ClearCut – The Wages of Dominion

A black and white photograph of a road leading to a clearcut landscape

In my exhibition ClearCut – The Wages of Dominion, I am attempting a translation of the voice of a magnificent Western Red Cedar growing in place for 1,600 years before succumbing to the same ClearCut that the rest of our planet has become.

I returned to this stump over and over for three years as I prowled the ClearCuts that surround the remnant temperate rain forest in the Olympic National Park in the making of this exhibition. It became a place of refuge, a place where I felt I could open and receive instruction.

A black and white photograph of a large Western Red Cedar's stump.

I needed to make sense of the cultural mindset underlying the crises in our current human condition. The simple question I came with to the absent forest was this: just what kind of a mindset is it that can abide this brutality of ClearCut? The same mindset that allows the brutality of homelessness in the face of obscene wealth, the brutality of our politics today, of our teaching factories and healing factories and science factories and food factories. It is a struggle for hegemony, for resources, for subjugation.

What is the source of this inhumanity? The poignant stumps cry out to me in clear, passionate terms: Dominion. An origin story in Genesis even makes it explicit:

And God blessed them and said unto them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that crawls upon the earth.”

Rule over them. It is all ours for the taking. But we now face mass extinctions. Weather patterns that once conspired with nature to allow our nourishment to flourish now threaten our very lives. We have climbed far out on an evolutionary limb and seem intent on sawing it off behind us.

A black and white photograph of exposed roots and stumps of trees.

What has not been quite so easy to discern is the follow-up lesson: that I personally can no longer indulge myself with illusions of exceptionalism. I cannot continue to stand outside (above) my culture and blame everything and everyone else for the destruction while still enjoying my daily hot shower, toilet paper, a ready source for my gas tank, my fridge, my IRA, my Social Security, a roof over my head. I didn’t wield the chainsaws, administer the logging contracts, own the land or the companies pocketing the immense profits, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t benefited in every way from ClearCut.

Complicity has been a hard nut to swallow but has been revealed to me to be a path towards hope. With our acceptance of personal complicity as the starting point in our meditation, we make brief stops at the waystations of rage, guilt, denial, blame, alienation, and separation before arriving at contrition, forgiveness, and lucidity on the path of making things right. To some of us, this path may be new, unfamiliar, and difficult to discern. To others, already aswarm on the path—our teachers and leaders—this path is a lifetime commitment and the challenge of our generations.

The guided meditation that accompanies the photo exhibition is both a record of my spiritual journey in ClearCut and an invitation to join me up on that cedar stump and share in that experience. The photographs present a visual narrative that parallels the written one. Neither is more important than the other; rather, they cover the same emotional trajectory from differing sensory sources. The visual is more visceral, while the verbal is more cerebral. Together they illuminate and amplify each other.

Click to enlarge.

The evolution of human consciousness must grow beyond dominion into communion.

Growth powered by the same force that powers the conversion of a seed into a sprout.

The same force that powers a bee joining its swarm in search of nectar.

The same force that can raise sap from the roots to the topmost needle of a 300-foot tall cedar.

Empowered by it, we catch a glimpse of the swarm, and experience the imperative to join in the search for our own nectar—atonement and reparation.

We join with our fellows—already on the path of making things right—and together we dedicate our lives to the reparation of everything that lies broken at our feet.

The path of making things right. We imagine what that might look like.

Imagine now the possibility of our pursuit of reparations on the path of making things right.

Let’s swarm.

All photographs by John Riggs.

ClearCut – The Wages of Dominion will be jointly hosted by two galleries, the Overture Center First Floor Gallery March 9–May 31, 2020 and the University of Wisconsin–Madison WUD Memorial Union Main Gallery April 17–May 29, 2020.

On Thursday, April 2, 2020, join photographer John Riggs and scholar Monika Shea in the Wisconsin Studio at 6:30 for an event presented by the Overture Galleries and the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies. They will discuss clearcutting as a metaphor for our current climate crisis and the history and ecology of clearcutting in the Pacific Northwest and Wisconsin.

On Wednesday, April 22, 2020, John Riggs will offer a reading from the exhibit’s guided meditation at 6:30 in the Memorial Union as part of Poetic Justice: Words on Environmental Crisis, an evening of spoken-word performances from students, faculty, and local artists.

John Riggs has a B.A. in Comparative Literature from University of Wisconsin–Madison and has also studied at Antioch College, L’Universite Besancon in France, and Universitat Tubingen in Germany. In 2011, he opened Tamarack Studio & Gallery in Madison, Wisconsin. A long-time photographer, his recent solo shows include “Entering Old Growth – Meditations from the Ancient Rain Forest of the Pacific Northwest” (2016) and “602 in the Sixties – A Hotbed of Cultural Evolution” (2018). Website. Contact.