Montana: Land of Space and Sky

“It matters little where you go on the plains.  There is the land, flat or rolling, an incredible green in the rainy spring, tan as a panther’s pelt later.  And here and there is a farm house and land given to wheat, lush in growth, gentle yellow in maturity.  Along the way, well apart, sit small towns, sleepy in the sun, self-contained in winter.  There is beauty in the land if you have eyes to see it, a sort of foreverness that reaches the end of sight.”
— A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Montana! A Photographic Celebration, vol 2

Montana landscape along Hwy 2

“What I love is to head down the road into new territory and discover whatever comes to me.”
— Annick Smith, Crossing the Plains with Bruno

After leaving Glacier National Park, I headed east across Montana on Highway 2.  I liked travelling on this road.  Like the interstate, the speed limit was 70 for long stretches.  But the driving was broken up by passing through small towns every now and again, where you had to slow down to 25 or 35 miles per hour.

“Here is just distance, endless, vacant distance.”
— A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Montana! A Photographic Celebration, vol 2

This was mostly an unpeopled landscape, with fields lying endless in the distance, a largely treeless place.  I liked the feeling of emptiness and space:

“Simplicity and plainness are created by empty space.  They provide the necessary leeway to be able to absorb a wide variety of thoughts and feelings. . . . This provides space for one’s own imagination, for the grace and beauty of small things, for the unfolding of that which lies in between.”
— Michael Kenna and Yvonne Meyer-Lohr, Forms of Japan

So many writers comment about the impression of immensity of these western lands:
“The interminable distance was in itself an unforgettably wonderful experience.  It gave us an impression of the lavish immensity of our own country as nothing else could.”
— Emily Post, By Motor to the Golden Gate

“Somewhere between Havre and Browning, the West will swallow up all your cares and give you a momentary sense that anything is still possible.”
— Clay Jenkinson, for the Love of North Dakota and Other Essays

The skies were clear, blue, another image of infinity:  “. . . the sky embodies a perfect wholeness without which we cannot exist, an infiniteness that we do not understand, that we cannot grasp, and which will always remain fleeting. . . . the sky is the greatest and most comprehensive whole that we are able to experience with our senses.”
— Michael Kenna and Yvonne Meyer-Lohr, Forms of Japan

Ruin, abandoned building along Hwy 2
Old Cowboy Bar sign

Is the emptiness also reflective of lost dreams and hopes?  The extermination of the buffalo?  The relocation and deliberate annihilation of the native people who once called this region home?  The relics of old homesteads that dot these lands stand as reminders of lives lost.  Disillusionment.

Tumbleweed caught in fence

“What loves the wind in this spare land?  Of the trees it is the aspens, their leaves long-stemmed so they flutter in the slightest breeze. . . .

Of the unwanted, it is the tumbleweeds, cursed, straw-coloured candelabras of brittle stems and thorns.  Shallowly rooted, they leave their rainless gardens of neglect and somersault like ribs of acrobats across the fallow fields.  At lines of barbed wire stretching from past to past, with the surety of stone, they build a border, a wailing wall, the wind hauling sifts of clay and packing them in, so the wind itself cannot pass through.”
— Lorna Crozier, “First Cause: Wind,” from Small Beneath the Sky

Cottonwood trees

Hungry for the sight of green, the cottonwoods are welcome signs of life, of water, in this dry land.  “I don’t know if there is any Great Plains sound finer than the dance of the cottonwood leaves — especially when the breeze ebbs and flows.  It’s astonishingly beautiful.”
— Clay Jenkinson, For the Love of North Dakota and Other Essays

Grain elevator with round storage silo next to it
Old red grain elevator

And one final image from my drive across Montana’s Highway 2 — the iconic grain elevator, the beacon of every small town:

“On the flat horizon of a Midwestern town, the grain elevator props up the whole sky; it holds down the earth.  The grain that sleeps fat and finished inside the elevator comes from sunshine and soil.  It brings together heaven and earth.

