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Like most everyone else, I have been bunker hunkering, like some 1920’s gangster, holed up in a house, fearful of each approaching human. And like most everyone else, a bit of cabin fever intrudes. I peek out the window and see a yard across the street with a Bradford pear tree like a snowstorm of white, and the lawn is beginning to get unkempt. The temperature has moderated and the sky is filled with crisp, dry air. And so, I have to get out. 

For me, the best solution is to drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway. Its entrance is only a few hundred yards from my house. I can stay sealed up in the car but find a place where the horizon is still marked by the distance where the curvature of the earth bends the rest down and away from my sight. When you are stuck at home, it is easy to think of the planet as consisting of four walls; things are cubicular and static. But get out into the mountains, up high where you see for such a length, and you are again standing on the apex of a globe. Everything falls away from you, both geographically and emotionally. Anxiety thins. 

This century has redefined nature. In the 19th century of Thoreau and Emerson, nature was green and pleasant. To Emerson, nature was the outer manifestation of deity. Earlier, to Wordsworth, “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,/ The earth, and every common sight,/ To me did seem/ Appareled in celestial light.”

To Byron nature was so vast not even humankind could mar it. Our century has proven him wrong. For us, nature can no longer be the birds and beasties, the green leaves and burbling streams, the sky above and the soil below. We have filled the oceans — where Byron said man’s control “stopped with the shore” — with tangles of plastic waste the size of islands. In our cities, we have turned the transparent air into murk. We have left our rivers thick with the runoff of pigpens. 

The television nature programs I grew up with, that showed us the wildebeest swarming on the veldt and the flying squirrel gliding from tree to tree, have turned into chronicles of rapine and threatened extinction. Those documentaries are now alarums to wake the public to what it is losing. 

The Antarctic ice is thinning, the oceans are swelling, the bees are coughing and the once myriad cod have turned into shriveling shoals. It is hard to think of nature the way I did when I was young. 

“There hath past away a glory from the earth.” 

When I was in my 20s (which was 50 years ago), I was a bird watcher, a hiker, a camper, an amateur astronomer and a gardener. I knew the name of every tree and wildflower or weed. I had an almost mythic connection to the earth: It glowed every day, like a van Gogh painting, buzzing and whirling. Every bush was the burning bush. A surge of brain chemicals blasted my emotions. I was giddy. Now, half a century later, it is not now as it hath been of yore. “Whither is fled the visionary gleam?” “At length the Man perceives it die away,/ And fade into the light of common day.”

Career and responsibilities, the vicissitudes of living, the betrayals of love and the deaths of those we loved, have all risen to take too much space in our journals. And so, in my senescence I have drawn away from what we used to call nature, and that selfsame nature has itself decayed and left me. 

But not completely. I drive up the road into the hills, through the tunnels, into the high country where the sun shines and the wind blows the shadows of clouds across the flanks of the peaks. It is April and the dogwoods become galaxies of stars against the darker, still-leafless trees behind them. When I look down at the valleys, I see in the lower elevations the bright young leaves swelling from the buds. It is certainly beautiful, but it isn’t just beauty that makes this important. 

We are facing a new virus and most of us, and especially those of us on the shorter end of life’s measuring stick, feel an immediate threat. We may die. We always knew that, but now we can almost touch it and taste it on our fingertips. It is not theoretical. 

And so, I get out of my car in a roadside pullout and look down from the mountain into the woods beside the road and see the fresh buds and the tree branches that sway and the shoots springing tip first through the forest litter and I know that it is another spring, my seventy-second, and one more of millions that make a wake behind the present going back before there was any consciousness to know it. On the uphill side of the road there are stony outcroppings and those folded strata tell me of eons of continuity. 

I have heard, as you have, poets and essayists talk about the importance of nature, and I have at times winced at what seemed to me the perfervid sentimentality of such bromides. After all, everyone knows, or else, should know, that if nothing drastic is done, we’re all going to hell and taking the world with us. The news is 24 hours a day bad, or at least the talking heads tell us so. Over and over. 

But when I go to the woods, it is quiet except for the “small fowls that make melody and sleep all night with open eye.” And the hurly-burly slows and I am forced to know that there is a rhythm that is not that of CNN, that whether it is plague or influenza or corona virus, we have inhaled and exhaled this pestilence before, that the world endures, with me or without me. My frame of reference, like my horizon, expands.

So, it isn’t the simple beauty of the natural world that does me needed good. Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony has six movements and they include such titles as “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me,” “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me,” and ends with “What Love Tells Me.” And what they all join to say is a harmony and a flow. And so, as I drive along the Parkway, I listen to that music on the CD player and the outside and inside, the world and my thoughts and feelings, all twine together into a singularity, mind as mirror to the world, and world as mirror to mind. Pan awakes, Summer marches in. 

Click any image to enlarge


Why do I do this?

The year I was born, the New York School of painters was coalescing. When I was an adolescent, they were ascendant. They were my boys: Jackson, Willem, Franz, Barney and Mark. 

(And they were boys. It was years before Helen and Lee were fully recognized.) 

During those years, the boys were flying high, but they still needed to be argued for. The mass of people continued to make fun of them. “My three-year-old could do that.” 

But to me, their power and meaning was manifest. During my teenage years, I spent many hours at the Museum of Modern Art, soaking in those great works. I spent way more of my time at MoMA than I did at the MET. 

They were called “Abstract Expressionists,” but at the time, for most people, abstract meant distorted. Picasso was the most famous artist in the world — the most famous abstract painter, and his subjects were still recognizable as bulls and guitars.

But for the New York School, it would be hard to name a subject. When Jackson Pollock was quizzed about what was his audience looking at, he said, “A painting.” 

There came to be a distinction made between abstract art and what was called “Non-Objective.” My boys were the latter. They weren’t imitating the world, but creating a new one. 

Yet, while I can honestly say I spent 10 hours at MoMA for every one I spent at the Metropolitan, the museum that became my spiritual home was the American Museum of Natural History. I didn’t just enjoy it; I loved it. I still do. 

At AMNH, I met the wonders of the natural world, from the giant blue whale hanging from the ceiling to the “Soil Profiles of New York State.” There were dinosaur bones and the colossal Olmec head. Rooms filled with rock collections and the great, illuminated theater of dioramas with their dramatis personae of stuffed bears and lions. 

I had the luck of growing up in rural New Jersey. While it was only a short bus ride to the George Washington Bridge and civilization, it was also a land of woods and streams — one ran through our property. Red fox and white-tailed deer would occasionally pass through our lawn. Tract housing and mini-malls had not yet taken over. 

So, I had these two very polar influences pulling me: On one hand, there was the manifesto of the art world that painting should be painting, and not an image of the world; on the other, I was in love with nature and the world of seasons, leaves, birds and geology. 

This tension still thrives in me. In 1998, I got to see the huge Pollock retrospective at MoMA and the painter’s 1952 masterpiece, Blue Poles, which was on loan from its home in Australia. The 16-foot-wide painting was intensely beautiful; I stood in awe — and that is not too strong a word, despite its current depreciation among the cell-phone generation, for whom even a cheese doodle can be “awesome.” 

Yet, on the same trip, I also went back to the Natural History Museum. Entering its dark and marble halls was an act of love — and that is not too strong a word. 

Since then, the art world has walked through several new rooms: Pop, Conceptual, Postmodern. And each of them seems to step further back from the physical sensation of the the natural world. 

