The lie a landscape painting tells is the lie any story tells—that you can somehow step outside of the world’s chaos a moment and take ownership of your life. Such lies are useful. Beautiful. Actual landscapes, however, flummox and humble us, refusing to be anything other than what they are: expressions of nature’s raw and elemental power. Anything we might think to say about them, or any attempt to render and represent them, becomes a commentary on ourselves. For all our stories reveal, they also conceal, obscure, and blur.
The painter Hans Hofmann, arguably the 20th century’s most important art teacher, journeyed to Provincetown each summer to take inspiration from nature. In the agitated brush strokes of his bright and abstract canvases, his subject wasn’t the seagull but its slash of white. Not the ocean but the fractured light on its waters.
Hofmann’s paintings scan less like scenic landscapes and more like the splattered palette he daubed his paint onto, the rags with which he cleaned off his brushes. He painted from nature. As nature. His brush quivering like wind-blasted beach grass, he conjured abstract landscapes you could walk all morning in search of a rock whose color and cut you liked, rafts of seaweed left by the high tide and teeming with iridescent flies, last night’s charred firewood in a pit, its peeling scales of ash. His paintings aren’t a story just as nature isn’t a story. Neither are his paintings intended for human edification or pleasure or comfort. They are about the moment and method of their making, and anything more is up to the viewer.
As a writer and a sometimes traveler to Cape Cod, I’m only too aware of the allure of stories in that landscape. At the beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore I’ve turned my back on the pastel bungalows of Provincetown and Boston’s high-rises across the bay, and felt insignificant before the Atlantic’s vast azure expanse. It’s quiet there. Gulls circle and cry. The dunes continually rearrange themselves—a second, stiller crashing of waves. If you’re at all like me, this touches something in you, shrinks your life to its proper proportion in the world’s grand scheme. If you’re at all like me you might wonder how you had forgotten the peace and beauty of nature and pledge a greater mindfulness to such things upon your return home. Our hunger for connection, for time set aside from workaday concerns, makes it almost painful to be reminded that nature isn’t only beautiful but ragged, unfinished, indifferent, obscene. That the keen-eyed gull hovering on a headwind, scanning, scanning, is desperate enough to eat a diaper.
Sometimes instead of a story what I want is the condition that gave rise to it.
The increase in sharks in the waters off Cape Cod, including a recent attack in Truro which resulted in the first fatality in 84 years, now regularly closes beaches. Two summers ago, my family and I had just set up our big umbrella and splashed into the water when a whistle sounded and lifeguards with megaphones ordered everyone out. A red flag snapped in the breeze. My son, on the cusp of 9, didn’t want to stop swimming.
I had to grab his arm.
From the safety and shade of our umbrella, we saw a boat maybe a hundred yards off shore. A man in the prow had a long pole rigged like a harpoon that he kept jabbing into the water—some kind of GPS tagging device.
Up and down the beach, crowds of people gawked and chattered, no one a stranger anymore. One middle-aged white man with a big hanging gut insisted on wading out to his knees, as though to prove he wasn’t scared. My son kept begging to get back in. I distracted him, kept telling him to look at the boat, to look for a shark. We waited and waited. Nothing happened. After a time, the shark swam away and the beach re-opened.
It would be easy to make this a story—to talk about how the shark’s sudden appearance altered the spirit of the day, how returning to the water afterward felt thrilling and dangerous, and how I kept imagining in the swells rising around us a shark’s dark form. But the moment was more than any reflection I might make, more than a lesson learned. Sometimes instead of a story what I want is the condition that gave rise to it. I want to hover like one of those gulls over the scene, marking the rapt attention of every last person on the beach, their stillness and fear. I want to re-enter the moment the way I re-entered the water that day—that risky thrill—knowing something in it could devour me. Or rather, I want to be the shark: an apex predator circling an ocean of memory and sensation, hunting images, sequences, paradox, irony, desire. For a great white shark to breathe, it has to keep moving. A painter’s brush, too. A writer’s mind.
The moment was more than any reflection I might make, more than a lesson learned.
Stories are more dangerous than sharks. Stories propelled the thousands of ships that met their end in watery graves off Cape Cod. Hurricanes and hidden reefs may have done the damage but it was the story the men and women aboard told themselves that decided their fates. They came to subdue a continent and cash in. They brought enslaved people, yellow fever, spices, soldiers, shipments of coal. They murdered each other on the high sea and started a new country. They hunted right whales to the brink of extinction.
There’s a poetry in the names of some of the sunken ships—The Sparrow-Hawk, The Whydah Galley, The Forest Queen—but most ships are more conventionally named, for important people or their places of origin.
