INTERVIEW WITH JACK GESCHEIDT
Thursday, August 26, 2010, San Geronimo, CA
Jack takes me to a grove of redwood trees, bay laurels, live oaks and maples about a 10 minute walk from his house in San Geronimo, CA which is a small hamlet in west Marin County.
We sit in this beautiful quiet place and begin to adjust sound levels. His voice is hushed and when I ask if he might speak louder he says he really can’t because it is a special place for him and he always gets very hushed and quiet here. I understand what he means – it would have been wonderful for us both if we could have spent the next hour in quiet contemplation.
I was moved by his work as a photographer that features awe inspiring trees with groups of people in and around them who appear to be in private and personal relationship with them. The added element to this communion is that the people are not wearing clothes so this tends to accentuate a special vulnerability and bond that he captures in the photographs. www.treespiritproject.com
I felt it would be a nice addition to have his viewpoint represented here at the Nature Speaks Project and he not only accepted my invitation but brought me to this special spot in the woods near his home.
Jack was in a reflective mood and it seems the thoughts and images that arose in him that afternoon were assisted by the environment to emerge in this particular way as we were sitting there.
The grove of trees where we are now is certainly conducive for quiet reflection.
The challenge for me is to be present and also to speak from this place of quiet within that I’m feeling now. I’m still learning how to do that. It’s much easier for me to be quiet, especially here.
I started out as an extrovert. I have an older brother so as the younger one I learned to do the song and dance to get attention. To be good with words to get some of the lime-light back from my older, bigger, taller brother.
I’ve just turned 50 so I’m able to examine my roots and ultimately try to come to terms with a sense of peace with those years and see them in a different light. I’ve done a lot of reading and growing, especially in the past eight years as I’ve lived in California. I’m much more at peace with myself here and have learned a lot more about who I am and what I am, which is ultimately unfathomable.
We’re in this grove of trees and you know this place well so would you describe where we are right now?
Where am I? I am in peacefulness, I am in quiet. Intellectually I go from head to heart and back again. I hear a little water still running in the stream, see things growing all around and notice some road noise off in the distance. But there is very little to process here as opposed to my house and office where there is the phone and computer to deal with. Or say from New York City where I grew up. And it’s still easiest for me when I’m quiet. When I don’t say anything I can sense my own inner quiet which is a mirror I guess of what I’m looking at now.
I see these three relatively young redwoods and it’s hard for me to put it into words. Intellectually I know that they are alive but I also feel connected to them, I feel affection for them and softened by them. And I’m a very visual person so looking at them gives me great pleasure.
So compared to where we started 30 minutes ago when I was feeling such pressure from working to be and to do – I’m feeling very little of that now. I’m present here and its funny because of all the things that I get worked up about having to do and get accomplished I think, ah, when they are done, I will be happy. But here in the woods I am already happy. I don’t have to do anything or accomplish anything and I’m happy. End of story. And my mind asks, ‘how can that be?’
When did you first notice the quieting effect the woods had on you?
It’s a tricky one to answer. I’ve always been happy outside but the memories that come to me of when I was a little boy are about the energetic exuberance of a young life. I have one particular memory of being outside running around and feeling the night air of summer and just being so incredibly happy. It was in the country in upstate New York.
I’d say the sense of peacefulness would come later when I was older, whereas earlier I just wanted to run outside as an expression of my joy at this life in a new body.
My mom died a few years ago but both my parents were professional photographers. And I remember when I was about 20 I was with my mother who was on a job photographing a wedding in the country in upstate New York. We were walking in the woods looking for where the wedding party had wandered off to before the ceremony. We heard bagpipes playing off in the distance but we were still in the quiet of the woods and then a flock of geese flew overhead in formation, honking. At this moment a feeling of transcendent joy and appreciation for life touched me. And who knows why then, why there… But I know it was connected with being in that very quiet place in the woods with the leaves in the fall season. So that is one of the peak or transcendent moments in nature that I can recall.
I remember another time when I was in maybe 8th or 9th grade, again in Westchester County, New York. After school a friend and I got off the bus a stop early to walk this path through the woods that we used to like and explore. And I was just full of spring fever and teenage boy juice and energy and I just took off running down this trail with this feeling of joy and power and aliveness moving my body through this space that was surrounded by woods.
These memories are powerful and they all seemingly related to a well of stored feelings with a similar theme. Telling this brings up another memory of when I was about 11, still in New York.
My mother was a nature lover and so she always made sure we had open space near us and I was running through an overgrown field of grass that was taller than me in this big meadow.
I stopped for a moment and looked down at this huge black and yellow spider that was probably an inch and a half long on my chest! And I felt this primal fear come up and yelled and instinctively hit away the spider and it was just another example of running on the earth and feeling so alive even though it was with a sense of fear.
(Jack shifts gears from a memory to the present moment)
I’m hearing something in the trees – it’s the wind I guess. And now this is ironic because here I am in this quiet place and I’ve been looking up and not at you, but I’m here again now. And I get to that quiet place inside when I’m not talking but here I am talking a blue streak so it’s kind of a paradox. But anyway, its being in nature and opening up to my own stillness and the stillness of nature and the magical mix of the two. Intellectually I would say that those are the same but all these words fall short.
And the best I can hope for is that in sharing my experiences it will touch people and some part of them the way I was touched by reading and listening to other people who came before me. Some part of me understands and connects and knows, ‘yes, that’s true for me too’, so that my spark is ignited. But it’s always my spark. And for someone else my words can be completely meaningless, or can hit a chord. And I have no control over that; they probably don’t have control over that other than going to where they are called. For me it’s going to the woods.
