Archive for December, 2012

snow covered driftwood, Dec.29, 2012

The last month of the year which began so warmly has finally delivered some cold and snow to the Falls of the Ohio.  The newspaper says that somewhere between two to four inches fell overnight.  I’m sitting in the comfort and security of my home and all is well except for that small voice in my head telling me I need to go check out the river.  The voice is persistent and annoying and makes little sense on such a bitterly cold day.  Naturally, I caved in simply because snow events are uncommon here of late and as a chronicler of the Falls, I have a self-appointed mission to document what happens.  I also know from past experiences that these snow and ice events can be beautiful and have a way of revealing a different side of this environment.  Who knows, maybe I will come across something I’ve not seen before?

Blanche in the snow, Dec. 2012

Upon arriving I discovered that my way of accessing the riverbank was gone!  The trusty wooden staircase that led from the parking lot to the river is completely missing and I think that some of the maintainance issues it had finally caught up with it?  To compound events further I discovered that my right boot has a hole in the sole and the cold water I just stepped in has made my sock and foot a soggy, frozen distraction.  I’m about ready to get back in my car when I hear that familiar voice again.

Blanche's face, detail, Dec. 2012

This time that voice wasn’t coming from within me, but rather just a short distance a head of me.  The voice reassured me I wasn’t suffering a relapse of the flu I recently overcame!  Seemingly materializing in thin air was this small, but classic version of a snowman who asked to be called “Blanche”.  I suppose that makes her a snowwoman or snowperson and it’s weird the things you think about in certain moments.  I would guess that the figure was about two feet tall or so.  She had a fishing float for a nose, coal eyes, and bits of red plastic around her neck and mouth.  Attached to her head was a rather interesting hair comb.  Blanche thanked me for showing up and apologized for “getting into my head”.  It was she who had called me to the river to tell me something important.  As she spoke, I forgot all about the hole in my boot.

Blanche rolls a snowball, Dec. 2012

Blanche rolls several snow balls, Dec. 2013

I hope I’m getting all this right because several things were happening at once.  While Blanche spoke to me she was also rolling snow into three balls of graduating sizes.  What she in essence told me was that while life did originate in the water…the relationship was deeper and richer than that.  Water was in fact “life” and the medium where its collective unconscious resides.  It is water existing from the North Pole to South Pole in all its forms like snow, rain, ice, salty, fresh, steamy, cubed, etc…that holds the memory, wisdom, and promise of life.  As it turns out water also unifies life.

As I was trying to absorb what was being told to me…I snapped a few photos and hoped that the cold wouldn’t affect my digital camera.  Blanche took the three balls she created and stacked them one on top of the other.

Blanche creates a friend, Dec. 2012

As I watched, Blanche added a gold plastic hat she found as well as an orange golf tee for a nose.  As she worked Blanche hummed a song and I watched in astonishment as a second snowperson appeared before me!  Blanche said his name is “Frio”.

Blanche and Frio, Dec. 2012

Frio and Blanche, alternate view, Dec. 2012

It was the most incredible display I had ever seen!  Right before my eyes the seemingly inert snow took on another form that came to life and reinforced some of Blanche’s message to me.  There would be more.  Frio then asked me to continue to tell the water’s story through my blog because the fate of water and life was more important than ever.  It was vital that water remained as pure and clean as possible or the normal rhythm of the planet would be disturbed. He told me that the internet was something similar to the collective unconscious and the best way to send out a message to the billions of people now living on the planet.  Water and life need all the friends that can be mustered to act on its behalf.

Blanche and Frio singing, Dec. 2012

My encounter with the Snow Folk ended in song.  Before Blanche and Frio headed out they sang a song to the Falls celebrating how this is a unique place on the planet where time and space intersect in interesting ways.  There was a verse dedicated to me and the continued success of my project now entering its tenth year.

Blanche and Frio depart, Dec. 2012

I was completely charmed and captivated and thanked the Snow Folk for the song.  I watched them turn and walk into the river where they completely disappeared.  I’m still trying to digest this experience.  It’s not everyday that water speaks to you in your own language.  Thankfully, I have these photographs to show you and to add weight to Blanche and Frio’s message to us.  After a while, I felt the cold again and decided this time that a mug of hot chocolate or coffee would help me feel my fingers and toes again.  Happy New Year to you all from the Falls of the Ohio.  See you in 2013.

skyline of Louisville, KY at year's end, Dec. 2012

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river-polished coal, Falls of the Ohio

The coal that I find at the Falls of the Ohio looks like the image above.  What I mostly come across in the park are pebble-sized stones and coarse gravel that have been polished smooth by the Ohio River.  The same river processes that shapes Styrofoam and wood also alters coal.  Over the last two years I have been collecting this coal off of the riverbank and creating site specific art installations and images using this fossil material.  Although coal is organic and natural, what I’m finding does not belong in the Ohio River.  I believe this coal comes from the commercial barge traffic delivering fuel to hydroelectric plants throughout the Ohio River Valley.  During times when the river is running high, materials carried into the water seem to eventually find their way to the Falls of the Ohio.

