The Why of Art

Posted in Art, Perception, Social responsibility with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2015 by swampmessiah

Did you ever find yourself checking a book out of the library again and again? It might just be something that makes you feel good, like mashed potatoes or chocolate or a favorite cartoon can. Or it might be a book of wonder, a book with exciting new ideas spilling out on every page. Or just something so unbelievably beautiful that it makes you ache to turn the pages. When I was in grade school, in the 1960s, it was a book on dinosaurs illustrated with segments from the mural at Yale’s Peabody Museum. I had a lot of toy dinosaurs and a few books on the subject, written for children and sold at Woolworths, the dime store, but I’d never seen anything so magnificent. Were the illustrations even in color?

But there are other reasons for being drawn to a book. Perhaps it’s to give meaning or answer a question.

As an adult, beginning maybe 25 years ago, I kept taking out The Artist, by Edmund B. Feldman. (I wanted to put a link to him or the book. He’s not on Wikipedia. Most of his books are out of print. Sorry. Give Google a try.) After borrowing and reading it two or three or more times I eventually found and purchased a copy, which I read then and again just a few years ago. It has now become one of my security blanket books.

Each chapter takes on a different artistic role:

  1. The Shaman
  2. Child Artist and Naïve Artist
  3. Peasant and Folk Artist
  4. The Classical Artisan
  5. The Medieval Guildsman
  6. The Renaissance Genius
  7. The Revolutionary Artist
  8. The Bohemian Artist
  9. The Illustrator
  10. The Industrial Designer
  11. The Gallery Idol
  12. The Hyphenated Artist

All of this is suggestive but I could never find myself in there. And that, I think, was what I was looking for: my place within the world of art.

In retrospect it seems I was often misguided. I’ve tried to present my art to the public and will, I hope, continue to do so. In the early 1980s I did the obligatory search for a gallery to represent me. In the spring of 1983 I had a solo exhibit at the Tweed Museum of Art (on the campus of UMD) and in the spring of 1985, not long after I’d moved to Minneapolis, participated in a group exhibition of drawing at the Duluth Art Institute, an exhibit I’d inadvertently instigated. I suppose if I’d kept pushing in that direction I might eventually have made a mark of some sort. Instead, I withdrew.…In 1984 I tried producing a book of poems and drawings. Once I began recording, in 1996, I made cassettes and then CD/booklet sets to give to friends. But it wasn’t until 2011 that I once again put something before the general public, starting with

That wasn’t what I needed to be doing. I just needed to produce art. Yet everything I’ve read about art insists it’s a social activity, that there’s a transaction or bargain between artist and public, and I kept buying into that in a half-hearted way.

Most importantly, I needed to make the art that was crawling around inside me rather than whatever it was that galleries would show or a public would support or a patron would request. This seems like a more familiar story, right? The tormented artist, confined by society, awaiting liberation and discovery, blah, blah, blah. Don’t take it that way because that’s not where I’m heading.

The public, making money, success, and all that external crap has never mattered except as an occasional afterthought. I’ve always experienced art as a personal need, as something coming up from the depths of my mind, rarely conscious or communicable. Art comes from somewhere under the surface to spill out onto a sheet of paper (or into a microphone, as it has in recent years). Then it vanishes again until the next upwelling. There might be a fallow period lasting years. I might change medium when I next begin working. I might spend years reviewing, revising, and cataloging what I’ve already made. Or I might even play with the idea of publishing, of putting it into a book or website (though that begs the question of engaging the public versus turning my own art into a more familiar artifact—since I’m more likely to encounter the work of others online or in a book than at a gallery). The act of generating something new is only part of it.…Of my own art, what I find in any way satisfactory has not been coaxed or forced or cajoled. It is not subject to intellect or will. It has its own periodicity and purpose. It comes unbidden and freely, at least at first. When I try to force art—that is, when there’s no sense of internal necessity—it makes me sick, almost physically ill, and I almost always hate what is produced.

But, until very recently, I think I’ve been trying to find that social context, however distant it might be from a tangible audience.

I’m going to give you two examples of my graphic work. The first, a still life from sometime around 1982-1983.  The second drawing is from Laughing Water, probably drawn February 1996. (In the spring of 1983 I had decided that I would put together a collection of poems and erotic drawings called Laughing Water, which became something of a Leaves of Grass as it continued to evolve and grow over the decades. You can learn a little more about the history of that at Prattle and Din, a memoir of my recording experiences.)

Still life, circa 1983, with rock, leaves, dragonfly, and antique razor. And incorrect French. Graphite, India ink, and white acrylic on Rieves BFK.

Still life, circa 1983, with rock, leaves, dragonfly, and antique razor. And incorrect French. Graphite, India ink, and white acrylic on Rieves BFK.

To me this still life was and remains meaningless, nothing more than an exercise in technique and discipline. At the time I was trying to be a “real” artist—as Henry Miller defined the role—by working very hard to produce something every day (though he was insisting an artist produce all day, every day). I was also attempting to internalize someone else’s idea about art as observation, perhaps one of the commentators on Rilke’s Neue Gedichte. The drawing has no reason to exist except that I thought I should be doing something constructive that day and that I should be training my eye and hand. It doesn’t really come from anywhere, go anywhere, or embody anything. There’s nothing emotional about it. There’s no necessity. It’s merely an observation of what I set in front of myself.

