By Sandra Dal Poggetto
Basalt Literary Journal
Northern California’s coastal hills and valleys where I grew up are smaller in scale and gentler than the Rocky Mountains where I now live. As a girl, there was much to explore, imagine and discover in the chaparral and mixed oak forests that surrounded my home. The native peoples who had understood the land infinitely better than I were absent. Pomo, Wintuns and Wapo had lived in those hills for thousands of years but were never a topic of conversation at home or in my history lessons at school. Only later did I see and marvel at their intricate grass baskets woven to gather, process and store wild foodstuffs: oak acorns, wild oats, fish, game, berries, seeds and roots. The only Indian presence in my life was invented in Hollywood, seen on television. Like many children then, I enjoyed playing cowboys and Indians and usually chose the Indian role because I loved being bare-chested. My incessant, imaginative outdoor play marked me for the arts, not the sciences. And so, when the time came, I studied art at the University of California at Davis.
The renowned ceramic artist Robert Arneson often jibed me, as a student, for bringing my painterly investigations into his famed TB9, a corrugated metal-sided building that housed workspace for ceramic classes and his own studio. Two cavernous firing kilns were the heart of the building and Arneson, the brains. Signing up for independent study with Arneson was hazardous because as a Funk artist, and one who expressed strong political and social opinions in clay, he could be quite caustic in his criticism. Further, I had chosen to be a painter, and to be Funk was to be a descendent of Dada, irreverent, often ribald and mischievous opponents of the Western tradition of painting. But I was undeterred, and he let me be as I claimed a wall for my large abstract clay reliefs, which, once leather-hard, I cut-up into blocks, arranged on the floor, and made drawings and paintings of them from various perspectives. When I graduated, Arneson asked if I was going to face down the wolves of New York; instead, I moved to Montana where the real wolves were.
Slowly I entered the enormous space of the inland West, where the land comes forward and people recede. With the land come the animals and birds, unfamiliar trees, grasses and forbs. I learned to hunt game birds—blue, ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse, pheasant—and mule deer, which took me ever deeper into the land. I learned where the animals live, what they eat, and the soils in which their food grows. I learned the shape of their beds and the contours of the land that holds their water.
I learned the weather they endure, the predators they suffer. I learned how their bodies are structured by literally taking their bodies apart. I learned to savor wild meat. In this way, I entered into what Ortega y Gasset described as primal engagement.
Through hunting, I experience the sensation of a place. My body becomes more permeable; my senses simultaneously relax and intensify. I become vividly conscious of the swell of a hillside, the shape of a meadow, the color and texture of wildrye, the snap of a twig under hoof, the chittering alarm of a squirrel, the chill and density of cold air. A breeze at my back, whoosh of thrush, flick of a tail. There are no words. I respond to these cues with caution, delicacy, discernment, patience, and then action.
Hunting in this way is not unlike my painting practice: situated in the forest or on the plains, charcoal in hand, I make marks with the stick of burnt willow. The impulse to make a mark is centered in my body, shaped by the moment when I hear the whistle of a red tail hawk, flap of raven’s wing, drumming of a grouse, see a beetle labor over the white of my canvas, a butterfly’s lilt, aspen leaves quivering. These sensory impressions move through my fingers, and tooth of canvas catches charcoal. These dark marks are also shaped by memory—years of seeing, hearing and feeling. If my attention flags, the mark is false.
Next comes the paint: a golden ochre wash brings the sun—light absorbed and refracted by grass or dust-glow in the air. Passages of translucent golden-green signal first growth or brown-green late season. Ochre-green decaying growth, blue-green plants still with water running in their veins. Umbers and siennas soil and stone, or not. Scrubby olive greens of deer browse, sage browns of grouse and sparrow shelter, piercing vanadium yellow of feathered calls, alizarin blue lake. Soft pastel marks tracks in ether and dust. Thick concentrations of oil paint—pockets of water and muck, the wet and heat of blood—animal and human absorbed by the dirt for centuries.
There are always erasures: charcoal, pastel and oil marks come and go, and come back again, like the day and the seasons; animals appear then withdraw into the shadows; plants reach vitally for the light then shrivel and disintegrate, losing their once crisp edge; deer hair ripples under firm muscle, and months later lays on the forest floor disappearing into bird nests or scat; mayflies outlined by cerulean of sky vanish into the throat of a swallow; vernal ponds ebb and dry up, the moon waxes and wanes.
Moving along mountain flanks or grasslands, streams, or the edges of high mountain lakes—sensing color, texture, space, line, shape, light and dark, I come to know the fundaments of art. This knowledge is an intrinsic part of what it means to be alive.
I walk over the high plains near the Missouri River in central Montana, once home to the Blackfeet. Cattle have been allowed to overgraze. The land is bare in places. Knapweed, low in nutrition, flowers. And from a distant, plowed field drifts a faint smell of Roundup sprayed on wheat crops. My hunting dog is in the lead. After a few miles, with shotgun in hand, I shimmy under a barbed wire fence onto better ground: blue grama and buffalo grass of differing heights rustle in the breeze, old growth at their base; coneflower and rabbitbrush mingle with the grasses; patches of wild rose offer tasty rosehips; and, in places, dried moss covers the soil indicating healthier ground. There are signs of rabbit or possibly hare. A foxhole? I pass an anthill, and a little beyond, see grouse beds under the sage and at my feet, the beginnings of a game trail. I pause for a while to scan the horizon that wraps wholly around me before following the trail and dropping into a steep-sided coulee, escaping the wind and technology’s ever more sinister eye.
The stratified walls are covered by luxuriant grass and absorb sound. A plow cannot reach this place and there are no fences. My dog’s nose is close to the ground following a scent that leads to a stand of berry-covered bushes. Eerily, silently she goes on point. I approach, but no birds burst from the cover, although we both know they have been here. We continue down the dry, narrow path marked with deer tracks. The coulee forks and I take the wider arm that has more cover. On the right is a high, flat stone face. A site for petroglyphs? I come upon coyote scat laced with fur and bones and farther on find the feathered remains of a sharp-tailed grouse—the work of an owl, a coyote? As I descend into this crack of earth, animal and sapient commingle, tensions arise, potent and rich with complexities. Tint and tone, thick and thin of paint may capture them. A small stand of cattails grows in the grassy bottom. My dog drinks the water flowing from them. There is a fresh deer bed nearby, and I lie down to rest in this place of wildtime.