Because that’s what I do when I stand before you. I begin to listen.
Can I address you all for just a minute?
I feel that I have traveled a long way, and I have. Not just this trail along the shore or the river, but my whole life. And like the viewer beside me I carry a lifetime of sounds: rain driven against the windows, sudden cessation of thunder, the click of a latch. Somebody sobbing, somebody laughing. Last goodbyes: See ya on the other side. I love you. The gravel-crunch music of homecomings. The bark of geese, chortle of water boiling in a pan, the scrape of a stone stuck in the tread of a shoe. Sneeze! I am so full of the music of my own life it’s hard to hear much else.
And here I am before you canvases, struck to silence. And this occurs to me: The only great art is the art that just about kills you. Because once in a while we must be remade. Reconstituted to the sound of falling water, or to the music of whatever god. We rinse our spirits clean. If we don’t, we can become stale and fearful; hidebound; small.
And the only great art is the art that takes us to a place. A real place. With a particular smell—the smell, maybe, of dried pine needles covering the path, or the tannin breath of lake water, or the nearly stone-hard cloud smell of fresh snow.
And so, as with our music, we come to this spot bearing all the places we have ever been. We step before you and we are riven. Those places spill away in a silvery stream, like fish from a sliced net. We are in a new place, completely. The freedom of that. And yet—the place is familiar. We know it, and we have loved it, and we love it again. We are emptied and filled in the same instant.
And so, as I look you over, Aho paintings, the most intimate, remembered scenes become suddenly reimagined and so shared.
In the hands of a fine artist a painting awakens a depth of love we have rarely known. In the hands of a great artist, the place and the love seem inevitable. Your rhythms, colors, sounds are effortless and natural. And wholly new and strange; and deeply known, and loved.
It’s like coming over a ridge in a strange country at night, and seeing beloved Orion upside down, loosing his arrows at an upended Bull.
There is nothing you can tell me about a lake.
That’s the bias I arrive with. I grew up on lakes, learned to swim and paddle a canoe on lakes, had my first crush beside, and in, a lake; learned there to breathe in time to the movement of swim strokes, to live. And a couple of years ago I almost died on a lake. I want to tell you that story.
But first, I want to tell you that I can’t get away from you. I come back again and again to your song. You hum to yourself. The watery foreground that is nearly green hums to itself. The woods that are nearly a slate or blue I cannot name—they hum to themselves, cast their colors on the water. The sky which runs with fleets of high clouds also hums. What the heck’s going on? I know, I know, there has been a terrible argument. I know that the sky has warred with the trees and that the trees have thrashed water and that the water has made a mission of obliterating stone. But—right here, right now, there is the lovely music of concord. Nobody here is faking anything. That’s what draws me back. How often do we knock against the hardwood grain of truth? How often are we so honored?
The peace here has been earned. Whatever you have been through you will go through again, but for now the reflected light moves easily in both directions, falling from sky to woods to water, spraying back against the trees. All your hummings are in the same key. How often are we allowed to catch the world in respite? Those moments become touchstones.
Also, I am a sucker for modesty and your modesty is real. You have mollified my preconceptions with simplicity. But. Butbutbut! You are a wily Lake and you hold many truths at once. First, you say you are simple, but you are not so simple. I challenge anyone to name all the colors in your presented monochrome. Second, you have dispensed with the illusions of depth. Even your maker says so. (Never ever believe an artist talking about his own work, or take any of it at face.) Bullshit. Look into your eyes, Lake, up there, between the treetops, and there are miles and miles of depth, leading us to ridgetops we will never have time to explore. Because it seems to me that the light is long and it is near the end of day.
Before the tide of night rolls in, I want to tell you a story. I mean, you’ve been doing all the talking for quite a while …
My lake story:
My wife, Kim, and I flew from Colorado to Boston at the end of September. I had spent half my life in New England and she had never seen the North Country woods in the flush of autumn. We drove to Maine, up through Greenville, into the heart of a million acre wilderness. The hardwoods blazed with color, loosed orange leaves onto the roads.
The Appalachian Mountain Club has staffers walk canoes out to some of the remote lakes. So if you want to fish them, you only have to hike the trail with your gear and a paddle. Pretty cool. We did. We packed a lunch and some iced tea, our two Sage four-weight fly rods, picked up the paddles and walked in for an hour.
