Monday, November 11, 2019


November 11 -a bright, sunny, and cold day. One month ago, on October 11, we had our first snowfall. Yesterday's snowfall ushered in the coldest air of the autumn. We bottom out tonight in the low single digits, but we are at 12° F this morning. There is a brisk wind, so we feel chillier than the temperature might indicate. On November 11, 1940, Minneapolis received 16 inches of snow in a surprise storm -forecasting wasn't as precise back then. In 2005, the temperature soared to 64° F on this day while 1986 had Minneapolis bottoming out at -1° F.

The many lakes of our area are open water -not yet a skin of ice on them, despite two weeks now of well-below freezing temperatures. The other day a man near Cambridge, Minnesota, not quite an hour north of downtown Minneapolis, thought it cold enough to try his feet on ice that had formed on Skogman Lake. Based on my observations, here, the ice couldn't have been more than an inch or so thick. If you've been to the lake in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, you'll notice the ice ladders stationed around it in winter. I recall watching a father and child shuffle out on the ice one day. Tragedy was averted thanks to someone more vocal than myself, whose hesitancy requires some introspection on some other day. Minnesota doesn't know what ice ladders are and I will never know confidence on ice.

As October rolls out into November, I need to have a flexibility never required by my ocean-tempered, Atlantic coast activity. We don't always have what we need, do we? Curiously, the post I just linked to, above, finished with this sentiment:

"I've grown accustomed to winter, finding solace in the recess of growth and decay. As much as I think of a new season's garden, of tomatoes and greens, peppers and garlic, it's always too much. I aim to accept what can be done and what can be done, well."

Now that winter has come to occupy an additional three months of the year, my experience of its slippery possession is that of prey who's frantic contortions allow a brief but futile escape from the quickening claws of no longer. A winter, fast, I accept like death, but with a consciousness of afterlife that offers a view to the world I no longer inhabit, a world perceivable through the bright scrim of slow-moving molecules. 


planting bulbs frozen ground
Box store bulbs, fifty percent off, needed unfrozen earth to plant in. With this trouble, those bulbs should have been 75% off, no? Despite two weeks of frozen temperatures, I laid rumpled plastic, held down by bricks, over a patches of bare soil. When I planted on Saturday evening (yes, this dark at 5:00 pm), the soil was pliable under my coverings. Tulips and miniature iris -good luck!

Outdoor plants brought in for winter. Potted, pruned, and placed. Now, only fungus gnats, aphids, and watering to think about.


A hanging plant frozen in its basket

The vegetable beds, tangled, leafy, and snowed upon.

Remaining siding from this summer's window and siding replacement projects. I will do some of this indoors and wait for that forty degree day to come.

The rocks. In this location, under the replaced siding and adjacent to window wells, the builder had placed Hydrangea arborescens, you know -the spreading kind with giant flopping heads. Three Minnesota hardy azaleas were placed around the bay-type window to the left. Around the base of these, one and one-half inch St. Cloud granite (gray/pink/black coloration). In order to fix the siding and the kick-plate below it, the roots, the rocks, the clay, and eventually the plastic that laid deep beneath it all was removed. The hydrangea were removed a few years ago to make the driveway border. 

Many rainy days embedded the granite rocks into the black clay earth. After grading the soil to a proper slope, replacing the edging, laying new barrier fabric and sheet plastic to shed water, the granite is only partially replaced. It is frozen to the soil, now, but it also requires pressure washing to remove the clay, which will not happen until spring.

Despite the snow and the freezing, I am still working on a few outdoor things, like gravel around the apron of the studio and cobble edging to contain it, possibly some tree felling, and rebuilding the lattice that sits beneath the front porch. Given the early depth of cold, twenty to thirty degrees below average, isn't it yet possible that we will see ten to twenty degrees above average?


Tuesday, September 10, 2019

At Home

It was back in July when we spotted the first giant puffball of the season. This was early -too early to our senses. By August's middle the water table had been coming back up, not quite draining after a moderate rainfall. The temperatures had descended to the mid to high seventies and steadily declined into the mid to high sixties by the last week of August and first of September. The trees prepared themselves, the monarchs passed through, the squirrels returned to the lawn, and the rains fell. Our autumn is upon us, and has been since mid August. I have casually mentioned to some that the season had changed, before the Minnesota State Fair -typically a late summer festival. For my observation I received a squint and pursed lips, huh blended into hmm.

