Thursday, January 8, 1987

Making a white heart for SSU Art from the Heart show (journal)


White on white, a map of the heart. For the Sonoma State University's Art from the Heart Valentine show, I made a piece of art on Morillo board, a papier-mâché heart on a sheet of paper, a heart cast from paper pulp. I added a section of urchin shell, a spotted guinea fowl's feather, some silk from a dead grandmother's shawl, and fragile coral from the Bahamas.

This is what the viewer sees. What I see: a break up of a seven-year relationship, too many belongings stored under my damp house, an accident, my whiplash, a long slow recovery, and an unusually wet winter – not a passage of time. But flooding stole memory from me.

It took me another seven years to heal before I could confront the loss of my possessions. Negatives without emulsion, glued photographs of random color and shape, this once was Yosemite. This once was a photo of my horse, my cats, me as a child, my friends. Imagine 20 years of documentation of childhood. Gone. My first books, Bambi's Children, books of fairytales illustrated by Arthur Rackham, and Kay Nielsen, The Bobbsey Twins, and The X Bar X boys, an outdoor girls' adventures series, all rotted to pulp.

All my art books. Dali's gold foil candy covered book with drooping watches glued together, now a large rotting laminated piece of cardboard. Janson's History of Art is now a gray pulpy mass. I won't miss that book. Or Mr. Johanson who insisted that we read it cover to cover. He hadn't updated his teaching skills in 50 years.

I mourn for my Encyclopedia of Natural History book with its lists of all the plants and animals of North America, now gone. I spent hours poring over that book as a child. Rereading each section over and over, collecting feathers, fur bits, chipmunk tails (the cats brought in), etc., to augment the hokey illustrations, now barely recognizable. A painful loss. How I loved those books! That one really really shaped my childhood interest in plants and animals.

I saw my very first coatimundi in the Yucatan, which we promptly ran over in our rental car, a rare jungle animal. And we ran over it. Whoops! John said, it was his time. I first learned of coatimundi from that book. The Spanish word is tejón, foes that mean there once were coatis roaming Tejon Pass? Probably not, as it means badger.


My horse's pedigree fell out of the back of the truck as I headed for the dump, taking what was left of my recorded memories of childhood with it. A pamphlet on the US equestrian team, and the Olympics in Mexico City fluttered to the ground.

As a child I fantasized about going to Mexico City. I read up Tenochtitlán and of the canals of Xochimilco, the floating islands. I was going to get there and visit the Museum of Anthropology too. Someday. I was.

Well it finally happened, I did get to Mexico City. You still can see some of the canals and the standing patches of water, but most of the lake bed is filled with cement. The temples have been torn down. I walk on paving stones that once were part of Tenochtitlan. The basilica of the church is made of ancient dressed stone. Tenochtitlán lives in the hidden hearts of stone. The lake lives beneath the city. You can see glimpses of it beneath the sewer grating on the streets. the ancient sure hidden in those cavernous depths.

How can I put all this in that white pulp slurry of a heart? Old art folders, once full of pristine watercolor paper, mildewed and rotted with age. I shredded the rag paper and bleached it . I used the pulp to make valentines of white handmade paper. Who will noticed that there are shreds of fine silk from Bob's grandmother's shawl?

When we got to Oxnard to visit Bob's grandmother, she was so excited that she had a heart attack, and died soon after. We were devastated. I know that Bob's father somehow blamed us for it. He was that kind of man. Hard to believe his mother was so loving. A bon vivant who knew Diego Rivera, and once showed us a mock-up of a mural he was painting.

When Bob left me, the shawl was one of the few things he didn't take with him. Probably because it was rotted at the time, like him, the decay from within. I used it as a beautiful curtain that let the sunlight in but blocked out peering eyes. The cross-sections of pale blue ribbon silk against sheer gauze, and a hand-knotted fringe. Someone said it was a bar mitzvah shaw. Hidden Judaism in the most WASPish of families, there was even a menorah in the closet. Her husband was Dalmatian, and what else? The story is lost forever.

Someone bought the heart at the art auction, I don't know who, I have no photos of it. Somehow it's fitting, since it was made of lost things from the past. Nostalgia tinted with pain of things lost forever, except for a glancing blow in this writing.

