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The Bird Runner Art of Betsy Roe

By Margy Stewart
Profile | December 14, 2011

MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - Much of artist Betsy Roe's work centers on the contact zone between humans and other animals. Now Betsy is creating an outdoor installation at Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge, and this time that zone is a bloody one -- the place where animals meet our vehicles on the road.

Betsy! Why are you making us think about this? Roadkill? Yuck! Sad -- but what can we do about it? People aren't going to stop driving and animals aren't going to stop trying to cross the road. So why dwell on it? What's the point?

Betsy's art makes us think of one answer after another.

Cheyenne Bottoms
Betsy's installation is the third in a series that she created in honor of Jan Garton, the renowned Kansas conservationist. Jan's ashes are scattered at Bird Runner, partly on the tall grass prairie and partly among the oak trees along the creek. For ten long years, Jan led the successful battle to preserve Cheyenne Bottoms, the wetlands in Barton County on which half the shorebird population of the western hemisphere depends. Without Jan, that hotspot of biodiversity would today be nothing but a cornfield. And many a stretch of tall grass prairie still waves in the wind because of Jan's fierce defense.

Jan Garton
What sort of memorial could be appropriate for such a person? Betsy knew that the usual monument and plaque were not going to work. She wanted natural materials -- but more than that, she wanted actual natural processes to be part of the work. In all three installations, these processes include not only cycles of growth and death but also recuperative forces, healing powers. So for a location Betsy selected an old brome field that had recently been sown back to native. For materials, she cut down invasive dogwood that was encroaching on the tall grass prairie. She wove the stems into 27 statues, ranging in height from 3 to 30 feet. The figures are enigmatic, human and non-human. They remind visitors of something -- goddesses, elders, mummies, captives, tipis, tombs, infernos, wood sprites, sphinxes, funeral pyres, gnome homes, enchanted thickets -- the associations vary, but everyone agrees on the figures' eery power. Betsy calls the figures "the gals" and invites visitors to adorn them with the seeds of native grasses and wildflowers. These seeds will germinate as the gals decay. Visitors thus participate in the cycle of death and life as well as in the particular restorative process underway at this specific site. Here, where prairie restoration is the goal, the land is slowly breaking the bonds of enforced agricultural monoculture and reclaiming its identity as a self-regulating, self-expressive polyculture. Betsy named this first phase of the memorial "Revival."

Betsy Roe
At the spring equinox last March, Betsy added the second phase. She asked volunteers to choose a place near the gals and lie down on the ground -- like corpses. Then she poured the seeds of native wildflowers around them, outlining their shapes. She called this installation "Etain," for a Celtic figure of transformation. By June, wild gallardia and coreopsis were blooming where the motionless bodies once had been.

Now as the winter solstice approaches, Betsy is designing a third installment. She has fashioned another "gal" adjacent to the first 27. This sculpture is also made of dogwood, but it has a headpiece that forms an open basket, bordered on all sides by upright branches, like Shiva's arms. Beginning December 22, as the days begin to lengthen, these arms will open to receive the bodies of animals killed on the road.

"Roadkill" is a collective noun, where singular merges with plural, appropriately -- for the dead, if not countless, are uncounted, discounted -- classed with other collective nouns -- trash, garbage, waste. Betsy's installation reverses this denigration. Joined by volunteers, Betsy will gather remains from local roads and place them atop the statue. This act resembles ritual sacrifice and casts an ironic light on our society, which accepts the constant sacrifice of animals but denies their lives and deaths what a ritual would impart --meaning.

Referencing Donna Harraway, philosopher Kathy Rudy writes, "Human and non-human animals are enmeshed in a world that requires sacrifice on both parts ... Who and what are forced to make those sacrifices and under what conditions is the [question] work of advocacy, ethics, and politics. But without a sense of ... sacredness, sacrifice has little value."

Betsy's art adds the missing sacredness. And once we enter into that spiritual realm, all of a sudden we can consider what we didn't want to think about before. Just as our society has withheld respect from the animal dead, it has withheld caring about it from us. But once we start to feel , small meanings spring up like bread crumbs through the forest. Yes! There is something we can do. We can share the sacrifice, at least a little bit. We can sacrifice our hurry to drive more slowly; we can sacrifice our self-absorption to scan more carefully both sides of the road, or to stop our cars altogether to help a still intact turtle, frog, or snake across the road.

And we can keep following that trail of meanings.

In fact, don't we use "roadkill" as a metaphor? Jan Garton kept Cheyenne Bottoms from becoming "roadkill" -- but then did she become "roadkill" herself? Jan committed suicide in 2009. Why did she do it? Her heart was attuned to all living creatures, and yet she tried to live in a world in which one species after another was losing its habitat and going extinct. Did it break her heart? Jan was drawn to other women, body and soul, and yet she tried to live in a state that banned gay marriage and went out of its way to do so, in a deliberate act of domination, not too different from the driver that swerves to hit an animal on the road. Did tender-hearted Jan fall under those wheels? I can hear her voice now chiding me from the grave: "Margy, you've got it exactly wrong. I did what I did so I could stay in the driver's seat." Pace, Jan -- I see what you mean. But in addition, I can't help seeing that you couldn't live in a monoculture either, and that you may have found that your habitat, too, was gone.

In their aerial crypt atop the statue, the animals crushed by our machines will be offered back to nature, to whatever scavenging eagle, raccoon, crow, possum, or coyote accepts the offer. Betsy will make available special prairie fabric out of which human visitors may construct messages, gifts, or prayer flags to add to the installation. By opening this channel for interaction, the art helps us rehabilitate our own crippled ability to respond, while allowing us to offer to the animal dead what our society pathologically withholds -- respect, attention, awareness, appreciation, connection.

Betsy calls this third installation "Passage." It invites us to ponder many passages -- from death to life, from waste to use, from indifference to reverence, from impairment to health, from autumn to winter, from identification with machines to kinship with fellow creatures, from technological society to ecological community, from violent swagger to tender humility.

Betsy Roe working on the memorial to Jan Garton


Margy, I'm not artistic enough to understand Betsy's art as you've described it. Neither can I understand how Jan Garton's suicide is a clear message to society to help us understand nature and the environment

What Jan's suicide tells me is that we need to relate to our brothers and sisters in society without judgment of their diversity, if society's judgment was, indeed, what influenced her decision to end her life in hopes of that waking us to the value of nature and all creatures.

Margy, I am thankful the tender hearts - like Jan's, Betsy's, and especially yours.

This was a beautiful piece. Thank you for writing it.

How sad to lose a person like Jan. Your blog memorializes her in a loving way. I often drive on the Kansas Turnpike to visit my family in northeast Kansas and I can hardly bear the sight of all the dead animals on the shoulder. In fact, I once wrote a poem about. No one seems to like my poem, I suppose because it's too sad, but I felt the urge to give something back to the animals whose habitats we have overrun in so many ways.

I do see the relationship between our laws against gay marriage and the loss of animal habitat. We all live in our own habitats and if gays and lesbians can't share the habitat straight people live in, they find themselves in collision with the culture they have to live in. Of course, it's a killing experience. And a sad one.

Thanks for writing this.

I wasn't aware Jan had killed herself. Sorry to learn that. I remember her as a staunch ally in my water activism days. She drove a UPS truck as I recall. Her gender identification was irrelevant to me, but surely she suffered from the attitudes of too many. Margy, your tribute to both Betsy and Jan is powerful. Thank you.

I've never heard of this "Bird runner" place. What and where is it?

Brad, the link to the Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge is provided for readers in the first paragraph above. You can get your own answers to all your own questions that way.

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