To perceive the early arrival of autumn is nothing special. To read the language of our environment and to understand its meaning, in the Western mind, is like understanding Latin. Most will see an archaic text, pass over it, and only occasionally fathoming the root of some current verbiage. Millions of years of evolving, hundreds of thousands of years within this epoch of variable, yet recognizable, climate and species and still we have lost the ability to be at home in the world. I write 'at home' to indicate that set of cues that are so familiar as to become understood inconspicuously.

Our trip to Yellowstone National Park, the primary stimulus for these thoughts, offered some very unfamiliar cues. If you haven't been, go. The park is massive, often taking several hours to get from one site to your lodging. There are bison, and more worrying -grizzly bears. You are walking on a volcano, something difficult to dislodge from your steaming, sulfur-scented consciousness.


Every season I have five, ten, maybe twenty projects to accomplish during the warm season. I typically finish three, especially when the warm season lasts only three months. This year's major project was to complete the renovation of the front lawn-vegetable garden. Above, eggplants, peppers, and cucumbers.

vegetable garden raised bed in a frame mulch
The far left raised bed was refurbished as it had been made from scrap decking, then a new ten foot bed was built and installed, and the remaining two beds moved from last year's location. The framing and mulching was accomplished in early June and then I moved on to other projects.

tomato plants raised bed in a frame mulch
After our return from Yellowstone I set about laying the sod. We chose sod to cover the area previously covered in black plastic laid to smother creeping charlie. Sod is outside of my experience, and I messed up. When laying sod it is best to have prepped the ground ahead of time, it's best to get it unrolled in a day or two. I had to stretch it over four days and nearly composted the sod on its pallet because I hadn't the time to prepare the soil, pull the volunteer tomatoes (what was I thinking?), or deal with the unknown habits of sedge that had grown where the beds had stood the year before. 

It was only continual rain storms and the early autumn temperatures that spared me the near-total loss of live grass. I credit this for its return from tawny mush to lively green, albeit a few patches of dead remain. Although I've been spared the shame of spending a small fortune on sod and then killing it, the lack of soil preparation will undoubtedly reduce the benefits of sod over seed in the long run.

We've had a good year for brassica, getting two months of broccoli from under twelve square feet. BT worked well on the cabbage worms after I removed the floating cover fabric. I've also observed that deer do not seem to care for kale when there is so much else to eat in your garden.

My July planting of green beans were trimmed quite well by the four-legged pruning crew. But, they came back and I now have a steady supply to snack on in between mosquito raids. Unlike a national park (the "wilderness"), our place is home to us and many other creatures. Living with them feels much more natural than any wilderness experience I've had.

A new garden bed grows out an area of removed hydrangea. Scraps of plants, all flowering blue-purple, have been planted throughout the summer. In the background, the browning of a wet autumn.

Saturday, August 3, 2019


Minimally sprawling, open pollinated cucumbers named Little Leaf -from Fedco Seeds. Well, they sprawl less than the Burpee cukes that went in last year, but if it weren't for some clever trellising, the would certainly have sprawled into the paths. They are now supplying about ten cucumbers (picklers) a day. In front, peppers and eggplant; both late producers. Behind, trashy solutions.

The plastic is in place to take out the creeping charlie. It will be removed in late August (late August is so close!) to put down sod. Why sod? The mat keeps out the weeds and minimizes a return of charlie. Here, where the planters were last year, we've had many seedlings of last year's vegetables. Growing up in a cool, moist winter climate, I'd never seen tomatoes sprout from last year's fallen, but in Minnesota's freezer like conditions -the seeds don't rot. We've got several of these in the plastic zone and many more were planted out at the neighbor's farm (where I keep the garlic -which is nearly all harvested).

Adjacent to the tomato is a snapping turtle's nest of eggs to be hatched, we hope, sooner than later. Betsy wants to leave a patch of soil for the mother turtle to return to yearly -but I'd rather it not be in the middle of the grass I'm about to plant. I suspect she'll find the bare patch of soil if I leave it nearby. Funny thing is that I never see any turtles around our place -yet I know there is a giant snapper living out there, somewhere, and then two dozen or so babies head towards the wetlands in fall.

The hydrangea -floppy top. Heavy, as soon as the first real rain hits them, over they go. This year they have been eaten by the deer, pom poms and all. Sometimes they enter the vegetable garden for a second course, should they not get their fill on hydrangea. They've also eaten down the thorny, climbing rose on the trellis -leaving only a full top above their reach. They eat tomato vines, cucumber vines, even buckthorn this year. At my neighbor's garden, they've not only pruned my tomatoes to an even sixteen inches and peppers to eight, they've consumed his giant pumpkin plant -spines and all, a first. They haven't touch the dino kale, potatoes, and garlic.

