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.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Reprinted from "Forest News," Georgia ForestWatch Quarterly Newsletter, Fall, 2010:

The Poet and the Power of the Land," by Laurence Holden

"The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, 
it is transcendent in its meaning, and it has the power 
to elevate a consideration of human life." 
- Barry Lopez, Artctic Dreams (1986) p.274

People have doubtless been walking up to the top of mountains for a declaration, a message, or a witness to be be made or acknowledged, forever. Some rituals are so ingrained, we don't even have to know that's what we're doing. So our merry band walked up Rabun Bald, thinking we were doing it just in mutual celebration of such a pleasant day, of the mountain itself, and of our fellowship. (At least us mlountain folk walked; the flatlanders among us thought perhaps it was a hike).

At the top we emerged from a laurel thicket onto a windswept precipice. A real mountain top for sure - the thick roiling cloud cover a low ceiling just above our heads. But a real precipice too, for not only is Rabun Bald a mountain, it is also a weather-scoured ridge that is the Eastern Continental Divide.

It is a great and certain divide indeed, for as we topped the ridge, the mountain suddenly fell away from us down into the steep roadless area of Sarah's Creek. Not a road, not a cldear cut to be seen. Rugged country for real - a place you wouldn't enter without a real back-up plan. A place you hear stories about the "back of beyond." A place for stories.

I'm still preparing my back-up plan for a sojourn there, a trip I know I may never actually make. But it's there. It's actually there. Enough for countless generations of stories. Stories to keep, to tell, andto pass down. That's the way we keep what's sacred in the land, keep it all alive, and us as well - alive to its miraculous presence. As author Christopher Camuto puts it in Another Country: Journeying Toward the Cherokee Mountains, "in a landscape where nothing is sacred, nothing is safe."

We saw it from atop Rabun Bald. I know it's there, there in all its roadless fullness just as I know the waters of Sarah's Creek way down below in a gentle cove where I've gently touched my open hand to its surface, and felt the tremble and the thrum of it all above - all the way up to Rabun Bald.

We sat a while on the top, inveterate celebrator Brooks Franklin passed around his morning's harvest of cherry tomatoes, each exploding in our mouths like bountiful bursts of ripe sunlight. Jill and I each prepared to give our talks, but once there, as we looked about at the grandeur at the summit, I knew my words could not match the experience of being there. But we both did, but each with more than a little humbleness in our voices. Surely we are sewn out of the wonder of the world!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

HONOR WOODARD'S "PRESCRIBED BURN" : a revaluation of our relationship to the world around us and within us

Honor Woodard’s “Prescribed Burn”in her upcoming book: Upon Reflection: New Landscapes, Ancient Lands

A flux of events brings an image into being. A forest fire and an artist’s explorations of mandala imagery get folded into the construction of an image that goes out into the world to make a living for itself. The still and unmoving reality of this image no longer just chronicles these events, but remains to fix something beyond that eventfulness and holds it in place; no longer as a journalistic document, but by a consequent folding and refolding of the particulars of these events into a particular fabric of harmony. Not a quiet harmony. No, not that at all! But a harmony with enough visceral strength to perhaps hold up the world. In such a way an image can touch us.

Our images tell us much about both the world around us as well as the world inside us. Whether they are the images we are drawn to or repelled by, or whether they are the images we make, they all fix an eternally moving life. They tell us that within the flow of creation there is order, within constant change and transformation there is pattern, that within time there is a permanence. We take in an image of the world around us and see how it fits with our inner experience of ourselves. We take an inner image and project it upon the world to see how it fits. Of course, the two can't easily be disentangled. One reflects the other. It is unlikely the two can ever be disentangled. But in the intertwining we locate ourselves in relationship to the world around us, and the world in relationship to ourselves. In this way Honor Woodard's image "Prescribed Burn," is a compelling image.

First, it draws us to it by its forceful symmetry; at first, like a face by its bilateral symmetry. But then we realize this scene is a reality that has been folded four times, and thus draws us into a very different relationship to the  landscape and the world.

We don't expect this from a landscape. Whether in a painting, a photograph, or direct observation, we normally expect a scene to unfold before us - like a carpet unrolled from foreground through middle, to background. These are the characteristics of a European landscape tradition established long ago in the eighteenth century. It is a particular culturally shaped view of land - that it is to be properly surveyed from a distance and remove, and that one moves through it linearly (from foreground thru middle toward the horizon). Thus it tells us of the world inside us - just how we organize experience within our minds and thoughts, how we can observe a whole bundle of thoughts and ideas from a rational remove.- we say we have to “stand back to see the whole picture” of some problem.

