In Praise of the Prickly Paddy Melon: The Art of Cedra Wood

In Praise of the Prickly Paddy Melon: The Art of Cedra Wood

Since 2010, I’ve been writing a novel that has revealed itself over the years to be an uncanny love letter to the far north. In 2013, I was invited to participate in an expeditionary residency to Svalbard – which is where my novel takes place. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in my blog and to many in person, this trip via sailing ship up the west coast of Spitsbergen (the Svalbard archipelago’s largest island), was a life-changing event in many ways. Foremost was the chance to reconcile the imaginative Svalbard of my novel with the real place, and to glean new threads of the story to incorporate into the framework I’d already created. To engage in this process on board a ship full of equally awestruck artists and makers and an intrepid crew of sailors and wilderness guides, gave me an unprecedented chance to leap forward in my vision and craft.

Once I returned home to my normal life, I had trouble processing all I’d seen and felt. Everything in Svalbard had been over the top, from the ship and camaraderie to the ice/tundra/crags/continuous sunlight equation of Svalbard; an inevitable funk arose upon reentry to my life at home. I have been writing novels since I was twenty years old, so I have no problem working in isolation for long periods, but The Arctic Circle residency was an experience that pulled a group of artists together in a unique way, in a rugged and remote place, and that bond had so much meaning for me that for the first time in my artistic life I felt…lonely.

One evening shortly after my return, I went on The Arctic Circle’s website and looked through the names of program alumni. Clicking through the artists’ websites, I really got a sense of the body of work that is emerging from the residency – arctic landscapes and connections with climate change, the poetics of glaciers, and lone figures standing sentinel in the backgrounds of paintings and drawings – invocations of our wilderness guides during the trip, who watched for polar bears while we doodled and journaled on shore. I was just starting to feel the camaraderie again when I clicked on Cedra Wood’s name and found a video of her exquisite arctic journal (Svalbard begins at 04:40)

Even though I couldn’t actually read the writing, Cedra’s eloquent expressions of her Arctic Circle residency, paired with the soothing cadence of the page-turning itself (maybe it’s a writer thing) were a balm for the loneliness I felt post-arctic, and I began following her work via social media. I soon discovered that beyond the arctic connection, Cedra’s work inspired me on many levels. It is concerned with wild nature within and without, and her interest includes species commonly referred to as ‘invasive’ and she puts them in close relationship with humankind. Her work is vividly mythological and timeless, and leaves room for the viewer to distill different meanings. And perhaps the element that is most provocative and inspiring to me personally: many of her works are concerned with the creative process itself. She sews garments to be worn by models in her paintings; she uses video for performance art that also serves as painting fodder; her journals are cohesive artworks that express a creative journey. Above all, Cedra embodies artistic integrity and focus – two qualities I admire and to which I aspire.

Last month, I took the train from Emeryville, CA to Reno, NV to visit Cedra and her partner, comics artist/painter Christopher Baldwin, and to see Cedra’s solo exhibit, A Residency on Earth, at the Nevada Museum of Art where she is a fellow at the Center for Art and the Environment. Each of the gallery walls of her exhibit show work from places Cedra has traveled: Australia, Svalbard, and the American Southwest. Cedra gave an artist’s talk while I was there, and graciously gave me permission to reprint some of what she discussed. Excerpts from Cedra’s notes are italicized.

My parents are not storytellers, but once they told me about the invention of my name. In their courtship, they were riding my dad’s motorcycle, brainstorming the names of their potential future children (as one does). My dad being a forest ranger at the time and very interested in trees, his surname being Wood, and both of them evidently feeling whimsical, they settled on the name of their firstborn girl child as a pun: Cedra (Cedar) Wood. (My dad joked, “It could have been worse. we almost named you Sandal.”) I loved this story because this conceiving of my name (1) links me with the natural world. (2) The very idea of me was born in motion, going down the highway. And (3) it’s playful. I can’t think of three characteristics that I’d rather embody.


