Ratfish Wranglers’ skipper, Ray Troll, is hooked on fish-based music, art, nature
Photos and story by Alan Berner, Seattle Times, February 29, 2020
From the In an empty munitions bunker at Fort Worden in Port Townsend, Ray Troll and his band, the Ratfish Wranglers, were rehearsing and recording two songs for an upcoming album. The only light in the old storage space was what spilled through the open, heavy metal doors. The concrete walls provided amplification and resonance.
The battlements used to protect Puget Sound from attack by sea. Obsolete by World War II, the last of the guns were removed never having to fire a shot in war. In 1973, Fort Worden became a state park. The park is now home to Centrum, a gathering place for artists like the Ratfish Wranglers, who came from Ketchikan, Alaska, for a weeklong residency to record songs and put on a performance.
Troll, an Alaskan Renaissance man, is an artist, author, naturalist, musician-songwriter and shameless punster. He worked in a print shop on Seattle’s Capitol Hill before moving north in 1983. “At 29, I got a job to sell fish in Ketchikan. I was a fish monger with an MFA from WSU.He fell in love with that place, though it’s one of the rainiest cities in America. He figured he’s endured about 5,550 inches of rain since moving there.
His gallery is on a creek that’s home to every species of salmon, so fish inspiration is close at hand.
The Ratfish Wranglers have tentatively titled the album “Shake That Halibut.” Troll says they play “paleo-ichthyological rock ‘n’ roll. It’s subaquatic rock.”Songs are often fish- or geology-themed, with tutorial messages about subjects of natural history, such as plate tectonics, hagfish, halibut, salmon and sharks.
“We all come from the sea and we throw in the science for free!” What other band does a song about omega-3’s? Their album “Where the Fins Meet the Frets,” is all about the benefits of fish oil for the mind and body. They’ve done a bluegrass song about trilobites, extinct marine arthropods.
Sea creatures also inhabit Troll’s art. T-shirts, many sold through museum shops, are adorned with his puns: “The empire strikes bass.” “Dungies and Dragons.” “The Baitful Dead.” “The DaVinci Cod.” He was honored by scientists who named a species of ratfish after him, Hydrolagus trolli, as well as the genus of extinct round-bellied herring, Trollichthys.
Troll believes “everyone should be in a band, regardless of talent.” “It’s joint creativity. It’s fun and takes a little bit of courage.” The new album is expected to be released early this summer.
Next December, the Burke Museum will feature Troll’s drawings and paintings from “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline,” the book he published with scientist Kirk Johnson, director of the National Museum of Natural History.
A BED IN THE WOODS II
44 YEARS LATER
JANUARY 19, 2020, SMOKY HILL RIVER
It’s 8:15 in the morning and 20 degrees. I am cold, my right hand is ungloved as I write this with my Pilot razor point pen. I’m wondering if the ink will freeze.
I’m in a thin black sleeping bag in a tiny white frame metal bed on the banks of the Smoky Hill River. The sun came up at 7:45. I intend to stay here until sunset tonight at 5:40 PM. It is cold. I was facing north west but have now flipped around to face the east and the rising sun. It’s coming through the branches of the bare trees now.
- I hear birds chirping, chattering, cooing, singing, across the river along the other muddy frozen bank. Something is walking slowly through the brush.
- A woodpecker.
- Soft footsteps across the bank.
- Woodpecker again.
- I can hear the highway sounds, trucks, cars, in the distance.
The sky is clear only a few wispy clouds gold against the blue. Birds now to my right. The river is flowing east to west. The water is brown. Here comes the sun. I hear birds but have seen none. Are there clear sections to the river? Will I see a fish? The creature that has ruled my life all these years…. a catfish perhaps.
- Lovely dipping, melodic whistle from a bird across the river.
I intend to stay in this bed all day, only to stray 15 or 20 feet to poop or pee or to look around a bit. Damn it’s cold.
It’s was nowhere near as cold when I ‘performed’ this same action 44 years ago as a young man 21-years-old and full of myself, so confident, sweetly naive, inquisitive, skinny, oh my radiant youth. That brief period when we’re “in bloom” but here I am 65 on the edge of 66 still doing the slightly ridiculous.
Down by the river in a single frame bed, looking all around just scratching my head.
Inventory time: the essentials.
- 1 white metal bed provided by Brad and Marsha Howe.
- 1 plywood plank courtesy Brad Howe.
- Black sleeping bag – from Joan Kimball.
- Green blanket from Mike Bray.
- 2 white pillows.
- Coffee thermos.
- 1 food bag.
- 1 apple, 1 orange, 1 peanut butter sandwich, 1 diet coke, 1 water, 2 nut bars.
- Toilet paper.
- 2 shoes, 2 heavy socks, black jeans, long underwear from Jan Eddy.