In summer, gardens do their thing -as do we. This year it is a medley of siding, painting, customer projects, teaching, and exhibitions. I see the work to be done in the garden and it must wait. Seedlings in trays suffer my inattention -yet I keep my eye on these things just enough for them to tug at my desire to do more than is humanly possible.

The front garden is being encroached on by the woods, particularly younger maples that quickly shade out sun loving plants. Oaks and ironwoods do not do this. It's hard to take down living creatures, but the maples will likely meet the chainsaw come late autumn -after I pick up a new chainsaw. The old Stihl croaked last year as I cleared a fallen maple from a path.

Around that front garden is a retaining wall into which I have been ever so slowly moving large stones. The soil is miserable under road bed stuff from last year's gravel driveway rehab. I've got compost to add to the mix, over there, in the shade, now two years old, waiting for my attention and a shovel. Afterward, maybe in autumn, plants will be re-organized to deal with the expanded garden.

One of two woodland edge prairie-savanna hardly-gardens I planted after the studio was finished. These change every year. Without a supply of fresh black-eyed susan seed, it looks rather green. Prairie seed mixes can be rudbekia lush, but the plant tends to diminish once shaded out by perennial grasses and forbs. It's a biennial, so the third season the profusion is limited to small, fuzzy leaves -often at the edge of where they showed up en masse the year before. Each season different plants dominate -this year will no doubt be asters and goldenrod, to the point at which I will likely be thinning them out. Lavender-colored Monarda fistulosa in the background.

The second prairie-savanna garden has a dumpster in front of it, so no pictures of that this summer. The dumpster takes in insulation, wood, old rotting siding and a window or two. I've been replacing siding, piecemeal, every warm season as I convert the house from the pukey-pink paint you can see in the background, above, to the umber-magenta grey visible in the foreground. This garden, along a path from a back door to the studio, is hosta-heavy, magically invisible to the deer thus far.

The brilliant, but less prolific (in these drier conditions ) than I wish American Bellflower, Campanulastrum americanum, is blue-purple in the background. To the left, the very prolific Blue Lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica, about to bloom and a black-eyed susan that found a way to full form.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

It May Be July

Just finished putting together the new vegetable beds. Four raised beds, each about 12 inches tall. The herb bed was the first, back near the greenhouse. Then the two nearer, each already around for a couple of seasons, but moved yearly. After attempting to grow vegetables plunked in the middle of the  lawn, I soon realized that it wasn’t going to work.  We didn’t want to mow around sprawling vines and the shade allowed aggressive creeping charlie to truly creep.

I concocted this new scheme, very much wood chipped, framed by cedar ripped on the table saw and spiked with rebar to hold it in place. Once dreamed up, I set about building the final raised bed. The lawn will be rebuilt on three sides, plenty far from the beds.

Tomatoes are supported by two zinc-coated irrigation pipes plugged into 5/4 cedar deck boards also ripped on the table saw. String is attached to the leading vines and wound over the pipe. The tension created with this type of system keeps tomato vines from ever flopping over. I’ve never applied this system before, mostly due to laziness and lack of necessity. It’s neat -I like that, but it requires a willingness to reduce the number of tomato producing leaders. We won’t need so many as all our other tomato starts are planted in the neighbor’s garden, just downhill from the garlic. 

This was the same, June 21, not much more than three weeks ago.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Slough

A busy life, the return of mosquitoes and then the ever more aggravating deer fly, have kept me from the woods -through which I must pass to get to the back slough. The slough, a small natural woodland basin bordered on its west by an old gravel pit, has become wetter over the last decade. Prior owners of the neighboring pit decided it would be more useful filled and so introduced a stream of trucks dumping their fill.  We believe this raised the water table and is the reason our woodland vernal pond supporting silver maples and green ash has become a permanent swamp; one that has dried, only temporarily, a couple of years out of ten. The last of the trees within its bounds has died and the aggressively spreading, wet soil tolerant canary reed grass has taken hold in the newly sunny slough.

Yesterday morning a meso-scale storm passing just to our north provided a strong draft and mosquito-free window to pass through the woods. The last time I gazed upon this rapidly changing two acres it was a pond pushing beyond its bounds. Now, the lower water table of summer has changed it to a burgeoning meadow; the remains of duckweed sitting on a crust of drying muck.

