Category Archives: Nature/Nurture

Not Easy Being Green

long viewIt is – or, rather, was – just an ordinary, unremarkable stretch of sidewalk, emanating from the end of a bridge for a block or two down a busy city street; its one distinction, if it can be called that, is that this straight ribbon of pavement had, for the 30 years we’ve walked on or driven past it, been lined by jungle-like and uncontrolled growths of weed trees and bushes and grasses, held as if prisoners behind a low-slung metal traffic barrier which kept pedestrians and vehicles from tumbling down the steep cliff from which this wild flora grew. The wall of green wasn’t pretty, really – only once a year, when a popular bike race whizzes by it, does it get any attention and minimal trimming – but, for those of us living in a concrete-coated city, and to the people who live in the houses lined directly across the street from it, it was a wall of green, a respite, something like an oasis, a natural amenity. Something left alone to be itself, and give its gift, meager though it might be. And, yet, it was a length of urbanness that, if you were mapping the street from memory, you might forget to put it in – it was that personality-less, that undistinguished. It was just there, negligible but subliminally felt.

tree line

Careful readers may have noticed the use of the past tense in the previous paragraph. Trucks with choppers and grinders and saws pulled in not too long ago, and by the time they left, every bit of green was sliced away to near ground level, leaving a rude and rough-hewn gash in the landscape. For the residents of the houses opposite, this must have been not only a shock but, actually, a bit of a pleasant one: for, though the greenery is gone, they now have, unobstructed, one of the best views in the neighborhood – the old town area laid out at the foot of the cliff, the canal and river beyond, and, past those, hills and an interstate highway in the distance. People pay a lot for that view and, suddenly, these folks on the street, after decades of gazing out at an impermeable green wall of leaves and vines, now have that great view, and on somebody else’s dime.

street view

viewEnjoy that view while it lasts, folks. People don’t just clear-cut a forest-y patch for no reason that doesn’t have to do with making money, and so it is here: Soon that gap will be crammed with a dozen or more new townhouses – the uninspired, same old/same old three-stories-and-a-roof-deck, stuccoed and sided ticky-tacky crap that every developer in this area seemingly tore out of a sample book and is stuffing into every lot and open space, and, in this instance, deforesting a swath for it. And, presently, that strip of road, once benefitting from a feeling of some openness, some connection with nature no matter how corralled and limited, will become somewhat more like a canyon, or, certainly, a hemmed-in byway.

And for the pedestrians, like us, who barely acknowledged the existence of this corridor that was the on-ground equivalent of a flyover, we will feel that even though this couple of hundred feet never had anything that one would define as placeness, and certainly nothing resembling art, its absence will generate a lost placeness in our memories. It will be different. It will feel unbalanced and missing an essential element, which it will. Though it was never exactly friendly, it will be decidedly less-so. The air will be different, blighted by the predatory parasitism of modern developers. The light will be different, too. What was undistinguished will now, by comparison, seem distinguished by its congesting mediocrity. We, who cared nothing for this piece of land, will now long for the past nothingness that it was and curse the something that it has been forced to become.

laid waste

You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone, someone once wrote, and this applies even if you didn’t notice it when it when you had it. Sometimes, perhaps, even more so. I never cared if that piece of the world existed or not; now I am outraged that it is going and gone, taken and lost. Is that placeness, or what?

before

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Art Among Art

Although it can be unfair to compare a small museum’s sculpture garden to a full-blown sculpture park, arslocii holds them both up to the same standards using the same  magnifying glass. We have been to some of the big outdoor-sculpture venues, as well as some of the diminutive ones; and we are fond of any size open-air gallery where the art’s placement is considered and complemented.

This week we visited the Delaware Art Museum, in Wilmington. First (and Delaware is the first state), let’s say that the museum itself is situated in a rather stately neighborhood. Placeness already. The Copeland Sculpture Garden is a slip of land behind the broad-lawned and broad museum building. At first glance the landscape seemed too shallow and uniform to allow any sort of interaction of art and site to occur. Walking through the main entrance and out the glass-walled back, across a large terrace and into the “yard” made me think that this was a private home with garden art. Maybe it once was.

