I’ll be sharing a few stories about your father, good ones before he lost his way.” A single tear fell from my right eye as I thanked him.

Alison explained Robert Plant’s intent behind those lyrics—it was a commentary on consumerism, our incessant need to amass fortunes, and our obsession with the material even after death. Not only did the inspiration behind “Stairway to Heaven” tie into her work, which shines a light on how we, as humans, live on Earth within vast ecological systems, but using “Stairway to Heaven” as her book’s title referred to the loss of her mother and brother whose passing inspired many of the poems.

My cousin Paula and Bill’s best man at his first wedding shared a few good and many honest stories about him. Bill was addicted to gambling and alcohol, spending much of his adult life betting on sports in Vegas. The work that he did was to find the short cut to success, thinking that he could outsmart anyone and constantly looking for a way to “work the system.” He had an affinity for material things and wealth, perhaps because he felt more connected to money and stuff than people. He aspired to reach the highest rungs of society, always coming up short. For all of his faults, he had many positive attributes, but even those traits could get him into trouble, like his charisma, his humor, and his intelligence, especially because he couldn’t push his ego aside.

To my surprise, I didn’t hear a lot of grief in the poetry that Alison selected for the night. Not to say that grief and healing weren’t evident in what we heard, particularly in “Castalia” and “The Drowned Man.” But, more than anything, I felt a deep connection to place, to those settings that her words so vividly described. Of the works that she read, my favorite poem was “Mosquitoes,” mostly due to her depiction of an experience shared by all in the room but also because of the perspective she offered: that we sacrifice our flesh for their survival. Laughter filled the room as each of us was transported to a time that we were swarmed by mosquitoes.

Tears unexpectedly rolled down my cheeks as I listened to stories of my father as a young man, one full of promise and drive, who worked hard and even was voted most likely to succeed in high school. Tommy and Joye’s tragic deaths flashed before me, causing me to experience that grief all over again, and intensifying the emptiness that I felt with Bill gone. The idea that one day I may know my father, a constant desire throughout my life, was squandered. As much as I love and care about people, animals, and plants—those who I’ve never met or witnessed—I never could muster the courage to forgive him, to accept him, or try to connect with him.

At the end of the poetry reading, I went up to the podium to talk with Alison about the recent loss of my father and the other unforeseen losses of people whom I loved. I spoke with her about the cyclical nature of experiencing grief and whether she experienced this phenomenon while writing “Stairway to Heaven.” Specifically, I asked Alison, “Did you have any profound moments of clarity or crushing moments of grief? If so, did those moments inspire any specific poems?” I could see in her expression that my question provoked a deep emotional response. She referenced “Luminous Mother” as the poem that resulted from a low point of grief and experienced some clarity while writing “The Drowned Man.” Then she said that the writing process itself was healing, but she emphasized the great benefit of doing physical work. Trail clearing, which she wrote about in “Castalia,” was one of the most effective coping mechanisms for her. Alison ended our conversation with this piece of advice, “We have to heal bit by bit. What you experience after a loss shows your capacity to be human, to experience these emotions and embrace them.”

I approached the podium to reassure everyone there, and perhaps more than anything, convince myself, that I was OK, that I have a good life. I understand who he was and that he put himself before everyone else, but I was grateful for him and the way he lived. Without him and his selfish decisions, I wouldn’t exist—not just as a human but as the person I am today. Also, for as much pain that he caused other people, he never, for one second, departed from who he truly was. I think that there is something quite freeing in being true to ourselves, for better or worse. In that moment, I said goodbye to the father I never knew.

“I’ll know whatever I suffer is small on the scale of what people are made to live through. A net of words holds a place together and those who are broken are lifted home.” – Alison Deming Hawthorne, Excerpt from “The Drowned Man”