Wednesday, January 7, 1987

Baja Journal from the Air: revisiting the past, ruminating on photography and art


1/17 Remembering the past, exploits, from the air.... these second-hand memories, once removed, like unfamiliar second cousins.

I sit in my bed remembering an airplane ride, which in turn, reminded me of three previous trips. Memory within memory within memory—everything reshaping to fit the current turn of events. Reality vs. memory.

As I write about this, what is real? What becomes the synthesis for my poetry? Or my art? When I can record so little during the actual experience? I am so absorbed, so involved in the new experiences, it leaves little time for reflection, and recording of observation.

Even my photography falls off the wagon. At least I do it, but I forget to use the tools. Also, a part of me doesn't want to disrupt the absorption process with the intrusion of my camera.

Behind the camera, I become an organ, sensing only light and shape. I lose contact with where I am and what I'm doing.

At the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, after I'd shot a roll of B&W kid shots for John's book, I said I wanted to go back in to see the Mayan exhibit. John said, "But we've been in the Mayan exhibit for the past 20 minutes!"

POP! ZIP! A strange scrambling of perception as I take a few minutes to refocus on my surroundings. Oh. Of course.

To photograph, sometimes my other senses retreat. My eye, the part of the brain that sees shape and light comes forward, becomes dominant. Nothing else exists. Speech is laborious. Exhaustion falls off. The world exists only in a dimension of light, shadows and shape. I am always dazed, and somewhat exhausted after an hour of shooting. It is so intensely absorbing. Utterly so.

I believe the Indians who said that he camera takes a little bit of their soul. It takes something of the photographer's soul too.


I did some charcoal pastel drawings of an Edward Curtis print of an Indian holding up a buffalo (bison) skull to the sky. In the second drawing he holds a box camera up. In the third drawing, he becomes the buffalo with the camera.

And in the fourth drawing, he becomes a shape in contrasting colors. Red and green, like a color negative. The four pieces are not particularly successful as far as art goes, but I like the idea that spurred me to do it. The art is a byproduct of the experience, a symbol of the thought process.

Sometimes it takes on more, or other meanings beyond the original intent. But for the most part, the finished product is only the tip of the iceberg. What leads me to art is a long, and complicated process. A jumble of memories, conflicting sentiments, and ideas pour into a piece.

When a piece is completed it takes on a life of its own. All that underwater ice. The subconscious, if you will, is no longer relevant, or important. Ghostlike, it's both there, and not there.

added 9/17

Baja Journal from the air: Bahía Concepción from the air


Bahía Concepción from the air. I can make out Sanispac Point where John Ford lives. I saw his tall daughter, Angelica, watching us as she walked along the shore in a long white peasant dress, as we desperately rowed against the afternoon wind from Lighthouse Island.

How foolish we were to go so far out, and then to not leave the island before the afternoon winds arose. We took turns in the water, using our fins to propel our raft. We made it to the lee side of Sanispac, but offshore winds made rowing impossible. I waded among the boulders towing the raft. The sharp coral punctured my diving booties.

Someone in a boat gave us a tow to shore that last half mile, thank god. We could've done it on our own. We'd made it through the worst part, but we were cold and exhausted.

From the air I can make out Lighthouse Island—a fair distance to row against the wind and current in a small leaking rubber boat. In hindsight, I am impressed by our past exploits and our sheer foolhardiness.


added 9/17

Baja Journal from the air: Lagunas Hanson, Salada, & the Salton Sea


Baja—flying up the peninsula. I am struck by the geologic nakedness of the land. It's as if someone had peeled the skin back to reveal a layer of muscle and tissue and bone beneath. Erosion. Etched canyons on smooth mesas. 

Vulcanism. Perfect craters on top of the mesa. One half of a moon crater casting a perfect shadow behind it. The escarpment, a rift that divides Baja west and east. Sierra de San Pedro Mártir looms, and Picacho del Diablo, pink granite rises straight up 10,000 feet. Cerro del la Cúpula's observatories, like strange fungus.

A misplaced wedge of blue: Laguna Hansen, on top of that flat crest. When we drove in 30 miles on dirt roads—if you can call them roads—and pygmy forests. We never could see more than a few feet ahead of us. And beyond that isolated blue ledge, a piece of sky? A tiny mirror of the sky, the Sea of Cortez.

