Daily Archives: 01/01/2006

The Wave

This evening I watched a NOVA special on the Asian Tsunami. Watching those video clips of the wave scouring Banda Aceh, Phuket and Sri Lanka was harrowing. Nature is vastly more skilled at destruction than our species, no matter how adept as pupils we may be. I watch the footage of these people walking along the sandy ocean bottom, oblivious to onrushing wave in the distance, and I just cringe.

The tsunami did not differentiate between culture, politics, race or religion. But it looks like the war in Aceh is over with both the Indonesian government and the separatist rebels laying down their arms. It only took hundreds of thousands dead and half a million homeless from a wave of senseless destruction to get both sides to lay down their weapons. If only the wave had quelled the troubles in Sri Lanka as well. Instead, it seems to have opened old wounds between the Tamil and Sinhalese over relief aid. Both sides appear to be gearing up for another round in their internecine civil war.

The Laya Project has an ambitious goal; to heal through music the pain and loss of those communities affected by the tsunami. I am looking forward to what this project produces in the coming months and how they can help bring together those damaged by the great wave.

There Is Never Enough

I always enjoy flipping through my Patagonia catalogs, mostly for the thoughtful bits of introspection that are included amongst the shirts, coats and pants they sell. In amongst the product descriptions are little essays about the outdoors and adventure that I find enjoyable reading. Here’s one that really struck me.

Don’t Buy This Shirt Unless You Need It
Near the headquarters of Patagonia, on the central coast of California, the Chumash Nation enjoyed a good life for thousands of years. They lived in small villages and possessed fur blankets, intricate baskets and soapstone pots decorated with shells. They painted elaborate abstracts in mountain caves. In every village were game-playing fields and sacred buildings. Almost every day, most Chumash enjoyed a cleansing sweat in the village temescal. In each village was a granary for stockpiling food that would later be distributed to those in need.

Chumash traded exquisite olivella shells for black pigment, honeydew melons, pine nuts, wild tobacco and various herbs and salt. By the 16th century, theirs was a complex society of hunters and gatherers with a far-reaching, sophisticated trade network.

Other nations along the western coast shared this life. Gerald Amos, a member (and former chief) of the Haisla Nation in Kitamaat, northwest Canada, recalls a friend of his father who would leave home in the dark to paddle to his trapline four miles by water. He would spend the day walking the lines, checking an resetting the traps. “Along the way, back to the boat, during the late fall and early winter, the coho salmon would be still in the creeks that they passed, so they would stop at one of these creeks and take a couple of coho, which they would clean and pack home in their backpack together with whatever animals they had taken in their traps. The fish provided them with their supper later that night.”

Such lives are often called subsistence, which brings to mind the barest, hardscrabble survival. But there is another way to look at them. At Patagonia we choose to call them “economies of abundance.” In an economy of abundance, there is enough. Not too much. Not too little. Enough. Most important, there is enough time for the things that matter: relationships, delicious food, art, games and rest.

Many of us in the United States live in what is thought to be abundance, with plenty all around us, but it is only an illusion, not the real thing. The economy we live in is marked by “not enough.” We once asked the owner of a successful business if he had enough money and he replied, “Don’t you understand? There is never enough.”

We don’t have enough money, and we also don’t have enough time. We don’t have enough energy, solitude or peace. We are the world’s richest country, yet our quality of life ranks 14th in the world. As Eric Hoffer, a mid-20th century philosopher, put it, “You can never get enough of what you don’t really need to make you happy.”

And while we work harder and harder to get more of what we don’t need, we lay waste to the natural world. Dr. Peter Senge, author and MIT lecturer, says, “We are sleepwalking into disaster, going faster and faster to get where no one wants to be.”

We might call this economy, the one we live in, the economy of scarcity.

Lest you think the economy of abundance is gone with the old Chumash, consider Europe. Europeans still buy only a few well-made clothes and keep them for many years. Their houses and apartments tend to be smaller than ours; they rely on public transportation, and small, efficient home appliances and cars. Europeans enjoy a 25 percent higher quality of life than Americans (while we consume 75 percent more than they do).

Or, look at the people of Bhutan, whose king insists on measuring “gross national happiness.”

Any person or nation can grow fatter and fatter, richer and richer, sleepwalking toward disaster. Or we can choose to remain lean and quick, wealthy in beauty and time and, that word that inspired our forefathers, wealthy in happiness.

In Patagonia’s environmental campaign this year, we looked at the plight of wild salmon and what it might take for us to become was Ecotrust calls “a Salmon Nation,” a nation of people who make choices that contribute to the health of whole watersheds and the economies of the people who live in them. A salmon nation is a nation of abundance, where people live in a way that fish can thrive. If you think this is an impossible dream, check out Seth Zuckerman’s essay “The Gift: Salmon Recovered” and learn how wild salmon rebounded in Alaska after the state employed sophisticated tools like sonar, stream bank counters and airborne spotters to ensure their salmon were not overfished. In the last two decades, commercial catches in Alaska have more than doubled.

