Wide View

From your wardrobe, have you ever chosen a shirt in which the aroma of another’s cologne still lingers? I love that moment; my mind zips back to a wordless past, while my body stands in the closet fumbling with buttons. When I return from a trip I live happily in this kind of collapsed time, as the memories of the place I have left rise to the surface and slowly evaporate.

I’ve been home now for 6 months and the details of the New Zealand landscape have dropped out and I’m left with a strong memory of great volumes of air bounded by steep mountains on which cloud shadows move across their vertical plane. Panoramas are so thrilling, and so difficult to represent; maybe it’s folly to even try. Nevertheless, I’ve been thumbing through photographs, sketches and color studies to recount the grandness of the New Zealand landscape in my New York studio.

Wind

It was often too windy in Glenorchy to set up the easel for oil painting.  At times like these, paper and pencil in the lee of a big rock were a better choice. It was a fun challenge to draw the wind, since it has no image, but can only be perceived by its action on things and its sound. These small sketches have become paintings.

January, 2012: Dart River, Glenorchy, New Zealand.
60″x45″, oil on aluminum panel

January 14, 2012: Glenorchy, New Zealand, 59º.
32″x40″, oil on aluminum panel

January, 2012: Mt. Alfred, Glenorchy, New Zealand.
32″x40″, oil on aluminum panel.

The following detail gives some sense of the surface of these pictures. The dark blue areas are thinly painted and the white, negative space is applied thickly and textured.

detail, January 14, 2012: Glenorchy, New Zealand, 59º.

January, 2012: Lake Wakatipu, Glenorchy, New Zealand.
45″x45″, oil on aluminum panel.

February 2012: Mt. Earnslaw, New Zealand.
45″x60″, oil on aluminum panel

January, 2012: Glenorchy Lagoon, New Zealand.
40×60, oil on aluminum panel

Field Paintings from New Zealand

The following selection of landscapes were painted in and around the town of Glenorchy on the south island of New Zealand. All are painted in oil on 24″x30″, aluminum panels. More paintings to come.

 

January 15, 2012: Summer Snow, Glenorchy, New Zealand, 42ºF

 

January 16, 2012: Wind, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand, 66ºF

 

January 23, 2012: Cloudy, Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand, 52ºF.

 

January 24, 2012: Mt. Alfred, Glenorchy, New Zealand, 72ºF

 

January 25, 2012: Lagoon, Glenorchy, New Zealand, 68ºF

 

January 27, 2012: Route Burn, Mt. Aspiring National Park, New Zealand, 54ºF

 

February 6, 2012: Routeburn, New Zealand, 76ºF

 

February 16, 2012: Rees Valley, Glenorchy, New Zealand, 74ºF

 

February 17, 2012: Mt. Earnslaw, New Zealand, 70ºF

 

March 1, 2012: Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand, 55ºF

 

March 2, 2012: Diamond Lake, Mt. Aspiring National Park, New Zealand, 70ºF

 

 

Rolling Landscape

In the environs of Queenstown, NZ, an abundance of cars and trucks sport landscape inspired designs.  A few of these paintings seem motivated by whimsy, but most are the result of commercial interest; the Queenstown area is a Mecca for adventure tourism and the bodies of motor vehicles are prime locations for advertizing tourist related businesses. But regardless of the motivation, the results are worth pondering.

Vehicles serve as public expressions of self, whether the personal alignment be with the powerful and passionate or the provident and prim. But the emotional component of cars, so adroitly constructed by the manufacturer, is complicated when the owner augments the image.  More simply, painting a car is a refutation of the aesthetic imposed by General Motors, Nissan and Mercedes and this tiny act of defacement is worth a smile.

A landscape image on a car might announce an affinity of the owner for the outdoors and a concern for the environment. Converting the car into a planter, however, would be a more persuasive statement of ecological sensitivity. Maybe car painting is a type of magic that neutralizes the industrial/ consumer aspects of the car and transforms it miraculously into something more “natural”. This kind of magical thinking is useful for assuaging the guilt many feel for burning fossil fuels.

