Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Way God Meant It To Be

Mars and I went on an Elderhostel in Newburg, New York to see the paintings of the Hudson River School on their native turf and the Brobdingnagian sized "Minimalist Art" pieces of sculpture that by happenstance also inhabit that neck of the woods.

We had seen other examples of each of them before. The canvases are amply represented in the permanent collections of two local art museums to which we belong, the Wadsworth Atheneum and the New Britain Museum of American Art. And each has had one or more special exhibits highlighting these works. We both really like this stuff.

Our exposure to the stripped down sculptural pieces has been less extensive. Alexander Calder's forty foot tall, orange "Stegosaurus" has stood in a public space next to the Wadsworth since 1973. We took our then four-year-old son Bram to see it on probably the first of his "forced culture" trips to Hartford. I asked him what he was looking at. "A dinosaur" he replied without hesitation. I was impressed -- mostly by Calder's apparent ability to construct such a realistic monster based on just its most fundamental features. Bram's love of this style of sculpture has continued into adulthood -- not that his obligatory aesthetic education played any role in that.

Sort of across the street from "Stego", next to an Eighteenth Century cemetery, are thirty-six boulders some as heavy as 19,000 pounds, arranged in a triangle by the Sculptor Carl Andre.

I worked nearby, and saw both of these works several times a week. I preferred the orange dinosaur, at least partially because its location allowed me to pass under its body and around its legs -- as long as I kept my eye out for the pigeons. The rocks were configured such that any meaningful passage within them was impossible.

They did form an interesting pattern when viewed from the upper floors of my office building. But I never thought that was how such works of art were supposed to be appreciated.

About twenty years later -- at the urging of Bram and his wife Monica -- we went to the Chinati Foundation in Marfa Texas. Thanks to the hospitality of Steffen, a college friend of theirs who was interning there, Mars and I were able to live for a week on the grounds and wander freely among the sculptural works of Donald Judd (who totally disavowed the "minimalist" label in spite of his strict adherence to the credo of that club).

When it comes to sculpture, this is the way God meant it to be -- hiking among large concrete cubes placed in an open field, and prowling among an indoor arrangement of smaller mill aluminum pieces.

Two years later we returned to Chinati for the opening of an installation of colored fluorescent lights by Dan Flavin. We braved the screaming winds of a "Blue Norther" to trek from downtown Marfa out to the museum, and then back outside from building to building in order to stroll inside among the warm neon luminescence

Since that time we have seen several pieces of such sculpture but never in an environment that made us feel that both they and we were at home. Then Monica and Bram visited the Riggio Galleries at DIA:Beacon and, with the same degree of passion they had shown for Chinati, told us that we had to go there. Mars noticed an Elderhostel trip that included DIA and the Hudson River Painters as well as the Storm King Art Center, which M & B did not get to -- and so here we are.

DIA did not allow the taking of photos, Storm King did. ("Official" photos from this trip will soon appear on Mars' blog --

Both Mars and I have gotten used to looking at the world through our viewfinders -- or more accurately viewing all the subject matter that we come in contact with as potential photo-ops. It is, I think, a different way of seeing that causes us to look at (1) parts of objects rather than the whole thing, (2) from all angles (standard and non) and as a result (3) see the abstract and geometric patterns that exist therein. As a result, even without looking through the camera, we still saw objects as if we were.

At the Storm King Art Center Mars and I each got our third eye back. But I don't think that I necessarily saw any more or less than I did when I was without the digital picture taker. Sculpture the way God meant for it to be viewed.

I recently heard someone say, "The older I get, the better basketball player I used to be." Since I have to rely totally on my own mind's ROM instead of my computer's the pictures that I did not shoot at DIA will definitely be among the best I have never taken.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


For most of this spring and summer Mars and I have been watching the bird babies on our property progress from nestling to fledgling to juvenile. It is one of the rites of passage that we get to witness each year because we bribe the animals to stay and perform for us by keeping our bird feeders up and running all four seasons. Those that leave for the colder months always seem to return at the appropriate times when the weather warms.

Our Republican friends frown on this year-round indentureship saying that the birds need to learn to become self-sufficient. And providing a quick and easy food to them when other more natural sources of sustenance are readily available in the wild weakens their character and will eventually turn the entire species into whiney victims.

Our bleeding heart liberal amigos, on the other hand, say that we cannot do enough for Mother Nature's creatures to atone for turning their physical world into a human-centric amusement park of dubious value and leaving them to struggle for survival in the shards that we have left for them.

Not being terribly political however Mars and I do it purely for the entertainment. And watching the kids grow up and leave home is a big part of it.

We don't really have that much land -- about one quarter acre -- but the bushes and trees that decorate the property apparently provide a friendly enough environment to support a decent amount of avian procreation. Still we really do not see the young 'uns during the time of their nestling confinement. With rare exceptions the stick houses are placed in nook and crannies that neither Mars nor I come in contact with during our daily rounds. And if we do accidentally intrude we are loudly scolded for our miscreant behavior and immediately absent ourselves from the scene.