When we simply pull off the highway at a scenic look out, we are rereading this prescriptive 18th century European way of relating to the landscape, the land, nature, and the whole natural world - at a remove and distance, and in linear progression and a one point perspective. When we snap a picture of this scene to save its memory, the lens we employ has been ground specifically to shape this one point perspective. One has only to peruse the images of landscape in other cultures to see how richly diverse are the ways to relate to landscape, and to ourselves. An Apache storyteller will tell you “the plants, rocks, fire, water, all are alive. They watch us and see our needs. They see when we have nothing to protect us, and it is then that they reveal themselves and speak to us.”
 Unfortunately most of these ways are no longer available, they are either dead, or rapidly being pushed to extinction

So it can matter greatly, and directly, in our lives just how and where we locate ourselves in this world, and how and where we locate our inner world in relation to the outer world. In 1991 Wendell Berry eloquently described what happens when we believe in “fictive coordinates.” like those of linear perspective- we lose control over ourselves as well as the controls of nature. Honor’s “Prescribed Burn” presents a strongly “worded” opposition to this European tradition.

In “Prescribed Burn” Honor Woodard has transformed landscape into a surrounding symmetry of coordinates strongly provoking a Rorcharch response in us, and thus purposefully pushing landscape into inscape. At first, "Prescribed Burn" unfolds much as a European alter piece. Such an alter piece unfolds to reveal a hierarchical organization of space, in careful steps from vile earth upward through a social reality to a heavenly one, thus revealing its own culturally shaped view of the ultimate reality. But Honor's four fold symmetry does not allow us to move back to survey or to lead us upward toward a higher reality - the tripartite universe of European theology and culture, with God over Man and Man over nature. Honor’s quadripartite universe relocates ourselves within a constantly unfolding and refolding relationship. The U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn took place on what was once Cherokee land in N.E. Georgia. They saw this land in their own terms, and they too understood the universe as quadripartite. For them the sky, “Galun'lati” is a stone arch, part of the earth, not a transcendent reality. Their four cardinal directions located a place that extended itself into the three additional sacred directions of earth, human, and spirit.

"Prescribed Burn's" insistent folding focuses us there within that place, each part mirroring another, each part reverberating with an over all pattern, just the way a spider’s web does. Two mature Pine trees, secure as architectural columns, scarred by fire, stand triumphant on solid earth and hold up a roof, not of heaven, but of earth again itself.

And what are the circumstances from which this scene unfolds? It happens to be not a symbolic vision, but a particular event in a particular time and place: the U.S. Forest Service's frequent attempt through "controlled burning" to reset the natural forest process of growth, in effect their attempt to domesticate both forest and fire. Honor's image is based on her photographic document of such a prescribed burn in North Georgia. Ash and char permeate that scene. But the evidence of destruction by fire throughout becomes folded into a perfect and still harmony. The two Pine trees could be a gate for us, but it is a narrow one, and the two stout trees present us with two formidable guardians.

Beneath this controlled, prescriptive burning of a forest floor, lurks a deeper circumstance. Fire in a forest is terrifying. We've known this for millennia. It is wildness in its rawest expression. It is a wild beast, a destroyer of life. What we've always feared in a wolf's gaze is multiplied many times by a forest fire.

Though a flux of events brought this image into being - a forest fire, an artist’s exploration of imaging, the folding of these into an artist’s experience of what a pattern in life does reveal, the image itself now lives in our world among us. We can’t say it never was, or that it was just a passing figment of imagination or fancy.

We need to know of this, and learn from it. It’s obvious to me that many of our most entrenched images about the world and ourselves have gotten us into great trouble. The recent ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is. by all engineering and scientific expert accounts, far beyond our ability to either prevent or repair. Such news for our species is grim. Perhaps we can’t save our natural environment without first saving something in ourselves - some way to re-inhabit this world by coming to it with a renewed image of it and of ourselves. The experience of art offers one step in this direction - an art that encourages us to imagine another image of our relationship to nature. This is what Honor Woodard’s “Prescribed Burn” does in fact summon us to - a re-evaluation of that moment, which could be any moment, a revaluation of our relationship to the world around us and within us. It’s what we need to know here and now.

