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Friday, December 13th, 2013

Memories, Dreams, Art & Friendship

Saturday, March 16th, 2013: Artists, Arts.

I feel both blessed and challenged that, as an artist, I move through life as if poised on a wave, with strange and beautiful dreams in front of me, drawing me forward, and rich memories, delightful or painful, at my back, informing everything I do.

The title of this post is a variation on Carl Jung’s “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” which my mother gave me to read as an adolescent. It was a touchstone of my youth, and I recently re-read it and reflected on the similarities and contrasts between his quest for a synthesis of art, life and history and my own.

Like Jung, I’ve been both inspired by and obsessed with dreams and memories, which since the late 19th century in our culture have been largely the subject matter of psychology and psychoanalysis. And, whereas I’ve always treasured my memories and dreams, both good and bad, as raw material for my art, I’ve also become aware that they’re much more problematic for some of my friends.

Art and artists come in many forms. Many people hold fast to the idea of pretty pictures for the wall, like you see in cafes and bistros. My mother, channeling my grandma, sometimes wonders why I don’t paint horses running on flowering hillsides. Some artists are overtly political; others think of themselves as “shamans” and make visionary work. In the ethnographic literature on traditional societies, the shaman or medicine man or woman was a misfit outsider living on the fringes of the community, a troubled soul the community turned to when beset by traumatic mysteries, someone who had little to do with routine sustenance – definitely not someone who made pretty pictures.

My own large, evolving community of artist friends has proved to be seriously dysfunctional. Many of them have been lost to me, some from suicide, some from a breakdown in health or fitness that they never learned to value and maintain, many from alcoholism or drug addiction as they struggled to self-medicate the conditions of their emotional or social dysfunctions, the inner flame that was also an inner demon. How I loved them and how I miss them!

Others have been lost to me when, rather than facing their demons in their work, they tried to tame them by joining cults or “recovery” programs which taught them to “photoshop” their memories and abandon everything which might remind them of their past, including old friends. Years ago, when “recovered memory” was a trendy topic in the new-age self-help community, I had a couple of artist friends who claimed to uncover lost memories of childhood abuse, which then became a defining element of their new personas.

Some friends became exquisitely brittle, so hyper-sensitive that a single conversation, or a single taboo word, could cut them off from me forever as they struggled to defend their precarious emotional balance. And I’ll admit that my own sensitivity, which, as an expressive artist, I treasure, can be a liability as I over-react to perceived threats and criticism.

Another troubled artist friend tried on and cast off new solutions and relationships like suits of clothes, rejecting and abandoning whole episodes of his past, including most of his identity as an artist.

When I speak of my dreams with peers in my own age group, I often encounter sarcasm, cynicism, or resignation. So many of us have been beaten down by stress, life’s constraints and setbacks, declining health and fitness – I know because it happened to me! I was beaten down by living in California, a place where I could never escape the affluence of others, my own relative poverty, the peer pressure to consume, the feeling that I was continually falling behind in the race of life, and the real, absolute limitations on what I could do in a place where health and sustenance – not to mention the arts – had become luxuries of the rich.

On several occasions, and at the prompting of artist friends, I had tried professional therapy or counseling, but I could never find – or perhaps afford – a professional who even remotely understood my issues and feelings. The last couple of counselors I tried concluded that my issues – situational depression, anxiety, loneliness – were minor and didn’t really justify treatment. Lucky me!

It was only when I moved to a sparsely populated place with a depressed economy that I was able to recover my memories, my dreams, and my art – and to gradually recover my health and fitness, after all those years of abuse in the rat race.

The loneliness is a different story. I still miss those artist friends who are lost to me, and I struggle to find kindred spirits, artists in good health despite their outsider status, who embrace the darkness as well as the light, who honor and learn from their memories while chasing their dreams.

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Summer Solstice Between Fires

Monday, June 24th, 2013: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Nature, Southwest New Mexico, Whitewater, Wildfire.

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With no plans for the day, I got up before dawn and climbed the slope of Boston Hill to deliver my sunrise prayer. Silhouetted against the glow of the eastern horizon, the smoke of the Silver Fire, burning its way through the ponderosa pine forest of the Black Range, trailed away toward the south. And the sun rose precisely behind the base of the smoke plume, setting the theme for this solstice.

This is our third year of apocalyptic wildfires. First, in 2011, the monstrous Wallow Fire, caused by careless campers, consumed most of the vast White Mountains forest in Arizona, one of my favorite nearby retreats, and the Horseshoe Fire, blamed on illegal immigrants, torched the Chiricahua Mountains forest southwest of here. Then in 2012 the Whitewater-Baldy fire, started by lightning, burned the 300,000 acre heart of the high Mogollon Mountains just north of us, and still, a year later, all trails in that area remain closed.

I had spent my first New Mexico summer solstice on Whitewater Creek, and last year’s maps had shown the fire burning down the steep canyon slope all the way to the creek and stopping there. I decided to venture into the closed area by taking the back way in, dropping into the middle of the canyon from a high ridge, to see how things really fared down there.

