DIGITAL COLOR HUNTING

WORDS & IMAGES: ELLEN JULIA BROWN

For the last few weeks, I have been exploring color through processes that are intentionally slow and highly manual—harvesting pigments from the earth and grinding them by hand to make paint. These techniques have mostly been abandoned by modern artists, because the accessibility and affordability of factory-made paints makes them a no-brainer. When we’re accustomed to immediate gratification, taking the time to learn these age-old practices is almost an act of defiance. It takes a conscious pushing back and slowing down, a firm belief that there is beauty and meaning lost in the shortcuts, something worth rediscovering along those older, timeworn paths.

And yet, a complete romanticization of the past is unhelpful. There’s no undoing the industrial revolution, the massive proliferation of cheap art supplies, or the fact that our brains have come to accept our smartphones as an extension of our hands. And technology is (mostly) great. Especially the possibilities it opens up in the realm of color. Which is why, over the past week, I decided to embrace it completely.

I began by returning to a photograph that I took while foraging for pigments along the Sandy River. It’s an array of colored rocks and minerals, some of which I brought home with me to grind with a pestle and mortar and mix with watercolor medium to create paint. This time, I simply airdropped the photo from my iPhone to my iPad Pro and opened it up in a drawing/painting app called ProCreate. I made the photograph smaller, dragged it over to the corner, and created another layer on which to work. Then, using the color selection tool (kind of like the Eyedropper in PhotoShop) I moved my cursor over the photograph until I came across a color I liked and could instantly sweep my digital brush across the canvas with that hue, as if the photo were an infinitely-selectable paintbox. It was like I was digitally extracting the pigments from the minerals—with no mess, no physical labor, no additional cost, no finite supply.   

The first time I used an iPad Pro, drawing directly on the screen with the pencil as if it were a piece of paper, I kind of fell in love. I didn’t want to like it as much as I did. In fact, there was a fair amount of guilt that went with admitting how much I liked the digital drawing experience. A real artist works in physical reality, in paint-splattered clothes, in a studio piled with a mess of canvases. For the most part, I’m still firmly in that camp. But that doesn’t negate the fact that working out quick (or not so quick) ideas on the iPad is ah-mazing. There are hundreds of different brush strokes to choose from, so you can switch from oil pastel to gouache to watercolor in a matter of seconds. You can layer and select and do collage-style cut-and-paste and don’t even get me started on that ‘undo’ button. Try it if you haven’t. It’s seriously seductive.

And yet, and yet, and yet... Hiking through moss-covered evergreens, finding yellow ochre in a trail-side waterfall, coming to understand local geological history, painting with pigments that you lovingly gathered and processed yourself. What’s a modern artist to do?

iPads and iPhones aren’t going away anytime soon. As always, we should be conscious consumers, fully aware of the environmental and human impacts of their production. But for better or worse, we live amongst these technologies. We might as well find ways to use them as tools for increasing connection, healing, and understanding whenever possible. For all of the unnecessary distraction my phone brings into my life, having a camera in my pocket at all times actually helps me tune in to the natural world on a regular basis. On my walk to work, at the dog park, while trying to remember where I parked my car, I am constantly noticing and capturing colors, textures, shapes, and shadows. Many of these images make their way into my studio work, in one form or another.

This week, I chose three photos and worked some iPad magic on them, looking to nature to define my color palette. First up was a purple and yellow viola from a window box at my house.

Then some bright, yellow-green moss on a rock by the Willamette River.

And finally a potpourri of pink Camellias, fallen beneath a tree.  

I had a lot of fun with this process. Each of these abstract “paintings” took less than an hour. And I was taking mental notes about the colors as I went, filing away a visual vocabulary of color combinations that I may not have arrived at on my own. There are entire college-level courses taught on color theory, learning about how to select colors that work harmoniously together. Using a color wheel, we can identify colors that are “analogous” or “complementary” or a host of other terms that all equal some kind of desired visual effect. And nature does all of this and more on its own! Violas don’t need a color wheel to tell them that purple and yellow compliment and amplify each other. Whether your medium of choice is pigments or pixels, there’s so much to learn by simply paying attention to the natural world.  

