With travel restrictions and severe fires keeping me out of the mountains this summer, I’ve been watching nature’s processes in my own neighborhood, and my project work has focused on writing. I made a critical start during a two-week residency at the Mesa Refuge in 2019 (see that newsletter HERE), and have been working a few hours most days on this 5000-word poem about streams, science and landscape, designed for sidewalks in Reno.
Reading is enormously complex – between the marks, and our awareness of their meaning, try locating where words ‘happen’ and just what it is that happens! But in my site-specific installations of texts, I will have an advantage: my subject corresponds to the places in which the writing will be read. The photo above is not my inscription but I admire the choice of the shaded north side of a BART pier - a one-word poem that's also a compass.
Of course, choosing the right words is essential, yet from the beginning of this project I knew the look of the words would carry meaning as well. In my first printed experiments with creating digital fonts from historic handwriting, word-image and word-meaning contribute equally though in different ways. And with fragments to complete, the reader too must play an active role in assembling what's communicated. See HERE for a study of how 'difficult' fonts might actually improve retention (thanks to Tamara Schwarz for the reference).
And a SPECIAL online EVENT: On September 26th I will present the inception of the Confluence project and the process behind the image above during Typewknd, an international on-line conference about typography, from September 24-27. Registration is free but necessary.
Writing is signs or sets of signs, like an alphabet or hieroglyphics, that point to something besides what they are. In our surveys in the Sierra we ‘read’ streams in their gushing complexity, translating them into tables of numbers and collections of samples. Each number describes a point or a condition: a depth, speed, quantity, type or size. In principle, connecting them up again and seeing them whole would get you the stream.
And if our alphabet were numbers instead of letter shapes, the contours and dynamics of the stream would resound by reading through our tables, like a deaf composer hearing music in bars of notation. But something critical must be included: in writing as in music, cadence, pitch and pauses are as essential to meaning as are the words and notes. And this is just as true in stream life, where fast and slow cycles, great and small processes, are all sounding at once. (For more on polyphony in nature, see Robert Bringhurst’s wonderful The Tree of Meaning,A Story as Sharp as a Knife and other books.)
Draft after draft I’m shaping the writing, imagining it into its settings along particular sidewalks in Reno. I see readers on their morning stroll or setting out for an errand, encountering inscriptions on a bridge or below an overpass. From my writing pad to a sidewalk is a big jump but it's richer, and in some ways more predictable than writing a book, which can be experienced on a park bench, in a stuffy office or in bed before sleep, each setting flavoring both book and reader. Writing in a specific place gives back to the text something of its referential physicality, writing's temperature, topography, rhythm and light.