by Corinna Cook
The mountain doesn’t know you’re an expert.
This is how my family reminds each other that life alongside mountains must by necessity be humble. By necessity alert. The tear-shaped island in Alaska on which I grew up has steep, rainforested mountainsides. It has dark, rocky shores. And it has a two-lane bridge to the mainland, where the rest of town is a capital city busy with state politics but rimmed by an icefield so that no road links our community to any other community. Because of this, we have a special responsibility to take care of each other.
That is why child-me learned how to follow a watershed off the mountain to the beach. I do not remember learning to tie a shoe, though in order to walk off alone I must have learned this around the same time. Without landmarks where the forest is thick, or when the weather is socked in with snow and rain, or if it is the time of year when darkness falls—child-me learned the points of reference that lead to tideline where rescuers can concentrate a search.
In other words, I learned the first principle of respect for land and community is this: when I am lost—when, not if—when I am lost, I must either re-find myself or work so that others can find me. Now grown, I am often enough alone on a mountain. But I remember that wherever I go, I am responsible to those who would risk everything to come to my rescue. My physical location, then, is always also an ethical one.
That is why the paintings in Jane Isakson’s Points of Reference have my heart. Her paintings reflect the questions that emerged from a series of mapping installations she made in Svalbard during a sailing residency aboard a tall ship. Using candles, sticks, and string, Isakson thought about old navigation techniques like triangulation and celestial observation, and tried to understand her location in the physical world. How, she asked, can the land tell us where we are? And where, she asked, do her own reference points diverge from those of others with whom she shares this world? Aboard the tall ship, Isakson created string prisms through which to mediate the line of sight dictated by the ship’s portholes. On the beach, she set up strings aligned with distant landforms and their histories, known and imagined. Once home in Whitehorse, Yukon, she painted.
One painting, I Am Here, is full of browns and greys: bare brown beach, rocky but for one band of gold; a place of intertidal life, perhaps. At the edge of the beach, blue-grey water. Across the water, mountain slopes of blue-grey snow and brown-grey cliff. Above the mountains, blue-grey sky and milk-grey clouds, bellies shadowed to pale slate.
It is a spare place but it is complicated by an optical idea: three geometric beams come off three mountain slopes. These beams converge on the rocky beach and form a prism of pink dashed with tangerine, bright and small like a bud. It is a transient prism of bright light on ancient land.
Yearning underlies my first thought, which is this: light converges on surfaces in such a temporary, fleeting way.
And my second thought makes only a small revision to the first: light—like life—converges on surfaces in such a temporary, fleeting way. I wonder what points of reference direct those refracting beams of light to the shore. I wonder what responsibility the resulting prism bears to the points of reference converging on it.
Wondering draws me physically much closer to the canvas and with new proximity, the painting alters: up close, I see the bright colors of the underpainting show at the edge of every brown and grey shape on the canvas. Pink rims all the rocks of the shore, along with cadmium, scarlet. Red and lemon dashes hold depth in the clouds. Bolts of tangerine rim the far shore. Exceeding every object’s edge is refracted light, the spectrum split open.
The surprise of color bursting from behind greys and browns brings to mind a shard of flint: the one that appears in an essay by Osage writer William Least Heat-Moon. The essay is one from his book PrairyErth—a book he calls a “deep map,” for it charts every layer, from the geologic to the political to the spiritual, of a single county in the Flint Hills: Chase County, Kansas.
Yet Heat-Moon’s essay does not begin with the shard of flint. Heat-Moon’s essay begins underground, far below the surface of Chase County, with one of the earth’s greatest mountain chains: the ancient Nemaha Mountains. They were uplifted on Pangea and would have been as striking as the Tetons, then they were submerged into an ancient sea. Fifty million years of settling sediments covered them with strata of calcium carbonate. Of the four hundred oil wells in Chase County, only a couple dozen go so deep as to scrape the highest ridges of those Precambrian mountains.
