“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 Beyond”

Posted on Feb, Fri, 2021 in Uncategorized

“World Beyond”
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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“Wolf Moon and Mars”

Posted on Feb, Fri, 2021 in Uncategorized

“Wolf Moon and Mars”

Eleven years ago this evening (Friday 1/29/21) northeast Ohio enjoyed the rare sight of a Wolf Moon accompanied by Mars rising. It was a Friday as well and I had hiked into the northwest end of Schweitzer’s marsh shortly before sunset hoping to get a good view. I was facing southeast across a stretch of ice where I had tracked coyotes earlier that week. It was a particularly cold evening as the temperature had dipped to about 10 degrees. In an unnerving moment, a coyote let out a single howl behind me just as the landscape began to saturate with an otherworldly, lavender hue … a fascinating phenomenon as the color arrived with numinous, almost palpable weight, quite unlike the shades of red and orange that filter through the dense atmosphere at sunrise and sunset. Indeed, short wavelengths of blue and violet typically scatter at those times of day and cannot be seen. The lavender disappeared in less than an hour as abruptly as it had arrived.

Last night’s full moon here in northeast Ohio had neither the crystal skies nor the lavender atmosphere but hopefully some of you experienced the mystery of a Wolf Moon nonetheless.
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Posted on Jan, Sun, 2021 in Black & White, Musings from Still Point

“Kate”  A Walk into a New Year

Fourteen years ago today I took a photograph of my wife, Kate, as she walked the same path that had led to the title of my first book, “The Way Home”. Oddly, other than birthdays and holiday snap-shots, it was the first time I included a person in a photograph I published.

Ten or fifteen paces ahead, and unaware I was taking her picture, she maintained her usual brisk, deliberate gait, always seeming to know her heading, if not particularly concerned about the final destination. Earlier in the day gray clouds had descended into the dull opacity of the season, all but absorbing the landscape’s color. Worn black from deer passing, an earthy redolence of the forest floor was suspended in the air along the path as it meandered through the tall, close-quartered beech and white pines competing for sunlight. By late afternoon and the end of our walk the metaphoric veil of gray was lifting, light finding its way between the trees, revealing a clearing ahead.

From time to time I look at this photograph and wonder how an elemental image holds the capacity to evoke such emotion in me, or to communicate qualities of an individual or the relevance of a place it depicts. Moreover, it calls into question how much of our own experience and existence can be ascribed to or reflected in our art – a fundamental question for any work I suppose. An artist’s perception, of course, relies as much upon personal experience as on his/her powers of observation and attempts at objectivity.

What others may take, if anything, from this particular image is difficult to know. From the general lack of detail, a random viewer might see only the banal, an androgynous figure, an indistinct path and a locale sufficiently lacking in context to place. For me, however, the photograph captures Kate’s authenticity, humility, and reverence for the natural world, the same qualities I’ve valued in nature and that have illuminated my way home through difficult times. Presumptuous to think others might have similar notions about this photograph but one must ask, even rhetorically; is there not some universality in an image or any work of art, symbols perhaps that transcend the experience of the artist or viewer, that, in the end, confer meaning?

I send this image on as an expression of gratitude and love for Kate and as a symbol of mystery and goodwill to each of you as we embark on the new year.

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“Black Willow and Bittersweet”

Posted on Dec, Tue, 2020 in Uncategorized

A black willow’s cornice of gold showcases a bittersweet vine the last week of November, 2010. This was a wholly unexpected moment when a serendipitous break in the clouds gilded the landscape moments before sunset.

As a boy I remember cutting lengths of bittersweet for my mother’s Thanksgiving table. At the time, the jeweled vine was a prized discovery and I would scout new patches each summer in the woods around our home. That was 60 years ago when bittersweet was scarce, but in recent years it has proliferated as its beauty renders silent death to countless saplings and trees across the state. Apart from its stunning color, an ironic beauty also is to be found in the wake of its destruction, in the “impermanence” it brings to the landscape; a paradox to our western aesthetic that seeks wholeness and immutability.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Death is beautiful when seen to be a law and not an accident.”

In nature beauty often attends death, quietly, inexorably. Consider the bittersweet vine, its autumn beauty spreading deliberately along the margins of northeast Ohio’s hardwood forests. For the vine, the act of commingling seems less a random desire than a living imperative, sustaining itself as it does by robbing its host of light and nutrients. And any suggestion of symbiosis or benign reciprocity between vine and tree is illusory only, a black willow in this instance struggling silently beneath the weight of bittersweet, its vine as thick as a thumb, twinning about its host and, not without irony, explodes in a splendorous display of coral berries and orange calyx.

Thoreau further laments there is only “as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate … How much of beauty—of color, as well as form—on which our eyes daily rest goes unperceived by us?”

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