Crying Giant

The difference is that what is immediately in your face is Tom Otterness’ “Crying Giant.” It is huge, 13 feet tall, resembling a cartoon version of Rodin’s “Thinker,” but is maybe a more accurate depiction of modern man. The piece is a cluster of geometric solids that has tendril arms and legs, and Mickey Mouse hands and feet. It leans head-in-hands, dunce cap on head, with painful swollen feet and seated on a large cube. For a series of balloon shapes, it is filled with angst, both comic and sad. Is it sad about the state of art? I was moved by its powerful simplicity, but then I wondered … about its placeness. Well, on one level, if it is pondering art then it is filled with arslocii. But then it is reflected so well in an all-glass modern gallery wing of the museum – a sort of looking glass for the angst of modern man. Also, when catching a glimpse of it through the connector bridge between old museum and new, it is handily framed by the architecture, making it appear much diminished and, perhaps, even more sympathetic.

framed view

Down a wooded path is an interesting piece by William Freeland, “Irish Pastoral VII,” a minimalist hard edged factory made of rock and steel that felt like a tombstone. Behind it and hidden below grade is an old reservoir structure, a circular pit with stone walls that looks like a train-engine turnabout. Maybe that is because it is now a labyrinth, a spiral made of gravel and stone. That day it was set up for a wedding event and, although empty of guests, it was filled with placeness by what it was and is.

Another interesting work is Robert Stackhouse’s “Delaware Passage,” a rigorously fashioned structure of square metal tubes looking, all at once, like a railroad bridge, a brise soleil, a roof, a dock and a teepee. It plays with perspective, as it is short but endless. It is a striking piece but its placement doesn’t do it any favors.

Delaware Passage

But what is this? Three large craters encircled by hedges of holly. This Copeland Sculpture Garden is not a collection in which one would expect to find earthworks, but here they are. Only … what they are, in actuality, are functional drainage pits/fields. There are cascading rocks, having been intentionally (and well) placed that lead to large cast cement cubes guarded by iron grates at the bottom of the craters. They are modern and primitive, compelling and mysterious in that they are hidden by the shrubbery. But they are beautifully rendered works that are so integrated into the environment – because, unlike most of the pieces here, they are interacting with the environment. They are of the environment and, though not “art” in its narrow definition, should be considered part of the collection.

drain field

drain house

Placeness is a funny thing. Sometimes you can gather together things that artists make and which are intentional works of art – and sometimes they can be very good representatives of the form – and they do nothing for you or to you or with you; they do not gain from the setting nor add to it, they do not relate to it in any way nor to the other pieces scattered about, all seemingly with the same purpose – display; all this despite the best efforts of art professionals to show off the work and make something of the place. And then, sometimes, something that is neither created to be a work of art nor is considered to be such – in fact, is hardly considered at all, except as a workaday intruder in the garden – can have such power or attraction or even a compellingly formal nature that it not only challenges your conception of the art and its definition, but makes the o better and the place perfectly contains it, as if it were prepared thoughtfully to do so. A rocky sluice designed to channel water runoff away from the art and into a drain can, somehow, wonderfully, become the centerpiece of the sculpture array – a questioning of the need for intention as a component of art. Arslocii can materialize from something functional as well as something artful, being the product of one or both at the same time. It just happens, and just is. Arslocii.

reflected view

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Who’s That Nut-Nut-Nut-ing at My Door?

I like to think that I can communicate with non-human animals. I don’t eat them, and maybe that gives me an edge, since they can smell it on us. Or, maybe I am just open to other creatures, so it happens. Yes, I have opposable thumbs – big deal – I don’t think that is the only meaningful attribute in the universe.

Many years ago, we were living in Allentown, Pa., in the upper two floors of an old Victorian twin. The house sat at the top of a big hill with amazing views west, a precarious and exciting spot for watching thunderstorms roll in. The yard swept steeply downhill and, because of its pitch, stayed as a rather wild area. There were many small animals that made their homes on that hillside. I watched their daily patterns as they grazed about in the late afternoon: rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks, chipmunks and birds. There were times when I witnessed bunnies playing leapfrog in the grass, just as frolic-y and fun-loving as squirrels. I would sometimes sit in the yard and watch them as if it were a scheduled performance, one I would have gladly paid to see.