Drawing 115 from the collection Laughing Water, circa February 1996. Graphite, India ink, acrylic, and Letraset on Rieves BFK. There's a visual reference to one of the Crow poems by Ted Hughes: "he went to the womb and met maggot".

Drawing 115 from the collection Laughing Water, circa February 1996. Graphite, India ink, acrylic, and Letraset on Rieves BFK. There’s a visual reference to one of the Crow poems by Ted Hughes: “he went to the womb and met maggot”.

The second drawing, circa February 1996, is an attempt to process my feelings toward an unplanned pregnancy. At this point I was past my anger at having another child and the ensuing responsibilities imposed on me and was coming around to identifying with everything unwanted, including unwanted children. When I tell you about what was going on the drawing makes sense. But, really, there’s very little conscious activity. The images and words are a random set of connections, momentary connections that might not hold up under daylight or intellectual examination. What is on paper is a fragment of what was churning in my mind that day.

I just said that I needed to “process my feelings” and I think that’s where the critical literature of art falls flat. I think it goes deeper than “processing”.  I have to describe it as thinking. Art is the act of thinking. The artifact is the debris of thought. I can’t recall ever hearing anyone say it this way: art is thinking. It’s fundamental to the artist. It isn’t just processing something. For some of us, thought has to take sensual form. It has to be worked via the senses. More importantly, thinking has to be put outside one’s self so it can be observed at a distance (in part I say it this way to include the verbal arts). We have to shape our thoughts in some way, then stand back from them to take them in as a whole. To an outsider—and maybe to the artist, too—this may seem nothing but an esthetic process, and sometimes that’s all it is. I would say there’s a lot more going on.

If you only look at my graphic output you’d wonder if I thought of anything but sex. Almost all I’ve produced since the spring of 1983, when I began Laughing Water, is sexually explicit (and a majority of my drawing and painting prior to that was often restricted to the female nude). I, at least, have long wondered why sex was necessary (in my art). In regard to my own life and production of art, I’ve never been accepting of our socio-sexual roles, both private and public. In the private realm, I’ve always thought there should be more to sex than orgasm, even as an end goal. If you look at the full body of my art, literary and graphic, you will see a resistance to society, you will see pleasure discussed and depicted sensually rather than orgasmically, you will see sex as a kind of worship of life (of being alive). I hope that you find in my thought and art something more engaging than a one night stand. I hope that you, too, will challenge our social heritage.

Sooner or later I might want your input on my thoughts. And for that I do want to put my art before the public. I do want an audience because thinking is a richer experience if it’s not an isolated experience, if it leads to dialog. And yet, at the beginning, thought is a private experience. We have to walk alone on the moors or take a boat out on the water when no one else is around. We have to work alone while we smear and scribble our thoughts onto paper. Before we engage each other we have to engage ourselves.

To Feldman’s index we need to add The Artist Thinking.

The Challenging Thought

Posted in A Day in the Life, Perception with tags , , , , , , , on December 20, 2014 by swampmessiah

I’ve been reading a book on scientific revolution. Again.

Except for textbooks, is there any other kind? Is someone going to write about how science just sat still? Will someone write about the glorious history of how a scientific paradigm became and remains orthodox? Those textbooks are, I think, as close as we’ll ever get to that.

What intrigues me is how much I identify with the radical thinkers, the ones who just can’t accept and be content with the prevailing attitudes so that they come up with a new and challenging way of looking at things. I imagine that I’m like them. I really do.

You might be kind enough to let me cherish a vain delusion. I’m not. Even if I had the training I can’t imagine that I’d ever figure out anything that would change how others think and see. These people are really smart in a way I can only try to imagine (if testing from decades ago can be trusted, I’m on the bright side of average but very definitely within that category called average). (I’ll admit I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction and fact the past couple years and it’s been both entertaining and frustrating. I’ve been having one of those years where I hunger for intelligence. Not knowledge. Knowledge is cultural and ephemeral and only interesting up to a point. I want the intelligence to ask more questions and then to explore them. That would be fun.)

Then I think it must be a matter of character, since I lack the brain power. I am by nature and (self) nurture a challenger of the status quo. A born and bred radical and rebel. More vanity, of course. Some truth, too. Maybe. I say “vanity” because I doubt I’ve ever really challenged anything and pursued the issue right down to the core. I’ve never gotten to the center of things and built a new way out. I’ve never presented something familiar in an unrecognizable manner. How often is my rebellion more than “leave me alone”? Still, I’m having trouble letting go of the illusion. The idea of being a radical, especially a free radical, is very exciting.

When I read of these scientists, these critical thinkers, and the hostility they face, of course I side with them. All those dull blocks of humanity so thoroughly indoctrinated that they can’t recognize a good idea or a touch more truth than what they already know. But would I be any different? I like to think I would embrace the news but that really isn’t what happens. I think I might be one of those dull blocks. For the same reasons? Maybe not. I do honestly believe that I’m a born skeptic. My first reaction to anything new is “no”. That means “let me think about it”. And thinking about it could take decades, so it could be a long time before I come to any agreement with a new idea (by which time I would be seen as a latecomer). I doubt I reject the new idea because of any indoctrination, at least not when it comes to science, because I’m too much of an outsider. I lack the education and commitment. Cultural indoctrination, maybe: but there, too, I’m a bit on the outside. But do I ever have the perspicacity to see a better idea when it’s in front of me, to immediately grasp the importance of it? If not indoctrination then plain slow wits. I have to say I don’t.

