Sixty by Sixty: A Meditation in Mosaic Upon the Sixtieth Birthday of the Haystack School of Arts and Crafts, and My Own

categories: Cocktail Hour / Our Best American Essays



Elysia at Haystack, 2013

Prologue (in Sixty Words, Too: One to Grow On)

This essay is about the power of collaboration. Written in my sixtieth year, it’s a mosaic of sixty juxtaposed sections, each of exactly sixty words, a total of 3,600 tesserae, or assorted bits. The multiples may be read in any order, inviting readerly collaboration. Please number the boxes as you go to create a fresh path for others to follow.

1.  [  ]

I finished my own sixtieth year by serving as visiting artist at Haystack, which had recently itself turned sixty, and was aging better than I—such a lovely place, both eternally and in human time: rocks and mosses and mushrooms and shell beaches, also wind. Craft was at the heart of things, and craft, I came to see, is collaborative.

2.  [  ]

At La Selva Biological Reserve in Costa Rica a decade ago, I was struck by the way the scientists I happened to be among worked together as well as apart. An idea might have an author, but an idea was owned by no one. Everyone was available to help chase the idea down, sometimes literally, as with the wild animals.

3.  [  ]

As a literary writer, I have not been inclined to work collaboratively. In fact, as I came up through college and my long apprenticeship, the rather romantic vision I held onto was of a writer alone in his garret, or perhaps not quite alone (a muse was permissible), thinking brilliant thoughts and writing great sentences, neither to be messed with.

4.  [  ]

Collaboration messes with the economy of competition, of course. It redistributes power from a top-down, winners-and-losers, production-first model to a steady-state, process-and-development model, one in which cooperation nurtures trust. Meanwhile, the sharing of materials, ideas, skills, techniques, tools, and spaces nurtures not dependence but freedom: the liberal and all-but-literal flow of ideas among creators, everyone an apprentice, everyone a master.

5.  [  ]

I used to play in rock bands, and these were completely collaborative enterprises, four or five or six or more young people, artists all, all full of ideas, working together to produce one sound. It wasn’t always copacetic, of course, more like a series of group marriages, with group ambition not always in line with individual ambition, and quarrels common.

6.  [  ]

As an apprentice writer, I had the idea that it was I against the world. I had read someplace that your relationship with your publisher was adversarial, you fighting for the purity of your ideas and your stories against the commercial instincts of the publishing world, a bunch of bloodsucking capitalists who would sell you for meat in a heartbeat.

7.  [  ]

At night I’d go over to the fabulous Haystack library where I generally failed to get online. But one night a bunch of the wildlings from the glass studio were watching a documentary about Dale Chihuly, a record of his studio as he/they created one of his/their complicated ceilings, five or six craftspeople at work, “Chihuly” more than one person.

8.  [  ]

In Costa Rica, a dendrologist might stand up at breakfast to ask our group how best to analyze the composition of the increasingly but varyingly acidic puddles that collected in the thousands of niches formed among the dazzling high roots of the strangler fig as it destroyed its host tree: a chemistry question in a research station devoted to biology.

9.  [  ]

The ecologist sees the interconnectedness of all things. So does the Buddhist, though the Buddhist adds that nothing is real. And physicists are getting pretty close to agreeing, speaking of collaboration: Nothing is real. As the science proceeds, theoreticians in physics are working more and more with philosophy departments, who are working on many of the same questions, oddly enough.

10.  [  ]

One question at Haystack was how to get a photo of the perfection a small spider had woven on a deck railing. I tried in varying light. Finally, after fog, a million droplets defined the orb-weaver’s work. Later, though, looking on my computer screen, I liked another shot better: a man-size spider seemingly clinging to the fab lab shingles: perspective.

11.  [  ]

Did each damp strangler-fig niche constitute an ecosystem? If so, was the chemistry a trait of such an ecosystem or its result? A lively discussion ensued, a myriad of approaches (including some great comedy), approaches that considered the immediate problem but also related problems scientists had already solved, all ending in a plan of action and interested parties to help.

