Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Bearing Witness in the Menomonee Valley

The bend in the Menomonee just downstream from Miller Park is one of my favorite haunts in the Valley. There the river makes one of several ninety-degree turns that remind us, if we attend to them, that the watercourse is not “natural” but as manufactured as the industries that replaced the wild rice marsh from which the river was carved. But that’s history. Today this corner of the river is rare for its seclusion—and for a blessed illusion: paradoxically, it is one of the few stretches of seemingly natural landscape without a glimpse of the surrounding city.
It is a place prized by anglers and I am not surprised to find a suitably costumed one casting repeatedly in the shallow water. I ask what’s biting and he grimaces before grumbling amiably, “Nothing yet.” Then he adds, “But it’s a lovely afternoon and the autumn colors are beautiful.” He continues casting. 
By chance I spot the remains of a hawk, victim of some unknown violent end, splayed across the ground near the river. I might have missed it; so closely do its colors blend with the earth on which it rests. I haven’t come seeking this, but here I am and here it is.

Without clearly understanding why, I record the scene with my camera.

Photography famously excels at representing the material world. Just point and shoot, as they say, with a camera—or a phone—and you have a lasting record that is often far more detailed than what you’ve consciously observed. But my mind is on a branch of Zen Buddhism that encourages a practice known as bearing witness.* Bearing witness is more than observing your surroundings.
I observe the crushed body of the hawk, the pattern on its feathers, the curved talons—their vicious sharpness rendered impotent by death. Noted later, my camera also records matted, muddied entrails; twisted brown leaves scattered all around among surprisingly fresh green shoots; even the grit of the sandy earth.

After shooting the dead body I move on, turn the bend, and 
climb an overgrown slope to the Hank Aaron Trail. There in the middle of the asphalt I find another, smaller carcass: a vole. (Perhaps a mouse, but mice have pointier snouts. Its flattened state makes the attribution tentative. In any case, common prey for a hawk.) This one has not died a natural wild rodent death—most likely it was squashed by a speeding cyclist. Nor did it provide sustenance for a hawk. The flies busily digging in its punctured hide, however, care nothing for how it perished. In nature nothing is wasted. Death begets life.

I have not come looking for hawks or voles. I’m not seeking memento mori. I did have a purpose in mind when I chose to walk this bend in the river today but once I arrived I let that purpose subside. Buddhism teaches us to let go of attachments. It is a practice I deliberately bring to my photography, if not always to the rest of my life. Had I stuck to my purpose I might have noticed neither hawk nor vole. Letting go of my purpose and being present in the moment allows me the freedom to discover things I am not seeking.

But the idea of bearing witness goes deeper. You are not merely present in the moment and open to experience, though these are the necessary conditions that make bearing witness possible. Bearing witness is an act of social engagement, not only being aware of the life—and death—around you but embodying it. Allow yourself to embody the experience of the other—that which is outside yourself—and you may become one with it: hawk, vole, predator and prey, river, trail, Menomonee Valley, city, Earth. Words, ideas, experiences.
Occasionally photographs.

Bearing witness isn’t about the photographs. It isn’t about the words. It isn’t about death either, unless it is death to which you attend.

Ultimately—ideally—bearing witness is about the dissolution of self, becoming one with all life, with the universe. By embodying the universe you assume responsibility for it. Not because of a moral obligation—too intellectual—but because you experience the other as yourself, inseparable. If you embody the other then the other is you and you will naturally care for it as you do yourself.

The Menomonee Valley represents an unusual kind of oneness, the planned reintegration of nature within an urban fabric. The inseparability of natural and built environments is being made manifest here. I come to the Valley to be present, to bear witness, to try with due humility to embody this universe.

In Zen practice bearing witness commonly addresses injustice and inequality, promotes peace and reconciliation. But we must also bear witness to progress and hope. Like the hawk and the vole, here in the Valley it is easy to find dead carcasses of abandoned factories in various states of decay. But I haven’t come seeking death.

I have come seeking renewal. The Valley provides that in abundance.

*Glassman, Bernie. Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace. 1998. Bell Tower, New York.

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.  

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