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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Erosion





I’ll start with my name—Petro—which means stone in Greek. We’re Hungarian, but I think maybe an age or two ago a wandering Greek headed north and got sore feet in Hungary. So we became Hungarians with a Greek name.
     My dad collected rocks. When I was growing up I knew the names of minerals better than those of classmates: chalcedony, amethyst, carnelian, serpentine, obsidian. They still run off my tongue like an incantation. I thought of my dad’s rocks as exotic siblings who didn’t have to go to school.
     But I did. And eventually I graduated, and time passed without rocks. Then one day in my early forties I asked myself a question: Can you print a photograph on a stone? You’d get pretty good metaphorical friction if you could. The snapshot moment—mortality, caught like a high fly ball on a summer afternoon—thwacking against the almost-endlessness of geological time. I set about finding out how to do it. A year passed, or more.
     It turns out you can print rocks with silver gelatin. Tears may be shed, but you can do it. In the darkroom, as you pour developer over a rock’s surface, images rise out of its grain and crevices like fossils floating to the surface: a human topography of faces and places. But the trick isn’t just in printing them—you have to put them back where you found them to see what happens next. This can be terrifying, especially if you’ve printed your partner’s image on a river rock and she’s afraid of drowning, and she spies her petrograph (that’s what I call the printed rocks) under deep water, on the river’s bed. Or it can be enchanting. Once a little girl found some of my underwater petrographs and told me it convinced her of what she’d always known—that the river was magic. “See!” she said, pointing at the evidence. “Today the rocks have faces.”



  There is a Welsh word—hiraeth—that has no cognate in English. It suggests something akin to the “presence of absence,” and refers to a deep, and creative, longing for something unattainable that exists only in the imagination, possibly beyond place or time. In the case of Wales, a subject state since the 13th century, it derives from a longing for a national history that should have been but never was: a gap filled by myths, legends, and once-and-future yearnings.
     Petrographs exist in the gap between human consciousness and the world around us. As our images erode in the sea or a river or under the snow, or the sun weathers and cracks them, their weathering enacts the presence of absence before our eyes: the hiraeth of the natural cycle. They insist that our lives are snapshot moments, and that we belong to the earth—that it is our home. We disappear into nature. Which is where we belong, anyway.



Walk and breathe, walk and breathe. I’m walking the South Rim with the Grand Canyon on my left, thinking how to mark this place on my soul and make it matter. Make it rearrange my bone structure and metabolism.
     I’m thinking these things, aware that it’s hurt-you bright and that the innermost of the four layers I’m wearing, the sweaty one I thought I’d shed, is now essential in so much wind. I’m thinking that my hands are swollen from swinging them as I walk, and too cold at the same time.
     Walk and breathe, walk and breathe. On a curve in the trail, tearing over low scrub oak, comes a gust of wind, screaming in. I don’t know it’s coming. It hasn’t reached me yet. Milliseconds before it arrives I stop walking and yawn, deeply and unexpectedly. After five hours or so I’m weary. As I open my mouth and inhale, the wind hits me with a high-pitched, hollow, beautiful, fluted howl.
     And for a portion of a second, until my relentlessly logical brain shatters the harmony, I believe my lungs have superpowers. They’ve sucked the air straight from the Canyon and it’s come rushing to them with a surprised yelp that even now, after I’ve registered the coincidence,  fills me to my soul’s brim.
     For a split-second of flawless harmony the wind is blowing inside me. I am this place.




I was drawn to the shadows. Black, blank rivers of absence spilling down the walls of the Grand Canyon, cast by rock formations that jut from its depths like massive stalagmites. That’s where the creative potential of hiraeth flowed for me: in the shadows, not the rock strata. Shadows that possessed powers of instant erosion, creating negative space, streaming like tributaries of the night sky down to the Colorado River. The raw material of wonder.
     The shadows possessed me, too. I stalked them. From the Canyon’s South Rim I watched them pivot around their formations like rays of giant sundials. They told time. They became familiar. There was one that at 4:30 every day assumed the shape of an arrow, pointing directly at a mystery I never solved. I took photos of the iconic ones and recorded the times they were cast.
     To my surprise my photographs freed the shadows from the Canyon. They turned into abstract zigs and zags, like marks on Native American pottery. Created and cast, in a camera’s flash, became kin.


Carl Jung says we all carry shadows inside us. I learned this from my friend Gail. We were hiking through an abandoned slate mine in Wales; I was telling her the story of a children’s book I’d written long ago, about an American kid who goes into a dungeon where it’s so dark his shadow can’t follow him, and he comes out with the wrong one. First the shadow of a lady in flowing gown, then one of an evil knight. He has a tricky time getting his own back.
     In response, Gail, told me about Jung, who believed that people’s shadows represent parts of the self that are rarely expressed. The more your shadows edge into your conscious life the better off you’ll be. The darker the shadows, the more evil knights you’ll have to deal with.
     But say you’re a planet: what have you got hidden in your shadows? Probably memories of youth, like the rest of us. The seas, the eruptions, the Permian Period, which began 280 million years ago. Half to 90 percent of all living things died during its 40 million year reign. When your nightmares are fossils you can’t wake up from them. And before the Perminan…those billion year eons of companionless upthrust and erosion, plates pinballing around a lifeless globe. A planet’s childhood isn’t much fun.
     Jung would have us fill shadows with the erosions of the past. With death and departure. Yet think about it: light first strikes the object that casts the shadow, and then it strikes the surface around which the shadow is cast.
     Shadows are newer than we are. Shadows are our future.




