Like a fringe of hair, the boreal forest circles the crown of the planet including northern Canada from Yukon to Newfoundland and Labrador. Extending across northern Europe and Asia, it’s the largest intact terrestrial ecosystem left on Earth, says Marlene Creates.
Before 2002, Creates knew little about the region. Today, much of her life and art centres on a six-acre patch in Newfoundland where she tends a “boreal poetry garden.”
This fall, the environmental artist and poet is one of two Eastern Comma writers-in-residence at the Rare Charitable Research Reserve in Cambridge, sponsored by the reserve and Musagetes Guelph.
She and Newfoundland poet Don McKay are spending their shared fall residency at North House, an eco-demonstration house near the Grand and Speed rivers.
For Creates, the stay is putting a new twist on an old project.
In 2002, she moved from St. John’s to Portugal Cove in southeastern Newfoundland. Her new home on Blast Hole Pond Road afforded a look into memory, language and landscape through her camera lens.
“I’m getting to know the place one tree at a time,” she says during a recent interview at North House. “When I first moved there, the forest was just a blur. Now I’m seeing trees as individuals.”
That intimate relationship is captured in a series of black and white photographs, each showing her left hand pressed up against an individual tree trunk.
Out of thousands of spruce, larch, birch and other specimens on her property, she chose those that somehow announced themselves — a balsam fir, say, with its crown cracked off.
That ongoing gesture project echoes an earlier series from her 1983 visit to Scotland called “A Hand to Standing Stone” — a project she describes as “trying to make contact across the millennia.”
In Cambridge, she’s extending the project with “Standing Snags,” a photo series of dead and dying trees. The shots show her hand touching individuals with peeling bark, tiny insect holes and sprouting fungus.
Shortly after moving to Portugal Cove, she began to write poems inspired by specific sites around the property. “I was having experiences in the boreal forest that I couldn’t photograph.”
Written on small cards and photographed in place, the works offer a kind of tour of physical and emotional places. “The poem is just a way to point to something there. The environment is the best part of the poem.”
Creates now runs actual tours with readings at those locations. She’s often accompanied by dancers, musicians and scientists who interpret the surroundings in their own way. This year, riffing on the theme of air, she engaged a clarinetist and an accordion player — and a moose horn, played by McKay.
One winter, Creates set up a trail camera at a waterfall to record freeze-thaw cycles. Those photos appear in her 2015 book, “Brickle, Nish, and Knobbly,” along with an extended poem riffing on dozens of local terms for ice and snow.
In Newfoundland, she says, weather-related vocabulary is “precise, poetic and practical.” That reflects traditional ways of living tied to the land and the outdoors. She says dialects are fading away with changes including the loss of the fishery and the effects of climate change.
Last year in Portugal Cove, Create set up another trail camera triggered by wildlife movement. The resultant photo series called “What Came to Light at Blast Hole Pond River” is a project recording forest creatures.
She got what she calls “fantastic serendipitous images” — a moose nose poking into the frame or a moose’s rear end just leaving the frame.
This photo series is about movement. Despite the happenstance nature of the project, she says there’s intention in animals’ movements — and predictability in seemingly unconnected celestial events.
She paired those images with panels each bearing a one-line statement about a particular astronomical event taking place at the same time. “It’s a moment of wildlife on the ground and the celestial overhead — heaven and earth, if you like.”
Her mother’s family hails from Newfoundland. Creates moved to St. John’s in 1985. Born in 1952 in Montreal, she studied at Queen’s University.
Her work has appeared in hundreds of solo and group shows, and has been acquired by the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography.
In 2001, she was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts.
She will speak and show a film about her work Oct. 17 at Rare. On. Oct 22, she will hold a memory mapping workshop. Participants will walk the property and then draw a map of landmarks to discuss memory and presence in landscape.
For more information, here.