From the Book Foreword
The Champlain Valley of Vermont, the source of these photographs, has a grand topography, but, as you will see, I am drawn toward the quieter, anonymous places of everyday, rural life. Photographic art has always moved toward a wider embrace of the world. It has done so with an attention that is specific, present, and democratic. Everything is worthy of consideration, and within the photographic frame everything is important.
The slow pace of landscape photography encourages doubt and reflection. Contact with natural processes, albeit manipulated as on Vermont's small farms or abstracted as in these photographs, can renew the sense of our place on Earth. The infinite is manifest in the landscape, and self-involvement diminishes. A vital morality, without prescription, is in the balance.
With growing knowledge of the contexts surrounding my subject, and through attempting to stay with the commonplace, photographing Vermont became a charged meditation, broad and unpredictable. I returned to the same places over and over. I walked into large, non-descript fields and tried to stay attentive. The photographs of grass were a revelation that humbled me. Any value in this work revolves around our connection to place-where we stand right now, in separation and union.
It's sunny, around 0°F, windy. I hike through a foot of snow in the fields of a remote farm. As I enter a gully separating two flat fields, the snow rises to my waist. The camera and tripod begin to feel heavier. But I only have sixty feet to go. I can see that the furrowed field ahead has been blown almost completely free of snow.
I continue, the snow gets deeper. The gentle slope defined by the drifted snow conceals the true topography. The snow is now level with my chest and all movement becomes a struggle; I am no longer involved in any motion that can be described as walking. Lifting up, forcing forward, plunging down. Childhood nightmares of sinking in quicksand, long dismissed as pure Hollywood, suddenly seem not so funny. Despite the cold I begin sweating. I am breathing hard, growing tired. But only forty feet away is windswept, exposed dirt. I can go back, but that is now almost as far. I keep on, sure that the snow can't get any deeper. Wrong again. The snow reaches shoulder-height, and I begin to really flounder and worry. Exhausted, alone, realizing incredulously this may be the end, I throw myself to the horizontal and pull awkwardly with my arms. I am afraid, and I feel ridiculous. I am a fool who is finally not going to be forgiven. But crawling, like the first reptile out of the sea, is working. I keep up the slow, clumsy motion until I arrive on all fours at the bare, frozen earth.
Beauty stops us in a way that heightens awareness of relation, unity, and consciousness. The trees are not there without the space around them. The photograph is not there without the frame around it and the space around the frame. The components of the photograph are lost in their relation to one another and in relation to all they are not. The photographic space as a continuous field counters conventional hierarchies of form and subject. Color speaks independently, even as it modifies the perception of other colors and structures space. Color exists as associative memory and as immediate physical caress. From our relationship to these qualities consciousness arises.
Farmland almost always looks lovely, despite the struggles of making a living or practices that might be harming the place. Beauty seems to support truth and meaning but the correlation is uncertain. I was a young boy in Tarboro, North Carolina, during the late 1950s. On summer nights a truck would pass through the streets of our neighborhood spraying a cloud of insecticide. We children would run right behind the truck, enveloped in the wonderful fog.
Photography may be seen as grasping at reality, an attempt to freeze a moment in our continuously changing reality, but the photograph will only exist, like everything else, in the present. We bring to the photograph made in the past what is in our mind now, including our construction of time. Photographic reality is supported by our imagination and extension in time. The stability of the image may contrast tragically with its subject, which has no doubt changed or even disappeared.
The physical changes of the farm fields are dynamic. I am speaking of that space between the earth and sky-the space of the human body. The plants erupt from the bare ground and grow quickly into intense concentrations. The harvest reopens the space with startling abruptness. New seasons bring changes in light, color, texture, and touch that are so pronounced they challenge the veracity of our memories of the recent past.
My previous photographic series incorporated theories from modern physics (Alchemical Reconnaissance), explored the personal effects of the recent abandonment of a mining town in the Mojave Desert (Eagle Mountain), and looked at American society through the changes that have taken place on Civil War battlefields (Killing Ground). Diverse contexts of the physical, mental, and spiritual framed the pictures. Healing Ground continues this mode of working. After the agonizing Civil War project, I hoped agriculture would lead me in a restorative direction, which, for the most part, it has done. But the survival of these Vermont fields and farmers is uncertain. Add to the economic challenges the environmental dilemmas associated with farming and this wonderful land is yet another kind of battleground.
My sculpture joins the kind of land art characterized by temporality and emphasis on the local. The landscape sustains art and becomes art. Human control relaxes. Environmental forces share in the creation of the work and its evolution. The organic materials decay. Projects in the woods may last for a few years; those on crop fields can exist only from the fall harvest to spring planting. Forms are simple-circles, arcs, columns, and lines-suggestive of the cycles of life and their interruption. The sculpture is specific to the particular site and reacts to or emphasizes the topographic contours. Photographic documentation is necessitated by the transitory nature and remote setting. These photographs become part of the work and may be all that survives of the work; but the photographic frame is not relied upon to delimit the large, surrounding spaces. I try to size the work to its environs.
Many of these sculptures are based on forms that occur naturally or that have been created by farmers. I began to imagine sculpture on the farm fields from seeing hay wrapped in long, white sheets of plastic wind across the landscape and the odd lines of corn that the harvester missed. The tree ice ring derives from the freezing of river floodwaters around inundated trees. When the river recedes, the ice, often in pieces weighing hundreds of pounds, is left clinging to the bark.
I am beholden to the small farmers of Vermont, to whom I dedicate this book. They allow me to move through and use the places of their work-and not because of their love of art. They do so because of their spirit of community, their sense of responsiveness to a neighbor. Many farmers also realize that the sustenance of their land is not limited to food production. Despite unremitting financial pressure, long hours, and difficult weather, most of these men and women maintain an even, patient temperament. As I write, they can't plow or seed because of excessive spring rain, a major impact in their world of small margins. The precarious human condition is apparent in the lives of farmers, but all of our lives are no different. Perhaps the attitude towards our daily circumstance, and any grace we might muster, is what really matters.
Finally, this book is not about the art but is the art. I hope the work affirms the value of place, especially this particular landscape of human endeavor we call Vermont. For me, it is healing ground.