Essay — Great Egret: The Science, the Art
In an age when the unmediated physical world is not available to the majority of the earth's population, when the news of the planet sometimes feels like the machinations of a wrathful god, when tsunamis, hurricanes and viral plagues are what we know of nature, we find ourselves sobered by this quiet meditation on the Great Egret. These photographs are bulletins from the real world, and the egrets themselves are a hopeful message of endurance. They are the familiar fishers in roadside sloughs, evidence of the silky-fine mesh of life on earth. Like dancers around an ancient Greek vase, they appear out of their dark ground as mythic images. We know they are beautiful, something essential and significant, but we don't quite have the manual for deciphering the secret patterns of their ways.
We are usually served two kinds of images of nature by the electronic media. We may learn of calamity, diminishing fresh water and arable soil and melting glacial ice. Or we may see rare animals exhibiting unusual behaviours. Many of these creatures are stunningly beautiful, but the meaning of their existence dissolves when the switch is turned off. In this series of photographs, we are given a vision of life abiding. These images hold a place to both understand the egrets and to feel them as visceral states of mind. In the marriage of science and art, we can begin to decode the allegorical message of the birds.
Science organizes and illuminates the outer world as art organizes and illuminates the inner world. If we ignore science, not only do we remain ignorant, but we lose the joy of understanding our environment. If we sever our connection to art, we lose a crucial element of ourselves, our hunger for revelation. Maybe science can tell us what the egrets are, and art can tell us who they are.
We know from shared skeletal characteristics that in the development of the avian class, Great Egrets are close to dinosaurs, close to the beginning. They come to us as durable survivors, and though their whiteness may signify delicacy and chastity to us, that interpretation would belie their essential adaptability. The egrets are natural creatures, neither virtuous nor guileless. They simply prevail.
Egrets, both male and female, have a fifty-five inch wingspan. They croak and rattle to voice what can only be described as love and devotion. They signal intention to mate with the stylized movements of Asian court dancers.
They grow a courting mantle of fine branching feathers that looked so beautiful on Victorian ladies' hats that they were almost hunted to extinction.
The long plumes of this bird being in request for ornamental purposes, they are shot in great numbers while sitting on their eggs, or soon after the appearance of the young. I know a person, who, on offering a double-barrelled gun to a gentleman near Charleston, for one hundred White Heron killed, received that number and more the next day!
Egrets lay from one to six bluish-green eggs in their ramshackle nests, usually in trees above the shallow water where they prefer to feed. The young hatch in a little under a month.
They are solitary most of the year, but they are very gregarious in the mating season, living in large groups of fifty or more. They feed on fish, snails, crabs, all exposed to their lightning-fast beaks. Their pattern is to wade in slow motion, stirring up the mud with their toes, kicking up the next meal.
Nature's modern myths are based on science with its logical reductionism. We know things about creatures, their habits and origins. The facts may be delicious, but they only act as a gloss on what really has an impact on our consciousness-our hunger for metaphor and a longing to connect with the inevitable parts or our own psyches. Science is a tool for maintaining and preserving systems, for understanding context, but knowledge gathered by categorizing and naming is not a substitute for what we learn through intuition.
Nature is alive inside us. Our earliest descriptions of the creation of the universe tell us that we have always attempted to link our origins to natural phenomena. Consider the Tlinget story of Raven, a white bird who steals the moon and stars and fire for humans and so doing, scorches his feathers black. What we have lost in the current strident dialogue between real science and religious fundamentalism concerning our origins is the connection to nature as it feels in our inner lives.
These photographs come to us as new texts, bringing tidings of creation. They fill the need to connect with the world outside of ourselves, and they ring true to the ancient pathways of the psyche.
Art is the connective tissue between nature and the inner person. These photographs illuminate this point: they are unsentimental but full of wonder. In looking at the images, we many find ourselves re-examining our relationship to the real world. We may relish the way nature slowly reveals itself. In Terry Turrentine's work, we will find a reflection of both the way things are and the way we want them to be.