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X: Lazarus

The past several mornings, the spring winds have receded and begun to give way to summer fogs. The thick fog heralds the arrival of my favorite season; the season of my birth when the sun reaches the apex of its journey across the sky of the northern hemisphere. The inland heat, combined with the prevailing northwest wind, draws moisture up and inward from off of the surface of the Pacific ocean.

Photograph of morning sunrise through thick fog on Black Hill in Morro Bay by bioregional fine artist Derek Schultz
Deep in the fog world

Ten years ago I awoke on a morning not unlike this and set out to climb Valencia Peak, Cerro Pecho, the nearest holy mountain to my home. I felt like absolutely dying; I was overcome with a terrible alcohol hangover. But I was also overcome with a feeling of knowing that I had to climb the mountain that day, so I made the ascent despite my reeling and protesting nervous system. As I sat overlooking the vast blue Pacific, my spirit was quenched with the balm of resolution. This was it. This was the last time. I knew that the road I'd been walking was a road to misery for myself and everyone around me, and ultimately an early death.

View of native scrub habitat in Montaña De Oro State Park by bioregional fine artist Derek Schultz

That was the last time I drank alcohol, a demon which had been plaguing me from my youth. At first it hadn't seemed much like a demon, but the mask came off gradually and the true face was ugly to behold.

It took me longer than it should have to arrive at the correct decision, but with key support from my former drinking buddy Ian, who was now with me on the newfound path of sobriety, I was able to stay the course. Immediately things started changing; a new lifestyle began emerging and slowly evolving. Change came which, perhaps, had been inhibited prior to the spring of 2012.

Derek and Ian in the oaks. Photograph by Jesse Clark.

For years, under the project plan of our newly formed band Murk Rider, we had our own sobriety meetings in the middle of the night on the shores of the Pacific ocean. We would walk the sand dunes for hours under moonlight or dark stars, finding shelter in the nocturnal landscape. Our conversations returned continually to the topic of fear. What is fear? Why do we have fear? What is the meaning of fear? Can fear heal us rather than harm us? For, of course, alcohol is not literally a demon, but merely a tool of annihilation used by those of us who are consumed by their own fear.

Screenshot from the film Onibaba, showing a hannya demon mask with the quote "Do you refuse?"

We swam in the cold ocean in utter darkness. We climbed upon ledges above waterfalls, peering over vast gulfs that sang out with terrifying vertigo. We meditated on fear and death in the name of understanding the treasure we'd won back from the dragon of our selves: the value and beauty of life. We talked with our friends about their fears. We tried to heal one another.

I remember a foggy morning when I met with my former drinking buddy Ian, now a heroic self-healer in sobriety, to drink some coffee, perhaps before surfing. We were under the gum trees at Morro Strand, deep in the thick fog world, and he was playing a CD in his car which immediately enchanted me. It was a collection of Peruvian pan flute music, and something about it struck a chord deep within me. It recalled the deep rolling fogs and steep green mountainsides of Werner Herzog's Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes. Scenery which links in my mind to the landscape of my own home, the imported gum trees lining the lush canyons of the Irish Hills above the Los Osos valley.

There was something achingly joyful in this music. Joy to the point of transcendence which dovetailed precisely with my newfound emotion in sobriety: the feeling that I was not condemned, that I was not doomed to a fate of my own making. I had made a choice which I once thought had long passed me by, and the chance to grasp again at life filled me with a heartfelt happiness unlike any other. I still had a chance.

The record was by the band Llaqtaymata, and it's still gloriously sacred to me to this day. Its best songs manage to convey an intense joy which can only be born of a deep wound, a sweetness grown out of what is most bitter. The album's beauty is difficult to describe, but I immediately linked it to a celebration of my sobriety, to the summer fog of my homeland, to sipping delicious black coffee, to the Eucalyptus trees and the Pacific ocean.

We sipped our coffee and laughed together.

For many months after this, my life was a grand adventure of learning how to go forth and explore the world as a young sober person. I am forever grateful for the camaraderie of my friends who joined me during that era of high adventure, when Murk Rider was touring and playing music up and down the coast.

