It Just Might be Marvelous
Julie Floats in Keno Eddy with Foam, Leah Wilson
Upriver of the JC Boyle dam, the uppermost of four Klamath River dams that will be removed, is a gun club and the entry point to a large eddy covered with swirling thick brown-tinged foam and dense duckweed. The eddy is a long-standing research site where Julie collects worms, monitors their prevalence, and brings them back to the laboratory to study this host animal to the salmon-killing parasite C. shasta. The gun club property must be traversed to reach the timber company-owned riverfront land with the eddy.
The gun club and the eddy are two places I wouldn’t enter without good reason, and together, they have a darkly seductive draw. I have entered the gun club twice because that’s where the eddy is accessed. My first visit to the eddy was punctuated by the sound of gunshots. The second was snow-covered and silent.
Textures & Colors at the Shooting Range, Leah Wilson
In March I drove the big white government truck through thick mud and snow to the gate that forms a gap in the boundary, delineated by barbed wire, between the gun club and the timber company properties.
Beyond the gate, the snow was too deep to drive. I parked next to the only other vehicle, another large white truck. A man and his young son loaded the truck with guns. He eyed us warily as I assembled my camera gear and started walking into the shooting range area and Julie prepared to SCUBA dive. We had no guns.
The shooting range looked like a mash-up of a golf driving range and a nearly flat ski slope with downhill racing gates. Shiny bullet casings littered the ground. Underneath the shelter was an array of amazingly textured surfaces created by multiple encounters with bullets. I moved through the empty stalls, focusing my attention through my camera lens on the patterns, colors, and textures. In my focus, there was no room for my opinions of bullets and guns. I found the range marvelous.
We trudged across the wet snow to the river with our gear. A thin layer of foam and sticks floated on the water’s surface in shallow, stagnant pockets of the eddy. Thin wisps and tendrils peeled off the mother foam and eventually rejoined their foamy origin like the formation and destruction of galaxies. Foam swirled in the currents, creating intricate and ever-changing textures and patterns in an endless interplay with the water.
Without hesitation, Julie slid into the dark cold water to collect annelids. Her body and movements created new sets of currents offering the foam new patterns of flow and rhythm with which to play. I did not touch the water.
Julie Searches for Annelids Below the Dam, Leah Wilson
Later in the afternoon, we traveled to another research site only a few miles from the eddy, this one just downstream of the JC Boyle diversion dam. I drove past the two pipes spewing yellow water into the riverbed below the dam and alongside the large pipe high above where much of the river now flowed.
We scrambled down the slope too steep to be stable to the remaining river far below, where snow capped the large basalt rocks. Julie weaved through the water maze like an otter and I scrambled awkwardly on the snow and rocks on the banks. I wanted to slip into the currents to play too. I am aware of my cognitive dissonance but it changes nothing.
Deep in the canyon, far below the pipes, and of sight of the dam, it is easy to forget that this beautiful stretch of river is no less affected by humans than the eddy by the gun club. The water is the same. The foam, stacked in small towers in eddies behind rocks, is the same. My perception of the water is what is different. Beauty has this power.
Ode to the Eddy Muffin: Eddy at the Gun Club 1, synthetic paper, applique pins, & acrylic, 8.5 x 8.5 in., 2023, Leah Wilson
Time, observation, familiarity, and prolonged contemplation through creating artwork also hold strong transformative powers over perception. Where first I was repulsed, I now also see beauty and grace in the gun club eddy as it swirls in the upper reaches of the reservoir formed by the JC Boyle dam.
Spending time closely observing the interplay of currents with foam has changed my relationship with it. I am intrigued by how it defies conventional standards of landscape beauty. Contemplating the eddy has elevated its significance to me. I am still wary of the foam and its echoes with eutrophication and the lake and ranches upstream, but I will miss it if it is gone.
Scientists have told me the foam is there because it is a productive river. Productivity is good, right? The eddy churns beauty and revulsion into a confusion of currents. I have difficulty assigning value judgments. Is it good or bad, beautiful or ugly, healthy or unhealthy? Are these valid questions, or just categories to simplify complexity and lenses that obscure the experience of the nature of the river?
Julie must adhere strictly to scientific methodology. The data would have no meaning if she did not. There is no room for biases and perceptions to affect her relationship with the river or her research and they must be placed aside and quarantined while she works.
I think of Julie’s relationship with the river. Her methodology is consistent but, unlike in the controlled environment of a lab, it brings her into contact with the constantly changing river. She interacts with the river much more intimately and embodied than I do. She is not inhibited by judgments of the foam like I am. Julie slips into the water without hesitation because it is part of her procedure and it allows her to feel the river and move with its flow. She knows the environment through more than just observation. She is connected to it. How does the implicit knowledge from her embodied experience add to her scientific practice and shape her understanding and perception of the river and its annelids?
Removing the clutter of value judgments opens a space for curiosity and the ability to see and experience the world more expansively. Julie follows scientific protocol and methodology to know the river. I create my own protocols through the process of making art but my protocols are easier to bend. Each of our paths, as different as they are, provides the opportunity for an embodied experience of the environment, and the time necessary for close observation and contemplation. My method muddles value judgments until they become confused and meaningless. Julie’s method does not allow space for value judgments. When value judgments are removed, or even just muddled together in a meaningless muck, the world expands and becomes a wondrous place that includes gun clubs, foaming eddies, and annelid hosts for salmon decimating parasites.
It can feel easier and safer to resist expansion and bend protocols so I can remain comfortably on the shore. The unknown exists beyond our beliefs, judgments, and protocols. It’s unpredictable and uncomfortable, but floating in the unknown currents is the habitat of creativity, a necessary ingredient for art and science. I need to follow Julie into the eddy to see for myself what is under the foam. It just might be marvelous.