The series below was created in southern Utah, where Cedra considered the fleeting yet extreme ecosystem of ephemeral pools. These pools are naturally occurring sandstone basins that collect rainwater and windblown sediments and organisms. Cedra focused her process on one such organism, the tadpole shrimp (!). In an attempt to emulate the shrimp’s lifestyle and make art along the way, Cedra buried herself in the dry pool, leaving only her carapace and caudal rami exposed.

I find that the right odd moments,–juxtaposed–complete and compliment and complicate each other, begin to harmonize into a composition, like a bunch of dissonant sounds suddenly resolving into a chord.


Cedra’s painting is on the left in the photo above, and the three photographs on the right were taken by the artist Lauren Greenwald.

Transplants, 2014. For this work, Cedra made two costumes out of burlap, linen, cotton, yucca fiber, cottonwood fluff, juniper berries, velvet grass, sunflower leaves, and leafy spurge. You can see from the images behind the costume that models wore the clothing in sketches for eventual paintings. The costumes were made in Ucross, Wyoming, and the landscape that appears in the backdrop of the draft drawing is Mount Edith Cavell, in Jasper NP (Alberta).


The ranch [at Ucross] supports efforts that are agricultural and economical, narrative and aesthetic, observational and analytical; but one seemingly central element was the abundant plant life…fodder for conversation as well as cattle.With this in mind, I referenced clothing patterns from the late 1800s to create homesteading-era costumes, covering the garments with hand-gathered plant materials.



These pants are made out of sunflower leaves!

Not long after I got my MFA, I went with a small band of Land Arts alumni to Australia. I was a sort of bashful ambassador in an exchange of ideas with the field studies program at the Australian National University. I had never been out of the country before.

As before, found myself in completely alien surroundings. To find my bearings, I found myself thinking of the field expeditions as a game. A game that there are hundreds of ways to win…all you have to do is learn something…and the only way to lose is to have a really, irredeemably bad time.

The trick was to land in the middle of things and not to panic. I gave myself permission not to try to leap to solutions or goals or conclusions, or worry whether I could immediately produce a work of genius–but to trust that over time, the things that stood out would prove their significance later. The idea of invasive species was something that kept coming up over and over in AU—that some introduced plant or bird or animal would thrive at the expense of biodiversity by outcompeting or exterminating its fellow species. Even dingos weren’t free from this controversy, despite having been there for several thousand years.

These are prickly paddy melons [photo below, on right], which were growing in abundance near Calperum Research Station in South Australia. As further articulated, the objective of the fieldwork game is to absorb an experience of a place fully by any means available to me, and later articulate the significance of that experience. So my first move was to blindly follow impulses toward things I wanted to understand better. Like what it meant to feel overwhelmed or oppressed by an excess of something. Or, the flip side of that coin, what it could mean to have a really personal, maybe significant, interaction with a bounty of something that has value on its own merits.


Once, when I was a kid helping my mom clear the garden, I asked my mom what the difference between a flower and a weed was. She said, ‘a weed is a flower that grows where it’s not wanted.’ The large and global story of invasiveness, migration, and the subjectiveness of being wanted or unwanted, hit home for me personally too in Australia, as I was in a strange place, an invader whose amplified social anxieties led me to place myself firmly in the invasive category.


My immediate goal was just to keep track of everything that surprised me. Seek out the tensions. Keep an eye out for symbols. Listen to the themes that emerge in conversation.

Svalbard, 2012.


During her residency onboard the tall ship Antigua, Cedra Wood and the artist Christy Georg braided Cedra’s hair into the rigging. Another example of what could be called performance art that later became fodder for a breathtaking painting (not done justice in the photo below).

[While onboard] I had decided I wanted to make myself a part of the ship. It was quickly evident how much we depended on the ship for survival (food, warmth, companionship, etc). Wanting to be as useful to it as it was to me. Fruitless of course. I just finished—last night, truly—the painting that’s the culmination of this performance.

This photo shows the painting being hung up for the exhibit. I had the good fortune to be hanging around with Cedra while she finished it the night before in her small hotel room in Reno.


As I hone in on finishing my novel-in-progress,  Cedra’s work has provided a deep level not only of inspiration, but also insight into another artist’s process, interests, and vision.


Oh, and while I was in Nevada, Cedra and Christopher took me to Pyramid Lake at sunset. Sadly, we didn’t see any Cui uis, but the land- and lake-scape were sublime.