12.  [  ]

The wood studio at Haystack hummed with machines and reminded me of high school wood shop, a favorite place. I liked the way Katie Hudnall was working alongside her students, and how all of them were working on boxes of various kinds, sharing materials, tools, ideas, and also conventions, all those ways people had worked with wood in the past.

13.  [  ]

Herbert Hoover’s “rugged individualism” wasn’t only a campaign slogan but a source of national pride. Kind of oxymoronic: How can there be a nation if there are only individuals? Self-sufficiency, self-reliance, personal independence, these are all myths, very American. You can only pretend you built your business alone, for example. But don’t point this out if you’re running for president.

14.  [  ]

We watched leaf-cutter ants for hours, trying to answer questions we’d come up with as we thought about how to teach science and science writing in the rain forest. The amazing ants used leaf fragments to grow a particular mold, which was their food. But we would have needed a lot more time to figure that out, and more people.

15.  [  ]

Consider sports! We applaud individual effort and ability, naturally. But there isn’t any one soul who could play against the Red Sox and win. Well, maybe some years. How does this work? The star player has his abilities and motives and goals, and these align with those of the team. But how do we know when we’re on a team?

16.  [  ]

Recently, in a fairly rough saloon, a gang of brave moms took over the pool table on a win and announced that 8-Ball was over. Instead, they introduced Save the Whales (which they’d named after a cooperative board game of the 1970s), inventing noncompetitive rules as they went, funny. But profound, too: “I play the winner!” meant nothing after that.

17.  [  ]

When is working together truly collaboration, and when is it merely employment? People must be equals to collaborate, no? If not equals in talent (always there’s going to be an imbalance), then in contribution. But what does that mean? We put in the same hours, and therefore we’re equal? No, it’s something other than time, and something other than power.

18.  [  ]

At Haystack I ran a writing group on the deck by the writing studio every afternoon, bright sunshine. People from every studio took part at one time or another, and a small core group attended every session. I tried out different themes each day, from journals to maps, from good cop/bad cop to monologues. And we shared, laughter and tears.

19.  [  ]

Mosses: pincushion, nothing else to call it, well, except for Leucobryum glaucum, a tight mound of green—soft, fuzzy, irresistible. And sphagnum, stringy and peaty, deep in pocket bogs among boulders, likely multiple species (there are 120 worldwide, just a few in Maine, and fewer on the islands). Schreber’s moss is most common (Pleurozium schreberi), feathery, a little red beneath.

20.  [  ]

A chemist back home had given one of the La Selva scientists a collection kit for a very different investigation of soils, one she was no longer pursuing, and so she went back to her bunk to retrieve the kit, made the dendrologist an offering: a thousand vials in a nifty to go case with labels and lids and seals.

21.  [  ]

In the metals studio, someone has painted a lobster on the first-aid box. Bob Ebendorf offers a lesson on curling wire, and curls make their way through the work, pieces of great variance but with the history of jewelry and metalsmithing (and human fascination with objects) in common, and words: sentence fragments, whole quotations, single exclamations. “Fear,” said one earring.

22.  [  ]

As part of the Haystack experience, I took a class. Terrified, I chose Robert Johnson’s nature journaling. I had always been told I couldn’t paint. Robert said, “Of course you can.” He is courtly, avuncular, a little older than I, and so I believed him. First day he set me up with a painting kit: brushes, pencil, palette, paper, watercolors.

23.  [  ]

In 2001, I wrote a long story called “Big Bend.” The Atlantic cut it in half. I found the cuts added power. Then, in my collection Big Bend, back to the original length: more depth. The NPR program Selected Shorts scripted an intermediate length for performance by James Cromwell at the Getty Center. He asked me onstage if I minded!

24.  [  ]

I told my group about Rudy Burckhardt, the great, obscure, and always solo filmmaker. I was overawed, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, 1998. But he was kindly, asked me, “What have you been thinking about?” A good question that brooked no small talk. The next month, on his eighty-fifth birthday, he drowned himself in his pond, a long-planned suicide.

