Tag Archives: geology

The Temple of My Imperfection

—that moment when you finally realize that all your efforts toward achieving perfection will never be enough.

Seizing the Wabi-sabi

 Wabisabi (侘寂) represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. -Wikipedia

crProbably wabi-sabi was first named for what happens to pottery subjected to the hellish temperatures in kilns, around 2,000ºF (~1100ºC). During the firing, the intense heat vibrates all the bonds that hold the minerals together until they come apart, and their constituent ions and molecules cruise around in a melted bubbly mixture that resembles lava, an igneous rock.

The kiln cools, and the pottery solidifies. Sometimes a gas bubble in the glaze pops at that moment and a little crater forms. Or maybe the glaze didn’t come out with a uniform color, or part of it dis-adhered from the pot and crawled away. Or the tea bowl sagged into another pot.

Classic wabi sabi, telling the story of a unique and unrepeatable moment of creation, fired and frozen in time.

Such wabi-sabi moments manifest keshiki–the landscape of the clay; these imperfections do not in any way interfere with the functionality of the piece, and it would be enormously wasteful to throw something useful away because of a surface imperfection.

One over Infinity

SphericalCow2I like to think of firing pottery as a sort of ‘backyard metamorphism’ that changes the pottery, essentially a sedimentary rock, into a metamorphic rock.

I have even made the statement publicly, that kilns are science laboratories in which ceramic artists perform experiments in thermodynamics, which is a branch of science that deals with the advanced secrets of the Universe. <Click here for Out of the Periodic Chart and into the Fire>

We have learned a great deal about the behavior of matter through experiments that rudely resemble the actual physical universe, tweaked by precise mathematical equations that ignore much of the almost infinite variation therein. Somehow we get close enough that the pieces fit together in rude sorts of ways.

Potter’s kilns on the other hand, much more closely approach the actual imperfection that brought us all the rocks on Earth. And the universe. With a great deal of faith, you consign your piece to the kiln. The wabi-sabi is impossible to know or quantify. There are no round frictionless cows.

Pray to the gods of fire, electricity, gravity and magnetism, that what comes out resembles the vision in your mind. Let me take a moment to calculate the likelihood of that.

One over infinity.

There’s always some wabi-sabi.

A Wabi Sabi Moment with Georgia O’Keeffe

O'Keeffe-(hands)I grew up looking at O’Keeffe art—being that she lived in New Mexico, where I was born and spent most of my life. I’d seen her paintings in books and posters for years. Standing in front of famous paintings in real life—no photograph holds a candle to that experience. It’s not just the colors being more alive, or that you get the true idea of the size of the painting. You are close, very close to the act of creation.
And once, I stood mesmerized in that very moment, as close to a painting as the cops at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe would allow. I could not take my eyes off it: a single paintbrush hair embedded in a stroke of color. I felt as if I was there in that one moment when Georgia O’Keeffe stood before this very canvass. A million brush strokes in her long life of painting…and there’s this one that put in that single, unique moment of exquisite wabi-sabi.

It was breathtaking.

I’m glad she didn’t see the hair; surely she would have plucked it out. I would have, in the name of flawless perfection that is found only as a concept within the part of the human brain that dreams of round frictionless cows.

Imperfection: it’s what makes the world

The Hope Diamond
The Hope Diamond

Not even crystals are perfect; they all have wabi-sabi.

They found this one really big chunk of blue diamond, cut all the wabi-sabi away, until it was perfectly huge. Hugely perfect. They called it the Hope Diamond—hoping for another humongous one like it.

One over infinity. It happens. But it’s all the other instances of imperfection that comprise the whole dang universe. The perfect parts are so few as to barely exist at all.

I’ve never made a perfect pot, never wrote a perfect book, never been a perfect anything. I’ll continue to put it out there, though, as long as I have a heartbeat. I am but a fragment of the whole wabi-sabi universe unfolding.

I just don’t know what else to do with myself.