Spitsbergen Journals 2

Spitsbergen Journals 2

Please read the first installment of travel journal entries here.

Isfjord, underway
June 17 continued
Standing at the rail, my eyes compulsively travel the parabolic upsweep of these great, coastal mountains, and come to rest only in their heights. Now, like in Longyearbyen, I perceive that something invaluable lies in these crags. Not just an awesome beauty, but something else. Something invaluable to me personally. Is this just how I experience wonder in this moment of my life? As a seeking more powerful than any I can recall? I try to ease myself back into a place of less wanting. Back to Emerson’s eyeball: I am nothing. I see all. I keep thinking of those Mayan architects, their temples designed so that we humans would be humbled before the gods, climbing up and up hundreds of narrow, steep steps, basically on all fours, to meet the ascended deities. The upward and inward draft of our breath in the face of the truly sublime — there is something of that here in the Spitsbergen ranges that makes me reflect on the humility of the devout. A good thing, too, since my Arkady Afanas’ev, in the pages of the book, considers himself something of a holy man. At first his faith is an answer unto itself. But of course that paradigm crumbles.
St. Jonsfjorden
Goose feathers tangled in a kelp holdfast. Paper-thin leaves of shale splayed like a hand of cards. A seal carcass eroded by stream flow. Two pairs plus one of common eiders. A trapper’s utilitarian hut seen as a monument to the simple fact of human survival up here. And such delicacy, too: a purple sandpiper picking its way through the shallows, and the logarithmic spiral of a tiny, rose-colored snail shell. Rosettes of lichen, pincushions of moss. Purple saxifrage. All in this place of places, which we now explore. A terrible wonderland of ice, stone and sea.

Kongsfjord / Kongsbreen
June 18
My first glacier. The deepest aqua blue ice is the oldest, the most compressed, the de-oxygenated. This blue, frozen crystalline medium is a jewel of our earth. The face of the glacier bears so many textures, words certainly fall short. But I recall the names given to different types of marbles and they seem somewhat fitting for these calved chunks of glacier ice that drift away from the glacier with the tide: the swirl, the cat’s eye, the aggie (named for an agate’s concentric rings), the purie, the mica, and the dragonfly. Looking at glacier ice, I can think of a few more: the galaxy, the sno-cone, the sparkler. I imagine white onyx. Each piece of floating ice is a sculptural marvel: grand pianos making their sideways way through the water. Cups following their translucent saucers. Miniature mountain ranges and the upturned hulls of ice ships. And as this ice drifted by it emitted the popping sound of many fingers snapping.
Five beluga whales visited our middle distance today. Their backs were creamier by far than the ice that surrounded them. In fact their banana-like color was warmer than almost anything I’ve seen today. In all their diving and surfacing I never saw their faces.
Sometimes even a porthole-full of this landscape overwhelms. But the continuous joy and daylight make up for it.
“The long tradition of hunting on the arctic seas resulted in the formation of whole family dynasties engaged in this work. Practical skills and psychological strength were passed on from generation to generation. Possession of these skills was highly appreciated in Russia at this time, and members of such families quite often found jobs in the merchant fleet and in the navy.”
–Jasinski, “The Russian Hunters on Svalbard” 1989.
No doubt that E. Starostin, patron saint of the Pomor hunters in my book, came from such a family. It is said that he spent 37 years in Spitsbergen without once going back to mainland Russia.
The main prey of the hunters was walrus (tusks, skins, fat); beluga and all species of seal; on land, reindeer (meat, hides), fox (fur), and eider (down and eggs). They brought prefabricated wooden huts with them from the mainland. They also built huts out of driftwood. The front door would be on the leeward side, and a vestibule followed, for food and storage. The one dwelling room was living room, kitchen, bedroom, and workshop. The Pomors made stone or brick ovens (unlike the Norwegians who used metal ovens). The floors of Pomor huts were usually made from the wooden planks of ships. They often built slate foundations. The Pomors shot ice bears through specially constructed slots in hut windows. They lured them close with meat. A scurvy-proof diet would consist of fresh, raw meat, blood and fish; barrels of soured milk, cloudberries, starka. They brewed potions from pine cones and needles. They ate the local scurvy grass. Out of the 20 graves at Russekeila, near Kapp Starostin on the southern edge of the entrance to Isfjord, only one skeleton showed symptoms of scurvy.
My Starostin’s hut has whale bones for rafters and walrus skull sconces.
June 19