The shallow basin where the Colorado River enters (negligible), and the seasonal Laguna Salada, an inland sea, ten meters below sea level, is like its twin, the Salton Sea, in the Coachilla Valley. Like the Salton, it comes and it goes.

From the air it's so obviously part of the Sea of Cortez bed. Very little elevation separates Laguna Salada, the Salton Sea, and the Sea of Cortez from each other. Just a little rise of sand dunes, and flat sand bars several miles wide. I imagine how it must've looked before we robbed the mighty Colorado River of its mouth. A vast delta and miles of wetlands. Lagunas reflecting the sky.

These lakes may be man-made in recorded history—when we began tinkering with the Colorado's flow. But these bodies of water have come and gone so many times without our help. All are rifts, from the San Andreas Fault.

The Salton Sea is rising, inundating the houses along the shore. The Colorado  River aqueduct burst in 1906, and ran into the dry lake bed for two years. But there's also a record of the Salton Sea having water in 1849 as well, with no help from man—meaning Europeans. And of course, the Coachilla Indians claim it always had water.

Ditto that for Laguna Salada. Who was around to record it, other than the Coachilla Indians?

Mexico/California: two "manmade" seas straddling the border. They say Laguna Salada is manmade too, and will evaporate within 20 years. It's happening already, the beach resorts no longer fringe the lake. A dock surrounded by sand. We walked out a long way before we could swim.

We swam out to some submerged trees covered with barnacles above the level of the lake water. And we had a lively discussion as to what came first, the barnacle or the tree. The tree, of course. But barnacles? How did they even get here? There is no passage to the Sea of Cortez.

Of course, I'm still trying to grasp the idea of what look like oak trees growing in this barren land, in the first place. Lake or no lake. This was once a wooded valley with vast marshlands.

The Salton Sea, also well below sea level, has become a poisonous wasteland from agricultural runoff. And the New American River drains effluent from Mexicali, on the border, into the US. But the US has something to do with the pollution returned to our shores from the other side of the border. The pharmaceutical companies evading US pollution laws, are on Mexican soil. Exempt.

The politics of land use: only the land suffers.

What we cannot change.


added 9/17

Mexico City Journal


1/7 The problem with all this running everywhere is that I never have enough time to sit still and organize my thoughts, let alone, write. John is a compulsive writer. He can't help himself. Couldn't stop writing if his life depended on it, while I have to struggle to align my thoughts in any semblance of order.

A fragment: I am in awe of the Yucatan, the jungle, so familiar, something almost remembered, as if from a pre-cambrian past.


Thursday, January 1, 1987

Mérida Mordida


At the farmers' market, the Ladinos sellers stop harassing us momentarily to admire and to touch my turquoise necklace. Suddenly I had something they wanted. The Mayans revere jade above gold, turquoise was a close second. 

Are we returned to Mérida, our car was gone. Towed? Stolen?

Mérida without baggage. No luggage. Just the clothing on our backs and a few pesos in our pockets. A long story, several trips across the city, and several dollars poorer, we retrieve our rented car from the towing compound.

A Ladino family takes pity on us and gives us a ride from the compound to the fine office on the other side of Mérida, and back to the compound again. Their car too was towed. 

They laugh as John jokes with them in Spanish about grudas, or grutas, meaning mordidas. We get charged six times local rate because we are gringos. They are in their late 40s, with a carful of children. Their fine is much less. They won't accept any money for driving us back and forth. We shake hands and smile. Odd way to meet the local populace. We're cruising around in a huge tanker American car with a bunch of Mayans. 

In line again, we meet a man who had made the unfortunate mistake of being outside his house at 2 AM with his car and trailer, when the police pulled up. When they questioned him, he said he lived there, but they towed his car and trailer anyway, then beat him up and threw him in jail. The fine was high for him too. We all pulled out spare change to help him. Moral: don't park in the streets of Merida or you'll pay la mordida.

Quetzal Feathers, Jaguar Sighting


The pyramids of the Yucatán. We climbed every pyramid we could find. We climbed each temple, counting stairs and breaths, as the year drew to a close. At the stela below the temple of Cobá, an amber ring of copal and melted wax. Candles held vigil beneath the shell pitted limestone stelae. The Mayan hieroglyphs are pitted almost beyond recognition.

