Vulnerable Reciprocity

Photographing light and color at Watershed 2 for Solstices & Equinoxes: Summer Solstice, Leah Wilson

I struggle to see how I personally cultivate a reciprocal relationship with the land. I am not working directly with it as a farmer does, or even a scientist. It’s not as obvious to me how to give to the land, and I don’t always know what my acts of reciprocity are, or what they should be. At times I feel as if I have done nothing reciprocal and my relationship is only one of taking. 

Every personal relationship to the land is different. If I farmed the land, my strongest acts of reciprocity would be different than if I fished, or if I were an ecologist. Every place also presents particular relationships and connections. 

Reflection at Watershed 2

Reflection at Watershed 2 stream gauging station, Leah Wilson

Reflection brought some clarification. When I was an outdoor educator, reciprocity came naturally through interacting with my students. I learned from the land, and then I gave back by teaching much of what I learned. The reciprocal relationship was relatively direct in a social context rather than material. I had the attention of my students and I nurtured compounded connection with the land by not only teaching a skill, history, or facts, but also by modeling observation. The simple act of paying attention can be an act of reciprocity.

I wove wonder into my teaching by cultivating and valuing observation. It was not uncommon for me and my whitewater kayaking students to sit in an eddy watching a merganser family. Mother ducks expertly teach their duckings how to run rapids. Ducklings navigate river hydraulics in a single file line behind their mother, just as my students did with me. By watching them, they could see themselves. The mergansers were our kin.

March 1 Spring Creek; oil on  panel, 17 x 18.5 in.; 2007; Leah Wilson

March 1 Spring Creek, oil on panel,17 x 18.5 in., 2007, Leah Wilson

Countless miles on the river and trail have shaped me. My decisions and actions are based on time spent in the wilderness. With kayaking in particular, to do it well I need to become a part of the river. Knowing the water intimately blurs the division between me and the water. There is no way to reverse the tacit knowledge of my relationship to the river. It has become part of me.

Tacit knowledge has led me to bike rather than drive and to consume as little as I can. I have volunteered as a river monitor to collect data, but these outward acts seems almost inconsequential. Less tangible actions, although abstract, feel more real and reciprocal. My most significant act has been infusing all I have learned and received from the land into my art. It is an act of reverence. I do not believe that I have a more meaningful gift of reciprocity to give.

Constructing Water at At Liberty Gallery, Leah Wilson

Constructing Water, At Liberty Gallery, Leah Wilson

I strive to approach my creative process as I do my time on the water, curbing my ego as much as possible to invite collaboration between the land, myself, and the art. The better I can become integrated with the water on the river, the better I can kayak. The same principle holds true for the art. I feel that it is my duty, my act of reciprocity, to create the best art I am able in collaboration with the environment. 

Portland Community College, Leah Wilson

Leah speaking with a visitor at her exhibition Distillations of Place, Portland Community College, Leah Wilson

Creating alone is not sufficient. It also must be shared. I incorporate my voice into the process through writing and speaking, a continuation of my time teaching outdoor education. But this is more personal and thus, more vulnerable. Vulnerability, as uncomfortable as it is, is the signpost pointing to where I need to travel. Without it there is no possibility for real connection and empathy to take root, and therefore no substantial reciprocity. But this vulnerability is one of openness and strength, not of weakness. It is the vulnerability of devotion. 

Leah Speaking at Gray Space's Burn/Opening

Presenting at Gray Space’s Burn/Opening, Leah Wilson


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