Here in Magdalenefjord, the beach is made of larger, more rounded stones than I’ve yet seen. Granitic, in shades of gray from TV static to whale back. An ocean of stones, and between them fine sand, very soft to the touch. I wasn’t expecting that. And on this peninsula lie the bones of 130 whalers. How did they fall? Accidents at sea, injuries while processing whale blubber? Fighting each other? And was this their heart’s most beloved place? I imagine them having no allegiance but to Spitsbergen. Or perhaps they lay here out of necessity and nothing more. In the ground here, where the blubber ovens used to stand, the presence of the whales is still felt: intense green and yellow moss shows where the whale oil permeated the ground. Even after so many centuries (because the ground thaws for only a few weeks every year) those nutrients feed the earth. And the black upright crust that seems to be part of the oven-ruin is actually petrified whale oil that holds the shape of the old copper cauldron.
I hear little auks here and their voices disconcert me. Strange, how I dwell in two different Spitsbergens: the one of my imagination, of course, from which I’ve written a draft of the book already, and now this real one, with these Magdalene mountains rising up in their green moss capes, and flocks of seabirds traversing the heights. The sum of this view reminds me somehow of tropical highlands – Peru, maybe – and I expect an ancient temple city to emerge from this fog.
And the transmutation of observation into fiction takes time. Gentle, now. I believe I am frightened of how beautiful and strange Spitsbergen is. Frightened and excited by the ways my imagination created this place in a good way…in a way that works…even before I came here. Frightened, in hindsight, that I had the gall to start the book, not having yet been here. In the end, of course, wonder and gratitude prevail.

Spitsbergen Journals 1

Spitsbergen Journals 1

Between June 14 and July 2 I participated in The Arctic Circle‘s expeditionary residency, an arts-and-science-driven voyage on a barkentine sailing ship up the west/northwest coast of Svalbard, Norway. During this trip I absorbed the landscape (sea, mountains, ice, river, sky) and worked on my novel-in-progress, which is largely set in Svalbard. Here is the first installment of selected journal entries that I made during the trip.

