Just as I cross the border from Canada into the States, the sun emerges from the lake on my right… It’s beautiful, and I’m early. I stop for a coffee with a sunrise view, then drive leisurely along little country roads enjoying the farms and the stunning colours of autumn in Washington state. Yellows, oranges, reds… trees right now in ochre hues, I muse… pigments breaking down, oxidation of tannins in the leaf turning these brown soon enough. I sing to myself as I’m happy. In fact, I’m as excited as if meeting a long lost friend, yet have never set eyes on Heidi Gustafson, the lady waiting for me in a little wooden cabin in the woods… which I will hopefully find at the end of a dirt road. It’s all a little mysterious and so improbable too! My being in this place so far from home(s), her willingness to meet me whom she doesn’t know and the connection also. When I began understanding a few years ago that Instagram could actually link me with like-minded/interested strangers I soon came across Heidi’s elegant posts… beautiful images, soulful sharings. Among all of us pigment lovers, she stood out as a full-time devotee!
It was never quite clear to me what she actually did though…
It seemed she was creating an archive of ochres from all around the world.
She was obviously researching and documenting these and ochres in general –their role in our lives then, and now.
That was the bit I could tell the customs officer about my visit to the USofA.
The rest, I tell only you… and hope I’ve done it justice!
What began the quest was but a simple dream of a pile of rocks in an unknown landscape.
Powerful enough, though, to lure Heidi to seek them. While synchronicity in awake time would take care, in the next days, of giving her more precise GPS instructions to… a supermarket parking lot!
There she encountered not only ochres hiding in pockets all over a colonized, destroyed Ohlone quarry but, in a nearby church playground, the huge boulders with ancient mortar holes where these were ground…. in this hole red, that one orange, that one brown!
Foraging since, samples of her finds always come home with her and now sit on the shelves, attentive, vibrant… nothing like an old, dusty collection of dead rocks! These keep interesting company too, as friends and strangers forward to her an ever-growing collection of colourful Earths from all over. Heidi greets them like admired friends and introduces them to me: feel how gritty this one is, how greasy this one, and all these from Australia that dusty feeling at the surface that’s very specific… That one, so different on each side, reflects two quite distinct states of iron: dehydrated up there, probably still in water down here. I admire in a tray a display of all of those she brought back from the last workshop she offered. From the same ochre site, really? Yes, a powerful site will usually offer ever so many hues.
Sometimes Heidi crushes them with mortar and pestle into particles… if she hears the permission to do so, and not particularly to turn them into paints or something ‘useful’. When that happens, she notes that the connection to place is profoundly altered, altogether lost sometimes.
Yet, from all the marks on the wall, I gather she cannot resist dipping her rust-covered finger into water and leave an imprint of the connection… for the record, and beauty’s sake.
Mostly though, Heidi creates ‘meetings’ of ochres between themselves and opens spaces where mortals can interact with them too, physically and spiritually.
To follow her, even in thought, you and I must enter the realm of the ineffable, the mystical even perhaps. Nothing feels to me obscure or occult there though. In fact, quite the opposite, as a comprehension incredibly direct, obvious, emerges –yet coming from so so far away in time and space, it might be hard to hear in our busy world. Which is why perhaps she has chosen to retire, as shamans do (and perhaps ocheresses too!), on the periphery of the clan, outside the daily bustle of human activity.
You listen, some subtle body ‘hears’, you respond… The link is reciprocal of course, clarifies the ore whisperer, as she has been called. Intercessor, interpreter, She who dialogues with the ochres also gets close to the ground to make her demand and waits there for instruction and permission from the ancient ones, the guardians of the land, to disturb a piece of Earth. She says she knows not precisely who or what they are these vigilantes: animals, human spirits, the rocks themselves, an indefinable energy… but she obeys them.
