Encounters with the Numinous


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On my birthday I spent an hour or so in about 100 yards of beachfront rocks at Drift Inn, territory that I had explored before and found to be inexhaustible as a source of vibrant images—some anthropomorphic or zoomorphic, others abstract and otherwise fractured, and still others shapes and textures that hint at still-mysterious underlying order.


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The geologic forces (pressure, strain, erosion) that formed what we see are merely a freeze-frame moment in processes that have taken place over vast stretches of time, and are of course continuing. The rocks of a decade or a century hence will look much the same, but a visitor tomorrow or next spring may not see the same things that I saw and photographed. Different light conditions change the view from hour to hour and day to day, and the flat light of an overcast morning discloses different figures than one sees in the raking light of a clear dawn or late afternoon, or in the mistiness of a rainy day. And angle of view and distance from rock to focal plane—and of course the framing chosen by the photographer—are other axes of variation.

Within that hundred yards (perhaps 10 yards wide) I found hundreds of tranches that spoke to me, some of them clearly faces or creatures, others only disclosing hidden creatures once the images were processed.


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Stories popped out of some, while others remained mute designs.


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Some were marvelously different if I rotated the image as taken, or tweaked the vibrancy and sharpness.


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The question of optimal presentation of this wealth of images is vexed: large prints on paper, encouraging immersive viewing on gallery walls? Screen-filling digital still, or video? Dissolves? Ken Burns-style pans and zooms? For me, each image is first and foremost an object of contemplation into which I can fall in search of Minor White-like elseness (yes, they are pictures of rocks. But what else are they pictures of?) and Stieglitzian Equivalents (visual moments of personal discovery and epiphany) and, often enough, bits of free-hand numinosity and revelation perhaps more felt than verbalized.

Would an impartial observer visiting those hundred yards have anything like the same experience I enjoyed? To what degree was mine a prepared mind, expecting faces, equipped to see references to Chinese landscape painting


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or Buddhist iconography


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or similarities to any of thousands of images stored in my mind from a lifetime of looking? Just how idiosyncratic are my readings of these bits of silicacious narrative? I see gargoyles, djinni, caricatures, disembodied spirits, reminders of other worlds fictional or fantastical, allusions to particular styles and movements in art history…


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The possibility of capturing and presenting tracings of the figures I see (via Apple’s promised Sidecar link between iMac and iPad) suggests a new mode of explication, but will require a deep dive into graphics software.

The whole set from Drift Inn on September 16th is available as a Flickr album.


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unfamiliar ways

Today Andy Ilachinski’s post quotes Richard Dawkins, with this punchline:

…we can recapture that sense of having just tumbled out to life on a new world by looking at our own world in unfamiliar ways.

This is just what I’ve been trying to do in being attentive to faces that manifest as I prowl, looking down and looking around. And they are everywhere:


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And there are dancers:

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And magical geographies:


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And (with a grateful nod to Tolkien) roads winding ever on and on:

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And enigmas, always enigmas:

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Mt. Megunticook

As we were climbing Mount Megunticook last weekend, this thought wafted through my mind:

Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing,
or
is my imagination working overtime?
How would I know?

Finding faces in beach or mountain rock is an exercise in imagination, perception, analogy, metaphor. But always: the more, the more, and definitely the merrier, as I’m pulled along by the joys of discovery. As Broot observed: Rock faces are on rock faces.

And just this morning Andy Ilachinski posted this quotation from Leonardo da Vinci:

If you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see divers combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well conceived forms.

A few cases in point from the Megunticook trove:


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My search for rock persons continues.

two Newfoundland gravestones

As I work on a project (photographic or otherwise) I’m continuously wondering why—seeking for reasons, bits of insight, overarching whithers. What is it about gravestones that keeps me returning to cemeteries? It turns out that the answers are many, and not simple, forever unfolding into new revelations of the depths and varieties of Form. For me, so much of the pleasure is in reading (that is, imagining, chasing, constructing) the Story contained in any instance of the Form.


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This stone is from Querpon, at the northern tip of the western shore of Newfoundland. ‘Killed by dogs’ is not a phrase found on many gravestones, but we surmise that Murray Roberts might have been teasing tied-up sled dogs (there were not many snowmobiles in Querpon in 1967) who got loose and took revenge. I had a chance to find out, but muffed it: also visiting the tiny graveyard the day I was there was a man of more or less my age who was “visiting the parents” and told me he’d left Querpon in 1962 to join the Canadian Forces and only returned to Querpon when he retired… but he’d have been a teenager at the time, and would surely have remembered the incident. And it’s not unlikely that Murray was a shirt-tail cousin, Querpon being about 20 households.

