“Bird on a Wire”

Posted on Sep, Wed, 2021 in Uncategorized

Bird on a Wire

Would that we all had a vantage point to ponder the present, peer deeply into the past and wish so earnestly for the future.

Straddling the 45th parallel, “Bird on a Wire” was taken at the intersection of E. Lincoln and County Rt. 641 in southern Leelanau County, Michigan. This particular farm, its owner unknown to me, lies on the latitude exactly halfway between the equator and North Pole. Other than the random (mostly 19th century) farms throughout the peninsula, sand dunes, boreal forests, glacial moraines and even the occasional tamarack bog make up the landscape tracing Lake Michigan’s eastern shoreline. The sand and rich loam that for millennia have sustained the balsam fir, paper birch, blue and black spruce and vast maple and beech forests eventually attracted Europeans to lumber and farm the land. These old farms contribute to the since of timelessness that pervades the peninsula, a geologic anomaly formed 200 million years ago and now the little finger of Michigan’s left hand.

The opening lines of Bruce Catton’s 1972 memoir, “Waiting for the Morning Train” lend to the ageless framework and the lens through which we see the landscape.

“First there was the ice; two miles high, hundreds of miles wide and many centuries deep. It came down from the darkness at the top of the world, and it hung down over the eaves, and our Michigan country lay along the side of the overhang.” Catton reflects on the geologic forces that created his childhood home, imprinting indelibly upon him the history, values and memories of Benzonia, the small farm town bordering Leelanau county. The gentle dunes and fertile soil that produce Leelanau’s great orchards roll undeterred into Benzie county.

The history and my belabored story of the Leelanau peninsula ultimately relate to the image of the bird on the wire, at least with respect to why I thought the photo was relevant. At the time I realized the bird must have had a remarkable view of the land. From its height on the wire Lake Michigan spreads to the horizon on its left (west); the Grand Traverse Bay to its right (east). Looking north towards the camera the village of Northport would be just visible at the tip of the peninsula. And over its shoulder dozens of farms along with the remnants of old growth forests unrolled to the south.

The natural irony of course being the most insignificant element in the image having the greatest perspective.

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“A Dream, Perhaps, February 23, 2019”

Posted on Sep, Mon, 2021 in Uncategorized

“A Dream Perhaps”

Death came for me in the dark of an early winter’s morning. Unscheduled, the day after surgery, gently she took me along a path that led in the direction of a distant cottage. No incarnate form or hooded manifestation, only her presence nearby to lead me beside the dark, meandering and indecipherable river. Illuminated by the light of night only, the path, hard-pack, tracing the river’s contours, its waters ran smooth, almost still, slow and black but for the reflected shimmer of morning stars.

In the distance a cottage, trimmed in lichen, seductive and filled with the regret of those who had passed. And night’s end now approaching, cloaked in shifting mist, a dim carriage light aside the cottage door, faint chimes beyond, insistent. Abruptly, an unspoken urgency to return … now … come … the chimes fading, distant, fading, fading, a silent lament beyond the bed, beyond sleep, a dream perhaps.

Two and a half years after beginning a surgical odyssey I’ve finally processed an experience that has haunted me, probably because I hadn’t really tried to address it fully until now. Recounted above is my memory as it occurred in the early morning hours a day after emergency surgery (February 23nd, 2019). I recall the detail with clarity, having resolved at the time, and since, to commit it carefully to memory. It was ethereal though quite unlike other dreams I’ve had.

Now, a year after the pandemic began, I’ve wondered if those severely stricken with COVID, perhaps after being placed on ventilators, may have experienced something similar, especially upon finding themselves at another threshold.

Note: The image here is of Squire Valleevue Farm on a foggy October morning but it stirs the senses and memory of the path I was led down as I lay in a hospital bed.
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“Crescent Moon, Venus and Saturn”

Posted on Jul, Fri, 2021 in Uncategorized

“Crescent Moon, Venus & Saturn”

Six years ago this week we perched on the deck of a friend’s cottage 200′ above Lake Michigan, atop the spine of sand dunes north of the small town of Pentwater. Semi-libated and fully sated beneath crystal skies and the dying fire of sunset, the slow, dramatic transition of color and form was neither anticipated nor really noticed. Sun had set at 9:30 and twilight’s scattered streaks of red and orange slowly dissolved as the celestial dome of the night sky was cast into deep, blue black. A waxing crescent moon, stars and planets, imperceptible at first, presented in growing relief, taking form against the blue and violet hues of the firmament, reminiscent of “Starry Night”.

