Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Breathing In, Breathing Out

Journal Entry: Winter quarters on the banks of the Rappahannock River, Virginia; February 23, 1863
Cold and dreary February; ice and cold wind blow.

I remember, years ago, writing that line to start a poem. Those first words are the only part that I remember now; it was in another lifetime as an innocent farm boy waiting for the warming of spring. Now with war, winter is a quiet time, while armies restock, regroup, and wait for more pleasant weather to kill each other. February is still cold along the banks of the Rappahannock, but no longer dreary for me; others gripe and grumble, but I am no longer that lost soul that was once laid low. I am consoled by the sight of my breath in the frozen air; breathing in, breathing out; the same air as the breeze through the bare branches. I am buoyed by the winter whispers around me; the cheerful chatter of the winter wren comforting the mourning dove’s crying call; the river rush singing beneath the shoreline ice; all these voices even more muffled by snow on the hills. Through these voices, I know that this earth, our ancient mother, is not asleep; she has not abandoned her sons and daughters because of our folly. In terms of her time, this weary war is but a blink and will soon be what we call history, and she calls this one moment.

During this past year, I have met more men and women than I even saw in my entire life before this war. I have learned much about America that was not in the books of my cousin’s fine library. Americans are robust stock, mixed from around the world, the strongest men and women that were able to complete the journey from the old worlds. We all make up America; we are not separate; we fight now, but will be a union once more I am sure.

I am still a Confederate courier, but am becoming a messenger with a new message, one that I cannot yet openly share with others. As much as the other troopers despise this war, most are still loyal to THE CAUSE, even if they are not sure what that is. I am equally loyal to Virginia, but there is a loyalty to a greater union; much greater than states or status. This is what I have heard in those whispers; we are all in union; there is no separation.

I am the breath,
the whisper,
of all that came before.
I am the breath,
the promise,
of all those still to come.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Free Friday: Postal Stamps, Full Sheet

  There is something so romantic about letters and envelopes, especially now, when almost all correspondence is electronic. There is mystery in a bundle of letters; an almost adolescent anticipation just as we open the mailbox, where any day holds hope; where a dream might come true within the letter bundle. On his appointed rounds, the postman, that romantic carrier, shuffles the bundle small to large, and then ties it with a string. A gift wrapped with ribbon could not promise so completely.
  Today, I offer for your copyright-free use in projects, a full page of designs for postal rubber stamps. With each new project, I make up a sheet of these to use in my collage. These are all vintage images that I have altered or made from scratch. You can cut/paste with Photoshop to layer onto projects, or print it of high resolution paper, and have a sheet of rubber stamps made. Give the image a click or two to download the hi-res file.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Warmer into Winter

Journal Entry: Port Royal, Virginia; January 4, 1863

It seems our regiment will make our winter quarters around Port Royal, which is wonderful, as I should be able to spend much more time with Marianna. After the trials and revelations of the past year, her face is a welcoming world of  warm whispers. Each time I see her, I say very little at first, because I cannot catch my breath; my voice would seem as though I had just run miles through the farm fields to greet her. In my heart that is how it seems, even if I catch a glimpse of her from across the room. Fortunately, Marianna has much to say, so my hying heart can calm a bit before I say a word or two; a full sentence takes much longer. I am her gallant trooper, so I try not to sound like a breathless schoolboy, though that is how I feel around her.

In the days since the Fredericksburg battle, Marianna has been helping across the river at Chatham, my Cousin Betty’s home. The Federals have turned the large house and grounds into a field hospital and it is a gruesome scene. There are also wounded Confederate prisoners bedridden there, so Marianna went to make sure they were treated well, which they were. She says she has met the most remarkable man working there as a nurse and companion to each and all. His name is Walt Whitman and he brings small gifts of food and writing papers, sitting with the wounded for hours at a time. Marianna says he is a journalist who has traveled here from New York, but I am sure I have heard his name before.