coal flake in situ, 2012

Before getting to the heart of this post, I would like to share a few other associations I have with coal and Christmas.  My Dutch mother told me stories of her childhood and St. Nicholas Eve which is celebrated earlier in the month than our Christmas.  Good children might expect small toys, fruit, or candy to be placed in their shoes as gifts from the white bearded saint.  If, however, you were badly behaved over the year…you ran the risk of getting coal in your shoe as punishment.  St. Nicholas has a chimney sweep friend named Black Pete and he usually does the dirty work. Fortunately, my mom doesn’t recall anyone she knew who this happened to!  There are times, however, when getting coal in your shoe isn’t a completely bad outcome.

radiating coal flake at the Falls of the Ohio, 2012

My mother also recalls how important and scarce coal was one particularly bitter winter and Christmas.  It also happened to be during World War II and the city of Amsterdam was occupied by foreign soldiers.  I believe she said the particular year in question was 1942?  When resources  became scarce, people would walk the railroad tracks at night looking for chunks of coal that fell off the railroad cars.  People risked their lives doing this.  Found coal would be burned in home stoves to keep everyone warm.  When coal wasn’t available wood was burned next.  My mom remembers that by war’s end, every wooden piece of furniture in the entire apartment was cut up and burned for heating and cooking purposes.  Back then, a bag of coal would have been as fine a gift as receiving an orange or piece of chocolate.  The times have really changed since then.

coal flake in water, 2012

It’s becoming more difficult for me to believe that the events of 1942 occurred seventy years a go!  Since then, the peace was won (for a short time) and the western economies thrived and grew on cheap and abundant fossil fuels.  If populations had stayed relatively the same size, perhaps we wouldn’t be noticing the effects burning those fossil fuels have had on the environment?  But the world’s population grew and then grew a lot more which puts pressure on all our resources.  Today we live on a planet where billions of people want to live at the same standard of living that the west has squandered away.  With China and India experiencing their own industrial growth moments being fueled by coal…the environment at large will surely see further damages.

found coal and aluminum can bottoms in red mud, Falls of the Ohio, 2912

Since beginning this Falls of the Ohio Project nearly ten years a go…I have created my own unique holiday cards.  Every year I send something different out into the world.  This helps me get into some kind of holiday spirit. Friends and family tell me that they enjoy receiving these admittedly odd cards.  The last several years I have waited for the weather to get more seasonal perhaps with snow or ice present before rushing out to document the moment.  As it so happens, it’s been getting warmer and warmer over the past several winters.  As a whole, 2012 was our warmest year ever and the calendar page hasn’t yet turned to the new year!  Our December began with temperatures in the low 70 degrees mark.  Finally, the day after Christmas it has become cold enough and we may see a dusting of snow over the ground.

coal and clam shell designs, Falls of the Ohio, 2012

Currently, I have artworks (a sculpture and photo series) on display in a coal-themed exhibit at the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany, Indiana.  While working on my projects, I had a conversation with a sculptor friend of mine who grew up in a steel making town in Pennsylvania.  He recalled from his childhood that it snowed a lot during their winters, however, it didn’t take the snow long to turn from white to dull black because of all the coal soot in the air.  This inspired me to envision black “snowflakes” or “coal flakes” and I began to create small site specific designs on the ground based on this idea.  No two coal flakes I’ve made has been exactly the same as another.

three coal flakes at the Falls of the Ohio, 2012

I have located these coal flake designs in fairly public places along side walking trails mostly used by fishermen.  A photograph documents each one I have made.  To me, this is a form of public art and it’s interesting to see how people will react to these modest designs.  Some coal flakes don’t make it because there is something else in the human spirit that needs to disturb or destroy what it doesn’t understand.  Many of these designs were rubbed out nearly as quickly as I made them!  By now, I’ve created enough coal flakes that it occurred to me that I had my newest holiday card theme already completed in sixteen different designs!  The images in this post are just a few of the ones I sent out this year.

coal flake on red mud, 2012

And so I ask myself, what am I hoping might occur by sending out these unfamiliar images?  Hopefully, people will register that there is a connection between burning fossil fuels and the changing climate we are currently experiencing.  The environment isn’t just something that’s out there, but is a big part of the context of our lives that we contribute something to.  I also continue to hope, that people will see personal creativity as an advantage our species has over others and that we honor and use this creativity to figure out how to live harmoniously with ourselves and the planet.  I feel a lot of our hyper consumption is based on low self-esteem where creativity is replaced with consumption.  Here’s hoping in the new year that more people learn how to tap into their own internal resources to help aid the earth!  Happy Holidays to all from the Falls of the Ohio!

coal flake made from coal and small clam shells, Falls of the Ohio, 2012

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Under the Big Tree, Nov. 2012