 

FORAGING FOR EARTH PIGMENTS

WORDS & IMAGES: ELLEN JULIA BROWN

After learning how to make my own watercolors at Wildcraft Studio School a few weeks ago, I was hooked on natural pigments and eager to learn more. Fortunately, artist and piment-hunter Scott Sutton had another workshop coming up, this time an outdoor excursion called Foraging for Earth Pigments, and I jumped at the opportunity to backfill my new paint-making skills with the knowledge of how to collect pigments myself. 

On Saturday, I drove out to Troutdale, Oregon, where I met up with Scott and the other students in our class. After a brief lesson on local geology (this portion of land had been flooded with basalt many times throughout history due to repeated volcanic eruptions), we grabbed our daypacks and carpooled the additional twenty minutes to the trailhead. In our backpacks we carried several large ziplock bags for harvesting, sharpies for labeling, journals for note-taking, small garden spades for digging, and lunches for eating. Before we had even left the trailhead, Scott ran across the street and came back with a handful of crumbly, red-brown soil. We gathered around and saw the way it smooshed like clay in his hands, staining them red. Our first pigment! Not a bad way to start.

The forest was overwhelmingly green as we set out down the trail. At this time of year, many months of rain have supercharged the flora. Soft, shaggy moss covers nearly every branch and trunk, giving everything a kind of alien-muppet vibe. Foraging for earth pigments would be an entirely different experience in, say, the desert, where the landscape is bald and the geology laid bare. In the Pacific Northwest, the plants are so dense that it takes quite a bit more detective work to determine what is going on beneath the surface.

Scott stopped us just a few dozen meters down the trail and pointed out a large tree trunk whose roots had pulled up from the earth, revealing more reddish, clay-like soil. It’s places like this that we need to learn to pay attention to. When I hike, I’m accustomed to noticing the trees, the plants, the wildflowers, the stretch of trail directly in front of my feet. It takes some conscious adjustment to scan for subtle variations in rock and exposed soil. Throughout the day, we begin to add names like basalt, sandstone, and mudstone to our vocabularies. There’s something about having the words that helps bring these things into focus.

A ways down the trail, we paused again, this time beside a little creek. Here, Scott bent down, picked up a small yellow rock, and performed a ‘scratch test.’ It melted beautifully against a nearby wet stone, scribbling out a thick coating of yellow ochre. There were audible oohs and ahhs from the group, and we quickly went about gathering the yellow ourselves, testing each piece before dropping it into our ziplock bags. The richness of the yellow ochre color and its abundance here in the creek, something we would have walked right by the day before, had us giddy. It felt like unlocking a secret. Stumbling upon a gift. Free art supplies! Just lying here on the ground!

Continuing on, we scrambled over fallen logs, took a detour to a roaring waterfall, waded through Jurassic Park-like ferns, and squelched through boot-stealing mud on our descent to the banks of the Sandy River. When we reached our final destination, Scott remarked on how high the water levels were due to recent rain. There was much less beach and many more rapids that anticipated. Still, we were able to find a good spot to stop for lunch and explore what turned out to be the most abundant foraging site of the day. It was a pigment bonanza.

By the river, there were deposits of clay-like Celadonite all over, in different shades of green. It was soft and crumbly, easy to gather by hand. One of my favorite finds was a piece of Celadonite that was gray-green on the outside but, broken open, revealed veins of deep blue, glittering with specks of volcanic ash. That one made it into my bag for sure, although I suspect it will be difficult to isolate the blue from the rest.

Suffice it to say, our backpacks were a lot heavier on the way up than on the way down. We were laden with colors. An embarrassment of riches. One of the students, who was visiting from Phoenix, wondered about checking a bag of rocks on her return flight (#pigmentforagerproblems).


When I got home, I carefully rinsed and separated my pigments, having made the beginners mistake of loading them all into one bag. I lined a couple of cookie sheets with paper towels and laid them out to dry, organized by color. Upstairs in my art studio, I have whole tupperware containers filled with store-bought paint—acrylics and watercolors in every imaginable hue. And don’t get me wrong, I love me a full-spectrum rainbow of paints, fluorescents included, but I’ve never cared about those factory-made paints the way I care about these little colored rocks laid out on my kitchen counter. I find myself handling them so gently, checking on them as they dry, carefully arranging them in groups of the same, like little pigment families. They feel so precious, these colors that formed deep in the forest, deep in the earth, that I gathered with stained fingertips and carried on my back and then the passenger seat of my car, all the way from their home to mine.