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Sentience and the Art of Everything

A Guineafowl Pufferfish, Hawaii
A Pufferfish

A recent blog post, And then it was Art, featured a delightful video of a pufferfish creating a work of art in the sand, as if he could somehow visualize what the final piece would look like. That’s what artists do—we create a physical manifestation from an internal vision. Who knew a little fish could do that too? Surely it is not a sign of high intelligence and sentience in humans, but merely an instinctive mating ritual in the pufferfish.

Heretofore, I’ve been guilty of a quite bigoted attitude, you might even say species-ist, against pufferfish everywhere. I have in a most unaware manner, equated art with superior intelligence and sentience, and discounted the very idea that this tiny fish could be either. For most of my life I have bought into that dogma.

Until the pufferfish came into my life.

What if the pufferfish is actually highly intelligent as well as aware?—but how would we know? When the standard of intelligence is set by us, and has everything to do with our anatomy?

So what is sentience, exactly?

Well, the definition evolves over time, but has nothing to do with intelligence…

 

And:

sentience (ˈsɛnʃəns) n.

1. the state or quality of being sentient; awareness

2. sense perception not involving intelligence or mental perception; feeling

 Some say that the ability to plan, visualize, and construct is a sign of sentience. That sounds like architecture, actually. Art and engineering combined if we do it; instinct if another animal does.

Just because we can’t hear it scream…

Sense perception means the ability to feel pain and loneliness. And to suffer. I wonder if there is a living creature anywhere that does not feel pain? Or loneliness. Everything that lives probably feels pain. I’m thinking maybe microbes don’t, but how do I know?  Just because they’re microscopic?  Am I again being species-ist, also known as myopic?
BlackCanyonMoss2
Moss Rocks!

EcoArt

Maybe art and sentience have nothing whatsoever to do with one another. Consider also the lush green moss gracing a quartz and pretty pink feldspar rock called Orthoclase.  As if the moss was painting on the rock. Can we even consider sentience in a plant?

 

If you take a closer look, past or within the velvety green luscious amazing moss, there’s a few other creatures in the rocks. As it turns out….moss is an allotrope, meaning it’s a primary plant producer upon which the food supply of the entire animal world depends.  Contrary to popular belief, moss does not eat rocks, it attaches to them in order to get water; it’s energy is derived from the sun, as is true of all plants.

BlackCanyonMoss3
Symbionts
So what’s the lighter green stuff? Not moss, not even plants. They’re the rock eaters, the lithotropes, aka lichen—microbes that feed off the chemical compostion of rocks, or whatever they attach to. Lichen form a symbiotic relationship with the moss. Some are pale green, some are yellow, orange, they’re all amazing.
crustose_lichens_lg
Crustose Lichen
Are these creatures aware of their artful expression of living; their unique and endless variations of a verse in the great song of the Universe?
Am I?
Are you?

 

 

 

Eco Art

ow.ly/Ed3Uj

Moss Is:

 

http://agillenlifescience.pbworks.com/w/page/34864162/Autotroph

Isn’t

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endolith

Living in a Painting…

FirstCut
First Cut

“You live in a painting!”

That’s what my friend Nina said when she saw this photo of the pasture after the first cut of hay.

It’s true. I live in a beautiful landscape of mountains, hay meadows, peach orchards, and small farms on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains.

That’s Lamborn Mountain on the left, behind the tree branch, and Landsend Peak on the right; the two peaks form an iconic backdrop to the North Fork Valley—the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

Lamborn Mountain and LandsEnd
Lamborn Mountain and Lands End

Lamborn Mountain rises 11, 397 feet above sea level, and almost 6,000 feet above the valley. The two peaks are part of a laccolith—where hot magma oozed up and intruded the Mancos Shale, an organic-rich clay layer, and baked it into coal. Erosion over the millennia has removed a lot of the Mancos Shale, revealing the igneous core of Lamborn Mountain.

Nearby and up the road, the geological picture includes three coal mines, though they’re not in this painting. But chances are good I’ll be taking my camera up the road toward the mines in the very near future.

