Posts Tagged ‘found art materials’

Christmas Bird at the Falls of the Ohio, Dec. 2014

In the eastern section of the Falls of the Ohio State Park I came across a remarkable bird.  As far as I know, this is the first documented sighting of the so-called Christmas Bird (Xmasii noelensis) in our area.  The bird’s red crest, green collar, and azure-colored wings are diagnostic as is the bicolor beak.  I was down at the river on a rather foggy morning when I noticed the bird flashing its wings in mockingbird fashion which is a distant relative of this species.

The Christmas Bird, Louisville in the background, Dec. 2014

I was looking for interesting pieces of driftwood and odd items washed up by the Ohio River when I came across this bird.  This is a long distance migrant and one that hails from as far north as the Arctic Circle.  The Christmas Bird earns its name in a couple of ways.  Of course, its complimentary plumage is rather seasonably inspired and it does seem to migrate to the lower 48 states around the time of the holidays.  Where the bird will appear is rather unpredictable, however, it is a welcome sight in most any location.  Here I have photographed the bird “flashing” its wings against its body while perched upon a driftwood log.  The park is in Southern Indiana and the skyline of Louisville, Kentucky can be seen across the Ohio River.  After taking this shot, the bird flew off.

Display of the Christmas Bird, Falls of the Ohio, Dec. 2014

I said to myself…”Well, that’s that”.  I fully did not expect to see this rare bird again, but I received a “gift” of a rather unexpected nature.  Underneath the old iron railroad bridge, not too far away from my initial sighting, I came across this “decorated” nest and recognized its significance.  This is a display from the Christmas Bird.  Using an abandoned mud-lined nest of an American Robin, (Turdus migratorius), the Christmas Bird has created an assemblage involving red berries and the remains of a string of old Christmas lights that washed into the park with the other river-bourn detritus.  From this evidence, I suspected the bird had “claimed” this area.  If I in turn displayed patience…I might get another opportunity to photograph this unusual species.

Christmas Bird with its display, Falls of the Ohio, Dec. 2014

I waited about an hour and the Christmas Bird did appear to my great joy!  It arrived at the nest with a red berry in its beak which it added to its growing collection.  It is believed that this bird is attracted to the color red.  Usually, berries from the holly tree are used, but in this instance I recognized them as the fruit of the Nandina plant.  The bird probably discovered them growing in a private garden in nearby Jeffersonville, Indiana.  It is suspected by ornithologists that the southerly migration of the Christmas Bird, which brings it to warmer climates, may trigger this unusual nest-like and courting behavior.  The Christmas Bird is known for its ability to tolerate extreme cold and it takes a great drop in temperature to stimulate it to migrate.

Close up of the Christmas Bird with red berry, Falls of the Ohio, Dec. 2014

Christmas Bird with display, Falls of the Ohio, Dec. 2014

I was able to observe this bird making about ten trips back and forth between the nest and its berry source.  If the bird was aware of my presence…it did not appear to be overly alarmed.  Once in a while, the bird with crest erected, would cock its head back and forth trying to differentiate my form among the willow branches.  I held my breath and tried to remain still and as unthreatening as possible.

The Christmas Bird with its seanonable display, Falls of the Ohio, Dec. 2014

The weather grew damp and cold and the sun looked like it was not going to appear from beneath its blanket of clouds.  I made the decision that I had enough images and it was time to leave this bird in peace and go home.  On the ride home, I felt I had been given this great gift, the gift of nature which remains priceless and timeless!  For me, nothing packaged in a box and wrapped with a bow can equal this living blessing.  To all who have followed my adventures by the river this year…I offer my sincerest good wishes during this season of holidays!  I hope that at least once in your lifetimes, you will be visited by the Christmas Bird bringing red berries for your nest.

Christmas Bird with red berry, Falls of the Ohio, Dec. 2014

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On the dry Indiana bank, Falls of the Ohio, Oct 2014

After my all day excursion to the Kentucky side of the fossil beds…my next visit to the park was a relatively short one.  I had a few hours to work with and decided to check out the riverbank on the Indiana side.  It has been very dry of late and I heard on the radio that farmers have begun revising their optimism about this year’s corn crop.  Once again, we have had a season that seems atypical in a few respects.  Most notably, our summer has been a cool one.  No temperatures in the high 90 or 100 degree range…that would be about 35 to 38 degrees on the Celsius scale.  Climatologists point to the cold Arctic air that came sweeping down from Canada during July as the reason our summer was not as hot.  People around here aren’t complaining about that, but after last year’s polar vortex winter… folks are wondering if that bodes well for this year’s fall and winter?