For the first time I sensed yet another dimension of Van Gogh’s genius through his use of so many blue pigments in the painting (21 according to scholars); color transitions not unlike the sky above us that evening. Coincidentally, if not auspiciously, “Starry Night” also featured a crescent moon and Venus, though that is where the comparisons appear to end.

Having created the work during his internment in the St. Paul de Mausole asylum, elements of the painting, (e.g. vortices suggesting turbulence in a river of light) may represent the struggle and pace of an unquiet mind. By contrast, the scene depicted in the photograph here suggests tranquility, profound stillness and, perhaps most strikingly, the deep irony of three objects hanging in simplicity, radiating unfathomed complexity and mystery.
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“Vortex, A Story”

Posted on Jun, Thu, 2021 in Uncategorized

 

 

 

“Vortex, A Story”


About an hour before sunrise, July 12th, 2012, I drove to Schweitzer marsh to commemorate my father’s birthday as I had every year since his death six years earlier. It was the first area we explored together when I was a child and it was there I realized how deeply nature had imprinted itself on him.
 
The marsh, apart from its impact on my youth, holds a mystic sense of place where I still go to reflect and plumb old memories. On these “birthday” sojourns, putting my own long held beliefs in naturalism aside, I’ve imagined receiving some numinous sign of his presence – a product of the magical thinking that I’ve carried well beyond my early years, no doubt. Always hoping for a sign after his death, I did have an eagle dip within a few feet of my head on one occasion; almost tripped over a newborn fawn on another and unintentionally enraged a ground-nesting redwing blackbird at daybreak one morning, but none of these really represented anything out of the ordinary or that I hadn’t experienced before. And though I usually hiked out of the marsh by late morning without the incorporeal revelations I had longed for, my hew to naturalism remained intact and old memories were invariably revived and strengthened.
This July morning mist hung over the warm waters as I made my way along the western bank in the twilight of early morning, absorbed in the reverie of time foregone. I had almost reached the tree line bounding the waters at the north end when I noticed a disturbance; less than fifty feet offshore a whirlpool, a vortex as wide as one’s shoulders, making no discernible sound. The only noise was the chime of redwing blackbirds awakening as morning’s light gave form to the preternatural. No rushing, sucking sounds of turbulence, not even the soft, sibilant gyration of otherwise languid water, nothing audible from the visual frenzy of the maelstrom. Only the disquieting chaos of the whirlpool, spinning still against the surrounding glass-surfaced tranquility of the marsh.
 
It put me in mind of Thomas Cole who had pioneered the “Hudson River School” movement in the 19th century, and created the idea of an “American sublime” in the spirit of Edmund Burke’s work in England 50 years earlier.  Cole had become one of my parent’s favorite artists after they toured the Hudson River valley on their honeymoon. Building upon Burke’s assertions that beauty and the sublime could co-exist but were nonetheless mutually exclusive, Cole’s paintings gave rise to an American aesthetic that depicted the sublime more viscerally, as nature’s ability to provoke terrifying power and mystery through the inclusion of great storms, raging waters, overwhelming mountains and the like.
 
In a comparative “stretch”, and in their banal majesty, Ohio’s 21st century landscapes occasionally bestow sublime moments – this whirlpool struck me as one. The spontaneous and unexplainable vortex held at once a beautiful and primeval aspect, even the terror of nature’s unknowable. With no apparent destination, water and matter were being entrained and funneled into the white froth, circling about the surface, suspended briefly then descending into the mystery beneath. In those moments I observed the whirlpool, I was struck by the beauty of mist shrouding the distant pin oaks, ghostly, dead for generations, silently guarding secrets.
 
When I left the marsh that day the whirlpool was still rotating. I returned the next morning to find it had disappeared.
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“Daybreak, 3/21/21”

Posted on Apr, Thu, 2021 in Landscapes, Musings from Still Point

Fog was descending along the banks of Schweitzer marsh as gilded shocks of grass struggled to hold the early morning light.  Shortly before daybreak, night air had collided with warmer open waters creating pockets of fog that shrouded the thickets of black willow and shoreline sedge. And beyond the rushes and silt banks, century-old pin oaks, the elite denizens of these wetlands, still stand, sharing ground with their scions, adding dimension and solitude to the landscape and bringing to mind a quote by Thomas Mann:

“Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous – to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.”