The one exception this year is a family of sparrows that has taken residence in the hollowed out core of a dead branch on the Flowering Crab tree just outside of our family room window. We have not actually seen the nest itself, or the eggs, or even the little nestlings in their entirety. We have however caught glimpses of their endlessly open beaks poked hopefully out of the front door opening. And watched the fruitless efforts of the dutifully beleaguered parents to satisfy their demands. This has gone on for weeks and weeks. Either the babies have gotten too big to leave, or sparrows breed multiple times per season at an alarmingly rapid rate.

The main attraction of the moment is however the baby grackle. These blue-green glossy blackbirds are really too large to eat at our feeders. But the experienced adults persist in trying and occasionally succeed in twisting their oversize bodies around the perch in such a way that allows them to contort their beaks onto the seed trough.

Not so with junior who, like most fledglings, is the same physical size as its parents. There is a thin, dead branch hanging about eight inches in front of the feeder. The bottom of the branch is just about eye level with the feeder's perch. Other birds -- cardinals, chickadees, and sparrows -- use the branch as a waiting room while others are dining. When seating does become available they hop delicately onto the metal base and begin eating.

The baby grackle however, either because he is not able to master the short leap of faith to the feeder or, once there, is not sure how to wrap himself into position, attempts to straddle the space with one foot on the branch and the other on the perch. Of course both the branch and the feeder begin to move further apart at this point, usually resulting in a sudden, inglorious descent to the ground on the part of the grackle. He then flies up to our birdbath (presumably to cool his temper), returns to the branch, and sits in that spot screeching for his parents to feed him.

In the beginning they took pity and provided seeds to him by reaching across from the feeder. Lately they have taken to sitting on an adjacent branch and rotating their heads around, looking everywhere except at their offspring. Sometimes the unanswered whining goes on for thirty minutes or more before they all give up and go home.

The young grackle is hardly emaciated looking, so he is getting his nourishment someplace -- perhaps even where nature intended that he should. And eventually he will become able to feed himself and leave home

Until then we are just happy that he is getting enough to eat to give him enough energy to come entertain us at our avian soup kitchen. And hopefully learning that, even though the food is provided, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Fate Happens

I will try my utmost to capture digital proof, but based upon past experience you are just going to have to take my word for it - our squirrels have perfected the art of dual, synchronized, seed stealing. I knew it was bound to happen.

I saw it going-down the other day when I went outside to perform my early morning bird and tree-rat rituals. If you care, the series of actions performed according to a prescribed order are: (1) put sunflower seeds into the two small horizontally hanging feeders (theoretically too small and constricted for anything larger than a chickadee but in reality...); (2) replace the corn on the metal spike of the only cafeteria section deliberately devoted to the squirrels; and (3) empty the bird bath and refill it with fresh water. Repetitive, orderly behavior is believed by some to delay the inevitable - whatever that means.

Before I begin, I try to notice what is happening at the feeders lest I throw open the door like a proverbial bull and totally frighten away a Bachman's Warbler (or some other rare species) on its only-ever appearance in our yard. This time I spotted the familiar pelt of gray draped along the house-facing side of our bottle feeder. Thinking, "same old, same old" I continued through the door until I spied either the early signs of an inevitable age-induced decline into Diplopia, or a second swatch of fur hanging on the other side of the plastic container.

It was the latter. I stopped immediately and, as silently as possible, backpedaled into the family room to notify Mars. She affirmed that I did not need to proceed directly to the Ophthalmologist Ophthalmologist. Instead, we were both witnessing yet another step in the evolution of Cirque du Squirrel performance art.

There was also a second sighting later in the morning. Once could be an aberration. Twice is definitely a trend.

Interestingly, in recent weeks, there had been quite a bit of squirrel squabbling at the feeders. While previous generations of the furry little critters totally understood their place in the pecking order and waited if not patiently, then at least nonviolently, while their betters gorged their gourmand urges - the latest gang-of-gray seems unwilling to cede any territorial or other rights to their peers. And is quite willing to fight for their right to party. So they do.

While lying in bed listening to Renee Montagne and Steve Inskeep, Mars and I are frequently disturbed by the chomping sound of multiple sets of rodent teeth on the seed bottle's metal hanger and/or the scratching noise of more than two pairs of little clawed feet fighting to hang on to the slick polymer surface - plus occasional squeaks de combat.

Later, sitting at breakfast in our family room-with-a-view, we see the pushing and shoving that generates the above to-dos. And the agitated and angry cessations in violence that usually leave both of the pugilists unsatisfied and wanting more.

But now calm prevails.

It's like that stuff we believed in the sixties - "Give peace a chance" - somehow, suddenly, actually worked - like we of course knew it would all along. Obviously the squirrels - who basically concern themselves with only two things (and one of them for just a few seconds) - inevitably realized that they got just as much food for themselves when they shared the feeder as when they dined alone. After all the feeding perch has two openings and the tree rats have only one mouth.