Picking my way down the steep trail over sharp, loose rocks, I noticed individual scorched junipers and pinyons on this, the north slope, but here most of the vegetation was intact, whereas far across the canyon on the opposite slope, large swaths of forest had been browned by the fire. The walls of Whitewater Canyon consist largely of cliffs, pinnacles, and talus slopes, but ponderosa forest can cling to surprisingly steep slopes, and I was glad to see about half the forest still green.

When I finally neared the treetops of the riparian canopy I could hear the creek down there roaring over rocks, and I saw that here and there, individual trees in the canyon bottom had burnt. The opposite slope was ash-covered and cleared of undergrowth, and charred or half-burnt logs and branches were scattered amidst the luxuriant creekside vegetation. Lower Whitewater Creek has always been full of small trout, but I didn’t see a fish anywhere, not even a minnow.

Finding a place to bathe and hang out in the shade is tricky here; long stretches of the creek are shallow and gravelly, and the fire had reduced coverage of the canopy. I worked my way upstream until I found a narrow spot between low, overhanging cliffs where there was a large flat rock next to a small pool fed by a tiny waterfall. It would be shaded till mid-afternoon when I would move upstream a few yards. June is our hottest month, and I didn’t plan to hike out until just before sunset, hoping to be in shade on the way up.

A more peaceful day would be hard to imagine. The only minor hardship was the gnats and flies which would swarm me any time I moved. As long as I sat or lay still, they would lose interest in me and gradually drift away. All day long, I bathed, snacked, drank purified water from the creek, read a book about African pygmies, watched birds in the canopy overhead and butterflies and dragonflies flitting above the creek, listening to the never-ending song of water on stone. Whereas in the past, there were always other hikers or equestrians in this popular canyon, the trail closures ensured that I was completely alone. Imagine going an entire day without any human sound, not even an airplane!

Sunlight waned and returned above as high, thin clouds formed and dispersed. Finally, after 7 pm, I packed up and started back. It was a hard slog, and I was torn between hurrying to reach the ridgetop by sunset, and taking it easier to enjoy the last golden light on the canyon walls. About a third of the way up, I saw the moon, almost full and bright as a new coin, rising from the head of the canyon.

Then, when I was far enough up to see the golden mesa fanning out below the mouth of the canyon, I also saw smoke spreading from another wildfire along the rugged horizon way over in Arizona, somewhere north of Clifton and Morenci. When I finally reached the top, I saw the sun setting into the smoke of this fire, so that burning forests both opened and closed this longest day.

I drove a narrow, twisting, and empty road down from the mountain under spectacular crimson clouds in a deepening blue sky, and the big moon shed a soft light on the hills and canyons around me as I found my long way back home in the night.

 

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The Cave

Sunday, July 14th, 2013: Places, Special Places.

Max & Katie keeping warm in their cave, December 1985

Third in a series about places that have become special to my friends and me, as we’ve ventured there together year after year to share good fellowship, and sometimes to witness the mysteries of creation.

Arrows in the Fog

It all began in the fall of 1981, on a drive back to CalArts from a weekend of cheap gambling and debauchery in Las Vegas. We were taking the scenic back roads, so that Mark could show me his new favorite camping spot in the desert. I had driven across the Mojave several times on the interstate, but my Midwestern eyes hadn’t really seen it – it looked empty to me, a big nothing of flat basins and distant mountains that just chewed up a few hours of a road trip.

We drove up a long, straight road toward an indistinct horizon between low hills, flanked by rugged mountains of bare rock, and at the top we entered a dense fog and the road turned to dirt and gravel under our tires. Both of us were surprised and puzzled to find fog in the desert. We couldn’t see off the road, and a short way down the other side of the pass Mark pulled off onto the shoulder.

Mark said that somewhere out there in the fog was his cave, but how could we find it and not get lost? We settled on arrows in the ground – we would set off with Mark in the lead, using a stick to scratch arrows in the hard-packed dirt, sand and gravel along our way. He led me on a winding course down gullies and up over low ridges and around the looming, ghostly edges of pale granite boulders and rounded, dark-green juniper trees, carefully avoiding grasping thorn bushes and branching cacti and their fallen stubby joints lying in wait like land mines waiting to pierce our shoes, and we could never see more than a few yards ahead of us through the fog. It was eerily silent until we came upon rivulets of clear water trickling down tiny gullies. We breathed tangy herbal fog. It was the most magical environment I’d ever entered. We found his cave – a low, deep cavity under a boulder. We followed our arrows back to the car. For weeks, I couldn’t get those images out of my mind, but I had no idea that this short walk in the fog would become the most important thing that ever happened to me.

Bohemians in Nature

Mark was finishing school at CalArts outside Los Angeles, and I was making art and music in a loft in San Francisco. The two of us became the nexus of a gradually expanding group of artist-campers, urban bohemians who escaped into nature. Mark and I worked sporadically as an art duo called the Didactyl Brothers, producing rude, irreverent music and installations. His desert cave was part of a rolling plateau of house-sized boulder piles at the foot of white granite cliffs, and on our cave camping trips, we started experimenting with large-scale tempera paintings on rock faces. We discovered that the water-based paint on exposed surfaces would completely weather away within a few months, leaving another blank canvas.