Cracked, drying mud, Falls of the Ohio, Oct. 2014

In addition to the coolness, it’s also been dry of late.  Seems that we haven’t had a significant rain storm to speak of in weeks and the river continues to recede.  New pools are formed stranding fish in them and many creatures take advantage of this bounty.  Walking along the cracked riverbank I find evidence of this.

Dead Longnose gar and decaying Bull gill, Falls of the Ohio, Oct. 2014

I soon came across dead fish left behind in the wake of weekend fishermen.  In this picture, an armored and toothy Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus) lies side by side with an equally interesting fish that is rarely found here.  With its thick body, white caudil fins, and unique pectoral fins…I identify this smaller fish.  It’s more commonly called a Bull Gill, but science also recognizes it as (Taurus opercula).  I wonder if there are any other specimens hiding in the deeper pools around here?  To find out, I gather waste monofilament line found all along the riverbank along with a found lead-headed jig and before too long I have improvised a hand line for fishing.

Bull Gill on a hand line, Falls of the Ohio, Oct. 2014

Bull Gill on the line, Falls of the Ohio, Oct. 2014

After some trial and error, I succeeded in catching a Bull Gill by bumping my jig along the bottom of a wide, but shallow pool.  The fish was well hooked and after a short struggle I was able to bring him up for a better look.

Bull Gill in hand, Falls of the Ohio, October 2014

Captured Bull Gill facing left, Falls of the Ohio, Oct. 2014

I hurriedly take as many photographs as I can.  My intention is to release this fish back into the water after I document its presence here at the Falls of the Ohio.  As you can see, this fish contrasts greatly with the dead gar we saw earlier.  The gar is in fact a more ancient and primitive fish that relies on its hard armor for protection.  The gar is mostly a surface fish mimicking a floating piece of wood while it stealthily seeks out smaller fish to ambush.  The gar’s strategy has been so successful that it has changed little after millions of years.  The Bull Gill evolved much later and lacks prominent scales on its more compact body.  It too, however has evolved a unique method of feeding.

Bull Gill seen head on, Falls of the Ohio, Oct. 2014

Bull Gill supporting itself on its pectoral fins, Falls of the Ohio, Oct. 2014

The Bull Gill gets its name from its powerfully muscled head.  Just below and behind its gill covers, the unique pectoral fins have evolved so that this fish can support itself on the bottom of a swiftly moving stream or river.  I was able to demonstrate this with my specimen.  I placed my fish upon the rocks by the riverbank and it was able to support its body off the rocky surface using its strong and rigid fins.  In the water, the Bull Gill secures itself on the rocky bottom with its stiff pectoral fins and with its head facing upriver.  The Bull Gill is a predatory bottom feeder.  As prey fish swim by, the Bull Gill with a quick burst is able to capture its food and swallows them head first before returning to its spot on the river bottom.  I had this fish out of water for just a couple of minutes before releasing it safely back into the Ohio River.  I had to say that I enjoyed encountering a creature you don’t see every day.  It’s presence here is a good sign since the Bull Gill needs good quality water to thrive.   I gathered up my collecting bag and walking stick and decided to check out my stash of Styrofoam under the willows.

Up the riverbank and under the willows, Falls of the Ohio, Oct. 2014

The willow trees are up the riverbank and the leaves are beginning to yellow more noticeably.  Along the way you pass by a couple of courses of deposited driftwood.  I love the silvery color of this wood which is due to exposure to the sun and elements.  I had a great surprise in store for me once I ducked under the cover of the trees.  For many years I have known that White-tail Deer are present in the park because their tracks are all over the place.  These ghost deer are fairly close to a populated area and extremely wary of people.  They must move around the park in the middle of the night or really early in the morning to avoid detection.