Phalaris arundinacea
Canary Reed Grass, Phalaris arundinacea
Although I seeded a portion of the slough in December with what is called a detention mix, I'm not surprised to see an abundance of human-bred, hybrid canary reed grass, Phalaris arundinacea.

It is a surprise to see the blue flag, Iris versicolor, I planted two years ago continuing to bulk up, maybe even thrive, despite the competition from so much mad dog skullcap, Scutellaria lateriflora.

This sedge, "weeded" out of a wetland edge of a nearby lakefront residence, has begun to transform the northwestern edge of the slough. I hope to see it "make a stand" against the encroachment of canary reed grass.

I purchased seeds of another grass, prairie cord grass, but have been hesitant to distribute the seeds. It is a native, warm season slough grass that I intended to use as a foil to the cool season canary reed grass. Like canary, it spreads by rhizomes and can be aggressive. Although it grows all over Minnesota, further reading led me to think that the six to eight foot grass may not be the right choice. I'd rather be out ten dollars in seed than dealing with another grass, not currently present, that then spreads too widely. My curiosity, however, gets the best of me -I have tray-seeded a few to see how they grow.

As more storms approached from the north, I pressed on toward the little wetland to see how it has changed since the high water of late spring. Water sheds from the surrounding moraine, draining through two gullies, then filters through two wetlands to pool at the bottleneck that leads to our driveway culvert. Earlier this spring I cleared the growing stand of buckthorn from the floodplain surrounding the bottleneck. Dying ash and falling box elder have opened the canopy here, letting in more sun.

In early June I made an attempt to slow the spread of canary reed grass weakened by five weeks of flood waters. Wearing knee high rubber boots, I cut any grass growing along the perimeter of the open water with a weed trimmer. Although it has come back now that the water has receded, it has done so less vigorously -a rather minor victory. If I want to maintain open water here, or better yet, introduce sedge and other wetland plants, I'll need to continue to fight back the canary reed grass which has a stranglehold on much of the small wetland.

Last Saturday I spent an hour at a nearby natural landscape contractor's end of season native plant sale. Most of my purchases (only $2.50 per plant!) were infill for my prairie plantings, but I did buy a couple of wetland plants. Above, ironweed, Vernonia fasciculata, has a wetland indicator status of facultative (FACW). This means it usually occurs in wetlands -66 to 99 percent of the time. This wetland status and my failure to grow it successfully in my dry Brooklyn garden led me to choose the flood plain as its new home.

My other purchase, broad-leaved arrowhead, Sagittaria latifolia, has a wetland status of obligate wetland (OBL) which means that it occurs in wetlands nearly 100 percent of the time. This plant prefers standing water and at least partial sun, so I placed in the pool that collects at the bottleneck, a stones throw from the ironweed.

We've been in a very wet period, receiving several inches of rain over the last two weeks. The tropical air and daily storms are expected to last through the week. Over the last 24 hours we've received over 3 inches of rain, and another three plus within the last ten days, bringing the water table back up to where it was in late May. This morning, braving the mosquitoes, I ventured to see the arrowhead I planted two days back -but it is missing, most likely it has tipped over into the muck under the rising water.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Intersection 53

The last three weeks of May were owned by the selection of images from seventeen thousand, color correcting, titling, and finally writing statements for the exhibition of photographs made during my artist in residence experience at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. Below is the catalog for the exhibit that is still on view at the Waseca Art Center until June 28th. Please note that the PDF viewer may not display properly, or at all, on mobile devices.

Many events, both life and landscape, have occurred since my last journal entry, when we were still snowbound in mid-April. But these will need to be drawn at a later date -maybe soon, possibly not. Summer is now upon us and it commands within me an unceasing freneticism as it does all warmth loving life.

Thank you for reading.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Sometimes it Snows in April

Only once in my life had I seen an April snow. I was a child, there was thunder, and in a brief but hearty spurt of winter, giant flakes accelerated toward the ground. It wasn't magical, it was eerie.

Now, living in Minnesota, I can fully connect with the metaphor written into the Prince song I listened to as a teenager in New York. Here's why...

The arrival of the robins, first week of April.

Sunday, the southerly winds introduce warm air to cold ground; fog their conversation.

It was spring. The sap told it.

Fresh mushrooms and garlic mustard told it.

The chorus frogs playing their combs told it.

