Image: Sweeping Rena Detrixhe’s Red Dirt Rug (2018). Loose red Oklahoma soil imprinted with modified shoe soles, 650 sq ft, covering the central portion of Philbrook Downtown’s Meinig Gallery. Personal photograph of the author.
Philbrook Downtown smells like a cathedral, like prayers breathed over round stones, and I’m a congregant this Sunday, sweeping Rena Detrixhe’s Red Dirt Rug, learning a new vocabulary for parting. Detrixhe cut shapes from the soles of old shoes, stamped patterns of Okie flora and fauna into the state’s port silt loam. As she worked, she meditated on the hopes of pioneers and boom towns, the griefs of the Trail of Tears, the Tulsa Race Massacre, and the Dust Bowl. Now, at the deconstruction of this garden, I think of how we grow in temporary soil. A neighbor’s bristles sweep across a scissor-tailed flycatcher, return the bird to dust. Port silt loam formed through the weathering of red sandstones, siltstones, and shales during the Permian period, nearly three hundred million years ago. Kneeling on this rug, I watch soil breaking into continents, the squares beneath like an archaeological dig. Biologists studying scissor-tailed flycatchers in Oklahoma said vanishings were not caused by death but emigration. One bird was later resighted ten kilometers from the study site. Before European settlement, drought, fire, and Bison bison shaped the Great Plains, and nest trees were sparse. I spy tiny footprints tracking across the rug, an insect collaborator. I bury one shiny, dead bug in my purse. A scissor-tailed flycatcher’s ease of dispersal may be its own root ball. Before I go, I sink my fingers in a pail of milled, sifted earth. Think of fledglings, their silky down.
Gretchen VanWormer is a 2018-2019 Oklahoma Art Writing & Curatorial Fellow.