(At this point Jack hears a woodpecker and we stop to listen and to take in our surroundings. It is a partly sunny day and since we are in the woods we can just glimpse the sky through the canopy of redwoods around and above us. We sink into thick presence and feeling of the grove and Jack continues…)
The two words that come to mind right now are weight and space. There is the weight of these trees, their physical presence and their energy fields – they’re massive. And then paradoxically there is this space where I feel connected to the physical trees through the air, the openness, I don’t really even want to analyze it I just want to feel it. When I’m in my feeling space that’s what I like best – I feel present and I can feel my five senses are present.
(At this point I ask if he can describe this connection and feeling experience in more detail and he laughs and by way of the following explanation he gives me an impression of what he means)
You see in my work what I do is kind of act like a pied-piper and I say to people come with me into the woods we’re going to do this unusual thing – remove our clothing - which really makes people present for all sorts of reasons that I won’t go into now. And since the pictures are of fine quality, I’m told and like to believe, the people think, ‘oh OK he’s a good artist so this won’t be a waste of my time and he’s not crazy and I do like the woods so this could be fun.’ And most people always report then after the pictures and after being in the woods as a group that, ‘wow, that was wonderful,’ people report having transcendent experiences.
It’s funny I know people will read this interview but I have this resistance to talking and to try to keep putting words to these experiences. I’d rather just be here in the woods having the experience of it rather than talking about it and talking about stuff I did in the past. I’d rather just take people in the woods and say ‘can we just not talk for a while but do whatever you want to do, lie down on the ground, touch the trees, run up the hill, be guided by what moves you’. And I just act as the catalyst.
All of this is my skilful evasion of not answering your question about explaining what goes on for me in this space because I just find it so damned hard to put words to how I feel about this. I’m not much of a poet.
Do you get pictures in your mind more than words?
It’s funny about pictures for me. I’ll look over and see some light hitting something in a certain way and I’ll respond to it and say that’s great and then the next gear, usually automatic, is that there’s a picture.
My girlfriend Amy and I volunteer for an organization – Rancho Raccoon - and we provide foster care for abandoned baby raccoons and feed them until they’re able to be released back into the wild. And I’m totally in love with these raccoons; they actually take me into my heart more quickly than trees do. Trees take me into stillness and presence. Of course those two, as some teachers have taught me, are really the same thing just coming at it from different ways. As I go deep into stillness I come into my heart, and as I go deep into my heart and have feelings of love well up in me I will be brought into stillness.
I’m reminded of another transcendent moment with nature but not with trees. It was at an emotional growth workshop called the Inner Journey Seminars which I’ve done for a number of years and it’s opened me up and changed my life in wonderful ways. It involves a lot of movement and talk and breath work and its very heart centered and safe for 3 days and nights. We were doing this one exercise where we were asked to be very physical in any way we wanted, to move around and yell and expand physically and then we went into meditation, we went inside to connect with our center. A little bit after this we walked to another building and a small group of us were outside on a deck. It was late afternoon and we were looking over hundreds of acres of marshland in Novato, CA.
In the distance there were some phone lines and a huge flock of red winged blackbirds were perched there – they were coming and going and singing and doing their bird-thing. I was so opened up and so joyously happy that I just burst into tears. And all I could do was point and laugh and cry and laugh to the 10 or so other people around me. I was so in love with the birds and the grass and everything around me that I couldn’t really put words to it but I wanted to share it and all I could do was cry and laugh and point at these amazing birds. And then the other people around me also opened up and I could tell they were getting a contact high from my own experience of this deep joy.
(The trees and the light behind me capture Jack’s attention and he points out the beauty of this late sun and wind on the bay laurels and redwood trees and he says it sounds to him like they are singing. The play of shadow and sun creates a depth of vision that draws his eye but then he says, “it’s not a photo but I really like looking at this.”)
Do you come here often to meditate?
I do meditate but it’s not a formal daily occurrence. I run by here everyday and I always stop briefly here to be in this space. And a few times I’ve come up here with a group of friends and there is something magical about groups with a similar intention who share coming to the woods and sitting silently for 45 minutes or an hour and it builds that meditative energy with the group and also inside of me. So I love doing it alone and I love doing it in groups as well. Nature is my major connection to the non-rational. I feel peaceful here.
You speak a little bit about your attraction to trees in your website and I wonder if there is a moment you can point to that moved you in such a way that actually took you on a different course in life?
Yes. I was hiking in Marin at age 42 and came upon this magnificent ancient oak tree that I still call the grandmother tree and I was incredibly moved by it and said ‘oh my God I want to make a picture of this amazing tree’. I’ve hiked before and seen many magnificent trees before but I looked at this beautiful thick gnarled tree and thought I want to put people up there. I wanted to for scale and for drama. I’d done nudes before but I hadn’t done any in nature until that time. The previous ones were fun and adventurous but not heartfelt. And when I saw this tree I opened up emotionally with this tremendous connection and what I’ve been asking people to do in trees is often what I want to be doing in trees myself. You know, embracing them or doing something dynamic or dramatic with my body. And what later would become The TreeSpirit Project began with two couples that I had worked with before, and that was successful which led to a second shoot at the grandmother tree with eleven people and it took off from there.
I haven’t been there recently but I went to that tree maybe 75 times or more. Taking people there or film crews or arborists or I would just go by myself to meditate. A couple years ago there were some big storms with lots of rain and maybe a third of her trunk just sheared away and fell. And I’m pretty sure she had sudden oak disease too. She was probably 300 years old and I felt this conundrum of feeling very sad about her but then knowing that this is the life cycle, everything dies and she lived a long time so why should I be sad?
(I thank Jack for his time and we end our interview)