So pleasant it was, combative crows and hawks sat together in harmony.

But, then, it wasn't.

Day one filled out with about eight inches of heavy, wet, snow.

Day two, today, has been wind blown snow, ice pellets tink-tink-tinking the windows, and quickly arising thunderstorms. Not as much snow as last year's three day, April blizzard, but just as disappointing.

April, sometimes.

dust from texas falls on minnesota blizzard april 2019
There was several minutes, at various points of the day, when the skies turned distinctly darker, distinctly yellow. This phenomenon, you may have seen it, can be seen when thunderstorms pass overhead, particularly in winter. So the color of the snow, in those moments, seemed a reflection of the sky, until I noticed the different coloration, blue-white, on the leeward side of snowy features -the steps, the roof fall...

dust from texas falls on minnesota blizzard april 2019
The fire ring. Like a blurred image of a moon crater taken from an earth telescope, the snow took on the contours of the rocks beneath and then sculpted, softly, by wind and shaded in relief by red-beige particles blowing northward across the land. The color was everywhere, and the limits of my imagination concocted that it was created by wind-driven ice pellets scouring the trees. But I was skeptical, this felt familiar -that I had experienced this before -so I asked the Internet.

Brown is dust from Chihuahua Desert. Click for motion Gif
Consider that the uncovered soils of the Mexico, Texas and New Mexico -in this season, their windy season (I lived in the Chihuahua Desert for three years; experienced the wind and the grit in my teeth), can be drawn all the way up to Minnesota by a powerful low pressure. What happens down there, then, also happens up here -their soils are now our soils.

Eastern Pheobe snowstorm
The Eastern Phoebe, an early spring arrival to our house and woods. We often have to chase its nest building off of doorways and gutters, and this year is no different. Our plan is to build a nesting site for this couple, but haven't quite gotten there yet. The blizzard has been a frustration for the bird, as much as us, as they mix a mud-like substance with twigs and dried grass to attach the nest to metal or wood, and these items are not available due to the new snow cover. Yet another way April can bring trouble to the arriving birds. The phoebes flew into our glass windows several times in the blizzard, looking confused, looking for a place out of the snow and wind.

Today, Friday, it continues to snow. I cannot clear the driveway as the gravel is soft from a complete defrosting, and the blower clogs immediately with the heavy, cement-like snow. I will move on to building raised beds for folks now that the wind has died down and I'm comfortable in the metal shed that sits beneath the soft-wooded, often hollow, basswood that rises 70 feet above it.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Preservation of Metaphor

"Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free... It is hard for me to believe that I shall find fair landscapes or sufficient wildness and freedom behind the eastern horizon. I am not excited by the prospect of a walk thither; but I believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly toward the setting sun, and there are no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me. Let me live where I will, on this side is the city, on that the wilderness, and ever I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness. I should not lay so much stress on this fact, if I did not believe that something like this is the prevailing tendency of my countrymen. I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progress from east to west."

-Thoreau,  Walking     

iew from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow, Thomas Cole, 1836
View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow, Thomas Cole, 1836
Nearly a year ago, Holland Cotter wrote a piece in the New York Times regarding Thomas Cole's 1836 painting "View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow." He re-imagined this 182 year-old work as a political gesture significant to our day while reiterating the psychological chasm between human activity and nature:

"The painting divides vertically into two atmospheric halves. To the left is a wild storm-soaked tangle of old trees and dense vegetation; to the right, far below, a flat terrain of treeless, square-cut fields running back to distant hills scarred by clear-cutting. The wilderness looks unkept and threatening, but seethes with life. The flat land, though cultivated and presumably fertile, feels as bare and bland as a tract-house town. And in the foreground of the picture is a tiny self-portrait of Cole at his easel. He turns away from his canvas and looks right at us, as if to say: Here are the alternatives; you choose."

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow, Thomas Cole, 1836
Detail view— The Oxbow, Thomas Cole, 1836
At the heart of Cotter's take on Cole's cultivated fields "bland as tract housing" and a hillside "scarred by clear-cutting" is the rejection of the cultivated and settled. He suggests that Cole looks back toward "us," prodding with a stark choice; Cotter's tone implicating settlement as fundamentally immoral. Wedding wilderness to morality is not new in the American experience. It is a deeply ingrained component of our split psyche. Here, Cotter's rhetoric provokes the split, backing us once again into a corner, demanding that we choose one of our two selves: wild or cultivated, good or evil, sacred or profane. 

