At least twice each year I am left breathless by this view of the Chagrin River. Running parallel to River Rd., a half mile north of Fairmount, the river doglegs west only to make an abrupt turn a half mile later (visible in the foreground) as it continues north through Gates Mills.
This image, a companion to my previous post of starlings, perched and pensive in the weeping birch, illustrates a sense of unity, even in their urgent departure pictured here. Seemingly unperturbed at first by my conspicuous approach and maladroit struggle in the freezing snow with camera and tripod, they struck me more as amused than frightened. For a brief moment I had deluded myself into believing I might be a “bird whisperer”; otherwise why had they remained affixed so calmly to the branches? Looking at this second image, however, I am disabused of any such notion.
That day’s brief encounter and these images have occasioned further reflection on these beautiful yet pernicious birds. Property destruction by starlings is legendary, replete with stories of farmers losing entire crops in an afternoon as birds would descend in locust-like waves. And, our own experience in Cleveland Hts. underscores those stories as we’ve watched small flocks drop into the yard this week, emptying the feeder in less than an hour. Moreover, we’ve seen them in the spring raiding robin’s nests, devouring newly hatched chicks – a practical though disturbing means of ethnic cleansing and sating hunger.
So, while antipathy towards starlings abounds, there is an undeniable, extraordinary beauty to these birds, not only their physical form but in their flight, ascending, swarming, swirling and coalescing into an undulating flow of amorphous murmuration. Perhaps, if there is a message, a moral or an enigma to these recent images, it lies in the dichotomy between beauty and its antithesis, dependent both upon context and the elusive definition of beauty itself. Although philosophers since Plato, and poets and artists through millennia have grappled with defining and expanding the concept of beauty (including its relationship to the arts and its influence on aesthetics), one also might look to the lowly starling when considering the many aspects of beauty; their physical perfection, their art as observed in the skies, and even their moral turpitude as they coalesce in flight, casting a shadow across creation.
“Tuft of Flowers”
But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,
A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.
I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.
The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,
Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim. … ”
Written in 1915, Frost’s poem reflects nostalgic values of an earlier era, ones I fear we’ve lost through the century that’s followed. The speaker here, tossing just cut grass to dry in the morning sun is led by a butterfly to a tuft of flowers spared by one who had mowed earlier that morning. A small expression of humanity had left the flowers intact, presumably for their sheer joy and by the simple grace of the mower. Considered today in the context of the political divide roiling our Republic and the unprecedented normalizing of lies and conspiracies, Frost’s poem, quaint even in its time, is nonetheless an aspirational metaphor for the present era. “Return to Nature!”, the familiar rallying cry for many of us disaffected by contemporary society, has become a routine anodyne to our predicament, its healing qualities now foundering in cynicism and despair. Although I too have invoked the ameliorative power of nature, an experience this past week has shaken my confidence even in the natural world to salve and bridge the divide. To that point, posted below is a series of photographs accompanied by further context and a brief story to document the event.
I can’t recall precisely but I believe I was nine or ten, some 65 years ago, when I first walked these rural northbound tracks of the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway running from Canton and Brewster, through Aurora and on to Cleveland. Even then many of the trees were interlaced high above the tracks that cross Old Mill Road in Aurora continuing on north to feed Lake Erie’s freighters.
The trees, forming a short tunnel beneath their canopy, became my “gateway” to the marsh, to its inner woodlands and to a small cloistered meadow at the east end. I always had the feeling something mysterious lay beyond their long shadows, something numinous yet benign and familiar waiting to be explored. And it was through exploring this “other” world I learned lessons of the woods and wetlands and, over a lifetime, discovery of myself as well. Identifying trees, for instance, how leaf lobes distinguish oaks (white, red and pin); how to recognize the smooth bark of immature beech thriving beneath the canopy as they hold their translucent, parchment leaves through winter; remembering elm and ash now lost; spotting scattered sugar and rock maple here and there, and finding the increasingly rare wild black cherry trees.