My cousin, Betty, spends her summers at Ellwood, across the Plank Road from our home. There she has a grand library; it is where I have enjoyed many hours reading her collection of books. Betty, a tiny, beautiful woman ten years my senior, inspired my love of reading as a boy. I'm not even really sure if she is actually a cousin, but she's a Jones, I'm a Jones, and our families have lived right here for well over a hundred years, so I call her cousin. I remember that, just after I enlisted, she showed me a slim volume of poetry, from a Boston bookstore, which she adored. I told her I would read it in a few weeks when I returned, but that was twenty months ago, a lifetime ago. That slim volume was called Leaves of Grass, which sounded like poems I might like, and the frontispiece pictured a jaunty gentleman, as I might like to become as I aged. I believe the author was Walt Whitman. I am sure that is coincidence, but this will be a warmer winter with the memory of happier days spent with friends, family, and books in a fine library next to a blazing fire. It certainly brightens my evening, sitting here in my wet, cold shebang, with an inadequate campfire, writing my own slim volume by lantern light.


NOTES:  Walt Whitman traveled to Horace and Betty Lacy’s mansion, Chatham, in Fredericksburg, Virginia to volunteer as a nurse in the army hospitals after the Battle of Fredericksburg. His graphic recollection of this time can be found in his book, Memoranda During the War.

Pictured above is the frontispiece to the 1855 publication, Leaves of Grass. It is a steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison.

Ellwood Manor, is a circa 1790 home located on the Wilderness Battlefield in the Virginia counties of Spotsylvania and Orange. Much of the Battle of the Wilderness was fought on the plantation itself. William Jones’s daughter, Betty, inherited the 5,000-acre plantation in 1847. Betty married J. Horace Lacy in the house on October 19, 1848. With the exception of the Civil War years, the Lacys resided at Ellwood until 1896, when they retired to a smaller home on Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Free Friday: Natural Characters

This is the last week of summer and, as seasons end and begin, I usually spend some time thinking about what I’ve done, where I am going. I was thinking this morning of renewing one of my rituals, beginning the day with a form of meditative drawing, using color pencils. These small color pencil drawings on a stark white background were a way to get the art flowing before going to the studio to work on my larger pieces. They were very much a form of meditation, taking the simplest objects and contemplating their significance in this world. The drawing of similar objects again and again became a sort of mantra repeated until the outcome was no longer as important as the process. This form of meditation suited me more than sitting Zazen.

For Free Friday this week, I offer for your free use in projects, a sampling of the natural characters that I drew time and time again. Give the image a click or two to download the hi-res file. Try a drawing meditation; you can do it anywhere. What simple tools we choose to use to get inside this mystery.

An ornithological note: My egg drawings are generally not specific types, as each egg represents the mystery of birth and life’s potential.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Whispers in the Whirlwind

Journal Entry: Fredericksburg, Virginia; December 13, 1862

A two day ride brought our regiment into Fredericksburg this dawn, moving across the Massaponax Creek, until the morning fog lifted, revealing what seemed to be the entire Federal Army artillery just yards away. We quickly splashed back across the creek as Major Pelham wheeled two cannon into our front as though they weighed nothing; spinning them around to open a whirlwind of fire against the whole of the Federal army. With two guns, then one, he held off their advance and saved our lives. The fog was rapidly replaced by the drifting, acrid brume from Federal batteries on both sides of the Rappahannock. Our regiment spent the day supporting Major Pelham’s guns. As I carried messages back and forth between Hamilton’s Crossing and General Lee’s command post on Telegraph Hill, I could see the results of yesterday’s unimaginable and almost total destruction of our beloved Fredericksburg. Further beyond my imagination was the dutiful march of row upon row of boys in blue reduced to red heaps as thousands fell at Marye’s Heights. Finally, as evening approached, I could watch it no more and gave Shortcake a leg, turned on her haunches to the right and rode west to the heights above the city.

I could not shake this scene from my senses; we ride and march about this country en masse with chests puffed out, behind shiny shoulder straps boasting of battles with grand artillery and all of the mayhem that industrial progress can muster, but tonight, when we look into the winter sky, we should feel ashamed at what we have wrought. What must the small children and weary women of Fredericksburg be thinking as they huddle, hidden in their once happy homes upon this killing ground, surrounded by the moans and screams of those boys clawing at their doors or left on the field below the heights; their last breath visible in the cold winter air.

