Archive for March, 2011

The river has given ground, but just a sliver of it.  Although the waters have retreated, the Ohio River is still higher than usual.  On the immediate riverbank is a new wooden obstacle course of washed away trees and huge logs.  I find myself a walking stick and go exploring.  I cover ground I have visited hundreds of times before and yet  is made different with each episode of high water.  I began this trip descending the frail cut lumber staircase whose bottom steps were recently covered by the river.  I see a man and his children playing in the sand and pebbles and it looks like they are also building something.  I wait for them to wander off to gather fresh materials before sneaking a closer peak.

They have taken a recently washed up piece of Styrofoam and added some other found elements to improvise a toy raft.  Jutting from the foam are many spent cigarette lighters ( you can always find these).  There is also the red plastic flag from a mailbox…the kind you stand up to alert the postal carrier that you have outgoing mail.  I can also see a larger piece of blue plastic, perhaps a sail?  To me, it also resembles a shark fin.  As much as I like this family’s creativity, I am however, dismayed by the graffiti on the side of the log. This is something I’m starting to see more of on the bridge and through out the park.  It makes me wistful for the days when scrawling bad words and so and so loves so and so in the sand were sufficient means of expression.

The walking stick comes in handy when you are not sure how deep the mud is in a certain area.  You need to pick your path through by stepping on branches and broken planks.  You can see brightly colored plastic just about everywhere you go.  There are moderate to heavy waves along the river’s edge.  Today I have a paper sack with me to collect the small river treasures carried by the water.  This proves to be a mistake because the sack soon becomes water-logged and the bottom falls out.

I pick my way towards the railroad bridge because when the river was at its crest…this spot had the most incredible amount of wood and debris floating in the water.  I wanted to see the aftermath.  I came across this formation created when the water level left these logs high and dry.  A very fine coating of mud and dampness unifies the scene in neutral tones of brown and gray because the greening of spring is only just beginning.  I had hoped to see a bird or two, but they weren’t in this area.

It’s a cool and very overcast day and got progressively colder as the day wore on.  In fact, it would blow snow on this night.  Because the light was subdued, there were fewer harsh shadows and I felt that I could read the forms better.  Everywhere you looked there was the jumble of logs and branches twisted and interconnected together.  I recognized little from just a couple of weeks a go, with the exception of the UFO or Unidentified Floating Object which was miraculously still there.

This big circular platform first appeared here a couple of years a go.  It came with another flood that swept it loose from wherever it came from, washed it over the dam, and deposited it here.  My sons first thought it looked like a flying saucer, but I said it was an unidentified floating object instead.  We also speculated that this could be the plug found at the bottom of the river…and when it was pulled, the river drained like a bath tub.  It’s about a dozen feet across and we used to dance on it.  I’m really surprised that it’s still here and didn’t move along with the river on its way to the ocean.  Apparently, nobody has missed this thing since it’s been here for years.  When it began spitting rain I decided to turn back the way I came and headed for the staircase.

The people who made the “Styro-raft” were gone and now was a better time to sneak a peek at their creation.  I snapped a few photographs for my collection.  Before leaving I could see that they had attempted to launch their colorful craft into the river…but the Ohio was not in the mood.  I have had this experience before where the wind and waves on the river push back whatever you hope to have float away.  It probably disappointed the kids, but in their imaginations I’m sure they can see a little of themselves riding their unidentified floating object on its journey westward towards adventure and new lands.

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I ventured out over the weekend to see what I could see.  The Ohio River is still very high, but receding.  All along the riverbank you can see how far the water rose because large logs and plastic trash reveal the high water marks.  Once all this water reaches its “normal” level…there will be a huge amount of trash left behind to challenge any clean-up attempts.  Today I wasn’t out looking for garbage, but other signs of life.  Perhaps it is a bit early to look for migrating birds although I can feel that is just a short time away and getting closer.  Already species like the Red-winged Blackbird are staking out nesting territories.  Species we see all the year round like the Northern Cardinal were singing at the tops of their lungs and I enjoyed standing under one bright red bird that was doing just that!