To learn more about Honor Woodard's work just go to:

Monday, August 23, 2010


Several weeks ago I went to visit old potter friends in the Jugtown area of North Carolina. I hadn't seen them in 15+ years. In the early to mid 1990's my wife Lynn Durant and I visited them often when Lynn was developing her series of stunning exhibits at the Hambidge Center. We found their potteries  all still there - Sid Luck's, Pam and Vernon Owens', the Farrells', Ben Owen's, Mark Hewitt's over in Pittsboro. Some said there were over a 100 potteries in the area now. In the 1990's we counted 80 I believe. This time I went in each of several potteries looking to see if I could still recognize the strong roots of their tradition there. I picked up a Vernon Owens jug and it bloomed in my hands as strong as ever with a fullness and certainty of that tradition - . Pam Owens' too. And I could see it coming on strongly in their young son Travis' work too  - a little self conscious yet, but that's to be expected in one so young who is studying so carefully the way his father and mother raise a pot on a potter's wheel. In another pottery I saw this tradition waver, not unexpectedly either, the potter seeming to be looking for a way for a pot to appear more relevant in today's world. I've known that feeling in my own work at times, and known also the endless path of distraction it has always led me down.  It's far from certain just how to keep one's center in a world of shattered coordinates, either in art or craft, a world which has decidedly made traditional craft an anachronism. Old Issaiah Wedgewood knew the brutal way the world was headed when he said he would "make machines of men" in his pottery in Staffordshire, England.

So working in a traditional form offers no certainty either. No surprise there. I came away thinking of Ben Owen, and especially of a photograph of him hobbling with an uncertain gait in his old age toward his own Plank Road Pottery, his young grandson Ben Owens III, six or seven years old then, confidently in tow. The sadly poignant aspect of that photograph is that they are both walking away from us into the past, not toward us into the present. I wonder what they are taking with them that we will never know?

Over the next several days, trying to come to terms with what I had witnessed, and felt, a poem began to brew while driving around that countryside. Here it is:

                             in memory of Ben Owen, potter, 1904-1983

                        This earth
            rises up on an old potter’s wheel
            like memory -
            squash, cabbage
            beans, butter
            whiskey, souse.

                        Just so
            not too tall, not
            too wide, not too thin
            for a mountain
            a valley, a river
            a winter, a life

                        for what
            can hold
            this earth, this country
            this life
            on this wheel.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Issues between art and craft seem perennial. Is it art, or is it just craft? It looks well crafted, but is there any art to it? It looks like art, but it's terribly crafted - how can there be any art in it without craft? Why is art thought more important than craft? Such questions seem nagging to many. If you Google the subject you get 164,000+ hits. Art discussion boards on the Web are littered with discussions of the difference between art and craft.

I have had difficulty getting caught up by these questions. I suppose my alienation from the issue (for that is what it feels like) stems from my own relationship to my materials - paint, canvas, pigment, brushes, oils, charcoal, clay, steel, paper, words, vowels, consonants, breath. I've never felt like I had to attain some kind of masterful control over a medium. After all, my materials are not just stuff lying around to breathe life into, but media - so already alive and resonating with the world. It's a dance I'm concerned to join, to connect to, to understand within, not a battle to win or an opponent to conquer. But of course the best craftsmen I've met understand this kind of partnership as well as I do. It's just not generally appreciated. Mastery is not the most important thing, either in art or craft - or life. But that's not generally appreciated either.

I do believe very much in craft. I'm not disparaging it. It is just that it is the craft of swimming, not hammering that I'm committed to.

I was once asked to write about the issues between craft and art. Here was my take on it then:

“Between Art & Craft”
Artpapers, December, 1992

(working in my studio in 1992)

"Craft is a matter of doing necessary things well. Unfortunately in our culture today, very little is clearly understood as necessary. What we are left with in both art and craft is personal necessity, and that is increasingly reduced to the manipulation of signs and symbols that are shorn of once vital connection to experience. Because of this reduction, all craft has become an anachronism.

On the floor of my studio lie the scattered and scuffed up remains of paintings stillborn, bits and pieces that couldn’t move me or compel me to accept their necessity. they remain here because I’ve mostly, but not quite wholly, given up on them. Some of these pieces remain, like such remnants always do in artists’ studios, as keepsakes; but others because I might one day be astute enough, or even just plain lucky enough, to find the bit that’s necessary in them. Even though they constitute a pile of rubble now, grown old over the seventeen years I’ve spent in this particular studio, I am afraid to throw it all away. It is a midden heap of my failures, which may yet be redeemed.

It is by such scraps that I build my paintings. These scraps are torn bits and pieces, never wholes, and in a sense I never craft my paintings, only find them. There is some magic in this, and on the rarest of occasions, even grace.

