Sometimes art functions as a catalyst for radical change, other times it merely supports the status quo. These days, art's capacity to spark transformation seems increasingly relevant since we are all living within a culture whose notion of progress is dependent upon gobbling up the Earth. While scientific and economic arguments for nature preservation are powerful and convincing, they are not enough to shift our course. Our drives run very deep, and to change them we must create new stories and do meaningful art about our relationship to the land. This, not science, may ultimately capture people's hearts and minds to reawaken our native connection to nature.
With this notion in mind, For these reasons, I launched the ZeroCircles Project, a strategic blend of art, spirit and environmental politics designed to help end commercial logging on Public Lands. I am doing this project through the auspices of Interspecies Communication Inc.
Okanagan National Forest
To understand ZeroCircles, it first seems essential to give a bit of my own personal history. One winter morning while walking along a beach on the isolated Quinault Indian Reservation of Washington's Olympic peninsula, I made a discovery that forever altered the course of my life. Dimly lit, in a swirling fog, I came upon a group of tall multicolored feathers rising from the sand, within a circle of smooth, wave-tumbled stones. The beach was deserted. Set high above the surf-line, there was no evidence to discern when the arrangement had been crafted. My golden retriever sniffed the feathers while I sat beside the circle watching the waves break in the gray dawn. I'm a photographer, so I took a photo in black and white, and later tacked the print above my desk. Gradually, I became enchanted by the power that seemed to emanate from that circle. It seemed to hold the intent of our species, something lost and ancient, something from the source. About the time I found the circle, the Quinault had just finished clearcutting their entire reservation, leaving only a thin strip along the beach.
I believe the rock and feather shrine was a response to the human assault on our planet to which we are all complicit, to some degree. Perhaps the sculpture was a simple native prayer, a way to help dispel the techno-trance that grips the world. Or maybe it was the planet responding to its pain through the imagination of one who was still in touch with their earth-mind. I sensed the planet treating itself much as I, myself, attempt to heal an ailment through herbs or visualization. Though I will never learn the origin of that organic, ocean side mandala, its image still reflects its magic above my desk and I am grateful to its creator.
As children, many of us were "Earth artists," arranging rocks, sand, sticks and such in various spontaneous forms. Who can say why we did it? It just seemed necessary, like breathing, or perhaps we are guided by instinct to maintain our connection to the sacred circle of life. On a simplistic level, any child who ever builds such a sculpture is engaged in mandala-making. Mandala is the Sanskrit word for "circle", and defined by psychologist Judith Cornell as "a concrete symbol of its creator's absorption into a sacred center." Mandalas serve as artistic tools for healing and transformation in Native American sand painting, Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist rituals and in modern psychotherapy. From the Nazca Indians of Peru to the Pueblos of the Southwest, indigenous cultures were compelled to create mandalas of an earthly sort by marking patterns on the land.
Noted anthropologist, Mircea Eliade writes that "the discovery or projection of a fixed point–the center–is equivalent to the creation of the world." In other words, we hold up the world through sacred art. The question arises: does art crafted in a sacred manner conceivably function as medicine for ourselves and the Earth, as a kind of personal/planetary acupuncture?
I set out some years ago to explore this notion, practicing my Earth art in the degraded landscapes I encountered. The works shaped themselves with the organic and man-made items discovered on site: a four-colored Mayan medicine wheel composed of plastic trash on a beach in Mexico, a driftwood beluga with a red-heart from a whaler's discarded sleeping bag in the Arctic, a big bluestem I-Ching hexagram on a plowed Kansas prairie. In every project I made, a kind of alchemy occurred–a sense of personal merger with the imagination of the wild. Earth art became my ceremonial method to become more present with Nature and hopefully, to express the sorrow I felt over its abuse by our species. The resulting eco-mandalas, are the deepest way I know to give thanks for the bounty that sustains us, as well as to activate a protective response from our culture while there is still time. Just as the Australian Aborigines painted animals to ensure that the real ones remained, an eco-mandala composed in a clear-cut or at the edge of an open-pit mine, honors the wild beauty lost, so that it may endure elsewhere and hopefully return again. Each endangered place I worked had a prayer imbedded within it and without this art, it might otherwise have escaped notice. Once I put prayer into form, I shared this work with others through story and photograph.
After constructing eco-mandalas for several years, I gathered the resulting images of beauty, destruction and art to create Sacred Ground--Sacred Sky: An Eco Experience which toured the nation for six years through Exhibits USA.
From wild shorelines to clear-cut forests, the shards of industrial culture abound in tangled lengths of wire and twine, tatters of colored fabric, oil containers, plastic utensils, rusty engine parts, the list of refuse seems endless. Outside the city, the organic shards of nature still predominate and I derive considerable hope from this. Stones and feathers, seeds and shells, wood and bone, ash and silica: of this we are born and in this we dwell. According to modern physics as well as ancient Buddhism, everything is just space and molecules. Every atom in each of us existed before organic life emerged 4 billion years ago. Just as we are the progeny of minerals, something we can barely imagine surely arises from the detritus of our industrial world. Bringing the organic and the man-made into an artful holistic relationship makes sense in ways more easily intuited than articulated. "The power of the world always works in circles" declared Black Elk. Unification. Consolidation. Wholeness. These are old and hopeful notions. In my own way, I struggle to activate them. "Art is the great weapon." declared Andy Warhol.