The cherry (arched in the first three images below), content with time’s slow passage, etched its shape through space over decades. Years earlier the tree underwent a slow transformative process known as inosculation, its trunk grafting naturally with another cherry that resided in a small copse. One trunk grew vertically, the other cantilevered over the track its bough arched high above passing trains. Here the story begins.
Last week I returned to the marsh, walking the rails as I do every week, savoring the flashes of wildlife and the sounds and earthy fragrances that have marked generations of this undisturbed land. As Frost’s tuft of flowers was metaphoric, so too would become the sight that lay ahead.
Lying before me a startling assault on the landscape; indescribable, indiscriminate and likely an unceremonious destruction of trees that had lined the tracks. A rail crew assisted by modern technology had butchered trees on either side of the rails, and along with these living creatures, the beauty and innocence of place – a sacred aesthetic element of the landscape as well as a home and food source for wildlife. The 4th, 5th and 6th images below depict the slaughter. The history of this land, silent through the slow passage of time, transmuted in a moment. The ancient cherry reaching over the tracks was chewed to a shell, its branches only stubs, the ultimate indignity a remnant of its eviscerated trunk. I would also note, the carnage had extended twice as far as the prescribed 15’ clearance for freight trains.
By happenstance several days later I witnessed the probable instrument of destruction near a rail crossing in Solon. A brush cutter known as a Kershaw Klearway 500 ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvAGPDtl_qg) mounted on rails, its rotary cutter-head mangling trees and brush, sating the hunger of its operators. This giant brush cutter projecting outward on a boom about 25 feet, was shredding vegetation along the railway. Masticating large trees and boughs within its ravenous maw, reminding me of an AK 47’s capacity to gratify the exigent machismo of some men. Humanity’s hubris will never be lost so long as the pernicious combination of technology and man’s desire for dominion over nature continues. And so, short of eye-witnessing the destruction at the marsh, I deduced it was probably the same or a similar machine that had ravaged the old cherry and untold other trees along the edge of the marsh.
As I began to inspect the area, the keening cry of a red-tail hawk (Image No. 7), followed me, circling for the next 10 or 15 minutes until I returned to my car, its plaintiff, high-pitched cry a requiem; its own lament, casting grief upon the wind, over the woods where it fell upon the marsh – history and pathos buried beneath grass and sedge. His nest, at the top of a mature beech, also had been destroyed by the rail crew. I wondered if he recognized me as I’m probably the only one he regularly encounters. I took his declarations as a coda in the aftermath.
What significance can we ascribe to a relatively trivial event when the world is on fire, almost literally as it appears in this moment? The recent and accelerating divisions that afflict our society, the geopolitical struggles and the existential exigencies that threaten the planet have another origin it would seem to me. Jung would point to the shadows.
Standing beneath these trees when the wind blows one hears the squeak and groan of trunks and boughs and the sibilant rustling of leaves. This particular stand of black willows has mesmerized me for five decades, like a giant metronome dancing through space, its crowns moving in unison to a light breeze; its black bark, interlaced and deeply furrowed providing contrast to the delicate yellow-green leaves of early spring. But also, I’ve admired the restive side of their personality, when the trees beat and flail against strong winds sweeping down the farm’s western slope and, for all their frailty, holding, indefatigable, resolute, never breaking. Above the waterline, the massive root system, now fully integrated into sand and loam, provides ballast to secure the trees and bank. And, completing the aesthetic, an inner ring of cattails frames this frequently overlooked landscape.
“Turner Skies” Schweitzer Marsh, 7/8/13, 6:12 a.m.”
What does this image possibly have to do with today’s cold, wet, typical March day ? Not much really, but I retrieved it after coming across a random article on J.M.W. Turner’s “The Burning of the House of Lords”, a personal favorite and one owned by CMA. I’ve not posted this photograph before but recalled the sunrise that early July morning and how it brought to mind Turner’s color palette in his later years.
There will always be discussion about the father of impressionism, some scholars tipping towards Manet and others toward Turner. For me, the significance and attraction of Turner’s work will always be in his evocative and ephemeral use of light – the shimmering, transparent colors.
This image of Schweitzer Marsh is, to me, a very modest, tranquil counterpoint to the exquisite excitement, chaos and urgency of Turner’s genius.