Monthly Archives: August 2011

Stone Age

Throughout New England there are plentiful sources of such stone as marble, granite, fieldstone, to name some. Dry-stacked stone walls run along property lines and hug roads as they wind through hills and valleys, creating a unique tailored style which is immediately identifiable – the overall effect is a kind of stitching together of the landscape, despite the intent of separating private property. Even where there are no walls, often there are boulders spaced evenly to delineate borders. Sometimes it is as a preventative for parking on grassy shoulders; other times it is purely decorative. And, often, it is a definer of another sort, a claiming of native stone as a kind of trophy in its relocated environs. In Maine’s Acadia National Park, such large rocks are placed evenly as guard rails along roadways and carriage roads – they are referred to as “Rockefeller’s teeth,” honoring the preservation-minded philanthropist who helped establish the park. Boulders placed in a row on top of soil say something about humans altering nature: they can assemble something spatial and linear but they will never be able to compete with what nature does by blending the rocks and soil into a unified whole – as, say, mountains, or rock outcroppings in the woods.

The sculptor Carl Andre constructed Stone Field Sculpture, in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1977, on a triangular wedge of ground next to a church and its Ancient Burying Ground, Hartford’s first public cemetery. This is the artist’s only permanent public work, a land-bound (not sure it could be considered an earthwork) configuration of local boulders placed in a triangle, and diminishing in size as the numbered rows increase. You could say that, given the ubiquitousness of boulders on nearly every piece of land in Connecticut, this piece is unremarkable. Did the artist make the space his own? I would have to say yes, since it is rendered useless for anything but the work. Did he make the site better?

The 36 boulders are set up like bowling pins in eight rows, starting with a single stone (the largest) and lining up in consecutive rows increasing by one stone until the eighth row’s eight stones (the smallest), the space between stones as well as between rows having expanded rhythmically. This piece could be about spatial perspective – after all, the triangular shape is ideal for viewing from one point, and the stones do “recede” in the distance. Or, it could be that the idea has to do with the juxtaposition of native stone in its non-native environment of the urban realm. Possibly, it is just simply a modern marker leading us to the ancient markers of the adjacent graveyard. And it could also be an F.U. to the people of Hartford who have not warmed to it over the past thirty-plus years. And then there is the possibility that this is just the artist’s attempt to play with rocks, like a giant game of marbles or an extra-large billiards rack. Perhaps, if the medium is in fact the message, then it is just a stone field.

Whatever the meaning or motive, there it is. You can walk among the stones; you can also view them while seated on a bench (often occupied by aesthetically puzzled homeless men) positioned  behind the row of eight. The art is elusive, yet clunky. What makes the site better is that there are a few trees growing between some of the boulders, creating an actual interaction between things, a give and take, a bit of naturalism in the larger arena of un-naturalism.

In North Adams, Massachusetts, is a stunning industrial complex once housing the Sprague Electric Company that is now the contemporary museum MASS MoCA, where another artwork made of stone is installed in a plaza facing the main entrance: Primary Separation, by Don Gummer. It is a granite boulder sawed in half and suspended above head level on a grouping of poles and guy wires. At first look, with its organic shape and precision slice, it resembles a potato hogtied for some sort of ritualized harm-doing. It also is reminiscent of Magritte’s Chateau des Pyrenees, except that here there are visible strings. Given its height and suspension, there is, too, the anti-gravity factor, if this is one of those pseudo-scientific art pieces. And there is a notion of meteors. And I can’t escape acknowledging a reference to something caught in a spider’s web, albeit an industrial one. And with that, the contrast of shiny, smooth manmade elements in opposition to the earthmade one(s). But this construct acts as a framing device, framing itself first, then framing the sky as it passes through and across the 11” split opening, framing glimpses of the surrounding Berkshires; maybe even commenting on the cut mountains that encircle it: in that sense it is a war memorial. It is a visibly engineered stonehenge, a modern observatory of the skies and of the museum that funded it.

Despite its obvious weight, the Andre piece, though earthbound, seems disconnected to its site, while the latter, though airborne, seems to intensify itself by bringing in its environment. The one, though grounded, lacking placeness; the other, though skyward, creating it.

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On the Road to Nowhere

Occasionally, in our quest to find placeness and in our meager attempts to convey its properties and principles, we resort to presenting the opposite: placelessness. We have mentioned (or is it ranted?) about housing developments, overly dense urban space, art misplaced and other place-lacking elements of our daily lives. But we have seen, on-screen, the most placeless of the placeless.

