The Aesthetics of Bodie (a travelogue)

Hiding in the sagebrush, tucked between the folds of the soft hills dwell the bones of something.  Bones of wood and metal, fabric and stone.  They are hard, these bones. They have 90º angles, which time and the desert try to soften, or erase completely.

Some of the bones still bleed, or otherwise carry in them the notion of a time before decay and abandonment.


bones of bodie, (c) JL Colomb


I first experienced Bodie over 20 years ago, which was fortunately right when I had become enthralled with photography.  We had visited the alkaline Mono Lake—steeped in stark alien beauty—earlier that day.  Continuing into the California wilderness, away from cities and streetlights, crowds and corner stores, was like pulling back the veil of modern civilization and stepping into a past living at the edges of our memory.

The road, a dirt washboard bearing all the evidence of the harsh climate of the area, was long and rough.  When we finally arrived, the late autumn sunset streaked its long golden arms over the hills and the remains the town birthed by the gold rush.

It was spectacular, this place of arrested decay; this evidence of our past and greed, of our human drive to make a home.

I had my own 35mm camera, and a certain amount of technical skill.  Through the lens, I explored the former businesses, houses, and outhouses.  I slipped through the graveyard and peered through windows to witness the pieces of what people leave behind.

All these years later, my feelings about Bodie and my reactions to it have not changed.  If anything, they’ve deepened as I become more comfortable with my dour sense of aesthetics.

I am obsessed with states of decay, titillated by the things we leave behind.  Perhaps it’s unusual, and I myself have had a hard time rationalizing this preference, understanding it in the context of the human experience.  Part of it is entangled with the mutability of life.  We are born, we create, and we lean into the next passage.  Evidence of our existence endures in some form, but our legacy is ever changing according to the influence of other factors.  We become a painting turned over to the curator of time; an abandoned home, picked through for salvage, and otherwise left to the process of unbecoming.

But the aesthetics of decay can also easily be a rejection of something, rather than strictly an embrace of it.  We live in a disposable society, where seemingly everything bears the stamp of built-in obsolescence; where we answer the fatigue of familiarity with a donation or trash run in parallel with the shopping trip for the new and wondrous.  We don’t live in a world of unfettered abundance, and what we take cannot be put back. I favor valuing an object for it’s persistence, and acquiring it with intention so I can use it well past its age of usefulness.  I suspect my attachment to decay relates to this aspect as well as any other.

There is a more simple driver, removed from this self-obsessed mental flossing exercise.  Decay can be beautiful.  Period. In tonality and texture.  In visual framing and juxtaposition.  In patterns and contrast.


oxidized, ©JL Colomb

The soft sable texture of disuse.


standing still, ©JL Colomb


the left behinds, ©JL Colomb

The curling of the clapboards as the wood of the house dries and peels away from its intended use and returns to some process more natural to its existence


clapboards in the desert, ©JL Colomb

It’s an emptiness you can step into and inhabit.


sometimes i do cry over spilt milk

Has it ever happened to you?  Feeling dreary and glum and no matter what you seem to do, you’re always left in a state of dissatisfaction at the result.  Your milk has gone 1% sour, and you overcooked your eggs by 5%, despite your punishing exactitude.  Your face isn’t quite right, and your body is all wrong.  It’s almost as if you’re wearing a suit, which covers you, from the tippy top of your head to the soles of your feet.  The zipper seems to have disappeared, and you can’t step out of this version of yourself.  Drinking glasses slip through your hands and shatter on the counter, throwing a cascade of shards onto your leftovers.  The work project that is supposed to be simple becomes a nightmare.

I had one of these weeks recently, when everything (from my perspective) went wrong and I didn’t feel  right.  My natural response was to draw the shades between me and the world, have a “good cry”,  and become quiet and still.  As prepared as I was to wallow in my own misery—which I know is ludicrous juxtaposed against all of the real problems in the world, but nonetheless—I realized my state was not entirely unique.  In fact it occurs with some degree of regularity.

In other words, I was moulting.

