Field Notes – 26 September 2017

An early flight — up at 4:30 to head to the airport. I’m heading to Minneapolis and then Grand Forks, ND. Actually, outside of Grand Forks – I’m heading to the family homestead of one of the photographers. She lives in San Francisco but wanted to be interviewed on her family land because it shapes so much of her work. It’s early and I don’t have the patience to deal with commercial jet travel. I know I’ll need to rally energy at some point. Instead I sleep.

For the first half of the trip.

The second half is a puddle jumper for the 45 minute flight from Minneapolis St. Paul to Grand Forks. I think we taxi longer than we’re actually in the air. I’m squeezed into my window seat next to a very large Texan. I can’t be too irritated by his near-constant manspreading because he’s so damn polite. He puts my suitcase in the overheard bin (and retrieves it at the end of flight). He hands my juice to me and helps retrieve my trash. He was self deprecating. Perhaps that’s his scam?

Seriously he was 6’5” at least 350 lbs. That’s before his huge hat is factored in. Puddle jumper seats barely fit a 10-year-old, let alone a grown-ass 60-something man.

As I fly into Grand Forks, I’m amazed by the color of the soil. It’s black. You can nearly smell the richness from the plane. 

I later learn the soil is the remnants of a glacial lake. North Dakota may be a harsh land, but the soil is black gold.

I do two interviews, including one in a hotel room. The site is not perfect, but the interviewee is a journalist. She adapts to the space. 

There are certainly considerations for an oral history interview in this sort of space. But I’ve tried to mitigate the problems as best I can. I booked a suite, to avoid the discomfort of interviewing in a room with a bed front and center. I allow the woman (as always) to set the tone and timber of the interview. We break after two hours, and agree to complete the interview the next morning. I think it works -she doesn’t dodge questions and seems to want to explore her life.


From the sky the landscape takes on different dimensions. As we leave Newark the industrial sprawl eventually gives way to suburban subdivisions — houses surrounded by verdant patches of land. Trees reach out of the landscape in a canopy of a rich green. It’s too early to see the change of fall colors from the sky. But I remember driving through a swirl of fallen leaves. It may not show it from the sky, but change is coming.

Golf courses break up the homes. I count to seven before the clouds shroud the land below. Later the clouds break and the land, laced with rivers, looks as if it is untouched by humans. Edenic. But this is the land for fracking. This image itself is a myth. 

As we approach Michigan the vista shifts. The land flattens into patches of green squares, rimmed in lines of darker green or brown. Then suddenly (it feels suddenly — did I look away or doze off?) we’re over a huge lake — the water hums with a variety of different shades of turquoise green. I imagine a moss-clogged pond bed, though this body of water is large enough for huge cargo vessels. I see the white caps of baby waves.

On the west shore, a yacht club hugs its boats away from the wilds of the lake proper in a u-shaped formation. Three swimming pools jut out over the water inside the yacht club corral, their chlorinated blue a stark contrast to the lake’s more natural green.. On the horizon is what appears to be a mansion. It’s another golf club — huge and winding through the hillocks. 

As we fly I spy below me the remnants of human hands: an old race track, a gaggle of baseball diamonds, a slag pit. And then we’re touching down at the airport. As we approach, the roofs of the cars in long term parking wink with the rays of the late afternoon sun. 

I sit in the airport. The sun is setting. Nearby, a father and son play chess on a life-sized board. The board faces west beside a window overlooking the tarmac. I take a photo. The safety glass of the window overlays a polka dot pattern on the setting sun, which is in soft focus in the background. I send the photo to my husband.

I board my connecting flight. The lights of landing plane flicker in the blue black sky as I wait for my plane to depart. I know I’ll watch for patterns of lights on the prairie as fly west into the night.

Instead, I’m transfixed by the view. Of lights that spread out below me, even in sparsely populated areas. At first I indentify concrete things: cars, lights along a road, shadows of buildings.  But things shift. Cities and even smalls look like strange industrial sculptures. There is a three dimensional effect that surprises me.  The lights appear to reach toward the sky, and I wonder if my eyes are playing tricks on me. 

I gaze up from the ground passing below. A magnificent lightning storm seems to take up miles and miles of the horizon. The light flashes frequently, illuminated from both atop and below the clouds. It’s better than the tv my seat mate is watching. I cover my head with a sweatshirt to block the light and watch as fly past. I don’t want to land. 

Field Notes, 9/15/2017

14 days on the road and absolutely exhausted. At this point I’m actually not sure exactly how many women I’ve interviewed. The faces and stories begin to merge. I call one women Linda Davis, combining names in a way that is pleasurable but also problematic.

The drive started to blear everything together, and when I look at work, even remarkable work, I find that it’s all starting to merge. I can’t see. Really see. I can glance, but the idea of vision that engages my heart or brain is absolutely impossible at this point.