I don’t know about your area, but since our local broadcast television went digital we now have many additional, filler channels that are new to us. By and large, they are even greater time-wasters than the original programming. The absolutely most bizarre and frightening is the traffic station Tango Traffic, which offers a “program” it calls “Jams & Cams.” This 24-hour feed of traffic video cameras attached to light poles on highways, interstates, and major roads shows some of the most placeless sites ever created by humans. These broadcast images are of linear swaths that are horrifyingly empty stretches of pavement, mostly treeless, barren and devoid of life (except for cars and trucks). O, what we have wrought, and here it is being shown on TV, 24/7. Interspersed with the live-cam pictures are occasional graphics thrown in: digital re-creations of networks of roadways with colorful phosphorescent green cars riding through verdant fields dotted with attractive primary-colored signage, much like a child’s day-care center motif. Then it returns to the real views of monotone asphalt and mind-numbing cattle chutes, tiered layers of oil-stained grayness framed by sickly green-coated steel superstructures. The night views are of darkness with flickering lights on approach and in retreat, every view like the dark alleys we were taught to avoid. 

All the while that these placeless places are flashing by like a brainwashing drip into our eyes and minds – eye-in-the-sky views of one horrific location after another in rapid succession – there is a rolling text feed below the main screen that gives route names and numbers followed by delays in minutes, very often in high double digits. Aside from how dismal the images are, the text messages come in with a one-two punch to reconfirm the punishment of moving through and around these byways – and tossed in are some accompanying shots of logjams, ramps, overpasses, a broken-down car here, an accident there. The clips from traffic cams are 10 seconds of motion and, despite the identifier of location in some cryptic militaristic abbreviation of an intersection that requires 10 seconds to decipher, both are hard to read. As we view the abbreviated tags of the video cameras, our tendency is to try for some sort of recognition: first, of the site name (good luck on that); and then of the intersection itself, by sight. However, if by chance, you figure out what the image is supposed to represent, you still can’t read the visual relationship of two streets that are familiar to you since there is nothing recognizable. Every street looks the same, all are without identifiable attributes; it can’t be just the camera. These are nightmare images, places without landmarks, or familiarity, or uniqueness. Every angle seems wrong and every place seems eerily dead. It is like some lost footage from The Twilight Zone of an apocalyptic world of nothing but endless paved roads.

Alas, it is sadly accurate. These nowhere zones have become more real to people on a daily basis than the places that they connect. And here they are, aired for our viewing pleasure. In some way, in a better universe, these images would be a wake-up call for putting an end to the madness, the rape of our environment for car-dependence. It would show us the error of our ways: the absurd number of vehicles, the structures required to carry them (and they keep getting larger and larger), the massive traffic jams, intolerable delays (just saw one for 112 minutes!), the ugly factor and the placelessness. This lifestyle not only creates placelessness by having the point be the commute to and fro, undermining a sense of place; but also, creates more empty spaces of roadways that are, as we see on-screen, without place. Watch your traffic channel, it may open your eyes.

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Knowing My Place

How do you know when you have found your place, that particular spot on Earth where you want to spend, perhaps, maybe, the rest of your life? Is it an art, or a craft, to know this; is it a sixth sense, or a veiled precognition, or a tapping into the preordained? Or is it just a bit of luck, one in which making the right choice – strong feelings of kismet and deja vu notwithstanding – is pretty much a 50-50 proposition?

We live, currently, in a house that we knew, instantly, upon first viewing, was The One, and over the years we have made it a place we love. The neighborhood around it … not so much; but this house – it is us, a three-dimensional exploded diagram of our souls and psyches. Being in this house – what we’ve made this old building-with-improbable-histories into – is, for us, like slipping into a pool of body-temperature water: We don’t know where we end and it begins, and we lose ourselves, and we are one. And let’s not even talk about the memories and the ghosts of loved ones who dwell in the spaces within. They alone would be deal-breakers to any thoughts of leaving here.

Yet, “would be” is the key phrase here because, despite being fortunate enough to have already found The One, we have also found another One – this time a town, not yet a house in it – and it is calling us so strongly, and we are so susceptible to its call, that we feel like Odysseus hearing the Sirens, but hiding the ropes so that he can’t be lashed to the mast; we want to be drawn to this new place, to submit ourselves to its thrall. We don’t need convincing (although we do wonder if it’s a running to and not a fleeing from)  but, rather, a plan. Also, guts and some dough. Despite rightness, change is tough.