So on one of those occasions, as I was sitting in the grass, the entire community of small mammals showed up simultaneously, whereas usually their timing was as separate acts, with a bit of overlap. My partner was coming up the path alongside the house, and stopped. It was like a Disney moment, with me and these other wild creatures all going about our business in perfect harmony. A peaceable kingdom, indeed. The bunnies were perhaps a couple of feet away from me, and the whole cast of characters surrounded me, as if I were a tree in their landscape. I talked softly to them. This went on for minutes and we shared a moment. Arslocii.

Disney moment

I have always talked to animals; at a zoo, where a pacing wild cat would suddenly start purring and pressing its flank against the bars; to squirrels, many times admonishing them to stay out of harm’s way. In March, I was working in my community garden plot and was visited by a robin who, of course, was excited by the digging. I started talking to this robin, and when a huge worm would surface I would toss it over to Robin (let’s call him/her that). Every day after that, Robin would show up and serenade me, or call to me from a tree; then, upon hearing my voice, would hop over to greet me. My partner was digging in the plot one day and Robin showed up. After hearing the wrong voice, Robin flew away.

I am an appreciator of squirrels, despite the fact that so many people see them as pests. We have a small courtyard that is an oasis, if not an animal refuge, in a hard-surfaced city neighborhood. Squirrels come into our courtyard every day, sometimes to bury things, since we have one of the few breaks in the pervasive cement. One squirrel likes to eat the samaras on our paperbark maple tree. I don’t mind as long as the smaller branches don’t break, although they often do. To ameliorate the damage, I started setting out small fistfuls of peanuts in the shell. Since there is more than one squirrel, I am learning a lot about their differences. There is a huge chubby one that sits in the pile and scarfs down the nuts, scattering empty, broken shells every which way. There is a slimmer one who systematically buries all the nuts, maybe eating one or two, but leaving no trace that there ever were peanuts.

tail

I don’t put out nuts every day, maybe every few days. They all get taken, but I can tell who got them by what is left or not left behind. I have witnessed, lately, that if the fat guy got the nuts, the thin guy gets angry and kind of acts out, running around the courtyard and digging up some of the stored booty. I have talked to this particular squirrel and explained that there is more to come, just be patient.

Yesterday, the overfed one’s thievery must have happened again because the thin squirrel was excavating previously stashed nuts. And, surprisingly, a few shells were left on my steps. But the peculiar thing was that, sitting in an empty plant tray on a low wall, there was a single peanut still in its shell and with telltale dirt marks from its burial. Mind you, I always pile the nuts far from the stairs and door, to give a sense of safety to the hungry diner. Was this squirrel telling me something, making an offering, or asking for more? This had never happened before. It was a sign.

1st sign

This morning, while I am sitting at the kitchen table next to the partially open window that separates the kitchen from the courtyard, I hear a strange chirping sound. It is unfamiliar but insistent. I look out – and there is the thin squirrel looking straight at me through the door, and the chirping is emanating from the squirrel. It is a request, I understand. More nuts, please, sir. (And, so, more nuts were given.)

An interspecies communication, a breaking down of barriers, a placeness. It is a wonderful thing. And right in my own backyard.

offering

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Duke-ing It Out in New Jersey

Heading north on Route 206 in New Jersey, it is a mixed bag of visual interest. In many ways the road seems older than it is in actuality: somehow it feels quite elderly, say in American Revolutionary War age terms. But the road in its entirety is not that old (designated as Route 206 in the 1930s), although fragments of it – it is a stitched together assemblage of other roads – might be, especially around Trenton and Princeton. Overall, Route 206 slashes through New Jersey in a north-south line that almost divides the state laterally. Many sections are rural; probably for not much longer.

Route 206’s 130-some miles connect Hammonton, below the Pine Barrens, and Milford, Pa., just shy of the Delaware Water Gap. I find it significant that these two landmark areas, which are fiercely protected, tend to bookend something equally remarkable – something that is possibly equidistant from both termini.

