Heron Skulls, Paradise, and Other Perfections

Chapter 7, Part 4

Like many of my friends, Elizabeth Pols, code-name Lizzy, has experienced little exposure beyond the hills of “Wistful Vista,” as I like to call our little Shangri-La of Amherst in western Massachusetts after the fictional hometown of Fibber McGee and Molly, the clever show from the Golden Age of Radio. But that hasn’t stopped her from exploring life’s ultimate meaning in the skillful brushstrokes of her dazzling paintings.

Great Blue Heron Skull

Great Blue Heron

For those of us fortunate to view Lizzy’s exhibitions in person, the purpose and passion of her super-natural and super-realistic artwork is abundantly clear. Take her 2006 mixed-media exhibition with the Thoreau-esque title “That Which Is and Cannot-Not-Be.” These works feature breathless paintings of fauna skulls, made bone clean and surgically pristine by nature’s corps of corpse cleaners, the deathwatch beetles. Lizzy has posed these skulls, looking both spine-chilling and enchanting, on elegant table linens and framed them in antique wooden cases.

As Lizzy so eloquently described her exhibit, “The presence of the skulls, animal and bird, in Great Blue Heron, Cove Box, and That Which Is and Cannot-Not-Be may suggest a Memento Mori with its cautionary message: Remember that you must die. But rather than serving any claim about the impermanence of earthly things, these pieces speak instead to the realities of nature, its cycles, indeed to its essential permanence. The great blue heron eats the fish and crabs; when it dies, the crabs eat the flesh off its skeleton; the skeleton degrades and becomes part of the sand; sand becomes glass, is worn to smoothness, and again washed up on the beach as sea glass; to be scooped up as archaeological treasures. I have collected bits from the sea since childhood – bones and shells, sticks, stones, and sea glass – my windowsills, studio shelves, and dashboard are littered with the souvenirs of wandering in nature. In these boxed works – which incorporate realist panel paintings with found and altered objects – I am making a souvenir in the literal sense of the word: making an act of remembering. By presenting the viewer with both that which is in my mind’s eye and that which is in my pocket I hope to enhance the reality of each.”

Summer House in Winter by Elizabeth Pols

Summer House in Winter by Elizabeth Pols

Lizzy, as one might expect after reading these words, has been a keen devotee of Thoreau since she was a teenager.

She wrote to me that “I actually fell in love with Thoreau much before Smith College (though I probably told you that my college freshman year Mountain Day excursion was to Walden Pond). I still have the battered little copy of Walden my dad gave me – I was maybe 15, I think? It traveled with me to college, to Italy, and on the tons of moves I’ve made since – it’s one of the few books that I can always put my hands on. I do think that HDT calls very strongly to the young and romantic soul – even younger than 18!”

Shortly after Lizzy fell in love with Thoreau, she fell in love with Sean Tarpey, a dashing art history major with an old Land Rover, a yaw sailboat, and a magical twinkle in his eye. She and Sean would soon be married, and for years he would ply his trade in the museums at Amherst and Mt. Holyoke colleges. Sean currently produces beautiful, custom-made vessels, trademarked with his special brand of workmanship, integrity, and “simplicity itself,” at Rumery’s Boat Yard in Biddeford, Maine. They are the kind of boats that the landlocked HDT might sail around Walden Pond if given the chance.

Elizabeth Pols with her portrait of Emily Dickinson

Elizabeth Pols with her portrait of Emily Dickinson

As for Lizzy, Thoreau has inspired many of her transcendent re-workings of the natural world, which have, in turn, inspired me.

Indeed, Lizzy’s lovely limited-edition print of a hawk perched stylistically on the framework of a Roman ruins is, in turn, perched stylistically over the little altar where I meditate each day. It serves as an inspiration for my inner life, as well as my natural-born intuition.

Thus, just as the great blue heron eats crabs, which subsequently eat the flesh off its skeleton after it dies, the inspiration from purposeful works of genius, such as Lizzy’s, is recycled again and again. The inspiration ripples outward like the original ax blows from the tool borrowed by Thoreau to build his cabin beside Walden Pond. Where it stops, nobody knows.

Lizzy, in her charming creations, has captured and recaptured all this interconnectivity. Indeed, she has made it Transcendental in her paintings.

Those same razor-thin slices of infinity that Lizzy has isolated and immortalized in her realistic paintings, my dear old friend Tom Fix isolates and immortalizes in his artful photography. Each photo, I must say, seems electrified with flickering electrons in-formed from the Akashic Field. Each is a slice of life lifted free-form from the continuum of time immemorial. As with Thoreau, time is but a stream that Tom goes a-fishing in with his timeless camera.