To be fair to all of us, these scientists rarely come up with anything original except, maybe, making connections between existing ideas that others have failed to make. Original concepts are so extremely rare. As Newton quoted, we stand on the shoulders of giants. I think here I can make some comparison with these unusual beings. I do make a lot of connections that others do not make. I hybridize ideas. I redirect the mental flow away from the straight shot between point A and point B, maybe even taking a detour right out of the alphabet.  In fact, I’ve been pushing this idiosyncrasy into a way of life and maybe even an art form (one should live their art, yes?). I willfully misconstrue. I suspect it’s more often out of misunderstanding, like in the game called telephone (or is it Chinese whispers?), than through any intellectual rigor.

After sifting through the possibilities I’m left with one single fact: I like to figure things out for myself. Maybe that makes me a bit like them and self-identifying with the rule changers isn’t totally ridiculous. But in my daily life it’s a time waster, a form of procrastination or misdirection. Do I really need to be grappling with and questioning common knowledge? To be kind to myself I could say it’s a process of consciousness, a matter of being aware of the world and what I’m doing in it, a form of beginner’s Zen.

Before I end, I think we have to acknowledge that in some psychological circles challenging the status quo is a sign or form of mental illness. Rebellion is or should be something of a personality disorder. In the overall scheme of possible crazinesses, if thinking for myself is considered crazy it’s one I’d opt for. In fact, more, please.


A Time and a Place for Music

Posted in A Day in the Life, Music, Perception, Time with tags , , , , , , on October 14, 2014 by swampmessiah

For the past five years or so I’ve been listening to less and less music, easily going for weeks without putting a disc into my CD player. And my purchases have almost come to nothing, averaging less than one album per month.

I find this so peculiar that I’m having doubts as to who I am. Can I recognize myself without music? I feel like a soundtrack should accompany me into any room. I’ve had my own records since 1962 (Christmas with the Chipmunks), when I was five; bought my first LP with my own money in 1969 (Waiting for the Sun by The Doors); bought my own record player and started collecting records in earnest in 1972. Ever since, I’ve been the guy who knows music no one else has heard, using that knowledge as part of my social persona—freak. Perhaps even beginning that year I was acquiring a bare minimum of 50 albums, easily topping 100 a year throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Seldom venturing from my room, long before it was fashionable or socially acceptable to do so, I have always been engulfed in music. Or so it seemed.

Of course that constant sound began to falter when I found a lasting relationship and we made babies and all that distracting adult stuff. It was important to stayed engaged with my household (not saying I’ve ever been good at it). Music comes to seem a luxury rather than a necessity. It becomes abrasive rather than pleasant. It seems selfish. Yet I’ve always been slow to acknowledge this truth and kept buying and trying to listen.

This past June (2014) I decided to flesh out my collection of Beatles CDs—this would only be their albums beginning with Rubber Soul or Revolver, I forget which came first, since I’ve never had the slightest interest in their work before 1965. This in itself was peculiar, perhaps a sign of some sort of mental breakdown or mid-life crisis: I really haven’t paid much attention to them in decades, partly out of disinterest and partly in reaction to the hype (nobody can live up to such a reputation, absolutely no one). For so many years I’ve claimed to hate them that my partner was shocked to hear their songs coming out of my room a few months ago.

Then I started uploading these Beatles albums onto my computer! (Exclamation marks are almost non-existent in my writing. Assume that the last sentence was a shrill statement.) Why would I do that?

Why would I do that? I’ve been asking myself that question for approximately four months as I’ve slogged through my CD collection to upload things I thought I might want to hear. The process is more or less complete: 200 GB, 2,648 folders, and 27,244 files later. It’s hard to get an estimate of how many albums—somewhere around 2000, I suppose—but I think the number of files accurately reflects 27,244 songs. Too many for Google Play or iTunes Match.

If you are, or know, a record collector you know that it’s a type of mania, an obsession, a little (or large) slice of mental illness. Almost all my free hours from early July through mid-October, and even some when I should have been sleeping or doing something more interesting or useful, were spent staring blankly at my computer monitor as I uploaded disc after disc. It also propelled me to buy more, whether CD or download, to fill in some gaps of recordings that somehow seem necessary (in some ways this is just a shift in process, something I’d started about fifteen years ago as I began converting vinyl to CD, then often buying the disc rather than trying to filter the scratches and pops). I think I’ve already sprung for about fifty discs or downloads since buying those Beatles CDs, which is probably more than I’ve purchased total in the past five years.

Now what? Am I suddenly going to start finding time to listen? I have about 2000 albums on each of my computers (this summer I bought a laptop, my first, and I think I have some lifestyle fantasy going in which I venture out of my room, either to bring my computer with me when we travel or merely to sit in the living room or dining room with my partner and our kids as we all play in parallel on our individual electronic devices). Is this supposed to somehow liberate me from other commitments or interests?

Well…I think it will be easier to listen, more convenient.

