The oversimplification that comes with being in unfamiliar surroundings contributed, initially, to the feeling that we were in a theatrical set. As the evening progressed, our situation seemed less benign. It got darker and darker, the performance became hallucinatory, the performers a bridge between an environment and us that no longer seemed pastoral. The performers, especially the crone-wolf, were among us, but not of us. The effect of all this was a creeping sense that we were being offered a peek into another set of rules that seemed correct during this particular evening, but which contained no link to civilization or even un-civilization, being neither rational nor barbaric. I found myself checking in with the sound of traffic from a nearby highway.

Iris Moore writing about Hunter’s Moon for TDR (The Drama Review)

But acknowledging the ambiguous legacy of nature myths does at least require us to recognize that landscapes will not always be simply "places of delight" – scenery as sedative, topography so arranged to feast the eye. For those eyes, as we discover, are seldom clarified of the prompting of memory.

From Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama


         During a twelve-year period, between 1995 and 2007, I based my work where I lived on a 200-acre wetland sanctuary in rural Illinois. The areas directly adjacent to the six-floor silo and milking barn in which I resided had radically different topographical features: there was an alfalfa field – a high hill – farmed for the horses who boarded in a nearby stable; a sphagnum moss bog – nesting ground for voles, rabbits, mink, fox, and feral cats – lay directly west of that field; savannas of bur oak surrounded the bog which itself gave way to a pine forest, to other fields, and, finally, to a quaking bog at the southernmost end of the sanctuary. This rich confluence was the laboratory for what has become my life’s work.
         It was there that I learned to make outdoor performances. Issues of gender, identity, and the mythology that informed my indoor artwork continued to do so, but were integrated with those facets of culture that grow from non-human aspects of nature such as natural light, terrain, plants, animals, and weather. My work began with a series of habits including walking, sitting, and sleeping outdoors for long periods of time. Those experiences were described in a journal that became the “script” for a performance with the frame for natural and “theatrical” phenomena constructed over a nine month to one-year period. The day of the performance was picked after long intervals studying light, weather, plant and animal conditions, and bug probability. These cycles were marked by the appearance of an audience inside the frame. The forest became the set in which the action happened; scenes took place along a wooded trail, in a clearing of trees, or across the valley on the next rise. The performers moved through the landscape, as did the audience.
         The systems of these performances were, at once, personal, ancestral, cultural, geographical, spatial and time-based and embedded in a nest of frames: the time frame within which the private work happened, the frame of the bus ride to the performance for the audience, the frame of weather and its presence inside a specific environment, the frame of literary and mythological references created in space, and perhaps, especially, the absence of a physical frame in that the events of the performances happened without walls in open space.
         My dissertation is a book-length collection of stories – I think of them as translations – created in response to the documentation of these performances and public artworks. Many contributed to this chronicle: writers, art critics, photographers, filmmakers, visual and media artists, historians, psychologists, land conservationists, and farmers. I did too. However, not wanting it to influence what I was doing at the time, I never looked at the documentation until a year ago when I began re-languaging my work as interpreted by so many others. Although the origins of the performances were language-based, before each public presentation, I extracted the words and, except for ambient sound, the work happened in silence. Nevertheless, the written narrative, so present in the making, was and is felt as an underbody: a visceral mass of words fabricating the edifice of memory.
         In considering this twelve-year record, I’ve identified four overarching narratives: the mapping of celestial light; Freudian translations of childhood dream journals; recurring female figures derived from but not limited to the novel Jane Eyre; and the story my mother told me, starting when I was three, about her dead sister. These stories converge and overlap insinuating possible trajectories informed by mode of documentation and time between. What I learned living at the wetland sanctuary and making my work there, I have since applied to other situations including my work towards a PhD.

Performances under consideration:
Hunter’s Moon (1995), Flower (1996), The Architecture of Honey (1998), The Story of Animals Eating (1999), Drove Road (2000), Devotion (2002), One Wolf, Two Wolf (2003), She Listens in Caves (2005), and The Charioteer (2007).

The processional from Drove Road
Photo credit: Jim Green, 2000
Map of the processional
Photo/design: Joan Dickinson, 2000


The ideal field would apparently have certain qualities in common with (a) a painting – defined edges, an accessible distance, and so on; and (b) a theatre-in-the-round stage – an attendant openness to events, with a maximum possibility for exits and entrances. I believe however that suggestions like this are misleading, because they invoke cultural context, which, if it has anything to do with experience in question, can only refer back to it rather than precede it.

From About Looking by John Berger

We live on mined land. Nature itself is a laid trap. No one makes it through; no one gets out.

From For the Time Being by Annie Dillard

         McHenry County is a square-shaped county approximately 75 miles north and west of Chicago. The eastern half of the county is almost entirely developed with only small, isolated pockets remaining of its former self, one composed of bogs, ponds, creeks, rivers, and lakes that, combined, form a rich, diverse, and important wetland. In the early 19th century, the county incorporated becoming dotted with towns and small to mid-sized family farms. Today, most of these towns have grown large and sub-divided, the farms planted in genetically modified mono-crops of corn and soybeans.
         The western half of the county, where I lived, retains much of its rural identity, but is developing rapidly. It exists in what real estate moguls refer to as the Golden Triangle, also known as the land between the corners of Chicago, Milwaukee, and Rockford. These moguls mean to develop this land and they will. Not least of this tragedy is that the soil composition of the Golden Triangle – a potent fusion of humus, phosphorous acid, and ammonia built upon a thick layer of lime – in tandem with an optimal growing season, is unique in all the world: there is literally nothing else like it in terms of quality and fecundity, its mighty ability to nurture and sustain plant material. Most of that ability is due to the rich layer of dark topsoil – chernozem* – the black gold of the upper Midwest.
         There’s a practice done in McHenry County and everywhere else in the United States called “scraping.” What this means is that, before a subdivision goes in, earthmoving equipment scrapes the surface soil into hills, which are then set off to the side of the new neighborhood. During construction, the gentle silhouette of those hillocks frames the scene: new roads paved and pierced by lamp posts and fire hydrants; sidewalks and driveways laid above the muscular underworld of water mains topped with elephantine houses. Once the subdivision nears completion, the developers sell the luxuriant, earthen mounds as “topsoil” to garden centers who then sell it to the rest of us. Bales of sod appear and are unrolled then wedged like bricks against the bald earth; with only a clay base in which to feed its roots, sod tends to die. No matter how much effort the new homeowner expends wetting it, sod invariably turns into a muddy sponge that in the months and years to come will need replacing again and again. Sod farms form a thriving economy in McHenry County.
         Soil is composed of many interwoven layers each with a distinct and crucial relationship one layer to the other and between all. The removal of any part of those layers assures the disruption of soil’s ability to be soil. It takes one hundred years for soil to produce one inch of topsoil.

1 inch = 100 years.

Photo credit: Barbara Laing, 1996

Pages 9 and 10 of Flower Mapkin
Design: Joan Dickinson, 1996

* Cernozem is a Russian word; such soils also occur in grasslands such as the Russian steppes, but without a significant growing season, Russians follow the same practice of scraping and selling soil.


Boxcar Devotion Pretty Pretty Pretty Over There Too Thirteen Moon Dove Road Flower Atmosphere With all that She is She Desires to Give ... Hunter's Moon The Dream of the Owl Sisters
In the Palace of the Night Heron ZephyrZephyr The Architecture of Honey Cooking School of the Air Adjustment The Dream of the Owl Sisters Drove Road Other Work Labyrinth The Charioteer

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