The deers' resting place, Falls of the Ohio, Oct. 2014

deer tracks in the sand, Falls of the Ohio, Oct. 2014

As I moved near my spot, I spooked a doe and her late season fawn.  I could still make out the spotted pattern on the fawn.  They were bedded down near a large log that floated into the park last year.  I first saw the doe which rose and ran off upon sighting me.  The fawn then stood up and followed after its mom.  I was unable to take a photograph because this sequence happened in just seconds.  I then followed to see if a second glimpse was possible and I even doubled back to this spot should the deer attempt the same maneuver.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get another look at them, but since they are near my outdoor studio, I will be sure to check for them next time.

My stash of Styrofoam, Falls of the Ohio, Oct. 2014

It had been many weeks since I last visited my larder of river-gleaned materials.  I could tell that people had been through here, but there is obviously nothing of value.  I mean what could one do with water-tumbled polystyrene and sticks?  If the river doesn’t rise anytime soon, I will come back and make something from this odd deposit.  My next post, however, will come from the Kentucky side of the fossil beds.  After this adventure, I returned with my river-polished coal and explored a few more areas around Goose Island and the hydroelectric plant.  I think I made some compelling images that speak of a sense for place and I look forward to sharing them with you.

Fall color at the Falls of the Ohio, Oct. 2014



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Note on wood piece, Aug. 2014

A hot and sunny August morning and over Louisville’s rooftops I could hear the river’s siren song calling my name.  “Al”…Al…where have you been?”  The call was getting louder and more irresistible by the moment.  What’s a fella to do but heed the call?  I slurped down the last of my cold coffee, gathered my collecting bag and walking stick and twenty minutes later I transported myself to the Falls of the Ohio.  The river was receding into its summer pool and most of the riverbank was now exposed.  Here and there fishermen were trying both their luck and patience.  If birds could laugh, the numerous herons were enjoying themselves for it looked to my eye like they were having more success than the other bipedal hunters holding long rods and bait buckets.  I did a quick look around the old railroad bridge, filled a found, empty, glass liquor bottle with coal pebbles and headed for my spot under the willows.  Among my stash of Styrofoam and driftwood I came across a piece of wood I had previously picked up…and found this simple message written in ink… ” Hi Al”.

My stash of found art materials, Aug. 2014

Whoever penned this simple note at my discovered spot remains a mystery.  In my mind, I associated it with any of my many artist friends who also find inspiration among the driftwood…but it could have been the river too.  This place has been utilized by artists for many years.  Each new generation seems to discover this place for themselves and I hope it always remains this way.  I lingered under the shade for a bit and watched a mix flock of chickadees, warblers, and gnatcatchers move through the tree canopy.  With the show over and satisfied that my haul of river junk with all of its latent potential remained in place…I headed back into the bright sunlight.  Other mysteries and visual delights would await me.

plush Tasmanian Devil toy, Falls of the Ohio, 2014

Imagine coming face to face with the Tasmanian Devil!  Well, I did and lived to tell the tale.  Actually, this plush toy (which I found face down) was quite small and easy to overlook upon the driftwood.  Seems I’m always finding cartoon characters out in this landscape.  I suspended him by his arms upon the exposed roots of an overturned tree stump.  Someone may find him and give him a new home…or he might just fall apart over time eventually finding his way back into the river?  Walking through the sunlit clearings between willow stands, I came across this interesting found composition.

Upright red straw and cup lid with willow stumps, Falls of the Ohio, Aug. 2014

I must have stared at this for an indeterminate amount of time?  Perhaps it was the upright and very bright red plastic straw that caught my notice?  Or, it could have been the very careful placement and arrangement I was discerning?  I felt I was looking at a rather intimate and odd bit of public art.  I found myself thinking…why didn’t I think of this!?  In my heart and mind I saluted the anonymous person who created this scene and walked away appreciatively.  A little further down the riverbank I came across a similar example.

Plastic straw and cup lid wedged in rock crack, Falls of the Ohio, Aug. 2014

Wedged in a limestone crack was another plastic straw and disposable cup lid “sculpture”.  This time the straw was white with red stripes running down its length and the lid was an opaque white color.  Like the previous straw sculpture, this one seemed to activate the space it occupied and caused me to notice what else was happening in this micro-location.  The remains of ancient horn corals that lived in a shallow sea millions of years ago were preserved on the surface of the stone.  The straw was strategically placed in a deep silt-filled fissure which was the only place that would allow it to stand upright on this hard rock.  Finding a second upright straw and lid piece confirmed that the first one was not just a happy accident.  There was someone moving through the area with a purpose.