To get a CD requires a trip to the dining room. A trip to the dining room could lead to interaction with other household members. Not a bad thing, surely. If I’m in the middle of something (for instance, writing this post) it’s too much of a distraction. Then, of course, is the problem of scanning all the CD spines in search of what to listen to, if I don’t already have something in mind. Then there’s the whole business of popping in a disc, waiting for it to load before I can press play, et cetera. All these steps add up to quite a break from whatever it was that I was doing. (My 2000 LPs are in my room but I do not listen to them. I’ve hardly touched them since I bought my first CD player in 1990. As packaging, as a physical object, an LP is a little taste of bliss. But I would much prefer to hear the music, whatever it is that the artist intended, rather than the medium.)

Now, all this music is on my computer. If iTunes is already up and running it’s just a matter of a little scrolling and a couple of clicks.

Does it help? Well…in the past month I’ve probably heard more of my music collection than I have in at least the past year, maybe even two years. While writing this I’ve heard David Torn’s Tripping over God, which I just bought a few days ago; I started to listen to something by Dead Can Dance (Into the Labyrinth, I think it’s called, which I still hate and moved on within a few songs) but had to clear out my ears with DMZ. Followed by Einstürzende Neubauten’s Tabula Rasa, some early Ultravox! and, now, a Mahler symphony.

I think what excites me most is how easy it is to listen to just a single song when I don’t have time for more. I find this refreshing, or recharging, or invigorating, or something comparably positive.

I still rarely have time to listen to a whole album uninterrupted, which pretty much rules out classical music. That hasn’t stopped me from buying more classical albums along with some “classic” rock (originally I switched to CD from LP because the classical market had gone digital and I was in one of those phases of my life where I was hell-bent to explore it). I’ve downloaded all Beethoven’s and Tchaikovsky’s symphonies plus Beethoven’s quartets (I love those budget versions by obscure but capable ensembles).

Have I answered my question as to why I would put all this music on my computers? I’m not sure. I’m just in the process of winding down from the frenzy of uploading and have yet to get very far with the development of any particular fantasy. In fact, writing this post while listening to music is a test run of one of those fantasies.

(A primary reason for not having time to listen to music, at least while on the computer, is that I have been making “music” of my own. Since 1996 my most common creative outlet has been recording my poetry with a quasi-musical background (call it soundtrack and voiceover for lack of better terms). If I get back to doing that—the past year has been something of a fallow period—I won’t be able to listen to anyone else. But if I tend more toward writing essays, as I think I will, I might be getting an overload of real music. That’s a pleasing thought: an overload of music.)

The more I think about it, the more I ask myself why I put all that effort into uploading 2000 albums onto my computer. I find it only indirectly comes down to listening. It is, emphatically, to reconnect with my collection. It was the process itself, the uploading disc by disc, that was important. (Have you ever taken longer than necessary to reshelf your collection or pack it or dust it?) It’s important to handle each recording, to briefly relive fragments of your life. I’m thankful I wasn’t going through my LPs, which go back to my childhood, youth, and early adulthood, covering such a richly emotional and turbulent time.

Since so much of my record collection is internalized, listening to the music only heightens the reconnection that’s already begun. I had to touch the discs, and read the titles, and examine the cover art (often having to track it down online, which turned out to be more difficult for many of the classical albums than the “obscure” rock albums). I suppose you could say I’ve reconnected with myself. At least in regard to music, I like what I’ve found.

Even if it doesn’t entirely make sense, I don’t think this was a waste of effort. Sharon Isbin’s Nightshade Rounds and I say goodnight.

I Brought Home the Gun That Killed Mary

Posted in History, Memoire, Perception with tags , , , , , , on September 13, 2014 by swampmessiah

Yes, I brought home the gun that killed Mary. It’s a Savage 22/410 over and under. Just after my mother’s death (8/29/14) I brought home a few mementoes and things I didn’t want to leave at the house in case of robbery: the gun is both.

It was probably the school year of 1962/63 that my mother decided to send me to Sunday school to get used to being around other children, since I was an only child and we lived in a rural area with a school that lacked a kindergarten. I say “send” because I have few memories of her attending church, though she was a Lutheran. My father never went to church (I still have no idea what his beliefs are; I suspect he believes in god but will have nothing to do with churches).…I would have been five.

There was a girl in the class I liked. Her name was Mary. I have no recollection of what it was that I liked about her or what we did together. I have no recollection of any romantic feelings nor any kind of pre-sexual yearning (not for my peers, anyway). It was probably that she was nice to me. A bigger mystery: why would she have liked me? I seriously doubt I was nice to her. Whatever it was, it was mutual: I have a hazy memory of her laughing face.

Probably that spring or summer, of 1963, we got a second dog. Well, a puppy. I named her Mary.

More than fifty years later I still have a fairly vivid memory of coming out of the house (and I use the term very loosely—it was a tar paper shed appended to a small Airstream trailer) and a very excitable Mary jumping up on me, as she always did. That time she left large welts streaking down my chest from where her claws raked me through my clothes. I cried for a long time, as I always did in those days.

When my father came home my mother told him what had happened and probably said or implied something had to be done.

I remember my father and a gun and Mary walking into the alder and balsam woods surrounding our house.

Mary did not come home for dinner.

End of story.

