Reflections and notes on the relationship of art to nature and of nature to art from along Warwoman Creek, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Katuah Province of Turtle Island, where the light, the dark, the seasons, the time of deep past, deep present and deep future all mix in alchemal mists to reveal and hide and transform these slopes, shaded coves, bright rivers, deep forests and me, and together sustain me and my art.

Thursday, December 31, 2009


In the early hours of this morning it snowed!

For those living farther north this is commonplace, but for us living on the southernmost prow of the Blue Ridge (a finger of the Appalachian chain), it's a chancy thing. Each late fall we prognosticate on its likely hood during the coming winter, measure the black section on "wooly worms" in prophecy, consult the Farmer's Almanac. But we never know. We've had many snow-less winters, but on the other hand older residents can tell of 24+" snows that isolated every one for weeks in these steep sloped mountains and narrow valleys.

This first snow always brings out the child in us. The older among us can mutter that this can get quickly tiresome and make life difficult, but even their eyes brighten at this first snow. Surely it has this power exactly because it does conjure up the child in us, and reminds even the crusty curmudgeon that the child still lives somewhere inside each of us. But I think it is not just the innocence we associate with childhood, but the child's ability to see things newly. To witness first snow is to be reminded that we can still see things newly, and that what we call "the world" is a spectacular experience of transformation. First snow is proof of this.

So, a poem I've been waiting so long to post here:


Oh, snow! clean
like forgetting, fresh
like remembering

- Laurence Holden, 2/27/08

Snow makes the world new. And as it does, it affects how we see ourselves. We in reply feel freshened. And this very real conversation reflects something that the 8th Century Zen master Kukei pointed to in "Singing Images of Fire":

"A hand moves, and the fire's whirling takes different
...all things change when we do.
The first word, ah, blossoms into all others.
Each of them is true."

(trans. by Jane Hirschfield)

Thus, this morning I can say in reply:

First snow!
when all things change,
so do I.

First snow, or first word,
they each blossom into all the others.
Each of them is true.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009



What’s needed
is water
and dark

moving to a time
as slow as roots

in a well

where silvered fish

in a dream
of knowing

not caught
but foreseen.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


One reads the morning sky in the manner of deciphering its pattern of form and movement so to chart the possibilities for one's own outer and inner day. The wind out of the east, low clouds and the feel of moisture in the air means the likelihood of rain, and that means no work possible in the vegetable garden if it's summer, no cutting firewood if it's winter, and so that opens up the possibility of inner immersion in work in the studio or up in the study.

Or, wandering through the woods I notice the track of a deer, and begin to read its story - how big a deer, male or female (if the back feet make tracks outside of the line of the front it's more likely to be a female I think), was it going fast or slow, was it heading single-mindedly toward some goal, or was it wandering (and therefore probably lazily grazing its way along - what's been nipped along its path?), how old (this morning? - the crumbled, heaved up edges moist and not dried out, or yesterday or last week - the edges dry and cracked - but has it been raining for several days keeping the track fresh for many days?).

Or, at the grocery store I am intently searching for something I've run out of, and happen into an old friend not seen for months. Our eyes meet and I read their face - the flicker of an eyelid, the cant of the head, the movement of the eyes - whether they meet me directly, or shift away in discomfort; the corners of the mouth either beginning to stretch into a smile or set in defense of something, reading the signs of well being, or not, of welcome, or not, of embarrassment, or the reaction traced there to my asking "how have you been?"

Or, I am standing on the front porch with the morning's first cup of tea in hand, waiting to address the new sun coming up over the trees to splash across the field below the house with radiant greens, and waiting too for how that makes me feel - comforted, confirmed, even positive about what I might accomplish this day.

Or, I'm in the studio, stirring paint, and stirring my perception, trying to read the nascent shape forming there into actuality - a smudge into the turning edge that catches the light just so,  

Readings. And then there are the books. They are readings not much different than the ones above, in either breadth, depth, variety, or method. I am not a careless reader, but I do so in much the same way that I read other "sign" - the morning sky, an animal's track, some one's face, or a painting.