This new One, if you have read earlier postings here and have been paying attention, is Woodstock, N.Y., which draws us like a magnet and appeals so strongly to our better natures that we would think we were intoxicated or pixilated, bewitched or possibly even a bit mad … if it weren’t for the evidence. Over and over, time and again, just as we – many miles and four hours away from it – stop and start to sober up, wondering if we are just being silly (are we nuts to give up the conveniences a big city offers and exchange them for the more limited commercial and cultural offerings of a small town tucked away in a rural and mountainous area?) – it is at that very moment of cold-feet-dom when something happens to remind us why Woodstock has to be, needs to be, our next home – indeed, The One we’ve always wanted, The One that’s been waiting for us.

The current evidence? It came in an article in the August 11 issue of the unflaggingly excellent Woodstock Times – an always-terrific read that reflects the personality and ethos of its turf and readership as well as any newspaper in America. The piece, by reporter George Pattison, looks to be nothing more nor less than a fairly typical covering of a town zoning-board meeting – just the sort of thing you would expect to see in the columns of a publication determined to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity.

But there is a difference. This, after all is Woodstock – the anti-“Chinatown,” where, Jake, good things happen. About midway through the article, writer Pattison informs us of a bit of off-the-agenda, out-of-left-field business:

The meeting got a dollop of liveliness at its outset, as local musician Journey Blue Heaven provided an impromptu, only-in-Woodstock musical interlude following remarks to the board by resident Jay Cohen, whose dog JoJo has mounted a write-in campaign for town supervisor in the fall election.

Cohen, noting that Woodstock was barely mentioned in a recent New York Times article extolling the hipness of the Hudson Valley, advised board members to make the town attractive to visitors and would-be settlers by making its property assessments and tax rates competitive with those of neighboring communities. Journey Blue Heaven, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, endorsed Jay Cohen’s views and JoJo Cohen’s candidacy via a brief, three-song set: “Tax Cap” (to the tune of the Beatles’ “Get Back”), “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” and “We Shall Overcome.”

The town assessor, Marc Plate, sustained the musical motif by blowing a chord or two on a harmonica before recommending that the town hire Goldman Appraisal Service, a Kingston firm, to evaluate the town’s assessment of approximately a dozen properties.

And then the story continued on to more standard, civic-meeting stuff. But, let us parse the three paragraphs above to help understand why Woodstock beckons to us.

1. The meeting itself. Woodstock takes its town politics seriously. One might even say that politics is the town sport, played rough and without pads. The convergence of Sixties free-thinkers, self-exiled Manhattanite expatriates and descendants of the artists who made the town a creative mecca in the early 20th century, when brought together in a governmental context, in one room, creates a situation that would make a room full of Talmudic scholars seem like a gathering of shy schoolgirls. People in Woodstock dive into politics without looking to see if there’s water in the pool (and don’t get them started about the town water); it’s a contentious, high-stakes, high-emotion scene. It’s glorious. Every place should care about itself the way Woodstock does.

2. Letters to the Woodstock Times (one of the greatest letter sections since the Daily Forward’s bintel briefs) are running 100 percent in favor of JoJo’s candidacy. Sure, it’s a protest goof … but JoJo could win. And, if elected, would serve. Possibly two terms.

3. That a singer, even one named Journey Blue Heaven, would show up and ask to perform could happen anywhere. That the zoning board would permit her to do so says something. That they paused the business of the meeting to let her do three numbers gets closer to the heart of Woodstockian gestalt. But what tips the scales is Marc Plate (of a many-generationed Woodstock family and who, by the way, sold us our cemetery plot in the Artists Cemetery) – not only did he, the town assessor, join in with Ms. Heaven, but he apparently carries around a harmonica, even to board meetings, should such spontaneous musical occurrences erupt … which, in Woodstock, they do.

I ask you: How can you not love a place like that? How can you not want to live there? How can this kooky Camelot, this locale that so effortlessly blends art and place, intensity and whimsy, strong history and equally strong possibilities, change and changelessness and anti-change, heart, humor and Muses in the mountain-air molecules … how, I ask you, can this not be The One?

Journey Blue Heaven will now sing the response.