("Moonlight Over Howgill Farm," 1999, mixed media)

This has come to seem necessary, but never wished for. Most of my paintings confirm that scraps are all I have, bits and pieces of consciousness of world and self. It seems a small orbit for painting or myself. I know I’m not alone in this predicament. Artists of all kinds have never before found it so difficult to transform experience into a generally understood and coherent language. As a result it is our individual isolation that more and more defines us as artists, as it does ourselves as individuals. There seems hardly any practical need for craft when we have only our individual selves to save or glorify.

On a studio table strewn with drawings, there is a ceramic bean pot. Made in Jugtown, North Carolina almost sixty years ago, it is rich in age, use, and craft. Its glaze is crackled and fissured, darkened by cooking along the bottom and part way up the sides to a deep black. On both sides the handles are pinched into the body with the fingerprints of the potter plainly visible. From the moment this pot was sliced wet from the potter’s wheel it has bulged with a fullness and wholeness. Still after all these years it always looks full, though no one in years has been really tempted to fill it with beans and put it in the oven. Its aesthetic is that welded to its original everyday purpose.

("Jugtown Bean Pot," circa 1930's, Ben Owen, Jugtown, N.C.)

On most days, no matter how many finished paintings lean against the studio wall, the empty pot is the most whole thing here. It’s hard to match its sense of necessity, in reasonableness or practicality, or in a kind of truth that doesn’t stray far from these sources. This pot is fully turned from its culture. But that culture is gone now. The pot speaks of a world gone under, where the relationship to things was different, and was necessarily more intimate, magical, and marked with clearer limits.

But here in my studio, what is clearly necessary? Generically speaking, paintings seem quite unnecessary. Here surrounded by jars of wonderfully exuberant colors, sheets of rich cream tinted paper, soft as skin, anything seems possible. But what seems necessary on most days is just the pressing need to make paintings; on the very best of them to get something right and thereby draw some private truth from it, and on the worst of them to simply make some contact with the world. These seem today matters of only the most personal and private necessity.

It is commonplace for artist like myself to simply dismiss the crafts as primitive formative versions of the fine thing art has become. When someone points to a work of craft on the “cutting edge” we know they are talking of its artfulness and not its craftsmanship. Despite two heroic efforts in modern times, the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Bauhaus, it is still perceived as a regressive rural phenomenon in a progressive urban culture. Craft criticism is largely an addendum to art criticism, left to languish or fit itself to the current fine art paradigms; which is to say we simply can no longer summon a need for craft any more than we can for much of our past. What little we keep is with nostalgia, and that is the place craft largely has for us today. But I believe craft is essential. Disparaged, sentimentalized, even transformed into “fine craft,” craft is still a matter of doing necessary things well. In a culture where nothing but money is really considered necessary (that is, where all values come down finally to a price), it may be impossible to define such a concept of craft without falling victim to nostalgia, or trying to reshape it one more time. The necessity to form a shape in a certain traditional ways has become largely a mystery to us today. What we are left with in both art and craft is only a personal necessity to require that real life be the private life and and not the life of the community.

There is a connection between our entrenched notions that the personal is somehow, however impossibly, the real authentic form of cultural life, that our past is behind us, and that craft is out of place, a footnote to other pressing cultural forces. Craft is inseparable from traditional cultures. Thus the crafts are permanently estranged today from their sources. Such traditional communities are marked by the continuity they weave between individual and community, past and present. For such societies the past is not dead, not even past, but living all about, transformed into a timeless nurturing presence, and the individual is not isolated, but part of a seamless coherence. In that social reality - and it is quite different from our own - the important issues always remain the same, whether practical concerns for the shape and form of a cup, or metaphysical models for the cosmos. So what is valuable about craft is valuable about the community and the past, and the future. These values are not ideals, but hard truths derived from living within the limits of the natural world. It is these practical aspects that have borne and sustained crafts.

And it is to these aspects that artists can no longer clearly turn for a grounding in the practice of the  necessary. I do not mean to the slickness, cuteness, prettiness, or comeliness that often pervade the crafts as well as fine arts, but to a standard of quality stubbornly grafted to the object created. This is a kind of attention and concentration inhering in the practical task at hand of creating something plainly necessary for one’s own immediate life and community, but which nevertheless connects the fullness of a bean pot to a past far older, and to an inconceivable future."

The issue won't go away of course, no matter what I say. On last Sunday, with friends over to celebrate July 4th, and some of us drifting into the studio, an old friend (and collector of my work) pointed to some older paintings stacked against the wall and said "I'm glad to see you're doing that kind of work again - they're more crafted. You can see it took the artist a long time to do it. People appreciate that." And so they do!

Thursday, April 22, 2010


My first book of poems and paintings will debut on May 1, 2010 at the Georgia Forest Watch Benefit: Wild & Woolly Native Plant Sale and Book Festival in Rabun County, Georgia.