According to the illustrious reservoir of knowledge of our time (perhaps not the galactic library, but at least a global one), mammals, invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians and birds all go through a moulting process.  They shed sheaths of old dead skin in some cases.  In others, cuticles (e.g. crab shells, and the like) are cast aside during periods of growth.  With birds its feathers, and fur for cats and dogs.  Goodbye scars and damaged tissue; goodbye phantom limbs and hello beautiful new claw.

Moulting is a powerful process triggered by adaptation from either external (e.g. seasonal) or internal (i.e. growth) stimuli, and is cyclical.  It is a visible manifestation of regeneration and transformation.  And it is exactly what I was going through.

it's messy

it’s messy (photo and text by JL Colomb)

This wasn’t an orderly intentional transformation, like putting together New Year’s goals or getting a make over. It was messy, and involved questioning.  Questioning my reactions to specific situations, the real source of my angst; questioning my path, and how I treat myself and others.  My eyes had to be covered with a thick slough of skin, and my sensitivities heightened so I could see what needed to change.

After a night of sulking, and a day of quiet contemplation, I decided a few things:

– This is temporary;
– All I can do is the very best I can do;
– Life requires balance;
– The most important things to me are my relationships and my art.  Everything else requires perspective; and
– Even though it can be painful, ‘letting go of that which no longer serves you’ (I heard this at a yoga class and love the concept), and accepting change and guiding it toward a transformative outcome is cathartic and revitalizing.

While you can cry over spilt milk, you can’t see out of a dirty windshield.

Go. Moult.

Snake Skin, Mojave Desert

Snake Skin, Mojave Desert (photo by JL Colomb)




IMG_5890v2Protocols. Rules. Methodical steps followed faithfully and through to the period. I admit it. I am guilty of this, of letting myself be seduced by the sure comfort of a recipe. If you add a cup of this, a tablespoon of that and whip vigorously, you end up with something delicious. Deviate from the path, and who knows what could happen.

How about serendipity?

Enter infusions. Lately I’ve become obsessed with the notion of them. My history with experimenting with alcohol is a little spotty. Years ago I attempted to make my own limoncello. I fretted over the bottle filled with highly flammable grain alcohol and lemon zest. It was going to be awful.

Instead, the liquid transformed from clear to golden. And after adding a little simple syrup, I had trance-inducing nectar stocked in my freezer.

Fast-forward to now, and the current experiment.

Lemon. Peppercorn. Ginger. Grapefruit. Darjeeling tea and honey. Cinnamon sticks. Just to have fun. Just to see. Some of these experiments might turn out like dog piss, but that’s the point. To challenge the fear of failure. Even embrace failure. By poking at the edges of our comfort, our awareness, and by standing at the boundaries of our experience, we can open the door into the unknown just a little. This is how we grow. This is how we evolve.


the art of decay

Today on my drive home, an image kept plaguing me. Not this one. This rotting gauge serves as a tawdry little stand-in because I neglected to seize a moment and photograph the shit out of a beautiful living corpse of a building in DC. The image was this: peeling paint. Paint coming off in crispy corkscrews. Paint licking up like a dog’s engorged tongue.

This… made-up skin was nearly gone. Time had washed away the rouge. The wood, grey by now, rasped in the late Spring air. It’s texture was something between bone and leather.

The image reminded me of life. Not in a grand-sweeping-epic sense, but in a tearing-away-the-layers sense. Let me explain. In this image, I kept tying in paint as a metaphor for social conventions and expectations. It represented all the things people tell us we should be, how we should or should not behave, how we should talk, what titles mean and the kind of license they give people to be unintentional (or squarely intentional) assholes. The shadows of past traumas (small and large), the layers of education, both in school and through the simple interactions we have with people EVERY SINGLE DAY.

I feel like paint, i.e. conventions and shoulds, are masks. They veil a truth, and maybe hide that truth from both the external and internal observer. And this event of the paint coming away is an opportunity to discover a “who” beneath what we’ve learned to be. What is our true nature? Who is our most authentic identity?

This is not a gentle art, nor is it pain-free. But it can be filled with beauty, and a freedom in the pursuit of it.