25.  [  ]

In workshop, Robert said he’d been trying to get text into his paintings. And then he asked me to say something about writing and painting: collaborative teaching. I remembered Gauguin’s woodcarvings—I’d seen them in the old Jeu de Paume museum in Paris—the entryway to his Tahitian hut. “soyez mysterieuses,” the impressionist had carved over floating nudes: Be Mysterious.

26.  [  ]

A conceptual artist (whose name I have misplaced) once wrote political slogans on leaves in a controlled environment, and left these for her colony of leafcutter ants to find, cut up, and carry. Instant protest march! Also an example of a human working with animals. To different ends, it’s true, so not exactly collaboration, but a window on group mind.

27.  [  ]

Looking into the concept of ant mind, I read some of myrmecologist Edward O. Wilson’s very accessible (and sometimes controversial) work. He thinks ant colonies shed light on the human condition, for one thing: An ant colony is a kind of brain. Also fun facts: All the ants in the world weigh more than all the people in the world.

28.  [  ]

Robert joined my group as well. One afternoon we talked about journals. He said he loved aimlessly to write after the painting day. Writing brought him down from the stresses of the work, helped him process his vision, assess. I said that I can’t stand to write in a journal—I write all day! He said, “Then you should paint!”

29.  [  ]

The question ants help answer is: Why altruism? Why would an individual sacrifice herself for the good of another? And why would natural selection pass such a trait along? Our self-centered aspects are only human: greed, violence, aggression. They are tempered by (and most religions extol): sharing, compassion, cooperation. Survival of the group assures survival of the individual. Self-sacrifice works.

30.  [  ]

Wilson launches his book The Social Conquest of Earth with three questions: “Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going?” He knows these are the questions, disordered, that Paul Gauguin wrote in the upper right corner of his famous Tahitian painting of the stages of human life: “D’où venons nous? Que sommes nous? Où allons nous?”

31.  [  ]

We join groups to protect the self, to take advantage of the skills and abilities of others, to offer our own. Inside the group, of course, there are subgroups—humanity divided, and then divided again and again. And these groups within groups may take on the self-centered traits of individuals along with the altruistic traits, become nearly human in themselves.

32.  [  ]

The staff ornithologist wanted to talk about light, the varying access to light at various positions in the strangler’s root niches. A totally separate problem (some dismissive noises around the room over rice and beans—still only breakfast!), but as he spoke the relevance came clearer, also the amount of work that relevance would take to properly study and acknowledge.

33.  [  ]

Suddenly, a knot of grad students took it upon themselves to unpack a spectrometer no one had known what to do with, and (eschewing siesta!) marched off into the forest to make some tests no one knew what would come of. Even I took part—I could ask questions as well as anyone (though never come up with the answers).

34.  [  ]

I attended La Selva to take a course for professors: how to bring a college group to Costa Rica and how and what to teach once you got there. I was the odd person out, a writer, and not a science writer, either, though something of a naturalist. I felt insecure, but slowly realized I had something to offer: words.

35.  [  ]

My friend the biologist (and science writer) Drew Barton had suggested we take the course together and then later team teach our own rain forest course, something about writing and science in Costa Rica. How would we work together, and how would we work apart? Of course, field journals would be part of the equation: observation, writing, drawing. Experiments, too.

36.  [  ]

Ferns: Sensitive—these already looking pretty moribund midsummer, stressed by salt and cool temperatures, with last year’s fertile fronds brown among them. Christmas—these stay green the winter through. Wood—small and feathery, elegant, leaves cut thrice. Bracken—grows in poor soil as at the edge of old dunes. Interrupted—fertile portions in the middle wither and give the name.

37.  [  ]

Things we drew in Robert’s class (pencil and color notes on field trips, then paint back in the studio): mussels, clams, lobsters, crabs; rockweed and wrack; boulders; shorelines; islands distant, islands close; cones from hemlock, fir, spruce, and larch; mosses, lichens, mushrooms, molds; rare wood lilies, fireweed, dandelions, phlox; grasses and sedges; gooseberries, baneberries red and white (called doll’s eyes).