Pop wants us to recognize cultural artifacts as worthy subjects for consideration — and they certainly are. 

Conceptual art removes us from even that, into a world of pure idea, and those ideas are often so removed from our everyday experience as to be unintelligible for the mass of people. And often kind of silly. Often the art would be better expressed in words. Write an essay. 

Postmodernism seems to tell us that there is nothing but rehash of old imagery, and what is more, even those are really about power relationships and keeping the little guy down, especially if he is a she or is melanin-enhanced. 

Certainly, there is among these isms, much art of value and meaning. And I often agree with the political ideas expressed. But I have always missed in them a sense of love for the things of this world — the smells, textures, colors, shapes of the things we use and inhabit. 

I have never given up on that. 

In some ways, this dichotomy is the difference between reason and empiricism. Conceptual and Postmodern art think their way through the world. What I value is experiencing my way through it. Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting. 

But I still have this memory lodged in my psyche of Pollock and Kline and Rothko and de Kooning. 

So, I have at times attempted a synthesis. I love nature. Rocks and trees and birds and bees. The ocean and lakes; the canyons and grasslands; the swamps and forests.

Ah, but even as I read that, I know those are words. It isn’t rocks and trees, really. It is the hardness and grain of a particular granite, the different bark of birch and yew. It is the spot upon which I stand at any given moment and what I feel as breeze on my skin, what sun glare I shade my eyes from. 

And in that granite or in that tree bark, there are shapes, textures, colors. I touch them. I see them.

There is a place I have visited many times in Maine. It is Schoodic Point, which is a part of Acadia National Park. The main park on Mt. Desert Island, is crowded and developed, but some 40 miles northeast, by road, there is the Schoodic Peninsula, jutting out into the ocean. At its tip, it is bare, hard rock and spume and surf. The wind is usually raw and comparatively few visitors come there, especially in the fall and winter. 

(The double-O in the middle of Schoodic is pronounced like the double-O in “good.”)

There, I can use my camera to record the abstract expressionist details that combine the emphasis on form and texture with an engagement with the natural world. It is a chance to reconcile those conflicting parts of my being. 

There is in some religions and mystical philosophies a contemptus mundi that I cannot share. The world is beautiful — not pretty, but beautiful; even its ugliness is beautiful. 

In 1928, the German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch published a book in which his images of the world, both natural and industrial, found pattern and form in details excerpted from context. It was named, Die Welt ist schoen. 

That has become a watchword for me: When you engage with it as deeply as you can — and we are each different in this respect — when you so engage with it, you discover that Moses was not exceptional; every bush is the burning bush.

That is what makes those cypresses of Van Gogh so penetrating, the haywain of Constable, the waterlilies of Monet, the peppers of Edward Weston, the simple crockery of Chardin, the rabbit of Durer. Die Welt ist schoen. 

So, I cannot worry if my humble images are important art or not, or whether it is art at all. Muche wele stant in litel besinesse. 

This is my tiny translation of Schoodic into image, the finding of the same elements Pollock sublimated into his canvasses, but here extracted from the hard edge of stone.

Click on any image to enlarge

 

In a corner of the Fifth Arrondissement, next to the Gare d’Austerlitz, is a public garden that has come to be one of our touchstones of a visit to France. We go back each time. It is not one of the tourist hotspots, like the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre, but because we found it on our own during our first trip to Paris, it has become an old friend.
The Jardin des Plantes was built in the 17th century as the king’s garden, and initially grew medicinal and kitchen herbs, but later became one of those demonstration gardens in which pioneering botanists planted samples of vegetation they had collected on voyages around the globe.
Around the periphery of the garden are a zoo and several museums of natural history. Some are so old they practically grow fungus; one has been updated to become a sight-seeing draw — at least for the thousands of school children who bus there daily on class trips.
As we visited in 2002, it seems I was caught up again in the conundrum of the opposing French tendencies to formalize and regularize nature, as in its famous gardens, and to see nature as something red in tooth and claw: the opposing tendencies of classicism and romanticism.

Again, click on any photo to enlarge.

jardin main walkway

Friday, March 29
Jardin des Plantes

The Jardin des Plantes is a collection of odds and ends — various gardens, a small zoo, a bunch of superannuated museums, some sooperwhoopie new attractions and lots of old, old trees.jardin natural history facade

At the far end is one of the true treasures of France, although I’m not sure anyone here knows it. The Galerie de paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée is one of those Beaux Arts buildings, the kind with the names of noted scientists carved around the frieze, that are so common in the old museum world.

It is a long, thin building, two stories tall. From the side, you can see in the windows that there are “wonderful things,” as Howard Carter once said: the long spiny backbone of a whale, skeletons of prehistoric mammals and birds.jardin natural history eagle

But the building itself is notable. It is decorated on all sides with the most beautiful and decorative sculpture of the natural world. As an underpinning to window sills there are lobsters, hermit crabs, birds. In panels along the side of the building are giant wolves and lions. Above the entrance is a great eagle holding a lamb. A frieze completely bands the building with alternating scallop and vollute shells. Another panel on the west side has a beaver. Yet another has a scene with a man grappling with a bear cub over the dead body of its mother. Another had two men stealing young eaglets, having killed one adult, but with a second adult attacking the men.Orang and Indian

It was a 19th Century version of the Gothic love of nature.

But there is also a clue to the essential French character. As we entered the museum, on the queue for the tickets, there was a grand marble statue of a crazed adult orangutan strangling a prostrate nude Indian. It was a horrible struggle, with the man wounded, a gaping slash in his forearm, and the ape with his long arms extended down, holding the neck and head of the man flat, with his eyes bulging.

This is a version of nature with long teeth, a vision of nature as both beautiful and vicious, a kind of sublime: awesome in its seductive danger.

There is a dichotomy in French culture. One is first made aware of it in the Gothic cathedrals. There, nature is everywhere, and not a storybook nature, but an experienced one, a familiar one. If the church preached a contemptus mundi, it failed to gain traction, at least on first go-around. You can sense the love of the natural world that invests every carving, every Gothic tapestry.jardin walkway with pollard trees

That classicism that I mentioned yesterday, that stylizes and sublimated grubby nature is the other French impulse. And I see a kind of continuous war between the love of nature and the fear of it. Classicism is on one level a kind of defanging of nature.

But the French seem always aware, underneath, of the tooth and claw. So, in the Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy, the orang is seizing man, elsewhere, man is seizing the eaglet and bear cub. It is “man against nature, nature against man, god against man, man against god. Very funny religion.”jardin from above

Perhaps the perpetual French classicizing derives not from a separation of humankind and nature, but rather from a constant awareness — and wariness — of the natural world.

The need to create, as at the Jardin des plantes, of a “jardin systematique,” or to display, as at the Gallery of Paleontology, all those gory skeletons of Siamese twins, and cats’ brains in formaldehyde, comes from that fascination with nature that is akin to a fascination with death, violent, bloody death.

I had never before understood — or thought I understood — this classicizing impulse in French culture, but today’s visit to the natural history museum has given me a clue.

Americans think of nature as vast and sublime. For Germans, nature is a place to exercise briskly. English nature tends to be bucolic: a cottage, a few sheep and a porringer. French nature is all tentacles and talons.jardin tree

O'keeffe Lawrence TreeAside from all this theorizing, the Jardin was a wonderful place. There is a huge tree, a cedar of Lebanon, planted here in 1743. It’s feathery canopy spreads out like Yggdrasil. I made a photo of it in imitation of Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Lawrence Tree.”