In Victoria Finlay’s book Color: A Natural History of the Palette, she writes about how “colormen first appeared in the mid-seventeenth century, preparing canvases, supplying pigments, and making brushes.” Their arrival was a sign of how “the act of painting was moving from a craft profession to an art one. For ‘craftspeople’ the ability to manage one’s materials was all important; for ‘artists’ the dirty jobs of mixing and grinding were simply time-consuming obstacles to the main business of creation...Slowly and irrevocably, artists began to push their porphyry pestles and mortars to the backs of their workshops, while professional colormen...did the grinding.”

This separation of ‘craft’ and ‘art’ is even more true today, when any of us can walk into an art supply store and find a selection of hundreds of different paints, each with details about its relative opacity, viscosity, etc. Foraging for earth pigments is a real commitment. Between traveling and trekking and grinding and preparing your medium, you’ve logged some long hours before even making the first mark on your canvas. Today, anyone can make a painting at a moment’s notice. It’s amazing, really, what we have access to. And more accessibility means more art made by more people, which is always a wonderful thing. And yet, as Finlay puts it, “not really knowing what these paints are or where they have come from, one is somehow alienated from the process of making them into art.” There’s a feeling of reverence, a deeply satisfying connection to the land, that can only be found opting for the slower, more scenic route.

Increased interest in natural pigments, thanks in no small part to those who have made them cool on social media, parallels similar movements in other industries like ‘slow food’ and ‘slow fashion’ that are working to bridge the disconnect between products and consumers. What does it look like to make a painting that is “local”? What does it look like to harvest pigments sustainably and respectfully? Are we willing to work with a limited palette? Are we willing to put the ‘craft’ back in our art practice, even if that slows us down? At the very least, a hike in the woods, a trip to the source with open eyes, seems like a good place to start.

 

 

 

 

MAKING NATURAL WATERCOLORS

A few weeks ago, I drove out to White Salmon, WA to take a workshop called ‘Making Natural Watercolors’ at Wildcraft Studio School. It had been several months since I’d driven through the Columbia River Gorge, and I was smitten, yet again, by its beauty. Sweeping evergreen panoramas, dramatic overlooks, the wide, sparkling river carving deep into the Cascades. As I neared Eagle Creek, there were stretches of road lined by blackened tree trunks, a sobering reminder of last summer’s devastating wildfires. It can be easy to forget, especially these days when we are nearly drowned here in Portland, that a few short months ago it was ash, not rain, falling from the sky. 

I was grateful for the road trip out to White Salmon. It was the perfect way to begin a day of paint making—with a mind quieted by miles of scenic wilderness. When I arrived, the studio was set up with an array of paint making tools and materials. At the center was a series of bins filled with different colored minerals, lined up like a color spectrum.

 

For the vast majority of art history, back even before handprints were painted on the walls of the Lascaux Cave, natural pigments have been foraged from the earth, ground into powder, and mixed with some sort of binding agent to create paints. Our teacher, Scott Sutton, a local artist, educator, and expert pigment-hunter/paint-maker, explained that the process of making natural watercolors is very similar to that used to create natural oil or acrylic paints—it’s just a different medium to which the pigment is added. Our own watercolor medium consisted of gum arabic (hardened sap harvested from Acacia trees in Africa), honey, glycerin, and distilled water. Once prepared, it was like a viscous, liquid amber.

For the pigments, Scott showed us how to grind minerals to a powder with a mortar and pestle. Using a fine-mesh sieve, we sifted the particles onto a large piece of paper and returned any pebbles left behind to the mortar until they were properly pulverized. Once a pile of powdered pigment had accumulated, we transferred it to a large glass surface, added a splash of distilled water, and mixed it into a paste with a palette knife.

Finally, we combined the pigment with the watercolor medium using a tool called a glass muller, which looks kind of like a pestle but with a smooth, flat bottom. Moving the muller in a circular motion, we spread the paint thin across the glass in widening orbits, dispersing and dissolving the tiny particles of pigment into the medium. This part required a little elbow grease (too little grinding, and your paints will be gritty) but the process was oddly satisfying. When the consistency was just right, the paint was so smooth, like “room temperature butter,” as Scott put it. We listened carefully to the sound the muller made against the glass—like fine sandpaper at first and then smoother and smoother until the pigment was fully incorporated. At last, we got to experiment with the finished product, sweeping the freshly-made paints across different types of watercolor paper, and making ourselves color maps to remember the name of each mineral. 