I know that I have to make it to at least two other trips. Five or six women in the midwest. A potential archive visit in Louisiana (which I think I’m cancelling at this point). A passel of women in California. It all starts to just merge into on long morass of feeling.

I understand that part of the problem is the fact that I’m working in what is an emotional sphere. These aren’t terribly traumatic interviews. No one is dealing with death or devastation. No physical harm. But there is still a toll. The act of engaged listening demands I be empathetic. That I help the women tell their stories. I feel myself lagging after the 2nd intense interview of a day, or the two interviews after hours of driving across state lines. The day after intense driving days I feel almost hung over. My two shortest interviews were those days. Days after I drove several hours to make it from location to location. Did the physical toll of driving for two, four, six hours stop me from drawing out the women as much as I did the others? Is this a signal of my flagging energy, or are the women being interviewed just less detailed “talkers” than the others.

The long driving days also are coincide with times that I’m similarly lagging on sleep. Today I went to bed at 2:30 in the morning and way on the road by 7:30. That’s not sustainable. I know this and yet I find myself scheduling similar drives on my upcoming trips. Is this fair to the narrators? Am I being fair to myself?

Off camera the women almost seem surprised by the emotional nature of the connection we have during the interview. It’s highly intimate. They’re bearing their lives for me, and I cannot be dispassionate. I wonder about stories avoided (one woman dances away from any familial details beyond basic facts, saying it’s “not a part” of her story) or of stories told (another woman intimately shares details about boyfriends, her struggles with her family, her own mental health challenges). How much can I protect them during this work? Or, is it my responsibility, or is it better if I act merely as the conduit for their storytelling?

I rationalize by saying oral history demands the latter. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling the emotional toll. I can’t NOT care. I can’t NOT empathize.

I also can’t imagine heading to a pilates class in the morning. While on the one hand the exercise will help clear the fog in my brain, on the other simply sitting in the bed alongside the cat may provide more emotional sustenance.

I want tomato soup and someone to care for me — to take care of all the things that we need to handle in our everyday lives. Neither is immediately forthcoming.

Field Notes: Day One in the Field 7/14/2017

This is the post excerpt.

Ok, new project. I’m starting this to post field notes and thoughts regarding the women and environmental photography project.

Every time a project began it seems to unintentionally develop a theme. Or at least a theme song. This one: My Best Friend’s Girl by the Cars. Weird, right? I mean, this is a project about women creating images in a mostly-natural sphere. I would expect something perhaps more granola as a song. But for some reason as we headed through the mountains of Colorado, that particular song kept reappearing. On different stations in different regions. Stations which all claimed to be programmed locally. In classic rock.

“The Cars are classic rock?” my husband asked. The song is 30-some-odd years old. But it doesn’t really fit the Foreigner/Styx/Led Zeppelin mode that I think of as being the modus operandi of classic rock stations.

Two hours later he revised his statement. “I guess classic rock is really big here.”

The mountains are, of course, stunning. I’m always surprised as we drive through the high country how the “parks” (South Park is a real place and refers to the high mountain meadow lands), are actually wide open spaces with few trees. Fairly arid. Beautiful but in ways desolate. There are treed landscapes – Aspen is named because of the trees that are there. But Colorado is a type of high desert. It’s dry.l

Today’s interview was with Kathleen Norris Cook. And there were technical problems. Unbeknownst to me the DSLR camera I was using to record the video interview cut off after 10 minutes. So I’ll need to rerecord portions of the interview tomorrow and catch the video again.

This is frustrating. I don’t want to look unprofessional. And I have no idea why a camera would set up these sort of arbitrary limits (those should be determined by the the camera memory card and not the camera manufacturer’s decision of “limits.” And the 10 minute limit will arbitrarily potentially interrupt the interview. I mean, I can watch to make sure that I start new questions as the limit approaches. But it can interrupt the interview flow, which is not good.


Field Notes: April 22, 2014

It’s been a year since I last picked up these field notes. Other projects have gotten in the way (which doesn’t necessarily mean I’m not working on the project – far from that).

So what has transpired in the meantime?

I really wonder why I didn’t write field notes during the run up to and immediate aftermath of the Media and Religion conference in January. At the conference I presented on a portion of this project: I looked at the works of David Maisel and attempted to situate them in the whole arc of environmental photography and the representation of nature. I dubbed this Environmental Edens.

At the conference the presentation seemed to go well, but I still felt as if I were struggling through a work in progress. I know what I want to say about Maisel’s works – that the devastation in the garden is actually a part of the Eden, and the beauty and attraction isn’t an attraction to “sin” but something else – but I’m so in over my head in the religious side of things that I don’t want to overstep my bounds and say something that isn’t exactly true. I want to go beyond the “but they’re really pretty” argument – there is something else there.

And then Stewart and Nabil ask me to participate in a book they’re editing based on the conference presentations.

So my rough sketch of an idea suddenly needs to be transformed into 8-10,000 word chapter. Grand.