Sometimes, in subdued or dramatic light, in a certain season, a place will hold such power our hearts cannot contain it. We smelled the water before we got there, and as we stepped to the bedrock beach at the head of the lake I felt my heart might burst. Bursting is different than breaking. We had started walking in the near dark. Now at sunrise, fog rolled over the water in spectral silence and tendriled into the trees. The water, where it was revealed, was a tilted glass dotted with spreading rings like rain: the feeding trout.
We cannot embrace in our literal arms a landscape or a country, or a lake, or a river, but sometimes we want to, we need to, and then we don’t know what to do with our passion. There is pain in that, in our inability to respond and love the way a god might respond. Is it funny that I am telling this to you, painting called Lake? You have been birthed by the same impulse. You know all about it. And you know that the frustrated embrace becomes the painting and the poem.
We found the upturned canoe and righted it, shook out the spiders, slid it into still water. We slipped through a moving nimbus of fog, the only sound the gulp of a paddle, the knock of a shaft against the gunwale. And then we stopped paddling and glided. There is something wonderful in the cessation of paddling on smooth water. Something like watching a flock of ducks all stop beating at once and sail over a bank of trees on outstretched wings. And we began to cast, making long throws to either side of the boat.
Within half an hour the fog had mostly burned off and we were in the middle of the lake and on the shore the hardwoods fluoresced with pinks. Kim said, “Look! There’s a moose! On the bank!”
Whoa, he was the biggest moose I’d ever seen. His stature seemed out of proportion, like a moose in a children’s book about a land of giants. He made the birch trees behind him seem suddenly puny. Moosausaurus. And he was lifting his nose, sniffing, and shaking his rack, and his snorts came over the water.
He was in rut, for sure. Moose don’t have great eyesight—he couldn’t see us, but we were upwind and he could smell us, hear us. He was agitated. He walked stiff legged into the lake.
“Look, he’s wading!” Kim cried. And then he was swimming. We stared, wonderstruck, as the biggest antler rack in the world came straight at us. He was swimming across the lake and he could swim faster than we could paddle. Moose are responsible for more death and injury and mayhem than grizzly bears, by far. In rut, they are simply crazy.
“What should we do?” Kim said.
“Do up your life jacket.” I could imagine the flailing hooves, the boat flipped, all of us swimming.
I was scared. I’ve been in the wild a lot and I was more scared maybe than I’d ever been. What should we do? He would out paddle us. Even if we got to shore, there is no tree we could climb fast enough. Whew. I had an idea. Time for the big guns. I began to sing. I sang the Moose Respect Song. As loud as I could. I sang, “This is your lake / You’re the King / Ringading ding. . . .And I watched as the antlers slowed, cocked to one side, like he was thinking, WTF? And then they turned. He turned toward shore and swam to the bank, climbed out, glared back at us once, and trotted into the woods. We could hear branches breaking, then quiet.
I guess I’m a really bad singer. Or he had thought we were another bull moose in his territory and when he realized we were just dumb humans, he took off. Nobody in Greenville, Maine had ever heard of an aquatic attack by a moose.
I tell you this story, painting called Lake because, I guess, I want to meet you halfway. Because the touch of color in the clouds tells me evening is not far off and the evocative force of you pulls me. Because I want to meet you with who I am, fully; to say, “I am alive, too, I have lived, I have stories as you do. Your quiet energy has a place among them, I am clearing it now. But: You frighten me a little, because in your seeming simplicity and your professed absence of narrative, you move me as much as these stories I have actually lived. I acknowledge you as I would a spirit, and I love you.”
The purity of beginnings is a babbling purity. You cannot live there and you cannot stay there for long. The baby toddles and walks and the babbling becomes speech, and in the speech is a growing precision of need, then desire. In the refinement comes the ability to know: the spoon from the cup, the lion from the bear. Knowledge is not evil, it’s sad: that you must acknowledge the pull of time and accept, or not, your own demise.
Say it: Death. We begin pure and end purified to dust, to ash—how wonderful.
Or not. I defy you, death. I try. And the only way I know how is to touch the universal. You can kill me, but you cannot prevent my spirit from communicating with the stars. Or with a bird, who is tending her own bawling hatchlings. I will try, and try, to be reborn in myriad, million ways.
