26 January 2007

Awesome Immersion

Swallows, Salamanders, and Sowbugs

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer feel amazement is a good as dead, a snuffed-out candle…. But the Jewish tradition also contains something else, something which finds splendid expression in many of the Psalms – namely, a sort of intoxicated joy and amazement at the beauty and grandeur of this world, of which man can form just a faint notion. It is the feeling from which true scientific research draws its spiritual sustenance, but which also seems to find expression in the song of birds.
From The World as I See It by Albert Einstein

Summer Learning in the Catskills
My story has its origins in the summers of my childhood when I was set free among the sowbugs, salamanders, and swallows of the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. My days were filled studying the behavior of the creatures of the forests and ponds and making drawings and paintings of them interacting in their natural habitats as well as in imaginary worlds of my creation. My intellectual curiosity and zealous observation coupled with my creative encounters and intimate friendships with these creatures made boundaries between science and art diaphanous. I had no clue that science and art were not one integrated human endeavor.

As I lifted a log beside a pond deep in the forest, I saw salamanders and centipedes scramble as sowbugs stopped in their tracks to roll up into compact balls. A barn swallow swooped down over the pond with lighting speed skimming the water’s surface to snag a fly on wing. With a swift maneuver of its slate grey wings my avian friend flashed the splendor of his orange breast feathers as he soared up across the pond and lighted on my shoulder.

I first saw this magnificent bird as a limp, featherless, bleeding swallow chick that had fallen from its nest in the eaves of my neighbor Ben’s barn. I gently lifted it, cradled it in my palm, and took it home to live in a shoebox in my bedroom. As I painted mercurochrome on its cut that matched its red skin, it opened its flat yellow beak chirping for food. My sister Fran named it Peeper. We read in the encyclopedia that swallows ate bugs rather than seeds like our canary. We spent our days catching flies, small moths, and beetles, and digging for worms to feed the insatiable appetite of our small friend as his wound healed.

My drawings of Peeper documented his down growing to cover his nakedness and the splendid sprouting of his feathers. As flying lessons, I would hold him high above my bed and drop him. Days of plopping down onto my bed unaware of the function of his wings inspired me to make imaginary paintings of him flying free. He learned quickly once he discovered what wings were for. What an awesome sight to see him fly through the house at lighting speeds making ninety degree turns around corners. This sleek swallow soon learned to exit from my bedroom window, soar up to towards the clouds and swoop down to the pond behind our house where Fran and I swam with the newts, frogs, and minnows. Our utter amazement at seeing the graceful flight of our wounded swallow was transformed into joy each night when he would fly back to roost on the edge of the shoebox by my bed.

Although I enjoyed making drawings and paintings, I sensed that my artwork of greater significance was the actual act of nurturing a swallow chick on the verge of death and participating in its transformation into a beautiful bird of swift undulating flight. In his book on the blurring of art and life, Allan Kaprow contrasts art-like art to life-like art. My life-like art was living with a swallow. My art-like art was documenting my life with a swallow as well as imagining how it could be. My life-like art seemed to reach a higher spiritual plane than my art-like art. Perhaps the biblical injunction against making graven images is a warning to avoid freezing the wondrous and mysterious flow of living life into a static still life, nature morte, dead life.

Winter Learning in Queens
Daily joy and amazement formed the core of my integral summer learning that was lost in my winter learning in the dreary grayness of Queens. What my winter school in the city forced into distinctly different disciplines had been integrally one in my summer learning in the Catskill Mountains. Thinking the world apart rather than experiencing it holistically broke my soul apart.

The joy of my holistic summer learning that honored my combination of spatial, naturalist, and spiritual intelligences was crushed by the fragmented learning of winter school that only valued those students endowed with linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences. Although I was left with no choice but to develop linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences, two of ten intelligences identified by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, it is my innate spatial, naturalist, and spiritual intelligences that I had developed though my soul-soaring summers immersed in art-science learning that I needed most in my adult work as biologist and artist.

My childhood curiosity about what went on under logs and rocks in the forest followed me to college where I studied biology and wrote my thesis on the ecology of terrestrial isopods. Terrestrial isopods were my old summer friends – sowbugs – land-adapted crustaceans breathing with gills that I had found surviving in the damp habitat under decaying logs in the forest. I found that they even lived under discarded cabinet doors on an empty lot in Queens. My scientific studies on the interrelationships between sowbugs and other organisms in their shared environment developed my systems thinking and ecological perspective that permeates my work as an artist.

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