This is a limited edition of 50 signed and numbered copies, the first ten including an original watercolor.

Saddle stitched
26 pages
13 poems
13 paintings
8.5"h. x 5.5"w.

Price:  #1-#10 with original watercolor - $35.00 (plus $2.50 shipping)
           #11-#50 - $15.00 (plus $2.50 shipping)

These poems and paintings explore our relationship to nature and the nature of our place in it. Not just any relationship, not just any place, but rooted here along the banks of Warwoman Creek in the North Georgia Mountains where I am trying, with all my heart, to come home to. It's all a great river, and my hope is to meet you there.

These poems and paintings offer something special - bringing together for the ear, the eye, and the imagination - the breaching of morning light, the call of the red-tailed hawk, and the dreams that weave through our vision. It's all a great river. I'll meet you there.

Poems and paintings share something important - a concentrated form of paying attention - paying attention to what is! Paintings are still and yet move in our minds, thoughts, and feelings. Poems are always moving in our minds, our thoughts, our feelings, and yet they form pooling echoes of the still and eternal present. Paintings and poems, two sides of one bright coin, tumbling in a great river. I'll meet you there

'Take Me to the River: Poems & Paintings for Coming Home' will be available for purchase beginning May 1, 2010.  To purchase a copy join me May 1st, at the Georgia Forest Watch Wild & Woolly Native Plant Sale and Book Festival in Rabun County, Georgia,  or e-mail me beginning May 1st at to reserve your copy at

Monday, April 5, 2010


" might be walking in the forest and come across a patch of daffodils in bloom. This, she said, would likely mark an old homestead, where a woman, seeking to brighten her family's life, would have planted some bulbs. Since daffodils can live 100 years, they could well be the only visible reminder that someone once lived there."  This quote from Marie Mellinger, a local friend wrote me on reading my poem "Will You Be The One?" and being reminded of one of Marie's springtime newspaper columns from back in the late 1980's.

Yes, the daffodils have bloomed. Here along the northern foot of Rainy Mountain they only bloomed a few days ago. Let me say it again because it sounds so nice - the daffodils have bloomed! - such good mouth fun to say!

It has been a long, cold winter this year here in the Southern Appalachians. During this winter a poem I wrote in September,"What's Needed," unexpectedly became prophetic and a daily mantra for me:


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.

This winter there was almost nothing foreseen, and a lot of not knowing. The poem stayed with me all winter as a kind of hope.

Wise friends counseled me to go slow, to take in the winter, and there to listen and let germinate. So the paintings and the poems grew slowly, uncertainly, and often not at all. Their shapes shifted from day to day, as if drifting in a cold mountain mist. But nothing was foreseen. It was a long winter.

On those cold days, somber winter colors drew my gaze deeper and deeper into the greyed landscape to catch only the ephemeral scent of some richer color. Hiding beneath the mauves I began to see, or only imagined, the purples, and sunk beneath the ruddy ochres the yellows, and beneath the burnt siennas the reds. These were almost just a sliver of memory, and perhaps only an imaginative hope of re-conjuring of them.

The paintings and poems came slowly like that too. At times I wondered, in a kind of sadness, if there would ever be any more. But there were. If I had only payed more attention to the springs up on the mountain, which continued all winter to bubble up from old root ways and make wandering passages through the rimes of ice. Then I would have known they would come:

"Winter Wall," oil on paper:

"Candlemas" oil on paper:

"Wall Stead - in Heorot," 2010, oil on paper:

And then, curiously, near the end of winter, just as bright green shoots of daffodils broke ground, old left off with paintings, flush with summer colors, caught my eye with renewed promise:

"Summer Mountain,: 2007-2010, oil on wood panel
53 1/2"h. x 75"w. x 1 3/4" d.:

"St. Molin's Well," 2007-2010, oil on wood panel,
40"h, x 40"w. x 1 3/4" d.:

And then the poems unlocked themselves:


Imagine a garden made
not grown. Stakes first
driven into the ground
should do for roots.

Then lattice strips
and papery leaves
stapled to the fret of this
painted green in advance.

No need of water or time.
Braces added later
will hold up the higher fruit -
tennis balls on strings
might do.


Imagine a life made
not grown. Ideas first
driven into dreams
should do first for principles.

Then a geomancy
of facts and figures,
nailed to cross timbers
of thoughts, indexed and sorted
by a thesaurus of death.

No need of spirit or heart.
Theologies added later
will prop up desire -
dogmas and litanies
in ledgers might do.

        (a variation on some last lines by W.S. Merwin)

My hands
greasy with paint
he asked

how can you ever
be sure what you paint
is any good
at all.