I have heard stories about this land and river that are supposed to be very old and have been handed down for generations.  Folks back then told each other stories and that’s how things became remembered.  Back then, it also wasn’t unusual to find a young one that knew their family’s history by heart and able to recite the names of all the known ancestors going back as far as people could  remember.  People in the old days must have been very smart and had better senses of memory than we do today.  Before writing and such, I wonder if people back in the old days held jobs as living books and sources of information? But I digress… which brings me to yesterday when I encountered the most unexpected sight at the Falls of the Ohio!  I first learned about this mystery as a little guy while listening to stories over a camp fire with my recent ancestors.  It’s about these special trees that are rumored to live around here that have the ability to uproot themselves and move around.  I didn’t believe it either and chalked it up as being another fun story like the Prince Madoc legend, but then I saw these rare trees with my own eyes!  And, because these days we have cameras…I took a few snapshots of them so that you can see them too.  Check this out.

Sycamore tree, roots and rocks, Nov. 2012

The old stories mention that the boundary between the earth and the water has always been a difficult place to live.  It’s an extreme back and forth existence living at the margins of too much or too little.  There’s not much nutrition coming out of these fabled rocks, but then again the limestone at least gives you something to hold on to.  Water has a way of insinuating itself around every nook and cranny and is always testing allegiances.  Around here, some of the trees have learned that they can improve their lot in life by pulling up roots and going elsewhere.  You see, some trees have long memories and they know when it’s time for that great once in a thousand years flood or some other cyclical disaster to come back around.  Or epic memories are shocked and encoded into the rock and soil and trees are just better at reading and interpreting what it could mean?I’m guessing that some of the trees around the Falls of the Ohio like to be prepared or are skittish or both and have begun the very gradual process of being somewhere else.

uprooting trees at the Falls of the Ohio, Nov. 2012

I came across this small mobile grove not far away from the first tree I showed you.  This is an incredible response by these trees to the rise and fall of the river.    The river dissolves  the silt, sand, and mud away from the riverbank and exposes the tree’s rootlet toes which are always growing. Water currents and the rocking back and forth of the wind further helps loosen roots from soil.  These trees are vibrating and creeping along with most of their roots on the surface with just enough tendrils into the earth to hold on to dear life.  Good thing too or else one day you could find yourself swept away.  I have seen it happen before as in this recent example by the creek.  This tree fell into the water and will never right itself or hold the riverbank up as it formerly did and one day it will be swept away by the river to somewhere unintended.

Tree that recently fell off of the riverbank, Falls of the Ohio, Nov. 2012

So much water is a mixed blessing.  Just enough and the trees can move a little more than usual.  Too much water and they run the risk of losing control. This mixed lot of trees seems to be moving westward.  Park officials have reported that there seems to be more of a sense of urgency on the trees’ part and they have picked up the pace over the last few years.  I wonder how they know when and where to stop and should I be worried?  Do the walking trees signify a bad omen for the future and is some environmental disaster looming ahead of us?

uprooted tree trio at the Falls of the Ohio, Nov. 2012

Of course life travels at its own speed.  Our tree friends here cannot out run this year’s spent leaves gathering around their feet, but they have patience.  They don’t have the same concept of time as we do. An inch or centimeter or two here and there and progress will be made even if it takes many seasons.  Moving in ultra slow motion, they will either get to their intended destinations or not.  Come to think about it…trees don’t have the same concept of speed either!

Tall figure under the Great Tree, Nov. 2012

Trees have their own internal logic and physics that they respond to.  My tall friend here is a case in point.  He’s an old cottonwood tree and long a go he too was a walking tree.  You can tell from looking at these fantastic roots that buttress the tree from the river and elements.  For some reason known only to the tree…he decided to stay here and put down his roots.

Figure with big sheet of plastic, Nov. 2012

Over time the cottonwood thrived.  Its roots held the riverbank in place and kept it from sliding into the river.  With this particular tree, a small, sheltering space grew directly under the tree’s tall trunk.  Visitors would bring discarded boards and other river finds ( like this large sheet of corrugated and molded plastic) to make forts and tree houses.  This one site has seen plenty of play and fantasy over the many years and has always been recognized as a special tree.

Figure by large cottonwood tree, Nov. 2012

This just occurred to me.  What if the moving trees are just a matter of perception and they really are trying to stay in one place?  What if it’s the rest of the world that is moving so quickly and constantly like one big blur and the trees are holding life in place?  The walking trees have remained where they have germinated and everything else around them has quickly shifted. Because we are so near to it we don’t recognize the movement.  Could time also be as fluid as water seeking out the nooks and crannies and testing allegiances too?  All this head-scratching stuff is making me dizzy on such a fine day by the river.

Great Cottonwood tree at the Falls of the Ohio, Nov. 2012

Unbeknownst to the brown-headed philosopher under the cottonwood, but changes to our area are forthcoming.  This year was the warmest year ever recorded.  The environmental chess board has been set and the game is on.  Pieces are moving and strategies are evolving and somewhere on the Ohio River another pawn is moving into place a little nearer to the cottonwood tree.

Tree with exposed roots, Falls of the Ohio, Nov. 2012

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