A Mayan park ranger in zoris, a whistle about his neck, mounted on a rusted bike, said that a jaguar was killed here for nights ago. We can almost hear the eerie cat cry and the jungle reeks of cat odor.

At Chichén Viejo there are few tourists. It is off the beaten path. In the partially cleared jungle, pale grass like a fur coat, covers the stones. Each mound, a collapsed temple or a hut. Lives lived and lost. Unexcavated.

I'm in the Templo del Falos. I could hear something breathing outside but I was the only one inside. John was away exploring another temple.

I wanted to sit on those wide stone benches 
and touch you. There, and there.
But you pulled away, ever the acetic. 
Your eyes were brimming with desire.


We follow the Mayan path of raised limestone blocks back into the jungle. I hear the breathing of hounds behind me. I feel the presence of eyes upon my back. The whispering grows louder, more intensified as we walk faster.

At the na, a Mayan hut, an oval boat-like thatched wattle and daub hut, we stopped, look down into the dry well. And we took photos but the shutter stuck, and you refused to cross the threshold of the hut a second time.

I am entranced by a small stone idol with indistinct features at the foot of the fire pit. Light ash is still swirling in the air. Remnants of the 20th century, some plastic bags in the rafters, and bottles behind the shack. Someone still uses this hut.

The gods have moved away from Uxmal and Chichén Itzá. They live here in the ruins. I say all this is nonsense. There are no more gods. This is merely rock and sky. Acab Dzib keeps its silence. Obscure writing.

But something is still following us through the jungle. Not tourists, they don't come this far. From a small temple, earlier, we spied a stray group of tourists. They never even saw us. We knew we were alone here. And something was tracking us. We broke into a run, following the curved green wall, the urge to hurry intensifying our need to return to the 20th century.

Something blue catches my eye. I pick up a ragged, broken brilliant feather that turns blue and green then indigo like a peacock feather, that iridescent green. I look at it and realize it is a quetzal feather. No they're extinct in this area my guidebook says. A green bluejay? No too bright. What is this feather doing here? An old feather, part of a Mayan headdress?

The bushes have eyes. We protect ourselves from curses and emerge from behind the nunnery into dazzling light, where sedate groups of tourist randomly snap photographs while we linger on the edge of darkness, the jungle closes in behind just with a snap.

You bow to the darkness, your fingers in lotus position against them like a hex.

In this jungle we are unbound by time. This river of air unfolds clocks and we cross memories and images, interstices. When one path crosses another, we are are unsure of when will be, but not where we are.

I keep imagining mysterious stories in this jungle, of those who hiked along these paths and reemerged years later with wild tales of feathered serpents and stone Chaak Mools turning their heads to watch them pass.


Tourists sit on the raingod Chaak's offering bowl, the one that Chaak Mool holds out begging for a fresh human heart. Instead he gets dozens of large human asses draped on the lip of his offertory bowl. He wears that same half amused expression for centuries on the end. Perhaps those who sat on his stomach will die of heart failure.

There are traces of red ocher embedded in the deep crevices of the statues. Someone is worshiping them still. Polychrome temples, pavilions and statues. Red iron, cinnabar, yellow ocher, chrome green. And that indescribable Maya blue—the sacred color of Chaak, the rain god. The red and black umbers are the most enduring colors of the stucco frescoes and carved walls, are but obscure traces of what once was here.

We count steps on the pyramid: 91 steps times four sides equals 364, and the top step equals one year. The Mayans still paint unlucky people blue but no longer throw them down the well or into the cenote.

Underneath El Castillo, the tallest pyramid of each city is called El Castillo, there's usually a governor's palace and a nunnery. Whether these titular roles actually existed as such as another matter—this is what they are called. Inside the Castillo is another temple, and inside that temple is the throne of the red jaguar with jade eyes. Like infinity looking in on itself.

Trono de Jaguar en El Castillo, Chichen Itza.

RACING DARKNESS


We glimpsed our first Coatimundi in the Yucatán,
which we promptly ran over with our rental car.
A rare jungle animal. And we ran it down.
His black and white tail with its warning stripes,
was useless against nervous gringos racing the darkness.
Whoops! said John, I guess it was his time.

Late Dec., or early Jan., 1987 (written down on 1/7/87—probably on a scrap of paper)
added  & revised 9/17 In Mexico, it is never a good idea to drive after dark.