I am old
and grimy with the oil
and rags and bones
of my heart.
I say
you can't. You die
without ever knowing
if anything was
any good
at all.

If you
have to be sure
don't paint
I say
wiping my hands
on an old rag
of a dream.


Galileo did in Padua find
the laws of falling bodies
dropping lead weights, not birds or dreams.

But as he should have known
all things issue from their source
the sun: each proton

and person descends along
its own particular and precise
frequency. Singing

each falls into matter
with its own signature
still echoing. And here

just here
this unerring lightness
of being arises.


This wild nettle
that is Creation

My touch and words
pinch at the knot there
that is knowing
and not knowing.


This storm
this rock
this leaf

torn loose
to wander and fall
could be any one's life.

This wilderness
enfolding each simplicity
might comprehend
such a life


It carries a gift
and when they wake
they wake into it -

those who live by dreams
they who live by voices
we may never hear.

This house
not made by hands
is invisible.

THINGS TO SAY (while there's still time)
                               - for Lynn

I love you.
The dogwood just opened.
Spring remembers for us.
This war can still end
and there can be peace.
Wild violets grace the yard.
The cold tonight will seep to the root.
That 'yes' and 'amen' mean the same thing.

And then, on a bright still day, the forest all grey and standing in an ancient chorus around this clearing, there were "Daffodils," their new brightness still clinging to the frets of somber winter tones, a monoprint, oil on paper, 30"h. x 22"w.:

Monday, March 29, 2010


Two works from the Beowulf Cycle:

"So Grendal Ruled in Defiance (2002) charcoal on paper":

"Wall Stead - In Heorot" (2010), oil on paper 12"h. x 30"w.:

A new friend wrote me saying these works reminded him of Rothko and Mondrian. Certainly. But I was hunting after something grimmer, with the teeth of wild dogs in the night - something in the silence after you hear the howling stop at midnight up on the ridge above my house; something old, very old, yet something still with us.

After all, this cycle of works was born out of that long time after September 11, 2001 when we all struggled with what terror means in our lives, some of us for the first time. The television repeated a thousand times over the long shot clips up the Manhattan canyons of the falling towers and the close up shots of frightened people fleeing wearing cloaks of the ashes of thousands of others. But the t.v. was impotent to tell of what it meant. That we each had to do ourselves. And we had to do this midst a storm of words generated by the media afterward, including the absurdity of our President exhorting us to just go out and fly and buy!

We don't see those t.v. clips much any more of course - that sense of horror can't be maintained. Through repetition we became numbed, but the sense of it drives deep within us into subterranean rivers. There it flows with our deepest fears and desires. Only later does it push up in new springs to the surface, where we drink of it in the form of revenge or hate, distrust, shame, alienation, estrangement and disaffection.

In the hollowed out days following the terrorist attack, I too struggled with some way to understand what had happened, and what, in its aftermath, was happening to my country. Of course, I went to the studio, picked up the deepest black stick of charcoal I could find, and began to draw.

A month and a half later my sister gave me a new translation of the 8th Century Anglo Saxon poem Beowulf by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. It stunned me. Here was a clear sense of where to take this work: the starkly hewn way it carves and holds in constant balance line by line a palpable sense of light and dark, beginnings and ends, the ephemeral interlacing of humankind and nature, the way a line welds together a descriptive fact about nature with an evocation of human emotion, the way this energy is coiled and then released through succeeding lines like a driving wave. All these qualities resonated with my own confusion about what 9/11 meant, and suggested a "holding form" - that embryonic bud of a visual vocabulary, with which to explore toward some understanding.

It's now been over 8 years since that Tuesday morning in September. Some of us would like to forget. Some of us can't. As a country we are still trying to come to grips with what the presence of terror means in our lives. Our civic leaders have tried to turn it into a war - that way it is so much more understandable to a country gotten used to one war after another (after all, in my 65 years there have only been 10 when my country was not at war!). Our conflicts can't so easily be encapsulated I think except within the hollow pretense of newspapers, t.v., or on political stumps. The sources for our "wars" run fearfully deep within us - the Beowulf saga is a clear testament to that. We are at "war" with deep conflicts within ourselves, and we extend them not only to each other but to the natural world itself. It sometimes seems we are at war with the world at large, and the wall steads we have built to stand against disaster are falling all about us, like the mead hall in Beowulf's Heorot.

It's an old plaint and lamentation - the destruction of the world as we've known it. And in its destruction, the creation of something new.