The Grande Galerie de l’Évolution — also at the Jardin des plantes — is as modern as the paleontology museum is musty. A shining example of modern museology, it houses an old collection of taxidermy and gives it a new spin, assembling the old stuffed animals in new arrangements, with dramatic lighting and display.jardin interior

On four floors — although to call them floors is an injustice, for they are really a series of catwalks and mezzanines hanging over a four-story cavity, filled with glass elevator shafts. Meanwhile, a parade of animals, as if marching to Noah’s boat, weaves through the central second floor.jardin elephant

It was a great plan to modernize what was once a dusty old display of vitrines and taxidermy.

But the final highlight of the day came next door at the great 19th century greenhouse and conservatory, Les Grandes Serres. The three-story-high greenhouse, like a long loaf of glass, was filled with tropical and exotic plants, dripping with moisture. At one end of the interior, a two-story waterfall has been built of concrete, with vines hanging down, dripping water.

My eyes turned on and I began making photos, in a way it only happens when my eyes are on. Made nearly 200 pictures. Another in the series of garden photos.grand serre 1

grand serre 4grand serre banana treegrand serre displaySpent from that, we began walking home. Carole got a cassis ice cream cone, purple and sharp.jardin ice cream stand

We got back to the room and dropped off to sleep, missing dinner.

Carole’s picks of the day:

carole and coffeeThat cafe au lait and the croissant. The one I had today was even better than the one I had before. I enjoyed being able to communicate in French. The images of the images at Ste. Chapelle keep coming back to me. I loved the statue of the orangutan strangling the Indian. The parade of animals at the museum of evolution (like a Disney Noah’s ark). The plants in the garden systematique. My favorite thing was the female lions on the front of the museum of natural history. All the wonderful sculptures of animals there: lobsters on windowsills, hermit crabs. Those wonderful animals. Oh, the croque monsieur was incredible. Sliced bread with very thin ham and bechemal sauce and some kind of white cheese, then fried, perhaps dipped in egg batter first. Oh, and finding the wonderful little wooden toys for the grandbabies. Oh, and the Redoute rose and lily book. Richard looked so serious about the grandbabies. Seeing Richard’s joy in the greenhouse.

Richard’s faves:

grand serre 5The sculptural decor on the Galerie de paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée was unforgettable. All those rich animal designs crusted on the masonry. I’m sure I don’t know why they don’t sell a catalogue raisonee of the carvings. It’s a treasure. Inside, the Orang attacking the Indian was a hoot. The hoard of skeletons inside was breathtaking (photographie interdite). The Jardins des plantes in general was special, but when we entered the greenhouse, I went buggy: My eyes turned on and I went nuts with the camera. All that vegetal variety, all that green fecundity, all that sinuous vinosity and verdant threat. It was the mille fleurs and Gothic acanthus leaves come to life.

weeds lede photoI love gardens. My three most recent gallery shows have been of photographs taken in gardens. I photograph the gardens of most of my friends to make “books,” or series of images. Flowers are about growth, change, diversity, fecundity — and beauty. choke cherry 2

Yet, there is something in what I love about growing plants that is found in even more condensed form in the rankness of weeds. Gardens are wonderful, but weeds satisfy something philosophical deep in my soul. My own gardens have always been unkempt, and I tend not to weed out those plants that others fear will suffocate their more prized plantings. Weeds have a strength, if not a refinement, that I find almost heartbreaking. Right now, beside the roses and gladiolas that my wife planted, there is a great purple stalk of pokeweed, its berries still green against the fuschia of its stems. I prize it above the more formal and familiar plantings. weeds 09

Nothing lifts my heart up more than a clump of goldenrod beside the road, a spray of chickory, the tall swaying stalks of Joe Pye weed. It doesn’t even take the flowers: Even before they bloom, I like the sprawling weediness of their greens. chickory

And now is weed season. Yes, they grow year round, but the end of summer and the incipient autumn are when the weeds glory. Driving down the country roads of the Blue Ridge, you pass oceans of them, all colors and sizes, all rank and fertile.

I’m calling them weeds because their other name — wildflowers — makes them sound too pretty, and makes them sound like something you look up in a Peterson guide. Not all of the weeds I respond to even have the color dots you would call flowers. Sometimes their flowers are tiny and unnoticed; sometimes they stink instead of filling the nostrils with perfumes. grass in driveway

It isn’t just their appearance that moves me, although I revel in their varied shapes and forms, their repetitions of leaflets and their snaky tendrils; it is the very idea of weeds — the sense that life will force its way into the least cracks of concrete, will fill any emptiness and break through any barrier. I love to see some abandoned factory with vines covering its brick facade, and through its windows you may see ailanthus cracking up the interior floors. Others may rue the kudzu spreading over the trees, but I love the new forms we have, almost as if the trees were pulling sheets over their heads to play ghost. weeds 08

My love came early: When I was a boy, there was an empty farm field next to our house in northern New Jersey. In a few years, plant succession had covered it with stickers and grasses, later, saplings, and even before I moved away to college, there was such a dense thicket of young trees, it looked like a magnified view of the hairs on the back of a dog; you could hardly walk through the density. I have gone back to see the forest that it became; it has since been cleared and now someone is building tract housing there. Sometime in the future, it will be taken back by the vegetative maw that eventually devours everything. weeds 07

Some of my favorite places in a city are those that are forgotten, mostly, places that simply don’t have a use, being either too small, or not geometric enough to easily create deeds of title — spaces between properties left ambiguous of ownership, or little triangles next to on-ramps or beside old railroad sidings.composite Here the intention of humankind plays no part and weeds are left to themselves. There you find the yarrow and the cow itch, the Duchesnia indica and the knotweed. There what you find, and which I find so precious, is profusion. When humans become involved, you too often find monoculture, organization, rows and aisles, sameness, monotony and worse — usefulness.

The problem with usefulness is that it causes us to value something for how it might benefit us, turning it into a single descriptor, a one-dimensional entity, rather than a rich, multiple, various thing. An it rather than a thou. It ceases to be a part of the physical world and becomes instead a word — a concept instead of a living thing. Fie!weeds 04

There are things that are pretty — and some weeds count, too — but what I find beautiful, a concept so much larger than prettiness, as the universe is larger than the solar system, is profusion, fertility, irrepressibility — life.

Variety is not so much the spice of life, as life itself. Nature tries everything. It has no plan, motive or goal; it simply keeps putting stuff out there, like Blake’s mythical creative deity, Los.

“Exuberance is beauty.”weeds 10

This carries over into other areas of life. I enjoy all art, but I love the confusions of the Baroque, the exudations of the Romantic 19th century. If you compare Racine or Dryden with Shakespeare, you see the difference. Those 18th century unities are boring, while the uncontrolled profusion of metaphors in the Bard, and his shaggy plots and contradictory personae are the very stuff of life. The one rich and luscious, the other dry and didactic.

Victorian literature shares that didacticism, but even among the tidy moral lessons of Whittier and Longfellow, you have the weedy, rank profusion of language and thought and feeling that is Walt Whitman. How those of propriety hated the Good Gray Poet. Certainly, lots of Whitman is awful, repetitive and oracular, but then there is “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Emily Dickinson wrote some of the worst gobbledy-gook every published, but among her profusion of cryptic word-knots,  fruited with a million hyphens or dashes — certainly one of my favorite punctuations — there are such perfections that you are grateful for the weeds that give us such bounty. weeds 03

Simplicity is the enemy of life. When I hear a politician propound a dogmatic solution to an intractable problem, I sigh. When anyone has a simple answer, applied liberally (or conservatively), I know he is either a charlatan or a dunce. Probably both.