Buddha’s Hand

James and John looked over the carcass of the tree.  Its legend went back generations. Only one branch had any life on it these days.  One leaf, and one tentacled piece of fruit.

The tree sat in the middle of a field and the weight of the sky pressing down on it seemed to flatten its twisted blackened trunk. It hadn’t always been so.  The tree used to be a brilliant green, frocked with glossy leaves, which grew as long spiraling blades.  It wasn’t until James and John’s father had come running home as a child with one of the leaves that people realized anything was happening.  The vigil started then; and the truth came.  Each year during the summer solstice, the tree shed one of its leaves.

“We’ve done spent enough time observing the damned thing,” James said.  He was the younger of the two brothers.

John pinched his lips together, and skewed his mouth to one side. “Well, we’d best save the fruit.”

James nodded.  According to the almanacs and myths, the fruit-a bright yellow citrus oddity closely resembling a grapefruit, with the exception of the fat appendages extruding from it-was the very same fruit that had always been there.  For generations.

The last leaf broke away from the branch.  A sound like thunder broke the sky, and when the leaf landed, the ground shuddered.

James rushed up to the branch, but it was John who grabbed the fruit and twisted it loose.  It followed him easy, an Excalibur to his Arthur.

They wrapped a chain around the trunk and pulled it down with the tractor.  They dragged the whole carcass to the house, hardly concerned with the gash it drew in the earth.

John had kept the fruit cradled in his hand the whole time.  When they reached the house, he moved like a sleepwalker to the kitchen, not minding to turn off the tractor.

The linoleum  was crinkled near the door like dried mud.  The plywood cabinets were warped, and the veneer around the knobs and the edges was worn to nothing.  Black mold slicked the edges of the sink.  Coffee stains and burn marks blemished the laminate countertops.

John set the fruit down there and knelt on the floor.  His nose was flush with the counter, and he watched as the fruit deflated.  It lost its plump rigidity.  Its skin shrank, grew opaque and dusty.  It even wrinkled in some places.

“Eat it.”

He jerked at the sound of James’ voice.

“You should eat it.”

John nodded.  His hands curled over the ledge of the counter, and he hauled himself to standing.  Picking up the fruit, he contemplated it.  Then he bit.

The flavor accosted him first.  Putrid bitterness, sharp and bright, flooded his tongue, and made his teeth hurt.  Next came washes of rotting sweetness and dull metal.  Grimacing, John forced his jaw to work on the flesh in his mouth, forced his throat to swallow it.  His brain screamed for him to stop, but his thoughts spasmed.  Parts of them repeated, retreated and returned, order rearranged.  His thoughts were out of his control, though his body still moved on its own.  It still chewed and consumed the fruit.

John’s senses screamed like a torn muscle.  They were pulled out of their normal, everyday limits.  Pulled into something more. His eyes began to twitch, and vibrated back and forth in his skull, as if he was reading a book at the speed of sound.

“Reading,” he said.  He turned to his brother, who watched with wide eyes and a pale face.

He took the last bite, chewed and swallowed.  “Transmitting.”

The juice clung sticky to his chin.  Beyond that, John could feel the juice lysing the membranes of his skin cells, and denaturing the instructions written inside of them, altering the instructions.  The juice and his skin acted one on the other.

Data streamed through him.  A beginning.  A star.  A cluster of stars and the birth of a planetary body.  The first, second and third waves of life. And more until them, the makers of the fruit.  He had a notion of hope, of failure, of secrets, but the everything of them dribbled through his mind like a melting painting.

He stared at the seed nested between the tips of his thumb and forefinger.  It was all that was left of the fruit. “I ate it too late,” he finally said.


(Apologies, I know it’s a tad longer than 500 words.)

Behind the veil

Surfaces come in a variety of flavors. Smooth, glossy, and slick. Some are rough and tear through skin upon contact. Others still are chameleon-like. Flicker and glimmer, they change with their surroundings. But what does a surface say about an interior? Furthermore, how does a surface change how we interact with the object (or person)?