We’d park beside the dirt road and make two or three hikes to the cave with a cooler full of beer and ice, water jugs and food, camp stove and utensils, sleeping bags, guitars and folding chairs. His cave was small and low-ceilinged, only big enough for two people to sleep in. We’d wake up in the morning, make coffee on a propane stove outside the cave, carry our paints, water and beer to the rock face, mix the powdered tempera with water, and go crazy. At night, we’d grill steaks over a crackling fire of pungent juniper wood and warm up beans on the stove. The coyotes would start their eerie calls along the horizon, and we’d get wild and crazy and make up satirical songs and comic rants feeding off each other to higher and higher heights of crude genius, until we were literally rolling on the ground, laughing uncontrollably.

Wild Domestic

One of those early trips, in the spring of 1984, happened right after I’d broken up with a previous girlfriend and met a new one. Katie, a popular figure in the Los Angeles art scene, played bass in Mark’s band, and she’d heard about his cave and was curious. Soon she and I were out there scouting for our own cave. She was an experienced outdoorswoman and we were thorough. We found a larger, better rock shelter and started working to improve it. We drove the 90 miles to Twentynine Palms for thrift-shop tools and furnishings and occasional free showers in the town park. Shopping for our cave was fun, like being kids again, playing house!

There was a nasty pile of cholla cactus joints in one corner of the cave that we failed to recognize as a pack rat nest. We got the bright idea of burning it out. Pack rats create layers of compacted, urine-soaked, slow-burning waste, similar to a seam of coal. We ended up with a smoky, hard-to-get-at fire that burned for five days while we tried many ways of putting it out with increasing desperation. Early on, we drove the 90 miles to Twentynine Palms to buy a fire extinguisher, drove it back and used it all up in less than two minutes without any noticeable effect on the fire. In the end we laboriously dug out the fire and smothered it bit by bit with dirt. And turned our cave into a luxurious desert home with vaulted ceiling, sleeping alcove, living room/kitchen with indoor fireplace, storage closet, outdoor shower, and an elevated porch facing west to watch the sunset.

Katie showed me creative ways to camp in comfort. Permanent furnishings, which were stored in the “closet” when we departed, included straw mats for the floor, foam pads and a roll of carpet for our bed, tools, folding chairs, propane camp stove, and insulated ice chests full of cooking utensils, dinnerware and paper goods, matches, cooking oil, seasonings and candle lanterns for ambiance – the round, knobby, tinted glass ones used in older restaurants. In a desert thrift shop we found a beautiful vintage chrome breadbox to protect our bread, chips and crackers from the rats. On our arrival from the city, we hiked from the car to the cave carrying perishables and stuff that was too valuable to leave out there: water, ice, food, drinks, sleeping bags and musical instruments.

Then we settled in for an idyllic interlude of hiking and exploring, improvising and recording music, writing songs and poetry, drawing and painting – all by ourselves in a vast, ancient, and timeless landscape that felt welcoming and embracing, with its mild weather and its rounded, organic architecture of granite boulders and domelike junipers. A symphony of birds and insects surrounded us on hot summer days. I began to notice subtle ways in which the desert was making me healthier. My eyes, trained to focus at short range in the city, were learning to pick out details of mountains ten miles away. In the city, our lives were hectic and our minds were always racing; here, we learned to slow down and relax. One evening as I sat on the porch, a glass of whisky in my hand, watching the light fade above the jagged cliffs in the west, a great horned owl flew over my head from behind and landed on an opposite boulder to watch me in silence until darkness fell.

(Improvised by Max & Katie in their cave, 1985, and recorded by Max in 2010)

Katie shared my passion for the desert and together we pursued it farther. We wanted to know about the plants and animals, we wanted to know if Indians had lived out here and how? Putting down roots in this exotic piece of raw wilderness, actually becoming at home here, freed us to get to know it on levels inaccessible to ordinary campers and backpackers, who were always on a journey to somewhere else.

Shrooms and Science

By December 1985, Katie had moved into my San Francisco loft, and we planned a trip to the cave with our roommate Laurie, another artist. It was a ten-hour drive, and we arrived late to find the high desert, and the cave, blanketed with six inches of snow. But inside it was dry, and Laurie and I quickly warmed it up with a roaring fire as Katie ran around outside ripping dead branches off junipers and tossing them to us.

The next day we dosed on shrooms and hiked west through the snow out of our boulder garden toward a vacant cabin I’d discovered on an earlier trip. Approaching the cabin just as the shrooms were coming on, we suddenly realized there was a person sitting in front of it, watching us. Chris turned out to be a friendly biology student from the University of California; when he heard we were shrooming he wanted some.

That night he showed up unannounced at our cave – the first spontaneous visitor we’d ever had, making us feel like we were part of some sort of latter-day Flintstones neighborhood. Fortuitously, he was interested in Laurie, and became part of our group for the rest of our visit, informing us that the University had obtained land surrounding our area and was planning to establish an ecological preserve.

Back home, I contacted the University and learned they had just hired a director for the preserve, so on our next trip, Katie and I went over and introduced ourselves to Philippe and Cindy, who became two of my closest friends. Over the years, we would house-sit for them and I would work for Philippe here and on the Bay Area preserve he later managed, and get to know their son Ben from birth.