The red of minimum, realgar or cinnabar, their lead, arsenic and mercury are not for this girl, however. Her affinity is with the ochres, all the natural iron oxides of our planet, which traditionally were the only ones used. For these ores are primarily iron which contains oxygen.*
Crush some red ochre (always our collective favourite yet in this case chosen for its highest iron content), then wet your pigment. I would be surprised if you do not notice immediately that strong smell which reminds you of… now, what is it again? Oh yes, of course… blood! The invisible link is there… Today we have forgotten or discarded what every People has always known, that Gaia, our biological mother, is made of the same stuff as us: iron, oxygen.
Dust to dust one day all for sure, but, meanwhile pulsing along those bloodlines, heart to heart! Because if God used earth, Adama, to make ‘man’, She called the one who would walk that Earth, Adam, another Hebrew word, synonymous to but also meaning “to be red”. A good name in truth, as red earth has indeed been our companion since the beginning of ‘woman’ and ever since… Ceremonies, circles, initiations, on our skins all the way into the sepulchre. These ancient ones our protectors and, Heidi believes, translators of the invisible, the imagination, of the inner to the outer… all of us who can hear… responding to the same Universe-drum!
I’m personally very touched by her bricolage-assemblages. I love the colours of course, and the trays remind me of those other wooden ones, still found sometimes, in whose little compartments metal types were sorted by letter and other typeset characters. Except that here, ochres in their primordial language combine to make, maybe not words or sentences but, perhaps some sense of this crazy world… somehow!
To the question, Heidi replies that she sees herself as an artist, yes. Proof is… she works with pigments! We laugh, and she admits that although trained as one, has even taught, she was always pretty unconventional. I’m hardly surprised to learn later in her Bio she moved to the Bay Area to get an MA in Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies! Had to check their website of course and why was I not astonished either to read that the program she followed “aims to shape the leadership necessary for profound, progressive transformation of social institutions and individual consciousness.”
The call came in 2012, but Heidi began working with ochres in earnest about four years ago. For these last years that has been the program: foraging, researching, connecting… But it seems she’s now ready to expose herself and her work somewhat more –ochre consciousness might have a role to play, now, in the activation of a new form of consciousness. Yet, always, first and foremost her duty is the be the protector of the ochres, she stresses.
I somehow sensed Heidi was on the gentle red path to bring about a New (Iron) Age… I share my feelings and –between two giggles– we agree this one had better be somewhat more feminine!
Later, back home, on the day I write this portrait of her, I come across a poem which so moved me some months ago I wrote down its first lines… it feels like an echo of this very unique lady’s soul work…
There is nothing for you to say. You must
Learn first to listen. Because it is dead
It will not come to you of itself, nor would you
Of yourself master it. You must therefore
Learn to be still when it is imparted,
And, though you may not yet understand, to remember.
Merwin “Learning a dead language”
I do hope all this sounds as deeply crazy, incredible, authentic and exciting to you as it does to me!
And you may say I’m a dreamer…
but obviously… I’m not the only one…
Heidi’s website answers to the bridging name of earlyfutures.com Check it out, it’s beautiful… You can also link there to her should you wish to make an Earth donation, support her archive or even sponsor a pigment!
* Note for those who have an interest: Iron, extremely abundant in the universe, is with oxygen one of the two principal elements of Earth itself. The heart of Gaia, its inner core, is near solid iron, present also in the mantle and crust, while the liquid, outer, core is composed of iron alloyed with around 15% lighter elements. Iron is also a biologically essential component of every living organism. Yet, paradoxically, when it comes in contact with oxygen, iron forms insoluble oxides, which you can admire on Heidi’s shelves but most organisms cannot assimilate. Approximately three billion years ago, it was the organisms of cyanobacteria, that thrived on soluble iron, who generated the oxygen in the atmosphere that solidified the iron they needed!
Over time, a variety of mechanisms at the cellular level evolved, however, to capture and use the needed iron, including in the human body, which requires iron for the synthesis of, amusingly, its oxygen transport proteins, in particular, haemoglobin and myoglobin.