Collaborations with nature

A new ‘school’ of art and geography gathers artists for creative fieldwork in the Sonoran Desert.

 

Last February, I huddled with 18 other artists on the narrow shoulder of the Mount Lemmon Highway, which snakes up the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, Arizona, through desert scrub and grasslands into spruce-fir woodlands. We’d stopped at 3,000 feet above sea level to notice the change in altitude. 

“How much can we perceive elevation?” asked Erik Schmahl, the landscape architect who led the somatic exercise. I closed my eyes and heard wind, car engines and a distant airplane. I felt cool air on my skin. My bones seemed to settle.

“Feeling altitude isn’t solely a human experience, though we have more faculty to move up and down the mountain easily,” Schmahl said. “For plants and animals, slight shifts in elevation can mean life or death.” 

We got back in the cars and traveled on, stopping every 1,000 feet in elevation to repeat the exercise. Schmahl’s statement awed and disquieted me. Pea-green saguaros gave way to yellow grasslands, and eventually, Mexican blue oaks and junipers appeared. I felt at once aware of my human adaptability and limitations. I also wanted more time — and maybe more solitude — to try to sense the impacts of temperature, light and elevation in my own body. 

Hair on Landscape.
C.E. Fitzgerald

Such are the gentle provocations of SNAG, the free, informal “art school” that Schmahl co-founded with Susanna Battin, a contemporary visual artist. The pair, who moved to Tucson from Los Angeles during the pandemic, wanted “to make interesting friends, think critically together, and make work together,” Battin said.

SNAG stands for School of New Art Geographies. The acronym came first: “We were inspired by the catclaw acacia, sometimes called the ‘wait-a-minute bush,’” Battin said, referring to the plant’s apt nickname; its tiny thorns snag clothing or bare skin, often halting hikers in their tracks. “You can confidently go out in the brush thinking you know everything, but then nature itself — or our thoughts about it — pulls us back and challenges that confidence. But we keep going. It’s about embracing those challenges and remaining open to difficulty,” she said.

With funding from Tucson’s Museum of Contemporary Art for SNAG’s first year, Battin and Schmahl put out a call for applicants. They selected 25 participants, me among them. As a writer and artist, my work has long explored our complex relationships with — and as — nature, and I was hungry for both rigor and camaraderie, especially after pandemic isolation. SNAG leaders scheduled a field trip or a gathering to discuss readings every other weekend, February through May. Together, we created our reading list, which included essays by Ursula K. Le Guin, Marcia Bjornerud and Brandon Shimoda, among others. Some of us volunteered to lead activities in the field. One afternoon, I invited fellow SNAGers to hop like frogs and flock like birds, exercises from my past choreographic work designed to help us imagine the lives of animals and challenge anthropocentric perceptions of landscape. 

Geologists, botanists, dendrochronologists and cultural historians joined our field trips, offering specific knowledge — and an interesting vocabulary — about Sonoran Desert history and ecology. During one geology talk, I made this list in my notebook: sheering, silly putty, deformation, magma bodies, electron backscatter refraction, cinematic fabric, rock candy. Together, these terms seemed to create a kind of geologic poem or even a choreographic score.

On a hike in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson in early May, botanist Jack Dash impressively rattled off scientific names of dozens of plant species. I knew canyon hackberry by its tiny green leaves and edible orange fruits, but not its Latin name, Celtis reticulata, or its family — Cannabaceae, but without any THC. 

Plant taxonomies are most useful when they tell us something descriptive or geographical about plants, Dash said. Sideoats grama grass, for example, is Bouteloua curtipendula, from the Latin curtus for “shortened” and pendulus, for “hanging.”

“Believe it or not, there’s a genus of fern now named after Lady Gaga,” said Dash, who expressed some skepticism. “We have all these plants named after dead white dudes, so to name a plant after a woman is cool. But ultimately, I’m not sure it serves the larger cause of taxonomy.”  

Maybe not, but I love the botanical creativity in such nomenclature. When I researched it later, I learned that ferns in the new genus resemble one of Lady Gaga’s outfits. Better yet: Its DNA sequence spells GAGA.  

Perhaps this is what cultural theorist Donna Haraway means when she calls for creative entanglements and collaborations with the more-than-human. (Her 2016 book, Staying with the Trouble, is on the SNAG reading list.) Humans are inextricably linked with the nonhuman, Haraway writes, and this requires sympoiesis, or “making-with,” rather than insisting on our human dominance. 

“We have all these plants named after dead white dudes, so to name a plant after a woman is cool. But ultimately, I’m not sure it serves the larger cause of taxonomy.”  

For many visual artists, poets, choreographers, photographers and filmmakers in SNAG, the idea of “making with” nature may not be a new concept. Still the readings, discussions and field trips have brought depth and structure to our research and practice. 

After rereading William Cronon’s 1996 essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” photographer Conor Fitzgerald discovered a new lens through which to view the images he’d been making of mesquite and palm trees in his neighborhood.

 “The tree in the garden is in reality no less other, no less worthy of our wonder and respect, than the tree in an ancient forest,” Cronon writes, adding that “the tree in the wilderness … can teach us to recognize the wildness we did not see in the tree we planted in our own backyard.”

Fitzgerald had been bothered by the dust and hair that sometimes collected on his 4-by-5-inch negatives. “Then I thought, if this is bothering me so much, why don’t I lean into it?”

So, he purposely added more human hair — his own and his partner’s — and liked the result. “Man-made, but full of wild ecology,” he said. And an example, perhaps, of how an artist can “make-with” nature instead of about it.  

SNAG artists will share ideas and studio visits this fall to offer support, critique or collaborative possibilities across disciplines. Additionally, a group show is scheduled for December. SNAG’s founders are seeking funds for the future, with a continued focus on the Sonoran Desert. “Next year could be underground rivers or wastelands,” Battin told me. The hope is “to build up a strong community so that the program can somewhat run itself.”

Community is not only key to SNAG’s vision, it’s also essential for undoing outdated romantic ideas about how best to relate to nature.

“I like the idea of distorting this notion of having to be alone in nature to experience the sublime,” Battin said. “You see images of this, and there’s no one in the frame. For me, it’s interesting to populate those views, because, of course, they’ve always been populated.”

For Schmahl, bringing people with different approaches and value systems together is the only way to confront the complex environmental and cultural issues facing Western landscapes — from wildfire to drought, the loss of biodiversity to the colonial assault on Indigenous knowledge. “The scale of it all is so immense,” Schmahl said. “You can’t do it yourself.” 

At 7,000 feet above sea level, the air felt crisp. Ponderosa pines rose high into the blue sky, and I heard their swaying trunks creak. I also listened to the voices of nearby SNAG artists, trying to figure out who was riding in which car the rest of the way up the road. 

If the job of scientists is to show us how nature works and how we humans are calamitously impacting those workings, maybe the job of artists is to show us there is no nature at all that is separate from our own messy — and hairy — human selves.   

Kimi Eisele is a multidisciplinary artist and the author of The Lightest Object In The Universe (Algonquin 2019). She lives in Tucson where she works as a writer and folklorist at the Southwest Folklife Alliance.

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