But at its surface, Chase County is cattle country. And so one of the truest portraits of today, in Heat-Moon’s eyes, is this: “the chemical nature of the old seawater produced a stony land that produces good grasses that produce good, hoofed protein. Flint Hills beef is a 250-million-year-old gift.”
The essay contains a tension, though. Heat-Moon sees Kansans take deep pride in their cattle, but he laments that “the linkings go no further back, and the residents don’t picture themselves as children of the Permian seas. They understand their living in the hills but not the hills living in them, and so the deeper links are broken.”
During my gallery visit with the artist, I learn from Isakson that the painting’s golden band of rocky shore is a near-neon lichen that grows on parts of the beach where commercial whalers brought their harvest and rendered whale fat. This is to say that the lichen lives on rock and air and on traces of whale blubber. So I suppose whales live on in the lichen, and perhaps the commercial whaling industry does too. Beyond that, I am uncertain of the deeper links between the lichen that appears in the painting and the history behind it.
Among Chase County citizens, Heat-Moon encounters a kind of uncertainty as well—though erasure may be more accurate—for he finds it is typical for Kansans to stop history in 1850. That date marks the arrival of westward expansion into the plains. Readers infer the truncated history is human. It is Indigenous. Heat-Moon writes, “the sense of the past here is abbreviated, and it lies separate like a severed limb.”
I do not know if commercial whaling, historic or modern, also lies separate like a severed limb. For some, maybe it does; for others, it may be integrated in their sense of the arctic seas. I can’t say.
But I do know that in the larger picture, beyond the lichen, the contemporary north bears the brunt of global ecological truths willfully eclipsed by southern, urban centers of power. The ice is melting. The sea is rising, the storms are pounding, the land is crumbling, the communities are grieving. Climate truths strewn among northerners are no less violently separated from the world’s collective conscience than severed limbs.
I understand Isakson’s painting as a suturing of such violent severances. I understand it as a way to restore what Heat-Moon calls “the deeper links.” Distant points of reference converge and the painting’s title, “I Am Here,” relocates far-off powers into this arctic moment.
But remember that “I Am Here” also reveals the color at the edge of every rock and every cloud and every field of snow—that is, it reveals the color within the brown, the color within the grey. That is what brings me to Heat-Moon’s shard of flint.
For as Heat-Moon’s narrator searches for a telltale chip of Precambrian granite from the ancient Nemaha Ridge, he finds a piece of cryptocrystalline quartz—colloquially called flint—the rock for which these hills of eastern Kansas are named. That piece of flint is “the color of deep seawater under clouds.” And it is a sharp-edged shard capable of releasing sparks and birthing flame. Flint, reflects Heat-Moon, is “fire from the old sea.”
With flint, Heat-Moon re-attaches the severed limb of Chase County’s history: “before the children of Europe took these hills,” he writes, “the people who walked here believed stones to be alive because they carried heat, changed their forms, and moved if you watched them long enough. To them, rocks were concentrations of power and life.”
That is, I believe, what Isakson is painting. Every rock is surrounded by color because every rock is alive. The brown-grey of Svalbard’s arctic mornings is soaked through with hues of scarlet and tangerine. Refracted light—like life—not only converges on surfaces in a temporary, fleeting way; it also animates all things. Draw in close to the world and it’s life you’ll see at all the margins, exceeding every edge.
While the land tells us where we are, I suppose our points of reference on it still determine the sense we can and can’t make of its telling. What would my tear-shaped island in Alaska tell me about where I am if I adopted a new adage, nothing to do with expertise, something that evokes—triangulates between—experience, observation, and old wisdoms? One last essayist comes to mind, here. Blaise Pascal might look at the long slant of a mountainside, then at the people who live alongside it, and simply suggest that the rock has its reasons that reason does not know.
Corinna Cook is currently based in Whitehorse, Yukon, where Fulbright Canada supports her writing on art, ecology, and history. She holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri and is a recipient of the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation’s 2018 Literary Award.