The irony of making landscapes portable, however, is the most interesting and smile-worthy effect. For eons human beings have deferred to the landscape ­– the eternal, reliable, unmovable landscape – and moved across it, always in response, conforming to its demands. How cocky then to put it on the side of a Sport Utility Vehicle and send it on errands for groceries.

 

In Pursuit of the Unknown Outcome

Painting and teaching are both satisfying occupations, and the most significant difference between the two is the material. As a painter I work with physical stuff, and as a teacher I work with social relations. Both are creative endeavors and the artist in me does not need to know more; it’s enough to live creative moments.  But the teacher in me needs to understand and articulate the act.  So, I ask, what is the creative process for making art, and more importantly, what is the broader notion of innovation that is familiar to anyone that has been a success in business, sports, science, love or academic administration? In short, what is the creative process that is at the core of successful problem solving?

I need to propose a definition of creativity that is broad. But theory gains credibility through application, so I’ll begin with a narrow example of making a landscape painting in New Zealand. The painting began with an early morning walk along the Route Burn in Mt. Aspiring National Park.  Following a path along the river, I rounded a bend and through the trees I saw a rainbow. Laughing at the fairy tale optimism of the moment, I dropped the pack and looked around for a suitable spot to paint. Unlike many plein air painters, I don’t usually choose a location for the compositional quality of the vista. In fact I avoid that, since I want to evoke the sense of a place rather than record the way it looks. So I first search for practical qualities, like shade, flat ground and space enough to step back from the easel without tripping over a log or falling down an embankment.

Easel established, I poked around for color and noted on this day…

 

the shades of turquoise in the pool of trout below me, the neutral tones of the stones in the riverbed, and the hues of moss and beech.

Next, I looked for motifs that defined the place and decided to focus on the space between the trees, and…

the water rushing toward me.

Returning to the easel, I mixed the paint to match the dominant colors of the scene, and made a color notation to use later when I returned to the studio.   Now, everything was ready to begin painting.

The first marks were brush strokes of aqua centrally placed on the panel, followed by knife strikes of moss colors framing the initial strokes.  During the first few hours, the panel was continually turned so that nothing became too established. Thick columns of paint in mottled hues of the beech trunks were added for geometry. To create continuity decisions were unsentimental and ruthless; completed areas were scraped away and repainted with glazes to add light and simplicity to the increasingly complex scene; marks that did not serve the whole design were removed regardless of their individual integrity.

At the end of the session, the result was a surprise and a sense of place was established. The rainbow that started the day so optimistically, however, was a false omen. Over the course of the next week, the painting looked fussy, and more specifically, it failed to capture the dramatic contrast of the transparent, rushing water against the solid, dark frame of trees. It’s interesting to note here the role memory played in strengthening the thesis of the picture. On the bank of the Route Burn, there was so much to see, hear, touch and smell that it was difficult to prioritize. But over the course of many days, the experience was refined by recollection.  Memory, like a sieve, let the less essential bits fall away and left the most promising chunks for consideration.

 

Now, more confident of the subject, I drew with a blade the contours of clouds and mountains, scraped out the shape of stony shores, and brushed in a frame of gesturing, dark trees. The central swath of aqua, however, was too stiff, and the overall surface was too coarse. So, in the end I resurfaced the entire panel. On the newly white surface I began again, referring to the color notes, to memories of the place and to previous versions for direction.  Weeks later a convincing version of the Route Burn seen through trees finally emerged.

Now, to get at a definition of creativity, let’s look at the process of making that painting step by step. First, I defined my project by asking a question, “How can I best represent the awesome phenomenon of the Route Burn as it rolls through a beech forest?”  Second, I researched my question by taking a walk, and collecting the colors and motifs of the day. Third, I produced the painting by isolating the variables, which in this case were specific colors and textures, and then I combined these variables (many, many times!) to find the permutation that best answered my original question. Finally, I presented in a blog format the finished painting to you.