We first ask them to send off every boy and man, leaving only the very youngest and very oldest, and then the boys return, bringing the battle to their doorstep, as though we were not content to let our mothers use their imagination; we want them to experience hell here at home.

I tied Shortcake to a naïve sapling and sat for a while as the pop and roar of arms died down. I took out my Colt and thought, for just a moment, that I could end this hell, at least for me. I could extinguish my lantern, be among the missing; deeper in the trees, no one would find me; the sapling would grow and over the years consume me, so that one day I might provide a little shade for some survivor of this absurdity. I laid the pistol beside me and reached for my pencil instead. For solace, I took to my journal, to lose myself in my writing, “Come children; join our parade; bring your mothers that all may see our folly. Come children …”

And then, quiet. A quick quiet transforms the landscape. I look back to the winter sky and an event rarely seen this far south fills the dark horizon; the northern lights, aurora borealis, a miraculous sight at any time, but truly awe inspiring at this moment. With the coming of the lights, the moans and screams have disappeared. At first, I think perhaps the roar of Pelham’s cannon has deafened me permanently, but this is different. I hold my pocket watch to my ear; I can hear it ticking; seven o’clock. Something celestial has indeed descended and all seems at peace, as though the vast vault of heaven was pleading for no more murder, no more mayhem; perhaps a final sign to those mortally wounded and still on the field, seeing with dying eyes, faintly hearing the ethereal angels’ calming call within those lights, “This too shall pass. Be still; be at peace; dissolve back into union with your ancient mother.”

The complete quiet is replaced by the softest whir of wind, or is it a whisper; no, not one whisper, a dozen whispers, then a thousand. It must be in my head; there is no one within a hundred yards. I continue to write, soothed by the scratching of pencil on paper, but the whispers remain, as though I could hear everyone upon the earth and beyond it as well; the whispering angels, the mothers, the children, the dead, and the nearly dead; they speak as one, yet I cannot understand their words. I look back to the sky; the northern lights still a shimmering green glow; not a mirage; I see many men below the hill pointing to the sky; do they hear the whir of whispers. I recheck my watch; still ticking; still seven o’clock, still this moment, though I was sure many minutes had moved past me. I have been stilled by this distant flame; touched by this light; we have all been touched this night.

What am I to make of these whispers? They could be calling all, or me alone. Am I to join them; am I already dead and do not know? Slowly, the lights soften to black, the whisper blends with the winter wind; I wrap my wool around and wait to wake tomorrow. Or not.

Journal Entry: Fredericksburg, Virginia; December 14, 1862

   I am awake; awake, yes, I am sure of it; I feel the cold air as I breathe in. I breathe out; yes, awake and alive; I breathe in the smell of morning campfires from below the heights.

   Those whispers are no longer constant in my ears, yet they will be constantly in my heart and part of my voice. The whispers are softer now, coming when I listen, between breaths, in the purl and trickle of the creek, in the trill of the unseen junco, even in the slightest zephyr moving through the white pine. I will live for those whispering, live for them, as they have died for me.

   Today there will be much moving about, removing the dead from the fields, removing the armies to regroup. I will lose myself in the commotion and try, once again, to find Marianna. My wish is that I could be like the Dickens’ ghost of Christmas future and take Marianna forward in time where surely there will be no more wars.

A Christmas Carol, a novella by English author Charles Dickens first published by Chapman and Hall and first released on 19 December 1843.

My thanks to Kelly Letky for her inspirational comment that led me to add this next morning entry.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Free Friday: All of Us

I remember September 11, 2001 as vividly as the Kennedy assassination, and the first man on the moon. Yes, I am ancient, which is my point. You and I are ancient; each and all, we have been here forever. We were born of our mothers and fathers, yet we were always a part of them, and every generation before them. There is not a break in the lineage, when any of us appeared out of nowhere and became separate. We were always here. We are all children of the same ancient mother. All of us.

I recently found a copy of my family tree dating back into the 1300’s, and looking over it, the entire idea of it seemed superficial, like viewing a giant sequoia tree from an inch away. My family tree is, as yours, a single tree of infinite branches and roots extending through the universes. If in my anger, I cut off a branch, I hurt you and me, and everyone that came before or after.