Such politics posits a final stasis, when all problems are solved by the simple prescription of an unchanging mantra: reduce taxes, reduce regulation, shrink government and Eden will be rebuilt. The political left is just as guilty, although we hear about it rather less. Communism equally anticipated an “end of history.” Problem solved.

Both sides fail to recognize that politics is ever shifting and cannot be otherwise. Interests contend, compromises are reached, grow out of date and so new compromises are found, no more permanent than the last. It is all weeds. We should value those weeds.

arrow earth
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” wrote John Keats. He may have intended that ironically, although it has been taken literally by many. Truth is beauty — well, at least in this: that artists have always sought to express the truth, at least as they have known it.John Keats

Art is, in large part, an attempt to discover truth in the welter of the chaos and confusion that is our lives. We write a play and test whether the ideas our characters believe can hold up under scrutiny. We paint canvasses in an attempt to discover what the world looks like. We write music to explore our emotional coherence.

In short, science is the test we give to hard fact; art is the test we give to everything else.

If you look at the broad expanse of cultural history (including art, literature, music, architecture — even politics and religion), you find each generation attempting to ameliorate the fallacies, misconceptions and naivete of their parents’. It is an ongoing march.

(The 20th century was deluded into thinking that there was a directional arrow to this process, and that they were the conclusion of the historical process, the end result of all that dialectic. That was their naivete.)

But the process continues: Our children see right through us. Their children will see through them.

The real “truth” is that our experience is too multifarious, to contradictory, ever to be summarized by a single cultural moment. This does nothing to minimize the efforts of all those generations before us to attempt to understand their lives. Each attempt is heroic in its own way. And each is truthful in its own way.

This constant shifting can be seen in the back-and-forth of certain cultural constants, which I call the pendulums. They swing back and forth. In gross outline, they are the classic and romantic ideas, the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses. But the pendulums are more complex than that simplicity implies. There are dozens, scores, hundreds of competing and repeating ideas that jostle each other out of the way temporarily, only to reappear in their turn and push back.

In the previous blog post, I discussed one of these ideas — the primacy in their turns of the generalized, universalized image, versus the individualized and particularized.

But there are many more oppositions, many more pendulums, swinging back and forth over our shared history.

(My survey encompasses primarily Western art tradition, because it is the one I know best, the one I swim in, but other cultures share the dynamic, albeit with differing permutations. Just consider the Chinese art that swings from the formality of Chen Honshou to the spontaneity of Mu-Ch’i or Pa-ta-shan-jen).chen hongshou and bada sharen

Society or Cosmos

I wanted to look at just a few of these other oppositions in Western culture.

A second large group of oppositions concerns the subject matter, and whether the artist is concerned with man as a social being, an individual set in a welter of humanity — or whether he is concerned with the individual against the background of nature or the cosmos.

In the 18th Century, for instance, Alexander Pope wrote that “The proper study of mankind is man.”

The novel, which investigates human activity in its social setting, came from the same century. Fielding and Defoe come from that century.Prometheus

The succeeding century is concerned more with man in nature, or man in his loneliness, or fighting the gods and elements. One thinks of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound or Byron’s Manfred.

Such poetry would have been considered utter nonsense 50 years earlier. One hundred years later, and they were taken for nonsense once again.

One only has to look at Pope and Wordsworth to see the difference.

I said these pendulums swing at different rates: After Romanticism in writing, we swing back to the social nature of Flaubert or Thackery or Dickens. The pendulum tends to remain social through the early part of this century. Eliot, despite his religious conversion, is eminently concerned with man and man, and sees religious conviction as a social good.

But when we hit the mid-century, the pent-up spirituality bursts out with the Beat writers, with the Abstract Expressionists, with Existential philosophy

The social-cosmic pendulum does not swing in synch with the general-particular pendulum.

Social — Cosmic

Limits — No limits

This world — The next world

Political — Apolitical

Regional — International

Active participation — Retreat from world

Rational — Magical

Emblem — Myth

Incarnation — Transcendence

Society — Nature

Nature as desert — Nature as cathedral

Dramatic — Lyric

Irony — Sincerity

Clarity and Ambiguity

The third large category is the fight between clarity and ambiguity. One age likes its art simple and direct; the next likes it textured, complex and busy.

The classic example, of course, is the shift from Renaissance classicism to Baroque emotionalism.

In a Renaissance painting, the artist made sure everything could be seen clearly. He lined everything up with the picture frame, lit it with a general illumination so that confusing shadows would be minimized.

Look at this Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno.

castagno

See how clear it all is. But the Baroque painter Tintoretto had a different vision of the same biblical event. It is writhing, twisting out into deep space, with deep shadows and obscure happenings.

tintoretto

The Renaissance liked stability and clarity, the Baroque, motion and confusion.

Like the David of Michelangelo and the Bernini statue of Apollo and Daphne.

david and apollo and daphne

Or the Birth of Venus of Botticelli

botticelli

and the Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio.

caravaggio

In buildings, you can see the shift from the Gothic, with its infinite variety and crenelated detail, obscuring the larger structural designs to the clarity of ornament and design in Christopher Wren’s  St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.st pauls milan cathedrals

You can hardly see the actual walls of the Gothic cathedral, so overwhelmed are they by buttresses and sculptures.

But St. Paul’s is a monument to line and form, clearly seen and designed.

Clarity — Ambiguity

Limits — Freedom

Simplicity — Complexity

Unity — Diversity

Drawing — Painting

Stasis — Energy

Regulation — Impulse

Overall — Detail

Formal — Organic

Codify — Explore

Stability — Change

Rules — Anything goes

Clarity — Obscurity

Old form — New form

Discrete disciplines — Mix and match

Relevant or Isolated

Another shift concerns whether art should serve some wider function, like moral instruction or a search for scientific truth, or whether art has no purpose but to stimulate our esthetic tastes. Art for art’s sake.

Should the art hang on the wall to be looked at, or should it decorate the handle of the shovel or spoon? Should it remain outside the mores of its time, or should it be used as propaganda for a righteous cause? Is it merely to look at, or should a Madonna teach you something about your religion?

This is a concern that has become important in the art of our time. A whole herd of artists arose in the 1960s who saw art as divorced from life. Color Field painters preached the gospel: “Art can make nothing happen.”

noland kruger pair

But Postmodernism is largely about inserting political thought into the paintings. Art for art’s sake is declared “elitist” and “irrelevant” and the new art must be judged on its political truth.

 

Art as Art — Art for Function

Entertainment — Edification

Style — Content

Apolitical — Political

Ignore past — Embrace past

Retreat from world — Active participation

Art on wall — Art on implement

Technical — Visionary

Vocation — Inspiration

Contemplation — Propaganda

Ideal — Practical

Tribal or Cosmopolitan

The history of art also pulsates with the shift from nationalistic to international styles, from that which is specific to an ethnic or identity group, and that which seeks to transcends those limitations. The Gothic style as an international style, but the Renaissance is either Italian or Northern. The Baroque breaks up further into French, Dutch, Italian, Flemish.