So, my process is divided into four segments, Definition, Research, Experimentation and Presentation. But these four elements on their own do not necessarily define a creative project. They could, for example, define the process of forging a painting by Rembrandt.  Projects that pursue a known outcome are an exercise in copying. The truly defining element of the creative process is to use these four steps in the pursuit of an unknown outcome.  Since unknown outcomes include the possibility of total, humiliating failure, the creative act also requires risk taking.

To recap, the creative process has four elements, Definition, Research, Experimentation, and Presentation, which are used to pursue of an unknown outcome. The pursuit of an unknown outcome requires the courage (or heedlessness) to risk failure.

It’s useful to have a definition for creativity, since it makes the process less mysterious. I’ve heard it said that creativity is a gift of nature that cannot be taught. To some degree this is true, just as it is true to say that some people are gifted at tennis. But everyone can learn tennis, even though not all will be pros, just as everyone can learn creative problem solving, even though not all will be famous innovators.

Learning to be creative is, itself, an act of self-discovery.  To ask great questions and to take the risks to answer these questions, one must introduce one’s rational self to one’s passionate self so that they can work together. Passion is a very useful motivator if it is directed toward a goal, but without direction it can be an engine of self-destruction. So, to take the necessary risks and to survive them, a creative person must learn to recognize and channel the passions, like aggression, love, jealousy, fear, and hope and then integrate these emotions with the intellectual self to become a problem solver with the passion to pursue a complex problem and the emotional maturity to endure failure.

The emotional component of creativity is sometimes ignored, at least on campus. Waiting for a faculty meeting to begin, I started a conversation about creativity with a member of the Chemistry Department and I asked him about the emotional component of high-end, scientific research. He lit up and blurted across the table, “Science is so emotional and no one talks about it!” He went on to list emotions that are more familiar as narrative devices for soap opera than science. Scientists, however, are not the only group of creative people who sometimes fail to acknowledge the integration of reason and emotion that defines creativity. Students in my beginning drawing class routinely complain that my class is not “free” enough. They come with the prejudice that art making is a shapeless, emotional indulgence, free of the constraints of reason. I try to sober them up as quickly as I can and teach them to use their feelings to fuel their intellects, and to become self-aware in the process. One of the most interesting and critical challenges for future educators will be to establish a curriculum that develops emotional sophistication as well as intellectual agility in students.

Globalism is one of the great challenges of this era, and educators need to consider how best to prepare students for this dynamic shift. As a culture, America has been innovative, but the next century is going to depend on ingenuity more than ever given that outsourcing has taken manufacturing, service and management jobs to other regions of the globe. And it won’t be enough to be creatively competitive in the new Global Culture. This new culture will be so diverse, so full of competing habits and priorities, that truly successful global citizens will need an unusually large dose of self-awareness to navigate and shape this ethically complex terrain.

Becoming creatively confident is key to shaping a successful modern life.  When you think of the big successes in your life, were your goals well defined or did they shift and evolve along the way? Was your process always clear or was it messy and require you to react quickly and improvise?  Were the results a sure bet, or were you relying on your wits from moment to moment to avoid failure?  I suspect the later and if I’m right in that assumption then you will agree that creativity is an essential component of success.  And if the goal of education is to prepare students to be successful in life, than educators should include creativity, along with more traditional objectives, like critical reasoning and quantitative skills, in the core of the modern curriculum. In this light, learning to make a painting in the woods is not simply a pleasant extracurricular activity; it is, instead, preparation to be a modern competitor.

 

 

Edge

I hiked up the Routeburn Track, one of the “Great Walks”, to end my sojourn in New Zealand. My goal was to reach the Harris Saddle, the edge at which the rise of one mountain chain falls into the valley of the next.  Walks don’t need destinations. Really, it is just fine to meander. But I most often walk the land as if it is a dramatic narrative with exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution. It’s funny to recognize how, unconsciously, I use the structure of fiction to add pattern to my life.

