Field Notebook

My freshman year of college was a revelation. I had been a mediocre high-school student, with a high-school student's local concerns. At the university, though, I found a colony of people who were fiercely interested in what each other thought: this was breathtaking and intoxicating. My freshman comp professor's casual reference to Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862) sent me to the bookstore. For a time at least, Thoreau became my constant companion. I was seldom without my much-underlined Walden in my jacket pocket; I came to understand my new life through the lens of his understanding of his own new, deliberate life at Walden Pond.

Two springs ago a student's commitment to hiking the whole of the Appalachian Trail unexpectedly brought me back to Thoreau and his essay on walking, published posthumously in 1862. I felt that I would be served by those ideas again, with fresh (however older) eyes. I spent this past summer thinking about the wealth of ideas in Thoreau's journals this time. These works are a response to some journal entries.

Billy Renkl
October 24, 1847 (making room), 2012
12″ x 9″
collage with mineral pigment
“Every part of nature teaches that the passing away of one life is the making room for another. The oak dies down to the ground, leaving within its rind a rich virgin mould, which will impart a vigorous life to an infant forest.”

 

Billy Renkl
April, 1839 (drifting), 2012
14″ x 10″
collage with cyanotype
“Drifting in a sultry day on the sluggish waters of the pond, I almost cease to live and begin to be.”

 

Billy Renkl
Thursday, March 31, 1842 ( The curls of a maiden’s hair), 2012
14″ x 10″
collage on toned paper
“All parts of nature belong to one head, as the curls of a maiden’s hair. How beautifully flow the seasons as one year, and all streams as one ocean!”

 

Billy Renkl
November 11, 1850 (as much life), 2012
14″ x 10″
collage on toned paper
“That delicate, waving, feathery dry grass which I saw yesterday is to be remembered in autumn. The dry grasses are not dead for me. A beautiful form has as much life at one season as another.”

 

Billy Renkl
July 16, 1851 (a winding stripe), 2012
12″ x 9″
collage with watercolor
“The river is a dark blue winding stripe amid the green of the meadow. What is the color of the world? Green mixed with yellowish and reddish for the hills and ripe grass, and darker green for trees and forests; blue spotted with dark and white for sky and clouds, and dark blue for water.”

 

Billy Renkl
June 13, 1851 (a distant river), 2012
14″ x 10″
watercolor, mineral pigment, shellac and platinum leaf on found map
“I saw a distant river by moonlight, making no noise, yet flowing, as by day, still to the sea, like melted silver reflecting the moonlight.”

 

Billy Renkl
August 28, 1851 (but the eyes to see), 2012
14″ x 10″
collage on toned paper
“Give me the obscure life, the cottage of the poor and humble, the workdays of the world, the barren fields, the smallest share of all things but poetic perception. Give me but the eyes to see the things which you possess.”

 

Billy Renkl
November 12, 1851: as many distinct plants (#1), 2013
collage and mixed media on wood panel
18” x 24”
“Those sentences are good and well discharged which are like so many little resiliencies from the spring floor of our life,—a distinct fruit and kernel itself, springing from terra firma. Let there be as many distinct plants as the soil and the light can sustain.”

 

BRFA100
November 12, 1851: as many distinct plants (#1), 2013
Detail

 

BRFA101
November 12, 1851: as many distinct plants (#2), 2013
collage and mixed media on wood panel
18” x 24”
“Those sentences are good and well discharged which are like so many little resiliencies from the spring floor of our life,—a distinct fruit and kernel itself, springing from terra firma. Let there be as many distinct plants as the soil and the light can sustain.”

 

BRFA102
November 12, 1851: as many distinct plants (#2), 2013
detail

 

BRFA103
November 11, 2pm, 1851: that blue mountain on the horizon, 2013
collage of vintage postcards
32” x 40”
“That blue mountain in the horizon is certainly the most heavenly, the most elysian, which we have not climbed, on which we have not camped for a night.”

 

BRFA104
September 20, 1851: the most worldly-minded, 2012
collage on toned paper
14” x 10”
“As I go through the fields, endeavoring to recover my tone and sanity and to perceive things truly and simply again, after having been perambulating the bounds of the town all the week, and dealing with the most commonplace and worldly-minded men, and emphatically trivial things, I feel as if I had committed suicide in a sense.”

 

BRFA105
July 25, 1838: and thoughts flow, 2014
collage
18” x 13”
“Trees are but rivers of sap and woody fibre flowing from the atmosphere and emptying into the earth by their trunks, as their roots flow upward to the surface. And in the heavens there are rivers of stars and milky ways. There are rivers of rock on the surface and rivers of ore in the bowels of the earth. And thoughts flow and circulate, and seasons lapse as tributaries of the current year.”

 

BRFA106
May 21, 1851: the standing miracle, 2014
collage with gold leaf
13” x 10”
“I think that we are not commonly aware that man is our contemporary,—that in this strange, outlandish world, so barren, so prosaic, fit not to live in but merely to pass through, that even here so divine a creature as man does actually live. Man, the crowning fact, the god we know. While the earth supports so rare an inhabitant, there is somewhat to cheer us. I think that the standing miracle to man is man.”

 

BRFA107
January 6, 1838: without fail, 2014
collage
10” x 13”
“As a child looks forward to the coming of the summer, so could we contemplate with quiet joy the circle of the seasons returning without fail eternally.”

 

BRFA108
July 16, Wednesday, 1851: I was all alive, 2014
collage on found paper
18” x 12”
“In youth, before I lost any of my senses, I can remember that I was all alive, and inhabited my body with inexpressible satisfaction; both its weariness and its refreshment were sweet to me. I can remember how I was astonished.”

 

BRFA109
August 20, 1851: a language to express the sentiments, 2014
collage
16” x 10”
“It is wonderful how much pains has been taken to describe a flower’s leaf, compared for instance with the care that is taken in describing a psychological fact. Suppose as much ingenuity (perhaps it would be needless) in making a language to express the sentiments! We are armed with language adequate to describe each leaf in the field, or at least to distinguish it from each other, but not to describe a human character.”

 

BRFA110
December 13, pm, 1859: what a spectacle the subtle vapors (#2), 2014
collage of vintage postcards
15” x 19.5”
“What a spectacle the subtle vapors that have their habitation in the sky present these winter days! You have not only ever-varying forms of a given type of cloud, but various types at different heights or hours. It is a scene, for variety, for beauty and grandeur, out of all proportion to the attention it gets.”

 

BRFA111
September 18, 1859: one advantage of a man’s dying, 2014
(collaboration with Greg Sand)
ambrotype with collage
5” x 4”
“I declined, and said that I thought a man ought not any more to take up room in the world after he was dead. We shall lose one advantage of a man’s dying if we are to have a statue of him forthwith.”

 

BRFA112
April 3, 1852: the bluebird, 2014
collage
8” x 5.5”
“The bluebird carries the sky on his back. ‘

 

BRFA113
December 2, 1840: the thought of Walden, 2014
collage with cyanotype
13.5” x 8”
“I am conscious that my body derives its genesis from their waters, as much as the muskrat or the herbage on their brink. The thought of Walden in the woods yonder makes me supple jointed and limber for the duties of the day. Sometimes I thirst for it.”