In music, Bach imitated the national styles in his English and French suites and his Italian Concerto.

But the Galant and Classical styles that replaced it vary little from country to country. Perhaps the Italian is a little lighter and the German a little more complex, but you can’t get simpler or more direct than Mozart.

Nationalism reasserted itself in the next century, so that you have whole schools of Czech music, French, Russian.

In the early 20th Century, internationalism took charge once more and for a while, everybody was writing like Stravinsky.

The main architectural style of the first half of this century is even called “The International Style.”

But ethnic identity is back, and art is once again seen as a key to identity.

Exclusionary — Syncretic

Limits — No limits

Theocratic — Humanistic

Reinforce ethos — Challenge ethos

Regional — International

Nationalism — Cosmopolitanism

Discrete disciplines — Mix media

Ajax Defending Greek Ships Against Trojans

All of us or just me

One of the big shifts is between what I call “ethos” and “ego.”

That is, art that is meant to embody the beliefs of an age, thoughts and emotions that everyone is believed to share — or art that is the personal expression of the individual making it.

We have so long taken it for granted that an artist is supposed to “express himself,” that we forget it has not always been so. Did Homer express his inner feelings in the Iliad? Or are those emotions described the emotions he expected everyone would understand and share? He tells of what Achilles is feeling, or Ajax or Hector or Priam — and they are deep and profound emotions — but they give no clue to what Homer was feeling.

In music, Haydn’s symphonies were written about as being powerfully emotional. Nowadays, we think of Haydn as a rather cerebral composer. If we want emotion, we go to Beethoven or Schubert. You cannot listen to Schubert’s string quintet and not believe it expresses the deepest emotions that its composer was suffering at the time. It is his emotion. We may share it, but it is his.

Ethos — Ego

General — Particular

Investigate world — Investigate self

Chorus — Individual

Rectitude — Bohemianism

Anonymous creator — Signed art

Vocation — Inspiration

Atelier — Single creator

Talent — Genius

Depiction of emotion — Expression of emotion

Head or Heart

baudelaireThen, there is the fight between wit and sentiment.

To some generations, art needs to take a cool, ironic view of the world. Cervantes in his Quixote, or Pope in his Rape of the Lock.

To other generations, art is about human emotion. The more a person feels, the better the art.

Wit was the hallmark of the 18th century. Sentiment of the 19th. It was a common issue of discussion. Everyone knew just what you meant when you used the terms.

Did you wish to write “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”? or did you want to release pent up emotions, creating something new, never felt before? That’s what Baudelaire did.

Wit — Sentiment

Irony — Sincerity

Universal — Particular

Intellect — Emotion

External — Internal

Reinforce ethos — Challenge ethos

Artifice — Naturalism

Social — Cosmic

Verbal — Sensuous

Society — Nature

Emblem or Myth

Penultimately, there is the swing from art which uses its symbols emblematically and that which uses it mythologically.

That is, if you use a symbol, does it stand “for” something else — as cupid stands easily for love in so much pastoral poetry — or does it partake of that which it expresses — that is, in photographer Minor White’s wonderful formulation: “what it is and what ELSE it is.”faerie queene

Cupid is an emblem. The Cross on the Knight’s shield in The Faerie Queene is an emblem. Moby Dick is a myth. One is easily translatable, the other is not and opens itself to investigating that which cannot be put in mere words or images.

A Classic age tends to be emblematic, a Baroque or Romantic age tends to be mythic. The one uses symbols as shorthand, the other as incredibly convoluted mental images that point at, but don’t touch, what it means. It is the opposite of shorthand.

Ovid is the acme of the emblematic. Homer of the mythic. Homer’s gods — for all their occasional silliness — are actual divinities. Ovid’s are puppets playacting for our amusement.

Emblem — Myth

Universal — Particular

Intellectual — Emotional0 R

Simplicity — Complexity

Unity — Diversity

Stasis — Energy

Regulation — Impulse

External — Internal

Secular — Religious

Style — Content

Synthetic — Organic

Miniature — Epic

Ironic — Sincere

Mimesis or Poiesis

And finally, there is the issue of whether art should imitate the appearance of nature, or should imitate the processes of nature. That is, whether art is mimetic or poetic. Should it copy or create from whole cloth?

We have seen in our century the change from abstract art to images. Abstraction once seemed unassailable. It was the serious art; anything else was trivial.

kandinsky mondrian pair

lichtenstein 2Well, we got over that. From the time of Pop Art, art has increasingly attempted to look, in some form or other, like the world.

It hasn’t done this in imitation of the look of paintings from earlier centuries. That look cannot come back, or cannot be used without irony.

But artists today paint images of people and things. They are identifiable. Some are almost like the old paintings.

Richard Diebenkorn was hailed as an abstract artist in the 60s.

When he began returning to the figure, he was at first castigated.

diebenkorn before and afterNow he is seen as a prophet.

Abstraction wasn’t only in painting. Waiting for Godot is an abstract play. Gertrude Stein wrote abstract prose. Carl Andre wrote abstract poetry.

Mimesis — Poiesis

Imitation — Abstraction

Particular — General

Individual — Universal

Observed –Stylized

Detail — Overall

Edification — Entertainment

Content — Style

Naturalism — Artifice

Investigate world — Investigate self

Scientific realism — Emotional realism

Stretching the frame

Before we leave the subject, we should point out that oppositions are entirely dependent on context. Baptists and Lutherans are opposites until we pair them as Protestants against Catholics, and we pair those against, say, Islam as the opposite of Christianity, or those paired as religions of the book against, let’s pick, Hinduism, but then we can pair those as religions against atheism, and pair them as belief systems against thoughtlessness, and pair them as philosophies against — well, whatever is the opposite of philosophy.

There are an uncounted number of oppositions; I have listed a few I have considered. I could elaborate blogs about each of pair them.

But you get the picture.

 

Selva Oscura

WHEN you are young, it is easy to be in love with art. You may love its artifice, you may love the colors or the rhymes or the great blaring sounds of the music you listen to. Art is vibrant; it seems so alive. But most of all, you are in love with the sense of importance iart brings: It seems to validate the belief we all have when we are young that our own lives matter, that we count in the larger scheme of things.

We are all Tristan, Achilles or Holden Caulfield.

Perhaps that is why the young make so much art. They are not yet unhappy with it, not yet dissatisfied at the lies that art creates, not yet disgusted with the prettiness of it all.

Most of all, the art we make when we are young imitates the art we have come to love: Art most often imitates art, not life. There is so much bad imitation T.S. Eliot written in college, so much abstract painting of no consequence, so much herd-instinct.

I have been as guilty as anyone. In my 50 years of photography, the bulk of my work has been imitation Ansel Adams or Edward Weston or Irving Penn. I was learning to make images that I could recognize as art, because it looked like the art I knew.Old photos

Big mistake.

Go to any art gallery and you see the same process unfolding. Imitation Monet here, imitation Duchamp there, imitation Robert Longo there. Whatever the current trend is in art, there are acolytes and epigones.

At some point, as you age and if you are lucky, you let all this shed off you, and you no longer care about art. What takes its place is caring about the world, caring about the experience of being alive. It isn’t going to last long, so you begin paying attention: close attention to soak in as much as you can before you die.

In a sense, when you are young, you test your life against the art you know and love, to see whether you measure up to it; when you are older, this turns around, and you test the art against your life, to see whether the art measures up.