The mountains of the Southern Alps are young, geologically, and hence, unusually steep and high. Unlike most landscapes that roll out into the distance on a horizontal plane, this place rises vertically like a book held up for reading. And on these giant pages, the edges of many things give the scene dimension.

For example, sheep, which roam across the farmland at the base of the Routeburn Track, line up single file to define the curve of a hill.

Or, as a flock, flow over the landscape to define its swell and fall.

Similarly, the shadows of clouds make lines across the mountains and give dimension to the subtle folds…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Water streams down hillsides, sketching the contours of each rocky face. These lines, made by sheep and clouds and waterfalls, are so common and so easily read on this vertical landscape, that “edge” is, perhaps, the motif that makes this place unique.  Now, with exposition established I set off up the Routeburn Track.

The track began in a liminal zone between reality and fantasy. It was sunrise, so the forest was dark, cool and wet. Much of the forest was padded with thick tufts of moss. The trees sported burls whose abstract forms were as pregnant with associations as an hour on Freud’s couch.

The forest is composed predominately of beech trees, an evergreen that lives up to 300 years, grows to giant proportions and has a very small leaf. The canopy as a result, is high and lacy.

The Route Burn, the glacial stream for which the track is named, is heard before it is seen. Laughing and crashing like a pre-teen on a field trip, it squeezes through a narrow gap in the mountains, spilling over rocks and spiraling into turquoise pools.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The walls of the track are so steep that even the grass cascades.

After an hour of walking up the gorge, I came to the Routeburn flat, an expanse of meadow in which the stream slows down and meanders through shoals of stone pulverized by the glaciers above. Usually, flat ground does not elicit a response, but here, since it’s in short supply and contrasted to the steep mountains, it’s special again. The flats are a place of welcome repose, like a well-made bed after a rocky day at work.

The eyes learn from what the skin has touched, so as I continued to climb to the Harris Saddle, I began to feel what I was seeing. I reached out to the horizon and dragged my index finger along the rough edges of the mountains.

My palm cupped the tops of bushes to register the texture and to collect a little scent from the oil of the leaves.

My torso spread over the ground, filling every fold – two bodies, fused and moving.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I passed the Routeburn Falls…

and entered the Valley of the Trolls, as it’s known locally,

where I got down on hands and knees to admire the tiny plants that cover the ground in this sub-alpine region.

The edelweiss is hard to the touch and sparkly as if cast from sugar.

I was surprised to come across Lake Harris hanging in the clouds.

Actually, “gobsmacked”, which sounds like a hit on the face with a large, wet sea sponge, is a better word to describe the open-mouthed-dumb-struck-awe of the moment.

Soon I reached the Harris Saddle from which I could look down into the Hollyford Valley and across to the Darren Mountains. I was pleased to have completed the climb, but I couldn’t resist taking a side trail up to the Conical Hill. So, I mustered a little more strength and headed up toward the climax of the walk.

As soon as I reached the top, I sat down.

The repeated V’s of the crisscrossing slopes of the Hollyford Valley retreated into deep space and dissolved into the Tasman Sea.