We have travelled Route 206 fairly often, and passing through Princeton is a treat; it is so coiffed and cared for and historically fashionable. The road snakes through the town and campus, then makes its way into recently-developed, once-rural parts. Then, the two-lane highway opens up like a boa constrictor swallowing a large mammal and becomes like every other multilane highway ever conceived.

wall

But, wait, we wondered, the first time it caught our eye – what is that exquisite wall bordering the road, that anachronism of perfectly set umber river stones that seems to enclose something? What it surrounds must be something huge, because the masterfully aligned stone wall continues for miles. There are a few breaks in the wall – intentional ones with wrought-iron gates and turrets built of the same stones. What was/is that?

The next time we passed it, going in the opposite direction, I caught a glimpse of a sign – Duke Farms. Hmm. My brain started reeling; we passed a crossroad – Duke Parkway. Duke. Being a PBS watcher, I pondered the only Duke name I know – Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. I wondered.

Wall

First chance, we looked up the name. My arrow was true: It is the Duke estate, built by Doris’ father, J. B. Duke – tobacco tycoon (American Tobacco Company), early discoverer of hydroelectric (Duke Power Company) and generous benefactor to Trinity College (renamed Duke University). Doris‘ father died young, and Doris transferred her devotion to the homestead with a mostly unbuilt mansion on Route 206 – Duke Farms. Construction on the house stopped after the two-story foundation was laid, and now it is a beautiful ruin.

Doris also loved nature and she rebuilt the lavish estate as an environmental model of stewardship; her mission was to protect land, threatened species, habitats and to continue the legacy of the home she loved in a more generous way. Duke Farms is so full of placeness on every level (although it requires turning a blind eye to the tobacco roots – but, hey, America’s beauty is often built on the embarrassing underbelly of robber barons’ give-back).

Farm barnWe finally stopped to check it out. Amazing, is all I can say. Take a bazillion dollars and do something meaningful with it: arslocii. Thousands of acres of privately protected land in the midst of over-development. Go to the orientation center in the magnificent Farm Barn. I thought for sure that it was the main house, but no – this was the barn! A 22,000 square foot former horse and dairy barn, it has been greened to the max (LEED platinum) and the cafe even has vegan/vegetarian offerings. It is a kind of cathedral to environmental PC-ness. You can walk trails for 18 miles, you can ride bikes on 12 of them, there is a now-green greenhouse that looks suspiciously like the Palm House, in Kew Gardens.

If you want to see how significant this walled paradise is, look at the photograph in front of the Farm Barn that is mounted on a stand. It is an aerial view of Duke Farms with its surrounds: wall-to-wall dense housing that, at first glance, looks like cotton fields beyond the open space. Compare and contrast. Beauty and the beast.

What is also mind-boggling is that Duke Farms has been open to the public for only one year. It is, in many ways, a surprising treasure of placeness in the sometimes placeless sprawl of New Jersey lurking outside its lovely wall.

duke

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The Shadow Knows

We tend to design our living spaces with light in mind. It’s only natural: We need to see our environment – and through windows, the outside – to know things like time of day, where that object you don’t want to trip over is, whether that’s a brown shoe or a black, and so on. Light helps. That’s why so many brains have set themselves to the task of creating the best sources of light, natural and artificial. Control of light is a marker of civilization and – even if you hate compact fluorescents – progress.

We think about darkness, too, and not just in ways we can obliterate it with light. During sleep hours, in a movie theater, in moments of middle-of-the-night contemplation, for star-gazing – for most of us, the darker the better.

window well

But, lately, it’s shadows I’ve been considering. Not the necessary and mood-enhancing umbral pools at rooms’ edges, in places where table and task lighting pay no attention. No, it’s now that Spring is in the air, and the sun is higher in the sky and in spots that the  winter sun could only aspire to … it’s now that the light is hitting objects we’ve placed in windows and on doors, and reflecting off things sitting on tables and sills, and so creating designs and patterns, splashes of color and amorphous mandalas all over the walls and floors of lucky rooms. And these shadows, like Plato’s, reveal the world and the shape of structures in it that direct observation never shows us; in fact, the shadows uncover shapes and elements and physical relationships that we are totally unaware of without their assistance.

