Archive for November, 2010

There’s drama walking through the autumn landscape.  The colors and forms are beautiful and so much change is occurring so suddenly that it holds your interest and makes even the unobservant aware of the fleeting nature of life.  The season is also a reminder of unrealized ambitions and unmet goals.  Whatever urgent dreams you may harbor, better happen sooner than later because time waits for no one.  Recently, I caught up with a friend at the Falls of the Ohio who I don’t see often enough and he told me this interesting story he witnessed about a buddy of his.  The following images are as they impressed themselves upon my imagination as the tale was told.

Here’s the short version of the story.  One day this guy is visiting the Falls of the Ohio and he finds a feather in the sand.

As feathers go, it wasn’t anything special in its own right.  However, it did trigger this notion in the brain of this fellow who found it and it served as a catalyst for this story.

Apparently, this man (let’s call him the Aviator) had a secret desire to learn how to fly, but heard through others that this was an impossibility.  He decided not to take the conventional wisdom at face value and determined to find out for himself.  He tied the feather into his hair and began the process of learning how he might accomplish his goal.

Having watched birds all his life, the Aviator knew that he needed wings, but what could he use to fabricate them?  On his travels around the river he frequently came across this odd material that was light and surprisingly strong.  Could it be used to make wings?  The Aviator began to gather this material from the woods around him.

Soon he had what he thought would make a nice matched pair of wings.  He created straps and sleeves that would allow him to attach the wings to his arms and this gave him a sense of having a power that he never had before.  Through practice, and trial and error, the Aviator taught himself the fundamentals of gliding and how to remain safe when things didn’t quite work out.  He sustained many bumps and bruises, but also gained mastery.  After running up and down the riverbank and letting the wind lift him just off the sand…the Aviator felt confident enough to try his first sustained flight. 

The Aviator needed a place where the winds were a little stronger than he found at the riverbank.

In the distance, the Aviator spotted the remains of a great tree.  It was from this spot that he would try his first flight.  He folded up his wings, adjusted his feather, and climbed up the enormous tree stump.

Reaching the top, the Aviator spread his wings and could feel the force of the wind upon them.  He grew more than a little fearful.  In his mind, he heard all the people who told him it was impossible to fly.  Breathing deeply, he pushed those voices into the wind where they dissipated.

For a moment, he closed his eyes and said a little prayer.  He let the memory in his muscles take over.

When a particularly strong gust of wind came up…the Aviator allowed it to fill his wings and he could feel himself lifting off the stump!  For the briefest of moments, the Aviator became aware that his decision-making process was too slow.  He would need to trust his instincts to fully learn how to fly and he let go.

The wind carried the Aviator up and over the river and he levelled out his flight.  He tested his maneuverability by banking from right to left.  He also practiced rising and descending.  When he felt confident that he had the right amount of control, he glided further and further away from his starting point.

It must have been a great thrill to be able to move around in a completely new way!  What surprises and delights to see your shadow projected upon the world below you.  To move with the freedom of a bird…hasn’t this been one of man’s most cherished dreams?  What a feeling of accomplishment the Aviator must have felt. 

I asked my friends whatever became of the Aviator?  He said he wasn’t sure since it had been awhile since anyone had talked with him.  His memory was already becoming the stuff of legends.  There are those who believe he fell into the river.  Others in town think that he is on an around the world trip.  And, there are folks who feel that it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that he was transformed by his experiences into a bird. If I have to choose…I like the last option best and every once in a while, I spot a bird that reminds me of the Aviator’s story.

POSTSCRIPT:  In 2003, among the anniversaries that form part of the backdrop for my Falls projects included the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers first sustained flight at Kitty Hawk.  At the time, I remember wondering why we weren’t making a bigger deal about this flying achievement than we were?  Yes, there was a commemorative stamp and a few other smaller observances, but nothing of international attention that I recall.  Being able to fly has been on our collective imaginations since before the story of Icarus and Daedalus and is repeated throughout the world’s cultures. We even have flying dreams in our sleep.  And so, when we finally achieved flight, and eventually went to the moon and back…it struck me that we weren’t making a big enough deal about this?  It isn’t everyday that we achieve what was first conceived in our grandest imaginations.  I thought it deserved more recognition than it got.  What do you think?