Images from the desert were beginning to dominate my art and music, and Katie and I began studying prehistoric native rock art throughout the Southwest deserts. Mark met a new girlfriend, Maureen, who later became his wife, and they moved from his old cave to a new, more ambitious rock shelter that had an elevated porch like ours. Another artist couple from Los Angeles developed their own cave a short distance away, so now we had three desert households and could visit each other back and forth.

We discovered a large, partly open rockshelter with a high vaulted ceiling that we dubbed the Party Cave, where we hung out on hot afternoons, creating an evolving gallery of paintings. With the advent of the preserve, our plateau had occasional visitors, including classes on field trips, but they almost always walked right past our caves, unaware, since we used a rake to erase our footprints when we left. Once, Mark and Maureen sat on their porch while an entire class filed past below them without looking up. Another time, Katie and I arrived from the city to find a paper plate inscribed “Nice place, have fun!” propped against our fireplace. Never did we find anything damaged or missing, despite the fact that we were only a half mile away from a road that was seeing more and more traffic, and was eventually paved.

Echoes of the Past

On one visit after particularly heavy rains, Katie and I discovered that deposits of pottery shards had been uncovered all over our area. We realized for the first time that we were part of a long tradition – Indians had camped here before us! Looking closer, we also found beautiful flakes of multi-colored agate from stone toolmaking, and Katie hit the jackpot: a perfect miniature “bird point” finely chipped from delicately mottled pink agate. But my favorite find on that trip was Snarling Head, the skull of a coyote with the desiccated nose and whiskers still attached, which was displayed in a place of honor back home, as Katie unleashed a new body of art work consisting of found objects from the desert – from bones to bushes to rusty cans – combined in ingenious, enigmatic formations and mounted on black foam core or rusty sheet metal.

For my part, I longed to engage more fully with this part of the desert, and with Philippe and Cindy’s new enterprise. Since childhood, I’d been a compulsive organizer, recruiting co-conspirators for secret clubs and events. My network of friends in Los Angeles and San Francisco had grown into an inspiring mix of artists and scientists, and we began collaborating on ambitious, intense weekend gatherings called Pow-Wows, in which we shared ideas, experiences and stories. The second and third Pow-Wows, in 1987 and 1991, were held at the cabin where we’d met Chris in December 1985, now part of the ecological preserve. These gatherings, which people called “life-changing,” enlightened us about everything from habitat restoration to aboriginal survival skills.

In the meantime, I had learned much more about the Chemehuevis, the nomadic Indians who had lived here, sometimes in semi-permanent villages. I had struck up a friendship with the only archaeologist currently working in the Mojave, and Katie and I had met the last living Chemehuevi basket-weaver, Mary Lou Brown. From the work of the legendary linguist and ethnographer Carobeth Laird, I learned that the last Chemehuevi shaman, known to whites as “Dusty,” had lived and died near our cave.

Beyond the Cave

Katie and I broke up in 1988, but I became even more obsessed with the desert and began looking for wilderness property, advised by Cindy and Philippe. Katie and her new boyfriend Gary continued to use, and improve, the cave that had been ours, while I explored the wider desert and eventually bought a big tract of mountain wilderness with the help of another desert-loving artist friend. Then, on the advice of my old mentor, my art teacher back in Indiana, I attended the “toughest survival school in the world” to learn the skills of the desert Indians.

In May 1992, chasing my dream, I moved to the desert for a year, living outdoors on my land and then on the ecological preserve not far from our old cave. By this time, the Mojave was truly the world to me! I was befriending and helping the scientists who were doing the cutting-edge research in wildlife biology, botany, geology, and archaeology. I was working with government agencies on habitat restoration and land use issues. I was absorbing the colorful histories of ghost towns, springs, canyons, mines and mountain ranges from crusty old desert rats. I’d experienced powerful visions and performed private rituals in my desert, and considered it my spiritual home, a sacred landscape. Once, while living on my land, I drove over to the caves to camp with Mark and Maureen. Maureen asked if I’d seen myself in a mirror lately and remarked that I looked dangerous and should probably get a haircut.

That year in the wilderness cost me the woman I loved, and I ended up back in the city, broke and homeless, with no viable livelihood. The desert had become a place of bittersweet memories, as I struggled to survive in the city. But I continued to venture out to my land once or twice a year, sleeping on the ground, watching the stars turn slowly overhead, wondering what my future would bring.

In June 1995, my friend Leslie, another artist, visited from Chicago, and we drove out and camped at the cave, which was still intact and comfortable after seven years. She had a vision while we were hiking in the nearby dunes; the desert affected her profoundly and she returned the following year for another dose.

In the late summer of 2001, unemployed after the dotcom crash, I joined Mark and Maureen and her brother Kevin at their cave, and Kevin made a miraculous, almost unbelievable discovery – a well-hidden shrine to Dusty, the last shaman. At that point our group had been using the caves continuously for 20 years.

In summer 2002 I lived in the cabin on the preserve as artist-in-residence, meeting more cool scientists. Returning a year later to house-sit for them, I hiked over to the caves and the shrine, and on my return watched an evolving sunset so beautiful it brought me to my knees, weeping.

