Sunday, March 25, 2018


We begin here, in the dark of night, on the eve of spring. 


I will be at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, once, twice, sometimes three times monthly for the year to contemplate how art can address the ecological problems we face, how and why nature functions in art, and riskily, question the role played by science and research in shaping both our view of nature and nature, itself. Time will be spent with researchers and their projects, to ask questions, document their work, give insight when possible, explore, and witness this unique environment contextualized by ecological science and the people who practice it. This unusual opportunity and challenge to picture the creation of knowledge, to give image to what is ordinarily conceived of as "data," to process what is years, or decades, in the making in a sixtieth of a second is quite a thrill.

As much as I wanted to present an image of ecology science in action, of nature preserved, or in need of help, what have I but an image of the depths of night lit by past science applied to commercial technology in high pressure sodium red and metal halide green.

Waking for the first time in a structure designed by architecture students for the 2009 Solar Decathalon, in an old field turned prairie, in a place nine square miles in size, snow falling lightly, it is the sun, a faint and hazy circle barely visible above the oak trees, that allows any orientation. The kitchen window, I now see, faces directly east on this vernal equinox and the long wall of windows, faces to the south, as does the solar roofline of this Cedar Creek home.

Snow still on the ground, still falling, the echoes of Sandhill Cranes above the low clouds emerge like prehistoric bugling, a trumpeting of arrival easily heard from over two miles away. Spring doesn't announce itself in this moment, but arrives as an extended passage of a multitude of individual actions and reactions that collectively pronounce spring in the mind and body of humanity.

The whispers of spring were colored by children in bright jackets and knit hats. There were adults, too, but enthusiasm among adults is often restrained in comparison to kids who engage the world with fresh eyes and quick fingers.

In what resembles a partial scene from early Netherlandish painting, kids and adults are pointed toward oak leaves and given the language to identify the trait of clinginess found in some deciduous species -marcescence. This connection to the painting of Northern Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries may not be as superficial as it appears. The refinement of the lens, its use in art and science, the growing secularism of images in response to the iconoclasm of the Reformation era, and the growth of landscape as a genre of art have influenced an image like this.

Jan van Eyck, 1432, detail of his Ghent Alterpiece. The compression created by longer focal length camera lenses mirrors the symbolic compression of space in painting. The squinting and devotional gazing resonates with the expressions of children in attention to oak leaves.

Jan van Eyck, 1434, detail of The Arnolfini Wedding. The blending of symbolic and visible detail, the marriage of secular and sacred, and emergence of the earthly and supernatural qualities in art. While we tend to get wrapped up in the transfiguration of form through painting, in this digital, mechanical age, can we not also find transfiguration in the photographic? Note the convex mirror in the background. It resembles a lens, suggests an eye, and adds a level of intellectual complexity not yet seen in portraiture. All pictures in this post can be clicked for a larger view. Alternatively, click the link for a much larger view of these paintings.

The glacial lake deposit of sand known as the Anoka Sand Plain is the foundation of a unique environment that contains 30% of Minnesota's threatened species despite having only 2% of its land area. Cedar Creek's boundaries lay within the sand plain limits and has had much of its nine square miles preserved for decades. European settlers established farming in the area, although prior to modern agricultural technology, the poor soil (sand) limited productivity. Twentieth century oil-based fertilization advanced agriculture in the region, but much like agriculture near cities elsewhere, it is slowly being displaced by housing and commercial development. In many ways the place reminds me of my sandy roots, another glacial deposit with oaks and displaced agriculture called Long Island, NY.

Naturalist Megan explaining that ants have created a prairie micro-environment that is warmer, more fertile, and diverse than the snow covered surroundings. The recognition of ecological relationships within this fairly limited biota appear to be accessible. Can insight gained from study of this phenomena scale up to the entire earth? Are we the ants of planet anthill? Questions like these make room for the sacred and supernatural in divining our relationship with this world. Presumably we wish to inhabit it with greater sensitivity to the well being of the whole. If not, we can always look toward the art of Hieronymus Bosch for guidance.

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Monday, March 12, 2018


Possibly only once, on the morning of daylight savings, will the robins arrive to their summering grounds en masse. Sure, before, small groups of six or twelve, but not this Sunday morning, no -countless robins causing a stir among the winter locals. Crows, bluejays, black capped chickadees, and red bellied woodpecker among the fray and the crows, maybe a bit pissed off about it. Listen, more than watch, for the spring that birds bring.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

March of Change

I haven't been into the woods much this winter, but for an occasional 30°+ chainsaw operation. Now, the growing day length, the day's work done, it was time to spread a bag of collected, mixed seed somewhere the sun may shine in the green season. 

The melt and evaporation is near constant, even on days well below freezing, but with this colder winter, refreshing snows were common. Now, with March's warm sun, the snow loses ground and the ground gains moisture. The thaw begins above, sinking into the earth, and its moisture mixed with mineral soil is a cold way to speak of mud. Mud is an element; we protect ourselves from it. In March, mud season begins in earnest, so a crisp mat of snow is a welcome traveling companion.

En route to the seeding region, snow delivered a graphic of animal traffic. The crossroads, the indecision, the quick and the casual are all written in the snow. I cannot fathom it, but isn't there a similar, but scented, pattern here only recognizable to those more dependent on the nose?

The wavy trail of, probably, a deer mouse on a journey of late winter courage as the red tail hawks and bald eagles glide high and the barred owls lurk mid canopy. 

By early March, ankle deep in snow, deer browse the dry, fibrous stems of the garlic mustard that they refuse to consider in the green season. Food of last resort, in winter, but never, not at all, when the buffet is so grand in May.

I did not understand how comfortable our mammal friends are with human paths before this place. I will take their cue as trails are altered by fallen timber, such as here. The trail used to pass to the right of this basswood, until it began to fall apart, completely blocking the old trail. The deer have made their decision; they now travel under the arch of a sibling basswood, the Arc de Ruminant.

In the late winter we take stock of the dead, the ill, the weak. The tops torn from hollowed basswood by time or wind, the snags of elder oak, rotted, but standing, the insect kill green ash and drowned every species in times of high water, are most evident in winter. Snags are important ecological components of the forest, whether killed by native or exotic means. For us, snags are question of safety, of food and shelter for wildlife, of timber taking out healthy neighbors. Few nearby young come out unscathed when elder trees fall and fall they do.

Of the remaining oak giants, red and bur of about a dozen on the drier, south facing slopes, we feel concern. These trees are one hundred forty, one hundred sixty, or more years old based on the rings of smaller felled oaks. They may outlast me, or not, but the point is not to count on a static nature, that is not what nature is.

As spring approaches I ready myself for the multitude of upcoming tasks and adventures. Many house and landscape projects remain, including seeding thousands of native woodland plants and harvesting two plots of Hudson Clove garlic, but also new opportunities. I have several upcoming photography courses at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum that are filling up with those eager for something new from somebody new. I am also going to be working with scientists over the coming year, as artist in residence, at the highly regarded research landscape known as Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. I plan to blog from Cedar Creek, nine square miles of otherwise inaccessible nature at the junction of the prairie, eastern deciduous and boreal forest. Stay tuned.