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Monday, September 19, 2011

AfterImage Series


I had a lot of work to do at the Canyon.

Before I went I had an image of myself sitting cross-legged on the South Rim, communing with Time and Stone and other Big Ideas. I also saw myself pursuing Serious Art by day and musing and drinking wine by night, watching the Australian Open on my computer as the sun set, the stars crowded the sky, and the mule deer began to nose around. As it turned out, my MFA in Creative Writing students at Lesley University had major assignments due, so I spent a lot of time grading. And thanks to the kindness and interest of my editor, Michael Kerr, at The Daily Telegraph in London, I wound up with two major stories to write about my time at the Canyon, with three blog entries in between. As for the wine drinking...I didn't react well to the altitude--about 6000 feet, I believe, as opposed to my sea-level life in Massachusetts--and felt ever so slightly motion sick much of the time. Just enough to put me off of red wine (though I gamely persevered as best I could).

It was wonderful to have work and I'm deeply grateful for it, especially after struggling for the previous few years. But it meant I worked from non-stop, from breakfast to bed at night. Some of the work was walking, and taking photos, and thinking, and sketching, but unlike the freeflow of experience I'd imagined, I wound up scheduling creativity between bouts of paying work. Not quite the communing I'd imagined, but heck, I was still living on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Who can complain?

One of the Telegraph stories was due just a few days after I arrived. Because I had nothing to write about yet, I spent an intense day "experiencing" the place--mingling and meeting  Japanese, Dutch, British, German, and Australian tourists, hiking, petting visiting dogs, just generally poking around. Trying to keep in mind what my dad said about not getting too close to the edge. (Everything will be alright, according to my dad, if you don't get too close to the edge and always wear shoes when you ride a bike.)

Then after dark I set into writing the story. I hadn't finished by morning, so I got up around 5 am in order for the ms. to arrive in London by noon UK-time (meaning I needed to send it by 7:00). As I made tea and breakfast I kept rubbing my eyes. I thought they were just early-morning blurry, sticky and not-yet-ready-for-vision. But as I watched the teapot steam I realized there was an image obscuring my sight. I took it to be the after image of something I'd looked at--something high-contrast that burned onto my retina, like a light-bulb in the dark apartment (the sun wasn't up yet). Yet I hadn't looked at anything like that.

The floating thing was stubborn and wouldn't go away. Instead it hovered between the center and left periphery of my vision, obscuring my toast, my tea cup, the computer screen and keyboard. If I tried to look at it it would scoot to the left and pulsate, like an angry sea creature. I was fantastically frustrated and impatient with it as the clock ticked, and London waited, rubbing and rubbing, hoping that when I next opened my eyes, it would be gone.

But no. It stayed, and I worked through it. After I sent my story off I sat in the now-light-filled apartment and tried to see inside my brain. How can you focus on your own retina? I'm not sure if I was thinking the image or seeing it, but gradually I got a good impression, and sketched what I came to see as a beautiful obstruction. It was shaped like a boomerang and filled with interlocked geometric forms, very like the designs I'd seen the previous day on Native American pots

Nothing, absolutely nothing, in the apartment looked like this strange image. It was the after image of my own imagination, brought on by altitude, tension, and eye-strain, I guess. I decided to embrace it and make it my motif. As an installation artist I was unable to complete my project at the Canyon: national park land is off-limits as a natural resource for all purposes but inspiration. So my final work would be a kind of after image--or series of after images--as well. It seemed fitting.


Later in the day I took a nap. And that night I had more than one glass of wine...

Here are some random notes from my journal on the day of my first "experiencing," in order to write for The Telegraph:

"At the mule pen: big fight! Much nipping and kicking. Smells!"

"Canyon names features gods and heroes of the world. Why? 'Heroic nomenclature' includes Isis Temple, Kaibab Plateau Cheops Pyramid, Buddah Temple, and Zoraster Temple. Learning meets rock."

"Overheard: "It's just surreally beautiful. My vocabulary hurts."

"From a mule wrangler: The difference between riding a mule and riding a horse is like the difference between riding in a Cadillac and riding in a washing machine. Mules are just a whole lot smoother."

"Quiet. Bright. Smells of pinon pine. Sky crystalline blue. Like taking a shower in photons."

And here are the links to my Telegraph stories on the Canyon:

The First

The Last

My favorite in-between blog about the Canyon's mule wranglers

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