Epilogue 

Over the summer, I traveled the country with my husband. During this time, I had a lot of time to reflect and finally felt at peace knowing that I had no relationship with my father. Even if he didn’t think about me or want to hear from me, which who knows if he did or not, I persevered and found happiness. I have so many people in my life who care deeply about me, including the family he and I shared. I also find comfort in knowing that for all the demons he faced, he lived a full life and shared some happy memories with the people I love. I met him once during one of the toughest years of my life, and our encounter left a lot to be desired for me. For as angry as I was for being 100 percent blindsided by his visit, I’m eternally grateful to my grandmother for arranging it. Who knows if we would’ve ever met otherwise. Growing up, I often fantasized about our conversations and wondered what was stopping him from reaching out. Recently, I planned to contact him and try to clear the air. At the very least, I wanted to let him know that I harbor no ill will against him, that I’d be happy to learn more about him and his life, and if he was interested, I could tell him about my life. Once my husband and I were finally settled in Oregon, I got the news of his accident and felt like I missed my big opportunity to connect or at least bring him some peace. I hope that he somehow intuitively knew how I felt, but I wish that I would’ve contacted him sooner since I found out late last year that his health was declining. I have a lot of complex emotions that I’ve grappled with my whole life and am still trying to make sense of now. For those of you who have faced or are facing similar circumstances, who are scared, unsure, or reluctant to act, I encourage you to do what your heart tells you, whatever that may be, and make peace with your decision.

– Sarah Minette Kelly

What comes to mind when you think of the Oregon coast?

Is it cold? Cozy? Dangerous? Majestic?

Michael Bendixen of Oregon Field Guide (OFG) believes that our special sea is “something to be explored and shared.”  The scientists, artists, industry professionals, business owners and other Oregon ocean enthusiasts that gathered at the recently held State of the Coast conference would probably agree with Bendixen.

These different stakeholders from our community came together with a common goal to understand how we can better communicate the coast using art and science. Several speakers, graduate student presentations, and artist displays revealed the beauty and importance of our murky waters.  The rough waters off our coast are teeming with life, drama, mystery, and stories that demand our attention.

As the keynote speaker, videographer and journalist Michael Bendixen addressed how to connect the public with the science that is shaping our understanding of Pacific Northwest beaches as well as the challenges surrounding how to communicate broader topics like ocean acidification and climate change.  His approach bridging art and science in facing these issues can be applied across disciplines and is just one more example of how the arts and humanities are bringing science to the people. Bendixen spoke of how OFG crafts powerful stories that engage audiences and manage to skillfully balance entertainment and excitement with knowledge and scientific understanding—a noble pursuit that can unite us in our efforts to take better care of this planet we inhabit.

The State of the Coast conference’s effort to together scientists and artists was perfectly exemplified by Kyle Asfahl and Amanda
Salov.  Attendees were inspired by Kyle and Amanda’s love story inspired, and even more intrigued by the romantic story they
weave of their shared passion to marry the abstract concepts found in the pursuits of art and science.  Kyle, a PhD candidate in
OSU’s microbiology department, is also an artist who explores the fundamental multicellularity and cooperation found in all levels of life. His art seems to represent his curiosity with what it is like to be a bacterium.  Amanda, an independent artist, spoke to us about how the ocean changed her practice dramatically.  Since being in Oregon she has transitioned from creating objects ‘outside’ of herself to composing structural art that reflects the understanding that she is of nature; nature and science inspired pieces come from ‘within’ her.  Amanda and Kyle’s relationship and shared journey beautifully reflect how compelling the partnership between disciplines, personalities, and perspectives can be in communicating scientific and environmental concepts.

This year’s State of the Coast conference was a tremendous experience and an impressive addition to the continued efforts to link the arts, humanities, and sciences.

A crowd of over 100 people came to the Corvallis-Benton County Library last night to watch Tim Palmer’s slide show based on his beautiful new book, Rivers of Oregon. His presentation, sponsored by Spring Creek Project and Oregon Wild, was filled with countless hydrological, geological, and botanical images from both sides of the Cascades, with the theme of rivers flowing throughout. Palmer, an award-winning author and photographer from Port Orford, Oregon, branched into topics that tell the big story of rivers: their journeys from source to sea, the life forms and recreation that depend upon them, as well as the forces that disrupt and harm them.

Choosing the Rogue River as his messenger, he began with the Rogue’s headwaters in the high Cascades, highlighting thdscn0287e river’s varied features and moods through personal anecdote and dramatic photography. Having rowed and paddled along the Rogue with his wife multiple times, Palmer described this iconic river like a good friend, respectful of its power and personality, and proud of its recovery from human-caused setbacks. Not only did we see breathtaking images of frothy whitewater and deep, clear pools, but we also witnessed the Rogue’s vulnerabilities through Palmer’s photos of blue-green algae outbreaks caused by pollutants and increased water temperatures, toxic debris leaked from nickel mining, and harmful mudslides triggered by clear-cuts. Palmer also shared some of the Rogue’s checkered history, how its freedom was hampered last century by three hydroelectric dams, and the good news of its restoration when the dams were systematically removed several years ago. Now the Rogue flows for 160 dam-free miles, allowing its former wildness – and former salmon runs – to return.

dscn0290Palmer began his presentation with the statement, “Rivers are the essence of Oregon”, and he concluded with a request, “Think about the importance of rivers to all of us, and protect and adopt them as (y)our own.” By keeping our rivers clean, free flowing and wild, we will nourish Earth’s landscapes as well as our own souls.