It seems I have a rather alien view of how you should respond.

A friend blurted out that if he’d known how it would end he wouldn’t finish the book, presuming it were a book, because I let him down. He’s as odd as I am, I suppose. Anyway, he surprised me with his reaction.

The usual response begins with the assumption that I’m revealing something tragic and traumatizing. The listener (and I assume reader) will either give me a blank stare because they’re uncomfortable with such disclosure or they will gush pity and attempted comfort.

The incident is a vivid and sad memory (almost all my memories of childhood are sad—is this me or human nature?). I don’t consider it traumatic. For instance, I don’t hold myself responsible for the death of the puppy. You know, if I hadn’t cried so much maybe Mary would have lived a full dog life. I ‘ve never taken that on. Nor have I blamed my father for brutality. His bluntness of action is one of many ways in which he was intimidating and fearsome to me and I think I had to process his nature when I was young, usually in dreams. But, as I’ve said, I’ve never thought of him as cruel. I have not, in fact or in mind, gone on a tirade about him killing the dog. Maybe if he’d forced me to witness the dog’s death I’d have something to complain about.

The fact is, I was a little slow to put everything together and it probably took me at least a few days to fully comprehend that the dog was dead rather than gone (for instance, that he hadn’t given the dog to a neighbor (in the woods!? my mother would have tried to perpetuate such a scenario and perhaps she did)).

I find the story sad and poignant and have told it or referred to it in poems and memoires over the years. I expect you to have some sort of sympathetic response, both for the puppy and for the child. I certainly don’t expect any kind of comfort for my adult self. (I think there’s a kind of sickness going around, a manipulative self-pity, as some of us have become addicted to being stroked while we cry over our lost days.)

Bringing home the gun brings an indefinable closure to this memory and a completeness to the story. Bringing home the gun and tying it specifically to this one memory gives it a twist of absurdity, a bit of mind-fuck, that will and does provide comfort to my rather alien mind. It turns something sad into something bizarrely amusing.


The Bad Blogger

Posted in introduction, Perception, Social responsibility with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2014 by swampmessiah

I think what makes a good blog post is to keep it short, clear, and well organized so that a potential reader can see what you have to say at a glance and can finish reading the post within a few seconds. All of us are strapped for time and can quickly become buried by the excess of information and opinion available online.

Except for this particular post you will never see that here.

I am a bad blogger. I am more or less the antichrist of successful blogging (just as I am the antichrist of so many other cultural necessities, such as fashion and small talk). I am, or am becoming, an essayist. It’s possible that I’m even becoming a good essayist.

One of the few essential books in my experience is Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, which I first read roughly 20 years ago and which I would recommend to anyone interested in the form.

So, never invite me over for dinner or to your party, never introduce me to your friends, never loan me your books (I’ll destroy them), and never expect me to be brief and to the point in my blogs. I can’t and won’t fit in. Like some halfwit rocker, I am bad to the bone. And generally untrainable.

Cabin Fever

Posted in Art, introduction, Memoire, Natural world, Time with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2014 by swampmessiah

Abbott Road, about 20 miles north of Duluth, Minnesota, is an old fragment of St. Louis County Highway 4 (locally known as the Rice Lake Road, though it does not go through or past Rice Lake, and in more recent years as the Rudy Perpich Memorial Highway). It is an arc of gravel about a mile and a half long, on the west side of the current highway. In what is to me recent years, sometime since I moved out of the area in 1984, the northern end of the road has been paved because of the boat access to Island Lake cut through the bank of a gravel pit (also something rather recent; when I was illegally riding a motorcycle—under age and without a license—there was nothing but a 50-75 foot tall bank of gravel set off from the road, the trees from the opposite side abruptly stopping where the heavy equipment had stopped digging; the boat access was added sometime between 1975 and 1984, my life or mind had disengaged from the area so I have no clear memory of when this happened). Along the southern end of the road is one side road, at most a quarter mile in length, connecting to the highway, called the West Turner Road (many of the roads in Gnesen Township, where this is and where I grew up, are broken by swamps and therefore have slightly different names for each segment). The northern stretch of Abbott Road crosses Hay Creek (or crick) which, depending on rainfall is either the original creek meandering through a mud flat and swamp grasses or a shallow extension of Island Lake (part of the power company’s reservoir; usually in the winter it’s just a creek, filling as the snow melts, but some years are so dry it never becomes lake, or vice versa never emptying). Just south of West Turner Road, added sometime after 1984, is the crossing of a major snowmobile trail. There are two more side roads jutting off Abbott onto peninsulas where people have leased land from the power company, originally to build cabins but now to live all year round, one just south and uphill from our driveway and the other a little past Hay Creek.

(If you do not know gravel roads, they are rutted and washboard all year, making it difficult to control your vehicle and giving you the sense that you and your car are being shaken to pieces. In the winter they might be impassible because of snow and ice (I’ve seen winters where the snowplow almost couldn’t get through, the drifts were taller than I was). In the spring you might not get through because it’s mud and, just like in the snow, vehicles could get stuck. In the summer, unless it’s just rained or the county road crew has recently poured oil on the surface, no doubt doing wonders to the groundwater that fills everyone’s well, there’s so much dust hanging in the air for the next half hour after a car’s gone by that it’s difficult to breathe and any laundry on the line needs to be washed again.)