By the way…diamonds are not formed by squeezing the bejesus out of coal. Click here for more…

Freeze
Irrigation Water Ice Cubes

Spring run-off was pretty incredible this year, starting in mid-April with more snow meltwater than anyone has seen in 40 years.

It still freezes around here in mid-April, though not hard enough to freeze the water in the irrigation pipes, it got cold enough to turn it to ice cubes as soon as it spewed out the gates. There’s just a little snow left up in the high country. Now our hopes are on the monsoonal rain.

Mount Lamborn
Mount Lamborn

 

 

Lamborn and Landsend are photogenic at any time of year, or day. And totally paintable, though I have not. Yet.

Lamborn and Landsend at Sunrise
Lamborn and Landsend at Sunrise

 

 

 

En plein air, for sure.

Landscape Paint and the Chemistry Blues

419px-Johannes_Vermeer_(1632-1675)_-_The_Girl_With_The_Pearl_Earring_(1665)Alchemy reigned at the time Johannes Vermeer painted Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1665. Back in that day, before the Periodic Table of the Elementswhich didn’t show up in until 1869—painters made their own paints from the powders of ground minerals by mixing them with linseed oil.

lapis-lazuli-rough
Lapis lazuli

The pigment in the blue scarf around the head of the Girl with a Pearl Earring, for instance, was made from lapis lazuli, a beautiful but rather expensive mineral to be grinding to a powder.  Unfortunately, linseed oil made the fabulous blue color of this beautiful mineral a bit cloudy.

Linseed oil did that to most of the mineral powders, but there was no way around that in 1665. The mineral powders would be chalky-looking and would not flow onto the canvas smoothly without being mixed with linseed oil.

Better Living Through Chemistry

The Periodic Table going public in 1869 moved the job of creating paint from artists to the laboratory chemist. These days, few artists mix their own paints, or even know what’s in them. I’m a big fan of chemistry, for without it, there is nothing. No rocks, no clay, no paint. And I wonder how they make vivid yellow as well as intense red paint from the same thing. Not a mineral, but an element from the Periodic Table: Cadmium.

Modern painters can thank French artist, Yves Klein and a few French chemists, who created a rich luscious blue paint that retained the brilliant blue hue by suspension of the dry pigment in a synthetic resin, avoiding the murkiness of linseed oil.

They called it International Klein Blue. Yves Klein used IKB, as this patented pigment is known, to paint Blue Monochrome, part of a series of one-color paintings he had been creating for several years.

BlueMonochrome
Blue Monochrome, Yves Klein, 1961

IKB represented something profound to Klein: le Vide-the Void. Not a vacuum or terrifying darkness, but a void that invokes positive sensations of openness and liberty, a feeling of profound fulfillment beyond the everyday material world. Standing before Klein’s huge canvases of solid blue, many report being enveloped by serene, trance-like feelings.

That’s how the Southwestern desert landscape makes me feel.

the-surreal-rock-formations-were-created-over-thousands-of-years-as-water-and-wind-eroded-the-navajo-sandstone

The iron-stained colors of my native land inspired me to make paint from it, in the old way—grinding the minerals to a powder and mixing them with linseed oil. Perhaps because these paints are made from desert clays (see my previous blog Desert Paintings), linseed oil did not make them murky.

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Crows Across the Sky, Mary C. Simmons, 2010

 

Bones of Earth, Bones of Clay

I’m fascinated by bones…all bones, especially the white bleached remains of the wild creatures picked clean of all flesh, marking the place where they lay down on the Earth and died.

I am not alone….

full-scale-t-rex-built-near-the-seine-river-paris-designboom-01Bones of Metal

French artist Phillipe Pasqua designed and fabricated this full-scale, 21 foot tall Tyrannasauras rex sculpture. Comprising 350 bones of chrome and aluminum, the Lizard King towers over the Seine River in France. (Click here for more…)

Bones of Rock

Speaking of T-Rex, a rare nearly complete fossilized skeleton heads for the Smithsonian as the centerpiece for the new dinosaur hall. <more here…>r-T-REX-SMITHSONIAN-large570

In other bones, Paleontologists recently excavated the fossilized tail of a 72-million year old hadrosaur in the northern desert of Mexico. Discovered by locals, the scientists unburied fifty remarkably well-preserved vertebrae. From these bones, scientists determined the dinosaur suffered from arthritis and tumors (Click here for more…)

DinoBones of Clay

From molten origins of Igneous rocks, whose feldspars undergo weathering and disintegration at Earth surface, forming a variety of clay minerals that, thankfully, blanket much of Earth’s surface.