I've read much in my 64 years, a little of it valuable and a lot of it forgettable. Over the last 17 years it has narrowed mostly to reading over and over again the ones I know to be valuable because it has become increasingly hard to find new books that actually refresh and nourish - that encourage me to experience life in new and nourishing ways. The list of the ones I reread is short but rich -

Lewis Hyde's The Gift which I return to to be reminded of the true commerce of art
McLean's A River Runs Through It
Harry Middleton's On the Spine of Time ( both the carefully lucid parts and those when he slips into mere glibness - I've come to love his feet of clay as I would  a friend's and don't much judge him for it)
John Haines' The Stars, The Snow, The Fire
Nelson's The Island Within
Paulsen's Clabbered Dirt, Sweet Grass
Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams
John Inglis Hall's Fishing a Highland Stream
Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets (its elagaic quality every bit as forlorn as Samuel Barber's "Adagio"
Robert Bly's translations of Rilke's poems
Gary Snyder's A Place in Space
Christopher Camuto's Another Country

I have read all of these many times. I once came to the end of Camuto's Another Country and without hesitation simply turned to the first page and began again. It was like a really good painting in the way it continually nourished and revealed itself to me. Some of its enduring significance lies in its layering of stories - his personal narrative telling upon tales from the past that in turn tell upon stories of language, myth and culture, and that in turn upon a listening to what the land can tell us. On a few days, when my life seems exhausted of content, purpose, direction, or possibility, I turn to it for solace, and bathing myself in the rhythms of his thoughts and words, I find life turn brighter, and for me (I'm a painter after all) incandescent. And of course to say that its significance lies in its layering is to admit that what I look for in reading signs in the morning sky, a deer's track, a face in the crowd, or in a book, is the intricate layering of life itself that is true.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Slate Article: Do You See a Pattern?

Sometimes, as if by accident, some one doing the good work of trying to live in respect to the land and its people, gets recognized by the media. Christopher Alexander's four volume book The Nature of Order(2002) is a wonder of building healthy relationships with each other, ourselves, and nature. He understands that when we recognize a form that appeals to us that we are actually recognizing an inner kinship between us, an echo of our "I" in them. This is a different twist on Neo-Platonism and Alexander teases out, recognizes, and then honors the underlying relationships between who we are and what the world around us is. This is a bit of very old perennial wisdom found in many indigenous cultures. And he accomplishes this in our cultural context by taking us through very common every day human experiences that can be applied with nails and a hammer to grasp the luminous quality of our lives. Simple, really.

A dear friend in art, Margaret Davis, just sent me this article from Slate
By Witold Rybczynski about Christopher Alexander receiving the Vincent Scully Prize, and is a good review of Alexander's contribution to architecture.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


"The Singer Sings, and the Mountains Move Like Fishes," 2009
acrylic on polyester fabric, 60"h. x 72"w.

 "The Singer Sings, and the Mountains Move Like Fishes" is a recent painting from a series of works I began in 2005 called "the Mountain Passages Cycle,"

Passage is the act of passing, specifically movement from one place to another, sometimes a change of progress from one process or condition to another. Permission, right, or a chance to pass is often required. Passage is also a way or means of passing, as in a journey, especially by water; a voyage, and passage is that which happens or takes place between persons.

  In all these senses, paintings have always presented passages to me - imagined, proposed, hoped for, sometimes prayed for. They have always offered openings, permissions, journeys, all proffering passage from one process or condition to another.

  If the Spanish poet Machado was right, that we who pass on, even a little, walk, like Jesus, on the water, then artists and their work offer one partial exception - we artists and our work leave tracks of both where we’ve come from and, because of the imaginative intercourse a work of art summons us to, they point to where we’re all going.

  But paintings are quite still, aren’t they? Exactly! Paintings and the seeing and meanings they summon us to to present an endless quest going nowhere in space or time but only deeper into the presence. There is grace in this. It is the grace of knowing that our consciousness and the light are always arriving in the world together. And in this momentary stillness there is a  great Hello!

It was my sixtieth year when I started this series.  It was the year I moved to this secluded hollow along Warwoman Creek in the North Georgia Mountains. It was the month of April, Kawani in Cherokee - the Cherokee moon of reviving rivers and re-emerging medicinal plants. A season to take stock, to relent and to let go, and then to recover the deeper language of rhythms and patterns woven into the fabric of all those years. A time to really paint what I see (as the saying goes by painters), but now to acknowledge that seeing as a gift of presence as much as an act of perception, of coming into Being, not just observing.

   Presence, present, to be present - these are all entangled for me now. The massive northern shoulder of Rainy Mountain slopes down to meet the flood plain just behind my studio. From late fall to early Spring it is a massive shadowed cloak that descends, and from Spring to Fall it is a bright green lit body. It is not present as a picture. It hovers dramatically between being just some of the furniture of the world and startlingly something else: something protean, powerful and energetic, something drawing my own presence into its circle, always shouldering against where I am, against what I see and what I feel. Then one morning I step outside the studio to see that Rainy Mountain has dissolved - the mists that live in these mountains have taken it for their own form of presence- an expression of the world making and remaking itself, a process of re-becoming, like ocean waves that rise and then refold into one another. Even in the seeming millennial immutability of this land, some aspect, some dimension, breathes. The very ineffability makes possible the expansive reality of the land around me. It is a great gift to witness