Field in Winter. Watercolor and Gouache on Paper, 18.5 in x 30 in, 2016.
“The first event leads you to notice further events which may be consequences of the first, or which may be entirely unconnected with it except that they take place in the same field.”(1)
And I ask—who is this guy?
The Ocean, lately, seems to haunt me. I was never one for beaches. Until I was an adult, they seldom were a part of my life, and by the time that they came within easy reach, I was past the age of acting exuberant without self-consciousness. And besides, the beaches of my world are not places for laying in the sun or for frolicking—unless you are a dog, anyway. The coast of the Northwest is not warm even when it is sunny. It is a place of wet suits, pea coats, of sand in your gray woolen socks. Yet the presence of the ocean—of the Pacific Ocean—is a salve, even if it is only because I can look out over the hills and know it is out there, its magnificence over the next rise, or the rise after that. That invisible but visible sea compensates, somehow, for the Hokusai-like tsunami of books that have thrown themselves up against the walls of my apartment, ever more menacingly.
Funny, though, that every painting I have made so far this semester is a landscape in my mind, and not a seascape.
But Berger is talking about fields—unbounded, “continental” fields that offer “defined edges, an accessible distance… an attendant openness to events, with a maximum possibility for entrances and exits.” (2)
Again, who is this man? And how did he get in my head? There’s not room for more than two in there without it creating a right mess.
If education is about credentialing, about the gameification of leveling up, or about training for the specialization of a narrow discipline, then I’ve done it all backwards. I’ve been mesmerized by the dog, the butterfly, the horses, the woodpecker. I’ve chased them, too, following pools of sunlight through the field rather than cutting straight across it, touching upon the common-law path only now and then. My choices do not fit easily in that self-directed “narrative” that I am “continually retelling and developing….” (3)
You relate the events which you have seen and are still seeing to the field. It is not only that the field frames them, it also contains them. The existence of the field is the pre-condition for their occurring in the way that they have done and for the way in which others are still occurring. All events exist as definable events by virtue of their relation to other events. You have defined the events you have seen primarily (but not necessarily exclusively) by relating them to the event of the field, which at the same time is literally and symbolically the ground of the events which are taking place within it. (4)
Who is this man?
And I recall Joan Didion writing of Sacramento. It was an earlier effort, something from the mid 1960s: “Notes from a Native Daughter.” And I recall, too, using it as a way of teaching students about that great river town. At least twice in the essay, without preamble or warning, Didion stopped and set, in italics, a block quote:
Q. In what way does the Holy Land resemble the Sacramento Valley?
A. In the type and diversity of its agricultural products. (5)
My students never “got” why she repeated this catechism.
Opening up the blessed Oxford English Dictionary online, I find the following:
II. Senses relating to training, instruction, or method.
4. a. Instruction or teaching intended to mould the mind and character and instill a sense of proper, orderly conduct and action; training to behave or act in a controlled and effective manner; mental, intellectual, moral, or spiritual training or exercise. Also applied to the effect of an experience or undertaking (as, study, adversity, etc.) considered as imparting such training. (7)
II. An area of operation or observation.
12. a. An area or sphere of action, enquiry, or interest; a (wider or narrower) range of opportunities, or of objects, for activity or consideration; a theme, a subject. Freq. with of. (6)
A wider or narrower range of opportunities. A catechism.
John Berger—who is this man?—had an ideal field in mind, and set out to delineate it. He prescribed grass—a field is wild after all—and a slightly sloped position on a hill. This field would not be “hedged in” on all sides, for entry and escape are always possible.
Berger was talking metaphorically of course, yet there’s also a phenomenological aspect to “Field,” his 1971 essay. The symbolic and the real are collapsed, telescoped into each other—after all, his book it titled “About Looking”—surely a play on the idiom “looking about.” Just as events make sense only in the context of other events (and the “event of the field,”) so too the conceptual is intertwined with the tactile, with the field “seen” best by the braille of walking through it and touching the tops of the grass.
Yet Berger also offers one proscription on the ideal field. “Not a field in winter,” he cautioned. “Winter is a season of inaction when the range of what is likely to happen is reduced.”(8)
But in the Phoebe Hearst Anthropology Museum stand two carved wooden statues that testify against this. Hewn from great cedar logs, these are ceremonial sculptures, meant to adorn the interior of a great chieftain’s house among a British Columbia native tribe. Their journey to Berkeley is long and convoluted, but one of the things that is most compelling about these statues is that they, being made from wood, have never died. Sure they were severed from their roots long ago, cut out of the forest to be converted into these great looming figures, but even such displaced wood continues to breathe, to shrink and expand with the weather, to age. They show a great deal of the latter. The paint that human hands once consecrated against their carved features is now but a whisper—and a subject of great speculation and investigation by art conservators.
Each figure featured heavy painted eyebrows; those on the female figure were noticeably rounder. Beneath each eyebrow, the carved socket was decorated with stippling in red pigment. The black outline of each eyelid framed a circular white iris, and black ovoid pupils were set within. On either side of the pupil, the eyes were filled in with red. (9)
Red—black and white and red, but with red the most dominant color, not because it was used the most, but because “although red is the first colour to be suppressed or ‘turned off’ as light levels fall, by virtue of the optical qualities of local illuminants it is also the easiest to activate or ‘turn on’.” (10)
The people who made these sculptures have a bone to pick with John Berger. These sculptures were made for the winter, and their winter was “conceptualized as a sacred time associated with the supernatural and its reenactment in song and performance.”(11) Summer fields like those Berger considered ideal are the place and time for gathering food, for work, for toil, for matters that while important are also earthly. It is in winter—with the seed heads of the grasses turned to bitter red, the hills to black, the sky white—when the known and unknown spirits took to the field. “The range of what is likely to happen”(12) does not decline in winter. The stretched shadows, the earlier twilight, and the longer nights are nothing if not opportunities for magical change.