Random: made, done, or happening without method or conscious decision.     
     In the spring you get a few days when milkweed seeds explode on the breeze, parachuting everywhere on super-light, silky strands bundled into blurs. You try to catch them. You worry about breathing them in. When we were kids we said you got your wish if you captured one, but that’s pretty hard to do. They always slip through your fingers.     
     The spring before she died, our dog, Tenby, was lame—the endless Eastern snowstorms that winter, while I was at the Grand Canyon, took a toll on her joints—but she could still walk a nearby footpath. On one of these walks we found milkweed seeds piled alongside the route like banks of static fog. I slowly eased Tenby home, grabbed some petrographs and my camera, and raced back to the path. I only had a few minutes before I needed to be somewhere else.      
     There wasn’t time to make meaning. I just lined up a row of tiny petrographs in the milkweed and shot randomly.  That sounds like something newscasters say after a shooting: ‘He shot randomly into the crowd.’ I did that too, though nobody died. It was an ordinary act. As if I always kept my pockets filled with photographs of hundred-foot long shadows cast into the Grand Canyon, printed on palm-sized white beach pebbles.      
     Tenby died a year later—the same day as my dad. A random act of God? No. You can’t really put “random” and “God” in the same sentence. You’d think the grief would have been amped up exponentially, but it wasn’t. The uncanny symmetry seemed to make room for meaning where there probably wasn’t any. In life my dad and the pup shared something kindred—she licked and groomed him, he called her his four-footed therapist—so it made sense they disappeared from it together. Almost as if they had a choice.
     Life and milkweed wishes aside, there is nothing random in memory or art.


  We picked up the beach pebbles a few summers ago in New Brunswick, Canada, along the Bay of Fundy. Tenby was only 11 then, and rolled like a dervish in heaps of black seaweed. Fundy, for now, for our eon, has the greatest tidal range on earth. The highest highs, the lowest lows. Imagine the tow, the erosive power, the muscle of those waves. Fundy pebbles shine even when they’re dry. Being in the sea is like being in my dad’s rock tumbler; people drown, but pebbles polish.
     I put a thin coat of white primer on the pebbles before printing them, leftover from painting the bathroom ceiling. I like the idea of them being primed, as if they’re waiting for news of something bigger than themselves. I wanted there to be a contrast so you couldn’t miss the streaks of black. Jet. Obsidian. Marks of Zorro. 
     Shadows of the Grand Canyon.
     Wonder in my pockets.



I coated the beach pebbles with Liquid Light. Then I radically shrunk the shadow images in the dark room and printed them on the pebbles. Transmute great to small. Bring the Canyon and its immensities into the zone of my own tiny life. A reduction? No, the best empathy available, short of becoming a fossil. We’re always trying to mark rocks. It’s our best shot at immortality here on earth, unless you happen to conquer the known world, like Alexander the Great.  But even he mated with the earth.  For my 15th birthday a friend gave me a vial of dirt marked with the words, “Alexander, For Your Pocket,” because I had a crush on him after reading Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy.  It may be my favorite present, ever.
     Soon after I finished printing the pebbles we went to Maine. We rented a 200 year-old house at the confluence of a bay and tidal river because there was a bedroom on the first floor. Tenby couldn’t climb stairs anymore, and this way we could all stay together. She was very lame, but even at 14, she was still rolling in seaweed.
     The Grand Canyon used to look like the tidal marsh that was our front lawn. Sand, seawater, marsh grass, mud, beach pebbles--the Canyon strata have seen it all. No, what I mean is, the Canyon strata have been it all. I cast the pebbles—the shadow petrographs—into all of these environments: Shadows resting on memories of what the rock was before. Before the dinosaurs, before the unimaginable pressure, before the river, before we became mammals, before the erosion, before the rock weathered into weird, pyramid-like formations that cast shadows every morning and afternoon. Back when Arizona looked like Maine.


I forgot to mention ash. I also photographed the shadow pebbles in ash from our fireplace, from trees my dad cut down and chopped for us awhile back, before his stroke. My dad loved to cut down trees.  And the dog loved a fire. After awhile she’d get hot, and retreat to the dining room. But she always came for the first flames.
     Ever patient—the patience of dogs is profound—her ashes wait here in my study for us to release them. We will. Just not yet.
     The most recent volcanoes erupted at the Grand Canyon between 725,000 and 100,000 years ago. You can see ash strata in the canyon walls. A few thousand years is squat in geological time. Because time is no less elastic than scale, I photographed the shadow pebbles in ash at morning, noon, and night, figuring you could pick your timeframe—ancient or recent—depending on your perspective.     
     My dad, the rock collector, whose last words were, “Wake me in time for my afternoon nap,” would have chosen morning.
     Not the Etruscans. When they felt their civilization was in decline they began elongating representations of the human form to resemble late afternoon shadows. They would have chosen evening.
     Just below you'll see the Canyon Clock. It tells different kinds of time. The backgrounds count eons. The pebbles count hours. Each photograph contains a sequence of pebbles; each pebble is printed with the photograph of a shadow cast in the Grand Canyon. Together the sequence marks the walk I took on a cold, bright, windy January day in 2011, hiking the South Rim from east to west. The times represented are 9:20. 9:30. 13:30. 15:00. 15:30. 15:40. And 16:30. It was at 15:30 that my lungs sucked the air out of the Canyon. As I was photographing the sand eon in Maine, a wave came and drew 9:20 into the sea, so there are only six moments-shadows-pebbles in that image. That’s what I call the AfterShadow effect. The lost time of hiraeth. Instant erosion.



Note: This essay is adapted from my artist's book, "AfterShadows: A Grand Canyon Narrative," that's on its way to being finished this summer. The book has the full range of Canyon images (33); this is just a sampling...

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