- Mackinaw jacket, plaid shirt, green “snuggy”, construction head warmer.
- Salmon fest hat.
- 2 gloves.
- 1 tan blanket.
A jet overhead. The sun is at one hand width high. It’s still down in the trees in front of me. I’m hoping for more warmth as it rises, otherwise all I can focus on is the cold.
- Why no birds on this side of the river?
- The birds seem to quiet down as the sun rises.
- I can hear the river “burble” every now and then.
- The highway sounds have stopped.
- Another jet high above, I cannot see it.
- A bird in the branches above me.
The color all around me is brown. Brown, black trees stretching their branches in a slow motion are down to the golden-brown river. The mud is brown the dry leaves are grey brown.
- A formation of Canadian geese just flew over me honking loudly. Heading north.
- This part of the river flows north.
- More honking geese. Their wings make a whooshing sound.
- Two birds above me.
- Another ware of geese. North.
- Something dropping small sticks, seeds, I look up. 3 or 4 small birds quietly stripping the branches directly above me.
- An engine just started behind me, a few hundred yards away. I am on Jon Zehnder’s land, his house is about 200 yards away. Is he heading into town?
- Small pieces of orange tape in the trees here and there. Property markers.
- The blankets make a difference from the sting of the cold.
- Slow down. Observe.
- Watching the day – the sun is now two hands high from the horizon.
- I peed 20 ft. away. Reversed my bed. Half slept for 30 minutes.
I tried to move the bed to a sunnier spot, but the legs are frozen solid into the ground.
I ate my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich for the first time in maybe 20 years. As Warren Zevon once said, “enjoy every sandwich” and I did. Oh yes, I did. On Marsha’s homemade rye bread in fact.
There’s a slight very cold wind from the north now. It stings. I shiver a bit. Will the sun prevail?
- 3 Mallard ducks landed on the river in front of me, then startled. Did they see me? I didn’t move. They flew upriver.
- Tiny clicking sounds from sparrows.
- Strange hissing kind of bird cry.
- Who owned this land before Jon Zehnder? The Pawnee? Arapaho? Kiowa? Did the Swedes kill the Indians?
- A big swirling splash in the river. A catfish?
- Before the Bison came were horses everywhere?
- Woodpecker, tap, tapping. I can see her now – red head jumping along a branch.
- There are no squirrels to be seen. Too cold?
- Lots of raccoon tracks – big and small like little hands, all five fingers splayed. “Trash Pandas”.
- Deep divots from the deer that walked this muddy ledge not too long ago.
- Raccoon or beaver tracks?
A beautiful red-tailed hawk – now a second one across the river. I recognize their call now. One landed in a squirrel nest, seeming to check it out.
What counts the most over all these years are friends. It sounds trite but it’s true.
That’s what drew me back to this town. Joan a close friend who seems to look into my soul and see my core being flaws and all, but yet she is still there for me. Joan and the circle of friends around her. Marsha, Brad, Michael Bray, Kathy Olsen, Merle Larson… and I guess that’s about it for Lindsborg in the close pal dept.
Don – my mentor and art hero is in the Bethany Home now. lost in the haze of Alzheimer’s disease. I’m out here today freezing my ass off because of Don. He told me he always liked my “Bed in the Words” performance piece. “Troll, you were onto something,” he’d say in his cowboy twang. That simple approval moment from a mentor, a teacher, an art guru meant the world to me. That’s all. Just a few simple words from an elder that I admired, that I wanted to emulate, to be like. So here I sit by the ever-flowing river. The river that is always here and never here. It’s the eternal now, the ever present flowing into the past. The water is always flowing, a river to the sea. Siddhartha-like, Buddha-like, only some of us seek the truth. Oh, the pitfalls of the examined life. Those who try to lift the veil will always pay a price.
I cried writing this just now.
It’s a little warmer.
We’re all just little kids seeking a nod of approval. Most, if not all. of my closest friends are artists or creative thinkers. I’m drawn to originals.
Thinking of originals, Jan and Martin Eddy. What a force they’ve been in my life. What are they up to now? Did they succeed? Am I just as happy?
What I thought was a loud, angry squirrel was actually a red headed woodpecker.
Propeller plane overhead.
3 hands high – the sun moving from left to right. Arcing in the sky to the south. I’m finally more in the sunlight – but it’s still cold as hell.
The river looks greener now as the sun goes higher.
Experiment: move around a lot and see if I get warmer. Jumping jacks!
Facing a challenge. This is about. Isolation. Endurance. Sensitivity. Absurdity. Surrealism. Unplugging. Relaxing.
Commitment. Documentation. Reflection. Introspection. Observation. Breathing. Being. Examining. Paying attention. Perseverance. Just thinking.
At midday a beautiful blonde woman* brought me an extra blanket and a pair of fingerless gloves.
* My wife Michelle.
