The Summerlands

            My mother and I both sleep very lightly. I think this is probably because we were both very fearful as young children, although my problem was merely that I had an overactive imagination. In the quiet darkness, without any distractions, I would spin yarns of dark fantasy and horror. So as I grew older, I started to stay up late reading in bed, until I got so sleepy I could no longer keep my eyes open. The habit stuck, and today, even waiting until I’m very sleepy doesn’t help me stay asleep. This light way of sleeping feels most natural on warm summertime nights, when crickets sing in the darkness and the sun rises very early. The kind of nights where you move in and out of sleep so easily that it's sometimes impossible to tell if you're really awake.

            This month I've been alternately painting the new nursery, and finishing up my insect/flower pieces. The latest one is about two species that I remember from the countryside in the late summer, in the upstate New York orchard I used to work at, where the best plums only ripened in late August, and grew so ripe they would split while still on the tree, dripping sweet juice. The wasps clustered along the split seams and gorged themselves on nectar, and us farmhands, not wanting to spoil the intact fruit, would eat the split ones, flicking away the wasps with our fingers. The plums were miraculously cool inside on those hot summer afternoons, and I would eat them all day. Late August was also when apple season really got going, and apple picking, sorting, and grading took up most of our time. But I always made time for the plums, and I generally ate them in the company of wasps.

Detail of “Wasp x Plum” (Vespula vulgaris x Prunus spinata). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Detail of “Wasp x Plum” (Vespula vulgaris x Prunus spinata). Ink and watercolor on paper.

            I was a child of secular Jews, which meant that Sunday School was more like cultural education than religious training. In other words, I learned more about the adventures of Noah, Moses and Joseph than I did about existential matters like what happens after we die. As it turns out, even religious Jews don't have much to say about the afterlife, because there is almost nothing about it in the Jewish bible. There is some reference to "Sheol", a place of rest for the righteous and the wicked alike, and rabbinic traditions, influenced by Christianity, added a "World to Come", in which all righteous souls will dwell. Generally, both observant and non-observant Jews focus on earthly existence as the scene of action and good works. Nevertheless, heaven has been of great interest to me, for as long as I can remember.

            Summerland is an idea that originated in 19th century Spiritualism, a religious movement based on communication with the spirits of the dead. The term was coined by Andrew Jackson Davis in 1845. He described the Summerland as a place where "spirits of good will" dwell. They live a semi-corporeal existence, in an environment of great beauty, with greatly magnified senses and perceptions. The Summerland was a version of the Christian heaven: a place of beauty, love, and learning, but more like a civilized Eden than a place of peace and stasis. Davis described it as an idealized earthly existence, with reunited families in their own homes, grand institutions of learning, and a continued life of change and progress. I like the connection between heaven and summers, even though summer isn’t even my favorite season. I like thinking of my light sleep—and maybe all the unpleasant parts of my life—as finally becoming natural and right in the context of a perfect world.

            I don't exactly believe in the existence of the Summerland, or in any of the descriptions of heaven I've found in religious traditions, but I do trust my own ideas about heaven. The human mind is guided by imagined possibilities. We imagine perfection, and are attracted to anything that has characteristics of the world we so badly want to live in. This dream of a perfect world seems to be a phenomenon common to all cultures and eras of human civilization. While it's hard to imagine that there is any universally-shared, perfect version of existence, we certainly have individualized heavens of our own. I believe that these heavens are subtly linked, by our common qualities as human beings.

Some of you might recall I said something similar about art a while back. The experiences art can give us are inherently personal, and inherently connected. Some art is about beauty, some is about visual exploration, some is about a narrative or message, and some art is simply about the process of its creation. Whatever it’s about, it’s always informed by our perfect world, our Summerland—by its structure, or the revolution needed to bring it about, or just the glimmers of it in the real world we see around us every day. Maybe what I’m trying to do by superimposing images is see if the Summerland has any autonomy. Maybe I’m trying to find out, by artificially imposing uncertainty on my own artwork, if a perfect world can create itself.