Photographs taken by Eliza Carver, courtesy of Wildcraft Studio School  

I loved learning the craft of paint making—getting lost in the flow of grinding and mixing and mulling. But what made the hands-on process even better was learning about the origins of the pigments themselves, each with its own unique chemical and geological history. Most of the minerals we worked with were harvested from Oregon and Washington, between the coast and the Cascades. Scott had collected them himself, with the help of geological maps, guidebooks, and a little luck. Once you start looking for pigments, he explained, you can’t help but see them. Along highways, riverbanks, the ocean—anywhere that erosion has exposed layers of previously hidden earth, there are likely to be some flashes of color. 

Vivianite, one of the most magical minerals of the bunch, began forming hundreds of years ago after an earthquake triggered a tsunami on the Oregon coast. Stretches of shoreline littered with pinecones from Sitka spruce trees were completely buried. As time passed, elements in the soil like iron and phosphate, in combination with microorganisms, went to work on the pinecones, slowly replacing the organic matter with minerals. When Scott dug them up, they were still pinecone-shaped, some with distinct ridges, but they had been transformed into something else entirely. Breaking one open reveals a core of brilliant BLUE! Like a piece of gorgeously saturated sidewalk chalk. Secret treasures buried in the earth, just waiting to be cracked open.

Every one of the minerals had an incredible story. Diatomaceous earth, a brick red pigment, was buried under layers of lava flows, like a “vein of cooked earth.” Chlorite, which makes a lovely sea green paint, was carried through the water before being deposited alongside a waterfall at Mt. Hood. Celledonite, a lighter, celery-like green, was harvested from soil by the Sandy River. It’s the result of a volcanic eruption and was still covered in tiny sparkles of ash.

When I took out my watercolors earlier this week and made a few small paintings, I thought about the journeys these colors had made. My painting didn’t begin the moment I sat down and took out my brushes. It didn’t begin in White Salmon at Wildcraft Studio School, or when Scott hiked along the coast hunting for Vivianite, or when the tsunami came and buried the land, or when the Sitka spruce trees dropped their cones. The story of these paints is as old as the shapeshifting earth itself, my own role in it just the latest stop along an endless chain of transformations. Already, the paints have begun to fur over with mold, on the way to their next state (refrigeration and a few drops of clove oil would have helped prevent this). I wet my brush and dipped it into an earthquake, a tsunami, a volcano. I painted with rivers and waterfalls, deep soil and deep time. Bones, my own included, would turn blue with Vivianite if buried for long enough beside the pinecones.

On Saturday, I am taking a follow-up class with Scott Sutton at Wildcraft Studio School called ‘Foraging for Earth Pigments.’ This time, we will be lacing up our hiking boots and exploring the mountains, rivers, and creeks around Mt Adams and the Columbia River Gorge, learning to sustainably harvest natural pigments ourselves. Stay tuned for a recap in my next post!

MEET OUR ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE ELLEN JULIA BROWN

Dear Loam,

My name is Ellen, and I am a visual artist and writer living in Portland, Oregon. Many months ago, a good friend of mine forwarded me a Loam newsletter, and I’ve been following along with this platform ever since, so inspired by all that is sprouting up here at the crossroads of art and environmentalism. In a sea of a doom and gloom news headlines, communities like this serve as liferafts, allowing us to pause and breathe for long enough to remember where we are going, what we are capable of, and who is there doing amazing work alongside us.

While not overtly political, my own work is rooted in awe, wonder, and appreciation for the natural world. When we let ourselves fall in love with the world, we can’t help but be moved to protect it. I believe in the power of attention and curiosity, in healing the divide between art and science, and looking to the earth for guidance on anything from cultivating resilience to elements of visual design, like patterns and color palettes. It’s from this place that I begin my month-long residency, full of gratitude for the opportunity to connect with all of you.   

Here in Portland, our winter color palette is basically two-toned. There is the gray blank of sky, swallowing our shadows along with our light, desaturating each day into a kind of monotonous drone. And then there is the green. I’ve been living here for two years and still can’t get over the green. It’s a surge of chlorophyll unlike anything I experienced growing up in New England. There’s something almost electric about it—tree trunks shaggy with moss, waist-high ferns, lime green buds at the end of each branch. Over the weekend, I saw an abandoned parking lot covered with what looked like a florescent green shag carpet.

