“The health of the eye demands a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we see far enough.” R. W. Emerson
Something happens to perception and thus to our very well being when we are afforded access to natural spaces and open lands where we can walk, gaze, wonder at the elemental world that somehow we lose sight of in our urban life of work, possessions, and technology. I don’t believe we have evolved quite so far as to ignore our essential affinity with our nomadic roots and for our need to roam and wander.
A couple of weeks ago I spent several days at an artist’s retreat, known as Ragdale, that is located on a ridge near the shore of Lake Michigan in Northern Illinois. For those who may not have heard of a place like Ragdale or of someplace like an artist’s colony, imagine a place where you are invited, honored no less, because of the value of your work as a writer, or composer, or artist and given two or four weeks to work without interruption. Where you are given a quiet space to think and doodle and sleep and stare and hopefully create. And you are fed by a gourmet cook who treats you like a prince or a child or a tired soul or whomever you are when you show up to imbibe with your other colonists at supper. And, in this case, at Ragdale, a place that is adjacent to acres and acres of prairie, marsh, and a wooded creek, all preserved by a band of good folk who recognized the value of these spaces and preserved it as well as those today who maintain it, such as the citizens of Lake Forest and the Open Lands.
I’d not even finished unpacking my bags before I marched right out even though the sun had just set. Darkness and the cold made it just that more enticing, and I found myself losing myself in the woods, my eyes not used to the darkness and I nearly walked into the creek bed. But I just wanted to be in the middle of it, just to hear the place, and sink into it a little, be for a while in the land and feeling it there, feeling its darkness and winter brittleness.
That first night it snowed about four inches, beautiful soft wet flakes that fell lighting up the darkness, and by morning the trees and prairie grass were covered, creating that purificatory ritual we all know that comes with the first snow. The patterns made you wince when you had to make the first foot tracks in the snow, reminding me of what it feels like sometimes when I walk at the Indiana Dunes and you don’t want to mar the magical windscapes of sand. But I did, and ran about like a boy, stopping to see if the snow would mold easily into . . . something, I mean I’m no Andy Goldsworthy but I began imagining a snow fort on the edge of the prairie under a few trees. At dinner that night, almost every one of the artists had made a similar excursion into the snow and prairie, and I whispered to the paper-maker and artist next to me, Melissa Craig, if she wanted to make something with me. “Sure! I’ve been going out and finding all kinds of interesting things in the woods.” Of course, that is what she does in her work, find ways to use the actual natural world as the very medium of her work. (Here you can see what she’s doing with her paper making and sculpting and organic use of color in creating a fungus like bar code that reads: “DO NO DAMAGE."
I walked around every day of my 12 day stay, watching and walking about in the snow through this precious oasis that is painstakingly and lovingly restored to its original and evolving ecological niche. But each day, I’d see something I’d not noticed or appreciated before, either because of the light, or the weather, or my own mood. One day, I decided to walk on the ice of the creek, seeing or hoping that it was as hard as it appeared. From inside a ditch, looking up in to the brambles and branches of the cottonwoods and other hardwoods that create the canopy over the creek, I realized from this perspective, from below ground, that this is not only another view but another world, even in winter.
Other artists made other discoveries, British poet, Cheryl Moskowitz, wrote this about one outing of hers where she came upon a deer:
Out there in the cold you don’t expect to see anyone.
Glad if you don’t, actually.
Time to be alone, find a stump,
brush the mound of snow off
sit for a while by the creek that’s all froze up
and listen, like the deer do.
You are a stranger here
the birds know that -
calling out to one another in their strange tongue
retreat, retreat, retreat.
And all at once she’s there,
one side of the Dharma wheel.
Chestnut markings like a dark target
framed against the vast white
and so are you.
I don’t think I’ve ever gone to Ragdale and not heard of some reference to the prairie or to some insight that it evoked. Here’s another image from poet Beth Brandt who very much works with natural imagery in her work:
hides what it
keeps. How it holds
you up weighs
you down draws
you in. The gravity
of it turn of
it pull of
and you can’t
But, oddly, as the days wore on, I found myself transfixed in my walks by not just the natural landscape but the the electrical towers rising out of the ground, at the fixity of the rusted steel of a train trestle and the trains that went by that I could hear at night in my studio. And I wasn’t the only one, Cheryl told me on the last day she made a video with her I-phone of a train moving through the landscape as she stood in the woods listening, and listening to her video myself, I was struck by the disappearance of sound as the train faded from view, leaving the woods and making me hear it anew. Here it is, listen to the end of the video. We think sometimes that these environments are sullied by the ways of humans. But all spaces have something of the wild still echoing through. We just have to give over to the place as it is and spend some time there, watching and listening and absorbing what it has to offer.