A map of Abbott Road in Gnesen TownshipThe leftmost of the three blue dots between the Rice Lake and Abbott Roads is a pond in our north field, or what once was a field (now overgrown with alder shrubs). Something misleading about this map is that it looks like it’s all solid ground between those ponds and where the north end of Abbott Road joins the highway. It’s almost all swamp, depending on how high lake level is: some years the water almost comes into that pasture. Anyway, if you were to drive or walk along Abbott Road where it crosses the creek, you would see open swamp to the east and either open water or mud flats to the west (on the map the western side shows it as open water touching up against the road).

That little road just below the three blue dots is our driveway, and a main point in the essay I’m writing. From the house to Abbott is about the length of a city block. It is lined with Norway pine that were, maybe, fifteen feet tall or a little taller when we bought the place in 1964. The drive itself is two wheel ruts with grasses and mosses growing on the hump between. (Not pertinent to this story but perhaps of interest: the south field, which runs alongside the driveway, had been an airstrip years before, perhaps in the 1930s and ’40s, that ran from Island Lake almost to a low gravel ridge overlooking Highway 4.)

(I also need to make a little geographical detour to explain the land itself. Once you climb over the basalt ridge along Lake Superior—that is, the North Shore—you lose sight of bedrock and river valleys. The landforms are so recent that they have little sign of natural erosion (that is, river valleys). It is glacial debris pretty much all the way across Minnesota, much of it flat, former lake bottom. The area of my youth is moraine, alternating between low hills consisting of gravel and boulders, often hundreds of feet deep and miles long, or low, wet areas. Some of the low ground is genuine bog but most of it is the flowage of very sluggish streams and, therefore, swamp. Some of these wet areas are open enough to be called lakes (our momentarily famed 10,000), all of which are quickly filling in with sediment and vegetation. The larger, cleaner lakes in the area are not natural but, rather, part of the hydroelectric system.)

The point of this essay focuses on the end of that driveway as it empties onto Abbott Road, what you see and what might prefer to see.

In those days, the early 1980s when I was in my mid-twenties, I had moved back to my mother’s house at Abbott Road after a series of personal defeats and humiliations. I did not have a car or any reliable transportation. I did not and could not have a steady job and income without a car. The place, as mentioned in the opening paragraph, is about 20 miles from Duluth. Except for an occasional ride from family or a hitch from strangers (sometimes I’d walk almost the whole way), I was stranded.

Most days I would walk the “neighborhood”, becoming quite familiar with the gravel of the road, the stunted trees (almost alpine or taiga in shortness), the fields and flowers and shrubs, the edges of the lake and swamps, and, in winter, the snow (sometimes I’d lie flat on my back in a field deep with snow and stare at the stars). In those days there were still very few houses, usually of families that had been in the area for several generations, people my parents or grandparents had gone to school with.

It has always saddened me that I’m not a naturalist, one of those cool people who can name all the trees and flowers and small creatures met on such walks. I don’t know of anyone in my youth who could have taught me much and I, in my turn, was of a TV generation.

In the low ground there was tamarack and northern white cedar (in this area it tends to be dominated by tamarack) and a type of ash, probably black or green ash, and occasionally willow. On the higher ground balsam fir, paper birch, popple (aspen), which is something of a weed, shrub alder, various spruce, and as the ground becomes higher and drier and the forest more firmly established, white pine, sugar maple, and all those leafy trees I’ve never been able to identify (basswood, maybe). There is wild blueberry. Pussy willow. Diamond willow (I have a wizard’s walking stick of this, from my Tolkien days of the 1970s). Hazel. Choke cherry.

There are so few of the smaller plants that I can name. In the fields are daisy and devil’s paintbrush and some sort of thistle. By old farms the raspberries have gone wild. Wild strawberries. Ferns. Since I was a kid lupines seem to have spread along the ditches and the edges of fields (I don’t remember seeing them growing wild when I was young, but I didn’t really pay attention to flowers). All kinds of unnamable and possibly unnamed grasses. Horsetail ferns. An abundance of mosses. All the larger rocks and tree trunks are covered with lichens. Puffball is the only mushroom I can name, though we had all kinds, especially on tree trunks.

Along this particular stretch of Abbott Road, running from our driveway down to Hay Creek, I remember horsetails, wild strawberries, devil’s paintbrush, and all those mysterious grasses growing in the sand deposited at the edge of swamp and forest as rain washed it away from the heavier pebbles and stones of the gravel roadbed. In the forest of the higher ground were ferns and mosses and mushrooms; birch, popple, balsam, and the occasional maple. Closer to the creek, in the swampier ground and the overgrown pasture were swamp grasses, alder, and ash. At the edge of the flowage there was pussy willow and cat tails. And probably more alder (it seems ubiquitous).