These days, as the sun reappears for a few glorious hours at a time, nature’s color palette is expanding rapidly. Pink Camellias are everywhere, blossoms bigger than my fist litter the ground like confetti. The magnolias are unfurling, the forsythia flaming yellow, the rosemary bushes thick with periwinkle blossoms. The flowers in Portland are unparalleled. It’s like they’re on steroids. This proliferation of color is our gift. It’s what we get for having made it, chilled and muddy-booted, through the gray.   

There’s a YouTube video I saw a while back, where an older man who was born with severe color blindness puts on special glasses and is able to see true color for the first time in his life. He stands on the front porch of his house, turning in slow circles, taking in the trees, his garden, a bunch of colorful balloons his family got for the occasion. “Look at the flowers!” his wife exclaims. “Look at my hair! It’s red!” And then he is weeping. And his family is weeping. And I, from behind my screen, am tearing up with them. The world in color. Impossible. Miraculous. Utterly ordinary.

For those of us fortunate enough to be blessed with normal sight, color is fundamental to our experience of the world. We’re so immersed in it that we may rarely stop to consider how insanely bizarre and beautiful the phenomenon really is.

Electromagnetic radiation, experienced by humans as visible light, is emitted from a massive burning star millions of miles away from earth. It’s made up of waves that resonate at different frequencies across a vast spectrum, only a very narrow portion of which is visible to the human eye. Specialized cells in our eyes receive these lightwaves from our environment and pass them off to our brains, which have learned to categorize things that emit long waves as “red” and short waves as “violet.” At essence, light is a spectrum of colors. We can tease it apart with a prism, separating pure white light into a perfect rainbow.

Thinking about color in this way makes me feel like I’m somewhere between a middle school science class and a psychedelic experience. It’s this place where scientific truths mingle with mermaid hair and rainbow cake pops. I love that it pushes up against the outer limits of my logical, left-brained capabilities while simultaneously reducing me to a human heart eyes emoji. Truth be told, I just really love rainbows. I have a solar-powered rainbow maker on my kitchen window, and it brings me infinite joy. Me and this guy? We understand each other.

The lenses through which we can see and think about color are endless. There’s the lens of evolutionary biology—how color presents and functions in the plant and animal kingdoms. There are cultural lenses—the way groups of people express themselves collectively, via their clothes, buildings, design aesthetics, etc. There’s linguistics—in Japanese, the same character refers to both blue and green(!). There’s psychology—yellow makes us happy, and red makes us hungry.

But because I have just one month rather than many lifetimes to spend with you, Loamie friends, I will endeavor to boil down my focus for the following weeks to this: the relationship between color, earth, and self.

I’m not sure exactly what that will look like, but I know how I want it to feel. I want it to feel like waking up to the world. I want it to feel like I just put on my special glasses and am seeing color, really seeing it, for the first time. I’m going to make some paint and some paintings. I’m going to dip into the pile of books that has been accumulating on my nightstand. I’m going to spend time wondering and wandering, getting out into the natural world and letting it be my teacher. I can’t wait to see what will blossom.

Sending you all rainbows and healing light waves ;)

XO Ellen

@ellenjuliabrown

www.ellenjuliabrown.com

 

RUN AWAY

Run Away

The landscape of home pulls at me -- the pulsing sound of cicadas, those humid summer days that make everything slow down, the rolling hills and tall wildflowers of Ohio. 

I wrote Run Away my senior year of college after living away from home for over three years. Graduation was quickly approaching, a new reminder of the growing distance between me and my childhood. In that time of unknowns about my future, I craved the comfort of a place where I belonged. I craved the land and trees and water that I knew so well. But I also longed for a past self, a simpler time when I built forts in the pine woods.

While we cannot hold onto our childhoods forever, I believe we can stay connected to our local environments. My generation is moving far from home. It is a strange turn in human history for young people to be leaving those who raised them to live in places unknown to them. For me, the unsettled feeling that comes from having moved away manifests itself in my desire to be in touch with Ohio’s changing seasons. I want to know if the black-eyed seasons are in full bloom or if Joe Pyeweed has grown tall. 

We have a responsibility to know the land around us, regardless of where we are currently living. When we move to a new place, let us introduce ourselves to the white oak in the backyard and the sugar maples up and down the street.  Let us learn the names of cattails, lambsquarters, monarda, and loosestrife. When we know our neighbors, we will work to protect them. 

