“Embodying Thoreau,” Pennypack Park, Philadelphia

Pennypack is a city park that envelops the creek of the same name, protecting its watershed in a thin green ribbon along both banks from the overbuilt surrounding communities. Maybe for that reason alone, having a tribute art installation there to Walden is so appropriate. In the woods, not far from town – as with Thoreau’s sojourn – is a kind of tripartite monument to the famed Transcendentalist and his simpler life, reliant on and in partnership with nature. There is much less nature in general now than there was when Thoreau wrote his book, in 1854, although it is like this park, protected more now than it was then. Nature itself, in a sad turn of events, has become a kind of art installation in amongst the “civilized” and overdeveloped landscape. Drawn by the concept of the artwork, we went in search of the author’s vision and the artist’s, Ed Levine, in “Embodying Thoreau: Dwelling Sitting, Watching,” created in 2003.

The three elements are scattered throughout the park, kind of in a line that the Pennypack Creek serpentines in and out of, creating the illusion that the distances between them are vaster than they actually are. The structures are in the tradition of follies that one might have encountered in a 19th century broad-lawn garden but not as readily visible since the park is heavily wooded – the search for them is a journey in and of itself. All three are made of wood, and each element deals with a theme present in Thoreau’s self-sufficiency experiment – dwelling, sitting, watching – expressed in architecture, sculptural seating and an interactive environment for birding, respectively.

The “watching” Bird Blind is an innocuous-looking peaked-roof shed, whitewashed, and flat as a sign board on its human-facing side on the path. Its single opening leads inside into a semi-circular walled and roofed space, built of horizontal woven-wood slats with one course of slats missing about 3’ from the ground to allow a 180° view out to the bird-facing side. There are curved wooden benches that follow the contour of the wall and lovely sun patterns coming through the slats and the viewing window, animating the space’s enchanting tree house feel. Its abrupt facade on the trail side is totally transformed within the structure, its curved backside interacting well with the site, a tree-covered area with many staked bird feeders providing a stage set for the viewers watching from their helmet-like subterfuge.

The second part of the pilgrimage, the “sitting,” is sited in a place where you could easily miss it – off the path, down a slope but still high above the creek on a kind of bird’s eye view perch.

The Benches are huge and bulky wooden wedges, like a cut cheese wheel or an old abandoned waterwheel broken apart and half-buried – it could be, in a sense, a solid manifestation of the negative space of the Bird Blind. There are three of these seats, a family grouping in a circle looking in and resembling a standoff among peacocks about to reveal full display. Their relationship to each other as well as to the opening in the forest in which they are placed make them seem like a remnant of some ancient purpose, perhaps a sundial or directional markers.

The most hidden of the three destinations is Thoreau’s Hut, the “dwelling,” but it is very much worth finding. There is a kind of disconnect, after making your way deeper into the woods, in seeing this structure peek out over the large shrubs and small trees, gradually appearing in full view.

Although the dimensions are the same as the original cabin in Thoreau’s Life in the Woods, the similarity ends there. This hut is poetic, whereas the original was perfunctory. There is, in this rendering, a world history of architecture: echoes of Greek temples; Native American log buildings; Scandinavian vernacular; Maori post-and-beam; West African or Egyptian architectural resonances. It is a pavilion more so than a house, heavily constructed but open to the elements, simple and elegant despite its weighty materials. At one end is a brick chimney – the only literal reference other than its plan measurements – and a tall ladder-back, double-sided chair facing both in and out.

More a suggestion of shelter than an actual shelter, this cathedral-like homage to Thoreau and his quest is a fitting attestation to his lasting impact and still-necessary voice.

The three parts of this Fairmount Park Art Association-sponsored project are well-situated and, if not perfectly integrated in a physical sense because of their mass, are so, indeed, in a spiritual one. Enhancing the natural experience, they interpret it through human invention, creating a placeness at each location, as well as marking a memorable and honorable witness to our place in nature, in tandem with what Thoreau showed to be possible.

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Filed under Art & Architecture, Nature/Nurture, Philly-centric

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