For ten months we have been steeped in isolation as families, communities, and governments struggle with the ebbs and flows of this generation’s pandemic. Each of us has coped in whatever way we can, wrestling with a demonic assortment of challenges: loneliness (or its opposite, if we’re crammed into an overpopulated or antagonistic household), cabin fever/claustrophobia, political/professional/economic anxiety, loss, grief.
Artists of every stripe have responded to the pandemic in ever-astounding ways: the theatrical troupe Eschaton has been conducting vibrant, innovative, immersive online productions (I attended their fabulous New Year’s Eve event with 300+ others); global choirs have figured out the technical wizardry to combine dozens of voices and instruments in gorgeous performances like “Helpless” sung by the Hamilton Cast, The Roots, and Jimmy Fallon; and artist collectives in the tiny coastal town of Gualala have assembled online, and now, in-person exhibits (one family pod per room at a time) like the one featuring my latest video poem.
When we are ready, or perhaps half-ready, or possibly beyond ready
we stumble into knowing,
our former shells of cognizance cracking,
melting into sweetness
a bouffant of soft serve licked once, twice,
a sideways swipe of the tongue
reseeding cranial topographies.
“Shelter from the Storm: Art Created in These Turbulent Times,” is the newest exhibit at the Gualala Arts Center, available for viewing until February 21st. (Virtual tours via Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, etc. are also available by contacting Center staff). The collection of paintings, photographs, sculpture – and yes one video on a looping DVD – responded to the Center’s call for artwork created while sheltering-in-place.
The poem, which dives into the mind-blowing, confounding, wrenching events of 2020, is superimposed over rare footage of the California “rough-skinned” newt or “waterdog” as Native Californians call the creature. I shot the footage during an invited visit to a property owned by a consortium of Buddhist monks in the highlands of Lake County. I invited an Elem elder to join the field tour, where we inspected the damage done by unauthorized off-roading ATVs and discussed ways to better protect the native habitats within the property. A member of the group – I forgot the man’s name or affiliation – was driving me batty with his pomposity and lack of social graces, and I drifted away from the group, searching for life in the drought-stricken waterways on the property.
Crouching next to a small pond, I spotted a flash of burnt umber – the underbelly of a newt. I slowly, carefully, brought my iPhone up and began filming. The newt swam towards me, maintaining eye contact for several minutes before deciding s/he had enough of the human and swiveling around to swim over to a group of other newts in a newt ball engaging in an “amphibian orgy.”
Every year, when the rains come, the male newts abandon their terrestrial homes and head for the pool. Their skins turn smooth, their forelegs swell to Popeye-like proportions, their tails become finlike. When the females arrive, the scene becomes frenzied. Writhing clusters of suitors – newt balls – surround each female. Eventually one male wins out. Clasping her, he strokes the top of her head with his chin to release pheromones that put her in the mood. At the critical moment, he lets go, swims to the bottom and deposits one or more neat packets of sperm. She accepts a packet, and both swim away. An oddly impersonal process, but it gets the job done. –Joe Eaton and Ron Sullivan
Of course, I’ve totally fallen in love with the California newt. I’ve witnessed the “newt ball” phenomenon once before, lying on my stomach over a rock-enclosed pool in the Cache Creek Nature Preserve. Newts are the bomb! Very sexy.
Native Pomo knew all about newt proclivities – take the story told by Dry Creek Rancheria auntie Elizabeth “Belle” Lozinto Cordova Dollar of a waterdog who managed to snare a Bear as a wife while helping Snake to woo away the love interest of Bullfrog. The charming (and rather earthy) story was edited by her great-niece Sherrie Smith-Ferri and illustrated in the book Waterdog and the Love Charm, one of a trio of initial publications by my tiny media company, Beauty and Love Publishing.
Waterdog said, “Well look at me!
I’m small, but look at my wife!
(He was making fun of Water Snake
Who was scared. That’s why
Water snakes will hide in the water
When they see people.)
Now that we’ve entered the rainy season in California, the newts and salamanders have begun to emerge. Out of respect, the East Bay Regional Park District closes South Park Drive at Tilden Regional Park for about five months during newt migration season. Even cyclists going through the area are asked to keep their speed below 15 mph! I look forward to hiking along soggy woodland trails, keeping an eye out for these captivating, craft creatures, on route to their future conquests.