Today I'm still exploring this work, still exploring my understanding of what it means through the work itself. It is called The Beowulf Cycle, and if you would like to see more examples just click here .

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Figure of a Face that a Painting Makes

The poet Robert Frost wrote:

"Abstraction is an old story with the philosophers, but it has been like a new toy in the hands of the artists of our day. Why can't we have any one quality of poetry we choose by itself? We can have in thought. Then it will go hard if we can't in practice. Our lives for it.
Granted no one but a humanist much cares how sound a poem is if it is only a sound. The sound is the gold in the ore. Then we will have the sound out alone and dispense with the inessential. We do till we make the discovery that the object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other, and the resources for that of vowels, consonants, punctuation, syntax, words, sentences, metre are not enough. We need the help of context- meaning-subject matter." "The Figure a Poem Makes" (1939)

Yes, abstraction is a very old story - the story of the long search for some certainty as pure and unassailable as a prime number - often a search for transcendence over a tumbling, troubling world than for something immanent and essential at the root. 

Poems have the benefit of sounds to send them beyond abstraction out into the heard world, but paintings have bodies to send them out beyond just thoughts or ideas.

Paintings confront us - like a figure of a person might who stands before us. 

He or she stands there in front of us in order for us to meet, to encounter one another - together. The painting not only presents a representation and makes a "figuration," but presents a presence to us. We don't, right there and then, need to call for the help of context (drawing subject matter from outside that circle). It's already there. It's inherent in the very context of the meeting. We have brought it to the meeting and it comes flowing to us, and surrounds us. It's there between us. No different than all the meetings we attend, either in our dream or daylight hours. All are hours chambered with such echoing resonance. Which is why a sage could say "The world is not happening to you -you are happening to the world."

Waking each morning we wake into conversation with the world. We ask - world! what today do you have to offer us? What dangers do you present us with today? World! - what do I have to offer you today? World - how will we get along this day?

If you think about it, it is the figure of a face we are born to see on any morning, even on the very first. After all, in our earliest moments after birth we open our eyes to engage the figure of the very first face we see. We engage that face in a fiercely intimate conversation, a conversation of bonding; a quite necessary relationship upon which our survival will utterly depend. It is so engaging that hardly any adult around can ever turn away. 

So it is with paintings. Well, yes - so it is too with everything we meet each day - all the objects, all the surfaces, all the aromas and sounds we encounter. It's all too much to fully take in, so we filter much out. We choose what to gather in and what to shut out, and as we do, we collect and thus construct what the world amounts to for us, limited enough to comprehend, bounded enough to be certain enough.

But so it is with most things. As James Hillman writes:

“All things show faces, the world is not only a coded signature to be read for meaning, but a physiognomy to be faced. As expressive forms, things speak; they show the shape they are in. They announce themselves, bear witness to their presence: “Look, here we are.” They regard us beyond how we may regard them, our perspectives, what we intend with them, and how we dispose of them. This imaginative claim on attention bespeaks a world ensouled. More - our imaginative recognition, the childlike act of imagining the world, animates the world and returns it to soul.”  A Blue Fire, “Nature Alive,” p. 99:

Or as I say in a poem:


All things show their faces when we do.

All things speak when we do.

The first face, the first word,
they blossom into all the others.

They all are true.

They say 'seeing is believing." It means many things, but is repeated so often to reinforce just one central point - the empirical one - the efficacy of practical experience unblurred by affect. But the reality remains that 'believing is seeing' is also just as much a part of our actual daily experience, and part of how we experience the world. It recognizes that we insert ourselves into the world with our thoughts, our dreams, our actions, even our imaginings.And it may be just as true that the world inserts herself into ourselves with her own thoughts, dreams, actions, and imaginings.

Monday, February 15, 2010


This year, as the year and I and the dim sun turned, I made a book of poems and paintings; small enough to fit in the hand and large enough to share - ten poems, some new and some a little older, and eleven new watercolor paintings created to converse with the poems - a thin keen clean volume.

I think a kind of river runs through it.

As I could only manage an edition of 25 copies printed on my aging, mean tempered, and perversely quarrelsome HP ink jet printer, here are some selections.

As you look through this selection I invite you to ponder the following possibility:

Paintings and poems share something important -
a concentrated form of paying attention -
paying attention to what IS!
And what is, is both moving and still.

Paintings are still and yet move in our minds,
thoughts and feelings.

Poems are always moving in our minds,
our thoughts, our feelings,
and yet they are always forming pooling echoes
of the still and eternal present.