I too am descendent from Firstborn Earth. I know this clay. It is me.

During one muse-filled summer break from teaching geology, a series of ceramic sculptures, whose central theme of twisted spinal columns sprang to life beneath my hands, telling tales of my own origins, my vertebrate ancestry. My own bones.

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Cylinder Series, #1-22, after the bisque
Summer 2004
DSCF0518
Detail, Cylinder Series, #19
Mary C Simmons

Our evolutionary paths cross, clay and I, in a moment of geologic time-the instant in which I so briefly live. I witness a distant past and participate in this miraculous path of life upon which my hands and this clay chanced to meet.

DSCF0224
Cylinders Series, #23
Mary C Simmons

Paint from the Desert Landscape

Making Paint From the Rocks

I can easily IFlose myself in Earth’s landscapes, especially the rocky ones. The textures and colors tell a story of chemistry, weathering and erosion. And, if providing a scenic backdrop to my life is not enough, I understand these rocks well enough to make pottery and glazes from them.

And paint.

The color palette is generally limited to oxides of iron: brown, reddish-brown, tan, yellowish tan, greenish tan–e.g. Earth colors.

Occasionally a little copper shows up, coloring the clay softly green or blue. Pottery glaze colors depend on these denizens of the Periodic Table. And so did paint, once upon a time before IKB.

I started with several gallon-size zip-lock bags of reddish, greenish and one highly yellow clay. The colors are the result of a certain degree of iron oxidation, and finely ground turquoise, which is a copper mineral.

I sifted out all the rocks, twigs, animal bones and other detritus, and let the colored clay settle in large jars of water. After siphoning off the excess water, I poured this clay slurry onto large pieces of gypsum board to dry. The mud cracks were amazing art pieces in themselves.

CuMudHLimonitePM

Painting with Clay

After the clay slurry completely dried, I crushed and sieved each into a fine powder. I added a little linseed oil to the colored clay powder and in a frenzy of inspiration, I painted

The Paintings

SandiaSunset2 What else can I say? Inspired by rocks, enchanted by Earth’s landscape…

Follow this link to Desert Paintings…http://wp.me/P3Fsq9-in

Superman and the Great Diamond Fantasy

It began innocently enough.

The Scene of the Faux Pasac293d_zpseff97f32

There we were, innocent boomer (and beyond) children looking up to Superman, gobsmacked by his prowess and great strength. Really? You can do that, Superman? Squeeze a lump of coal into diamond? Not just once did we witness this feat, but time after time.

So Easy!

SizeOfIt!

So Big!

NoRubies

So Wrong!

Unless Superman has Superhot hands, the Super Squeeze is just not going to cut it; diamond formation requires heat. The kind of heat you get when you shove rocks 100 miles or so down below Earth’s surface, where diamonds crystallize.

Perhaps somewhere along the way, a geologist sat Superman down and explained to him the facts of diamond formation, and how you theoretically could take a lump of coal and, given enough squeezing, make a diamond. But only if you add a lot of heat.

That would explain why Superman started using lightning to make diamonds.

LightningDiamond
Where’s the Super Squeeze?

Really little bolts, though. Hand-held, pocket-size lightning.

Lightning is very, very hot, along the order of 54,000°F, about 5 times the temperature of the surface of the sun.

But, heat alone can’t turn coal into diamond and lightning strikes at coal mines are far more likely to catch the coal layer on fire than to make a single diamond.

Heat&Pressure
Superman Gets with the Program

Am I being too persnickety here?

Perhaps I expect my Superheroes to be omniscient as well. Or at least geologically literate. But is this fair?