38.  [  ]

Things we wrote on our drawings: “Negative space gets motion of waves.” “I have a headache and Robert won’t stop talking.” “Cobalt Blue plus Cadmium Red Light.” “Woman walks by, shouts, ‘those people are painting, shhhh.’” “Barred Island in fog, I think.” “Edgar M. Tennis Preserve on Sunshine Road. Basement hole with lilacs.” “Water green, not blue, with Payne’s gray.”

39.  [  ]

In Robert’s studio, we gave a card to our studio assistant. Robert painted it especially, depicting several of the objects we’d all been studying, drawing. The “committee” asked me to write a few words on the card. I did, a note of thanks running behind Robert’s painting such that you couldn’t quite read it, but had to intuit the love.

40.  [  ]

One afternoon at La Selva, the herpetologist asked whether anyone had any snakes to report. Everyone did! Mine had been in the shower stall that very morning, a rat snake of real girth and not much length. The herpetologist listened closely to all the stories—there was information to be gleaned from our subjective experiences: descriptions, locations, numbers, positions, times.

41.  [  ]

In a nonfiction workshop I taught at Haystack 2011, we writers found we were jealous of the folks in the other studios, what with their workbenches and tools. They made stuff. My point was that we made stuff, too. But someone suggested we should really come up with an item of some kind to put in the auction. But what?

42.  [  ]

Kaya Lovestrand, summer intern 2013, had taken a course in mosses and accompanied us on one of our drawing trips—Barred Island—to help us identify a few common types, but also to observe some major generic divisions. We collected samples (Robert’s kit includes a collecting box) and brought them back to the studio. Naming is knowing; drawing is seeing.

43.  [  ]

The herpetologist was making a snake census. Much of the work had to be done at night, when the snakes were active. He needed people to help. We met at ten p.m. and stayed out most of the night, headlamps, flashlights, eyeshine (or as he called it, tapetum lucidum). The forest was staring back: frogs, spiders, mammals, owls, and snakes.

44.  [  ]

“Never put your foot down without looking,” the snake man said. And: “Look up! Look down.” Five of us huddled close behind him, hours into the night, thirty snakes to report. A lash viper hanging at face level over the path. My face. A fer-de-lance standing its ground: mortal danger. Coral snake, bird snake, rat snake, false coral, black snake.

45.  [  ]

More eyes meant more chances to spot reptiles. We crossed over the Puerto Viejo River on a high, rickety footbridge. I held the railings, enjoyed the swaying. Our fearless leader looked back. “Hands off the railings,” he hissed. And shined his light under there, where, casting long shadows, and only a few steps ahead of me, four fat scorpions lurked.

46.  [  ]

In the ceramics studio, Bonnie Seeman had clay on her cheek from putting her forefinger there to think. So many questions. Her wisdom channeled down from millennia: “In north India there was a tradition …” And by way of the ancestors she solved the problem at hand. I loved the sounds of kiln night, cheers when the door opened, treasure.

47.  [  ]

My favorite Burckhardt film starts with five minutes of rapid-fire images: people in motion, zooming cars, buildings glinting. It’s jazz for the eyes, pure rhythm. Then a protracted vista, Brookyn from Manhattan. Seemingly static, until we notice a crow. It enters left, flies all the way right, five full minutes. Then bang, the images from the street flash again, lightning.

48.  [  ]

As a writer, I’m jealous of visual and functional artists: Working with your hands, there are plenty of repetitive tasks that leave mind space to listen to music, say, or to have a conversation. At Haystack, I roamed from studio to studio and took part in these conversations, which were only partly about making art, and partly were the art.

49.  [  ]

Lisa Cirando brought a beautiful, bluey paper she’d made earlier. What might our nonfiction class do with it? Words were our medium! We were craftspeople! We all contributed a phrase, something from our sessions. Mine was “Just write!” At the fab lab, several volunteers laser cut those phrases, making negative space. Backlit in a window? Gorgeous, a message of cooperation.