Not much can be said, by me, about the fauna of the region. The seemingly dominant life forms have exoskeletons and wings. Most obviously, there are mosquitoes. There are the generic flies, which might be houseflies. There are the gigantic, biting horseflies and the gorgeously colored, delta-winged deer flies, which give the most painful bite of all. There are biting gnats and pesky little midges or no-see-ums. And so many colors of lovely damselflies and dragonflies, which frighten children because they’re so big. June bugs to cling on to your window screens for a week early summer and ladybugs in the fall, most of the other beetles going unnoticed by ordinary humans. There are several species of hornet, bee and wasp; numerous moths and butterflies (it seems luna moths are not as common now, or even then, as they were when I was a kid). Of course there were ants: mounds of black or red ants; tiny red ants in rotten wood; great big flying ants (a rare sight and maybe not a separate species). Of course there are other arthropods, especially in the wet soil with the moss and rotting trees, under every stone and deadfall, silverfish, centipedes, and millipedes.

The birds you’d hear and see all the time but I can name only a few: crow, maybe raven, blue jay, grackle, barn swallow, chickadee, cardinal, redheaded woodpecker, and all those little brown things like sparrows and finches. You could always hear the loons from the lake but rarely see them. Other aquatic birds could be found at the creek such as mallards, geese, blue heron, redwing blackbirds, and the occasional kingfisher.

Only two kinds of turtles are common, the painted turtle and the snapping turtle (I’ve been charged at by a one-eyed snapper), and two kinds of snake, the garter and the copper belly, all of which could occasionally be seen at this intersection of driveway and gravel road.

There are several native toads and a couple of species of frog, though leopard frog is the only one you’d readily find (again, there seem very few compared to what we had 50 years ago—I hope it wasn’t because my uncle George and I killed so many that one day in 1966). It’s probably been 50 years since I last saw a salamander. It is my belief that there is a newt native to the area but I can’t recall having seen any.

Except for the very petite chipmunks and red squirrels (most unlike the hulking gray squirrels common to Minneapolis parks), the mammals keep out of sight. Common night visitors are, of course, skunks. Porcupines are shy and rarely seen except for the residue of quills in a dog’s nose. Woodchuck less so, but still rarely seen. Badgers, wolves, foxes, and coyotes are extremely rare but not unheard of. My grandfather claimed to have seen a cougar in the distance, several miles from this particular driveway. Black bear and white tail deer are very common and usually the only large mammals you’d see by day. Moose on the loose could become a draw for the whole township. Rabbits. Rabbits. Did I say fuckin’ rabbits? All kinds of little mice and voles. At the water are beaver and muskrat. The small insectivorous bats are not as common as I’d like them to be.

View down a country road.

The one detail I have definitely left out of this description, perhaps because I find human structures and other artifacts unimportant, is the garage at the end of the driveway. There was a two-car garage on the north side of the driveway, with tar and sand shingles for siding and rolls of tarpaper for a roof. Neither my father nor step-father ever used it for cars; maybe for the temporary storage of a tractor or wood saw (someone had a frame with a Model-A engine and a 30″ blade for cutting logs into firewood). Since I moved out in 1984, the roof caved in under a heavy load of snow and the rest of the garage has collapsed but remains by the side of the road as an eyesore.

By now you might have come to the conclusion that I had a deep connection with the land and simply couldn’t get enough of it. That might be true now. In 1983, the year that I think is the focus of this essay, I was 26, miserably unhappy, desperate to find love and sex (in that order, strange as it may seem), broke, and, as I said, stranded. I had almost no social life and no one in my life who knew or cared about art (except for one very eccentric—or crazy—friend who seems to have been a collection of looped sound bites about what she thought of art and the good life). Especially at night, when I was at my most creative and self-pitying, I wanted to be doing anything but swatting mosquitoes and listening to the dog barking at all those night creatures.

All of this is background to a poem I wrote, probably in 1983 (revised at least once around the turn of the century and maybe again a few years later), called “Heathens in the Trees”.  It was a mad rush of crazy words perhaps not written at this intersection of driveway and gravel road but certainly conceived there. Between 1980 and 1984, while I was a young adult living in Gnesen Township, I think most of what I wrote was a combination of a love affair with words, especially incomprehensible or exotic words, and cabin fever: so much of what I wrote then were wild words.

I will give you both the text and a recent reading of that poem. (If you find it to be nauseating, irritating, incoherent gibberish I sympathize and might even agree with you. If you find it offensive you need to stick with Disney.) It can also be downloaded, pay what you will, as part of a collection, EP and chapbook, at, called Six Sonnets and Some Wild Words (the title is quite a bit longer than that).

Birds without feather bleed the sky,
bright blue is draining toward black
and all the false stars hover
over the city in the distance.
The ditch grows without frogs,
the weight of their desire spent
and no longer pressing down on the mud,
the tadpoles sucked up and re-ejaculated
like live ammunition in a fast-action porn flick,
the hollow swelling between roots and rocks,
selling its mutant algæ to city fishermen
as bait for river nymphs, limnads
and other titillations that’ve gotten away—
each sportsman wants his rod to be ready this time.
All along the road
where forests threaten civilization,
heathen are nailed to trees
by the unknown judges of the road.
Until they die they eat dust
and rocks thrown by spinning tires.
They drink the liquid excrement of birds.
Their hair is long and dirty
and tangled into deceptive stories.
Their robes are of black wool
begging for fire.
Sap mingles with blood and urine,
draining the ditches dry
as it flows through the rocks
to the center of the earth,
freeing the snakes.