Oslo, Norway
June 13
I’ve been up for 27 hours. Two planes, two trains, two buses and a whole lot of first-day-in-a-new-city flailing. Special train or regular? Why doesn’t my credit card work in the ticket machine? Am I on the right bus? No! Yes! But no matter, I got to see the Viking ships. Millenium-old oak carved with serpent heads, spirals, knots. So much grace in the craftsmanship. Metal puzzles, remnants of woven tapestries, bridles, jewelry. And to think that this most beautiful ship, filled with riches, was the burial place for a Viking noblewoman (perhaps a shield maiden). The actual burial chamber was there in the museum too, a peak-topped tiny cabin of charred wood, reconstructed post pyre. I wonder if the oils from her earthly husk infused those old beams and if she haunts this place. Wood, copper, iron, stone. Woven sails, ships full of men each sitting on his own sea chest as a bench. Moving silently through fjords to the open seas. Rambling now just to savor this day. Turning toward the sea, welcome the allies and ghosts of this journey. Rest in it, the woven shawl, the braided rope, the metal and stone baubles.
Longyearbyen, Svalbard
June 15
I am here. Shale and snow patch. Barnacle geese, Svalbard reindeer, snow bunting, glaucous gull. One small moss campion cushion glimpsed while walking back to New Town. Passed a tipi full of people blasting the Jackson 5. So many children here, playing outside in snowsuits. There is an Arctic Nature Guide school here…be still my heart. Random coal buckets and mining infrastructure scattered across town, and an old boarded-up mine high on the mountainside, hanging over this place like a ghost. The landscape something out of myth – citadels, battlements, precipitous heights. Rivers of shale flowing down and turning to moss and then the sea. All of it beneath a thick overcast.
Longyearbyen, Svalbard
June 16
Last night I hiked to the abandoned mine. Up scree that changed from brown to red to a soft black sand that must be coal. Above the mine little auks gave me a true welcome to this place: their ominous, insane laughter mocked the human presence here. My eye constantly travels up to these stone faces above me. I try to read the expressions in pinnacle and crag. Many-faceted meaning many faced. You can search those stone faces all you want, all you can handle for as long as you can stand the mystery of unanswered questions. Inside the mine, treacherous going. Would hate to break a leg before the trip really begins. I inched inside for just long enough to sense jagged icicles and missing floorboards. Broken equipment, graffiti in many languages. I’ll stay out in the perpetual daylight instead. It’s 1 am. Time to head down to the valley and see what else is stirring.
Isfjord, underway
June 17
Yesterday we boarded the good ship Antigua, which is a square-rigged barkentine and part of the Dutch Tall Ship Fleet. I was met by three spectacular female wilderness guides: Theres, Sara and Åshild. Purple sandpipers, northern fulmars, a puffin and arctic terns. Standing at the rail, my heart full to bursting. My cohort is amazing. Already conversations about ethereal Norwegian doppelganger spirits who slip between different dimensions of reality, chapter 42 of Moby Dick, ravens. Everywhere I step I trip over inspiration. The sea at first bordered on emerald and then shifted to a strange, white-cast blue. As if the color intends to be friendly and yet within the white opacity you sense only death.
Break open preconception. Toss habitual modes overboard. How can I take a cue from these improvisers, my companions? Some of them shipped supplies that did not arrive in time for our departure. Some counted on a trip to the Longyearbyen hardware store but it was closed. Mia rolling her tarpaper down the mountain. Amanda collecting vintage ropes and spinning paper to rope like some patron saint of seafarers. I hold my story, The Gyre, in my cupped palms. It is time to lose my knowledge and move the book forward into new territory. Listen: where is it?

Grumant, Spitsbergen, Svalbard, the Sea

Grumant, Spitsbergen, Svalbard, the Sea

Tomorrow I fly to Oslo and the day after that to Longyearbyen, Svalbard. From there, along with my cohort of writers, artists and scientists, I will board the barkentine schooner Antigua for a 15-day-long sailing voyage up the west coast of Spitsbergen, the archipelago’s largest island, and perhaps even east along the island’s northern coast. In my mind I’ve been hearing the archipelago’s many names repeated like an echo: Grumant, used by the Russian Pomors; Spitsbergen, given by the Dutch navigator Willem Barents; and Svalbard, the late-period Viking name given by Norway once it won sovereignty in 1920. Grumant: Green Land. Spitsbergen: Sharp Peaks. Svalbard: Cold Edge. Green Land. Sharp Peaks. Cold Edge. Lichen, moss. Pinnacles, citadel ranges. Ice, ocean, and the senses sharpened by polar wind and joy.

Tomorrow I shed my usual rhythms of work and family and go north into perpetual daylight – the peculiar, transforming midnight sun – which will light the way into my next book, whose heart is already in Svalbard. This journey hasn’t yet even begun but I can feel its richness. I am leaning into it, hoping to open myself fully to whatever unfolds. Arctic fox, dryad, skua. Walrus. Ice bear. Moss campion. Bearded seal, beluga, guillemot. Lichen. Stones, ice. The sea illuminated by slanted light.

My aim is to stand at the rail with my eyes open for many hours per day. To walk the beaches and tundra ledges of Svalbard and invite the place to percolate into my being. To connect with others over meals and in the wild. To bask and explore, inquire and receive this place. My hope is that all of this feeds my soul in a way that provokes creative work and play and for me that means The Gyre. May it be so, and at the same time may my preconceptions fall away.

I will not have access to the Internet while I am journeying in Svalbard. After I return on July 2, I will post journal entries and photographs of the trip.