This double stone, from Isle aux Morts at the southwestern tip of Newfoundland, sketches a tale that it turns out we can fill in details on. We begin with two brothers, a disaster to a named boat, a precise date, even some detail on their marital status:


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Straits Pride II went down in a storm 29 years ago, and the incident was thoroughly investigated by the Transportation Safety Board:

On 17 December 1990, the F.V. “STRAITS PRIDE II”, inbound to St. John’s, Newfoundland, from
the fishing grounds with a two-third load of round (ungutted) codfish stowed in the fish hold,
encountered adverse weather, capsized and sank throwing the six-person crew into the ice-cold waters. Three crew members who managed to board the inflatable liferaft were subsequently rescued, but the remaining three lost their lives.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada determined that the vessel continued to fish after learning of a forecasted storm warning and that the combined effects of the weather, shipped seas, stowage of the catch, free surface effect of liquids, loss of the port paravane, and downflooding caused the vessel to capsize and sink by the stern. The suddenness of the capsizing precluded efforts by three of the crew to successfully abandon the vessel, displacing them into the sea. As they were wearing only normal winter clothing with approved lifejackets, their survival time was limited. The other three crew members boarded the liferaft from the sea and were rescued some eight hours later in a mildly hypothermic condition. (see the detailed report of the incident)

and there’s more, in the form of a song:


I also learned (via Google) that Russell Bond’s wife Darlene died in February 2019, and that Russell had found a life-ring from the Ocean Ranger in 1982:

Officials at the Search and Rescue Center said Friday that a life-ring found on Newfoundland’s south coast was not from the Ocean Ranger oil rig that sank in February but from a Greek vessel bearing the same name. The ring was discovered on the beach at Burnt Islands, near Newfoundland’s southwest corner, last week by Russell Bond, a local fisherman. Bond turned the life-ring over to the RCMP and told local reporters he was certain it had come from the giant oil rig that sank Feb.15 on the Grand Banks, killing all 84 crew aboard.

Small things, bits of drama from lives lived quietly, of no great significance, but fascinating for their essential humanity.

Rocks from whom one learns


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Last night I took this specimen along on a visit and our hostess said “oooh is this a gift?” and I was immediately protective. “Certainly not!” I said, and immediately regretted my vehemence in defense of my rock, as I hadn’t even photographed it yet. I did make its portrait today, and thus recognized a Lesson in Attachment—one I might have learned (but had clearly forgotten) with the Bodhidharma example cited at the end of the Morphic Resonance post. In what wise is this rock my rock? Why should I wish to hold on to it? Wouldn’t it be better to appreciate it and pass it on so that others could enjoy its verisimilitude? Isn’t it enough to have discovered its several personalities and felt its agency? Yes, yes, 10,000 times yes.

Erdrich ftw

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This morning’s online version of the New Yorker brought a short story by Louise Erdrich, The Stone, and the text of an interview of Erdrich by Deborah Treisman, from which this segment is harvested:

Sometimes I notice an odd, local type of stone and pick up a shard or a pebble… I’ve learned to put most of these stones back after looking. But stones ground me, quite literally, when I am in a new place. And they are mysterious and yet friendly inhabitants of my house. Every time I’ve moved, I’ve left behind a small pile of foreign stones in the garden. Have these stones used me to get from one place to the next? So I have a lot of stones around, I must admit, but this story isn’t based on a particular one among them. In the Ojibwe language, nouns are animate or inanimate; the word for stone, asin, is animate. One might think that stones have no actual power—after all, we throw them, build with them, pile them, crush them, slice them. But who is to say that the stones aren’t using us to assert themselves? To transform themselves? One day, the things we made out of stones may be all that’s left of our species. Of our complex history of chipping away at and arranging stones, what will be recorded or known?

The story itself is quite marvelous, and includes this resonant passage:

A stone is, in its own way, a living thing, not a biological being but one with a history far beyond our capacity to understand or even imagine. Basalt is a volcanic rock composed of augite and sometimes plagioclase and magnetite, which says nothing. The wave-worn piece of basalt that the woman [protagonist of the story] had slept with for more than a decade was thrown from a rift in the earth 1.1 billion years ago, which still says nothing. Before she broke it and dumped it at the bottom of a drawer, the stone had been broken time and again. It had been rolled smooth by water and the action of sand. Because of its strange shape, it had been picked up by several human beings in the course of the past ten thousand years. It had been buried with one until a tree had devoured the bones and pulled the stone back out of the ground. It had been kept by a woman who revered it as a household spirit and filled its eyes with sweetgrass. It had been shoved off a dock, lifted back up with a shovel, deposited in a heap. It had surfaced in a girl’s left hand. A stone is a thought that the earth develops over inhuman time. It is a living thing to some cultures and a dead thing to others. This one had been called nimishoomis, or “my grandfather,” and other names, too. The woman had not named the stone. She had thought that naming the stone would be an insult to its ineffable gravity.

