“Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”―
In early April, I wondered what I could do to keep myself from losing my mind during lockdown. I rustled through the file cabinet of memory to find something that could serve me now. For many years I made mosaic art. Cutting, arranging and gluing hundreds of glass fragments helped occupy my hands and focus my attention. When I wasn’t preoccupied with the outcome or trying to sell the art, playing with colorful shards allowed me to access more calm and joy. In looking around the expansive grounds of the place I’m renting, I noticed lots of pine cones. I decided to gather and arrange them around a small outdoor fire pit on the periphery of the yard. I took a paper bag to the pine grove at the edge of the property, put on a pair of nitrile gloves from my grocery store to protect my skin from pine sap, stooped to gather the cones into the bag, then laid them end to end around the border of the fire pit to form a circle. I repeated the process, slowly. As I plucked pine cones from the ground, I sought out longer ones to make my task a bit easier. The repetitive movement of placing the cones end to end soothed me. Then a little, or perhaps big, overachieving voice showed up in my head: shouldn’t I have first gathered all the cones I could find, sorted them by size, and arranged them more artistically, as if I were Andy Goldsworthy? I decided to ignore that voice rather than drive myself crazy (or, crazier!). Over two drizzly and grey afternoons, April 3 and April 4, I created the following installation.
I considered expanding the pine cone rings until they reached the rocks bordering the fire pit. Then I thought better of it. To fill the gap felt too perfectionistic. Plus, having already collected most of the intact cones in the yard, I’d need to hunt for more further afield. I decided to let that idea, and myself, rest. Two weeks later, I walked by the fire pit and noticed that many of those smooth, narrow pine cones had changed shape! Mother Nature had stepped in, with sunshine, causing the cones to open, “messing” with my design. I had to laugh that I’d perceived the pine cones as static objects, as if they were mosaic tesserae. They adjust to changes in temperature and humidity so they can release their seeds.
From then on, I became curious how Mother Nature would continue to influence this little project. The following day, a spring snow covered the installation with a blanket of white.
Thanks to the cold, the pine cones closed again, leaving my once orderly rows a bit more freeform once the snow melted.
In the ensuing days, the cones opened again, then closed, as if they were being breathed by the elements. Then I forgot about my “art” for a while, only checking again in mid-May. I noticed that bright yellow dandelions and new grass had shot through the rows of cones, creating more movement.
It didn’t take long for the dandelions to shed their petals and turn to seed. Grass grew in thickly, too. Soon the green shoots will likely take over and the pine cones will recede into the background. Perhaps a fierce wind or rain will eventually disperse them.
As I look at these photos, I’m glad I didn’t try to make a larger or more finely crafted installation. It might have looked more impressive, and perhaps might have given me an illusory sense of being in control of something. To release my ego from the activity came as a relief. To my surprise, the real fun came from observing the organic changes over time, which had not been my intention when I began.
If Mother Nature is sending humans a message with the coronavirus, it might go something like this: If you keep f*cking with me, you’ll die. Wanna live? Let’s collaborate.
Collaborating means ceding control, being open to a give and take, even a playful exchange, and not trying to subdue nature to our will or plans. Even humble, sticky pine cones have something to teach if we’re willing to pay attention.
If you enjoyed this post, consider showing your appreciation with a donation. Thank you!