The only drawback I have discovered so far about solo backpacking is that when a song gets stuck in my head, it is more challenging to remove it. This trip, it has been Unanswered Prayers, by Garth Brooks. I don’t know where it came from, but the concept has taken me as far as the paths underfoot. Bear with me.
I am writing this newsletter on the blank brown inside of a mac’n’cheese box. I have spent the past several days sleeping in a frost crusted tent, eating too much oatmeal, pooping in holes in the ground, and savoring my sore leg muscles. Yesterday, I was far above treeline. As the gap tooth, sky biting ridges amassed clouds, I knew I had to turn around. It would be stupid to be up there in lightning with only Garth for company. So I headed downhill, days early for my date with a cheeseburger. It is never easy to change my mind, especially when I have a well crafted plan, but the song lyrics had led me to contemplate the phrase, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Now as thunder crashes and the storm smashes into mountains and my tent does a fine job, I am feeling vibrantly alive and having a remarkably good time!
recently spent several months in a socially hostile environment. Due to a situation far beyond my control and some wacky personalities, I became the brunt of some serious grumps. In order to survive, I created a rigorous daily routine. This schedule included set hours for reading, writing, and communication; also, eight hours in the studio without a computer, and two hours of absolute nothing. What emerged was a quietly happy Nina and what feels like an unfathomable amount of new work and new ideas. All of my recent creations have to do with marking time - horizons between the past and the future, hallmarks of change, thresholds of irreversible transformation. Looking at this body of work, which is currently exhibited at Pie Projects in Santa Fe, I can see that duress often explodes into beauty.
This summer I learned with students about trusting our bodies. We noticed and validated the information coming into our noses, eyes, and fingertips. Might the arches of your feet know more about gravity than your brain? Could the space under your sternum deal with heartache better than your logical mind? Could long listening be more productive than urgent answering? Can your body create knowledge? Might gratitude fill and nourish your cells like oxygen? I think the answer is yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
My van, Horton, died a few weeks ago. I was thoroughly devastated. Horton and I had gone to Alaska and Maine, Georgia and California, the Arctic Circle and the Mexico border. We romped over mountain passes, boated across the Yukon River, endured midwest ice storms, prowled through mines and military bases, boondocked in urban chaos, and bounded across roadless deserts. Six years ago I bought Horton as the conclusion to a desk job. They became a life companion, and my ticket to a freedom that I never imagined - scrappy, simple, daring, and deeply attuned to creativity and mobility. In the process, I have realized my independence and come to kinda like gas station coffee.
Death has been on my mind. Minding the end times reverberates at many scales - global, personal, physical, spiritual. Solstice pulled me out among the winter whispery grasses and low trees on my land. Science predicts the devastation of the two-needle piñon, the keystone species of my home states and places. Yellow needles, polka dots of beetle holes, and skeletal branches take increasing portions of my awareness. Indeed, this impending die-off is part of why I choose to live where I live, so that I can be present with the dying. I promise them my witness and reverence. This solstice, I collected piñon sap. Sap is tree blood. It is the vehicle for nutrients to course from root to tip. It also flows to wounds in the tree flesh, sealing off the inner tree magic from the marauding outside. In the dying piñon, there is often an overabundance of sap, dripping out in yellow viscous hemorrhages, or building up in massive keloids. The fierceness of life is apparent. And, it is also sweet.
As the world reckoned with a pandemic over the past year, like many people, my perspectives shifted towards more personal scales, my sensitivities attuned to more poetic spaces. In a time that feels rife with planet-wide problems, I needed to focus on what I could wrap my head and hands around. As covid decreased certain detours and distractions, I heard friends and family understanding what they had depended on, what they longed for, what they were relieved to be relieved of. For me, being busy often camouflages the myriad intrigues, ideas, and inspirations that propel me; slowing down was an opportunity to examine my own constellations and connections.
Hurtle and Hurdle is a piece of music by Jessica Pavone, a brilliant composer and musician who I recently met at the Ucross Foundation. The rhythms in the music and the title have been with me in recent weeks. Through many conversations about the time warp of covid, I know that I am not alone in my combination of malaise, molasses, motivation, and very occasional mania. We hurtle through life. We stumble and soar over hurdles. We sometimes hurt. The earth hurtles through space. And on and on.
I have the unique ability to smell matsutake mushrooms. Not everyone can smell them. They do not smell like any other mushroom with that heady sense of humus and hearty earth. Instead, they smell like the cinnamon disk candies that my mother used to consume rather than cough in church. Matsutake have such a distinctly inorganic, red hot, seemingly synthetic scent that it stops me mid stride, and I suddenly hunch over, peering into the piles of pine needles and forest detritus.
I wish I was sending this to you by mail, a handwritten surprise that by showing up in your hands might startle you from all the grim realities that we are living through.
I have a pen pal. When Frank’s letters arrive it is as though the world has paused until I can rip into the envelope and let his words enter my mind after their long journey. We write to one another about the flight of baby birds, the wild seasons of weather and creativity and our souls, about wind and weirdness and hope. Our letters are often caught in strange cycles of syncopation, the dialog tumbling and non-linear. It is one of the best things in my life.
I just spent several days with the ocean. I watched it turn from jade green to hot orange in the afternoon sun. I saw it agitated and monochrome under storming night skies. The ocean was gentle against my skin, and I also sensed it's pulling boundless might. I felt cleansed by the salty water, yet I know the oceans are treated as sewers and rubbish bins. While a hurricane brewed across the planet, I counted on the peaceful tides.
An ocean is many things.
What endures? What needs saving? Are you an archive of the past? How are you creating the future? When are you? What will you be? Why are you going to be?
Throughout the last several months, with hundreds of brilliant students, I sought new connections between past, present, and potential futures, exploring time as a language, a measure, an art medium, a social context, a scientific principle, a spiritual space, and a cultural expression.
I was alone and attentive. Across the lake, I watched two wolves accelerate from a walk to a carnivorously linear sprint. Practiced predation, nimble legs, a moving target, and need pulled them over the horizon in the midnight dusk. I wondered if each hunt feels like a singular event, or if wolf life is a fluid cycle of hunger and hunt and satiation and hunger again. We three had witnessed each other, each motivated by unique hunger and distinct metabolisms.
“Let curiosity lead.” These three words are my most offered advice and my emboldening ethos. In the past year, thanks to terrific opportunities and residencies, and the financial support of the Pollock Krasner Foundation, curiosity has been my map, terrain, and motivation. I calibrated my compass to a migrating northern star, one that has led me to the end of dirt roads, into astonishing wildernesses and industrial wastelands.