This particular bird has many rivals.  I could hear many other cardinals singing across the landscape.  I could almost imagine the spaces they were occupying by the volume of their singing…every hundred meters or so it seemed a different bird was calling out.  I wondered how the poor females went about the task of choosing which one to form a pair with?  I did see a few Yellow-rumped Warblers which are usually the first warblers to arrive and among the last to leave.  The other warblers will be winging their way here shortly…or at least I hope they stop here ever so briefly on their way northward.  Over the last two or three years it seems there are more changes to the environs around the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  I know that there are many other better choices all along the Ohio River than here. It seems we have decided to put people’s needs first over what birds might need.  During my wanderings, I did see my first butterfly and here it is…

…this is the Spring Azure butterfly.  Here it is mid March and this tiny ( no wider across than my thumb nail) bright blue-violet butterfly was visiting plants.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t obtain an image of that beautiful blue coloring, but with this species, the underside or ventral wings are more helpful in identifying it.  Since there were no dark marks on the dorsal wing tips, this helped me determine that this butterfly was the male of the species.  I was really excited to see this little wonder and thought that this could be a really uncommon species…but it wasn’t.  It’s fairly common, widespread, and has many morphs.  Formerly, this species was scientifically named Celastrina argiolus, but is now called Celastrina landon. With this species, there is still much taxonomic hair-splitting to do.  It’s just that variable over a large area of North America.

As I walked along the riverbank, I came across a few familiar signs now mostly underwater.  Here’s what happens when you throw “Caution” to the water…you get this view.  And here’s one that partly hides a “No Trespassing” sign near a storm sewer that feeds into the river.

As I moved along where the faint hearted fear to tread, I was hoping that my slogging through the mud and muck would be rewarded.  Earlier I had seen a few Blue-winged teal which is a small species of duck and so I was hoping to see another small, but rare duck that sometimes mixes in with these teal as they migrate.  Today was my lucky day and here are three images of the very unusual  Mud Duck.  This bird likes to really get into the underbrush particularly during floods to take advantage of feeding areas usually restricted to other ducks during normal river levels.  It is a very oily duck and highly buoyant on the water and as a consequence…it almost never dives beneath the surface of the river.

The price of observing this unusual fowl was foul boots.  I became so coated with mud from my knees down that I didn’t worry about my foot gear until I was ready to go home.  This mud is particularly sticky and each rise of the foot is accompanied by a sucking sound.  You definitely need to tie your laces tight, otherwise you risk stepping right out of your shoe or boot.  I stopped every so often to clean the bottoms of my boots because the weight of the mud made each step an additional burden.

So far, I haven’t seen any of the large pieces of Styrofoam that found temporary refuge in my plein air studio.  They are probably half way to the Mississippi River by now.  It may take another week for the water to fully retreat and then it will be even more time before the riverbank dries out some.  I’ll close for now with another flood view.  Over the years, these sycamore trees have been a good marker for high water.

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As I write this post the Ohio River is still high and lingering due to unexpected heavy rains.  I’m anxious to see what the new standard will be along the riverbanks.  Until my old haunts are once again accessible, I’m forced to dip into the old archives.  Here’s a selection of images made between October 2010 and February 2011 of a sculptural grouping I came to call “The Choir”.  Some of the members of this group made appearances in my last post and were in fact made from Styrofoam and other found objects I collected along the river and kept at the plein air studio.  Each began as a unique piece that was constructed and photographed on site at the Falls of the Ohio.  After each piece fell apart or was destroyed by other park visitors, I retrieved the parts and moved them back to the studio.  I didn’t try to repair them but instead chose to stand them back up to see what would happen.  Happily, people interacted with them by changing, rearranging, and adding new figures to the grouping.  On the down side, they were also attacked several times, smashed and eventually knocked down.  Now, who knows where they are, but it’s possible I may find parts of them in other places of the park.  In my imagination I see “The Choir” being lifted by the water and floating away piece by piece.  Here are the images which are in chronological order except for the very last picture.

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The Ohio River is even higher now than my last post.  I hope to venture out today and snap a few pictures to share later.  It’s sobering watching nature do what it can do.  I began the morning looking online at the damage the earthquake and tsunami have wreaked upon northern Japan.  Those folks need our help…please contribute however you can. 

Back in Kentuckiana, we are safe.  The flood gates are up and we are not expecting any heavy rain showers that would further swell the river.  Low-lying areas such as the aptly named River Road are under water.  Residents who live directly by the water have either evacuated or moved their possessions to higher ground which in some cases is the roof of their homes.  For these people, their love of the river is worth the periodic inconveniences it can pose.  The Ohio River is expected to crest today and begin falling back to normal pool which will take several days.

Until then, I have had the opportunity to look through images from the past year and put together a few “scrapbooks”  This one is of my plein air studio that I extensively used for ten months beginning in June 2010.  It’s now gone.  I’ll know more when I get the chance to visit.  I originally selected this site because it was relatively out of view, but close to where I was finding my materials.  Having a somewhat “fixed” location also gave the public who stumbled upon this spot, a chance to interact with the materials I was finding and provided more choices than finding the single figures I made throughout the park.  People could make their own sculptures…happily some were made.  So, here are a few pictures taken over the course of several seasons or about nine months worth.