Upright red plastic straw with clear cup lid, Falls of the Ohio, Aug. 2014

I soon came upon a third straw and lid site specific piece and it was different from the others.  While it was also made from plastic, the lid was clear and in the strong sunlight cast the most wonderful shadow upon the sand.  It occurred to me that I was following a fresh trail because the slightest bit of wind could easily knock these ephemeral works over.  I kept walking and as luck would have it, I came upon the artist responsible for these creations.

artist with orange hand on his head, Falls of the Ohio, Aug. 2014

With a big blue smile a diminutive persona standing at the edge of a stand of willow trees greeted me with a friendly wave of his thin stick arm.  He sported an orange hand symbol on his head and had very dark eyes as I recall.  He had a blue-collar around his neck and a yellow belt around his waist.  Otherwise, he was wearing nothing at all!  I heard him say that he had watched me from a distance checking out his last piece and what did I think of it?  I told him that I loved the simplicity of his works and admired how his careful placement made me more aware of the locations where they were sited.  They were such simple gestures made with the most economical of means.  I went on to gush about how surprisingly sophisticated I thought they all were, but he just stood there smiling.  It was then my turn and I asked him how he came upon the idea?  He said it happened quite by accident.  Reflexively, he set the first one up without any thought and liked the result.  On a hot, sunny day…it reminded him of an umbrella set up on a beach which further reminded him of a family vacation he made as child the first time he saw the ocean.  The other straw and lid pieces became tops spinning in his mind and on and on, but most of all…he was doing this to have fun.

artist with straw and lid sculpture, Falls of the Ohio, Aug. 2014

I asked if it would be all right to tag along for a short while with him and he said that it would be fine.  We passed by one of his earlier projects and I snapped this quick picture. He was looking to make another piece or two and there (unfortunately) didn’t seem to be any shortages of straws and lids to work with.  The artist recognized that these elements were not supposed to end up here.  Setting them upright was also a good way to get other people to notice these things and perhaps give a thought or two about the state of the environment.  We eventually worked our way back to the water.  Sure enough, my little friend found another straw and lid along a trail frequented by fishermen.

The artist and his materials, Falls of the Ohio, Aug. 2014

Just as the artist was about to plant his new-found straw and lid into the moist ground…a nice group of people came over and greeted us.  There were two brothers and a sister and a family friend who was taking them to the river to hang out and enjoy themselves.  They had also been collecting river junk and specifically looking for small, intact, glass bottles.  They were curious about the little artist and we talked for a while about being creative.  The group expressed an appreciation for recycling and reusing the cast off stuff of the world.  They asked if it was all right if they could pose with the artist to take their own pictures.  Here are a couple of those images.

Posing for pictures with the artist, Aug. 2014

The artist posed with his new family, Falls of the Ohio, Aug. 2014


The youngest of the group then asked if it was okay if the little Styrofoam artist went home with them?  There seemed to be no objections.  The little man with the orange hand on his head was open to anything.   I, however, did ask for a few things in return.  The first was that a nice piece of wood be found out here that would make a good base so that the figure could stand upright.   The second request was that a little bit of craft glue be used to hold all the loose parts together.  Doing these things would make the figure last a bit longer and remind the family for years to come of this time they spent together at the river.  I thought this was the perfect ending to a most entertaining day.  So long for now from the Falls of the Ohio.

Portrait of the straw and cup lid artist, Falls of the Ohio, Aug. 2014


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fallen willow leaves, Nov. 2013

A gorgeous fall day with light that was almost impossibly bright.  It’s autumn at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  Small groups of migrating birds including various warblers, titmice, and kinglets are moving through the willow tops.  Around each stand of willow trees, the ground is covered by yellowing leaves that have been recently dropped.  There is a fresh, spicy, vegetative fragrance in the air as the more recently shed leaves give up their essence before curling up and turning brown.  Although I have been to the Falls numerous times lately… it’s been a few months since I last visited my old outdoor atelier in the woods.  Today seems as good a time to check out how my site has fared in my absence.