blinds

Today I have seen the sun behind tilted venetian blinds – bars and taut lines in slashes across the floor; the golden reflected light from a teapot jiggling on the wall; window grates leaving fade-in/fade-out hash marks across plant leaves. And there are some intricate weavings and playful squiggles the origins of which I still can’t determine: the light is coming from somewhere, hitting something, and projecting beauty.

glass

This is art of an improvised nature: light, as if conscious, as if sentient, playing off solids like a percussionist utilizing alleyway trash receptacles as a drum kit. Or like water, finding its way around and through even the smallest cracks and flaws, pouring in.

windowsill

We design our places for light. Perhaps we should just as purposely and consciously design our spaces for the shadows that can be thrown like ideas, sketched like gesture drawings on the canvasses of our rooms … and, just as ethereally, vanish, to return the next time, only different, a new work, a surprising bit of art.

x marks the spot

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The Road Not Taken

road to nowhereWe do not think of roads in pieces but as ongoing lengths – we even refer to them, in stories and songs, as ribbons of highway. It is almost as if, if you kept driving, a road would keep appearing under you, as needed, fabricated out of whole cloth over empty land to ensure your continued travel. When we think of roads in sections, it is usually the landmarks to the roads’ sides that we refer to – seldom (other than potholes or known construction barriers) do we consider the roadway itself. Like electricity when we flick a switch, it’s just there. And, in most places, where one road ends another comes off it. A road does not, it seems, in and of itself, have placeness, though its environment may.

That is why a so-called “road to nowhere” is so jarring, and intriguing. For, by the very nature of its stopping, literally dead in its tracks, it seems to go against “nature,” but also, by its causing us to stop dead in our tracks as well and to demand consideration of the absence of its “roadness,” it creates placeness.

Famous, of course, is the “road to nowhere” that was built to connect to the “bridge to nowhere” envisioned as connecting Ketchikan to Gravina Island, in Alaska, the scandalously wasteful, pork-barrel nature of which may have added fuel to the disenchantment with and ridicule of Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential candidate and voice of right-wing Republicanism (a road that, itself, seems happily to, finally, have gone nowhere, although the trip took longer than the projected 15 minutes).

Regularly, on the way to doing some tasks near Norristown, Pa., we have found ourselves quite suddenly and surprisingly on another such derailed road. You come off an exit from a bridge, rolling down the chute, and then you find yourself facing not the straight lanes you expect but instead a chain-link fence that diverts the road you are on to make a hairpin turn sending you off rather quickly in the opposite direction. But, before you leave the area, you can spy, behind the chain link, the road that might have been: multiple lanes go off a short distance, ending in a jungle of overgrowth – and it is as if one had reached the end of the earth before falling off, or disappearing into the wild. From up above, looking down from an overpass, you can see the abrupt disappearance of highway even more clearly. It … just … stops.

hairpin

Having had our curiosity piqued by this odd sight – a circumcised highway imprisoned like a white-collar criminal, without any indication why – a little research uncovered the backstory. Apparently, a link was imagined between two routes, to ease commuting, and, given the grand name of Schuylkill Parkway, the work was begun. And then funds ran out, right in midstream. And so, today, stands a monument to the “dream” of interlocking paths to make suburban sprawl even more conveniently sprawling, and an indictment of pouring tens of millions of dollars into a useless folly and not having the sense to spend a little more and give it usefulness. Better to let it be pointless is the logic, it seems. And should it ever come back to life as a project, how wasteful it will have been to let everything crack and crumble, with more millions needed to bring it back up to baseline buildable again.

