The Great Predator

Five or more young bucks (Odocoileus hemionus Californicus) are gathered in the chaparral: on my approach they scatter to the four winds. Two come crashing through the bush towards me, reach the path I am on then stot off into the chamise on the far side of the trail. In this neck of the woods we rarely see deer running. They jump into the air off of all four legs, land and repeat. Stotting not running, moving through a landscape of deerweed, artemesia, chamise, laurel sumac, coyote bush, sage and rock, the sort of bastardized chaparral/sage scrub that covers the land after it has been bulldozed for fire clearance or mangled by forays of residential development.

I most often see deer when they are already aware of my presence as a potential predator. So I get to see them stot, prong or pronk, but rarely walk or run along game trails, pause to graze in meadows and pick their way through oaks, cottonwoods and willows as they find their way to Bear Creek to drink - all of which I know they must do when they are in their own world undisturbed by coyotes, bob cats, mountain lions or humans.

What we see depends on more than the reaction of the observed. It depends on who and how we are, and ultimately, when we are - our place in the temporal stream of our lives where Time lurks, as we drink in experiences, as the great predator.

Georgia O'Keeffe and Andy Warhol were still alive when I arrived in Los Angeles (Ghostburb). They represented the guilty pleasures of American art. Easy to look at, enormously appealing, but, it seemed then, vacuous. In 1970 I had used my wife's red nail varnish to turn each of the 4 x 4 white tiles that lined our kitchen in Whale Beach, on Sydney's north shore, into a picture of a Cambell's soup can as an homage to one of the works (32 Cans) that ushered in the pop-art movement and which was first exhibited in Los Angeles in 1962. Warhol remained of some interest to me through the 1980's while O'Keeffe came to represent tawdry populism.

Almost ten years ago there was the Warhol retrospective at MOCA. Organized by Heiner Bastian for the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the exhibition then traveled to the Tate Modern in London before arriving in Los Angeles. Seeing the full breadth of his work for the first time confirmed to me that he was a major figure. This impression was only slightly tainted by the experience of visiting, in 2010, Pittsburgh's Warhol Museum where much of his not-so-great work is stuffed into a four story building and where his deliberate melding of art and commerce seems to have been taken as curatorial license to turn the museum into a series of multi-media entertainments where the art disappears into noisy spectacle.

No such pandering at New York's Metropolitan where the recent exhibit Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O'Keeffe, showed O'Keeffe's work in the context of his stable of early twentieth century modernist painters. Now that I am here in Ojai, I have begun to understand O'Keeffe's obsession with place. In her case, a primeval place in New Mexico called Abiquiu, where, as Christopher Benfey notes, she brought "dead things to life, both herself and the objects that came her way... like skulls and other desert detritus" (The Far-Apart Artists, New York Review of Books, January, 2012).

On New Year's Eve, at a dinner, I sat next to a woman from Golden, New Mexico, less than a hundred miles south of Abiquiu, where she and her husband raise Wagyu beef on 27,000 acres of high desert. They have recently completed a Rick Joy house which features large glass areas, charcoal stained cedar siding and a hovering corrugated roof. The parched landscape appears to flow through the center section of the building where open decks extend the living room floor beyond the glass enclosure. The siding echoes the Japanese tradition of shou-sugi-ban where cedar is charred to increase its resistance to insects and fire. The house, set on a slight rise in the midst of a thousand acre pasture where pure bred Japanese cattle forage, is a powerful presence in an austere landscape and is, she told me, under attack from flocks of crows - the insect screens are besmeared with the blood of their talons and streaked white with their shit.

Annie Proulx built her house at the bottom of a cliff in Wyoming and called the book that told the story of its building Bird Cloud. Her house was designed with bird watching in mind, and included deliberately conceived roosting spots. The vortices of avian life that swirl between the thermals of the cliff face, the river at the cliff bottom and her building remain benign in their impact upon her intrusion into this vast western landscape (Warm Breeze). Bob and Mary have been less fortunate in respect to the local bird life.

Their property contains ancient Pueblo ruins only now being excavated, and through this work they have come to know the local Pueblo Indians (or now, more correctly, Pueblo people). Short of planting plastic owls on the corners of their magnificent house, I suggested contacting a local shaman and having him conduct appropriate ceremonies of propitiation towards the crows.

Members of the corvid family have a significant place in myth and magic. On July 4, 1963 Carlos Castaneda claims he was transformed into a crow and flew, facilitated by application of a Datura salve known as 'Flying Ointment'. Those of you who have read the Castaneda books will remember that he was forever looking over his left shoulder fearing that a crow might fly over it as a harbinger of death and destruction. A crow flying over the right shoulder was an altogether more propitious occurrence.

For the last 35 years of his life, Castaneda was haunted by his experience of a crow's vision.

"I asked Don Juan what were the things that I had seen. He said that because this was the first time I was seeing as a crow the images were not clear...I brought up the issue of the difference I had detected in the movement of light. "Things that are alive", he said, "move inside and a crow can easily see when something is dead or about to die because the movement has stopped...." Castaneda asks, "Do rocks move inside?", and Matus responds, "No, not rocks, or dead animals or dead trees. But they are beautiful to look at. They like to look at them. No light moves inside them". The teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui way of knowledge, Carlos Castaneda, UC Berkeley, 1968.

Georgia O'Keeffe saw like a crow. She saw the beauty in rocks, skulls and the laminal earth forms of her beloved New Mexico, and she shared her vision with us. She brought dead things to life. But what do the flocks of crows attacking Mary's house see? Is it beauty? Is it death, or simply their reflections?

Warhol sought a kind of truth in the slick surfaces of urban celebrity and the detritus of American culture. O'Keeffe often sought beauty in the quietude of the inanimate. When they were alive I barely understood. Now these artists' work represents the pleasures of becoming fully acculturated to this strange land. I understand. I see. It takes time.

The crows, however, remain an enigma.

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