The second half of Mann’s proposition seemed particularly prescient as spring, 2021 had arrived gently in northeast Ohio with temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s. Nothing in this early spring image could suggest the unseasonable, unfathomable year of death that preceded. Reflecting on nature’s sublime beauty as it aligned with the equinox that day, my thoughts turned to news that Coronavirus deaths had exceeded 557,000.

How can we square in our minds a physical reality that holds at opposite extremes such profound beauty and tragic loss? With varying success, poets and other artists have plumbed this contradiction. And, in a perverse twist of irony, Joseph Stalin perhaps understood it best when he remarked, “A single death is a tragedy, a thousand deaths a statistic.”

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“Standing … Still”

Posted on Mar, Mon, 2021 in Uncategorized

“Standing … Still”

Anchored in wet earth and arrested in death for more than a century, this small pin oak grove remains a hoary reminder of time passing. A few trees still stand, naked, roots exposed, out of view at the north end of the marsh. Winter’s ebbing waters reveal the beauty of imperfection, the truth of nature’s transience.

Ravaged through the seasons; sun, wind, low flood waters, burrowing insects and foraging birds imprint their individual patterns in time. Trunks disfigured, bark stripped beyond cambium into heartwood, the pin oaks sedulously waiting.

What do they hear deep into February when the only sound is wind sweeping over sedge and ice? What do they know of solitude and loneliness, the beauty of a midday thaw or the piercing silence of nightfall?
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“World Within”

Posted on Feb, Fri, 2021 in Uncategorized

World Within

This reflection starts out part musing and part story; as accurate as reconstructed memories can be and hopefully with just enough narrative to hold it together. And as to its ultimate destination, I’m not quite sure as I begin. The image I’ve posted below is evocative for me, though to a random viewer it must appear more than a little drab without benefit of additional context. In a twist on convention I’ll try to “illustrate” the image through descriptive prose.

The setting, a wetland marsh in Aurora, Ohio, has been a haven for sedge grass, rushes and reeds, and a refuge for native wildlife and migratory waterfowl since the founding of the town over two centuries ago. A short hike from my childhood home, the area was a daily destination along a dirt road, across a field and down a deer trail.

A close look at the photograph depicts its perimeter of trees, deadfalls, brush and vine that camouflage the interior woodland. Adding to the natural ramparts along the forest’s edge, thickets and brambles, mostly hawthorn and dewberries, twist and twine to fill the openings. Frequently I’ve breached this outer boundary to enter the other world, 200 feet beyond the western bank of the marsh where the crowns of maple, oak and beech coalesce into a towering canopy and where my own memories still stir. It’s been in this very location over the last 65 years that I’ve forged a bond with the land and gained an understanding of the term, “still point” – an allusion to T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”, (an exegesis of time and salvation).

The scene pictured here begins at the edge of winter, before the early snows when the last leaves linger and splashes of hoary lichen paint dead trees in neon, and auburn confetti textures the forest floor; only then are the tunnels and pathways to the interior made visible. From late spring through autumn, these thorny, between-world entrances, gateways really, are concealed in prehensile vines and broad-leafed branches. Byzantine animal trails that allow access today are the same that led me between the world of wetlands and woods so many years ago. Once inside, a sanctuary as open and cavernous as a cathedral awaits – nature’s enclave for mind and spirit.
Beneath the canopy, stippled light and leaves and young beech position themselves at intervals across the forest floor, their paper leaves rattling and tenacious, beyond the reach of winter, erect across the forest floor. And the earthy scent of detritus and pine mix with time and space to provoke the imagination. This was always the place to consider possibilities, to reassess friendships, to chew on ideas, to consider such abstract propositions and constructs as infinity and creation, the nature of time and the early metaphysical propositions to which a child is first introduced, where the quotidian and extraordinary share the same space.

At times I suspect we’ve all had places, physical places, safe harbors where we could retreat to contemplate, where time loses dimension and meaning, where troubles and ideas collide, mingle, and perhaps, if we are particularly fortunate, bring clarity.

This is the beginning I realize. Much more remains to be told.
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