Saturday, October 30, 2021
My ode to impermanency
As a child, I got to plant a tree. But when I sold our house, the new owners cut it down. I recorded my songs, but the tapes eventually unspooled themselves and got irreversibly tangled. I read and studied and was proud of my language proficiency until I migrated and had to start over. I trained horses and dogs,but they got old and died. I photographed artfully and spent much time and moneyon film, but the medium of slides became obsolete. I fought to establish a wetland nature preserve, and against a freeway planned to cross through it. When I returned after 30 years, it the groundwater level had fallen, and the marsh was dying. I invested in friendships and love, but I or the friends moved away, and the connections were reduced to facebook messages. I collected books, bird nests, and art but abandoned them on another continent to people who did not care. I painted and sold my work, but the people who bought my paintings got old and their heirs had different tastes. I am working on a book when the medium of print might be reaching the end of its 400 year reign. The tree was a birch that we brought back from a trip to the Dutch border in a pot. I watched how the huge leaves of the young tree turned over the years into much smaller leaves of the mature. It grew over our heads, gave us shade, a place to climb up in, where birds would roost, and leaf-rolling weevils perform their art. It sparked feuds with neighbors over falling catkins, seeds and leaves. It lost a limb one spring and produced so much ‘Birkenwasser’ that we all washed gloss and health into our hair. It gave character to our house. In the evenings we often sang under the tree, learning songs in a foreign language because we felt that our own folk-songs were infused with a patriotism that left a bad taste in our mouths. There we easily threw out the good with the bad. But enthusiastically we sang into microphones of primitive recorders, and mothers got years of enjoyment from it. Eventually, I made the foreign language of those songs my own. I had been very comfortable in my old language and deeply loved its writers and poets. But discovering new lands was exciting and invigorating. Even though for a while a new language makes any migrant feel like she is being reduced to the level of a 10 year old even in her thoughts, one eventually gets comfortable enough to believe that no loss happened, but new levels of complexity have been reached. Cognitive bias that makes us feel better. When I noticed that I used my new language to train my dogs, I knew that I had become quite comfortable. Of course, those dogs were not the beloved one that accompanied my childhood. That I trained and took to trials that he was not bred for and still got some awards. But I found a little bit of him in each of the others – and I loved many over the years. Only photos remain of most of them – a dog’s life is so short that I have begun to think of them as the continuum of ‘our dogs’. Always an avid photographer, I got my first camera at the age of five. My father had his own darkroom, and my parents’ best friend was an artist who worked in every medium imaginable, including art photography. Absorbing by osmosis rather than being taught, I early on tried to use the camera to capture and preserve memories, to create art, and to document observations of the natural world. My first greater investment of any kind was a state-of-the-art macro lens for my Canon A1. As digital technology began to replace film and slides, I made the switch later than many. I love now the instant feedback, certainly the endless availability of digital pixels, and that I can edit and change my photos without spending nights in a smelly darkroom. I miss the mystery of the image slowly appearing in the developing bath. I still think about graininess versus light-sensitivity and speed versus depth of field. Sadly, I got disenchanted with the quality and usability of my earlier slides to the point that I just left thousands of them behind when I sold our old house. I was under immense stress at the time and still regret that decision. But those photos that I cannot physically see anymore are ingrained on my brain and will forever be of superior quality and artfulness. I returned to the ‘old country’ after my mother died and I had to resolve her estate. It was a very sad time. I found solace returning to the woods of my childhood and the swampy nature preserve that I had helped to establish in the late seventies by doing the entomology part of our biodiversity assessment. Where in the first half of the last century mining activity had caused severe sinking of the ground and a reversal of the flow of the groundwater, trees had drowned, and agricultural fields had been lost to wetlands. These themselves were then considered worthy of protection because the country retained so very few of its original bogs and swamps. When I returned over 30 years later, the area was still protected by nature preserve signs, but a changing climate was drying out the soil and the forest was taking back the area. The change was fascinating to observe: While many of the insect species I had listed earlier were gone, I found many pioneer species and a very high level of diversity, as often the case in disturbed or changing environments. I would have loved to observe longer or at least to come back to it later. (The situation may have been reversed again after the floods of 2021 in NRW) A friend from my youth had joined me for this short step back in time. Disconnected from the past and any possible future, this encounter was blissfully sweet. Never a person to easily bond, I have left behind most of my closest friends at several points in my life. But I tend to keep most of them close to my heart, and whenever we meet again, I connect as if no time had passed. Most bad memories, though, have been erased. That cognitive bias again! Even my happy marriage is based on reconnecting to my great love after more than 15 years and another marriage in between. There was heartbreak in the past. But time has made that unimportant. Whenever I was lonely or sad, I found an outlet in creativity. I can trace back my most active times in nature photography, writing and painting to times of broken first love, a failing marriage, homesickness and other shake-ups. Painting especially always helps me to transcendent to a state beyond momentary pain and stress. So the reward I get from painting is manyfold. First, the process of painting is reward in itself. I really fight and work from the ‘ugly’ phase that any of my paintings goes through to the satisfaction of the finished piece. Watercolor, by its somewhat ‘accidental’ character, lives of surprising, unplanned effects. The art lies in letting them happen and enjoying them. Then, I get to show the piece. At shows, on-line, it’s usually a good experience, and I do not question what could just be flattery. The real test comes when it’s up for sale. I hate sounding so commercial, but it is a great compliment when someone is willing to pay my price and give the painting or print a prominent place in his home. People who buy from me are also always exceedingly graceful: they thank me – as if no money had been involved in the exchange. So the satisfaction is great on both sides, even if I am realistic enough to know that any change in the living arrangements of my clients can make my painting homeless again. My art is just not high end enough to pose a collectible value in every case (yet 😊). At the moment I am not producing much art. That could mean that I am just too blissfully contented. But in fact, I am pouring my creativity into the preparations for a book, my long dreamed-of Arizona Beetles. It has become somewhat of a never-ending story because we find more and more species to include, especially since my co-author, Art Evans, has now bought into my concept and obsession to make it as complete and inclusive as we possibly can. But the more time goes by, the more often I worry about several things: that I will not be able to work the market well enough to distribute it because I am doing fewer shows and fairs, that many of our followers may lose interest in field work and Arizona collection trips, that the insect fauna is so changed and diminished by climate change that our book becomes more of a historical account, and that books, as a medium, lose out to all those phone apps that promise identifications that are probably not as accurate, but fast and easy. On the other hand, the project has given me years of adventures in the field often in the company of great friends, much learning and discovery, hours of satisfying creative work at the computer. I would not want to miss a minute of it. Well, so much for any attempt at permanency. You say: but what will be left of you after you are gone? My answer is that at least I will not take up space from those who come after. Until then, I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts, whatever it is.