The question now is how far Siegfried and Roy (the nom momentanement of this dynamic duo) will carry this togetherness. As George Carlin once asked, "If one member of a synchronized swim team drowns, do they all?"

Will the squirrels slowly climb down the wire hanger in unison, each perfectly matching the downward movements of its living mirror image?

Will they chew at the same rate and inflate their cheek pouches to equally skin-stretching diameters? Will the pile of discarded hulls under each one be of the same size?

When they dismount, will they fly away at the same moment, propelling them equidistantly into the air before crashing to the ground with one simultaneous thud?

And most importantly, is this new behavior to become the destiny of all squirrels? Or was it merely a one shot fluke, executed by two squirrels each so self-absorbed in its own digestive needs that they totally failed to notice the other.

Who knows! Evolution, like predestination, can only be seen in the rear view mirror.

"I'm a believer that things happen. Fate is what happens." (George Carlin)

Monday, July 07, 2008

Catch And Release

We caught our first two birds of the season. There were both Gray Catbirds, a.k.a. Dumetella carolinensis, a.k.a. Monqueur chat (French), a.k.a. Mimido gris (Spanish). They were captured in the usual way - inside the black, plastic netting that we place around our blueberry bushes in order to keep them, and others but mostly them, out.

I knew it before I saw it. As soon as I opened up the garage to bring out my lawn mower I could hear the SOSs - a rapid-fire series of frenzied, loud, shrill, catlike screams coming from various directions but centered on the copse of blueberry bushes in the southeast corner of our yard. It sounded like one of Cher's Italian family gatherings from the movie "Moonstruck".

I rushed to the scene of the crying, fighting my way through the wall of sound that surrounded the area. There were two Dumetellae flying frantically back and forth inside the caging that surrounded our largest bush. Each bird was screeching non-stop. There also seemed to be, judging by the sound, an audience of two or three more - moving just as frequently but more successfully than the pair of captives. And screaming just as often. The advice from their peers, however, did not seem to be helping the situation.

I walked to one side of the makeshift cage and rolled back the sheet of mesh that covered that end. One of the prisoners immediately flew out the open end. The cacophony diminished somewhat.

The remaining catbird, which up until that point had been flying back and forth, to and from the now unclosed enclosure wall, altered its pattern to exclude that end of the cage and instead ping-ponged his body in a triangle composed of the three remaining, locked-down barriers. A couple of times he landed directly on the netting and seemed momentarily to be caught therein. Then, at the point I was thinking about which gloves to put on in order to handle him, he freed himself and continued his tripartite excursion within the blueberry cage.

I decided to go cut the grass and check back on my prisoner in thirty minutes or so. The noise of the internal combustion engine drowned out the demonstrative fretting, but one half hour later, when I shut it down, I did not hear any catcalls coming from the back yard. I wandered back, affirmed that all was indeed well, and returned the flap of plastic to its protective position.

As soon as I had put back the concrete pavers that held the mesh snug to the ground I heard two of the catbirds shouting. They bobbed belligerently on an adjacent pine tree branch looking me in the eye and scolding me. I told them it was their own damn fault and that if they just stayed away from the blueberries that they wouldn't have any problems at all. They appeared not to understand a word I was saying.

The Monqueur chats have lived on our property for at least as many years as we have. The blueberry bushes, although not necessarily the same ones, almost as long. And other breeds of birds - some of them with similar longevity and all of them much quieter - have likewise taken their shots at blueberry picking

In the beginning the birds were kept from the berries by layers of tobacco netting that were wound around the bushes like mummy-wrap. Other than the occasional piece of fruit that popped out through a torn piece of white fabric, the berries were pretty much immune to the assaults of the outside fauna.

Pretty much - but not completely. Even then, with the bushes protected by multiple layers of thick cotton, the catbirds would somehow find their way into the fruit-laden inner sanctum. And need to be let go.

As I think about it, this catbird catch-and-release ritual only seems to happen once a year. It is preceded by several weeks of Mars and me wondering if the catbirds are coming back - and then one or two casual sightings of the medium-sized, gray songbird.

And it is immediately followed by a spring-and-summer long series of multiple-times-per-day public appearances by the feathered chat family in our yard - each one comprised of bravado flights and landings of astonishing closeness, and cacophonous serenades of verbal abuse.

Which means of course that the whole "help I'm trapped in the net" routine is not an instance of hunger-driven stupidity but instead a carefully orchestrated a rite of passage - followed by an apparently never-ending celebration of that event.

And apparently every year, including this one, I have successfully passed it. Which is why, of course, the catbirds will be back next spring. And why, for the rest of the summer, they will talk to me like I am a member of the family - everyone all at once, loudly and contentiously.

I'm cool with that. I am more than happy to do my part to keep the natural order of things going. Even if it means going to bed on several nights with an endlessly repeating chorus of whiney "mews" reverberating in my head.

Eh! I am part Italian. I mean it should feel like home to me. YouknowhatImean.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Carp Diem

Marsha found a carp
On the fourth fairway today -
Bright orange, quite dead.

No water nearby.
We wondered. How could it be -
A fish near a tee?