As the words of Thoreau (top) suggest, this expression is entangled with our nation's creation myth. Annette Kolodny, in her book,  "The Lay of The Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Letters," deepens our understanding of this psychic frustration and its self-destructive impulse. In her chapter Unearthing Herstory, she explains:

"Eden, Paradise, the Golden Age, and the idyllic garden, in short, all the backdrops for European literary pastoral, were subsumed in the image of an America promising material ease without labor or hardship..." and further "...when America finally produced a pastoral literature of its own, that literature hailed the essential femininity of the terrain in a way European pastoral never had, explored the historical consequences of its central metaphor in a way European pastoral had never dared, and, from the first, took its metaphors as literal truths." And lastly, "Other civilizations have undoubtedly gone through a similar history, but at a pace too slow or in a time too ancient to be remembered. Only in America has the entire process remained within historical memory, giving Americans the unique ability to see themselves as the wilful exploiters of the very land that had once promised an escape from such necessities."

The American wilderness had been described as welcoming and fruitful; it's feminized prospect captivated the territorial impulse, yet it could also be a terrifying, risk-laden experience of the unknown, physical hardship, illness and death. In 1846-47, just as Thoreau comfortably reveled in his nature experience of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, Patrick Breen kept a diary of his experience as a member of the Donner-Reed Party trapped by the snow-covered Sierra Nevada. Stories of tragedy undoubtedly traveled east, but the symbolic impulse worked to suppress the terror and with it there was movement west, farther into the wilderness and then, by necessity of survival, there was deforestation, plowing, structures, and villages.

alexander hogue Mother earth laid bare
Erosion No. 2, Mother Earth Laid Bare, Alexandre Hogue, 1936
For Kolodny, the feminine image cast into metaphor and then into the lived experience of the American settler is not as much the problem as it is the key to understanding the predicament in which we find ourselves. In her chapter Making It With Paradise, she writes:

"We must begin by acknowledging that the image system of a feminine landscape was for a time both useful and societally adaptive; it brought successive generations of immigrants to strange shores and then propelled them across a vast uncharted terrain. For it is precisely those images through which we have experienced and made meaning out of the discrete data of our five senses (and our cerebral wanderings) that have allowed us to put our human stamp on a world of external phenomena and, thereby, survive in the first place in a strange and forbidding wilderness. And the fact that the symbolizations we chose have now resulted in a vocabulary of destructive aggression and in an active expression of frustration and anger should not make us assume that they may not yet again prove useful to us, or if not, that we have only to abandon them altogether to solve our ecological problems."

Ghosts of Lake Agassiz, Sophia Heymans, 2018
On a recent visit to a Minneapolis gallery, I looked over an exhibit of paintings by Brooklyn artist Sophia Heymans. I was intrigued by the Rhode Island School of Design-trained artist's landscape paintings that embraced a folk-arts styling. After spending some time with the work, I picked up the three paragraph artist narrative that described the work as "approaching painting landscape from a non-dominant perspective."

Clarifying the artist's intention, the statement goes on to say:

"American landscape painting, along with American history, has...ignored thousands of years of indigenous human history, acting as though this land was ours to tackle and overpower. Even when seemingly depicting the grandeur of the wilderness, as with the Hudson River School painters, the work still reeks of supremacy –peering ravenously down from a high rock at the wild young lands."

Then, as a counterpoint:

"Heymans flips the roles in her paintings, daydreaming of a time and place outside of human hegemony. In this post-human America, the plants and land forms are characters, able to express themselves after hundreds of years of White (European) dominance.  Their movements are those of freedom and festivity. Trees high-five each other knowing they are finally liberated from human devastation.  Smoke floats like reaching arms across borders that no longer exist.  Rain clouds release drops into a lake, creating towering columns between heaven and earth. The paintings are from a bird’s-eye view, or the perspective of a cloud or spirit, hovering somewhere outside of human perception and dominion."

Twenty Seven Waterfalls, Sophia Heymans, 2017
In this imagined post-human world, anthropomorphous plant forms celebrate the continent's return to (non-indigenous?) prehuman days where they are finally free of subjugation by humankind. Although only an artistic phantasm, it's rhetoric is of the same bifurcation Europeans cast about these shores a few hundred years ago. To Holland Cotter's question, Heymans has made her choice, only taken to the extreme -humanity must exit to restore what was our dream of paradise.