The SS James Longstreet was a Liberty ship—a kind of cargo ship—built during World War II and named after a Confederate General. It didn’t sink off Cape Cod but was hauled there after running aground in New Jersey. Up until the 1970s, the Navy used the Longstreet’s 400-foot frame for target practice and missile tests.
I like to ponder those shipwrecks and the history of colonization they represent. The chemistry of saltwater on wood, steel, and gold, too. The unexploded ordnance from those decades of shelling still down there, a gray seal lumbering by. I like to let my mind wonder about what life must have been like during World War II—the logic and necessity of such deadly weapons—and to imagine spending six weeks on a packet ship set sail from Liverpool to rejoin family who had preceded me on the voyage to America. I like to feel small before not just the Atlantic but the broad sweep of history with its cruelties and triumphs and unending questions. And because I contain multitudes, I also like to leave all those thoughts alone. To pick up a book. Stare at my phone. Close my eyes and listen to the waves, blissfully ignorant of the world. What does my thinking change? There is always more to know. Too much, in fact. Sometimes I think I’ll never really understand anything, that it’s all a dream I’m dreaming. Why even try? This is when stories are their most dangerous—when you forget they are stories, when you mistake them for truth.
Nobody names a ship The Sparrow-Hawk expecting it will sink. “We have few more beautiful hawks in the United States,” John James Audubon declared. “…[and] the very mention of its name never fails to bring to mind some anecdote connected with its habits.” Audubon raised a sparrow-hawk as a pet and its “courageous disposition often amused the family, as he would sail off from his stand, and fall on the back of a tame duck, which, setting up a loud quack, would waddle off in great alarm with the Hawk sticking to her.”
But even Audubon’s sparrow-hawk wasn’t immune to the dangers of story. Feeling overly proprietary, he got between a protective hen and her chicks. “The conflict, which was severe, ended the adventures of poor Nero.”
An awareness of all the terrible things that could happen to you, however, won’t save you from them. I can’t step foot on a beach anymore without acknowledging the sea-level rise that will drown it. I have a hard time relaxing under an umbrella while imagining hundreds of millions of climate refugees. Even as I write these words of remembrance for a distant, irretrievable summer, COVID-19 is decimating communities, overrunning hospitals, blowing lives apart at a nearly incomprehensible clip. I could be next. Or you. “Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,” Truro resident Mary Oliver famously wrote. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination.” But what if the things you love—the air, the water, the earth—are slowly killing the soft animal of your body?
What if your imagination is terrifying?
When I read about the pandemic now it feels like another inscrutable, indifferent landscape I stand before in wonderment and dread. I don’t know what to do with the stories I scroll past, the death and devastation. I find myself thinking about sharks. Scientists estimate that they have been around for 450 million years, with great whites arriving 11 million years ago. Where were you and I then? Where will we be in 11 million more?
But what if the things you love—the air, the water, the earth—are slowly killing the soft animal of your body?
An abstract painting is a place of rest for an imagination spinning out of control. Thoughts the mind can’t reconcile can right themselves in an image. In his painting “In the Wake of the Hurricane,” Hans Hofmann took inspiration from Hurricane Donna, which struck Provincetown in September 1960 with winds hitting speeds of 140 mph. Here, in scrapes of mossy-green, is a ravaged landscape, the storm’s punishing indifference; and here, too, suffusing it all, is a warm and glass-like orange as placid as a sunset at Race Point Beach. For minds that can’t help but make stories, the painting’s refusal to be one offers endless compassion. You can fill it with sharks and shipwrecks and sparrow-hawks. In the clean blue air of stories, Mary Oliver’s wild geese can head home again “announcing your place in the family of things.”
If your imagination is terrifying, maybe you have to swim out into it the way I saw a team of lifeguards swim into the ocean at Marconi Beach the day after our shark sighting. We spotted them from a platform atop the scarp of Marconi’s 40-foot sand cliff where we had come to take in an expansive view of the Outer Cape at dusk.
It was August and chilly already, the sky a lavender crescent bending to the edge of the water. In teams of two, the lifeguards swam for a buoy several hundred yards from shore. Distance shrunk their red-suited bodies to specks in the dark water. It wasn’t clear to us whether they were training or if this was some kind of initiation ritual. They had built a bonfire on the beach. The guards who had already swum to the buoy were wrapped in white towels, warming themselves by the fire, and the others stood at water’s edge cheering on their friends, those little specks of red in the deep, arms chopping, feet fluttering, bodies skimming the ripples and waves.
At any given moment a 2,000-lb great white shark, mistaking them for a harbor seal, could have lunged and leapt and with the razors of its teeth shredded them to confetti. The lifeguards knew this. And out they went, two by two, around the buoy and back, attacked only by the reflection of hovering clouds the day’s last light had now brightened.
With thanks to the curators of the exhibition Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction shown at the Peabody Essex Museum, organized by the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.