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Today there is a leafy smell in the air at the Falls of the Ohio.  Already, most of the leaves are on the ground and every gust of wind takes a few more away from the branches.  I often think about John James Audubon walking these grounds two hundred years a go looking for birds to draw.  Many of his earliest avian subjects were captured on paper here.  Audubon’s time at the Falls gave him training as both an artist and naturalist that would serve him well later in his career.  In my own eccentric way, I’m creating an alternative ornithology that parallels the genuine one.  Here is the day’s birding adventure.

I usually hear the Carolina Chickadees before I see them.  They are to my mind comical birds because they seem to get into every position possible in their quest for food.  They will examine from every angle whatever it is that is the object of their attention.  Most of the time I see this bird in pairs which makes me wonder if the males and females stay together year round?  I will have to read up on that.  As far as I can tell, there isn’t a good way to tell the sexes apart in this species.  You can walk in the woods and not see or hear anything …and then suddenly it seems the birds find you!  I’ve noticed that different species will flock together as they travel through the woods.  Here’s a sampling of what I saw along with the Chickadees today.

Migrating southward from their boreal homes in the north, Golden-crowned Kinglets mix freely with other species.  They are tiny, ever on the go birds, and it is difficult to photograph them.  The kinglet in the above picture is a male identified by his orangey crest.  The female’s crest is pale yellow.  This is another bird I hear before seeing with their “dee, dee, deee” call notes.  It’s common to see woodpeckers and their allies joining into this group.  Here’s a female Downy Woodpecker plying its trade among the tree bark.  The male has a red dash on the back of his head.

 Woodpeckers have adapted very stiff tail feathers that they use to brace themselves as they hammer away on the wood.  You can see the same thing on a bird that is so cryptically colored that it is easy to miss.  I saw several Brown Creepers flying with the Chickadees and Tufted Titmice today.  This was the better of the Brown Creeper images and you can see how easily it would be to overlook this bird.  Notice its stiff, v-shaped tail feathers that it uses to brace itself as it probes the wood.

Looking just like wood bark, the Brown Creeper will fly to the base of a tree and work its way up.  It is looking for small insects that are hiding in the crevices of the bark.  These bird are also very small.  It’s also common to see this bird also traveling in the company of migrating nuthatches.  Such was the case on this day, here is a White-breasted Nuthatch that was on an adjacent tree to the creeper.

Aptly named, this nuthatch has a snowy-white breast feathers.  It likes to explore the tree’s surface in a head down position and has this nasal sounding call note that it frequently gives as it hunts for food.  Of course, I have saved one specialty for you that is very rarely glimpsed at any time of the year.  Patient birding rewarded me with this sighting of the Thick-billed Thrasher that was also traveling with these other birds.

From this detail, it is easy to see why this bird is called the Thick-billed Thrasher.  It is a seed eater and specializes in pine nuts.

Males and females of this species are also difficult to tell apart.  I spotted this bird resting among the willow branches in the eastern section of the park.  I noticed others of its kind exploring the leaf litter for whatever food supplements its main diet.

A final look at the this thrasher doing something a bit unusual.  This bird has discovered some barge cable wound around a branch and it seems to have stimulated a nesting response.  It sat on this rope for a few minutes before moving off with the rest of the traveling birds.  The Thick-billed Thrasher’s ultimate destination are the pine forests of the southern United States.

On my way back to my car, I made one other special bird sighting.  I also heard these birds before I saw them and immediately looked up into the sky.  Flying high above me in wavy, v-shaped formations, flocks of Sandhill Cranes were winging their way south.  For me, this is another sign of the season and I always associate the coming of very cold weather with seeing these cranes.  I wonder if Audubon felt similarly?

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It is late autumn at the Falls of the Ohio and soon all the leaves will be gone having succumbed to the wind, rain, and frost.  For now, there is still color and it is during this transitory moment within the season that the memories of past loved ones comes to my mind and heart.  I was walking along the riverbank recently and thinking about my grandfather and so I created this story for him out of thanks, sticks, and river-worn Styrofoam!

Perhaps it’s the shimmer and play of light upon the water that helps those who have gone before to communicate with the living?  I can picture him now, very tall and very thin and neatly dressed with his fancy bow-tie.  Because he took an interest in me as a boy, I in return have never forgotten him.  My grandfather was not a particular eloquent man, but as the saying goes and there is truth in this…actions do speak louder than words. 

