Meaningful Chances

by gannonned

Not long ago, I posted about a series of black and white drawings and my motivations for making them. Through a series of experiments, those drawings ultimately led to some of the drawings below. I wanted to continue the black and white work of the TINAW drawings, but I wanted also to bring something specific to them. Soap, oil and water were used with specific relevance in mind. First, I have posted some thoughts that led to the drawings of animals affected by the Gulf Spill. At the bottom is a slide show. I performed the experiments in a sketchbook given to me by my friend Toby. I had saved it for something special for years, and I finally settled on simply using it to take some, hopefully, meaningful chances. Next are the drawings of animals affected by the spill. Finally, the finished drawings are posted that, as a group, I call No Horizons – both because they are some of the few works I have done without supporting environments but also because they question the future of fragile species.

All images and text, Copyright 2012.


By N. Gannon

“The human imagination… has great difficulty in living strictly within the confines of a materialist practice or philosophy. It dreams, like a dog in its basket, of hares in the open.”
– John Berger

As the BP oil disaster unfolded and I grew more and more frustrated, I pestered most of the people I knew. Printed fliers appeared in the hallways where I work—an ink drawing I created of a Brown Pelican smeared over with black oil paint. Below read the words “Thanks BP”. I posted sad updates of crippled wildlife to my Facebook page and made dramatic pronouncements on a friend’s blog. One of my friends commented that he believed it was a time to look inward and consider his own part in all of the mess. After all, he argued, we all drive.

So true.

In the 2010 Communication Arts Design Annual, several designs executed for Nike present the idea of using “sport” rather than fossil fuels. The fact that most people drive to the gym and thousands of families drive their children miles upon miles to “sport” activities did not deter the athletic mega-corporation from joining in the battle cry for a better ecology. It seems there is no shortage of voices when it comes to supporting the environmental movement.

So who was I to be decrying BP?

Not to be outdone, I pledged to myself and my friends to walk or ride my bike at least forty-five days of the academic year. This would at least assuage my conscience. After all, if the BP mess, along with books like Being Caribou, couldn’t motivate me to do something, then nothing probably would.

What I learned from riding my bike and walking consistently (I had been an occasional bike rider before) was nothing new. And yet it was a kind of freedom. I learned to cross borders.

Modes of thinking and behavior are not necessarily harmful. Humans are creatures of habit. But these modes are limiting. Modern biology is grappling with the significance of biodiversity, but perhaps we are losing a diversity of thought as well.

A good example of the loss of creative diversity occurred in one of my painting classes where I offer a project involving the idea of a window. Students are to interpret the idea widely in terms of a framework for something, an opening, or an obstruction. Two students, inclined to realism, searched for the word “window” on the internet using Google. They produced two paintings from the same image resource when their own living quarters would likely have provided vastly different windows from which they might have drawn their experience. This may sound like a warning against the use of stock photography, but it relates to a very real problem—being stuck in a particular mode of doing things.

When I drive my car somewhere, my state of mind is occupied with thoughts on how long it will take me to get where I am going, on what is on the radio, on the flow of traffic, on the lights, on the intersections, on what I need to do when I arrive.

When I ride my bike some of the previous concerns remain. I need to be sensitive to traffic patterns, and I may still dwell on work ahead. But I am aware of the temperature, the time of day, the rise and fall of the landscape, the light, the moisture, and a more real sense of the distance from one place to the next. I also check the weather more frequently.

When I walk, I have too much time between where I begin and where I am headed to be preoccupied with what I will do when I get there. I am intimately aware of my origin’s relationship to my destination. My mind wanders. It is freed, for the most part, of traffic patterns, red lights, and turn lanes. I am freed from a definite path. As Rebecca Solnit states in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, “Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors…disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.”

I composed this essay walking to work. Throughout the seasons, I also spied two foxes, ducks swimming or flying south in formation or nesting in the front yard of a student housing building, an untold number of rabbits darting away or sometimes staring at me from one side of their head. I saw the end of starry nights, and sunrises. I became a squirrel watcher, watching their peculiar interactions. Are they quarreling or collaborating on some project? Hoards of squirrels came out to feed on the fractured remains of Halloween pumpkins. I glimpsed eagles above the river and one spectacular battle between a crow and a gull over some food discarded by a student. In both a literal and figurative sense, I was put in my place.

I should be clear that I am under no delusions that my short jaunts to work will offset the massive damage done to the environment by accidents like the Gulf Spill. I walk because I can think. I walk because I do not carry a portable communication device and the time affords me contemplation. I walk because it gives me a sense of place. I walk because when I do I cross borders. I walk, perhaps finally, because it demonstrates that, in some minor way, I still can still exert my will over my circumstances. However, all of this can sound quaint to a skeptic.

In a book entitled, Being Caribou, Karsten Heuer briefly describes the Y2Y Conservation Initiative—an effort to connect Yellowstone and the Yukon through protected lands that would preserve corridors for migrating animals through the U.S. and Canada. In 2009, the Mexican government collaborated with the United States government to create the Rio Bravo del Norte National Monument a stretch of protected land that straddles the Texas, U.S. border with that of Mexico. These efforts demonstrate the power of shifting modes. And as talk of raising walls and fences along the Mexican or even Canadian borders grew after 9/11, a voice inside my head kept saying we are stuck in a mode of thinking. What is the price we pay? What is the price for my children? For their children?

John Berger says, “Emigration, forced or chosen, across national frontiers or from village to metropolis, is the quintessential experience of our time.” To recognize that traditional borders are failing us and dealing with the implications may be our task at hand, for ourselves and for our fellow inhabitants. And it may require other modes of thinking than those currently employed.

In his book Consilience E.O. Wilson argues for the value of biodiversity. With Wilson, I place my certainty in science. But unlike Wilson, I place my hope somewhere else. In his book, Justice for Hedgehogs, Ronald Dworkin raises the question of how to live a life filled with value that challenges the prevalence of skepticism as a moral and ethical position.

Barry Lopez once wrote, “I think that it is we simply do not understand our place in the universe and have not the courage to admit it.” We need to learn to use less and to be more. As Congressmen and women move to fix the economy and struggle to maintain America’s standard of living, we trade short term profit for long term consequences. Talk of the debt our children will inherit is frequently spoken to, but what other legacies will we leave behind? Will we bequest them a ravaged land, values rooted in narcissistic self-interest, and an ultimate faith in ideals no more lofty than faith in free trade? As T.S. Eliot so elegantly states, “…right action is freedom. From past and future also.”

Five hundred years ago, Copernicus challenged the existing powers, suggesting a heliocentric solar system. And even years later when Galileo argued the same idea, the powers resisted. Maybe we are stuck in a similar mode, believing that our concerns and temporary problems are the ultimate stake and skeptical that any real hope exists.

Now is the time for us to have the moral courage to understand our place in the universe and break down borders. Now is the time for us to wake up from our dreaming, get out of our cars, and chase our hares in the open.

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