"The pastoral impulse, neither terminated nor yet wholly repressed, the entire process -the dream and its betrayal, and the consequent guilt and anger -in short, the knowledge of what we have done to our continent, continues even in this century to eat at the American heart like acid," writes Kolodny.

In describing the work as seen from "the perspective of a cloud or spirit, hovering ...outside of human perception," Heymans attempts to extinguish the only humans left -the viewing audience. Art can focus our attention on it so thoroughly that we exit our bodies, if only briefly, but the audience is always integral to the art. We are each, individually, the figure of an apparently figure-less art. Heymans' art becomes my experience of celebratory nature, my experience of water flowing freely to nourish the land. It is not nature, so titled, Without Us, as much as it becomes nature without every one elseIt is in this way that the work revisits the fantasy crafted by the early codifiers of the American pastoral -Hudson River School painters like Thomas Cole. Yet, to return to Cole's self portrait turned back to look at "us" in his painting The Oxbow, the painting is most compelling in its foregrounding of the audience -on the insistence that we be present.

"To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it." 

-Thoreau,  Walking

Frederick Church Twilight in the Wilderness
Twilight in the Wilderness, Frederick Church, 1860
Humanity in art, as represented by the figure, was minimized in 19th century landscape painting -the art often described as the inspiration for a national park system and even the environmental movements of the 20th century. The frontier dream, so effectively reiterated by Thoreau (in Walking) and so clearly demonstrated by Kolodny, had little room for civilization and no tolerance for the complicating narratives generated by throngs of settlers. Within the latter years of the century, the federal government began designating tracts of wilderness with national park status, effectively enshrining their identity within the ethos of the period. By the turn of the century, however, with little psychic or expansionist value after the close of the frontier, the unpopulated, monumental landscape painting of the 19th century had become all but forgotten. The wilderness dream that took its metaphors for truth would now be embodied in situ, in our national parks.

Left: Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite, Albert Bierstadt, 1873                Right: Fallen Bierstadt, Valerie Hegarty, 2007
Above, the most quoted visual pairing from one of the more interesting nature-themed exhibits to come together recently: Nature's Nation, organized by the Princeton Art Museum. That this polarized pairing is used to represent the complex exhibit isn't surprising given how easily digestible it is. It reflects a simple narrative deeply ingrained in our psyche -Nature, then, was wild and beautiful -today, it's ruined. That the burnt image of a Bierstadt painting is as much about the state of a nation as it is about nature, is likely to be secondary. To my mind it reads as an incomplete dismantling of the wilderness metaphor or, possibly, an image of what may become of it.

William Cronon has observed:

"The critique of modernity that is one of environmentalism’s most important contributions to the moral and political discourse of our time...appeals, explicitly or implicitly, to wilderness as the standard against which to measure the failings of our human world. Wilderness is the natural, unfallen antithesis of an unnatural civilization that has lost its soul. It is a place of freedom in which we can recover the true selves we have lost to the corrupting influences of our artificial lives. Most of all, it is the ultimate landscape of authenticity. Combining the sacred grandeur of the sublime with the primitive simplicity of the frontier, it is the place where we can see the world as it really is, and so know ourselves as we really are—or ought to be."

Visitors photographing deer accustomed to being photographed -Devil's Tower NM, Wyoming
When Cronon wrote those words for his essay, The Trouble with Wilderness, in the book "Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature,"he could hardly have imagined the combined effect of social media and mobile phones on the wilderness experience. While the increasing number of visitors to National Parks and Recreation Areas might suggest that more and more people are discovering their "truest selves" within the cathedrals of nature, the selfie and instant gratification of mobile social media have proven that wilderness allows us, as Cronon said, "to know ourselves as we really are" and, at times, not live up to who we "ought to be."

That mobile-phone wielding visitors do not show "appropriate" reverence in the presence of wilderness reveals, to some degree, current attitudes about wilderness. On the one hand, it shows the importance of social relations (an image of Yosemite garners many hearts) as a basis for the valuation of an experience of wilderness. On the other it reflects the alienation inherent to a largely urban culture that venerates wilderness in the absence of direct experience with it.

Neal Herbert, National Park Service
We admonish people to leave only footprints, take only memories (pictures). In doing so, we must acknowledge that restraining a natural enthusiasm for physical experience with material nature reinforces the abstract, the photographic, the landscape view over lived experience of the world. For the sake of preservation, this may be a necessity, yet one wonders why, year over year, more visitors make their way to the edges of wilderness, to shuffle along boardwalks and clogged arteries in pursuit of a photogenic destination. If these excursions are a reflexive reenactment of the American frontier mythology; that it is then thwarted by hoards of visitors, commerce, filled parking lots and campgrounds has had minimal effect.

Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, Thomas Gainsborough, 1750 -the most cited landscape in the Marxist critique.
W.J.T. Mitchell, in "Landscape and Power," chapter one, Imperial Landscape, conceptualizes landscape and its valuation this way:

"Landscape is a medium in the fullest sense of the word. It is a material "means" like language or paint, embedded in a tradition of cultural signification and communication, a body of symbolic forms capable of being invoked and reshaped to express meaning and values. As a medium for expressing value, it has a semiotic structure rather like that of money, functioning as a special sort of commodity that plays a unique symbolic role in the system of exchange-value... At the most basic, vulgar level, the value of landscape expresses itself in a specific price: the added cost of a beautiful view in real estate value; the price of a plane ticket to the Rockies... Landscape is a marketable commodity to be presented and object to be purchased, consumed, even brought home in the form of...postcards and photo albums. In its double role as commodity and potent cultural symbol, landscape is the object of fetishistic practices involving the limitless repetition of identical photographs..."

iPhone case with Gainsborough's painting printed on the back ($24.99)
The image of Gainsborough's Mr. and Mrs. Andrews may be commonly known among art students or students of the Marxist critique of images, but among customers for mobile phone cases, I imagine that the number of knowledgeable buyers is quite small. No matter, because the image exposes us to what it must at a glance. At face value it reflects back to friends or family a model image of humanity in nature at the moment the phone it enshrouds captures their image in nature. Subtly, it reinforces what landscape really is to us -a staged scene.

Mitchell goes on to say:

"As a fetishized commodity, landscape is what Marx called a "social hieroglyph," an emblem of the social relations in conceals. At the same time that it commands a specific price, landscape represents itself as "beyond price," a source of pure, inexhaustible spiritual value. "Landscape," says Ralph Waldo Emerson, "has no owner," and the pure viewing of landscape for itself is spoiled by economic considerations: "you cannot freely admire a noble landscape, if laborers are digging in the field hard by." Raymond Williams notes that "a working country is hardly ever a landscape." Further, "Landscape" must represent itself, then, as the antithesis of "land," as an "ideal estate" quite independent of "real estate," as a "poetic" property, in Emerson's phrase, rather than a material one."

Wedding photography of this sort is the contemporary, American application of the Gainsborough standard.
Wedding photography staged at the edges of wilderness has become common. In Mitchell's terms, it commands both the specific price of a photo shoot in a hard to reach location and the poetic property of the ideal estate. As these images suggest, the practice reflects an American ideation of nature and relation to it -grandeur, no vulgar indication of work or commerce (in sight), and a comfortable, elegant exhibit of mastery over wilderness. This wilderness, of course, is a stand-in for other material and personal hardships not so easily objectified that must be mastered nonetheless. The image of wilderness continues to hold value for there is no other readily understood, easily consumed, aesthetically appreciated backdrop for a life lived boldly.

If you detect a note of cynicism in the Marxist critique of landscape, you will not find any argument from me. Yet, I do think it offers important, if limited, insight into reasons why wilderness maintains its value in a mass culture that lives almost entirely within the bounds of civilization. It also illustrates how deeply abstract the conception of wilderness is among most Americans.

As this article has circled back to Holland Carter's false choice between wilderness or civilization and because I cannot fully come to terms with all there is to consider on the subject of the wilderness landscape ideal, I will end with the quotes below.

From William Cronon's The Trouble with Wilderness:

"The dream of an unworked natural landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living—urban folk for whom food comes from a supermarket or a restaurant instead of a field, and for whom the wooden houses in which they live and work apparently have no meaningful connection to the forests in which trees grow and die. Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land."

Paul Shepherd, from his book Man in the Landscape:

"My point is that their [cities] origin is inextricably associated with a surplus agriculture, that cities tend to grow beyond what the local agriculture will support, and that there is an urban attitude toward nature which is insular, cultivated, ignorant, dilettante, and sophisticated. At the same time, by virtue of the very polarity in the landscape that cities create, they contain and educate and produce men who retreat to nature, who seek its solitude and solace, who study it scientifically, and who are sensitive to its beauty. The very idea of a sense of place is an abstraction, a sort of intellectual creation ...which is impossible except in a world of ideas whose survival depends on the city. "

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