I’m thinking of two specific experiences. One was just before Thanksgiving, at the San Diego Airport, and the other was this past weekend at Presidio Park.

The airport was crowded. Bodies filled chairs and sprawled on the floor, along the walls. The line for coffee was 30 people deep, and non-stop the PA system squawked. My mom and I settled in, waited for the flight. A woman, about my mom’s age sat next to me. Average clothes. Round face, blonde hair. We smiled at each other. I kept reading my book. After a while, we made eye contact again. This was when she leaned over, pressed a hand to her lower abdomen and asked, “Do either of you ever get a pain? Right here?” She demonstrated on herself.

I frowned. “Uh, sure. Sometimes.”

“Well, see, here’s why I ask.” She was a healer. “Going into hospitals is the worst. All those feelings, all that pain just floods right into me.”

My mom, the psyche nurse, promptly checked out of the conversation. I have to admit, I was a little intrigued. She went on about her healing work, asked where we were going. She nearly poured out of herself to learn our destination was Santa Fe. “That place has so much energy. Are you sure nothing’s wrong? You don’t have a pain right here.” She also read auras. “And honey, yours is so bright.” Sure. Appeal to my ego. “Oo! It just got brighter.” At this juncture, she blessed me, asked the Universe to fill me with light and love and creativity.

Fast forward a few weeks. My friends, Heather and Tracy, were setting up for their birthday party at Presidio Park. A few minutes after I got there, a man walks through. He was wearing a grey and black striped sweatshirt that kept riding up and exposing his belly as he waved his arms. Long black hair, threaded with grey, waved down to his shoulders. He had a beard, too. He talked endlessly without making a sound, and his arms. They moved constantly as if he was conducting an orchestra. He took a bow, peered into the trash can. Upon finding nothing satisfactory, he moved on to the next.

I composed stories about these strangers. Upon seeing them (surface), I crafted childhoods, heartaches, chemical imbalances, and maybe a little bit of brain damage. I relied on those stories to make judgments about both of them. Even though some observations could be considered empirical, the consequence of them is still conjecture. In other words, I made shit up. I might have been right. There is also the chance I might have been wrong.

It makes me think of the issue of appearances versus reality. Of how we present ourselves to others (and to ourselves, frankly). How can we tease back the veil and reveal something that is closer to true, closer to authentic? And will we recognize when we see it?

[ASIDE: Life is never quite what it appears. It is more.]

Photo note: This is the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, or at least part of it. Taken in November in DC.

the writing life in a modern age

We used to talk about coming to the page, but for many of us technology has changed this concept and, I’d argue, our process.

The act of pressing pen to paper, grinding it over the surface, feeling the way the tip of it grips the fibers is deliciously visceral. Both violent and loving, the marks on the page are alternately like tattoos and scars.  Intentional and unintentional.  It’s a dance between the conscious mind and those things writhing beneath the surface.  Often times, when I’m successful at turning off my internal editor, the scars produce the sweetest and most surprising movements of prose.  Granted, on the page one can still cross out narrative / dialogue / etc that seems absurd, that isn’t perfect or sits uncomfortably.

On the digital page, however, it’s infinitely easier to erase those moments, paint the scene as if the sketch never existed.  With the delete key, we can eradicate the texture of the brush strokes, and leave a glossy, improbable effort.  I do this far too often.  I write something, delete it.  Write something else.  Delete it.  Cut and paste.  There is so much temptation to edit that often it interferes with the act that needs to happen first.  Creation.

One can sit in front of a computer for an hour, fingers endlessly dashing over the keyboard and yet only have a paragraph of text to show for it.  Even though it’s a struggle, I am of the school of thought advocating “free writing”.  One comes to the practice with a general arc of where they want to go, but they release the conscious mind as much as possible.  No editing.  Just writing.  The first round is about getting the ideas out.  The beautifying can happen after the birth.

The media of pen and paper facilitates this process much more easily than does “word processing”.  So, with the computer, it becomes more of a conscious act.  For me, it is about letting go of expectations of outcomes, entering into a meditative state and accepting a flow of words rather then pressing them into a mold.