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Commentary: Finding spirituality in your surroundings

Fred Jones-Heather.jpeg
Fred Jones
courtesy image

The last few days have been cold, like the winters I remember as a kid growing up in the rolling hills of southern Ohio. While most people dislike cold and overcast weather, I love it. I know that I am probably one of the few who does and I blame this in part of my DNA. My people come from chilly, gloomy places. I have red hair and blue eyes, which according to researcher Mark Elgar from the University of Melbourne in Australia, is the rarest color combination of all for humans. Around 17 percent of people have blue eyes, and when combined with 1-2 percent who have red hair, the odds of having both traits are around 0.17 percent. That’s a little over 13 million people, out of the 8 billion currently inhabiting the earth.

Macomb and McDonough County have their fair share of this population, which means that many of our ancestors came from the same region of the world and eventually made this place home. And where did our ancestors come from? The Celtic Isles and northern Europe of course.

The World Population Review reports that the Celtic Isles have the highest concentration of red-haired, blue-eyed people in the world, because this genetic combination works best for Vitamin D production in sun-starved regions of the world. The paler you are, the more vitamin D you can absorb. Red hair is associated with fair skin due to the lower melanin concentration and this has advantages as more vitamin D can be absorbed. My body and those like it are able to produce more Vitamin D, even with limited exposure to the ultraviolet B rays from the sun. Thus, as humans, we have adapted over time to fit the landscape we inhabit.

Just as my body and those of my ancestors adapted to the landscape over time, so too have I come to love the quiet, open beauty of the plains of Forgottonia. Professor Emeritus Fred Jones has been studying and painting this landscape since he came to Macomb from Wales in 1968. And while the landscape of Jones' youth is strikingly different from the flatlands of Forgottonia, his work reveals a surprising link between the Illinois prairie and the landscape of Wales, furthering his long-held interest in the spirituality one can find in nature.

As Joseph Campbell, a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College, wrote “Your sacred space is where you find yourself again and again.”

We all live in a specific place on the planet, and where we live impacts, in visible and not so visible ways, the ways that we interact with the world, with other people, and with our internal self. As a child raised in forest covered hills, the openness of the prairie seemed empty to me at first, until I really looked and experienced it with my full being. For me there is also something spiritual about the landscape I currently inhabit. Fred’s landscapes capture this sentiment.

Fortunately for all of us in this region, the work of Fred Jones is currently on display at The Hub Arts and Cultural Center in Rushville. His show, “The Spiritual and Sublime in Nature’ is an ecological statement about the natural world. It features a collection of artworks, essays, and statements. It is his hope that these works will leave viewers thinking about the landscape we inhabit in new ways.

As Jones wrote in his “encounters with landscape” portfolio, "By exploring dynamic themes, such as seasonal changes, light fluctuations, weather patterns and plant cycles, I am trying to reflect a sense of time and sacred reality that was part of human life for thousands of years before the conventions of calendar and clock."

The show at the Hub runs through February 24, 2023.

I hope that you will enjoy some of the work that Fred has created over many decades that is on display in this show. Take time to really sink into the paintings and photographs. Regardless of whether we view the natural world from afar or up close, in the words of poet Mary Oliver, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.