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Completing the Circle: Earth

Betty Bright

Karen Wirth’s Continental Drifting was also inspired by a cross-country journey, but one whose ultimate destination changed from geographic to political. Wirth’s journal entries are handwritten as borders along the book’s length. Her entries define and explain her personal pilgrimage as a tourist in the national parks. Searching for writings by early pioneers, Wirth discovers that the male viewpoint of the wilderness dominates a tourist’s experience. Caught in the Manifest Destiny fever, the men’s accounts fill the shelves of the tourists shops, “…heroic tales written by men on the pioneer trails…[all of which] began with the word ‘I.’” Wirth’s research leads to the stories of early pioneer women, many of whose writings are now in obscure, out-of-print volumes. Strikingly unlike the men, the women’s diaries are framed from the shared perspective of “we,” which illustrates the care and thoughtfulness they bring to elucidating their relationship to the wilderness. Honoring their wisdom, Wirth’s handwriting carries the women’s voices into her map’s topography, which snakes across the gridded surface in the shape of rivers, or floats above it in boxed excerpts. The women’s voices listen to and move with the landscape, rather than seek to conquer it, such as Kristjana Gunnars, who observes, “It is in the grasses. Even the strange ones communicate a certain feeling, a sense of open-mindedness about time and history.” The book encourages a seamless, circular access: there is no top or bottom, front or back. Like any personal, mythic journey, we end back where we began, yet transformed by Wirth’s redrawing of the attitudes which shaped the early American wilderness.

First published in the exhibition catalog Completing the Circle: Artists’ Books on the Environment, curated by Betty Bright, for Minnesota Center for Book Arts, March 7-May 23, 1992