In December 2005, twenty years after our snow & shrooms adventure, I visited the caves with Philippe and his son Ben and shared with them the mystery of Dusty’s shrine.

And finally, in April of this year, on my way to the Bay Area for work, I stopped and spent a relaxing afternoon at our old cave. Everything was there, but rats had gnawed through plastic storage bins and damaged some paper goods. Mark and Maureen likewise hadn’t been to their cave in years, but their stuff seemed to be in even better shape than ours.

Beginning with those arrows in the fog, the Mojave Desert seduced and captivated me, transforming every facet of my being, to the point where my life itself became a quest for a way to sustain myself in this ancient, mysterious and powerful land. I couldn’t find the right combination in the California desert; ultimately those arrows led me across the arid Southwest to my current home in New Mexico.

But the caves are waiting – for the next generation, or for future archaeologists. Years ago, Cindy recommended a book, Colin Fletcher’s The Man from the Cave, which poignantly describes his discovery of a furnished cave in another part of the Mojave, and his years-long search for its occupant. I may be able to save the next investigator some trouble…

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Windows

Friday, August 2nd, 2013: Indoor Life, Stories.

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Luna

In early childhood, I was one of those kids who rocked himself to sleep at night, sitting up in bed, staring at the window in the opposite wall. That was my first window. It was high above the earth, looking out across an overgrown field called the Vacant Lot that sloped down to the creek. At night, when the moon was bright outside, the top of my curtains formed a black shadow in the shape of a bat. I felt it was alive, a silent, motionless presence.

I had a small child’s desk below the window. One bright summer night, a pale winged creature like a tiny angel soared through my open window and landed on the desktop. Green, with a delicate forked tail, it rested there with its wings spread in the moonlight. In the morning, the luna moth was gone.

Time and Space

What is the history of windows? Many indigenous dwellings – the tipi, the wickiup, the African hut – lack them entirely. When they appear in cliff dwellings and pueblo apartments they’re small, set high in the walls, used primarily for light. Life was mostly lived outdoors; windows wasted precious heat in winter.

What about the relationship between windows and art? In Europe, early framed pictures were icons rather than scenes. When medieval illustrations first began to show landscapes, they were tightly framed like the small windows of the time. Windows in castles and forts were primarily small defensive openings, for scouting and firing on approaching raiders, although the fairy tale has Rapunzel using a tower window to beckon and admit her lover. But in the Romantic period, landscape paintings expanded to a grand scale which could never be encompassed by the view from a window.

The “picture window” and “view house” seem to be recent inventions associated with midcentury or “modern” architecture. Did those grand landscape paintings influence architecture, encouraging the American dream of becoming “lord of all I survey?”

Windows in urban tenements can be a primary social interface, opening onto bustling streets and steel fire escapes draped with laundry, or a symbol of frustration when they face a filthy, confining air shaft. The high, small, barred window of the prison cell has become a vivid image of European and American culture. A symbol of loss, isolation and helplessness, often too high to see out of, offering nothing but a tantalizing patch of sky and snatches of noise from the unreachable outside world, or worse, the terrifying approach of the lynch mob.

During my first year in San Francisco, a despondent office worker downtown famously jumped to his death from a high window in one of those monolithic glass skyscrapers, and he was quoted as shouting “We’re all just hostages from hell!” A friend borrowed that as a band name. But window suicide has a long history, acquiring legendary status during the stock market crash of 1929.

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Window on Fire

When I was eight, we moved to a small town where my second-story room had two very different windows. One looked south across the alley over the neighbor’s big side yard where we kids played football. The other was a double window over my bed looking west out onto the shallow slope of our porch roof and the Pennsylvania Railroad track that sliced through our front yard.

In warm weather, I woke to sunlight pouring through the south window, birdsong from near and far, and the cooing of a mourning dove on the telephone wire just outside, and I’ve always associated that window with the innocence and optimism of childhood, the joy of waking to a new day full of promise.

My room was larger and cooler than my younger brother’s, and I had a double bed, so on hot nights he would join me, and on the hottest nights, unable to sleep, we crawled out of the north window to sit on the porch roof in the dark, waiting for the night train to rumble slowly past on its way to the furniture factory a few blocks north.

A square fan had been placed in the open south window, and on those hot nights we kept it running. One night I woke up, coughing, to face a rectangle of flame and the room filling with black smoke. The south window had turned into a picture of hell. I ran to the head of the stairs and yelled down to my mom, then got my brother out of bed and headed down to safety. While my mom called the fire department, I pulled pots and pans out of the kitchen, filled them with water, and ran up to douse the flames, but the burning curtains had caught the wall on fire, the smoke was so thick I could hardly even see the fire, and I quickly gave up.

We were standing in the yard when the fire truck arrived; they raised a ladder to the window and put the fire out with a single powerful blast from their hose. They concluded that the fire was caused by a short in the fan’s electrical circuit. Most of the smoke had consisted of charred and vaporized plastic from the flammable fan housing; the resulting soot stuck to the surface of everything in the house, so everything had to be laboriously cleaned or discarded, and the walls repainted, and in the meantime we lived with our grandparents a block away. That night, we each took showers in their cement basement. I was blowing black soot out of my nose for days afterward.