Styrofoam on site, Falls, Nov. 2013

The wooden structure that once surrounded my cached materials remains collapsed.  Some of the larger pieces of Styrofoam I had gathered from the river have been moved nearby.  Stuff has been scattered around, but that is also part of the ongoing history and fate of this material.  I may refer to this junk as “mine”, but I don’t feel a true sense of ownership.  While this material remains out here…it belongs to all of us.  We created, used, and then disposed of it, often carelessly.  I don’t have a lot of time to spend out here on this particular day and so I got busy making “something” from this largess.  I select a few chunks of polystyrene that will become my latest figure and before long I attract an audience of one.

Gray squirrel watching me, Nov. 2013

Gray squirrel watching, Nov. 2013

This Gray Squirrel seemed very intent upon my activities.  Perhaps he thought there might be food involved?  I have to say that I was really amused by this little animal checking me out.  He watched me for a minute or two and then headed deeper into the trees.

Styro-figure with large foam sections, Nov. 2013

The figure I created was not very complex.  It’s head was rather skull-like and so I added a found black and white swimming noodle and a pink nose that was the plastic handle to something to give it more “levity”.  One of the first places I posed my latest was by the larger remains of former projects that were moved away from the other Styrofoam pieces I had assembled.  It doesn’t appear that whomever moved this stuff…did anything else with it.

Fall mushroom, Falls of the Ohio, early November 2013

Coming across a late season mushroom, its whiteness and material consistency reminds me of the polystyrene I salvage to make art with.  Both the mushroom and Styrofoam are made from extracted, spent life.  The difference is the mushroom is alive and one day will also return to the earth to nourish other life.  The Styrofoam on the other hand, is a dead material and probably won’t decompose easily for quite a long period of time.  To move away from thoughts about decay and such…I move into the light and to be near the water.

Styro-figure with black and white swim noodle, early Nov. 2013

Head of Styro-figure, Nov. 2013

It doesn’t take long before I find just the right location that will represent this figure and day to me in photographs.  I rediscover an especially picturesque willow tree whose trunk and roots have been sculpted by time and the river to form a portal or window.  This is where I decided to photograph and leave this figure.

Figure seen through the willow portal, Nov. 2013

Through the willow portal, Falls of the Ohio, Nov. 2013

Because the ground was muddy and soft…it was also easy to stand my figure upright.  My attention wandered back and forth between the possibilities this novel view afforded.  I imagined the figure looking back at me through the portal and other shifting points of view.  Here’s how the figure looked set up on the other side where I once originally stood.

On the other side of the willow portal, Nov. 2013

On the opposite side of the willow portal, Falls of the Ohio, Nov. 2013

The day was getting late and it was time for me to move on.  On the walk back I came across a recently deceased mouse in the willow leaves.  Something about this season brings out the melancholy in me.  All life, no matter how small, strikes me as being worthy of note.  Using my fingers, I raked the willow leaves away from the mouse’s body and created this parting image.  See you next time from the Falls of the Ohio.

Mouse/willow wreath, 2013

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washed up plastic tricycle, Falls of the Ohio, May 2013

I was at the Falls of the Ohio last week when I spotted this plastic toy tricycle just sitting by itself near the river’s edge.  Although I didn’t see anyone around, I just assumed its owner must be nearby.  I took this picture and walked away.  After a time spent looking for driftwood and anything else, I was heading back to my studio under the trees when I was approached by this character I’ve come to know as the ” Off Road Triker”.  He was quickly peddling that tricycle I had seen earlier.

Off Road Triker, May 2013

With his trademark orange goggles, the Triker likes to explore the world from the seat of his three-wheeler.  I recognized him as the  subject of a few human interest stories in the newspaper, but this was a first spotting him on the shores of the Ohio River.  I have heard that he used to own a car, but now he just peddles everywhere he wants to go.  As a side benefit, he’s in the best shape of his life.  His legs alone must be as hard as wood.  The Triker’s ride came to a smooth stop in the sand in front of where I was standing.

the head of the Triker, goggles off, May 2013

Removing his goggles from his eyes the Triker greeted me pleasantly on a picture perfect day.  We introduced ourselves and talked about our observations and connections to this landscape.  The Triker remarked that he had seen a lot of rubbish along the water’s edge and I nodded in agreement.  He wondered why nobody did anything about this, but I had to tell him that the Falls does see several clean-up attempts a year, but with each new flood or high water the new “largess” in the river just washes up again.  It’s like rolling that proverbial rock up the hill only to have it roll back again and again.