And once in a while, if I am lucky, I will stop trying and just stand here. As I am now before the painted sounds of falling water. We are high up aren’t we? Way up in the mountains. We have walked half a day to get here—rocky river trail, to fork and branch, to stony tributary brook, always climbing. Now we lean against a shaggy fir. The cascades above pour into echoing stone potholes, we can almost hear the suffusion of white bubbles in icy black water. Here, it is cool and the shadows are deep and I can smell cold water coursing against stone, and spruce. I’ll sit for a minute. Pry off boots and socks, stick my feet in this numbing pool, sigh with the tickle of current against shins.
I am not happy, I didn’t say that. With the losses I’ve reckoned lately, I’m not sure anymore what happiness is. Nor have I been seduced. Not by you, not by anyone. I’m just going to sit here. Just above, the stream tumbles white over a ledge and sends a current of cold air against me. I close my eyes. And this sensation overcomes me, and this question: Is it okay that for a minute I feel youthful? That I would not know the difference between myself right now and myself at seventeen, half babbling, stripping to jump into this same pool? With Margaret, glorious in her nudity, the two of us in love for the first time.
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time…
Wallace Stevens had the mind of an octopus. I mean that whatever colors he passed over, he became. I love this poem. Everybody knows it, so what, I still adore it. And probably can’t repeat the whole thing here for copyright reasons, but the first four lines have taken me traveling. You, the painting have taken me to the poem, and the poem has taken me back. And now I’m up to my thighs in new snow. And I’m looking through the viewfinder of the morning and the break in the trees to a slice of distant hills, also made new with last night’s blizzard. I might be standing on Dusty Ridge, at my Uncle George’s and Aunt Laura’s place in Putney, Vermont, looking across the Connecticut River Valley. Do you know I spent half my youth there, just a few miles from where you, Painting, were born in Aho’s studio, in the next town over?
Yep, I know you—this view, this cold—we are practically neighbors. And the newness of you, and the sense of familiarity I spoke of above are bowling me over. Ha! As long as I’m bowled over and down here, I might make a snow angel, but no, the snow is much too deep. It topples into my face, collapses on my knees. I got it in my waistband, it melts there. Down my neck in the V between the shoulder blades. Snow. Maybe the most feared of all weather. Because: death. Because in its embrace we can feel warmer, then fall asleep, then never wake up. Because white is such a mixed bag in every way, and because the polar bear is usually on top of us before we can even cry out.
But Aho is a Finn and so he is one of those people who is happiest in the places that scare us most. Have you seen his Pinewood Nocturnes? I know no other artist, in any discipline, that has discovered so much joy in darkness.
But I was talking about snow: if you live in a world of winter, like a Finn, or are the son of a Finn and so have inherited your father’s at-homeness in snow, your mother’s strength and equanimity, then you, too, have a mind of winter, and can see in all the country, the morning after snowstorm, the revelation in a two-foot blanketing of white. You can see what is revealed in complete obfuscation.
Absence of differences, for one. Spruce and fir the same. Oak and beech. Ledgerock and field. Hummock and boulder. The snow is so deep we lose the features, then the contours, then the names. And so, I listen to the muffled no-sound of a limb loosing snow onto snow. And with my own mind of winter, I lose the memory of my name, and am wallowing in snow, as joyful as a kid, as a dog, bounding. And it is not just the snow. It is the distances that snow also reveals. In Not-Snow times, which are most often, my longview vision snags—on the closest limbs, the bird there twitching, on her song, the nearest hill and orchard, the cloud shadows tugging across them. But here! Here in this silence I am a captive, completely, of distance. And my spirit flies to it, silently, on owl’s wings—broad, white wings, extended. And the shadows on the snow are soft and blue and slippery. And my prey is beauty and it is everywhere beneath me.
All morning I have been listening. Now I stop. The colors of midsummer are unabashed. They are flame-like, they pulse out of the shadows. You pulse in the grass. It takes no faculty of attention to hear you. You chirp for a mate and somehow everything within earshot syncopates to your rhythm. You have gotten into the head of the artist. There is nothing he will paint today, or tomorrow, that can be free from your cadence. Everything dances to the bowstrings of your longing.
July 8th, 2018
–Peter Heller, bestselling author of The Dog Stars, and The River, out in March, 2019 from Knopf.