My last memory of the windows of youth is from after my first year of college, when I was home for the summer. It’s afternoon and the backlit leaves of the big maple tree fill the view out the west windows just above my bed. My mom and brother are away and my girlfriend, still in high school, has lied to her father again and joined me for our first and only secret tumble in my childhood bed. She’s a freckled redhead and her skin is almost as pale as the white sheets. She rises and I can see her silhouette framed by those tree-filled windows.

Wizard of Lights

My dorm at the University of Chicago was a large old five-story, U-shaped brick building surrounding an unused tree-filled interior courtyard which was like a sanctuary. The building had previously housed an entire small academy, and more than half the building was vacant. I talked the janitor into letting me use an empty second-floor classroom overlooking the trees of the courtyard as a private art studio. One wall consisted of steel casement windows that opened outward; this may be where I fell in love with that style. I loved the ambience of working in the treetops.

Raging hormones and the continuing distance between my girlfriend and me left me helpless with desire much of the time. When frustration peaked late at night, I took buses and trains far uptown, past the Loop to the hundred-story John Hancock building, which was then the tallest building in the world outside New York City. Now, the 94th-floor observatory is a highly developed Vegas-style attraction, but then you just paid to ride the elevator and stepped out into a quiet, elegant, dimly lit space like an exclusive private club, in which the only attraction was the flickering nighttime city spread out below like a controlled burn.

The lake, to the east, was a void, but I spent most of my time sitting on the floor gazing west through the floor-to-ceiling plate glass at the dense converging grid of street lamps, immersed in my private fantasy of playing the city’s lights like an organ. My girlfriend had roped me into her Ayn Rand obsession and we were both at the height of our naive fascination with cities, architecture and engineering. I still felt like a helpless child, but being up there in the sky suggested that anything was possible.

Parakeets in Chicago

Finally my girlfriend graduated and joined me, again in secret violation of parental decree, and we shared a small, second-story apartment in an old brick building in downtown Hyde Park. Our kitchen window faced a window of an Italian restaurant called La Russo. It was only separated from us by a narrow alley, and we soon grew tired of watching and being watched by other diners, so we covered the window with tinfoil. We shared the one-bedroom apartment with another student, and we occupied the living room, which had a big sash window facing the busy downtown street and the larger high-rise apartment building opposite us – the only real “picture” window I’ve ever had.

At night we kept our lights off and watched the world outside. One upper window of the big apartment building across the street was always occupied by an old man writing at a desk, with a cat on his windowsill. We fantasized about this nighttime writer and made up stories about him.

The following year, we both transferred north to other schools, and found an apartment in a newer, mid-century high-rise near the lake, with steel casement windows. Our apartment was at the back, on the fourth floor, overlooking treetops with branches right outside our windows. During our first summer, we discovered a couple of parakeets living in an uneasy alliance with the flocks of English sparrows, following them around in their search for food. Somehow, learning from the sparrows, at least one of the parakeets was able to survive the brutal lakeside winters, and feral parakeets outside the window became one of the main attractions during our three years in that location.

We moved to California so I could go to graduate school, and the girlfriend dumped me for an older guy, a right-wing economist who supported her Ayn Rand fantasies. In the mild climate and lower-density suburban environment, I lived more of my life outdoors, and windows became much less important. My upper-story grad-school apartment had a sizable balcony with sliding glass doors, and for a year I actually slept outside on a folding cot – I was becoming more my dad’s son, fulfilling his dream of getting closer to nature.

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Objects of Admiration

After grad school there were a few short but intense and formative years – I was finally coming of age, and my post-ivory tower lifestyle was splitting into its two distinctive tracks: bohemian vs. nature boy. And I both found and created my dream home, the Terra Incognita loft in San Francisco, with its large, iconic windows facing different aspects of the filthy, dysfunctional, but vibrant South of Market ghetto.

Our front windows became the symbol of the loft. High above Fifth Street, a major artery by which commuters, shoppers and suppliers flowed off the Bay Bridge into the heart of downtown, our row of five tall arched casement windows, their wood frames painted blue against the white of the facade, were the old industrial building’s main decorative feature. The view was unimportant – the windows themselves were an object of admiration for the whole neighborhood – and they were our main social interface with the street below.

My young female artist roommates perched on the windowsill and smoked, gazing pensively off into the urban distance. When we were home, each of us came forward at odd intervals to catch revealing glimpses of our colorful neighbors in action. Olen, the gentle, friendly old owner of the dark, mysterious record store on the corner, with his bloodshot yellow eyeballs, offered to “take care of” parking tickets for us. We peered quizzically down from above as he was periodically visited by men in pale suits who removed small ice chests from the trunks of their Mercedes sedans and carried them into the store. Popeye, who lived in the large flophouse around the corner when he wasn’t MIA somewhere getting shock treatment, was a tall, trim and handsome man of indeterminate age with salt and pepper hair in a crew cut. He had a long, theatrical stride and occasionally crossed the street, stopping traffic, in flamboyant drag: now a general of the Confederacy, now a sailor in jaunty white cap and striped jersey. The small tenement next door housed an evolving population of more troubled souls. I happened to be at the window one morning when a psychotic young woman raced out the door into the busy street, stark naked and shrieking, pursued by her rescuer, a gentle man who clearly had his hands full.