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a poetry reading by Kristin Berger and Scot Siegel from their new books How Light Reaches Us and Constellation of Extinct Stars.

Photo by Samm Newton
Photo by Samm Newton

During this intimate event at Grass Roots Books & Music bookstore,  the poets took the audience on a journey through time and place.  Each poem was carefully crafted and read with striking emotion. This collaboration shared a special theme, OR-7, or as we have come to affectionately know him, Journey. Journey is the first wolf seen in Western Oregon since the 40’s and Northern California since the 20’s.  During this adventure, Journey shares his perspective on things such as snow, humans, and love, which was spiritedly read by Scot. Kirsten complimented this poem through the eyes of Journey’s mother. The opportunity to animate this realm provided the perspective not only of a wolf but a mother.

The poets also provided the opportunity to explore landscapes,seasons, nature and the elements. I connected with references to the desert South West and a description of how drought begins. The audience also confirmed their interest with subtle expressions throughout the reading and a warm applause at the end. The audience was attentive and engaged during the Q & A session.

This unique collaboration reminded me of the strength found while working with others. They shared some of the benefits of their partnership, such as offering edits and approval. Kristen and Scot provided a great example of collaboration and offered a creative space to tune into the senses during their poetry reading.  Now as we move into the rainy season here in Corvallis I will remember that poetry has the power to transcend time and seasons, perspective and place. A tool that will help this desert gal see the rainbows at the end of countless rain showers. 

This post is a reflection on the book reading by local Corvallis writer and environmental activist Carla A. Wise. She read at Grass Roots Books & Music from her new book, Awake on Earth: Facing Climate Change with Sanity and Grace.

Carla A. Wise's book on display. Photo by Samm Newton
Carla A. Wise’s book on display. Photo by Samm Newton

It has taken me a little while to write about the reading on Monday evening (9/26), because Carla A. Wise gave me so much to contemplate. Even as she spoke to us at that small, friendly gathering amidst shelves and shelves of books, our nation’s two leading presidential candidates were debating on a fluorescent stage, watched by millions. As Wise introduced her first book, Awake on Earth: Facing Climate Change with Sanity and Grace, one of the presidential candidates on the national stage was proudly denying the existence of climate change.

The hour I spent in Grass Roots Books & Music was at times somber and at others hopeful. Compared to the audience watching the debate, our numbers were miniscule, yet we were focused on a single cause. Wise’s motives were altruistic, her fears supported by sound science and ecological facts. She wrote her book in order to lay out the realities of climate change, as well as to coax concerned citizens off the edge of environmental despair, and it turns out the latter cause is perhaps the most important in the movement toward addressing global crisis.

I say this because it’s time to give up on climate deniers. Let the delusional, the irresponsible, and the insane continue along in a state of blissful ignorance. We can do without them, and we must. As concerned citizens, it is time to turn our precious, limited mental energy primarily inward, giving concerned citizens the tools to make the changes they so desperately want to see in the world. Wise explained to us that studies indicate a successful movement really only requires active support from 5-10% of the population. That’s great news! That is what I want to be told by X,Y, and Z environmental organizations when I check my emails or scroll through my Facebook feed. I want to be told that I can help (and not just by giving money), and I want a list of actions I can take. Inform me on how to write to my senator. Tell me which products to try and boycott. Inform me about upcoming ballot measures that could make a difference on environmental issues. Connect me to local protests and other gatherings. I could go on and on.

I already know about melting glaciers, dying forests, and cracking deserts. I know about dead bees, extinct amphibians, and bleaching coral reefs. I’ve heard the projections about receding coastlines, heard tell of flooding oceanfront properties, and I am aware of monster hurricanes, tornadoes, and fires. What I really need right now is to know that somewhere, progress has been made. I need to hear the good news, even if it may pale in comparison to the challenges we face. Knowing the good news gives me hope, and that hope battles despair. It battles inaction.

