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Wilderness and Home
A beautiful boy leaped out of a grand maple tree, landing nimbly onto the ground. It was a chance glance out of my bedroom window early in the morning last spring that provided this startling sight. He was lithe as a ballerina. His fine face was topped with a mass of black curls.
If this tree had been located in a wilderness, I would have imagined my arbor visitor to be a fairytale prince charming, or an Adonis from Greek mythology, or a wood sprite in Nabokov’s famous story. Or perhaps he would be a personage yet more fearsome that lurks in the shadows and casts spells. But this tree was growing in the meadow that surrounds my home, and the boy was merely a hiker who felt an impulse to climb the tree to gain a bird’s eye view of the Catskill Mountains to the West, the stream to the South, the woods to the East, and my gardens to the North.
Unlike Claire Cote, who served as my hostess when I visited Questa, I did not grow up in proximity to old growth trees in a pristine forest. My childhood home was located beneath the landing path of Newark Airport in a city of refineries and factories. Thus, no real-life experience had yet disrupted my fantasies of ‘wilderness,’ which consisted of a vivid conjunction of ‘wild’ and ‘bewilder’. How could it be otherwise? I was unfamiliar with wilderness populations, their customs, survival tactics, and seasonal patterns. I had never walked upon the wilderness’s accumulated biomass, or witnessed the fierce competition for sunlight among wilderness botanicals, or felt its frequent and abrupt shifts in temperature, or experienced long interludes of an uncanny silence. Indeed, there was only one track in the mud the days I ventured into the Questa Caldera that I recognized; it was made by an all-terrain vehicle at the border of the preserve.
In anticipation of my first foray into wilderness, I wondered if I would yield to the ‘wild’ of these unfamiliar environs – leaping instead of climbing, crawling instead of walking, screaming instead of talking – joyful escapes from the constraints of social protocols and engineered technologies. Or perhaps, I imagined, I might feel inclined to skulk through the wilderness on tip toe, whispering quietly or refusing to speak to minimize my intrusion into a territory where neither humanity’s greed, abuse, nor its generosity are welcome. Alternatively, I considered the possibility of joining generations of prophets who ventured into wilderness to seek the glory of god. On their behalf I conjured descriptions of wilderness from literature that evoked mysterious light, eternal renewal, and fearsome powers, imagining that this excursion might provide my closest encounter with the divine.
In fact, unexpectedly, I felt homesick in the wilderness. Even as I reveled in its wonders and marveled at the primal stirrings it awakened, I missed the trees in my meadow back home. Here, I was an outsider, a visitor, a tourist, an interloper. At home, I am a member of an interspecies community, which affords me the privilege of experiencing the entire life-histories of my botanical neighbors. Only members pause at the stump of an old elm that was struck by lightning, shearing off all of its bark; and only members know the oak whose hollow gradually fills with acorns each fall, deposited there by a family of industrious squirrels. Beyond these intimate observations, my trees provide fuel for winter warmth, ash for garden fertilizer, fencing for the corrals, acorns for feed, brush for critter shelter, sap for maple syrup, logs to cultivate mushrooms, mulch for the orchard, shade in the summer, and light in the winter. Although my care-giving is dwarfed by my trees’ generosity, I diligently prune their dead branches, clear the entangling vines, and allow last year’s leaves to support next year’s growth.
As I conclude these comments, I realize that I DID receive enlightenment in Questa area. It yielded an illuminating pair of scenarios. On the one hand, I gained an abiding respect for preservation initiatives that restrict the construction of roads and dams; prohibit most timber cutting; and forbid motorized vehicles and mining. By relinquishing such human claims, these territories can be returned to the raptors, songbirds, waterfowl, beaver, river otter, ringtail, prairie dog, cougar, black bear, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and elk that are ‘home’ in the same region where humans are consigned to be ‘visitors’.
On the other hand, the journey deepened my appreciation of the few modest acres where I live. My home turf cannot boast of grandeur; it scores poorly on the awe-inducing scale; and it has never inspired romantic legends. But it abounds with ingratiating and tender familiarity. It and I are life partners, and we are both thriving.
Original Conversation between Linda Weintraub, Tom Salazar and Claire Cote, Questa, New Mexico
Linda Weintraub is a curator, educator, artist, and author of several popular books about contemporary art. Her recent writing explores the vanguard intersection between art and environmentalism, including TO LIFE! Eco Art In Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet (University of California Press). Weintraub’s previous books on eco-art include the series, Avant-Guardians: Textlets in Art and Ecology (2007).
Weintraub established Artnow Publications in order to apply environmental responsibility to the book’s material production. She is also the author of In the Making: Creative Options for Contemporary Artists and Art on the Edge and Over: Searching for Art’s Meaning in Contemporary Society.
Weintraub served as the Director of the Bard College museum where she curated over sixty exhibitions. She was the Henry Luce Professor of Emerging Arts at Oberlin College. Her current book project is Ecological Materialism: Art-is-an Environmental Health Clinic. Weintraub received her MFA degree from Rutgers University. She maintains a homestead on an eleven-acre property in upstate New York where she actively applies the principles of Permaculture to food production and land management. She is living in the eighth home that she and her husband designed and built. It is an ultra efficient industrial structure.