For those of us who have known Tom and his lovable personality for the last 40 years, as I have, we realize that with each photo he snaps, something of his soul travels along his neural paths, through his fingertips, into his camera, and from there saturates the image itself. That which he photographs is also that which photographs him.

When I first met Tom in 1969, he was a loose-limbed and footloose American expatriate, living in a wilderness cabin high on a rocky Gibraltar called “The Malahat,” which separates Victoria, British Columbia, from the rest of Vancouver Island. A keen devotee of independent thinking, Ernest Hemingway, pacifism, cross-country skiing, horse racing, fly-fishing, loyalty to his friends, hard drinking, and nude swimming parties, Tom was a walking-talking enigma. Still is.

He was also a spiritual seeker in his own right. He still refers to himself as one of those “bewildered spiritual stragglers” who, along with Joan Didion and other seekers, went slouching towards Bethlehem in the 1960s. As such, he recognized me almost instantly as a kindred spirit.

After quitting his graduate teaching fellowship position in the history department of a major Canadian university, Tom spent the next few years as a sort of professional Huckleberry Finn, working as a dishwasher at an exclusive boy’s school, in a lumber yard, in a facility for emotionally disturbed teens, finally as a groom at an Arizona racetrack.

All the while, he developed hundreds of atmospheric photos that pulled the essence from wherever he went and

Photograph of "Paradise" by Tom Fix

Photograph of "Paradise" by Tom Fix

whomever he met, and portrayed reality surrealistically in lovely pixilated brushstrokes, dabbed with sunlight, ecstacy, and Transcendentalism.

Tom’s lens was a two-way aperture, in which each arresting image on the way in passed his spirit on its way out, just as it was being released once more to roam the world at large as a wandering life force.

Much like me, Tom drifted into his own purposefulness. After years of following the wayward wind, he decided that his noble calling was to settle down as a devoted husband and father, no easy task for a free spirit like Tom. Shortly thereafter, Tom got a good job as the water quality expert for a city in western Washington and eventually bought a small farm that he calls “Fungus Corners.”

After his first child was born, he sent me a postcard with a snapshot of his lovely newborn, Cora, on one side. On the other was this existential query from the bewildered spiritual straggler in Tom: “Okay, what do I do now?”

Since then, Tom and his wife Carol have raised two extraordinary children and a barnyard full of dogs, horses, and other critters.

Even from afar, Tom continues to encourage me with his support and wit. After learning about my failing kidneys and symptoms of anemia, he wrote, “First I thought ‘God, how horrific,’ then I realized you were living one of my better hangovers.”

When Tom found out I might try to embarrass him by publishing the tribute you are now reading in Back to Walden, he replied in typical fashion: “Anyway, I’m honored to be in your book, but maybe instead of the romantic rebel I should be portrayed as the guy who abetted your crazy wanderlust. Still a victim of my passions with great weakness for those base desires, I haven’t found your tranquility, but I may be closing in.”

My response: “Sorry, Tom, but there’s no getting around the truth about your romantic rebellion. Except that, over the course of your life, you’ve evolved quite spiritually from a rebel without, into a rebel with, a cause.”

These past 20 years, Tom has also continued to train his internal lens to detect the secret life of every instant, of every landscape, of every facial expression. That’s what he does, framing life, second by second, like a latter-day Leonardo, in the fish-eye lens of his mind’s eye. And what emerges from the acid bath in his dark room (which is only virtual in the digital reality of today) are dripping portraits of his most memorable encounters, most memorable moments, time after time, from here to eternity.

That’s how Tom Fix became the chronicler of his own destiny as it was revealing itself, at first bit by bit, and now (digitally) bite by bite, in photos.

The common denominator for all these golden friends of mine – Diane Wald, Carey Reid, Terry Allen, Ernie Urvater, Elizabeth Pols, Tom Fix – is that they produce their purposeful art “For Free.” Joni Mitchell would be proud. So would Henry David Thoreau. My friends are tantamount to early Olympians, before the Olympics became a commercial and professional monstrosity, chasing their dreams for ideals, for spiritual integrity, for community, for friends, for nothing more.

For, in truth, purpose has no profession. No payoff. Purpose is a way of life, a way of seeing, a way of contributing, a way of serving, a way of giving to loved ones, both known and unknown, both near and far. Purpose is the life we live after the life we’ve learned with.

As Viktor Frankl wrote about personal purpose in his landmark book, Man’s Search for Meaning, “Again and again I therefore admonish my students in Europe and America: Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

That said, there was one larger-than-life character who served as a role model for purposefulness in my formative years, precisely because he lost himself in a cause greater than himself and surrendered his ego to the love of his family. Read the last climactic section of Back to Walden to see how this Teddy-Roosevelt-like figure can also inspire you to find your own purpose and complete your own noble quest in your own purposeful way.