This mind you was back in early spring. And so like the good little former journalist that I am, I thereby proceeded to procrastinate since early spring.

The chapter is due in nine days. Nine days.

Let me add in that in the interim I proposed another presentation on this topic to another conference – a panel on the Machine in Garden (drawing from Marx). Paper gets accepted to the panel proposal. Panel gets accepted. And then the organizer tells us that a publisher is interested in the panel as a book. So now I have two damn chapters to write.

Yes, this is a good problem to have, I know.

I began working again in earnest earlier this month. Mostly I had been drawing from what I already had. There was an extended abstract that accounted for a bunch of stuff. I added in thickish descriptions of the photographs in question. Then I ordered books – Marx, of course; the two books the Sierra Club put out about Porter and Adams; some other stuff.

And in the some other stuff I hit what may very well be gold.

I was looking for something to help me wade through Thoreau. I mean, I understand his basic argument and had pulled some interesting quotes. But I needed someone outside me to talk about his linking of the environment and religion. This isn’t an earth shattering or new idea here. This has been said of Thoreau since, well, since he basically wrote this.

So a casual search turns up Malcolm Clemens Young’s book The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau.

I figure this is going to be a quick skim – dash through the book, and pull out a couple of key arguments. It clearly wouldn’t have any relationship to Maisel – it’s more of an argument to establish what Thoreau is doing.

And in then fucking introduction he drops a huge bomb – which may very well give me a framework for my work.

Speaking of Edward Abbey:
He almost cannot help but slip into a transcendentalist tone in the face of nature.
This is on page three. PAGE THREE. And it’s brilliant and gives exactly what I’m looking for theoretically.

It’s not that artists like Maisel aren’t trying to document the horrific – but within that documentation they find that they just can’t help it – even within the devastation, they still are humbled by the religiosity found in nature.

There’s something there.


Field Notes: August 18, 2013

Driving through Weld County on our way back from Berthoud. Back roads – County Road 3. It seemed as just every other farm had a fracking unit on it. Next to wells. And fields of crops. And ponds. And housing developments (2 acre ranchettes)

I jokingly call Weld County crazy pants. A drive through the back roads indicates it may not be much of a joke.

Field Notes: August 5, 2013

My sister’s birthday.

A cross country trek has transpired since the last entry. We went the “long” way this time, from Eugene to Trinidad to Truckee to Provo and then over I70 to Denver. The skies opened up over Grand Junction, where we navigated a maze of local road construction to find a Del Taco (fish tacos). A new (to us) trailer court scarred the formerly-quaint town of Trinidad. We did drive-by tourism in Lassen and marveled at the desert of Eastern Nevada (and who would live there). Bonneville Salt Flats. Balancing Rock. An approach to Colorado I had somehow never seen on my multiple drives across the west.

And then back to the Front Range foothills of the Rockies.

I’ve been reading Rebecca Solnit since being back. On the one hand she drives me nuts with her holier-than-thou pronouncements and her angst over every fucking thing. She’s smug, and arrogant, infused with the problems that only an overeducated upper middle class successful liberal white woman can have. As I write this I know I can also be writing about myself here, which may partially be why she irritates me so much. But I don’t protest, don’t scatter my attentions over actions that may actually hurt the causes or issues I support – actions that alienate the people who live in the region she writes about from the issues she so passionately cares about.

It’s not that she doesn’t make good points, she does, but she is quite satisfied with herself and her worldview. Smug.

And this is tempered with Barbara Kingsolver, who I am reading for pleasure at the same time. Her book Flight Behavior is about a poor Appalaichian woman who discovers Monarch butterflies roosting on her family farm. A coincidence that didn’t dawn on me until this morning as I finished the Kingsolver book – the book is all about climate change and our environment and negotiations for who owns the right to define it and speak for it. There is an interaction with a do gooder protestor who is trying to get the visitors to change their ways and help to slow climate change. Bring Tupperware for leftovers and your own mugs and cutlery to restaurants instead of plastic or disposable materials, carry a water bottle instead of buying water, decrease red meat (assuming that people eat only feed lot-raised livestock), find secondhand stores, plan errands to drive less, recycle computers, fly less.

It’s like the thing that went around on Facebook a few years ago about the oldster being reprimanded by a youngster for not recycling. A youngster who had no idea about things like refillable bottles and the like.

And then there’s this:

I don’t think Solnit is as bad as the do-gooder in Kingsolver’s book. I think she honestly tries to understand the people who live in these regions and especially cares about native populations. And I know in whatever project I do she’ll need to be there. But so will those who think the opposite, like those the author of The Angry West wrote about – westerners who are tired of those who think they know best or who just don’t care about government protecting land. (he also irritated me, but that’s another story)

But the undercurrent of “I know better than you” is still there in her lyrical writing. Arrogant. Smug. And it irritates the hell out of me.