Owed to The Mountain
12.5 × 12.5 in. closed
Single-section softcover pamphlet
Digital inside with letterpress cover
Owed to The Mountain is a lavish tribute to Mt. Hood, which, on clear days, is still visible from Portland, where artist Diane Jacobs resides. The years-long project includes three versions of the book — an elaborate sculptural box set, a fine press edition, and a longer-run, digitally printed edition. This review will address the digitally printed version, whose exceptional production quality leaves little to be desired. Jacobs presents a kaleidoscopic view of Mt. Hood by transcribing and illustrating stories from indigenous people in the area, ranging from minimalist myths to conversational oral histories. Each story stands on its own, but together they form a longer arc about reciprocity and healing. In the title’s playful homonym, Jacobs sets a new standard for fine press publishing in the Anthropocene. She presents not just poetry, but a call to action.
Before focusing on the digitally printed edition of Owed to The Mountain, it is worth addressing some features of the sculptural version. Inside each of the four sides of the box is a print depicting Mt. Hood from one of the four cardinal directions. The box unfolds into a square cross with these four views surrounding a cast paper model of the mountain. The mountain comprises three nested layers, representing different geological strata. The book per se — or, at least, the printed codex — slips out from beneath the model mountain. This brief description leaves out numerous features of the deluxe edition, which raises interesting (but here unanswered) questions about the ontological boundaries of “the book.” Nevertheless, the digitally printed version I am reviewing retains many of the same themes in its structure and layout.
Even without a sculptural reading environment centered around a three-dimensional Mt. Hood, the book’s physical form echoes the mountain. The book is square, its four even sides referencing the four seasons, which play out within, and the four directions, each of which Jacobs renders with a different print process. While the tactile subtleties of these print techniques, ranging from relief processes to lithography and screen printing, are no doubt lost, the digital production preserves remarkable detail and visual texture. Rather than remaking the book digitally, Jacobs has created a facsimile of the fine press edition. The resolution of the scanning and printing is so high that the letterpress-printed text remains crisp and there is a discernible difference between the original book’s various papers, although the digital version is printed on the same stock throughout.
Though simple, the book’s engineering also contributes to its success. The nine-hole pamphlet stitch keeps the book stable, and the paper drapes nicely without feeling delicate. At over two feet wide, the book is best read at a table, and fortunately lays open completely flat. Its large size makes it hard to take in the imagery at the same time as the text, lending it the feeling of a children’s book whose text is meant to be read aloud to someone who is enjoying the images. This orality seems especially well suited to the texts, which are transcribed from spoken word. The conversational, sometimes stream-of-consciousness quality of the stories emphasizes the vital present-ness of the indigenous storytellers. Though originally hand set in metal type, the stories in Owed to The Mountain are unfussy and contemporary — from a pandemic parable by a seventeen-year-old to the wide-ranging reflections of a Paiute Elder.
Just as Jacobs approaches the mountain from all four directions and peels back the layers of its unseen history, she joins the multiple perspectives of her book’s contributors into a cohesive message about the ethics of interconnection. Of course, the bound codex format lends cohesion to the stories, as do the design constraints of hand-set metal type, but it is Jacobs’ illustrations that tie everything together. The book is just long enough to unify its wide variety of media and mark-making while maintaining a sense of variety and surprise.
Animals, printed using solar plates, retain the fluid, transparent quality of Jacobs’ original Sumi ink drawings. Meanwhile their environments, especially the flora, are printed using sharper, more opaque processes. The animals may be rendered more softly, but their gaze is piercing, implicating the reader as an ethical subject. More than any other aspect of the book, the animals moved me to consider my impact on the environment. Yet even as they raise concrete questions about one’s actions in the world, so too does the presence of black and white animals in a color environment create a mythical or imaginary space, perhaps belonging to more than one time.
Indeed, the book’s temporality is spiral more than linear, circling the mountain as Jacobs does. Many of the indigenous stories bridge the inconceivable gap between human and geologic time, which so often stymies climate action. “All the mountains were once people,” begins a story by Myra Johnson-Orange and Átwai Geneva Charley of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. At the same time, we witness the mountain change from one generation to the next, its (mis)management by the US Forest Service and grassroots efforts to encourage youth to become stewards of the land. The idea that we have reached a tipping point where humans must actively manage the environment to avoid catastrophe is not a new one — “Thousands of years ago,” Johnson-Orange reminds us, “…people took care of the earth, so that the animals and birds would have a beautiful and safe place to live and to take care of their families.”
So, when Jacobs labels Owed to The Mountain a call to action, it is because there is still time left to act. It is an ode, not an elegy. And while I must admit that the book left me more contemplative than moved to action, that may just be the result of reading as a reviewer. For her part, Jacobs has committed 2.5 percent of proceeds to the Columbia River Institute for Indigenous Development. It is in this regard — the way Jacobs approached the project — that Owed to The Mountain is a call to action, a gauntlet thrown to other artists and publishers. Jacobs’ philanthropy is commendable, but what really matters is how she enacted the book’s ethics of reciprocity throughout its creation. The stories Jacobs presents are the result of thoughtful collaboration with members of the Warm Springs community, and she is meticulous in her acknowledgements.
One reason I set aside my questions about where “the book” resides amid the various iterations of Owed to The Mountain is that the richness of the relationships that enabled the project, from Jacobs’ collaborations with indigenous storytellers and fellow artists to her connections with the more-than-human world around her, exceeds any book object. If I am moved to action, it is to pursue a publishing practice rooted in reciprocity, one that can only be seen from many perspectives and, even then, never completely.
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