Off Road Triker in motion, May 2013

The Triker said that there was a place where several old automotive tires were laying half buried in the sand and that I should check it out.  He put his goggles back on and I walked beside him as he peddled to the spot.  I didn’t tell him this, but I was already familiar with these tires and have photographed this feature many times.  I found the Triker to be amusing and so I just played along to get a sense of who he is and what he might do next.  The reason all these tires are in this particular location is that once upon a time a river clean-up had occurred and these loose tires were gathered here for future disposal.  Ironically, the future never came which left these tires mired in the present.  Now these tires are so full of mud, sand, and water that it would take a herculean effort to dig some of them out of the riverbank.

The Triker begins his run, May 2013

The Triker thought these tires would make an appropriate obstacle course to maneuver through and he asked me to photograph him while he made his run.    Everything started off well enough, but that was not to last.

The Triker runs the obstacle course, May 2013

The Triker swings wide, May 2013

The Trike over corrects, May 2013

The Triker clips the tire, May 2013

It’s at this point that the Triker hits a snag or rather a tire.  The slalom at the course’s start went fine, but midway through the Triker swung wide and he had to over correct to get around the next obstacle.  Here are some different close up views of the action.

View of Triker hitting the tire, May 2013

The Triker up on two wheels, May 2013

The Triker nearly falls off, May 2013

As you can see…hitting the tire caused the tricycle to go up on two wheels.  The speed and forward momentum nearly caused the Triker to completely lose his balance!

The Triker recovers his balance, May 2013

Fortunately as an experienced rider…the Triker held it together and was able to regain his composure and balance to complete this impromptu course.  He pulled off to the side near some willow trees and exhaled deeply.

The Triker recovers his breath, May 2013

“That was a close one my friend.  I thought for a micro second I was going to eat sand and rubber in a hard way!”  I praised him for his skill on the tricycle and told him I would post the images on the internet which seemed to please the Triker.  Recovering his breath, the Triker said he enjoyed his visit to the Falls of the Ohio, but it was now time to return to the city.  With his goggles back on, my last view of the Triker was of his back as he peddled his wobbly ride with a newly bent axle towards the skyline of the nearby city.

The Off Road Triker departs, May 2013

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Sweet Gum in early Spring, March 2013

Perhaps it was the fine quality of this pre-Spring day that caused renewed stirrings within the old Styro-Samurai Warrior?  It had been many years worth of seasons since the Emperor had granted him this land to protect and bequeath to his descendants  in gratitude for the loyalty of his service.  He came to the realization that his advancing age was rendering him mortal and that if he wanted to walk his vast estate one last time…he had better do it sooner than later.  The Styro-Samurai attached his heirloom katana to his back and ventured alone away from his home.  The journey could take him many weeks to complete.  This sunny day began with much promise.  The trees were starting to produce buds and yes, there were early season wildflowers too.  The birds were returning.  A favorite Yellow-bellied Sapsucker the Warrior had seen for the past five years was once again in his favorite Sweet Gum tree.  Geese were everywhere and an Osprey flew overhead with a fish in its talons.  Life seemed to be moving in the timeless rhythm that it always had.  The Warrior decided to venture closer to the river for a better look.

Styro-Samurai by the river, March 2013

The first thing the Warrior observed were trees submerged by the river that normally stood high and dry.  In all his years, he had not seen this happen very often and he stood transfixed by the sight.  Rousing himself, the Warrior continued his walk to a favorite creek.  In his mind he recalled the agitated call of the Belted Kingfisher on the wing and its wildness made him smile.  Upon reaching the creek…this is what the Warrior saw.

driftwood lining the creek banks, March 2013

Hundreds of logs representing hundreds of once living trees lined both sides of the creek.  What is happening here!?  These were trees from the pure land and their wood is a treasure, their roots hold the soil together, and their leaves provide cooling shade in Summer among all the other blessings they bestow.  These trees represent so many potential fulfilled wishes.  So much wasted wood and where did it come from?  The Warrior surmised that this was further evidence of flooding.  These trees probably washed away from their respective banks from distant fiefdoms and were carried here by the spirit of the river?

