I conceive of no flourishing and heroic elements of Democracy in the United States, or of Democracy maintaining itself at all, without the Nature-element forming a main part – to be its health-element and beauty-element – to really underlie the whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World.
Walt Whitman, Specimen Days
I have spent nearly half of the summers of my adult life in the remote Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, on the shores of Lake Superior. The summer of 2020 was different from most in that I arrived a month earlier than usual and experienced the late spring of the far north for the first time. It was also different because of the pandemic. The usual panoply of summer activities and events were replaced by a simple rhythm of daily walks and studio work.
I resumed a practice from the summer before of taking walks or riding my bike to a patch of skunk cabbage – Symplocarpus Foetidus – just outside of town, and bringing the large leaves back to the studio to make prints. These are unique prints – as similar and different as my daily walks – made by pressing a leaf into a watercolor wash freshly painted on a sheet of paper. Each print records a specimen leaf and a daily walk.
I don’t remember where or when Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days came to my attention, but the title felt right for this series and for this moment. Whitman published his prose memoir – a collection of “specimens” from his notebooks and journals – in 1882. As he wrote of this effort, “It will illustrate one phase of humanity anyhow; how few of life’s days and hours … are ever noted.” The most vivid of his entries record his impressions of the Civil War years in Washington D.C., where he was a regular visitor to the sick, wounded and dying soldiers in the military hospitals. He bore intimate witness to a divided nation in crisis. As we live through our own crisis in a divided nation, American history seen through the eyes of a poet is instructive, and perhaps comforting.
November 23, 2020