In January and February of 2017, just after completing the last recordings for Cold Spring, the storms of winter came to Big Sur in earnest. Ninety plus inches of rain in one season along side hurricane strength winds. All this water and wind arriving only a couple months after an unstoppable, three-month-long forest fire tore through 200,000 acres of wilderness: perfect conditions for extreme erosion.
Boulders smashed up the highway. Trees dropped. Rivers flooded. Earth moved. It moved so much that it tore down a bridge to the north and lay waste to the southern end of the highway we just call “the road”, since it is the only one.
Just like that, the former tourist destination of Big Sur became an island. Then smaller slides of mud and rock, and crumbling residential roads, not to mention countless tree-downs, and every little ridge or ranch was its own island. Thus we were upgraded to the Big Sur Archipelago. Each little sovereign encampment of locals, famed for fierce independence, was actually on its own.
The electricity was on and off, but mostly off. On the forth morning of a long stretch of power outage – twelve days since the road closed on both sides – I awoke feeling light and alert, out from under the dense fog of crisis. I felt content with what was, just as it was – uncertain future, isolated present, cut off from most comfort and convenience.
Daylight is so much more precious when it is the only light to work and read by. So I would rise just before dawn and spend long days happily trespassing across abandoned properties, fixing half-foraged meals, reading poetry, and listening to storms.
I have a “sit-spot” that I visit regularly, a place for silent contemplation on a rocky, west-facing bluff. The bay laurel trees that grow there are stunted and hunched – bonsaied by the wind. On a clear morning, I sat by my altar made of piled-up stones and watched the trees sway in the gale. Without a thought I climbed to the top of one, closed my eyes, and let the wind push and pull me with the trees. Two ravens flew above me, dropping and rising, doing cool tricks for each other, dancing with the wind... dancing with the little grove of trees, and with me.
In this peculiar time of simultaneous isolation from the outside world, and deep connection with the land, I began to play with the place. In the forest and chaparral I built sculptures with what I found there. Wild art making can be, I’ve found, a wonderfully rich and complex dialogue with place.
I built two ceremonial structures – pictured on the front and back of the Cold Spring record jacket. They are primitive dwellings of a kind; I call them lodges. The forest lodge was made using coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) branches and boughs which were shed naturally during the storms. The chaparral lodge uses a redwood branch frame from nearby trees, the deadwood spire of a yucca cactus (Hesperoyucca whipplei), and coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) foliage.
The lodges demanded hard work to construct, but no effort whatsoever. They arose gracefully, and with their own instructions floating up from the depths of that bottomless, profoundly mysterious, spring of creativity.
During this literal state of emergency, when the place itself was evicting the human inhabitants and erasing their alterations to the landscape, my wife and I decided it was no longer sustainable to live primarily in Big Sur. There wasn’t much convenience to begin with; now there is less: no post office, no grocery store, no car access – maybe for a year or more. And though I feel the pull toward hermetic life, that too is not truly available in Big Sur circa 2017. The land is claimed, the rents remain high, and opportunities are few. For the time being at least, I cannot live in Big Sur as a homesteading artist, or in the way my spirit hungers for – nomadically constructing impermanent villages between the hills and beaches.
My sculptures grew out of a longing to lay down roots that cannot be disturbed by falling rocks or rising rents. They are not, however, primitivistic fantasy homes. These lodges are places of worship. Altars to the forgotten gods of wind, forest, and field. Womb-spaces where I was tenderly held and affirmed in my unshakable belonging. Earthen temples to ground myself in the truths that I am forever of this place, and that the land is owned by no one.