Field Trips

There are two kinds of field trips. I went on the first kind today: a hike along the big basalt cliffs above the Columbia River, about 50 miles east of here as the raven flies. This place is deep in the rain shadow and already knows the heat of summer. The sagebrush leaves are velvety and fragrant, but the green grass of spring is drying. The yellow balsamroots drop their petals. Boots kick up dust. Brushing by a thorny shrub, my leg stirs a rattlesnake into a buzz. It is buried so deep in the shade that we can hardly see it, but we glimpse its striped snout and flicking tongue. Time for us to continue our walk. A prairie falcon sails out over the river, its cries insisting that we are passing too close to its eyrie. Hunkering in a patch of shade, we watch dusty tan bighorn sheep make their way along the cliffs. Some of them are new lambs, and I swear they gambol behind their mothers. Sweat trickles down my spine as I hold still. And all day swallows circle and chirp in the blue blue sky above.

That is an outside Field Trip.

There is also the inside Field Trip. My friend Jude Spacks came up with this practice, and it agrees with my inclinations. You can read about Jude’s work here. In my humble opinion, she’s brilliant. I am drawn to all things metaphorical, and this fits perfectly. Jude starts with this bit of poetry by Rumi:

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,
There is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.

(Coleman Barks translation)

The Field is the starting place for the experiences that cannot be expressed in spoken and written language. I’ve long understood that one reason I paint is because talking is inadequate for what I want to express. I have an ongoing series of visual Field Trips. With watercolor, they start as fluid washes. My intention is usually to limit the color scheme to some specific impression from the natural world. It’s important that there be movement, and I turn the paper to paint in all directions until it’s clear to me which way is up. Sometimes this never comes clear, and that’s OK. It’s about the process, and I feel lucky when one turns into a finished piece. The Field Trip shown here came from sitting next to a mountain stream in May, and deliberately letting go of feelings that needed to travel downstream and away. But you can see whatever you want in it.

Both kinds of Field Trips are about exploration and discovery. The thing is to enter the Field and stay as long as possible. The world really is too full to talk about, even though I try. This is the writer’s paradox–to use words to describe life and connections and the vastness of it all. When this is too frustrating, I fall back on shapes and color.

I dare you to try it. Take a Field Trip, inside or outside. Or both. Don’t be so literal. See what you find.

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