Left at the Lightning Field in the afternoon, we knew someone would pick us up at 11 a.m. the next day. We’d just been driven on dirt roads for nearly an hour from the town of Quemado – rural western New Mexico. The Lightening Field is a land art piece conceived by Walter deMaria, constructed in 1977. It consists of 400 stainless steel poles with a spear point, all at the same altitude. Their height varies according to the elevation of the land, but it seems negligible. When making these poles — from 15 to 27 feet — one would notice the difference.
Moonrise, a poem by H.D.
Will you glimmer on the sea?
Will you fling your spear-head
On the shore?
What note shall we pitch?
We have a song,
On the bank we share our arrows —
The loosed string tells our note:
Bring her swiftly to our song.
She is great,
We measure her by the pine-trees.
I want to read this poem in the most objective way, as in the name of the Objectivist poets who followed the Imagists, and H.D. claimed or was claimed as one of those. Of course, no one keeps to a name. The name is only there for identification from outside and to join a community together.
Two questions, then a join, still a question. But the two questions are addressed to another – you. The third question is to the community. Q 1 & 2: What is the other going to do? Q3: what should we do? The you of the first two questions could be different others. The moon as the first and the enemy – the threat – as the second.
Second stanza answers. We have a song. Song = art? poetry? We share arrows – we battle? You and us? Share is a kind and feminine sounding way to send arrows (pointers, weapons) to one another. And we do this on land – the place of home and possessions. When the bow is loosed, it no longer functions to provide maximum sound out of an instrument or distance for an arrow. It becomes a string, like a line in the note. But to be more objective: the loosed string tells (you, us, anyone?) we are quiet and at peace. Although other printed versions of this poem may not have had the next stanza in italics, the one I saw did. Now that these four lines are in italics, it is the note – it is an object. The poem states the content of the note. That is an actual thing. It’s a way to bring in telling, abstraction or emotion when you are an Imagist and supposed to stick to just describing an image.
In the note, H.D. can be vague, a classicist, a lover of Greek mythology, and a poet who asserts that we measure ‘her’ by the pine trees – no small object. We don’t measure her by the pebble in the sea. The note can be the song ‘we’ had. It doesn’t really matter because it is a thing, and we can just allow it to affect us. The poet isn’t doing that, the ‘note’ is. The italics may have been Ezra Pound’s idea. Pound wrote the Imagist Manifesto (1916?) and according to T.S. Elliot, Pound was a great editor.
What was my song at the Lightening Field? I have signed, sworn, to take no pictures of the Lightening Field. So we stand, walk, sit and look at it. From 3 pm until bed, and from before sunrise until we leave.
My song? We could draw our landscape, diagram it with a geometric grid. We could, and did, invent perspective. We could invent another way to describe the three dimensional world and put it, drawn on a 2-d surface, into someone else’s hands. We live on a round world and sun and moon revolve around us. The world slopes away from us no matter where we are.
And as we sit still on it for hours looking at a grid in front of us – one so big that we can’t see it all at once – we frame our place in the world by the low ridge to the east, the sawtooth mountains so far on the southern horizon that we can’t tell the teeth aren’t more than one single jagged mountain range, the discernible series of mesas to the west and the cabin at our back. The moonrise over the low firm ridge began but was dwarfed by the red glow of the sun forcing itself through the mesas streaming its presence long after sunset, demanding attention while the moon was sneaking up on the far other side of our place, our gridded landscape. Shaking free of the sun’s pull, we caught sight of the white moon before its full circumference left the ridge.
Out in the field we are inline with lightening poles, the warp and the weft, and we align along diagonals as well. We loose our place in the grid out in the field but can reorient to the recognizable mountain ranges. The cabin is a point that distracts us because it is so small when out in the field. It doesn’t define North, as the big geographic features define their direction. It is in the disorientation that we learn to count the number of poles ahead of us by using the rows next to the ones we are aligned with. They are easier to see because they are not making a line and obscuring one another. We wonder how many poles are here in our place – a one mile by one kilometer gridded field. We think the length and width is near the Golden Ratio: 0.618033….
1 Kilometer = 0.62137119 Mile – funny how two systems with no intention of collaborating would be so close to that ratio.
16 poles with 220 feet between them is 3300 feet or .63 of a mile. The field is accurate to the 220 feet spacing (5280 feet total) and not to the kilometer. That is an approximation, but pretty good for an American artist (Mr. DeMaria) in 1977. The grid spacing, the distance on the ground, measures to within .01 of an inch. Height – distance off the ground being a more tricky measurement for humans – is within .25 of an inch.
Watching the sun rise around 6 the next morning and the moon gradually ease itself onto a mesa top, I felt attracted to the moon, repelled by the sun’s intensity. I watched it go below the mesa, and it seemed to move much slower than it rose. To be anthropomorphic, it seemed reluctant to leave. And it didn’t descend exactly. It became more faint, to evaporate like a thin, then thinner cloud.
The moon was going around to the other side of earth because we, stuck at our place, were rolling away from it toward the sun. I know the sun is not rolling around us, but we are in a disorienting place spinning around, and making an orbit around this sun. We would have to look very carefully for a long time, we humans, to figure out the sun didn’t revolve around us. Clues appear regularly like the diagonals in the field that we could use to calculate how far the next poles were, and those that we couldn’t see. But we needed to invent some tools to keep notes over time. I can do math in my head, can tie knots in a string to record spaces, take note of where the moon and sun rise and set on the landscape – no pine-trees in this country – but it is all depends on my position, my life experience. That I have read Copernicus. That there were other thinkers before me who could draw it out, record measurements, write songs.
I have a friend who was teaching a class in experiential mathematics and she explained the goal was to teach math students to think like artists who are always making their own work by asking themselves questions. The Lightening Field would be the perfect field trip for her class.