Boats embody our life journey, each of us, adrift, on a vast ocean. We can only surrender to what life presents. We embark, not knowing where the wind will drive our craft. I first started making sculptures of boats in 2007, inspired by teachings of Dogen, a 13th century Japanese Zen master. His writings are short, poetic, beautiful, pithy, and quite challenging to parse. In Genjo Koan, Dogen writes:
When you ride in a boat and watch the shore, you might assume that the shore is moving. But when you keep your eyes closely on the boat, you can see that the boat moves. Similarly, if you examine myriad things with a confused body and mind you might suppose that your mind and nature are permanent. When you practice intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that nothing at all has unchanging self. Tr. Tanahashi et al.
I made boats in wax — boats with one figure, boats with fish, boats with two figures, boats overturned on a beach, a figure emptying water from a boat, a figure birthing a boat. There was nothing fixed in my play with the wax sculptures — only an endless reconfiguring of figures, boats, and fish.
I showed some of these sculptures to friend and poet, Susan Edwards Richmond. She wrote, River Crossings, a poem in five parts based on several of the sculptures. It was originally published in Issue One of Wild Apples, A Journal of Nature, Art, and Inquiry that we founded together with two friends in 2005. [There are back copies still available].
A figure of wax, softened
by pinch of fingers, heel
of a hand . . .
in the river, bearing
the burden of flood, the stoking
rhythm of oars, molded to that
position, I brace for the sluice
wherever it takes me.
. . .
When I tried to push you
from the boat, a fish leapt
from the river, lodged in my arms.
Richmond’s poem has just been reprinted and is the final section in her first full full-length poetry collection, Before We Were Birds, published last month by Adastra Press. This fine collection begins with the poem sequence Boto, the mysterious freshwater Brazilian dolphin that rises from the Amazon River on full moon nights. A Boto is a shapeshifter who takes human form to catch humans, and even bring them back to live deep in the river.
In Dogen’s, Mountains and Rivers Sutra, he refers to sages who live near water and catch fish, and catch humans.
. . . from ancient times wise people and sages have often lived near water. When they live near water they catch fish, catch human beings, and catch the way. For long these have been genuine activities in water. Furthermore there is catching the self, catching catching, being caught by catching, and being caught by the way. . . Tr. Kotler and Tanahashi
In this same sutra, Dogen uses expressions like riding the clouds and following the wind to describe states of meditative practice and transcendence. The mountains and rivers are none other than our own body and mind. How do we ride the wind and cross each river?
River Crossings ends with:
sprout back along the river, edges
grow dense with birds. I am called
neither forward nor back,
out of the water nor into it.
This is the art I practice,
the one that leaves no wake.
Susan Edwards Richmond has published four chapbooks of poetry, Increase, Purgatory Chasm, Birding in Winter, and Boto. A passionate birder, she works at Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary. Richmond is poet-in-residence at Old Frog Pond Farm & Studio, edits the Plein Air poetry chapbook, and organizes our Plein Air Poetry event every fall. We are also working on a series of children’s books on sustainable agriculture. I am grateful, Susan, for our ever widening collaborations.