Today’s blog post is written by Lauren Gallow, an independent writer and editor living in Seattle.
Arrived at the Henry by bus at 1:45 p.m. Bumped head on handrail when exiting bus. It was rainy and grey. Everything was horrible.
Walked in and it was confusing. What do I do? Where do I go? Finally got it straightened.
Grabbed clipboard, book, ledger, pencils, and stool. Instructed on how to proceed: enter the gallery, find an animal that speaks to you, sit, and speak back to it. Read from the book as though you were reading a bedtime story to your animal. Soothing it, calming it. Transcribe any sections of the book that feel meaningful or memorable.
“These joined processes of reading and transcribing are an address to the animals,” Ann Hamilton says of this aspect of her exhibition the common S E N S E. “These animals are represented in images and materially present in the cultural artifacts on display.”
I found my animal. A tan, white, and black quilt of feathers woven into a beautiful tapestry. But it wasn’t fabric, it was a scan of a bird’s plumage. A real bird. A dead bird. And yet in death, the most beautiful. It was the first image I spotted when I entered the gallery for the first time last Saturday. I remember wanting it, wanting to rip the newssheet off and fold it neatly into my folder. They said I could take only one animal image. I want that one.
The ripping. It was quiet, yet uncomfortable. Soft, yet violent. A noise to fill the empty silence, but a noise that emphasized taking, breaking, and folding it up into your folder. To take. Why? But I wanted it so badly. So I took one. And another. And then another. The stacks of photocopied newsprint seemed infinite, they would never run out. So I took them.
But today, I merely sat with my animal. I did not take him.
I settled my stool close, but not too close. I examined him. The newsprint was ripped in one section, the bottom right corner hanging loosely from the edge, dangling like a broken arm.
I opened my book. I chose my birthday as the starting date, because that seemed as good a day as any. Immediately, I got nervous. Self-conscious. Who would hear me read? What did I sound like? What if I messed up?
Finally, I convinced myself none of that mattered. I looked at my bird, his feathers the softest, downy brown with a spattering of black dots and dashes. I looked back at my book. I began.
“December 20: Mist cleared in the afternoon and widening rings of sunlight rippled out. A heron flew to a tree beside the brook. His legs reached down with a slow pedaling movement, like a man descending through the trap-door of a loft and feeling for a ladder with his feet.”
Immediately, I was launched to another time and place. These log books, accounts of days spent in the field looking for birds, bird watching… they were just like my mom’s. I have piles upon piles of old journals filled not with the juicy details of my mother’s inner thoughts, nor the daily accounts of people in her life (i.e. me). Instead, they are filled with birds.
“January 10, 2002. Woodland Lake still frozen over. Saw an eagle + great blue heron + belted kingfisher. Must be hard to fish when there’s no open water. The lake’s been frozen since mid-December. Sure do miss the ducks.”
“January 2, 2005. Drove from TX all the way to Bosque del Apache and got to see a few (thousand) birds before the sun went down. Tons of snow geese and sandhill cranes. It always takes my breath away to see the sky turn white with all the geese coming and going.”
Sometimes, every once in a while, there is an incredibly salacious entry: one including a drawing of a bird. Filled with color and the record of her hands, her touch. She spent time in these books, filling them up with her favorite birds. And what is immediately apparent in these journals is how much she loved these birds. The care she pays them in her drawings, the devotion that pours out of her words.
Sitting in the gallery at the Henry, holding this book about birds, looking straight at a bird, both of the birds dead and once, twice removed. Absence being the most present thing. In that moment, all I could feel was my mother. Here I was, surrounded by her in the biggest way, yet missing her in the other biggest way. I can’t touch her. Her physical body is gone. And yet I feel her. All the time.
How do I reconcile that? How is that possible? It defies everything I’ve ever thought about my physical reality and my relationship to it. Feeling doesn’t necessitate touch. I always thought, “I touch something, and then I feel it.” That was how it worked. But what if it was possible to feel—feel a person or a human presence—without the touch?
I can’t deny that I’ve felt my mother in a handful of holy moments since her death. In a coincidence so beautiful and perfect I couldn’t even have made it up, the first time I felt my dead mother’s presence actually involved a bird. I was walking her dogs and I looked up to see a hawk watching me from the streetlamp above. The hawk and I kept eyes the whole time I walked under her. I looked back to see her watching me still. She was my mom. I knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt. I wept uncontrollably and had to sit on the street corner while the dogs paced around my feet.
Everything’s the same since my mom’s death, and yet, everything is different. Nothing has changed in my physical world, but my interior world has been flipped upside down. All the furniture in there has been dramatically rearranged. Chairs reupholstered, carpet replaced. Nothing is the same. And yet, everything is the same.
And when I read this excerpt from The Peregrine to my dead bird friend, that sort of made sense for the very first time.
“Mallard fly along the line of the wood towards the lake. Looking up at them through binoculars, I see for the first time a falcon peregrine circling very high, beating and gliding in the fading light. She stoops, dilates like the pupil of an eye as it passes from day’s brilliance into dusk. She is the size of a lark, then of a jay, now of a crow, now of a mallard. Mallard spray outwards and climb as she dives between them. She bends up through the sky again, curves under and up with the momentum of her stoop, crashes into a mallard, bursts it into a drift of feathers. Grappled together, they glide above the wood, then sweep down to the frosted ride. Mallard fly along the line of the wood towards the lake. Nothing has changed, though one is gone.”
Lauren Gallow is devoted to the practice of being excruciatingly vulnerable, which informs her work with her storytelling art project, Desert Jewels. You can read more of her personal essays at Desert Jewels and her art criticism at New American Paintings.