50.  [  ]

Over 100 people were at the third summer session 2013, including staff, instructors, and participants. I crossed paths with each, one way or the other, and each embodied an idea. I had the feeling that as in outer space each body exerted gravitational pull, some pronounced, some so subtle you wouldn’t know till later you’d been pulled out of orbit.

51.  [  ]

The glass studio roared late into the night, the furnaces blasting. Always from there came music and shouting and laughter, a bunch of devils playing with fire. Joe Grant led with such a generous, annealing spirit—you can’t work glass alone, not really. The students worked in pairs, one to turn the rod, another to shape the object being born.

52.  [  ]

Family is the essential collaboration, and a fine perquisite for the visiting artist at Haystack is that family can join in. My daughter, Elysia, who had not yet turned 13, took part in Sonia Clark’s multiples workshop in the fiber studio. My wife, Juliet, joined them. Sonia was very warm, made sure they had supplies, and soon the multiples multiplied.

53.  [  ]

Each studio has a personality, the sum of the attitudes and moods of the people who happen to be in the room (perhaps especially the instructors), but also an essential expression of the type of work being engaged. Glass was boisterous. Wood was practical. Fab lab, intellectual. Metals, on task. Fiber, cheerful, even hilarious. Clay, determined, elbows out. Drawing, contemplative.

54.  [  ]

Back from the rain forest, I found that tapetum lucidum had burned its way into my brain. When the peepers started that spring, I realized I’d never seen one. I texted Drew, simple as that, and soon, equipped with headlamps and flashlights and three or four kids, we made a night expedition, found eyeshine: six species of frogs and toads.

55.  [  ]

Robert had us create our own names for mushrooms. Difficult, as some of us already knew the real names. But a Fly Agaric, bright red with white spots, became a Sore Throat. Others had similarly suggestive names: Slimy Butter, Elf Shelf, Snot Blob, Many Tongues. The result was a group language that expressed a new way of thinking and seeing.

56.  [  ]

I didn’t hear frogs at Haystack, but perhaps the wind and the waves obscured such sounds. I suggested an eyeshine walk, and come night twelve of us from various studios were padding down Haystack Lane, flashing lights into the quiet woods. No frogs, but lots of eyeshine: spiders. And balsam pitch drips, orange. Finally, big green eyes, looming, a mystery.

57.  [  ]

Marijo Simpson, fiber, collected rocks (more multiples) and placed a selection outside their barn door with an invitation to take one, alter it, put it back. And in the secret hours of ensuing days and nights, rocks disappeared. Then reappeared: jewelry attached, tiny clothing, googly eyes, a glass blob. That last was mine, but I couldn’t have done it alone.

58.  [  ]

The ants accomplish the perpetuation of their colonies, and therefore of their types and subtypes. Individuals work together, each with a job, and no one ant sees the greater picture. Perhaps we don’t either. Our contribution to the colony may not even be something we recognize, but instead some subtle pull that grows from all the gravity we have encountered.

59.  [  ]

Between two people, a power arises that is more than either person, perhaps forming a person in itself, one that combines traits: education, prejudices, loves, aesthetics. Among three people, two powers arise for each—that makes six—and then one more for all. Imagine the powers arising from a hundred people, and imagine those powers mounting the steps at Haystack!

60.  [  ]

And then there’s the food, the beautiful dining hall, the ever-shifting dynamics of family-style eating, view of the ocean (or hot sun on your back). Stuart makes an announcement and the hubbub commences: every calorie an idea in the making. The powers shift about the room, one rising, one sitting, new relationships, fresh possibilities: What have you been thinking about?

[For information about the incredible opportunities at Haystack for writing and other craft workshops, have a look at the Haystack Website. This essay was written as part of my duties as writer-in-residence at Haystack in July, 2013, and published as a monograph by the organization.  Contact them as above for a paper copy, and to make a donation!]

  1. Ellen Roberts writes:

    Bill this was fantastic. As you may know I have been at Haystack many times and with my affiliation at Circling the Square in Gardiner I have been thinking and participating artistically with collaboration intensively since 2007… Thanks.