For The Trees
Having worked for many years as an environmental photographer documenting nature's beauty and destruction, I have come to sense that something is lacking in our effort to educate and activate people to protect our last ancient forests. I was the lead photographer for CLEARCUT: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, a coffeetable book published by the Sierra Club, documenting forest devastation across North America. With great hope, Clinton, Gore and each member of Congress were presented with a copy. And yet just eight months later they unleashed the Salvage Rider, arguably the worst piece of anti-environmental legislation in recent history, suspending all environmental laws in our forests for one year. Thousands of acres of old-growth, previously off-limits, fell to the saw. Although the book was timely, and its promotion was often brilliant, the issue was more urgent than the message was able to address.
Less than five percent of our nation's original forests remain and they are almost entirely on public lands. One has to wonder how we let the situation get so grim. Image is partly to blame. Map makers color our national forests green, which lends them the illusion of protection. Even the capitalized adjective, "National", as in National Park, conveys protection. Both the forest service and the timber corporations have been careful to line the highways that pass through national forests with "beauty strips"–a facade of trees that makes it impossible to see what's happening without actually parking our cars and walking inside the forest.
A paltry four percent of our nation's annual timber supply comes from national forests, and such logging is conducted at an annual loss to American taxpayers of over $300 million a year, not counting the lost value of clean water, wildlife and recreation. Iowa republican Representative Jim Leach, testified that "the US government is the only property owner that I know of that pays private parties to deplete its own resources."
The Zero-Cut solution, endorsed by hundreds of conservation groups, seeks to protect what is left and begin healing the rest by ending all commercial logging on public lands. The people of the United States support this effort; a recent Republican poll showed that seventy percent of Americans favor ending logging in our national forests. A bipartisan bill recently introduced in Congress called The National Forest Protection and Restoration Act (H.R.2789) would:
Protect our National Forests and other federal public lands nationwide by ending the ecologically destructive timber sales program
Redirect timber subsidies into worker retraining and ecological restoration
Save taxpayers at least $300 million annually.
Interspecies.com's ZERO-CIRCLES Project may be the missing aesthetic element in the initiative to solve our forest crisis. It is an effort to promote a zero cut on public lands by facilitating the actual construction and documentation of zeroes in all of our national forests.
Of course, the zero is also a circle, and, as I've already pointed out, this is humanity's oldest symbol of wholeness and healing, representing the cycles of life and the path we have traveled in our relationship to trees. We came to a continent draped in virgin forest and cut them relentlessly until now only tattered remnants remain. It's time to circle back, time for all the divergent forces that have been working to protect our forests to unite to begin the restoration. The ZeroCircles we create symbolize our solidarity in this effort.
Starhawk has written that "it's too late for anything but magic." Call it magic, call it artful activism, and never forget that the story is far from finished. All who love, cherish and work to protect the Earth hold some strong cards. I am hopeful that the ZeroCircles Project is one of them and that by playing it in concert with other efforts, by adding it to the greater story, a new relationship with our forests will be born. Each circle becomes a link in a chain connecting all our forests together–a chain symbolizing the unity of everyone working to protect the forests as whole living systems vital to our survival on this planet.
Each circle built from found materials, or occasionally people, will depict a different aspect of the condition of our national forests. Some will show the beauty, others the destruction. Linked together, they will convey the importance of resurrecting OUR National Forests as refuges from all commercial extraction which was the original intent of Congress when it established them 100 years ago.
To fulfill this project, I intend to construct fifty ZeroCircles by the year 2000. So far, twenty-three have been completed in seven states. My own completed circles have also begun to inspire others to create and document their own forest circles.
A dynamic web-site has been constructed on the Internet to display the circles and provide information about the condition of each national forest. Via the Net, both the media and the public can follow the progress of the ZeroCircles campaign, learn about Zero-Cut legislation, send letters to their representatives, and network with regional conservation groups working on this and related issues. Translating the circles into action to protect our forests is the goal.
Learn more about Daniel Dancer's Work
How To Participate
First of all, don't be intimidated by the word "artist." In an earlier time, art was not something others did for us to view, or purchase to display on the walls and tables of our homes. Instead, doing art was simply a part of life. It empowered us. It gave meaning to our lives and connected us to the whole. Rediscover the connection this art of old once provided and build a circle soon in a national forest near you. And remember, these are YOUR forests. You have every right to do this.
Highlight something that bothers you or delights you, build a zerocircle from things you find on the site (check the web site for circle ideas and photo tips) and send it back to us along with a paragraph or two describing the situation. We will add it to ZeroCircles website. If enough circles are built the story will activate the media, and the word will get out that it's time to end commercial logging on public lands. The circle is our rallying cry. It is our demand for change.
The Zero-Circles Project and those people associated with it do not in any way advocate the violation of Federal Law. We suggest that any materials used to create a circle be returned to their original place of origin once the circle has been photographed and fulfilled its function. It may therefore be useful to know the Forest Service Book of Codes and Regulations. The following sections may apply: 261.9 Property: (a) Damaging any natural feature or other property of the United States. 261.10 Occupancy and use. The following are prohibited: (a) Constructing, placing, or maintaining any kind of road, trail, structure, fence, enclosure, communication equipment, or other improvement on National Forest system land or facilities without a special-use authorization, contract, or approved operating plan.
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