And if you are inclined toward art, you give up caring whether you are making “great” art, or whether you are part of the great parade of art history, and you care only about what you see, hear, touch, smell and taste. The world becomes alive and art faces to pathetic simulacrum.

When you reach this point, then you can begin making art. And you make it for yourself, not for posterity. You make it to attempt to capture and hold the world you love, or to understand the world, or to transcend it, when it becomes too difficult to endure or accept.

Week's Bay Bog Alabama

2

The first garden I made was a vegetable garden in the front yard of the North Carolina house I was renting in the early 1970s. I grew the usual tomatoes and peppers, beans and spinach. I also ventured into eggplant, which turned into the most successful part of the garden, to my surprise.

But what I really learned from my garden is the difference between the neat, orderly photographs in the seed catalogs and the rampant, weedy, dirt-clod messiness of the real thing. Gardens, I discovered, were not military rows of uniform plants, but a vegetative chaos.

The stupid thing was that I should have known this going in. All around me, trees, vines, shrubs, roadside flowers and Bermuda grass were telling me one single thing, over and over: Profusion is the order of nature. Variety, profligacy, energy, expediency, growth.

Whether it is a kudzu shell over a stand of trees, or the tangle of saplings that close over an abandoned farm field, or the know of rhizomes that run under the turf, the rule of nature is clutter.Crab Apples Sullivan Maine

The walnut tree outside the front door was old, and its bark was stratified with moss, lichen, beds of sap, and a highway of ants running up and down. From a distance it was just a tree, but up close, it was a city.

When I was a boy, there was an abandoned farm beside our property. An old, unpainted barn and farmhouse stood in the center of a field of grass and weeds. When I was maybe 8 years old, those buildings burnt down one night in a glory of flame.

In the years that followed, the course of plant succession took over. I learned my lessons from Boy Scout merit badges I earned, but even there, the story of succession seemed much more orderly than what I saw out my window. Plant succession wasn’t a clear progression from annuals to perennials to shrubs and through a clearly delineated march of one kind of tree into another till we reached climax growth. It was instead a tangle of saplings through which it was nearly impossible to walk. There was not a “baby forest” that we saw, but an overpopulated struggle for sunlight, every plant elbowing its neighbor for survival. In a forest, the trees stand a certain distance apart, their crowns touching to make a roof. But this young version was more like a thick head of hair; there was no distance between the shoots.Buxton Sedge, Hatteras NC

Everything in nature told me the same thing: busy-ness, struggle and chaos. It was all exhilarating, and I loved the tangle of it all, the textures, the smells, loam and rot, the mud and dew.

And yet, that isn’t what I saw when I looked at art about nature, whether it was glossy calendar photos or Arizona Highways’ covers on the low end, or whether it was Raphael and Delacroix on the high end.

The nature I saw in most art was tame as a housecat. And the art wasn’t really about nature at all, but about order. I wasn’t made to see the world we saunter through, but to see how our minds organize and codify it.

Whether it was 18th-century paintings or Ansel Adams’ photographs, the art was all about order. In fact, you could say that the point of the art wasn’t to make us see nature, but to understand order.

I was unsatisfied with it, and with my own art. I wanted to make an art that would look at the natural world and make images that spoke to me about what I was really seeing and feeling.

3

NDP60I recognized something of what I wanted in the arts of the Gothic, Baroque and Romantic periods, eras in art that glorified the energy and visual confusion of the world. They are arts that responded to the profuse variety of the experience. They were also arts that were devalued by the mainstream art world of the 20th century. Eliot deprecated Milton; Stravinsky insulted Berlioz; Mies van der Rohe is the anti-Gothic architect.

Yet, I loved Shelley, Schumann, Chartres. And I wanted to find a way to make that over in our new century, in a new way, and reattach art to the world around me. It had been untethered too long; too long it had been its own reason for being. Art for art’s sake? Not any more.

It can be hard — it is probably impossible — to make art completely divorced from one’s time. The visual universe is too persuasive. We cannot even know how deeply we are affected by the stylistic twitches of our own age. And I am not saying my own work is sui generis. It certainly is not.friedlander montreal

The light that knocked me off my horse on my own way to Damascus was a single book of photographs — still a fairly obscure book — by Lee Friedlander, titled Flowers and Trees, from 1981. It was spiral bound, printed in a matte finish, and had virtually no text. Inside I found a mirror of the nature I knew and felt. Nothing was framed neatly, nothing was glorified by the light poured on it, nothing we reified into monumentality. Instead there was the profusion, confusion and organicism that I recognized from my own experience.

And I realized that I had been working in that same direction for years, but had buried the photographs among the more conventional mountainscapes and detail photographs. I had several series of images that were my own immediate response to nature and they were all photographs I had made in the gardens of friends. I gathered them together and looked. The conventional photographs seemed to have no value whatsoever and these others, almost random, usually confused, and always ad hoc, seemed to breathe the life I had been looking for.

Since that time, and with the advent of digital photography, I have been liberated. I take my camera with me, point it at something I want to feed it, and let it do the chewing. I never look through the viewfinder anymore, but instead look at the larger shapes, darks and lights, that showing the digital screen on the back of my camera. I see how I see and click the shutter.Back Bay, Virginia Beach, Va

Over the years, I have made many of these sets of photographs, usually 15 to 35 pictures in a group, and printed together to be seen as a “book,” that is, a print cabinet, where my audience can spend as much or as little time as they wish and shuffle to the next.book cover

And the unit of my work is the book, not the individual photo. When I visit a garden, I vacuum it all into my lens and after processing them, spread the images out in a series. You can see the results in a book preview for Gardens/Paradisi, a book I created on Blurb.com. The whole thing is there to see via “preview.” You can find it (and buy it, if you have that much excess money) at: http://www.blurb.com/b/607398-gardens-paradisi.

For the pictures in that book, selected from those loose leaves, I have had to edit them down to a manageable few. Most of these “books” have been turned into chapters of either 9 or 15 images. I hope they still give a flavor of what I have attempted. You can find more in the other books I have made and available at Blurb.com.Giverny 3

4

If I have succeeded, I have also failed.

For in the end, my attempt to wrestle with the world has turned into an art that is also about order, about how the mind engages with the things around it. I have wound up doing exactly what my predecessors have done.

It isn’t surprising. After all, when I turn on my elders and find their efforts insufficient, I am doing nothing different from what they did when they turned on their elders. It is how art grows. Wordsworth rebels against Pope, Eliot rebels against Wordsworth, Ginsburg rebels against Eliot. One generation finds its parents lacking and tries on its own to finally express the truth.

And I can only be happy when a generation after mine points its own finger backward and wiggles it in reproach at me.

It seems we never get closer to what we are all after. Value is all in the trying.Doug's Garden

Nature

Jack Foley has ruined nature. Or at least, he’s ruined Naturejack foley

Foley, who died in 1967 at the age of 76, was a film editor at Universal Studios, where he developed the process of adding sound effects to movies in the editing stage.

You can see his name, turned eponymous, in the credits of any movie: The Foley artist is the one who matches the sounds to the action.

When you hear a dying thug breathe his last wheezy gasp, or a potential victim step on a squeaky floorboard or snap a twig underfoot, it is the Foley artist who put that sound there in post-production.