This music video was filmed on our trip to Ohio, where we began this residency. We hoped to capture that week of uninterrupted creativity, as well as film the landscape that this song longs for. We want to thank Kate for this opportunity to share our voices and our musings with the Loam community. This residency has challenged and nourished us in surprising ways. And we think that the work that you all are doing is inspiring. 

We’d also like to give our gratitude to Robin Wall-Kimmerer who guided much of our thinking throughout this residency. Her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, was hugely influential on our songwriting, our conversations, and our relationships to the natural world. Do yourselves a favor and go get a copy. 

Warmly, 
Molly, Julia, and Abigail 

WE ALL LIVE IN THE SAME HOUSE

WORDS & MUSIC: MAMA CAUGHT FIRE

It was a sticky summer afternoon when the seed of this tune came to me. I was home by myself, feeling tired and lonely. I laid down in my bed, hoping that a nap would relieve my mind of the thoughts that had been ruminating. 

While in between a state of awake and asleep, I heard a chorus of people singing “we all live in the same house” over and over again. It was so loud, it brought me back to consciousness. At first I thought it might be coming from the stereo in the other room. But no, it was a message from within yearning to be heard. 

Upon embarking for our trip to Ohio, I shared this folk melody with Molly and Julia. We discussed how the simple phrase, “we all live in the same house” has many layers of meaning. The most obvious one, and the one we sing about in the verses of this song, emphasizes communal living. 

When writing this song, we asked ourselves what a community like this would look like and how it could be a solution, within our reach, to the changing climate. Certain images came to mind. 

We imagined a multi-generational family that lives off the land. They grow their own food and cook meals together. They care for one another; the older siblings watch out for the younger ones and the neighbors are an extension of the family. Mama teaches the kids about wild plants: how to use jewelweed to soothe itchy skin, how to cook dandelions, watch out for invasives, and avoid poisonous plants. In this, Mama passes down knowledge to her kids, teaching them the practical skills they need in order to be self-sufficient and live in harmony with their environment. 

It was easy to envision this way of living from the front porch of Molly’s family farm, looking out at the vegetable garden. However, each of us seemed to imagine communal living in a pre-industrial context. We wonder how, rather than reverting to an older time, we can bring these timeless practices into our lives now. What does it look like to live communally today? How do we, from our duplexes and one-bedroom apartments, cultivate communities that care for one another as a daily practice? How do we have a relationship with the land when we live in the city? 

While this song takes place in a rural setting, it is our hope to see the same values carried out in a more urban setting as well. We challenge ourselves to put down our phones and get to know our neighbors. To grow herbs on our doorstep, learn about which weeds are edible, and slow down enough to share a meal. 

“We all live in the same house” also acknowledges that all living beings share a home, our planet. This is communal living on a larger scale. The impacts of our actions extend far beyond our immediate environment. For example, the consumptive behavior of the American people is a major contributor to climate change, yet those who suffer its harshest effects are on the other side of the globe. Conversely, our interconnectedness allows for us to mobilize in the face of climate change. If we could all remember that earth is our common home, we would feel the responsibility to care for it. 

WHAT HAVEN WILL WE HAVE?

WORDS & MUSIC: MAMA CAUGHT FIRE

After spending a few days together in Ohio, we wanted to give ourselves time to focus on our own personal relationships with nature. We headed off to separate spots around the farm to write about our gratitude for nature. In sharing our reflections, we noticed that many parallel themes ran through our writing. The woods from our childhoods, in particular, have deeply affected us. 

While we live in Minnesota, the three of us come from different parts of the country. Abigail from the East Coast, Julia from the West Coast, and Molly from the Midwest. The trees of our homes helped to raise us and this song came to reflect that nurturance. 

When one spends so much time amidst trees, especially at such a young age, the trees become more than their roots, bark, and branches. Being among them leads to the same feeling one gets after spending the afternoon with a beloved grandmother who cares for younger generations and bestows wisdom upon them. 

When one spends so much time amidst trees, especially at such a young age, the trees become more than their roots, bark, and branches. Being among them leads to the same feeling one gets after spending the afternoon with a beloved grandmother who cares for younger generations and bestows wisdom upon them. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about this relationship in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass:

“In English, we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person as it. That would be a profound act of disrespect. It robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing. So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family” (55). 

By sharing this way of referring to the natural world, Kimmerer reminds us to consider the sentience of trees in the everyday.