Grandpa or Opa as I sometimes called him loved to tend his small flower garden.  In the heart of the old city this was how he kept his connection to the soil.  And because his garden was tiny it was also precious and everything that happened in it took on added significance.  When a new flower bloomed …that was a cause for celebration as were the times when some new never before seen bird would alight in the yard even for the briefest of moments.  All these little events were full of meaning  to my grandfather and now I see that I inherited this ability too.  Finding wonder when life is at its most mundane is a true gift.

When I was a very small boy my Opa would put me upon his shoulders and give me a unique perspective on the world.  He moved along the city’s canals so easily and I was able to take in all that was going on around me.  I would describe him as being a patient person, but there were some things he found difficult to tolerate.

Perhaps at the top of his list was injustice.  He had lived during the hard times of a world war when his city was occupied.  He had witnessed and experienced how his fellow human beings could be callous and cruel to each other.  When the war ended and prosperity returned, it bothered Grandpa to see how the very land itself was treated with little regard.  He knew about the magic that could happen even in the smallest plot of dirt.  To treat the ground as a garbage can is an injustice to the earth.

Our walks together were always learning opportunities and this was fun for me.  Grandpa seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the living things around him.  He said that life was so interesting that he needed to know about it, but that he was alright too when there were no answers.  He also found contentment in the mystery of it all and that somehow it fit together and worked.  His true position in life was balanced between the twin poles of knowing and not knowing.  It was important to remain open to recognize and receive wisdom when it did come his way.

If my Grandfather could see what is happening with our treatment of the environment…I know it would upset him.  Before the war (which was bad enough) there was also a world-wide depression.  To get by and make ends meet, everything that could be reused and repurposed was.  People even knew how to fix and repair things because they had to if they were going to have anything extra at all.  Creativity and thrift were virtues because they were survival skills.  Nothing was thrown away without careful consideration.  Now economies are based on mass consumption and disposability and something else has been lost in the process.

Grandpa told me that if we didn’t take care of all our precious resources, then we were in danger of losing ourselves.  The more we change the land, the more it changes us and that our ultimate fate is intertwined with what happens in the real world.  Here on the banks of the Ohio River my Grandfather’s concerns have come back to me.  Now I am a father and someday I too may become a grandparent.  During my lifetime, I would like to feel that we can be reawakened to the needs of the planet so that we could build towards the most positive and healthy future possible.

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It’s two weeks later now since I last added to the “family”.  I had planned a different post to follow the last, but changed my mind after visiting the Falls of the Ohio today.  Anticipating arriving on the scene…what would I find?  Would everything be knocked down again?  Would there be broken chunks and bits of Styrofoam mingled with the fresh fallen willow leaves?  Wonderfully, I discovered that the group was not only intact, but had been added to.  The first image in this post was the tableau as I found it.  The figure on the left was given an enormous phallus and a completely new figure holding a whiskey bottle was on the right.  I removed the polystyrene member on the left figure more because it upset my sense of proportion and seemed superfluous!  Shortly, after arriving, I had visitors and we had a nice conversation together and they let me take their picture next to my sculptures.

This family was visiting the Falls from Cincinnati and seemed to enjoy what I was doing.  It is because of them, that I changed the order of my posts…just in case they check in on the riverblog and want to see themselves in this context.  I don’t know their names and this really isn’t that important.  I did notice the lady with the sunglasses spoke with a Dutch accent and we had a short talk about the current state of the Netherlands.  I’m interested in this because my mom is Dutch and I was born in Amsterdam.  You just never know who you might run into at the Falls of the Ohio.  Before leaving, the eldest son improvised a quick figure of his own and added it to the group. 

Here’s a look at the happy family left on their own in the woods.  Because the branches are getting bare, it’s far easier to see the bright white of the Styrofoam and I wonder how many people walked past them this summer because they just didn’t see them through all the vegetation?

I did take a close-up of the whiskey drinking figure on the right and I think he is quite tipsy!  He has that glazed look in his eyes.

I just noticed he’s smoking a pipe too!  I made a few pieces of my own, but did not add them to the Styro-family today.  I constructed a bird (which I will show you later) and this figure that is wearing a crown or crest.  The eyes are small green plastic bottle caps that I put coal into for pupils.