During that time I was digging heavily through religious symbolism for inspiration. I had studied world religions in college, never having been a religious person, but instead viewing these teachings from ancient cultures as interesting anthropological studies and fascinating sources for allegory, metaphor, and visual symbolism. They still serve that function for me today, but in 2014 or so I was deep in a world of sifting through ancient Christianity, looking for gnosis, for bits of wisdom and usable pieces of visual culture which I could digest.

Of course, music was an anchor throughout this entire part of my life, as it had been from my earliest youth. And, because of my emotional state and taste at the time, the bands Sleep and Om became the binary star at the center of my musical solar system.

I had been avidly listening to both of these bands since early college days in Santa Cruz, but now they took on an entirely new level of meaning for me. I wasn't interested in the bong-worshipping aspect of Sleep as much as I was interested in the idea that any subject matter could take on the tonality of intense religious devotion, if given the correct aesthetic setting. Sleep were recreating all of the ritual aspects of religion, only with their focus laser-sighted on cannabis consumption and Black Sabbath. Weed and Black Sabbath had gotten me there in the first place when I was in college, but that's not all there is to the band; there's something deeper going on both musically and philosophically. Now I had become interested in the deeper cultural and aesthetic implications at hand.

This interest segued neatly into listening to a lot of Om, the more overtly-spiritual and far less weed-themed musical career follow-up to Sleep. Om explores a huge swath of religious symbols, embracing Eastern traditions side by side with gnostic references to the bible. The structure of the vocals echoes a particular three-note style of Buddhist chanting just as strongly as it echoes early-career three-note Ozzy Osbourne.

These bands became the soundtrack to my early years of sobriety. I had found a musical celebration of what is divine in life. I spent my down time reading the Bible, reading the Upanishads, reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead, looking over byzantine and other orthodox icon paintings, and listening to these records which to me carried that rare emotional tenor of transcendental positivity.

Newgrange at summer solstice

As I pored over the myths and symbols, I became fixed in particular on Lazarus, no doubt a powerful symbolic figure to many people across the world. Lazarus is the hero who reversed his fate, who returned from beyond the realm of death. The mythological figure of Jesus Christ is of course central to these New Testament allegories, but Lazarus was the first icon of resurrection.

Orthodox Christian icon painting of Lazarus emerging from the tomb
The resurrection of Lazarus

I believe deeply in the power of encoding meaning within visual symbols. To me, perhaps the most aesthetically refined artworks are the bas-relief carvings of the ancient Egyptians. I had the fantastic joy of seeing many of their creations in person at the Louvre museum in Paris in 2017. Their work was never intended to be seen as a photorealistic depiction of the world. Instead, it was a graphic layout of encoded cultural meanings, similar to a map or a body of text. It exists somewhere in between, but always with highest attention paid to the aesthetic settings of the symbols repeatedly depicted and recombined into new structures. Orthodox Christian art uses visual depiction in a similar way, and now I was deep in a tradition of music doing something very similar with its internal aesthetic policies.

Photograph of Egyptian art bas-relief vultures at the Louvre museum by bioregional fine artist Derek Schultz

It is this non-literal aesthetic framework I attempt to incorporate into my art now. If I can create just the right aesthetic setting for my subject, perhaps I can depict the impossible to depict: the numinous, the sacred.

Ten years have passed since those early days of adventure and questing. Many things have changed in my life, but the root inspirations are still there. My quest for transcendental aestheticism has paralleled my quest for transcendental joy, and together they have led me back to my first loves: the visual arts and the outdoors. I am grateful to be here, to be surrounded by people and forces far greater than myself, from whom I can learn to be a better steward of the truly sacred: the living world around us.

Photograph of Black Hill in Morro Bay in morning fog, by bioregional fine artist Derek Schultz

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, on the Big Sur coast by Derek Schultz

Now each year, when the spring winds of change die back and the thick summer fog world is reborn on the California coast, I think of Lazarus. I think of the fogs of South America, and I hear pan flutes playing in my head. I am reminded of adventures, and I am proud of my sobriety, my choice to embrace life rather than retreat in fear along a road of death.

Lazarus advance the flight to freedom.

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