Reprinted with permission from Atlantis Rising
by Jeane Manning
The mystery in the Alvord desert hit TV newscasts years ago, but the story behind it contains ideas whose time may have come. Since ancient times, art has been a doorway to other levels of life. Could art now assist us toward a more harmonious level? The untold story sparks such questions.
An Air National Guard reconnaissance pilot flying over a remote part of the southeast-Oregon desert in September of 1990 spotted a huge, perfectly-made geometric design on an old lake bed. Experts identified it as a Sri Yantra, symbol for the mother spirit of nature, venerated in India. This was the first time it had been drawn at a scale of nearly one-quarter-mile across. A closer look showed no tire tracks or footprints, so some excitedly claimed that aliens made it. Newspapers from coast to coast carried aerial photos, and television stations beamed it to the world.
When the hubbub forced artist Bill Witherspoon of Iowa to come forward and set the record straight, he was met with disbelief. He claimed that he and a few friends carved the design on the salt flat with a man-pulled plow! An architectural expert said that was impossible; it would have required sophisticated surveying equipment and cost at least $100,000. Regardless, a government bureau fined Bill $100 for unauthorized use of public land. Other angry voices accused him of cultural appropriation, defacing the environment or hoaxing a crop circle. What’s the true story of why artists toiled in the scorching heat?
Mark Paul Petrick, an art teacher who helped with the project, wrote in the Fairfield, Iowa, newspaper that the group didn’t seek publicity but wanted to find out if the ancient symbol would enliven local laws of nature in some perceptible way.
Apparently it did. The next year Bill Witherspoon and helpers created larger land art — a half-mile- across, then the following year a singing-wire design with 1,111 salvaged pine poles, followed by a geometrical forest-planting, agricultural experiments and saving a town’s green space from developers. Conclusions from these experiments are relevant to today’s consciousness studies and even to an anti-corporatization activists’s combining of spirals and intent to empower protesters. (Starhawk writes about activisim and earth-based spirituality in Webs of Power, New Society Publishers, 2002.)
Bill’s interest is in new science, rather than magic. I first met him in 1997 at a gathering in Los Angeles, where he spoke passionately about the web of nature and its underpinnings in a deeper reality. He has calm intensity, and ability to juggle varied projects. Bill earlier co-founded Westbridge Research Group, a biotechnology company that develops nontoxic products for agriculture. Later he tackled the hazards of genetically modified foods, traveled the world on that mission and now is back to exploring art-as-technology.
Bill had long been attuned to the deep silence of desert landscapes. For instance as a young man he had spent months alone painting watercolors or clouds as they formed high over an escarpment that rose 4000 feet above the desert floor. It involved the physics of paper, water flow and pigments, and the artist as a joyful witness to nature’s formative forces.
The year before the Sri Yantra, he lived in his studio/bus on the high desert of Oregon while painting. One day he sketched an intriguing geometric form. Instead of inserting it into a painting, he impulsively gathered small rocks from the desert floor to build his design on the ground surrounding his bus. He tied ropes and twine for measuring, plotted directions in harmony with the sun’s passage, and placed rock cairns in exact lines among the sagebrush. The symmetrical form was about sixty yards across. Even though its totality was not visible in the bushes, Bill felt a subtle difference when inside it. The energetic effect was especially strong in its centre, where he meditated daily.
To his surprise, over the next few months, several hundred wild creatures were attracted into the rock boundaries. This contrasted with the previous year, when for six months he only saw a few kangaroo rats and birds. Now golden foxes slept by his door in the afternoon. Owls and rabbits hopped around unconcerned about each other. Water ouzels appeared, far from their habitat. Twenty or more jack rabbits at a time walked upright in the confines of the rock lines, and antelope strolled into camp to look at Bill. He wondered how much of this unusual behavior was due to the scarcely-visible rock pattern and how much to the presence of human consciousness at its center.
When he returned to the Midwest with a load of small rocks, he mounted them in concrete columns in an art gallery and added chalk lines, for a three-dimensional replica of his desert design. Visiting school children piled into the centre of the design although there was more sitting space outside it. Adults lingered and commented that the place felt good. Bill researched traditional designs and found one nearly identical to his. An obscure Sanskrit text, the Vastu Sutra Upanishad, said the design was to be put on stone blocks as a guide before carving sacred images, so the finished image would attract the consciousness of the deity.
A friend asked Bill to make a Sri Yantra. After months of library research and speaking with people from its spiritual tradition, Bill made one with gold and transparent pigments. In India the design was described as an occurrence, rather than symbol, of the deepest laws and forces of Mother Divine. This fit with Bill’s view of creation as structured in layers – increasingly simpler, more abstract and more powerful the deeper you go. In his view the surface of life is the expression of underlying subtler layers.
Back in the desert, inside his 60-yard-across design, he wondered what it would be like to live in a Sri Yantra. The central part of such a form, the bindu, is left open and said to be “unmanifest and pure, the source of creation”. A bindu large enough to live in would require a huge land area to keep proportions correct.
Undeterred, that summer Bill, a group of friends and his son drove west to a dry lake bed. They chose the Oregon site because of its beauty and remoteness, and because inscribing the alkali surface woudn’t disturb vegetation. Wind and the rare flood would eventually erase it.
The first time Bill drove to the valley to set up camp, when he stopped to open a barbed-wire gate he saw an adult golden eagle on the gate post. The eagle looked at him, swished its tail until a feather dropped, and flew away. Bill drove the backroad many times, but the eagle never reappeared until the day Bill packed up for the drive home. It sat on the same gate post, waited for the man to get out of his bus, again looked at him, swished its tail several times until a feather dropped, and flew off.