The railroad tracks that pass by the elevator crisscross the country.  They sew together the land in great, long stitches connecting the people in the small towns to larger cities and the grain to shipping ports.”
— Debra Marquart, The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere

Watercolor paintings of my impressions of Montana: landscape, grain elevator, cottonwood trees






July’s and August’s Book Covers from Favorite Books

Two of my favorite recent reads are books about Japan.

Forms of Japan by Michael Kenna and Yvonne Meyer-Lohr is an oversized book containing 240 of Kenna’s black and white photographs of Japanese landscapes, skies, and cultural icons.  Although Kenna is not Japanese, his photos have a Japanese sensibility — they reflect calmness, serenity, and simplicity and show beauty in stark, fleeting things.

Here is what Kenna says about his work:  “When I photograph, I am irresistibly drawn to subject matter with visual patterns, interesting abstractions and graphic composition.  The essence of an image often involves the basic juxtaposition of our man-made structures with the more fluid and organic elements of the landscape.  I enjoy places that have mystery and atmosphere, perhaps a patina of age, a suggestion rather than a description, a question or two.  I look for memories, traces, the presence of our human interaction with the land.  Often, I try to emulate the calm and solitude I find in the land, to share that with viewers.  At other times, I photograph the more turbulent phenomena of nature.  The resulting images are interpretations, products of intimate conversations with miscellaneous subject matter.”

I appreciated how Kenna’s photographs were curated and organized to bring to life some of the essential “forms” of the Japanese experience.  There are five groupings, or chapters.  “Each subject transports notably its concrete reality, captured in the photographs, but also corresponds to a specific formal subject:

SEA – Forms of Isolation
LAND – Forms of Strength
TREES – Forms of Transformation
SPIRIT – Forms of Entireness
SKY – Forms of Elusiveness”

Almost all of the images are composed in such a way that the white space is an integral and suggestive part of the whole.  I believe it is Meyer-Lohr who writes, “Simplicity and plainness are created by empty space.  They provide the necessary leeway to be able to absorb a wide variety of thoughts and feelings.  It is the same principle that also underlies the world of Japanese myth and communication through emptiness.  This provides space for one’s own imagination, for the grace and beauty of small things, for the unfolding of that which lies in between.”

She continues her thoughts on empty space in art:  “It is considered a symbol of stillness, the precondition for the appearance of the inner vision.  Lack of balance, asymmetry, simplification, abstraction, wabi or sabi and loneliness are just a few of the most important characteristics of Japanese art and culture.”

There is a lot to absorb in the photographs and accompanying quotes and texts of this lovely book.  I hope its influence manifests in my future watercolor paintings and photographs.

The Abundance of Less: Lessons in Simple Living from Rural Japan by Andy Couturier is a newly revised edition of A Different Kind of Luxury, which was written in 2010.  The book profiles ten people who have intentionally chosen to live simple, sustainable lives in rural Japan.  The new edition contains more photographs and updates on the lives of these Japanese artists, farmers, activists and philosophers in the aftermath of the March 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.  Two of the original ten had died before the second book came out.

When I first read the earlier edition in 2011, I was so taken with the book that I wrote a blog post about it.  (You can link to my post here.)  I enjoyed rereading the interviews with this new edition, and this time I was struck by how many of the people were influenced in their choices by time spent in India when they were young adults.  While on their sojourns in India, they got into the habit of not needing much, with the surprise benefit of opening their lives to more time.

Gufu Watanabe, potter, botanist, farmer said:  “If you start to accumulate things, you can’t travel, so I lived without.  I figured I could live a whole life without anything, and then I wouldn’t really have to work when I got back to Japan.”

Osamu Nakamura, woodblock printer, also figured out how to exist in Japan largely outside the cash economy:  “To have more time than things to do in that time, that is a very rich kind of feeling.”

Atsuko Watanabe, mother and activist, remarked:  “Most people spend their time relating entirely to things that are made solely for the purpose of keeping the economy spinning, of making money for someone . . . they don’t stop to consider, Why is it that I as a human am alive?”  She observes, “If you are selling your time, no matter how much money you get, you can’t every buy back that time.”  And, “Now, as long as you don’t desire too many things, you can have some time.”

I am inspired by the quality of the lives these Japanese people have made for themselves, how they found meaning in the small-scale, slow, and simple ways of being in the world.