A LETTER TO  FREDERICK J.   SWANSON

AFTER VIEWING DECAYING LOGS AT LTER SITE 3, HJ  ANDREWS  EXPERIMENTAL FOREST

Dear Fred:

Sometime around 2:00 a.m. I dreamed I was a decaying log. PVC respiration monitors were placed  along  my  body  just  as  they  are  along  the  logs  at  LTER  Site  3.  And  a  group  of people, perhaps the very group you led into the forest, was looking into the tubes. But I  couldn’t hear what they were saying, and I wanted to hear what was being said.

I grew very still,

stillness extending until the forest was a constellation of sound.

I could hear the precipitation of needles from the canopy above, the ruffled wing-beat of a pileated  woodpecker,  the  red-breasted  nuthatches  negotiating  something  beyond.  I  could hear each of you holding your breath as you looked in the tubes, trying to still the hum of       the  vast  arteries  flowing  through  us.  Then,  breathing  again,  and  how  each  breath  inside each tube was a distant ocean. But by the time I reached this point of stillness, everyone had stopped  talking, and  what had  been  said  about what had  been  perceived  within  the  tubes was lost to me. I felt your footsteps walking off to wherever was next. I—a decaying log— remained.  . .

. . . and slowly woke up in my room. . .

. . . and thought about the dream.

Wondering what is decaying within myself and why I was so comfortable with it; contemplating the vulnerability of exposing myself to being read; the desire to know what others saw within me, and my sense that a secret lies within their seeing; wondering if I     might have simultaneously been part of that group looking in tubes, looking within myself; understanding my Self turning to “humus,” which is cognate with the word “humanity”; wondering if the memory of a dream is the research “trash” of sleep. I thought of each of us    as a conch shell relaying echoes of distant places. I saw my own shell filled with a love of ancient  echoes,  human  and  otherwise.  I  turned  on  the  lamp,  opened  a  book  of  Tang dynasty Chinese  poetry  and  read “Deer Park,”  a  poem  by  the  Buddhist poet and  painter Wang Wei, here translated by Sam Hamill:

 

No sign of men on the empty mountain

only faint echoes from below.

Refracted light enters the forest,

shining through green moss above.

 

As on other readings of this poem, I saw an ancient Chinese  forest spread  before  me. The bloom of green light. But this time it filled with details of HJ Andrews Experimental Forest.

Here there are signs of humans everywhere. For a moment the mountain seemed not quite empty, but that feeling quickly passed as emptiness flooded back. And the poem then filled with my recent memories of the devastation, the complete elimination of forests in China. Where there is no forest, there is no forest to be empty, no forest in which to build an experiment, no forest in which to write this poem, or to even make sense of it.

I brought this book of poems with me for an experiment. I want to know if these ancient mountains poems have the same impact upon my mind when read deep in an ancient forest      (a  non-human  habitation)  as  they  do  when  I  read  them  at  home.  I  plan  to  record  me reading within the forest and then replay that recording elsewhere. I plan to read them in       the same place on different occasions to see how familiarity shifts the experience. To see my own mind’s tides. It is a private experiment to be carried out some days from now after everyone’s left.

But then you surprised me by reading the poem by Jane Hirshfield while standing next to      the decaying logs. And it fell flat. Hollow, barely resonant. What had happened? I cherish     her  poetry,  in  fact  I  brought  one  of  her  books  with  me  on  this  trip.  My  reaction  has nothing to do  with  the  poem,  nor  anything  to  do  with  your  reading.  Our  words  don’t typically integrate with the ecological nuance of a 500 year-old forest. They pale in the   density  of  the  ancient  forest—the  kaleidoscopic  interactions  of  moss  and  sunlight, mushroom and cedar, fog and spider. The words are barely formed, inchoate in comparison within this web. Or, maybe I didn’t need a poem  within  this environment as I do in other  parts of my life. No need for a window into the forest while standing in the forest.

In the silence following your reading, I saw the poem as research “trash”—no different than  the PVC pipes, the blobs of silicone, the little flags, and the aluminum tags. This is all mind debris in different shapes. The question now: What is it within us that integrates with such a complex system, that fills there without falling flat, without needing to dominate, or take control, or exert itself in a way that causes a fundamental disruption? I looked back within     the  poem.

Each poem is an entity unto itself where we get to watch a mind move. But each poem is       also a foundation  upon  which  each  of  us,  on  our  own,  get  to  build  our  own  temporary mansion or grass hut. And in that mansion or hut, we get to shake hands, share a drink,     tangle eyebrows with the poet. These are gifts of a poem. These are also the gifts of the flags and  pipes, if that is what we  let them be.

And when I encountered the PVC pipes and the decaying logs, I see a similar function: the movement of a  mind  guided  by  intent,  a  foundation  upon  which  my  own  mind  gets  to follow. I don’t mean this to justify writing poetry or leaving the skeletons of an experiment    in a forest. It is not an issue of right or wrong. It has to do with the way minds reach out       like tendrils, like roots of a plant, searching for another mind, perhaps Mind with a capital M—that pervades everything. I would like to access that quality of mind that is ancient like this forest. That reaches out to build itself anew upon the nurse logs.

We spend a lot of time on arbitrary distinctions, failing to look at the broader context. The   giant highways that cut apart the landscapes: mind debris. The bullets, the Styrofoam boxes,   the carbon-spewing cars, the islands of plastic in our oceans: mind debris. These are cause     for fury. Poem and spewed-CO2 are each a statement, an organized wave of energy drawing      a line through time. We get to decide which wave to build our mind upon and what debris     will follow, because debris always follows. Like this  letter.

One you’ve read this letter, I ask that you set it within the research site and leave it to decompose. I would like for it to feel rain, to become part of the mosses and fungi, to be sucked up into the trees. The words are simply a skeleton. The body is the world itself.

 

Enjoying  our  new friendship,

Ian Boyden

HJ Andrews Experimental Forest September  28, 2014

Ian Boyden PDFs:

Dear Fred

 

Ian Boyden works across multiple media including painting, sculpture, artist’s books, photography, site-specific installations, and land art. His work is interdisciplinary, and he often collaborates with a variety of scientists, poets, composers, and other visual artists. His books and paintings are found in many public collections including Reed College, Stanford University, the Portland Art Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. Boyden is also a speaker, writer, and curator. He currently serves as the executive director of the San Juan Islands Museum of Art.