When we feel gratitude for the treasured woods, we simultaneously fear the prospect of losing them. Those we love, we fear losing. We, as a larger society, have to ask ourselves what the world will look like when the cedars on the West Coast are lost to unending forest fires, when the pines in Massachusetts are cleared for logging. What haven will we have? 

The lyrics in this song suggest that when we lose sight of ourselves — as individuals, as a species — we might find meaning in the ways of the trees. By planting ourselves in the soil, closing our eyes, and inhaling deeply, we can be like the trees who sheltered us. While the image of a human literally growing as a tree is surreal, the meaning of this lyric extends far beyond the magic. By reaching into the soil, we enter a network of communication, the intricate language of roots, of spores, of water. 

We can become attuned to the trees, become them, and in this, we find truth. The truth? We must honor and care for the trees as they have cared for us. The trees pour their love and bounty into us. We must be willing to nurture them similarly. We must give them our love, our bounty, and our voice. 

THE WATER HOLDS THE WISDOM

 

WORDS & MUSIC: MAMA CAUGHT FIRE

Mississippi River,

what do you need from me?

If we ask our rivers what they need from us, how do they respond? This is the question I asked myself while driving to northern Minnesota, crossing many small rivers along the way. When I passed the Grindstone River, this tune came into my mind. I shared it with Abigail and Julia, and we decided to record ourselves singing to the Mississippi River, as it is the major waterway in the Twin Cities and one of the primary rivers in this country. Whenever we perform this tune, however, we sing to the closest river, asking her what she needs.

I grew up hearing about the year the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. But water doesn’t burn. Oil does. In 1969, this industrial river was ignited by sparks from a passing train. The oil-slicked debris on the water caught the spark and flames spread, reaching heights of over five stories. That image always fascinated me as a kid -- the idea of water on fire. The absurdity of the event captured other imaginations as well. Local citizens worked to clean the water, and Congress was inspired to pass the National Environment Policy Act. That was the thirteenth time the Cuyahoga caught on fire.  

I spent a lot of time as a child in southern Ohio, where I would play in the creeks and rivers, searching for crawdads and peepers. Since becoming an adult, I’ve learned that many of the nearby rivers were metallic orange and void of life, at the same time that I played in my favorite creeks. Due to the history of mining in this area, acid mine drainage has polluted these waters. When mining exposes sulfide to water and air, sulfuric acid is created. The extraction of resources deep within the ground causes rivers that were once clear-running and fish-filled to fall to a pH of 4 or lower, similar to that of battery acid.

Our rivers are talking to us. They’re sending up bright orange flares. Through thick oil slicks, they’re asking to be water again.

As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about the polluted Onondaga Lake, “...The water has been tricked. It started on its way full of innocence, full of its own purpose. Through no fault of its own it has been corrupted and, instead of being a bearer of life, it must now deliver poison. And yet it cannot stop itself from flowing. It must do what it must do, with the gifts bestowed upon it by the Creator. It is only people who have a choice” (Braiding Sweetgrass).

If we listen, the water will tell us what she needs.

I’ve been looking for some answers

From these long-forgotten trees.

But the water holds the wisdom

Of the changing land beneath.

The water also gives voice to the land around us. She does not leave us alone to interpret the changing world or figure out how to manage climate change by ourselves. Whether it’s a glacial river in the Yukon redirecting its course due to fast-melting glaciers, or our nearby Mississippi setting record high levels and record low levels over the course of just two months, our rivers are reacting to a warmer climate and giving warning signs of a volatile future. As MPR’s Chief Meteorologist, Paul Huttner, says, “Our rivers and lakes are a barometer of climate change.”

When a river flows, her path and direction reflects the environment through which she moves. For example, a slow, meandering river often points to unstable shores, which erode and fill the water with sediment. Deforested riverbanks change the shape of the river’s path. But as surrounding forests are regenerated, tree roots stabilize the soil and the river flows stronger, more fixed in her course. This is the language of rivers. I take solace in the fact that if we can read the rivers, then we can understand the land. To solve climate change, we must acknowledge the wisdom of nature.

Mississippi River,

Listen as she speaks.

When we perform this song, we teach our audience the first and last lines and invite them to sing along. We sing the last verse in unison, bringing our voices together in one simple melody. To sing these words together feels like a necessary act. We fill the room with a question, “Mississippi River, what do you need from me?” And then we listen.