At Patagonia, we are dedicated to abundance. We don’t want to grow larger, but want to remain lean and quick. We want to make the best clothes and make them so they will last a long, long time. Our idea is to make the best product so you can consume less and consume better. Every decision we make must include its impact on the environment. We make ski jackets that are the right jackets, with no compromises, yet they are elegant enough to wear over dress clothes in a storm in Paris. (Most ski jackets sit in the closet nine months out of the year.) We want to zero in on quality.

In the economy of abundance, wild salmon are given back rivers in which to run. Trees grow to their natural height. Water is clean. A sense of mystery and enchantment is restored to the world. We humans live within our means and, best of all, we have the time to enjoy what we have.

Wow, there’s a lot to chew on in that little essay. A great deal of western civilization is about this accumulation of stuff we don’t need and which doesn’t make us happy, yet we keep on buying more and more crap. It’s called affluenza, and it is endemic to our culture. “We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men” is how T.S. Eliot starts his poem The Hollow Men (Which I must post more about at a later date). We are afflicted with affluenza and need to break this cycle of meaningless over-consumption. And to think I got started on this rant because of a little essay sitting smack dab in the middle of a clothing catalog.

A Fauve’s Long Journey Into Night

There are a couple good essays on the Fauvist painters online at the moment. For those unfamiliar, Fauvism was the first brief struggle to break from centuries of European tradition in painting. The Fauvists took their inspiration for van Gogh, Gaugin and Cézanne, creating bold experiments in color and form. Shapes and form were completely arbitrary, and color was boldly exuberant, lending the school of painters the name ‘fauve,’ French for wild beast.

The most celebrated Fauvist was Henri Matisse, but many other important artists of the 20th century first exhibited as Fauvists, most notably the cubist Georges Bracque and Othon Friesz.

George Bracque, Landscape near Antwerp, 1906
Julian Barnes has a wonderful essay in the London Review of Books about Friesz and Bracque, based on a new biography of Bracque by Alex Danchev. Barnes is an enjoyable writer who really conveys the excitement and his love of art in his work, and this review of Bracque’s life is no different. For while Friesz was a competent artist, Bracque was just beginning his masterful career:

They were friends, companions, painters-in-arms committed to what was, at the start of the 20th century, the newest and most provoking form of art. Braque was just the younger, but there was little assumption of seniority by the other. They were co-adventurers, co-discoverers; they painted side by side, often the same subject, and their work was at times almost indistinguishable. The world was young, and their painting lives lay ahead of them.

You have to feel sorry for Othon Friesz, Braque’s fellow Le Havrean and loyal confederate in Fauvism, his proto-Picasso. While Braque moved on with his new Spanish friend to make the greatest breakthrough in Western art for several centuries, and Cubism relegated Fauvism to a jaunty memory, Friesz had to get on with the rest of his life and the rest of his career. Strangely, the two painters had their first joint show – a posthumous one – only last summer, at the Musée de Lodève. It proved a display of unintentional cruelty. The most compelling Fauve paintings were all by Braque; but while this was just a stage in his development (though a fondly remembered one – fifty years later he bought back his own The Little Bay at La Ciotat), it turned out to be what Friesz did best. Afterwards, he wandered his way through various styles inclining more and more to the empty magniloquent gesture – a painter shouting not to be forgotten.

Fauvism lasted only 4 or 5 years before most of the artists finally broke with the figurative tradition in painting and embraced cubism. But those brief heady years produced wonderful works of art. This painting by André Derain demonstrates the Fauvist ethos perfectly:
André Derain, Charing Cross Bridge, 1906
This is Charing Cross Bridge, painted in 1906 by André Derain. In fact the second article I want to mention is about Derain and his London paintings, the subject of an exhibition on display at the Courtauld Institute until January 22nd, “André Derain: The London Paintings.” Derain painted London in vibrant colors at the behest of art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who was hoping for a sensation similar to Claude Monet’s exhibition of London painting in 1904. While Vollard never staged a show of Derain’s paintings, he certainly dismantled much of Monet’s legacy.

Despite his awareness of the 19th-century avant-garde, Derain was heading for a new world without links to the century-old tradition of European art. In one of his last masterpieces, “Effects of Sunlight on Water,” dark blue masses, intended as clouds, stand out against a sky veering from intense red to yellowish ochre. An ill-defined green haze rises from the edge of a narrow blue strip that purports to depict a brook and its vegetation. In a letter to the Fauve painter Maurice de Vlaminck, Derain wrote that “Turner authorized us to create forms beyond real, conventional objects.” The influence of Turner is not in doubt, nor the abyss that separates the elaborate harmony of his most abstract works from the stridency of Derain’s Fauve art.

Having gone thus far, Derain then retreated into mediocre figural painting often bordering on kitsch. It was as if he and other Fauves – de Vlaminck, Van Dongen – had become spent forces with nothing more to say. Within a generation, Western painting as a whole would in turn begin to go down the path of disintegration.

It seems that for many Fauves, their light burned brightly for only a few furious years. Both articles convey the impression that the former Fauvists were left on the outside looking in at the later developments in art. Barnes goes on to mention in his essay how Friesz, Derain, Van Dongen and de Vlaminck were suborned by the Nazis during the occupation and were later excoriated for being collaborationists; perhaps their complicity was due in part to a desire to return to their days of artistic glory almost a half century earlier. A chance to wear once again the laurels of youth…

Henri Matisse, Portrait of André Derain, 1905