During the arduous weeks of making the Sri Yantra, the group daily walked several miles from camp to the work site rather than use vehicles. Instead of expensive surveying tools, they used sun shadows, ancient prinsiples of geometry, long wires, binoculars, flags and sharpened poles. To inscribe the lines, three crew members pulled the garden cultivator while a fourth steered. They reverently etched a quarter-mile-across Sri Yantra onto forty acres. It contained more than thirteen miles of lines, four inches deep.
As soon as they finished plowing the last line, rain clouds began collecting in the southern sky. An hour later high winds and lightning swept the area. A downpour chose that one valley, drawing envious comment from a nearby rancher who wanted rain. It dissolved footprints and left the design varnished like a completed painting.
After the crew went home, Bill stayed for several weeks, meditating in different parts of the design. His inner experiences changed consistently and repeatedly from one part to another, especially from the nine-foot center to a few feet from its boundary.
A few weeks after he returned to Iowa, the National Guard discovered the design. Days passed while Bill, immersed in preparing for an art exhibit, didn’t hear about their discovery. Later, he realized that the day the design appeared on millions of television screens was the day his plodding work pace suddenly speeded up into round-the-clock prolific painting. At the time he couldn’t understand why he felt hyper-energized. Then a friend phoned to tell him that everyone was talking about the design. Could his inner connection to it have been enlivened by the focused attention, even though he didn’t consciously know what was happening?
Bill wanted to remain anonymous, but the rapidly growing misconceptions bothered him. He paced the floor until deciding to speak out publicly. Immediately an inner nudge urged him outside. Directly above his rural Iowa home, fourteen bald eagles circled, and he recalled the eagle feathers dropped from the gatepost like gifts. A year later a Vedic scholar told him about a rare ceremony to honor the Divine Mother. It is considered successful only if an eagle appears.
The next year, there seemed to be an inverse correlation between the gradual disappearance of the Sri Yantra design and increased vitality in the desert valley. He wondered if the effect is like homeopathy, where increased dilution imparts increasing strength of subtle energies. Later he would use that principle, burying fragile paper artworks in fields when helping Iowans who wanted a ceremony to honor the life force of their land. One farmer changed afterward toward organic farming.
In 1993 the Sri Yantra was gone from the surface of the lake bed. Within what had been its boundaries and more dramatically in the center, compacted alkaline silt and salts had expanded to something more like loose, crumbly soil. Apparently a population explosion of natural soil microorganisms caused the beneficial changes.
Bill’s half-mile design that followed the Sri Yantra was on a dry lake bed on private land, and made of nine miles of trenches filled with red volcanic rocks with the help of a tractor and other loaned equipment. Although the design drew on Vedic and Native American elements, it wasn’t meant to be a cultural expression, Bill said, but rather to correspond to forces of nature that support many cultures. The host rancher and his family experienced unusual abundance for a time afterward – from triplets to a beneficial microclimate.
Does art have to be seen to be experienced? Bill once made two similar window-like paintings. On the back of one, he placed a traditional geometric design and carefully inscribed a sacred text – 1000 names of the Divine Mother – in tiny handwriting. The two paintings were hung on opposite walls along with twenty other works. He invited a group of blind people to spend a day in the gallery. They said peacefulness seemed to come from one painting – the one with the hidden design and text. Another day, school children picked various paintings as favorites. Then they were told about the sightless people, but not which painting was involved. The children were asked to sit quietly and close their eyes, and afterward choose based on what they felt rather than saw. Unanimously they chose the painting that hid the geometry and text.
When we give attention to a painting, the artist’s consciousness embedded in the artwork is recreated in our awareness through resonance or entrainment, Bill says. “The more Being was lively in the artist’s experience, the greater is the experience of Being in the observer.” Therefore an original gives the viewer a much more profound experience than even the best reproduction. Further, when you experience a work of art, the consciousness that radiates from it and the physiological state that corresponds to that consciousness are enlievened and amplified in you. It may even “take your breath away”.
The reverence with which Bill creates leads to another question. Which has more influence – the consciousness of the artist, or certain geometrical shapes?
In 1995 two people in a car near Oceanside, California, watched a double-spiral cloud rising several thousand feet into the sky. It was so unusual that they exited the freeway and drove to where they thought the cloud would touch ground. They found a barefoot group with Bill Witherspoon in the middle, completing a ceremony. It was part of a peace gathering hosted by novelist Victor Villasensor. The travelers learned that Bill had cut a fire-killed pine several months previously, polished it into a 20-foot ceremonial pole, wrote sacred text on it and glued ascending and descending spirals of gold leaf on it according to a mathematical formula. The group had buried the pole vertically in a deep hole with a nest of flake mica (an insulating material) and a six-foot diameter traditional design out of copper circling a faceted ruby on the tip of the pole. More mica, earth and new grass covered it all. Later, Bill wondered if the combination of elements could have become a transducer modulating subtle energy, perhaps producing an influence that went deep into the earth and even deeper into space.
He concludes that a wide range of man-made geometric structures could affect us. “Our cities are filled with flowing streams of energy, roads or water or electrical distribution systems that are geometrically arranged. What are the influences we unwittingly create? With deliberate design, could we have more creative places?” Hospitals and prisons could be less stressful. Parks could have a deeper silence with properly-designed plantings and sculptural elements, he says. With art and ceremony, agriculture could honor the forces of nature that enhance food production.
Bill Witherspoon’s adventures and his vision of meaningful designs, of interactions between geometries, human consciousness and the rest of nature, could fill a book.
Note: After interviewing Bill Witherspoon and associates, Jeane Manning saw his life as a compelling journey. She is
writing a book with the working title Nature Speaks.
Bill Witherspoon’s new website is www.theskyfactory.com