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Paths of Enlightenment

Like Tolstoy’s happy families, all gardens are alike … fundamentally. Of course, the Humes Stroll Garden would never be mistaken for, say, Dumbarton Oaks; and no one is going to be taken, blindfolded, to Chanticleer, have the mask removed, and think that he is in Bellefield. Size, style, history, level of theatricality – all these vary from one setting to another. But the building blocks are the same: a swath of land, designated and designed planting areas, and a ribbon or network of walkways to get you to things and around the place. It’s the similarities that define “garden”; it’s the differences that define “art” and “memorable.”

Of the elements that make up gardens, the one most overlooked and kicked around, literally, is the walkway. And, yet, it can be as vital to the entire garden-appreciation experience as the choice of perennials or the water feature. Where you view something and the way you move about it can be as intrinsic to pleasure and understanding as what is viewed: too close, too far, wrong angle, too high, too low, confusing circulation, too authoritarian a mandated traffic pattern – whether noticeably or subtly, all are ruiners.

But, even taking these characteristics into consideration and doing them smartly and well, most gardens we’ve been to – and we’ve just returned from a journey to some snazzy ones – seem to give little or no thought to what the walkways are made of. Gravel or cement, asphalt or mulch, or whatever, little preferential effort – beyond the imperative to keep visitors from stumbling over chunks of things – appears to have been  invested in garden-path design. If anything, sometimes you can see ecological philosophy at work – permeable surface vs. non, natural material vs. manmade – but not much more.

Everything counts, god is in the details, blah, blah, blah. We all know this, or have been told it. But the walkway in a garden? Who cares, right? It’s only the flowers and plants and trees that matter, no? Nobody goes to a garden to see the paths. A path is just “there,” not there to note.

But what a lost opportunity for added expression, distinctive identity and artfulness of place. I will not, I know, hold in memory for long the patches of green and colors that we walked through at Thuya Garden and the nearby and related Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, both on the ritzy south shore of Mt. Desert Island, Maine, beautiful though they were. What I will remember, and what I can see, vividly, in my mind’s eye even now, are the sculptural rakings of the crushed stone that makes up the gardens’ hardscape. 

Early in the morning, before visitors arrive, a worker rakes the narrow paths in a way that would please and even elicit admiration from a Japanese garden’s master artist. At Thuya, especially, the sweetly crafted but nearly imperceptible patterns vary from place to place: here, serpentine; there, herringbone; beyond, cross-hatch – and variations and combinations of those, and others. More: Once one notices the path art, it is already too late to avoid destroying it – you see the beautifully rendered squiggles and geometry now obliterated by your shoeprints, and you feel like a criminal, a defiler. But you also know that the path art is, like most earthworks, like much of the work of an Andy Goldsworthy, for example, designed to be ephemeral, to fade and disappear with time and the vagaries of nature … and the unthinking perambulations of man.

(A parenthetical here: One would be incredibly remiss if, in this discussion, he did not mention the notable efforts evident in Robert Dash’s wonderful Madoo Conservancy, in Sagaponack, New York – an elegant, whimsical one-off of an artist-fashioned garden highlighted by its paths composed of varied, surprising and unlikely materials. Perhaps our eye towards the importance of paths in a garden was opened in our visit to this Long Island landmark.)

This path art is so easy to be unaware of as one focuses on the flora – why look down? We rarely do, and especially if we’ve come a great distance to look up – and, yet, it is that extra something, that act that says that everything counts, that makes that garden a more magical place … that is a key ingredient in the formulation of its placeness. Not an accessory, but integral; more than a pleasant surprise at a casual gift, but an imperative relationship. Man’s intellectual beauty paired with and enhancing the natural. Arslocii.

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A New York State of Find

Maybe it is a fact of life in the city – every person is in it to win it, to coin an overused phrase. Something about population density, and compression of spirit as well as space: too little for too many, everyone grabbing and pushing and protective of what they have. It has always seemed to me that once people spread out physically and psychically that there follows a more relaxed attitude – allowing someone to not only breathe but to be more willing to share the air. And this expansion does not mean ¼-acre lots in the suburbs, because there have been extremely intense battles over property boundaries and other lines drawn on those subdivided plots, too.