Which is fine for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, with its explosions and ammunition magazines being snapped into their Uzis with a click so solid even a Chevy ad has to smile with envy. But the Foley art is less helpful when PBS shows us row of ducks swimming in the Okefenokee. comic

Then the ducks always make a sound like a guy wiggling his fingers in a tub of tap water, with a microphone held a few inches away. It has ruined Nature, Wild America and every other filmed nature show on PBS or the Discovery Channel. duckling

The obviousness and artificiality of that wretched tinkle is for me like fingernails on a blackboard.

I know the reason for avoiding the real sounds of the real ducks: The camera, with its close-ups, can effectively edit out anything but the ducks; the microphone can’t edit. Along with the ducks, we will hear the ook-la-roo of the redwing, the overhead jet and perhaps even the whirring of the camera. It is too much aural information and can be confusing.

So standard procedure in nature films is to work with silent filmstock and add the sounds later. Some of these sounds are collected by technicians who tape the ducks when the blackbirds are momentarily quiet and match that sound to the film. But more commonly, sound is created by a group of sound-effects people, who work like they used to in radio days with crushed cellophane for fire and coconut halves for horses’ hooves. sound effects

Well, maybe they’re a little more sophisticated than that, but not by much.

If you want a good contrast, tune in to CBS’ Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood at about five minutes before the end on Sunday morning. Each week, it features a few minutes of nature, videotaped rather than filmed, and with the unedited sound of that moment in the wild.

You will hear not only the ducks, but the wind in the tree branches, the redwing, the grasses, occasional passing cars and airplanes, all balled up into one giant ambience.

It is the way it really sounds out there in the light of day.

After all, what we call nature is less the individual animals and plants than the interaction of the whole thing. Nature is context, if anything.

And that only underlines the basic problem, that for most Americans nature is something you see on a TV screen. Nature is a sideshow and entertainment. Cute little ducklings or sea otters vie for our attention with herds of wildebeest and salmon-fishing grizzlies. Gnu pack

Television nature, even shot in the wild, is just a technological zoo: Each animal is displayed in its own filmed cage. As with most of European culture, it is the fragments of the whole we understand best. The bigger picture eludes us.

But turn the TV off, get out of the city and then out of the car. Almost anyplace will do, it doesn’t have to be dramatic. You will hear and smell, as well as see, the great imbroglio that is nature.

It isn’t just that it is all interconnected, which it is. It isn’t just that the whole is complicated beyond comprehension, which it is.

The difference is that you are in it, a part of it. On TV, nature is something separate. TV is always behind glass.

Fall color reflected in surface of Walden Pond, Concord, Mass.

Fall color reflected in surface of Walden Pond, Concord, Mass.

Four seasons may seem like enough. Maybe for a resort hotel. It is the conventional way to divvy  up the annual circumambulation of the sun. But four is an arbitrary number. In some places, two seasons are all there is, rainy season and dry season, or in Arizona: unbearable heat, and respite from unbearable heat.

And even in those climes where the traditional four account for our calendar, there are really any number of discernible seasons: Indian summer, midwinter spring, mud season. In Maine, there’s black fly season; there’s tourist season at the Jersey shore. Many places have their annual infestations.

Some of the most interesting moments of the annual cycle are those that fall between the seasons, those moments that are neither quite winter nor quite spring, or neither summer nor fall.

Of these, my favorite has always been that slip in time between autumn and the harder breath of winter — when the color has passed from the cheeks of the trees but not all the leaves have dropped to gather in soft, brittle piles on the ground.

It was like that near the end of October at Walden Pond in Massachusetts, about 30 miles west of Boston. The Canada geese were flying south in droves across the crisp sky, the alders at water’s edge were naked except for the tiny seed cone at the tip of each branch. The pond water was beginning to chill, but not so much that the fish lost their will to bite the hook.

Walden Pond is a small kettle pond, left in place just south of Concord by the glaciers that covered the land 10,000 years ago. It is essentially a dimple left in the ground by the weight of the ice. When the ice melted, the water remained in the depression.

Around the pond, the land rises up in places something like 20 feet above the water level in formations the geologists call ”eskers,” which are the loose junk left behind by the ice. The twin tracks of the railroad run along the back side of the pond.

On the October morning, before the sun arises, the temperature is in the low 40s and desert-dry. You can see the light catch in the tops of the trees along the heights of the eskers and slowly descend into the water as the morning progresses. walden pond aerial view

Walden is an oblong stretch of lake, with one shallow bubble along its northeastern side. A bit of the lake is cordoned off by a footpath causeway, leaving a shallow lagoon trapped in the backwater.

Most of the trees’ leaves have dropped, leaving only the maroon of the red maple and the bright tan of the beech tree still hanging. A huge number of the leaves have collected on the surface of the lagoon, making it look as if it were paved in tree droppings.

On the water, about 50 yards out, I can see four ducks buzzing along, with their necks held flat on the water and their faces half-submerged as they wiggled their heads back and forth, gleaning a meal from the detritus of the pond. As they swam this way and that, moving like feathered zambonis, each left a wake behind it cleared of leaves.

Immediately, what had seemed a randomly mottled pond surface of tree-junk took on order and meaning as the old ”contrails” remained, leaving the water scratched with a history of duck dinners. Their names may have been ”writ in water,” as Keats had it, but those signatures had persistence.

I crouched down at the mucky edge of the water and waited. Patience pays off. The ducks slowly swam my way. Twenty minutes later, they were so close I could have stroked their slick, waterproof feathers. One started and flew off, leaving two females and a single male mallard. They scooted in circles, clapping their bills through the jetsam. One of the females came up to the water’s edge where I knelt down and began poking her beak into the mud. She found something to eat and continued.

A small boy approached on the path, calling back to his mother. I looked at him, put my finger to my lips to hush him and pointed at the birds. He looked briefly and walked right past. I wondered what he could have been racing to find that wasn’t right here: three ducks in arm’s reach.

It was early on a Sunday morning and the path around Walden Pond had perhaps 10 hikers on it. It is about a mile and a half to circumambulate the pond, so it never seemed crowded.

In addition, there were a dozen or so fishermen standing at the western and southern ends of the pond with their poles anchored in the sand and bobbing weights hanging like goiters from the poles.

”What do you catch?” I asked one.

”Trout. Rainbows and brookies,” he said in that dodgy Boston accent. ”This is our second time out this year” — said as “yee-ah” — “and we haven’t caught anything yet. There’s a fellow down the way there who pulled in a couple of them this morning.”

When I got to him, he had them strung on a line and submerged back in the water about three feet out. Each was about a foot long, one was speckled.

”Mighty good eating,” was all he said.

By the time I made it all the way around the pond, the sun was up and the temperature had climbed into the upper 50s. The light gleamed on the bark of the tree trunks and glared on the remaining leaves.

A century and a half ago, when Walden Pond first became known to a wider public, it was a quiet place, a few miles outside of town, where only the muskrats and crows came for recreation.

The silence was shattered only momentarily when the train to Fitchburg came through. Nowadays, a road passes right by the pond, and a divided highway sits only a quarter-mile away.

The sound as you walk across the far shore of the pond is a constant but subdued roar of whizzing cars, mixed with an occasional jet airplane and the same railroad commotion.

Oddly, though, as you walk around to the edge of the pond nearest the highway, its noise becomes blocked by the esker and the pond seems quiet once more.

Journalism is a funny profession, because its readers read about what happened yesterday and its reporters are writing what will be published tomorrow. It has little use for today.