Don’t get me wrong – we need the the bad news too. It’s the whole reason why I and so many other people feel compelled to act. My undergraduate education is in Natural Resources, and I will tell you, I learned some depressing stuff. What I do with that knowledge – run away in panic, or stand my ground and fight – is dependent on how the information was presented to me. Despite bouts of despair, I have decided to fight. As Wise recommended, I have made climate change my Number One Issue, and I am not alone. We may have been a humble gathering at Grass Roots on Monday night, but humble gatherings such as that are taking place around the globe, and they are gatherings of people who care deeply and are taking action in their own ways. That has to count for something.

Carla A. Wise signs her book. Photo by Samm Newton.
Carla A. Wise signing her book. Photo by Samm Newton.

The EAH group at OSU has, as part of its mission, organized to cover local environmental lectures and events. Last night, I attended my first event in Corvallis at the Grass Roots Bookstore. The visiting author was Hob Osterlund and her book is titled Holy Mōlī and published by OSU Press. She lives in Hawaii, working to protect the albatross and their habitat.

wisdom

Albatross are beautiful birds. I’ve known that for some time. They mate for life. I knew that too. Of course, like many birds, they face multiple dangers: plastic pollution, fishing hooks, introduced predators; dogs, cats, mongoose, human development, climate change…

But little did I know how little I knew about these amazing creatures. Here are some things I learned.

1. Some species have wingspans that are 10 feet wide. Their wings have 4 folds.
2. They coo gently to their eggs before settling down and will not leave them for anything, including predators and fire.
3. Though pairs mate for life, they only see each other for 2 weeks out of the year. During that time, they are super affectionate and linger when it is time to go.
4. They return often to feed squid oil to their young but only for 15 or 20 minutes. The rest of the time, the chicks are alone and teach themselves how to fly (by jumping off a cliff) and find food at sea.
5. There are 20 plus species of albatross remaining and most in Southern Hemisphere.
6. At the turn of the last century, many thousands were slaughtered for their feathers which were used to make hats for ladies in Europe.
7. After flying off a cliff for the first time, a chick’s feet will not touch ground for 4 years!!!
8. This just discovered – they attract their main food source (squid) to the surface of the ocean by swimming in tight circles and madly kicking their feet to stir up the bioluminescence!!!
9. They can desalinate water with their beaks!!!
10. They also have a speedometer in their beaks which allows them to sort of surf the air currents off of ocean waves and in this way they can fly for hours (maybe days) without flapping their wings at all!!!

Cornell Bird Lab has an albatross cam set up. Not sure if it is still live but there are videos there.

“Conservationists warn that 17 of the 24 albatross species are facing extinction.”
National Geographic

Shotpouch Creek

Last week our brand new cohort stepped onto the beautiful sunlit Shotpouch Creek property to begin the first class of our two-year Environmental Arts and Humanities MA program (which I affectionately call the EArtH MA), expertly led by Jake Hamblin, Director, and Carly Lettero, Program Manager. Through readings, walks on the land, and discussions with experts in the humanities, arts, and sciences we became better acquainted with our program’s interdisciplinary themes, including environmental ethics, justice, history, artistic expression, purpose and action. And very importantly, we became acquainted with one another. Our cohort shines with the multi-facets of each individual; among us you will find writers, conservationists, poets, leaders, artists, field and lab scientists, philosophers, dancers, and teachers whose stories include courage, creativity, and passion for our planet’s healing. To balance the week’s depth and intensity, Dr. Hamblin gave us daily downtime for reflection and rest(oration). And so each day, Shotpouch Creek itself became my source of renewal, where I could always find the flow of music and wisdom to remind me why I am embarking on this academic adventure. The creek became an integral part of me and us, and for that I am grateful! ~Jill Sisson

We are delighted to announce our new students as they arrive Fall 2016! Check out their bios on the “Current Students” tab.  They will begin blogging when OSU begins classes in late September.

In the meantime, our students will gather from September 12-16 on land near the Shotpouch cabin, about thirty miles west of Corvallis, as part of their required course, EAH 506: Field Course Projects. There we will get to know one another and do an intensive class on the themes of Environmental Arts and Humanities.  It will be a great kick-start to the year.

Looking forward to a great year!