But, if one rolls down that exit ramp, and instead of making that sharp turn and continuing on in the opposite direction, if one were to pull over and park in what would have been the road’s median – well, it is a whole different place to be. Indeed, it is a place. If no other cars are coming, one has the great, eerie pleasure of walking on a wide, deserted highway, as if all the world were gone but you, as in some Twilight Zone episode. But even better is to walk to and squeeze through the chain link, and you are in another world: A road almost never used that, in very short fashion, ends. Here, and in few other places, the highway can be looked at as a piece, as the way you might see light as particles and not rays if you had the tools to do so. It is wide and clear, but a snippet … and, in some way, sad, in the way something that does not achieve its potential is a sad thing. And, if you step farther into the stunted road, you can almost feel the quiet, and you can yourself feel like a thief, or a time traveler, or someone (Twilight Zone, again) whose time-metabolism is different from those on Earth, and that there might be cars zipping all around you, but you are out of sync with them, and thus unaffected. It feels like a place of unintentional but no less powerful art. Not holy, not spiritual, but insistent, and resonant with arslocii vibes and possibilities.

turnaround

It is like a movie set and, in fact, the city or county or state could make some money off this white elephant by making it available to filmmakers to use for car-chase and -crash scenes. Sometimes, a motor-vehicle agency puts out parking cones in this space and performs some sort of test or driving contest; it could be the perfect place to teach driver-ed classes. Or to turn into a recreational area – there is plenty of room for basketball and tennis courts. Or make it a performance venue, or show movies outdoors during the summer. Make this thing that goes nowhere be its own destination. Sometimes, nothingness is the perfect place for anythingness, because there are no restrictions, rules or preconceived notions. Sometimes, the place to start is the place where it all stops.

road end

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Singing to the Sun

Since about a hundred years ago, with the formation of the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony and the offshoot Maverick Art Colony’s performance festivals, the eastern Catskills have been resounding with art and music. In the 1960s, the folk and rock scene gathered for Sound-Outs, concerts presented on a farmer’s land situated between Saugerties and Woodstock, in rural Ulster County. This musical staging style built to a crescendo in 1969 when the Woodstock Festival’s organizers decided to put together a blowout musical happening that echoed throughout the land. It still does, decades later. But it never happened in Woodstock. What did happen, though, was that it drew musicians to this place, to share and play in a nurturing environment, surrounded by sensuous natural beauty. Many of those early musicians stayed and made their homes in the Catskills. The history of this place is rich in the arts, as rich as in its soil, water resources and contoured mountains.

wintersolstice

Currently, there is a decadelong tradition of some of these young upstart musicians, now gray of beard, getting together annually to jam and entertain themselves and the crowd, for the purpose of coaxing or welcoming the sun at the winter solstice. If I were the sun, I would be readily recalled by these true artists-in-residence. The quantity of talent that gathers on the stage each year is a bit of a crowd, and you can’t help but wonder how they will avoid stomping on each other’s musical toes. Happy Traum & Friends: Happy, once part of a folk duo with his brother Artie, is the dynamo who puts this event together; John Sebastian, of the Lovin’ Spoonful – who performed at the 1969 concert and is as fresh today; Larry Campbell, a musical machine (just hand him any instrument and watch him make it sing) with a track record that reads like a Who’s Who of rock, country and pop music;  Amy Helm, daughter of Woodstock’s own Levon, but a musician in her own right as co-founder of Ollabelle; Teresa Williams, a powerful country singer; and guests Paul Rishell & Annie Raines – two musical blues magicians, he on guitar, she on harmonica.

Rishell & Raines

The performers are so comfortable in the venue and in their abilities that there is a special casual give and take that occurs, and we the audience are privy to it. There is no fourth wall here. Just some neighbors, gathered together to be amazed and amused. The sounds are beautiful. The musicians are pros, but there are no airs, no pretense of them being there as paid pipers playing. Their faces tell us that they are enjoying this annual event as much as we are, and relishing the interaction with each other. It is a thing to behold. And the music, always at a high level, can overwhelm you with its emotional content and real feeling, like shockwaves bouncing through the auditorium. You are completely in the moment and the music fills you as you disappear into the sound. Arslocii.

The night and the performances are intertwined, just as are the multitude of guitars and voices. These musicians breathe music, it exudes from their pores. There is nothing contrived, no trickery. Just music, flowing in through your ears, hovering like a puffy cloud around your brain, teasing and fleeing, diving down into your toes, then soaring back up into your lungs and filling them to the point of gasping, and settling around your heart – the place where the sound will reside forever … or at least until the next year’s concert. This special musical event is the return of the light just at the darkest moment, when you need it the most. It is the alchemy of turning sound into light.

Solstice Concert

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