Mt. Xenicus held court in the clouds that were rushing up…

from Lake Harris below. I felt great, elated, like an explorer finding new land. It was, of course, a fantasy to think that I had reached the edge of the civilized world; thousands of people visit this well-maintained track every year; huts with sleeping and cooking facilities dot the trail and helicopters are poised to rescue hikers in distress. So clearly, I was still firmly enmeshed in a familiar human network. Nevertheless, the windy, cold top of the Conical Hill was an exhilarating and a satisfying climax to the narrative of the hike. But why? Why should the sensation of escape and isolation on an uninhabitable crown be so wonderful? I could say that this was a moment of existential realization in which I felt my individuality in sharp relief. Perhaps this moment was a celebration of personal freedom and of the power I have to shape my destiny in an indifferent world. But this epiphany seems a little too 20th century. Or, I could go with a theory put forward by evolutionary anthropologists and claim that I was experiencing the deep genetic pleasure of occupying a citadel. High ground gave our hunting and gathering ancestors an advantage, since they could scout game and see hostile forces approaching. The tendency to seek high ground became institutionalized in our bodies as a genetic predisposition to experience pleasure when seeing a vista.  This makes sense, but it is speculation. Maybe the best answer as to why I felt intense delight standing on the Conical Hill cannot be found in theory. Maybe the best answer can be found in identification with my departed dog, Sneaky. When we walked together, I made a slow, relatively straight line, while she made great circles around me, an electron to my nucleus. She never ran off, but always circled inward to check with me before darting off, once again, into orbit. She had the urge to explore and to use her senses to know her territory, all the while maintaining a tether to me, her companion and her security. With our tracks we both drew on the land describing its volume, me plodding along a rising and falling line and she scribbling across the page like a kid learning cursive. Maybe the pleasure I felt on the top of Conical Hill was simply the result of fully engaging my senses like a dog on a walk. As I turned to leave on this my last New Zealand adventure, I noticed that, also like Sneaky, I had a stretchy tether and it was attached to family, and friends, and a career. And at the first step down the mountain, I felt it tug, at once constraining and reassuring, pulling me home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Double Barrel Falls

There should be a roundup of the inventors who have created seemingly insignificant and innocent things, like stickers on fruit, whose impact is actually substantial and evil. How many productive hours worldwide have been wasted picking at stickers on fruit? How much cultural damage has been done by turning every apple, orange, and banana into a press agent?

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To this list, I’d add the inventor of the faux waterfall, whose product brought trouble into an otherwise perfect day spent recently at Double Barrel Falls in Mt. Aspiring National Park. I heard Double Barrel Falls, before I saw it. Its water tumbles hundreds of feet through a nearly vertical cleft in the Humboldt Mountains to the flats, where its water flows into the Route Burn.

The grassy flats on the way to the falls would make an Impressionist grin. Tiny dots of strong colors, like lime green, stop-sign yellow and boudoir rose, combine to make gold, which complements the cool shades of the mountains and sky like a gilded frame on a Monet.

The beech forest at the edge of Double Barrel Creek was dense with boulders, pits, fallen trees and bushes. It was easier to walk the bank of the stream…

which had its hazards. One of the fun things about traveling is learning the details of survival in each new place. To cross Double Barrel Creek in bare feet, step only in the gray areas; they are made from smooth small stones with good traction. The ochre areas are sharp and uneven and covered with frictionless slime and you will fall.

The approach to the falls is lined with drowned trees…

which form gothic vignettes. But the scene at the base of the falls on this day was mostly a cheerful one and I unpacked my camera and my paints and started to study the place. The full height of the falls is not visible from the base, since the view is obscured by boulders, which line the vertical crack in the mountainside like teeth in a broken zipper.

Instead, the spectacle is composed of countless small cascades, each living a different relation between water and stone. In some meetings the water slaps the stone, and splashes in a quick escape. In others the rock squeezes the water until it picks up speed, scours the cavity and shoots a perfect arc. The rock in Double Barrel Falls is young with edges and points, so the graceful, fan shapes of the gushing water plays geisha to its ninja. Other marriages of drink and mountain are equable, and the water pours and dribbles into pebble-lined pools, whose perfect horizontality is a measure of calm in a landscape of hasty diagonals.

Seeing is not the only sense engaged by the endless ton of falling water. A little heat is pulled from the air by each cascade, creating micro-currents of cool air that are fresh and intimate on the skin.

And the sound, a constant roar and hiss, is both nothing and everything. Each note, like the fibers in a sheet of felt, are mashed into a noise so dense that it muffles every other sound – no bird, no airplane, no footstep, no voice. The world is erased and so is consciousness, which cannot find room in a brainpan so full of noise. It’s satisfying to be filled up, but also a little scary to be so overtaken.

My stomach, unmoved by my soaring thoughts, called for lunch.

After the break, I spread my paints and brushes out on a flat rock, and made gouache studies.

February 12, 2012: Double Barrel Falls, Mt. Aspiring National Park, New Zealand.