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I’m looking forward to new adventures at the Falls of the Ohio and once the river subsides I’ll be able to do that.  What I knew so well over the past year is just that…the past.  Floods always rearrange the riverbank around here and a new supply of “stuff” will be deposited…unfortunately.

There is so much trash and debris floating around here it is a bit amazing and depressing.  Just for the record, most of the trash is not coming from my home city of Louisville.  It’s not that we are any better than anyone else, but the fact is this garbage has traveled with the river from as far north as Pittsburgh and other venues north of us.  The Falls of the Ohio seems to catch-all particularly at this very spot.

This was the view under the railroad bridge on Sunday.  A tremendous amount of debris has been concentrated here and once the water recedes there will be mountains of driftwood with garbage mingled throughout.  You can see how daunting a task it would be to try to remove what can be recycled here from what should decompose naturally.  The prevailing currents and wind push all this floating debris against the Falls of the Ohio until the next bout of high water adds or subtracts it from here.

Yes, it’s very colorful, but completely unwanted.  Most of what you can see here seems to be plastic drinking bottles.  I guess it’s much easier to throw them in the river than to deposit them in some recycling bin!  Once the river backs down, I imagine I will find all sorts of “treasures”.  A good friend of mine who also happens to be an artist has a difficult time reconciling why I spend so much time down here making art from Styrofoam, etc… I tell him that there are more important issues in the world than what occurs in the art world and that I’m worried about the planet.  Making something creative from this junk is my way of calling attention to the problem.  It’s not just the objects, but the context that all this is presented in that’s more crucial.  It’s not a gallery or museum but rather the very space of life itself.

As far as floods go…this has been a fairly gentle one for us, thus far.  More water up north will translate to an increase in the river level again.  We may go through this a few more times over the next couple of months.  There were record snow falls this year and all the melt water from that has not been reckoned with yet.  The staircase beyond the sign is a common way that people access the riverbank.  Now let’s check out the stairs themselves.

I walked along to all my favorite spots…or at least the ones I could reach.  My boots were a wet and muddy mess, but it felt good being outside.  I saw a few of the early migrating birds, Red-winged Blackbirds, Rufous-sided Towhees, Belted Kingfishers, and yes the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker which I believe to be the same woodpecker that I have spotted visiting the same sweetgum tree for the last four years.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t a good day for bird photography, but maybe next time!

This is a view near the Interpretive Center.  The rising water does so centimeter by centimeter in very undramatic fashion.  It can be very disarming, however, to feel your feet getting wet when just a few minutes before the ground you were standing on was dry. 

I found this to be an interesting and melancholy image.  Usually, picnic tables conjure up pleasant images of family outings, but the river obviously is disinterested.  This table has its legs up in the air like some dead cartoon animal.

Just a typical view of bottomland when the river rises.  I think the water accentuates the vertical elements in this composition and causes me to notice the trees more.

As I was walking along the Woodland Trail, I came across this storm sewer that services the town of Clarksville.  Why it’s exactly here next to park land is debatable?  While I was walking by I was startled by an increase in the volume of water gushing from this location.  This is another aspect of flooding.  So many of our small towns and cities need serious overhauls to their aging sewer systems and the increasing volumes of water exposes their weaknesses. 

The water here smelled like the combined scents of every laundry detergent known to mankind all mingled together.  There was also a “nice” foam head along the margins.

For now, I haven’t been able to do as much with my project on site.  At home and in my new studio room, I have been sifting through images and bits of plastic that I have accumulated over time and wondering what to do with it all?  I’ll end this post with one more recent flood image.  In a small back water area, I came across this flock of Canada geese who seemed to be like me…just waiting for the river to return to normalcy.

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The Ohio River is currently on the rise.  I think by now, the plein air studio I’ve been using all these past months is under water.  I’m sure the next time I walk this landscape it will have been rearranged.  With spring coming this will be a new place once again and with it a new cycle of debris and artifacts will have washed ashore.  I was looking through several months of images shot at the Falls of the Ohio and chose more pictures of toys that I have come across.  I’ll end this post with a bonus feature!

And now for the bonus!!  Usually after a flood it is common to find logs and sticks that have been snagged by trees as in the above image.  On occasion the retreating waters deposit other objects like strange fruits for me to find.  Here are a couple more found toys that illustrate this.

Here’s the last toy in three images.  Thanks, and see you after the flood.

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