My dealings with ineffable gravity are hereby declared entirely legitimate.

of Morphic Resonance

It’s been months since the last post here, almost 3 quite busy months since our return home from this year’s cross-continent trip. The last six weeks included a very successful gallery show for Broot and a one-day pop-up show for me, and we’re now in Nova Scotia, just finishing another 3-week trip, this one a 55th anniversary circumtransit of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence (four nights by freight boat from Rimouski to Blanc Sablon PQ; ferry from Labrador to St. Barbe, Newfoundland; north to L’Anse aux Meadows, then down the west coast to Gros Morne National Park, then ferry to North Sydney NS, and finally to Horton Landing; home to Maine by the weekend).

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The usual welter of thoughts and reading and explorations of this’n’that accompanied, of course, so there’s much to get caught up.

The Flickr photostream tells many tales but also leaves out happenings that didn’t happen to get photographed. I’m just uploading the bountiful harvest of our week in Newfoundland, and thinking through What It All Means. And wondering what’s next. There are Flickr Albums of faces, surfaces and abstracts, and landscapes as a first stab at sorting the hundreds of images.

The perennial puzzlement of how to think about and what to do with the vast array of anthropo- and zoomorphic images of rocks and wood and water seems to be heading toward a resolution, but the complexities and leaps of association that underlie will take some explication. The cut-to-the-chase of the moment is an evolving scheme for a multimedia gallery presentation next summer, the provisional title for which is

Morphic Resonance:
Portraits in Stone, Wood, and Water

but the emergence of that title takes us back more than 3 million years, to the Makapansgat Pebble, which is surely an anthropomorphic form.:




The hominin ancestor who picked up and carried the pebble some 20 miles from its geological origin seems to me to represent an early (I’m tempted to claim the earliest) instance of aesthetic Consciousness in our own evolutionary branch [“possibly the earliest example of symbolic thinking or aesthetic sense in the human heritage”]). My own pursuit of wholly imaginary faces in various materials seems a direct descendant. I’ve been chewing over the deeper significance of this for the last year or so (since I learned of the Makapansgat Pebble). A couple of weeks ago the phrase “morphic resonance” drifted through my mind, and seemed somehow portentious (though I can’t remember when/where I first encountered it). It turned out to be a coinage of Rupert Sheldrake:

Morphic resonance is a process whereby self-organising systems inherit a memory from previous similar systems. In its most general formulation, morphic resonance means that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits. The hypothesis of morphic resonance also leads to a radically new interpretation of memory storage in the brain and of biological inheritance. Memory need not be stored in material traces inside brains, which are more like TV receivers than video recorders, tuning into influences from the past. And biological inheritance need not all be coded in the genes, or in epigenetic modifications of the genes; much of it depends on morphic resonance from previous members of the species. Thus each individual inherits a collective memory from past members of the species, and also contributes to the collective memory, affecting other members of the species in the future.

This seems akin to notions of ‘distributed consciousness’ with which I’ve been toying in the last year or so, and surely skates on the rim of mystical hoo-hah. I direct your attention to the Bodhidharma posts of February 2018 for earlier instances, and of course to the Just a Rock: a lithic menagerie book; see also Form Finds Form and Just Another Rock and Allegories and Agglomerations for more kindred threads.

A New Diversion

A story in the New York Times (These Mole Rats Felt No Pain, Even From Wasabi’s Burn) suggested the game of making haiku and senryu from headlines. The challenge is to add a line to complete the text of the headline, or perhaps find another way to work the text into the canonical 5-7-5 pattern. Here’s the opening salvo, in keeping with the sardonic and the mordant tone of the last post:

mole rats felt no pain
even from wasabi’s burn
try capsaicin next

(this assumes that tout le monde knows that
‘capsaicin’ is the active ingredient in the hotness of peppers)
(and marks the conceit that the torture of mole rats is Science)
(and with thanks to Nick for the capsaicin, C18H27NO3)

the ontologist will see you now


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I’m at an age where I pay more attention than formerly to texts on health and Thanatos. Among the authors I seem to be engaged with are Atul Gawande, Sherwin Nuland, Jerome Groopman, Jenny Diski, and most recently Colm Tóibín. I’m especially interested in the grace and wit these writers apply to the direst of subject matter. Thus Tóibín in a recent article in London Review of Books:

A week later the phone rang and I was told that I had a cancer of the testicles that had spread to a lymph node and to one lung. Instead of seeing the urologist, I would now need to see an oncologist. For a few days I comforted myself by pretending that, because of my abiding interest in the mysteries and niceties of Being, I had to see an ontologist… (18 April 2019, page 3)

The art of the grim jest, the sardonic and the mordant, is not to everyone’s taste. Once again, Amazon seems to be reading my mind: as I wrote the last sentence, email binged a come-on for Tony Moyle’s The End of the World is Nigh (“If you love books about con-men, conspiracies, Renaissance history, massive agitated boar, exploding beds, marmalade and historical satire then this is the book for you…”). Did I succumb? Of course.