But I struggled as I was painting.  Not with the scene, but with guilt and shame. Here I was, working to make serious art about a cliché! Waterfalls are on the list of landscape platitudes, just behind rainbows and before autumn leaves. But why should I be in doubt? The experience of Double Barrel Falls was joyfully hedonistic and soulfully redemptive. How did something this wonderful become a subject of questionable taste? Ahh, it is the fault of the inventor of the faux waterfall – the troll who reduced this grand and lovely thing into kitsch. I’m making fun, but the dilemma is serious. How does one represent a meaningful experience like Double Barrel Falls, capture its fullness and extol its relevance in a culture that has reduced, packaged and sold the experience as cheap décor? Is it possible to reinstate the power of an image that has been overused and depleted by the market? In this ecologically challenging time, when for our own survival we need to be attached to the living world, it is questionable to laugh ironically at glitter rainbows and fiberglass waterfalls. To do so is to accept a diminished world. Disgust might be a more life-affirming response.

The next time you are at a real waterfall, go skinny-dipping. And the next time you see a faux waterfall, spit in it.

The Color of Time

At first I thought the color of Glenorchy and the Southern Alps was restrained.

The mountains are olive and celadon in the forested parts…

golden, where the  tussock grass grows…

and slate gray above the bush line.

The sky is most often a familiar cerulean…

and the water, full of minerals, reflects as emerald and bottle green.

The mountains encircle every space, each a bowl of cool light. The blue cast is lovely, but it pushes the palette of the place toward monochrome.  Blue, gray and ochre are the dominant hues. Leaf green and brown are next in the hierarchy.  Red, orange yellow, and purple are here, but in small amounts.

The cast of colors is somewhat restrained, but the opera is still a drama, and the narrative catalyst is time. Compare, for example, these two photographs of the Glenorchy lagoon in the morning and the late afternoon. In the morning, the colors are infused with yellow. Later, however, the warm hues drain away and the forms are filled with blue shadows and tipped with silver highlights.

The Glenorchy Lagoon in the morning.

The Glenrochy Lagoon in the afternoon

Pikirakatahi (Mt. Earnslaw) is outside my window, and over the course of days, the show of light and dark and shift from cool to warm is grand and slow like Wagner.

And sure enough as is the tradition in a stately performance, there is a little comedy…

which entered as a Toutouwai (New Zealand Robin), who was sure that the bright colors of the paint on my palette were edible. It sampled a little ochre, before it noticed the cracker I had provided.

A Change in the Relationship

I had a crush on Mt. Alfred. Viewed from the lagoon at the north end of Glenorchy, NZ, Mt. Alfred is a self-satisfied thing, its confidence rooted in geometry. The mountain is an isosceles triangle, the left slope equal to the right, and its base exactly twice its height. But the mountain is not stolid; the stability of Mt. Alfred’s shape is offset with the gesture of its edge, which rises and falls like the line of a conductor’s baton, nuanced on the upbeat and decisive on the down. Sometimes the mountain is a sober thing of olive green and deep purple, but then…

the wind picks up and moves a cloud to reveal a fringe of chartreuse willow at its foot. Mt. Alfred sits at the junction of two glacial rivers, the Rees and the Dart, which rush to Lake Wakatipu. The lagoon sits to the east of these speeding waterways and is filled by less hurried sources.

The lagoon is on the Glenorchy Walk, a trail that circles the town, and a small part of the massive system of NZ public walkways.  The marshy spots are spanned by a boardwalk, which not only keeps feet dry but also provides percussion, each footfall amplified by the hollow beneath the wooden slats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The lagoon is a good place to watch black swans with red beaks, and…

to feel the wind as it drags cow-hide patterns across the mountains. The wind in Glenorchy is a frequent companion. At night alone in bed, I hear loose things rub, drag and bang across the exterior of the house, sounding like animals, small and large, on nocturnal errands. The wind is such an assertive presence that I’ve been attempting to draw it.