Low and behold around 1:30 that day an earthquake shook my bed up and down! “What the hell”, I said. “Do you feel that?” I asked Michelle when she was there. “No”. So, I ignored it. Only later when I was back in town did I hear about the earthquake.
Easy connections – those you can relate to with ease, you click into place with little or no effort.
Reflecting – the people you become when the two halves meet and mirror each other – you create a unique ‘third person’.
Why do the riverside trees reach to the river and then bend over? Is it gravity? Water? Erosion? Losing their grip?
It’s been interesting staring at these same trees all day, studying their twists and turns, how they bend to the river, wondering how old they are and how they’re related. Were they planted here on the prairie?
Individuals who otherwise would never do such a thing. Even I the artsy provocateur was really pretty nervous about taking on this challenge… especially on this super cold day. I’m literally buried in layers – a sleeping bag and two big blankets. The metal frame bed circa 1930 I’m guessing.
Perhaps taking a day out of your life to sit in a strange place in a bed should become a thing, a tradition that should be practiced all around the world. After all our memories are so random, so half hazard, taking a day out of one’s life to contemplate one’s place in the world is truly a worthy effort, to enforce self-reflection on.
My generation, my g-g-g-generation is the first one in the history of our species to witness the end of the wild world, the end of the idea that nature will always rebound, that our resources are endless. It’s an empty, dark feeling. But sitting here by this river all day long in the bleak winter of 2019/20 I have some vague feeling of hope. I saw so many birds today, here in the middle of a mammalian trackway I felt the vastness of this fertile flat land and thought maybe we haven’t fucked it all up, maybe there’s hope right here in middle America. Kansas, still somehow my home.
As I looked over my shoulder to see where the sun was about to set, I saw a squirrel – my one and only mammal sighting for the day. He jumped from tree to tree high up and now he’s gone.
I made it from dawn till dusk on this bitterly cold winter day with a little help from my friends.
Teaching people to draw is just a matter of showing them how to simply “see” what they’re looking at. Is being an artist simply doing an exercise like I did today? Taking the time to look and listen and process it? To understand it.
Thousands of Canadian geese are chorusing madly in the distance just to the north of me beyond the tree line by the river just as the sun sets. And then they fall silent. A jet above heading west.
It is cold, cold, cold again and I have packed my gear waiting to go.
“The river will find its course.”
Rivers are the veins of the earth. Echoes in the branches of the trees above… The river is always there, the river is never there. The river is life, renewing itself, the river is death, sweeping everything away. Duality defined.
Teaching someone how to draw is simply teaching someone how to see, how to understand what they’re looking at and how to convey that to paper. It’s really that simple but it takes a while to break the novice through to the “other side”, via a series of lessons, experiences.
Those who seek to make art, really significant art, take the time to look at life, to examine it, to ponder it, to process it and give it some sort of meaning, some sort of truth. Not that we ever arrive at it, we simply try to understand it, reveal the beauty of it, wallow in the horror of it, revel in its connections, vibrate in its sweet harmonies, resonate in the planetary groove, quake in terror at its finiteness drawn to the light driven to the dark.
Some of us want an audience, the vast majority of us are the audience. Here we are now entertain us, and those of us up here dangling in the spotlight….
Ein tagder Selbstbeobachtung German for a day of introspection.
Naisei no hi. Japanese.
Un dia de introspeccion. Spanish.
Mike Bray – Transportation, bedding
Brad Howe – Loaned the bed
Marsha Howe – Bread, peanut butter and jelly sandwich , sandwich bag
Joan Kimball – Sleeping bag, extra gloves, blanket
Michelle Troll – Delivered extra blankets, photographed me
In January of 1976 I took a class called ‘Conceptual Art’, co-taught by my sculpture professor Don Osborn and painter Tom Klocke. I was 21 years old at the time, enjoying every minute of my art school days at Bethany College located in a beautiful, small town called Lindsborg, Kansas. The class met 5 times a week during that month. Most of the time we’d sit in a big circle in the painting lab, seriously discussing the meaning of art for hours on end. After a couple weeks of this it was time for the students to take action and to create a piece.
This is the “performance art, environmental/location” piece I decided to do: I would place a bed in the woods down by the Smoky Hill River and stay in it from dawn till dusk, describing the scene and recording every thought that flickered through my brain. It was mid-winter, so it was a challenge to pull off to say the least.
44 years later, in January of 2020, I found myself back in Lindsborg on the very day I’d performed the 1976 piece. I simply had to do it all over again. It would be interesting to see what a 65-year-old man would write down and find significant about the day and the ‘performance’ itself.
During ‘Bed in the Woods 2’ I realized one of the main motivating factors for reenacting the piece was the role that Don Osborn had played in my life. He was an art hero for me way back then. He was confident, honest, happy, fun loving yet very serious about his role as a teacher and an artist. I looked up to the man and wanted to be like him.