The windows got me in trouble when I went over one night to check on a roommate who had run out into the winter rain. I saw him pacing and called to him, and when he didn’t respond I went down to retrieve him and ended up spending the night in jail.

It was also like the defensive windows of a castle; there were people we didn’t want, and we could check them out, negotiate or turn them away from our high vantage. Like the ex-cons from San Quentin staying at the halfway house in back, who showed up dazed and bloody with dubious stories, or the attractive female friend my suspicious new girlfriend drove away with shouted threats. I never saw her again.

But the windows were still our asset: in demand among fashion photographers as a backdrop, they were also a dramatic setting for our public music shows. And the ambient street noise they admitted was captured on my band’s recordings and became an integral part of some of our compositions.

State of Decay

My large, high-ceilinged room at the back of the loft had, in addition to an old-style pyramid skylight, a crumbling wall of rusting steel casement windows which I loved. They evoked the windows of my old college art studio, but in an advanced state of decay. Made of fogged, chicken-wire-reinforced glass, they faced south toward the elevated freeway which was only a block away. With gaps around the frames, they let in the freeway rumble at all hours, and the cold, wet air of winter. I replaced a broken pane with clear glass, and later I found five unglazed ceramic masks in the street that I glued to a row of windowpanes.

Out that window, I watched Dancy and his ex-cons sorting through his yard of trash down below. He operated a decrepit, nightmarish halfway house and salvage business behind our loft, and much of his jumbled industrial detritus was hard even to identify. One afternoon I was fortunate to be at home when I overheard the little Vietnamese boys who lived next door, and looked out to catch them setting fire to a mattress on the tar roof just below my window.

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Outside Looking In

I’ve never lived in a glass house or had a true picture window, but in the mid-80s, on leave from my San Francisco loft, my girlfriend and I spent a languorous, heavenly afternoon smoking good weed and listening to the sultry new Anglo-African star, Sade, while gazing out over the Los Angeles landscape from the glass wall of an architectural showpiece house on a hill in Silver Lake. So I know what it can be like.

The American modernist dream of the glass house paradoxically led to the “fishbowl” experience typified by the famous house at the end of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Designed to give the occupants endless views and the illusion of living in nature, the glass box sometimes resulted in a total loss of privacy and the reversal of the view from inside-out to outside-in. Indoor life became a diorama or shadow play, with the occupants on display for all the world to see. In the high-rise city, this is multiplied exponentially so the voyeur, like Jimmie Stewart in Rear Window, has a choice of domestic scenes to spy on, like a bank of televisions set to different channels.

Changing Views

Years of residential stability in the loft were ended by the Loma Prieta earthquake. I was briefly homeless, I briefly shared houses and apartments with friends and girlfriends, and I lived outdoors in the wilderness for a year. Sharing a friend’s decrepit Victorian in an Oakland crack-house neighborhood, I discovered that women enjoy being made love to while looking out a window, even if there’s no view. Years later, I was told something about the risk of exposure from a safe vantage point adds to the thrill.

From winter through spring I rented a garden cottage which was secluded behind a large house in Oakland. It was U-shaped, with windows facing a central courtyard like my college dorm, so that you could look from one wing of the house across into the other. One night in springtime when the orange trees were blooming, my girlfriend and I faced each other in opposite windows and theatrically stripped naked, then stalked each other through the house like hungry hunters, to clash in the central kitchen.

Later, I briefly shared a tiny studio apartment near Oakland’s Lake Merritt with the same girl. It was a rear unit and one of her windows looked out over the small parking lots of various buildings. One night in bed, we heard a female voice shouting. My girlfriend was closest to the window and jumped up to look out. As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we could see a girl backing away from a carport, where a tall guy advanced on her from the shadows. The girl was still yelling and now my girlfriend leaned out the window and yelled at the guy as well. She told me to call 911 and I started dialing. By that time there were more open windows and more people yelling, and the guy was backing off. My girlfriend had been the first to respond and I was both impressed and proud of her, and it taught me the importance of quick action. Don’t stop to think!

Within a year, I was back in the crack house neighborhood. The windows in my room faced a large house which had been vacant for a while. One morning I was awakened by the sound of boots on wooden steps, and peeked out my bedside window to see a full-on SWAT team with dogs, converging from all directions. My roommate was illegally growing pot in the basement, but he had slept elsewhere that night. I totally freaked out, running to the kitchen to call his girlfriend’s number. I heard more noises outside, but nothing seemed connected to our house, so I returned to the window, to see the cops breaking into the house next door. Apparently they didn’t find anything!

Living in Los Angeles with another friend, I occupied his upstairs “tower” room, with wood casement windows on three sides. To the east, they overlooked the front roof and the street. I was working in my room one day when I heard rustling outside the window. I looked out to see two raccoons scuttling across the roof. When I shouted at them, one came over to the window and stood up to his full height, threatening me with claws and bared teeth. The roofline he was standing on was just below the windowsill, so he appeared taller than me and was taking full advantage of it!