It’s not the most memorable piece I ever made, but it does mark the season.  Today was slightly windy and the leaves were dropping all around me.  The sky was getting overcast and the first real promise of rain in weeks was in the air.  I eventually left this figure by a stand of young cottonwood trees whose leaves were turning yellow.  The smiling figure became a positive affirmation of the day and its arms are raised in tribute.

I came across one other creation made by another visitor by connecting driftwood in the sand and seemed a nice way to end this post.  Peace to you!

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Another deceptively nice day at the Falls.  I say that because our area is experiencing an acute drought.  We have had just about an inch and half of rain the last couple of months.  It has also been unseasonably warm with highs in the low 70 degree range for a couple of weeks.  Again, the odd acting weather has seemed notable to me.  There has been color in the leaves, but they have been so dry.  In areas, no fires are allowed because the conditions are right for a conflagration.

Because we haven’t had a hard frost yet, you can still run into butterflies at the Falls of the Ohio.  Pictured here is a Dainty Sulphur butterfly also known as the Dwarf Yellow (Nathalis iole).  This is a tiny, dime-sized butterfly that is extending its range across the country.  You can still find Monarchs and Viceroys, but they tend to be ragged specimens just waiting for the frost to do them in.  I have enjoyed butterfly watching this year and I look forward to building on my experiences with them in 2011.

I returned to my trusty studio spot under the willows for this adventure.  I don’t have much of a story this time…just the straight scoop on what happened on this trip.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that earlier visitors had taken it upon themselves to upright the sculptures that were knocked down and assaulted.  See previous post from a few weeks a go for that story.  The figure I have named “Marlin”…I did find on the ground and he was missing his fishing bobber eyes, but I was able to fix him in short order.  My collecting bag always has a few stray pairs of “eyes” for any emergency.  Finding that somebody actually cared enough to set these pieces up inspired me to add a new work to the group and here is one of the first images of it.  I call this one the Agitator for a couple of reasons. 

The first reason comes from his hat which is the agitator from an old washing machine that the river parked here months a go.  The eyes are again found fishing bobbers and the nose is the handle from an old paint brush.  I find a lot of brush handles, sans bristles, at the Falls of the Ohio.  The figure is a big one and would look nice in the space that was left open in this particular grouping.  Here is my only shot of this piece standing with his Styro-family on a sunny day in the Ohio River Valley.

The second reason I called this newer work Agitator is the second after I snapped the above photo…he fell down and his head split apart.  Sounds gruesome, but remember it’s just polystyrene. I became agitated to have to remake the head, but stuff like this happens using such poor materials.

I went back to my Styrofoam cache and found the next best head and created version two.  I think the second incarnation looks a little goofier, but maybe this was what was intended to happen all along?

Since the piece was now different I added the plastic horse shoe and changed the positioning of his arms.  This is the way it looked for the second group portrait.

While I was making this latest figure, I was approached by a couple of people interested in what I was doing.  I had two nice conversations and posed for a couple of images.  I took the opportunity to ask one of the people to take my picture with my Styro-family and this one is for my mother!  It’s one of the rare images of the artistatexit0 in this blog and gives some sense for the scale of these chunks of Styrofoam floating in the river.

I’ll close with this final image of the group facing the river.  For the short time these figures remain standing, they are a fun surprise to come across while hiking among the willows.  Happy trails to you…

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He ran through the willows as though nothing could touch him.  His foot speed was something to behold and he took great pride in that.

In all the land there was nothing that could catch him…or so he thought.  All that was about to change.  Perhaps it was the rhythmic pounding of placing one foot in front of the other, but atypical thoughts were now crossing his mind.  He did notice something in the land for the first time that disturbed him and so he ran across the breath of it to see if it was also true there as well.

The swift figure ran over to the driftwood that had been layered at the Falls after the last flood…and discovered that his pursuer was here too.  Next he tried the river.  Surely, the currents would have washed it all away by now?  But he found that what was bothering him was gaining speed as well.

By the water, the runner found that it was just as bad here and in a moment of panic he decided to run home.

He lived in the roots of a favorite willow tree and he found what was vexing him also now found him here at his home.  The runner had finally come across an opponent that he could not put behind him.