The moon hums radio jingles
while priests cry under the street lamp
and nuns run in circles,
naked but for their pastimes.
We’d join them if we could
but it’s a sacred ritual reserved
only for those whose undergarments
have been blessed for public examination—
no skids, no pee stains, no menstrual blood,
no wasted cherubs who leaked from his holy dick
after that last Sunday’s confessions,
no nocturnal impressions stretching the cotton.
Telephone wires grow taught from distress
as we tell our friends the news.
Every one of us speaks as a prophet
to announce the new polycarbonate age
about to reshape our coffins and beds
so we forget death’s a transition
from prime time to late night—
until the wires overheat with the resistance
inherent in every inevitable apocalypse.
The trees give rhythm to the moon’s song,
like plantation a capella on every beat,
ignoring the heathen pleadings from below,
with a chorus of mad brahmin
hanging in the branches by their toes—
ugly bats to add high harmonic drones,
it makes even the weekend pederast hum along.
Wires snap free!
dancing in worm twists
like all the goddess’ arms swaying chaos
and it’s the end of the world
because it’s the last time you’ll ever get close to her—
she’s mad now and smiling like Kali—
strangling the heathen billboards—
nailed to the burning ash—
forcing vowels from their erratic mouths,
songs gracing their orifices
like a symphony of flatulence
outshining the moon…
until King Sodomy, sixty feet tall
and a red pecker the length of Cadillac hearse
loping in front of his sagging paunch,
dances over the hill just ahead,
legs bowed, eyes green and rolling—
if you don’t adore him he’ll poke your eyes out
and shoot hot semen into the sockets.
On either side, a train of quadriplegics
being towed for his amusement…
A carpet of red and black laughter
spreads from under his magnificent feet
to cover all lands in every direction—
choking heretics and saints
with scalding jizm down their throats,
giving life to whores
and their resplendent cunts,
blessing them as we should all be blessed,
leashing on the world the mythological slut,
the great dream-beast of every man…
and to gigolos learning their trade.
Fire! Fire! Light his ass on fire
and blow-dry the heathens for next christmas!
We want them toasty and clean!
Night screams for release!

A small beggar laughs
and only a puddle remains in the road,
water bugs crawling about his toes,
and wild telephone wires
protruding from his ears, dancing.

What’s Wrong with This Picture

Posted in A Day in the Life, Morality, Perception, Social responsibility with tags , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2014 by swampmessiah

A friend recently posted a photo on Facebook that consisted of a list of what the wife does between the time she says she’s going to bed and actually goes to bed, on the left, and what the husband does in the same sequence.

It’s meant to show how uneven the domestic work load is. It’s meant to make us feel for the woman and turn against the man, the worthless shit.

List of what husband and wife do between saying they're going to bed and actually going to be.

I find so many things wrong here, so deeply, fundamentally wrong, something that rankles me to the core, that I’m surprised I’m not ranting and gushing obscenities as I write (it’s what I’d expected of myself).

It describes the woman I’ve always avoided, the domestic drone of 1950s conservative fantasy. The woman who knows her place. The woman who thinks the most important thing in the world is the perfect family, which begins with the perfect home.

Does she really consider all these activities more important than sleep? “Clean the glass on the back door”—you’ve got to be kidding.

I also find her self-deception disturbing. Why would she say she’s going to bed knowing she’ll do all those other things first? It looks manipulative and passive aggressive. It looks like she’s trying to show him up and put him in his place with guilt.

Without knowing his situation I’d have to nod along with everyone else that he is that worthless shit we’re supposed to see him as. Why wasn’t he helping with all those petty domestic chores?

There’s so much stereotyping.

What happened to feminism?

Why does this couple seem to linger in an outdated era playing meaningless roles?

A very important question neither asked nor answered in this poster is: what were they doing all day. Do both of them have jobs outside the house? Are their jobs stressful or physically exhausting? If they both have day jobs, did both of them do household chores before dinner, such as making dinner, helping the kids with homework, fixing things around the house?

My automatic response was that I don’t like either of them. I have long rejected the male roles that I was expected to occupy and I’ve rejected the women who would have complimented me in those roles. You can consider me selfish if you like.

Some of her activities are important, such as packing the kids’ lunches (assuming the lunches are for the kids and not the husband) and signing the school papers. Brushing your teeth and locking the door are also (probably) necessary and acceptable things to do after you’ve said you’re going to bed. But the rest? Is it really necessary to finish the laundry and dishes or to pick up toys?

Sleep should come first.

I’m not even going to get into the needs of an artist who has to work a meaningless day job and how that impacts the alleged importance of domestic conformity. Who’s life are we living anyway? Why would someone waste their life and health satisfying some pathetic social fantasy?

Yes, I am of the era in which it was important to find one’s self and fuck social expectations. Sometimes I think we were right and sometimes it made us a generation of selfish whiners.

I’ll tell you here and now that our relationship at home has come to resemble the stereotype more than either of us would like. We started out close to 50-50 on the domestic chores. Over the years I’ve backed away from the complexity and grind of raising a family, as well as succumbing to the exhaustion of earning a living. (I’m not going to discuss my partner’s possible flaws. I’ll just say it’s not entirely me being a selfish shit.)

What’s really missing in the relationship portrayed is any sense of a common goal, of discussing what really matters and agreeing on who does what. Those two people, and sometimes my partner and I, are just going through the motions of living.



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