Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Forest and the Bones of Greenland

"Galaxy", cyanotype print with usnea, wild rose, river pebbles by Rebecca Barfoot
Life is precious, especially against the unforgiving starkness of the Arctic.  My time in Northwest Greenland heightened my awareness of how quietly fleeting our time is here on this little blue globe called home.  As a result, I’m working a bit feverishly these days, trying to get all my art projects born before time runs out.  I know this is foolish and fearful, but still I’m creating in a hyper-inspired (manic?) state, extra-attentive and energized.  

It’s a fertile place, this focused frenzy- but again, as ephemeral as our waking hours and numbered earthbound days. 

Smuggled Arctic seal bones adorn- incongruously- a bed of autumn leaves
I woke at dawn today with these words whispering through the mental haze of early morning: “In Greenland, I found the bones of my self.”  One part dream, one part highly conscious thought? I suspect a higher sense of knowing before the din of the daily begins, and I’m grateful for the mysterious tiding.   Since Greenland, I have felt the stirring of something old and moss covered inside me, moving and morphing yet deeply grounded.  

I can’t say with precision what happened for me internally in the icescape of the Arctic- but something did happen.  As if the cold sharpness of bedrock and glacier ripped me open like a storm running down the middle of my life, then tossed me back to sea to find my own way back to shore and sanity.  

Glacier meets bedrock, NW Greenland
 Back home I’ve taken refuge in the forest, an impossibility in northern Greenland as the high Arctic is a land without cover.  Refuge and revelry then!  The season here in Colorado has matured to a crisp golden autumn.  I’ve loved watching the world change as the aspen and cottonwoods gather themselves up for winter, shedding their leaves, drawing into themselves.  I understand.  

Aspens in full glory at a secret spot in southwest CO
 I’ve seen a bumper sticker floating around Durango lately that reads, “Trees are the answer.” Ah, the poetry of trees.   How they hold up the sky and root us all at once.  I watch the Halloween skeleton trees outside the studio, shifting and sighing in the late fall wind.  Yet how steady and steadfast they are- my own personal icons of small triumph.   

Beyond the poetic is the scientific:  trees give us oxygen, clean our air, filter the soil, and manage to transform greenhouse gases into wood.  No wonder I’m smitten. 

I won’t ask you if you’ve ever hugged a tree, but when was the last time you laid down beneath a canopy of, say, an enormous live oak- to be cradled by the forest floor, branches and leaves twining above and the open sky beyond? (Now’s your time!  Autumn is perfect!)  The pungent dirt-smell of moist leaves returning to the earth delivers me to a mysterious yet familiar place of yearning. 

A winter live oak thrives in west Texas
Dirt, moss, bones- and those words carved into my mind from this morning.  Greenland is littered with the skeletons of marine mammals that became Inuit food, and also from the natural course of things.  Nothing breaks down- or hides- with any ease this far north.  Bones are so rich in metaphor that they’ve already found their way into my art.  A year ago in the Adirondacks I began working on a series of coil-built skeletal objects in porcelain, beginning as a group of Lilliputian chairs (to be hung on the wall, a slightly twisted testament to comfort that can never be attained). Then I made some small boats, in the same manner and material.  A little bereft, these unmoored ships that can’t bear their own weight on water, slowly sinking.  Elegant and terrible as unprecedented Arctic ice melt.

"Skeleton Ship", porcelain paperclay by Rebecca Barfoot
 I’m building diminutive ceramic kayaks today, reminiscent of my time threading the waters of Baffin Bay this summer in just such a craft (which didn’t sink and never capsized!).  I found piles of seal and narwhal bones on Ikerinarmiut, a tiny island off the Greenland coast.  And ancient human remains nestled in an old rock cairn with a circular skyward opening, not far from my studio in Upernavik.  (Gasp!!  I’d never stumbled upon a human cranium just… lying there like that.  But this was the traditional Greenlandic way until only recent decades.) 

Untitled, by the young, gifted, and tragically fated Francesca Woodman,  MacDowell Colony, Peterbough, NH, 1980 

 For some reason I haven’t quite unearthed yet, I’m more in love with fall this year than I have been since my childhood in New Hampshire.  I was a maker of tree forts then, running around the woods looking for pokeberries and toads, excavating piles of crimson maple leaves to hide in.  Maybe the bones of the Arctic are bringing me back full circle to fall in love with a forgotten part of myself, at once old and young and giddy with living.

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