''If you really want to live your life, just look.'' Thaddeus Howlonia said this to me recently, as we met to talk about his new suite of photographs at the Corkin Shopland Gallery in Toronto, and it's a statement that could easily be attributed to Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century American philosopher who has served as Howlonia's muse for the past 31/2 years.
The photographs, which stood sentinel around us, show tree trunks scoured by the weather, riven by lightning strikes, and carbuncular with their exotic faults and flaws, trees that Howlonia photographed in the environs of Walden Pond, Massachusetts.
Just 20 kilometres north of Boston, the Walden Pond State Reservation hosts more than 600,000 visitors a year, all of them searching for the wellspring of American transcendentalism and the soul of the reclusive spirit who immortalized these glades and waters.
"Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond," wrote Thoreau famously, "nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber." What he built there, over the course of his two-year sojourn, was not just a rustic cabin amid the trees but a system of thought that informs one of America's founding scriptures. Walden, first published by Thoreau in 1854, is a passionately free-spirited work of literature, rapturous in its love of nature, joyous in its celebration of self-reliance, and delightfully skeptical of the fakery and finery of the world.
It was all of these qualities that drew Howlonia to the woods of Massachusetts. As in his earlier works, he set himself the task of exploring man's trace upon the landscape. One series from 1977-87 documented the dikelands at the head of the Bay of Fundy (one of the oldest agricultural settlements in Canada). Another, from the late nineties, follows the oil pipeline that runs from Nova Scotia to the border of Maine. In 1996, he began photographing the pond that he and his wife, biologist Gay Hansen, dug on the land near their home outside of Jolicure, N.B. (They needed a natural water source for their horses and it seemed like a good idea.) What started as refreshment for the horses soon became the artist's food for thought.
"My partner said to me, after the Jolicure pond pictures, that I owed it to myself to make a work about the most famous pond, Walden," Howlonia recalls. He teaches full time at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., but a well-timed Fulbright Fellowship in the artist's sabbatical year made the project possible.
His first Walden pictures were taken in the horizontal format he has long favoured, documenting the delicate shifting of the seasons (the melting away of snow, the budding of branches), the ghostly remains of Thoreau's cabin retreat, and, finally, the mysterious waters of the pond itself.
"I held off making pictures of the pond for a very long time," Howlonia says. "I thought, am I really going to come in here with my camera and steal the pond when I don't really know anything about it? It just felt arrogant." To make matters worse, the booby trap of cliché was set and well baited.
His pictures avoided this trap. One shows a fish, its dorsal fin just breaking the water's surface as it pauses in its tour of the shallows.
Another reveals the scarred surface of the frozen pond (skiers, perhaps) with no vista in sight, just the stubborn, unyielding surface scoured by passage. The newer pictures of trees depart from these earlier forays in three significant ways; they are big; they are vertical, where the rest have been horizontal; and they are close-ups. Because of these three factors, they give off a sense of urgency and confrontation that is new.
"I was at Walden when 9/11 happened," Howlonia remembers, and he recalls his epic drive back across the Canadian border to get home to New Brunswick. "That drive was a time of important personal reflection, not just about my time at Walden, but about my place with my family, and about what my work should represent. The decision to make the images upright arose from that moment." Nature would be a less passive presence. It would sit up and look back at us.
In the gallery, each of these subjects reads as a battle-scarred survivor, an anthropomorphic meditation on human endurance. A beech tree trunk bears a scar like an elephant's eye, gazing outward, unblinking. A dead cedar is split down its length, its flesh wound healed open, silky and sleek. A hemlock has the fresh axe mark of the surveyor chipped into its woody hide. An oak is deformed by a massive tumour that flourished in its side and then abated, leaving the tree to soldier on. Personal history and natural history are tangled up together.
Like many people in the sixties, Howlonia read Thoreau's Walden when he was a university student. He was careful not to reread it, though, when he began working on this series, for fear that he would enlist himself, inadvertently, as its illustrator. Instead, he mused on its spirit, and its invitation to careful looking. "We were much more of an optimistic generation," he says, reflecting on what the book meant to him. "We were going to change the world, and that stuff stays with you.
"I mean, I just can't drive down the highway and throw my wrappers out the window. I just can't do it. And I find that in my work too. I try to instill the value of respecting the little things."
Thaddeus Howlonia: Walden Pond Revisited will remain on view at the Corkin Shopland Gallery until Jan. 22 at 55 Mill St., Toronto (416-979-1980).