But a day as distinct as this one on Walden Pond, in the cusp between the seasons, speaks only of the deliberate now, the specific and incandescent moment, as thin and sensuous as the membrane of the water’s surface as you stick your arm through it to pick a pebble from the pond’s bottom.

inez fishing

I have a problem with aquariums. I love them and visit every one I can possibly find, but I can’t look at all those fish swimming around without getting hungry. All the fish look so darn tasty. Whether it’s the salmon, silver as Boeing jets, at the Seattle Aquarium, or catfish in New Orleans, which I fantasize wearing corn meal suits, I imagine all those finny beasts on my platter.

So, you might think I was a big fisherman. Catch my own dinner, hold up the sea bass for a photo, scale and gut it and fry it up in butter and white wine. But I have only been fishing three times in my life. I consider it one of my character flaws that I never became an angler; it’s a missed opportunity. But growing up in New Jersey did not nourish the outdoorsman in me. I knew a lot more about discount malls than I did about trout.

The first time I went fishing, I went out on a half-day boat with my uncle when I was a teenager, off the Jersey shore. We caught flounder and sea robin — certainly one of the ugliest of Providence’s creations — and the grown-ups drank beer the whole time. I figured that fishing, like TV football, was really just an excuse to lubricate the church key.

The second time I went fishing was some 20 years later when my wife and I were invited to a North Carolina pig pickin’, and were encouraged to fish in the trout ponds that our host had built near his house in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I fished with cheese balls on my hook and caught a half-dozen rainbows and browns. They were good eating.

Norris Allen

Norris Allen

The third time, though, I went with my daughter in Alabama. We went out on a pier in Weeks Bay, off Mobile Bay, with Norris and Inez Allen. Inez was my daughter’s nanny for her twin daughters. In the South, a nanny is more than an employee; when you hire a nanny, you are starting a lifelong relationship. It’s more like hiring an aunt or an extra grandma for your babies.

We spent the day in October on the dock, casting and reeling in our bait. Norris caught some pinfish with our boughten bait, and immediately started cutting them up into little pieces, so we wouldn’t have to pay for any more chum. The fishing trip was really an excuse to picnic and gab.

It was a social event for my daughter, her twins, the Allens and my wife and me. Inez sat in an aluminum folding chair under the shade of a broad straw hat. She held a fishing pole over the side, but never paid much attention to it. Norris, though, was a dedicated angler.

Norris cutting chum

Norris cutting chum

“I like to go out at least once a week,” he said. “But I’ve had a problem recently, so it’s been a while. I got to go to the doctor again tomorrow.”

Norris was in his 70s and as lean as Inez was not. Norris caught the most fish, but I caught the biggest.

“What is it?” I asked him.

“That’s a white trout,” he answered.

It was about 10 inches long and weighed about two pounds. Most of what we caught were pinfish, three or four inches long, silvery discs in the hazy sunlight. But we caught a few white trout, too, long and torpedo shaped. They fought harder and splashed water angrily as we hauled them out of the bay.

White trout

White trout

I mention all this because of two things. The first is that we ate the best fish dinner that night I have ever tasted. I was in ecstasy. My wife can attest. I ate pinfish and white trout, fried in cornmeal the proper Southern way, and I nearly cried when I was too full to finish off any more fish.

The second is that the following day I went to the Weeks Bay Natural Resource Center, about a hundred yards from the dock where we fished, to talk to a park ranger and ask about the fish we caught. I wanted to find out more about our worthy opponents.

“What were they?” she asked me.

“Norris said they were pinfish and white trout, but I don’t know what their scientific names are.”

“Well, there’s no such thing as a white trout,” she told me.

(There really is, it’s scientific name is Cynoscion arenarius, and it is one of the weakfish family, not really a trout, but who cares?)

“No such thing,” she repeated.

“That’s too bad. It was the best tasting fish I ever ate. For that matter so were the pinfish.”

“Pinfish?” She seemed confused. “No one eats pinfish.”

Pinfish

Pinfish

“No? They were delicious,” I said.

“No. No one eats pinfish.” She repeated that mantra several times in our conversation as if that settled the matter, as we looked through several reference books trying to match up what we ate with the pictures and IDs.

It was one of those oblique demonstrations of the differences over race in America. The ranger was a White woman in her late 20s, obviously college educated, and just as obviously oblivious to the culture around her.

Black Alabamans eat pinfish with relish, but apparently the ranger’s well-to-do White family thought pinfish beneath comestibility. This wasn’t a case of overt racism, but an illustration of the profound breach between cultures, which is magnified in the American Deep South.

And I can guarantee, after eating a bellyful of pinfish, that it is White America that is cheating itself.

Linville falls from upper look

I first saw Linville Falls 40 years ago. Getting there meant finding an unmarked gravel road and an unmarked dirt parking lot — really just a thicker place in the road to pull over onto.

Then we followed a spongy, loamy footpath under the hickories and oaks toward the distant roar of the waterfall on North Carolina’s Linville River. No one was there but us, and we picnicked on the rocks over the crashing water. The upper falls are a broad, shallow drop, but at the lower falls, the quartzite pulls tight, constricting the river and forcing it down a spiraling chute that drops over the edge of the cliff and down 75 feet to the river and Linville Gorge.

Linville Falls 03

It is an impressive torrent with a basso profundo roar, and nothing will ever change the way it seemed to me that day, as I leaped over rocks, crossing the white water to the other shore so I could climb on the gnarled rock to see down the waterway.

I’ve been back many times over the years. The National Park Service built a paved road from the Blue Ridge Parkway, making it easier to find. Then they paved the parking lot and built a pedestrian bridge over the river upstream from the falls.

The last time I went back, there was a visitor’s center and a souvenir shop and a parade of vacationers trotting down the path to the fenced-in overlook. The falls are just as impressive, but the experience isn’t.

If I speed up those 40 years in my head like time-lapse photography, I can see time take shape. It builds and it destroys in a constant rise and fall like an ocean tide.

And what comes in, ebbs.

Linville trillium

A few years ago, my wife and I visited another familiar site, on Old Route 16, a dirt road that drops down the side of the Blue Ridge toward North Wilkesboro. When we lived in the mountains, we used to visit an abandoned farm along the road, halfway down the mountain face.

There was a clearing in the wood and an old wooden house with a broad porch that looked out over the steep valley below. Above us was the spot ominously known as the ”Jumpin’-Off Place.”

We could picnic on the porch with the bluebird and tanager singing in front of us, the buzz of insects all around and the gentle breeze rattling the grass in the field.

It had been 14 years since we visited that farmhouse, and we thought we should see what had become of it.

About three miles down the old dirt road, we passed where it should have been, but there was no break in the forest, no open field. We couldn’t find the house. We kept driving, hoping we’d find something that looked familiar, but we didn’t. Finally we stopped the car where the farm should have been and walked deep into the woods.

Buried a hundred yards into the tangle of maple trees was a naked standing chimney, completely eaten up by brush and undergrowth.

When I climbed down the hill toward it, I discovered the forest floor was spongy with rotten boards, completely collapsed in on themselves, with a few nail heads showing.

In the 14 years since we last visited, the old house had been completely digested by the woods, leaving only the indigestible brickwork of the twin-sided chimney.

And the once-glorious view of the declivity was now completely obscured by trees and brush. Instead of a vacant field overgrown, the house was survived only by complete woods.

In 14 years.

Nature can reclaim an entire farm in 14 years and leave nothing behind but the masonry. And that won’t last much longer.

Linville Gorge1