I, of all people should criticize an author for taking what is known about something on Earth and flying into fantasy with it? (see Corvus Rising-my book about crows who talk to humans.)

In my own defense, it is not impossible for crows and humans to communicate (see Language of the Crows), and I offer a scientific, gene-based explanation for this ability.

Fantasy fiction takes us away on the gift of tongues, illuminating the path into the darkness of the silent unknown, tantalizing us with magical journeys that reveal the secrets of our universe. Hopefully we have the ears to hear and the eyes to see.

I’m glad Superman saw the light, keeping his Superhero image intact in the eyes of geologists everywhere. In the late 20th Century, however, when cartoon characters leaped from the printed page onto the big screen, it seems that Superman lost a little know-how in the diamond department.

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Where’s the Heat. Man of Steel?

Alas, that Superman’s memory is less legendary than his great strength. What the cartoon knew, the “real” human did not.

That the truth of diamonds ever made it into a comic book is astonishing, however, and cause for a moment of gratefulness.

No Virginia, Diamonds Do Not Come From Coal

I am ecstatic when our scientific understanding about the Earth makes its way into cartoons, for no other reason than children watch them, the little sponges that they are. It’s very hard to dispel those childhood myths about coal and diamonds, to say nothing about the Flintstones and dinosaurs living side-by-side? For heaven’s sake, the dinosaurs had been extinct for at least 63 millions years before the first humans showed up.

We also know where diamonds come from and how they get to Earth’s surface.

diamond-earthlayersDiamonds form at the base of Earth’s crust, where pressure and temperature are very great. When pressure exceeds rock strength, an intense, but short-lived volcanic eruption occurs, and molten mantle rocks are shot to the surface through kimberlite pipes at the speed of sound.

That’s 768 miles per hour!

Kimberlite Pipe
Kimberlite Pipe
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Shiprock, northwestern New Mexico

Kimberlite pipes bring up other minerals as well, like garnets, mined for use in sandpaper products. The Navajo Volcanic Field in the Four Corners area of the Southwestern US (not to be confused with Monument Valley), a few diatremes (the eroded remains of a kimberlite pipes) poke up out of the desert floor, Shiprock being the most well known.

800_600_8864597094b5ae8602716c
Uncut Diamond Crystal

Diamonds almost always are far older than any of the coal layers on Earth, and the carbon comprising them is almost never from living organisms. The fearlessly curious might click HERE for exhaustive information on the chemistry and crystal structure of diamonds.

Unlearning a ‘fact’ is harder than diamonds sometimes. Superman burned an urban myth into our 21st century collective memories at an early age that to this very day most of us still carry with us.

It’s not a matter of geological correctness. It’s a matter of the truth being so much more marvelous.

HopeDiamond
The Hope Diamond

Ecofantasy?

What’s that?

It’s a state of mind…a vision of an alternative future, where all of Earth’s inhabitants have the right to be alive, each to its own individual perception of the world, and each with a unique voice that sings its own song of creation. All the animals, plants, rocks, air, and water–everyone.

Edward_Hicks_-_Peaceable_KingdomWhere the Wild Law rules…

“…wild law is a law made by people to regulate human behaviour that privileges maintaining the integrity and functioning of the whole Earth community in the long-term, over the interests of any species (including humans) at a particular time.”
—Cormac Cullinan, author, Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice

Even Rivers have the “…right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.” (http://therightsofnature.org/ecuador-rights/)

Even unto personhood—
In 2012, New Zealand gave the Whanganui River ‘personhood rights’ (http://www.treehugger.com/environmental-policy/river-new-zealand-granted-legal-rights-person.html)

Ecofantasy

The idea of rights of nature is still an ecological fantasy in the overall human consciousness. I offer my vision of a not-too distant Earth, a planet, alive with organisms, including the entities of rock, air, water that we deem ‘non-living’ but are alive in ways we cannot fathom.

Toward this vision, I wrote my first novel, Corvus Rising, an ecofantasy of crows, humans, sentience, and the idea that we have the ability to communicate verbally across species boundaries.

 

2Crows