Marriage to the Land
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
Part 3 of 3: The Active Art of Love
I likely say both “I love you” to both wife and land a dozen times a day. My eyes play over every change of clothes or leaves, river swell or new dress, and I comment again and again on the smile that delights me, the smells of river and woman that arouse. I draw pictures and write essays full of praise to acknowledge and even immortalize. Drawings of blue eyes and flowing hair, of canyon bobcats and coursing river. Stories written of feminine wildness and this special wild place. Promises and endearments carved or painted and then left somewhere for a certain someone to find.
Marriage, after all, is not only a commitment to another’s well being but to romance as well. It is incumbent on the spouse to tend not only the body of the beloved but the heart, honoring the other’s unique qualities and complimenting their beauty. “Settling down” with someone is about settling into patterns of attentiveness and care, affirmation and celebration…. not settling for less. Similarly we husband the land not so much by tilling as by extolling. A paramour might leave flowers in the path of the returning beloved, faithfully kiss her mate’s eyes open each morning, or sing his praises with a mad passion. The lover of a place bows to every new bloom, presses lips to tree bark, honors the setting of sun with a whirling dance, honors root and flight with bared toes on bare ground and the borrowed melodies of the meadow lark. Such careful attention and creative expression is nothing less than art…. and this constant blooming, the art of marriage. The goal is not only to make the relationship work, but to make it beautiful as well. Not only meeting the needs of the other, but delighting them with our means of doing so. In our marriage to the land, the care we gift it includes our attentiveness, passion, protection, and the artful celebration of what is surely our shared being.
In relationships as in paintings, the art is in the acknowledgment and glorification of the other’s inner essence. The artist or mate draws out not only the actual appearance of the beloved but also their feel, their spirit, their beauty that preceded the maturing of the features and will long outlive the perfect skin of youth, shining through a road map of facial wrinkles or mountain erosion to come. Not only the lines and color of a landscape but the character that breeds and defines its landed features, with the spirits of place honored in deft strokes by those loving the hush of compost and gray of winter as much as the brilliant greens and bursting songs of Spring growth. And it is just as true for our poetry, correspondence and diary entries, for craft and song and dance dedicated to the revealing of that inner power connecting us to the all. Take the ancient dances to the hunted animals for example, the chants to the rain gods, magical paintings on mats of bark and myths telling and retelling tribal truths over a council fire, the ways in which we court our chosen man or maiden — all are stories, and it is story that centers us in our beliefs, in our world, in the progression of past, present and future. They are the threads that stitch us back into our contract and our place, a portion of life’s crucial lessons handed down through the inheritance of craft more than genes. Since the very beginnings of what it means to be human we have venerated and exalted Spirit, the living land and our conjugal loves through that confluence of feeling and demonstration called art.
The ancient ones they call the Mimbres peoples created a black on white pottery style that is still held in high esteem by modern art experts and connoisseurs. Featuring fantastic images of wild animals and mythical entities, they inevitably evoke the Great Mystery. The fired clay fragments scattered throughout our refuge tell of a life of honoring, each one a picture-puzzle piece still vibrating with the intention of its designer and the accumulative energy of years of reverent touch. The first inhabitants of this canyon spoke their fealty for the land in rock art carved out of their collective and individual souls, lightning bolts and the seed-carrier Kokopelli painted on the insides of caves. Here too are the forms of the artists’ fingers and palm, their signatures, the marks of their selves, in graphic hands reaching out to their descendants across the chasm of time. They left enduring images of their priorities and loves, deities and dreams. They left their holiest expressions of wonder and communion, the evidence of a marriage with place consecrated in timeless artistic expression.
And of course there was beauty before there was ever an informed audience, in the way the setting sun sparkles on the cottonwood leaves, in the explosive and the sublime, the sensuous inner curves of the datura blossom and the upthrusting lava that first helped form these canyon cliffs. In a wooden cholla cactus skeleton seemingly braced against both wind and sky. In the way the morning mist clings to the mountains, and how the willows sway back and forth in the wind. In the purslane stems forming a crimson star burst on the ground, and the juxtaposition of branches on ponderosa pines stout and tall. In the orange feathers of clown flickers, and the purple undersides of lamb’s quarters after they go to seed in the Fall. It is little different today save for our rapt attention and silent applause. Resident and guest alike are touched to the degree that they are open and aware…. with each glinting rock, each flex of river muscle food for the observant eye, inspiration to the feeling heart, and food for the hungry soul.
Art is a matter not only of form but of deliberate expression. Even a child’s crayon scribbles are art when they contribute to her sense of self, satisfy her inner muse, or are made to express an idea or feeling to her mama or papa. This canyon’s river ripples and Zen-like displays of white fuzzy seeds are beautiful even without an audience, and have no need for our appreciation or approval. But with no conscious intention of their own to impart, it is only as photographs in this book that they truly become art.
Art is conscious expression. Therefore there is art in the sensuous ways a wife might move when in the presence of her lover. Art in a mother’s calligraphy, in the extra swirls and embellishments that make her cards and envelopes stand out. Art in carefully arranged wildflowers, in the way a little girl mixes, matches and layers her clothing. In the balanced way we lay out the colorful foods on our plate, and on the walls that we decorate. Art can be not only what we witness or create, but the very how and why of our lives. How we dress or carry ourselves. How we eat and think, and move when there’s no one around to watch us. How meaningfully and expressively we speak to each other, and how well we listen. The music we like, and the rhythms of our own day to day existence. In the vernacular of the artist, attention to the forms our being and doing take is called “style,” though its not nearly so proscribed or restrained as that makes it sound. Another way to look at an artful life and marriage is as a condition and practice of “grace,” sometimes defined as “seemingly effortless beauty or charm of movement,” “an excellence bestowed” or “a prayer of thanksgiving.” It is to walk, as the Hopi say, “in beauty”… and to walk in gratitude, forever, together.
My decades in this canyon have taught me that whole relationship – whether with a spouse or our mated place – is founded on trust, deepened by respect, furthered by communication, bound fast through commitment and loyalty, blessed with surrender and sacrifice, lived and expressed in the most wonderful and artful ways. It is love both given and received, and not only beautiful but seen. In this marriage to the land I say, “let nothing come between.”
(photos (c)2009 by Jesse Wolf Hardin)