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A New Way of Looking


Fri, Apr 13th, 2001
Posted in

Monday, April 16, 2001

The first bones belonged to a cow and her unborn baby. I found them near a small wetland by the South Fork of the Root River. I trudged back up the hill to my house carrying a huge pelvis that looked like a primitive mask. I planned to return later for skulls, vertebrae and clavicles.

My impulse to collect bones came from Georgia O'Keefe, an artist known for her paintings of southwestern scenes and objects, including variations of a cow's skull and pelvis. She said,

I have picked flowers where I found them--have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood where there were sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood that I liked. When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too. I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.

Once I began to look for bones, I found them everywhere. It became an obsession. Even my interest in birds took second place. I followed animal trails off the Big Woods road into the limestone bluffs where I found clavicles that looked like musical instruments, vertebrae that looked like hammers, hollow bones of hawks, and skulls of raccoons, deer, opossum and fox. I cried when I found a paw and a leg in a steel leghold trap. I frequented hollowed-out places in the bluffs that coyotes use for dens. I knew coyotes were there by the large piles of scat on nearby ledges of rock.

About the same time that I began to visit coyote dens, I read Tom Brown's "Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking", Berkley Publishing Company, 1983. From him, I learned it was possible to walk silently on dry leaves. I learned to crouch low to the ground like an Indian or a coyote. I learned how to see differently. Brown wrote,

Mark off a single square foot of ground. First, look at it from a standing position. Notice what you see, and describe the area. Then kneel down and describe it from that vantage point. Notice the things that you missed when you were standing.

When I followed his advice, my eyes picked up faint footprints where before were only shadows. I found tiny ribs, legs and vertebrae where before were only twigs or small stones. I found indigestible skulls of mice and voles left behind by their predators. Up there in the bluffs my borders blurred. I became something different. I was more agile than usual, more patient, less self-conscious and more alert. I liked the experience as long as I could return to myself at will.

About this time, I discovered the poet Jorie Graham, who showed me I wasn't alone in my strange experiences; she had also learned new ways of looking. Following are excerpts from three of her poems.

"Notes on the Reality of the Self"
I see it from here and then
I see it from here. Is there a new way of looking

"In the Hotel"
Is it I this thing that resumes, awakening?
And look how the light puts on its cellophane!
Do I begin? Do I re-enter something now?


"Event Horizon"
An indentation, almost a cut-a foothold
where the dizziness seems to be rushing towards form,
pressing down hard where the river flows, now on that skin,
as if the light needed something
it does not have

Eventually, my obsession waned. I became bored with bones unless they were small as pins. There was the obligation to clean them, identify, display and honor them and look at them in new ways. It was more than I was prepared to devote my life to. So, one day I organized the tiny bones into the compartments of a Japanese lunch box. I kept my favorite mandibles, skulls, clavicles and a pelvis for display and returned the rest to the woods behind my house. That night coyotes howled under my kitchen window and a great horned owl hooted from the railing of my porch.

By Nancy Overcott

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