Don told me he always liked this piece. Why I can’t say, nor could he. He just liked it, and that meant a lot to me.
Maybe that’s all that art is.
Don Osborn, 1976
A BED IN THE WOODS 1
JANUARY 19, 1976
(random thoughts during the execution of the piece)
- I have chosen to spend the 19th day of January 1976 outside in a bed from dawn until dusk. I am on the bank of a green winter river and it is early morning. There is snow on the ground and the day is overcast. There are woods on both sides of the river – thin shrub like trees of Kansas. The basic colors of the landscape are gray, brown, and tan, interspersed with the accents of small red berries and the muted greens of the ice-covered river.
- I can hear farm machinery in the distance – the repetitive guttural racket of some machine. Occasionally, I can hear a car driving down the unseen highway, reminding me of the close proximity of “civilization.” A flock of geese or ducks has been making racket, honking away at each other all morning. A cow will sometimes interject his deep sighing “moo” in the sound scheme. I have heard the ice cracking on the river, slowly thawing and breaking off in sections. It almost seems like some creature is pulling it under.
- The rustle of squirrels foraging in the leaves gives me a start.
- I have tried to retrace the intricate pathways that the squirrels have led through the maze of branches overhead. The thought of a creature that walks on the tops of trees, lightly following pathways above my head, seems magical.
- Crows cawing on the other bank.
- The mesmeric tone of the puttering machines in the distance.
- It is cold.
- The slow shrieks and short perks of two birds intermixed with the laughter of another that I could see high in the branches of an oak on the other shore.
- I wonder what the “natural” sounds of humans are. I lay here in silence afraid to add to the song that is being composed about me this morning. (Perhaps it’s the sound of the cars on the highway.)
- The geese sometimes sound like they are crying out in horrible fits of pain.
- The sound of the cows is sad and melancholic. Slow brute, force condemned.
- A rooster’s crow sounds like a triumphant celebration of life.
- Crows use derisive laughter.
- Some of the birds sing of freedom and beauty.
- The squirrels chatter nervous energy.
- Poetry is anthropomorphic.
- There are strange stretches of silence – the birds cease to sing and all that can be heard is the patter of drops falling from the thawing snow-laced trees.
- My environment consists of:
one plastic tarp
one sleeping bag
one pair of pants (blue jeans)
one pair of gloves
one shirt (flannel)
one nylon down jacket
one paper bag
three feet of toilet paper
two 12. Oz. Coca Colas
one peanut butter and jelly sandwich
one pair of long johns (bottoms) – not on
one extra pair of gloves
two books of matches
one black felt pen
one ink pen
pack of Salem cigarettes
one water jug
two green felt tip pens
- When I arrived here earlier this morning there was snow on the ground – now it has melted. I fell asleep for awhile and woke up to see the sun as a hazy shape of light struggling to break through the overcast. I can see the blueness of the sky to the north and estimate that the sun will really shine in a few hours. Two blackbirds flew across the river. Their cawing woke me.
- The song of this day has now changed to one of the gentle roaring of the north wind and the creaking of the brittle trees swaying in the breeze.
- There was a branch above my bed that I knew would fall. It just did. It missed. I guess fate is with me.
- The overcast finally dissolved into finely patterned wisps of white cirrus clouds.
- So much of my expectations were channeled into the “success” of the day being dependent on the sun shining. It was almost directly in control of my mood. I can see how the sun has been called the “life giver”, and the moon the maker of lunatics.
- My bed is facing the west. I somehow felt it appropriate for me. The western direction, according to the plains Indians, was the direction of introspection – the looks-within-place. The setting of the sun is a time for reflection on things past, and in a way that is how I had intended on spending my day in the woods. So I felt it appropriate to aline myself with that direction and the “power” that emanates from it.
- The North seems to be the prevalent direction today though. Winter is definitely in the air. Suggestions of the warmth of spring have been brief and fleeting.
- Strange. I was wondering if I would see a hawk today and suddenly one appeared overhead shrieking loudly as he glided on the currents of the sky.
- The wind roars on the southern bank and then there is a short lull as the gust crosses the river to fill the trees here on the northern side with life. It makes the wind seem as if it was an entity – something that can be seen. I can still feel its presence as it silently crosses the river.
- A very nervous energetic woodpecker with an intricate pattern of black and white on its back preempted a round goofy little bird on a branch above me. He just pecked around haphazardly and didn’t really get down to work though.
- The artist is his location. You reflect and become an integral part of your surroundings.
Bob Fair for the transportation in Cherry Parfait
Jim Lee for the photography
Nancy Hagstrand for the hot chocolate
Roger Eilts for the cookies
Steve Sundell for the grapes
My mom for the brownies
Jenny Magliery for the sleeping bag
Kathy Forester for the typing