At the other extreme is how genuinely helpful people can be who live in places of great distances, where towns are 50-100 miles apart. Anyone who has crisscrossed the west and southwest and has had vehicle breakdowns knows that folks in vast landscapes are aware that aiding a stranger is a necessity, a tit-for-tat act of karmic insurance for the inevitability of their own mechanical failure and fate. Helping is a way of existence and survival in a sparsely populated place. Without the generosity of fellow travelers, we would all end up like the bleached bones in a Georgia O’Keefe painting. It is a very different mindset of shared, rather than proprietary, neutral space, but also a more empathetic understanding of the inherent dangers and a willingness to pool resources in a spot where there are so few at hand.

Admittedly, all this generalizing does not preclude there being greedy bastards out west and generous spirits in East Coast cities. But it can color one’s thinking and expectations about places. So, imagine our surprise when we recently encountered three acts of kindness in one twenty-four hour period in upstate New York. This isn’t meant to cast any aspersions on New York state, but it is and was a surprising triad of events, perhaps another ploy to make us fall even deeper for this region. Part of this happy experience is the unexpectedness of it, which, as we have said, can be a component of arslocii. In this instance, though, it is a placeness achieved through human connection, of people extending themselves for the purpose of aiding you in achieving your goals; no questions asked – like really good parents. Only they are strangers.

The day began with a dead tail light as we were headed out to cover some distance. Luckily, there was a Ford dealership near the Thruway in a spot not too far from where we were, and not too much out of our way. Three things: their service department was open on Saturday morning, which this was; their parts department (also open) had our particular bulb; and the three or four mechanics on duty seemed underwhelmed by the volume of repairs. We were shuttled into the Quick Lane, which must be like the fast lane for when your car isn’t moving. The tail light cover was removed, one of us went to the parts counter and purchased the bulb, and the new one was installed and working in about two minutes’ time. Quick Lane. Then: No charge. Really? Their reply was, simply, for us to enjoy our day. Come to think of it, about the West – I was once swindled by greedy bastards in Arizona for some shock absorbers my car didn’t need. Here I am, 100 miles from New York City where, by centrifugal force alone, unsavory New Yorkers could be easily flung into my path. But, no: quick, courteous service … and no charge. That was the beginning of the day. I could have settled for just that.

Now that our Google maps were completely worthless because we were no longer starting out at the beginning or even from the same direction, we improvised to try to reconnect with our route. And, naturally, without directions in sequence (and their directions always lacking any kind of context), our distances were completely worthless. And, then, even right turns and left turns became meaningless and confusing, because we were not starting at point A, and we knew in our hearts that we were without any ability to locate point C. So, we stopped to ask for help – at an ambulance company. Emergency services would know how to find every place, we assumed, no matter how rural. The ambulance driver had no idea where this place was we were going to, to our chagrin. But he did have a very fancy GPS device that he spoke the address into and, presto, we had directions from this point that was not on our Google maps. His kindness was that he didn’t have to do that for us, but he could and he did.

Back on the road with Google maps once we connected with our destination, we were on our way again. No problem now, smooth sailing. Except for one thing – a frickin’ detour through Newburgh. And the worst part of this was that either we were experiencing deja vu, or we had been caught up in this same detour a couple of years before. We remembered it all: the turns, the landmarks, the overload of traffic being rerouted, and also the fact that the detour signs disappear without getting you back to the road you really wanted in the first place. And, suddenly, just like the last time we were there, we were utterly lost. For a while we thought we could recover from this but it grew gradually apparent, as we found ourselves on rural roads once again, that we didn’t have a clue where we were (thanks again, Google Maps – I mean, if a detour has been ongoing for a few years, wouldn’t you think they might have mapped that, too?). The space between things was expanding and we had to yell “uncle!” once again. This time it was a very unbusy car-repair or tire shop in the center of what seemed to us as nowhere.

Since it was a very male kind of establishment, the male of our party went inside. It was an even more unbusy place than the Ford service had been, with a few folks sitting in the back talking – about their lack of business, presumably – although it seemed almost conspiratorial, questionable, strange even. Directions were asked and a woman who was among the group jumped up and said, “It’s too confusing if I tell you, just follow me.” Astonishing, yes. Even more astonishing is that we drove behind her for at least 15 miles before she honked and pointed to our desired route as she turned off the highway. Awesome! Talk about going above and beyond. And you would especially not expect that kind of help from a place that in all appearances seemed like either a front for some illegal off-track betting ring, or a group that was discussing how to get rid of the body. And just like that, a fifteen mile escort to a recognizable road.

What a day! It was filled with good Samaritans and their kind acts of turning a sense of being out of place into placeness.

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