Paintings and poems - two sides of one coin,
and a river runs through it.


with lighted fingers
stitches a delicate thread
an amber line of ridge against the night

- then begins
to hem
the greening march of trees
down along the still dark creek

- and begins
to mend
out of what might have been
this day together

- once again
such prescient

- surely sewn
we together
out of wonder
this world.


We are always dreaming,
the good life, the bad life,
the life not lived.

In our ceremonies
we mark our bodies
with the signs of our dreams:
flames and crosses and circles.

Wearing our dream marks
we carry our whole lives
into the country of our days.

We must do this - keep it up,
this dreaming into our waking country,
keep it going, keep it safe,
even into the desert of our selves.


Our memory of it,
like Half-moon River Marsh
in late summer or early fall,
a sweetened breeze
coming off the sea

its light a silvering of the past,
the tide of it
washing in and then back
again. That day

down on the sunlit dock,
the children singing.

Those times - more than enough
to burst the heart open.

Too much of it to hold now,
yet too little of it to ever keep.


We are all vagabonds
on this earth, wanderers
with hungry hearts

looking for a home
we never had.

At night we gather
to distant fires
of scavenged wood and brush

stir the ashes there
and seek answers in the stars.

In ceremony
we mark our faces
with our dream of want -

flames and crosses and circles.

And we carry this into all our days
even into the desert of our lives

dreaming into each new country
our home again.


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.

-for Bill McLarney

A river runs through this
Blacksnake sliding under Jewelweed
flushing Robin surprising Blue Jay
screeching over mirror striding Water Spider
reflecting wheeling Red Tailed Hawk calling:
where are you where are you to Lizard
scrambling across old barn wood parched in the sun
gliding over Otter slipping from rock into water
flashing by Golden Shiner scurrying toward Sculpin
nuzzling mud beneath silver racing Gilt Darter
darting past Bloodroot stemming into whitened flower
from the moss blanketed bank shouldering
into the stream as rainbowing Kingfisher
alights and makes the heart stop
and the river run through it.

A river runs through this
a poem where I am swimming around you
composing dreams about rivers
to all of you swimming about me
who are dreaming poems about yourselves
and I am coming to a place and don’t have the words
and someone else tells me the next one
and so it goes, generous,
the swimming and the dreaming and the telling
and the river runs through it

you and me,
this river runs through us.

SPIRIT SALSA - for Lynn:

Come and dance
you and me
come and go

around and back
and come again
all the patterns flying

there is no you
there is no I

and we two are
but a fold in time.


and dance between
all the patterns making
and unmaking

you and me now

step again
with me now
into this always


and then just there
and then
where it calls us back

into the circle
where letting go
is holding on

to where
the meaning always is
moving on

to a desire
that brings to life
and the dance between

you and me
always making
come and go.

My love!
Come and dance with me!


This stream
is right here somewhere where I am ten
and running naked under the old oaks
along Trinity River.

And this one
flows in my blood
with a generosity I can
in no way account for now.

And this one
like a breath is slow
and long, smooth and deep,
even and balanced by that other,
the heart still flung open.


Reach out
beyond yourself so far
you have to let go
of the shore.

Gather in what happens here.

Then pull back
against the undertow.
Sit on the beach
and examine your hands.

Most days
you will only be left
with flecks of mica broken
pieces of shell, the sands
of rock and time.

But sometimes
you will be left with fiery bits
of starlight.

These are yours.

So enter a river,
a poem, a church, a conversation
anywhere. Swim around
listen for the resonance
in the waves, for the motion
in the current.

Let each filament of river
weave into your breath.

Then say what happens here.
Know that we all are listening.

A river, a poem, a church,
a conversation, even a breath
it’s all a great river. I’ll meet you there.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Video of my poetry reading beside the Chattooga River

Here is a short video from my poetry reading at the Chattooga River, on a Ga. Forest Watch sponsored hike "Take Me to the River: A Chattooga River Poetry Hike" on October 24, 2009:
Thanks to Louis Leon for his superb videography and editing, and to Patricia Kyritsi Howell for the opening still shots.

Forest Watch Walk-DV-copy

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Kaleidoscope: Lenses on Reality (The Chrysalis Reader) will be released on January 10, 2010, features Laurence’s poem “Driving West.” To order just click on

Description: "We all see things differently so much so that communication, community, and society may be minor miracles. Do others see us the way we see ourselves? How do our opinions color our reactions? How much do we read into what we see? The sixteenth installment of this anthology, the Chrysalis Reader, focuses on perception, both physical and spiritual. Writers from all walks of life share their poetry, short fiction, and essays on how life s twists and turns affect how we see ourselves, each other, and the world. These varied insights combine to form their own lens on reality, allowing the reader to see the world through other people’s eyes."