In the willows, it was like this discarded net he nearly ran into.

By the driftwood, it literally was everywhere…on top and intermixed with everything else.

By the river it was perhaps even worse.  There was rubbage floating along and drifting by with the currents.  Who knew where this stuff would eventually end up?

He even found it by his beloved home and he wondered why he hadn’t noticed this before now?  Something in the day had opened his eyes to the truth around him…everywhere he went he could find discarded waste and it bothered him. Yesterday, he was able to put it out of sight, but today was a different.  The runner found what he couldn’t out run was a sense of responsibility he was now feeling for the land that was his home.

The trash that was everywhere to be seen, ( if only people would choose to see it), was like a grenade in the sand just waiting to explode.  At some point, it would enter the ecosystem in even more intimate ways and affect the lives of all that live here.  For the first time, the runner realized that he had a shared responsibility to the other life around him and that ultimately, they would all share the same fate together.

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I was looking around the driftwood for whatever there was to find and having a good time.  I found this toy giraffe head with the puffy cheeks.  I also had the good fortune to watch from a distance a beaver that was cruising close to the riverbank.  It’s only the second one I’ve seen out here that was alive.  I kept trying to get closer to take a better picture, but soon the beaver spotted me and dove underwater.  I never saw where he eventually resurfaced…but I know they are out here.  Their chewed willow sticks are among my favorite materials to use for my art.

It was shortly after the encounter with the beaver that I met Marlin for the first time…in fact he tried to scare me away!!  He took me by surprise and I don’t know how someone or “thing” so large was able to approach me without my knowing it?  Soon I learned that Marlin can move quietly when he wants to.  Here are my first camera images of him that I shot reflexively as he attempted to frighten me away.

When I clearly was not going to flee, his face actually took on a more fearful expression as though he was more afraid of me to begin with. 

I did my best to reassure him that I was out here at the Falls to be respectful and appreciative of being out in nature and this seemed to reassure him some.  I found out during the ensuing conversation that his name comes from the fish image on his bling necklace he wears.  It was also found out here among the driftwood and so we had some common ground right away.  We are both beachcombers of a sort.  Here’s a better look at that fancy necklace that I thought was a kid’s canteen at first, but now I have no idea what this really is except it’s a toy of some sort.

Getting to know Marlin a little, I learned he was a bit of a philosopher and observer of life.  Human beings in particular have been a favorite object of study.  Marlin mentioned how impressed he was with our ability to create something out of nothing, but was mystified why we couldn’t see the bigger picture and ramifications of our actions?  We took a walk together along the river talking about this topic.

Marlin said he saw many people out here and some even brought their children along.  He said he enjoyed this notion of one generation following in the footsteps of the one that came before, but was worried that the wrong lessons were being transmitted about how to treat nature.  He walked a few feet from me and bent down to pick something up he found lying in the dried mud and sand.

It was a plastic sack full of trash left behind probably by fishermen.  Marlin found it confusing that a person could bundle their refuse so carefully and then forget to pack it out.  It was left to rot on the riverbank.  When other people see that this kind of behavior is tolerated…it just encourages them to do the same.  Marlin wondered if it was part of humans’ natures to be so contradictory and if so…how did that help our kind rise to the top of the food chain?  He also wondered why someone else who saw this bag of trash didn’t take it with them…even if it wasn’t theirs?  I’m afraid, I wasn’t able to provide much in answers to his questions since I struggle as a human too with this issue.

Marlin moved closer to the water and said that if this bag were left unattended that it and whatever the contents were would surely find their way into the river.  I couldn’t dispute that.  Marlin also said that people like coming to the river to recreate and that ultimately their very drinking water comes from this source…why would you foul it?  Other life forms like fish, birds, and even that beaver I watched earlier all depend on this water to be as clean as possible.  Why would we be so careless as to poison it with all our various waste products?

Water is the lifeblood of the planet and we can’t even imagine life without water.  It is a precious resource!  I listened to Marlin preach a little more and then told him I had to go home.  As I said my goodbyes, I took that bag of trash Marlin found with me and deposited it in the nearest trash can I could find.  I promised Marlin that I would try to do my part by also spreading the word about keeping our shared planet as clean as possible.  This is how Marlin looked…as he parted company with me.

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