January 14, 2012: Wind, Glenorchy NZ, 55°F

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the wind is up, I sit outside and trace it, looking for movement in the trees and dust and feeling its direction on my skin.  An improvisational process like this often makes for surprising results. In this case the drawing of the wind looks a little like a traditional Maori tattoo, which is a logical reference considering the location, but not one that was intended.

Maori male face tattoo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amused and impressed by the ability of the human brain to sort, wash and fold messy, inchoate bits of information into tidy parcels, I looked up from my drawing and saw Mt. Alfred, once again, in the distance. Infatuated as ever by its shape, its bold placement in the Y junction of two quick rivers and its admiring lagoon, I decided to get to know Mt. Alfred better and climb to the top.

At the base the Mt. Alfred trail was smooth and designed with switchbacks to temper the grade. It was a pleasant start.

The flora was varied in texture more than color.  The palette of the Glenorchy region is restrained, blue being the dominant shade gently contrasted with olive and ochre hues.

As I continued, the trail became rougher and steeper and I considered the wisdom of climbing alone.

I had hoped for an opening in the canopy and a stunning vista to reward my effort. But the view was always blocked; the snow-capped peaks and the impressive, gravel plane of the riverbed across from Mt. Alfred were barely visible through the trees.

The light in the forest changed from dappled to brooding. The trees were shorter and broken. The precipices at the edge of the trail became deeper and, with pounding heart, I began to think of a wrenched ankle, a shattered leg and a broken skull.  I also inventoried my belongings. “OK, I have a half bottle of water and a granola bar and I’m overweight, so if I fall helpless into a ravine, I won’t starve for a week. I can use my car keys as a saw. My passport won’t provide much insulation between me and the ground, but at least my body will be identifiable.” Ridiculous wimp, onward to the top!

January 14, 2012: Wind, Glenorchy NZ, 55°F

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The shapes in the forest got weirder and the abstract improvisations I made a few hours earlier seemed like realistic renderings of the place.

January 26, 2012: Wind, Glenorchy NZ, 69°F

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the trail became so vertical that I began to climb it like a ladder, I stopped. Defeated. I would not reach the top of Mt. Alfred today and expand my chest to take in the air or stand taller to see the vista or feel accomplished and invincible. Nope, the mountain was ready to swat me, but kind enough to let me know in advance.

So, with infatuation replaced by respect, I returned to Glenorchy and made a picture of Mt. Alfred with the lagoon at its feet and the wind at its crown.

January 24, 2012: Mt. Alfred, Glenorchy NZ, 72°F

Glenorchy, NZ

Glenorchy, New Zealand, where I’ll be for the next 8 weeks, sits on a lake that is 100 meters deeper than the surface of the sea and is fed by runoff from mountains named the Remarkables. The lake, Wakatipu, is shaped like a dog’s leg and Glenorchy is on the hip end at the north. If you zoom out to gain the perspective of a satellite,  you’ll see Chukotsky, the eastern most region of Russia to the north; the Ross ice shelf of Antarctica will be to your south; moving due east or west, you will cross Patagonia; and if you follow a true diagonal through the earth, you will bob up in the ocean a few miles off the coast of A Coruña, Spain.

Back at ground level, Glenorchy is a quiet town of 200 residents, whose main street supplies the basic needs of a modern life.

There’s good food at the Glenorchy Cafe…

clothing…

energy…

and emergency service.

Like the establishments that provide basic services, the cultural venues are similarly no frills, like the old town library.

There are a few sites of historical interest, like this monument to those who died in WW1. The poignancy of the memorial is not lost in the battle with necessary things like power lines and loo signs, but the clash of the extraordinary and the commonplace on Main Street makes for a small shock, like static electricity in a favorite blanket.

The source from which this settlement draws its life has always been the land. Since the nineteenth century, settlers came to raise sheep and pan for gold. The gold rush was short lived, but the sheep are still here. Now the town draws on the drama of the landscape for an income.  The story here is light, space and sky, all played out on the sides of mountains. It’s an old story, but still a good one. And as a friend said, “It is perhaps the best story, and we just keep struggling to tell it correctly.”