As we remember 9/11, let us too remember that, even when we disagree with our sisters and brothers, they are still our family; they are doing the best that they know at this moment, as are we.  They may have moved far away and taken on a few peculiar habits, but mom still loves them, so we should try to love them as well. I have often been called naïve and overly optimistic, and I agree that I am all that and more; after all, I am ancient.

For Free Friday this week, I offer a favorite image of mine, “All of Us”, the frontispiece from an 1886 book entitled All Sorts of Children by Alice Rollins. Give the image a click or two to download the hi-res file.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Players in a Play

Journal Entry: Fredericksburg, Virginia; November 19, 1862

Arriving in town early this morning, I could not find Marianna. I spoke at length with our friend, Charles Chewning at the Army Supply Depot, south of Fredericksburg near the hospital. He rode with us in the 9th Virginia until his left leg was badly cut by a Federal saber at Manassas in August. Charles is the finest fellow you could meet and one of the best horsemen I have ever met in Spotsylvania County. Many a time we would race and, likely as not, I would have his dust kicked up in my eyes, but never would he boast about it. It grieves me to know that, lame for life, he will probably never ride again. He is like almost everyone working at the Supply Depot; each on canes or crutches.

He spoke with Marianna a few days ago. She was moving between hospitals on both sides of the Rappahannock River. In the hospital beds, there is no blue or grey, no north or south; there are only boys in pain, patiently waiting for assistance, waiting for healing, or waiting for angels to quietly close their eyes. There are Virginia boys, as well as Vermont boys, so Marianna does as she can to help. We each have our role to play in this awful drama. We do as duty calls, even when we wish to extinguish the footlights and return to anonymity; no longer actors in someone else’s theatre.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Free Friday: British Butterflies

The long, lacy white trim on the butterfly bush is fading; its crazy quilt of Monarchs and Painted Ladies has started to unravel. The hummingbird hurries between the persistent petals, like some frantic seamstress trying to sew it back together; I might miss her most. September moves us into a new season, and here in Maryland we have truly changing seasons; between beautiful springs and autumns, there are sweltering summers and snowbound winters. That is the way I like it, for each season opens with fresh hope and promise that all will be once again wonderful. Growth, rest, and renewal; that is a natural cycle seen, not on a screen, but outside under foot and over head. A walk in the woods is a completely different experience in each season; it renews the spirit of the walker, who then may work to renew the spirit of the world. Take a walk this weekend; it helps the world.

For Free Friday this week, I offer for your free use in projects, another assortment of butterfly cards. These butterfly cigarette cards are part of a 50 card “British Butterflies” series published in 1927 by Wills’s Cigarettes of Great Britain. The originals each measure 1 3/8” x 2 5/8”. Give the image a click or two to download the hi-res file.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Here and There, Then and Now

    When Catherine Moreland at the Delaplaine asked me to start this art/journal project commemorating the Civil War Sesquicentennial, I had no idea that it would become an autobiographical memory. My intent was to show the incredible change in America during the second half of the nineteenth century leading to the Gilded Age, but in relating what may have happened on a personal journey of a particular cavalry trooper; his story became my story. Perhaps, Fellini was correct that, “All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography.”

    As I research the rather sketchy history of the 9th Virginia Cavalry, I try to fill in the blanks based on my own history and emotional connection to the land where that trooper and I spent our childhood. Because I had at least ten ancestors that rode with the 9th Cavalry, I could be cut from that same cloth and I find that, after reading a couple brief sentences from the regimental history, I am effortlessly transported to the time, the scene, and the emotion. Having been in the military during the Vietnam War, I empathize with the trooper’s pain of uncertainty and the loneliness of life far from home.

    If I leave the comforts of my modern home, sitting or walking outside for a time, I move back and forth between 2010 and 1862, from here to there, then to now, as if there were no difference, and possibly, there is none. Perhaps, as philosophers and physicists have said, there is no past or future; there is only now, this very moment. I have tried, for years, to see the logic in that theory, but only with this project, have I felt it in my being; a deep connection to each and all across time.

    My projects always take on a life of their own; it could be my life; I just didn’t know before.