Exuberance is Beauty: William Blake and the Brooks Range

Exuberance is Beauty: William Blake and the Brooks Range

When I sat down to write a few words about my journey to the Brooks Range in Alaska, I stared at the blank screen for a ridiculous amount of time. Finally, a random memory lodged itself in my mind. I couldn’t shake it, so in a writerly leap of faith this account of Alaska’s remotest region begins ten years ago on a crowded London subway.
            I was studying literature. Specifically, I was on my way home from a pub crawl, when I pulled out a copy of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It was a halfhearted attempt to prepare for class, but as I read the poem I felt as if a beloved friend had just slid into the seat next to me: How do you know but ev’ry bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five? Across a span of 300 years, this voice articulated ecstatic wonder toward the world: The howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are all portions of eternity too great for the eye of man. Blake’s exultation appealed to something essential inside my own heart. Exuberance is Beauty! said he, and I agreed.
The following week, I turned in a paper on the subject of Blake, but when the professor handed it back to me he had a blatant expression of scorn on his face: “Chalk up another one for Blake. That’s the sad thing about Blake fans: they all think they’re the only one.” I was crushed by this dismissal. Apparently my identification with Blake was a tired cliché.
            I sense the legacy of this incident in moments when I hesitate to speak freely and deeply about what moves me. And here’s where the Alaskan wilderness comes in:  When we travel in a wild landscape, our “normal” ways of thinking are quickly replaced by a soul-scouring rapture that will clarify our understanding of human nature as well as the environment around us. My journey in Alaska was filled with this rapture and exuberance. I believe we humans are in great need of these sensations, and it is out of a sense of urgency that I describe my experience here.
            We had flown in from all corners of the country for an eleven-day trip on the Canning River. We were eight people in two rafts, all wearing binoculars. During sunlit nights, we sat on tundra ridges watching semi-palmated plover and short-eared owls. Infinitely changing angles of light took our breath away, and we had run out of words to express our amazement at where we were. Observing a wolf, we wondered what we humans thought we were doing on the planet.
On the ninth day we spotted a bird’s nest from the river. High on a cliff face, the nest was massive and disheveled and held three gyrfalcon chicks: two sleeping, one tottering around the periphery. They were huge bumbling things, fuzzy gray with blue-tinted old man’s faces. The tottering one settled down and regarded us with one eye open. The two sleepers awoke, and all of us by the river gasped as the chicks bumped each other and nearly knocked the totterer out of the nest. We worried when one of them choked on the stringy remnants of a meal. They stretched their winglets. They cried out for food. They fell asleep, leaning precariously near the edge of the only world they knew. We rooted for them with all our might. We were a line of comrades in rain pants and goofy smiles: two teachers, a man who led African safaris, a metal sculptor from New York City, a retired lawyer and two guides who were as excited as we were. Our world became the world of the chicks, creatures that would eventually fly over tundra and snow, over that part of the map we call “refuge” and the part we call “petroleum reserve.”
            Who are we if we cannot protect what is fragile? What have we become if we do not speak out for the things that ignite our rapture and evoke our love? We will live in that hell we create when we know what is right yet we go on living as if we do not. He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence, says Blake, and I agree.
My cynical professor had it exactly backwards: it is not sad, but amazing that Blake’s words (not to mention experiences of the wild) empower us with passion. Our rapture is a compass by which to direct our energies. By following this instrument, we will steer ourselves back to a life in which we do what is closest to our nature: we love and delight in each nest of chicks as if they were our own blood. We protect their home as if our own children lived there.

Send a Novelist to the Far North!

Send a Novelist to the Far North!

I have been invited to join The Arctic Circle‘s 2013 arts-and-science-driven expeditionary residency aboard a 150-foot ice-breaking schooner. For two weeks this summer, we’ll sail the coastal waters of Svalbard, a remote archipelago in northern Norway just 10 degrees from the North Pole. Almost unbelievably, Svalbard is the setting for my new novel-in-progress, which I’ve been working on for the past three years. I’m running a grassroots fundraising campaign via Kickstarter to raise money for The Arctic Circle participant fee.

This video describes my new book, The Gyre, The Arctic Circle, and what I hope to accomplish with this amazing opportunity. By becoming a supporter of this project, you will receive a nifty gift, my eternal gratitude, and you’ll receive updates as the adventure approaches. Here is the link to the main page for my Kickstarter campaign, where you can donate and read more.

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