The dotcom boom of the late 90s brought me back to the Bay Area, where I continued to suffer from dysfunctional neighbors, from drunks to pyromaniacs, but never again found a vibrant neighborhood or good window views. After the dotcom crash I spent a few months as artist in residence in a cabin in the Mojave desert, where my studio had a bank of wood-framed casement windows with the best view imaginable across a spectacular landscape. They opened upward and had to be left open in the heat of summer, but a strong gust of wind could be expected at any time, so I acquired the habit of always anchoring everything in the room with a heavy weight, as if I were onboard a ship.

Screens

My current home is as different as night and day from most of my urban lodgings. I socialize with my neighbors, they’re well-behaved, and we have big yards or gardens and plenty of privacy. My windows are steel casement – my favorite kind, with all the attendant problems of rust, poor seals, energy inefficiency, difficult cranks and hinges – but they all look out on nature: the lush vegetation in my yard. It’s not a “view house” – my downtown neighborhood lies at the bottom of a basin surrounded by hills, with all the houses nestling among tall trees – but the dense vegetation outside my windows transforms with the changing weather and seasons, and what I hear typically ranges from silence to the songs of birds and insects rather than traffic or screwed up people.

Watching my loved ones age, I’ve become aware of how one’s world often shrinks to a view from a window. My grandma died looking out a hospital window at the peaceful homes of a small-town residential neighborhood. My old art teacher recently moved from a cabin in the woods to a nursing home where his only experience of nature is the bird feeder outside his window, and even that is out of his reach. For almost twenty years at the end of his life, my nature-loving dad, crippled and unable to drive, shut himself in a house with all the blinds and curtains drawn, claiming that the sunlight hurt his eyes. But on a deeper level, he had fallen victim to paranoia, fearing everything from his neighbors to names and faces he only knew from TV: politicians, immigrants, ethnic minorities, foreigners. TV news was his only window on the world, and it continually reinforced his fears.

So much of our lives is now spent in transit, watching – or mostly ignoring – the world passing outside the windows of our cars, buses, trains, and planes. I always take window seats in airplanes, since I view air travel as a rare and unsustainable opportunity to see the earth from above, and it continues to amaze me that most others prefer the aisle and ignore the view. But even those people are focused on the windowlike frames of their laptops and tablets. The screens of our electronic devices are now our main windows on the world, and they’re shrinking – they’re even smaller than the defensive arrow slits of those old castles and forts.

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Insects of the Southwest

Sunday, August 18th, 2013: Animals, Nature.

Mantis on bear poop, Eighty Mountain, October 2011

When I was a little kid, I used to lie on the ground behind our house, watching ants and trying to figure out their business. I captured other insects and fed them to the black-and-yellow garden spider who had strung her huge web along the side of our house. The neighbor kid got an extravagant model rocket for his birthday, and we caught crickets for astronauts, launching them into the sky over the creek. And one night after I went to bed, a big, beautiful luna moth flew in my window on a moonbeam (see Windows).

I was intimate with insects throughout childhood. Lightning bugs added magic to summer evenings; woolly worms were plush and comical. Under every rock were sinuous centipedes and pillbugs that curled up into tiny balls when disturbed. Fat bumblebees sailed drunkenly through flower gardens. I was stung by wasps and bees, but I still found them captivating, and it bothers me that, considering all the pollinator photos I’ve included below, not a single one shows a bee.

We used crickets and grasshoppers as fishing bait, and in summer the neighborhood boys all had their prize fighting pinching bugs. My pets included tropical fish, frogs and salamanders, snapping turtles, lizards and snakes, and birds and bats with broken wings, and they all enjoyed various kinds of insect food. A man in the neighborhood raised bait in his oversize garage, under grow lights. I bought mealworms (beetle larvae) from him in wire-handled takeout boxes and stored them in the fridge at home.

My home in New Mexico is an insect crossroads. I run across lots of magical creatures on my hikes in the surrounding mountains, but some of the most astounding have shown up right in my yard – like the fantastic Automeris cecrops caterpillar shown below, which became the talk of my neighborhood as it spent several weeks browsing my front hedge.

Growing up in the rural midwest, I took lacewings for granted – they were among the bugs that gathered around lamps in the evening. A couple days ago, I glanced out a window and saw some tiny things hanging from a leaf and wondered what they were. Later, putting together this gallery, I found my photo of a lacewing and googled it. Lo and behold, those things I had seen hanging from the leaf were lacewing eggs!

In the gallery, you’ll find several pictures of my long-time favorite moth, the sphinx moth. I fell in love with them on my land in the Mojave desert, where they sometimes swarm in the desert willow trees in May, so much like hummingbirds, gorging on nectar.

Don’t be misled by my title; centipedes and tarantulas are not insects. And I haven’t tried to identify everything; please let me know if you recognize any of these or notice any errors!

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Ants

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Beetles

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Bugs

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Butterflies

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Caterpillars

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Centipedes

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Cicadas

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Flies

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Grasshoppers

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Katydids

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Lacewings

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Mantises

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Moths

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Mystery Insects

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Spiders

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Tarantulas

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Wasps

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