Styro-Warrior and exposed tree roots, March 2013

Walking the shoreline he came upon more evidence that the river was claiming the trees that dared to grow nearest to it.  For the Styro-Samurai, it was an alarming sight, but nothing had yet suggested that this way anything other than Nature being moody.  His view was about to change as he rounded the bend of the river.

Styro-Samurai and plastic trash, March 2013

The Warrior entered a field that was strewn with discarded plastic and Styrofoam.  This was an outrage and the Samurai drew his katana! Who dares to be this disrespectful to the land!

Styro-Samurai with drawn katana, March 2013

At last, someone to blame for this clearly was the by-product of men. The Warrior was seeing red and looked for someone or something to strike back at…but there was no one else present except for the gulls flying over the river and they were making no sounds.

Styro-Samurai with drawn katana, March 2013

Marching with his sword drawn, the Warrior advanced down the riverbank.  There was a quality in his rage that was tempered by battle and had made him a legendary and feared adversary in the prime of his youth.  But that was then and this is now and as he neared one of his favorite trees…he sheathed his katana again.  Up ahead was a treasured spot where a large and special Cottonwood tree grew.  The Styro-Samurai’s pace quickened in anticipation.

Cottonwood tree hangout at the Falls of the Ohio, March 2013

Styro-Samurai approaching Cottonwood hangout, March 2013

This great and revered Cottonwood tree that in the Warrior’s time was the setting for many tea ceremonies was now covered in plastic tarps and a sign warning to “keep out” was posted.  Again, here is the hand of man at work!  Who has the impudence do this in the Styro-Samurai’s land?  By what right would these interlopers claim this tree as their own and defile it with their junk?  Full of righteous indignation, the Warrior entered the space under the trunk of the tree.

camp under the Cottonwood tree, Falls of the Ohio, March 2013

It was empty…no one was there at all.  Although the smell of wood smoke was present…the ashes were cold.  Improvised seating was arranged around the fire pit.  Growing depressed, the Styro-Samurai sought the warmth of the sunshine and sat down to ponder what he had observed thus far.  Indeed, the world had changed much since he last walked it far from the comforts and isolation of his fortified castle.  The old soldier had a revelation that mindfulness had been usurped by consumption based upon all the trash he saw everywhere.  The world was moving away from him.

Steve, the Arrowhead Man, March 2013

While the Styro-Samurai was engaged by his thoughts…he was approached by a common man who gestured that he wished to speak and so began a conversation.  The man also remembered a different time and place where respect was accorded to both man and beast alike.  There was an understanding that nature worked in certain ways and that it was wise to stay within the sustainable limits.  The man confirmed to the Warrior that the changes he was seeing in his own land were in fact simultaneously occurring everywhere else too.  The common man then asked for forgiveness for what he was about to say which the Warrior granted.  He reminded the old soldier that in their day…there was a common and accepted code that shaped the behavior of all.  It began with the Emperor and then passed through the Samurai down to everybody else.  It seemed to the man, that the flow of wisdom had been interrupted by a changing and challenging time and needed something like a new code to help bring it all back into balance.  With those words the common man took his leave.

plastic sand rake, March 2013

The Styro-Samurai had seen enough and walked back to his castle.  He mulled over the words the mysterious common man had left him with and acknowledged to himself that they seemed to ring true.  A different day was indeed at hand and perhaps the time of the warlords was ending.  The idea that a different code was needed, but what can one do to achieve enlightenment in an impure land? When the Warrior reached his home he cleansed himself and before the assembled public, removed his sacred katana from its scabbard and replaced it with an ordinary garden rake.

Styro-Samurai working his rock garden, March 2013

For several weeks the old Warrior meditated by creating a rock and sand garden.  Working the earth helped create a different connection to the land that he didn’t have before and was now cultivating.  The Styro-Samurai invited his courtesans and the other people in the castle to assist him.  To his surprise, most everyone found this activity relaxing and beneficial.  It no longer became his garden and became our garden which brought with it a sense of shared responsibility and value.   He wondered if this idea would work for a land the size of a country ?  Soon he would try talking to the Emperor about this and hope for the best.

water-rolled wood, sand, gravel, and rock, Falls of the Ohio, March 2013

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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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