Season of Sight Season of Heart

For me November has always brought the advent of sight’s season, especially in the woods; often, what has been hidden by leaves – a burl, a nest, an old sign – comes clear. And the long-boned outlines of the land also appear. Then, there is the thin transparency of November’s light; on a cloudless day, it is the clearest glass. Yes, the span of daylight is short, but vision’s length and depth more than compensate for that.

The other day, I was poking around in Thoreau’s November Journal writings, figuring that he too might have found revelation in the month’s light, when I came upon this:

Day before yesterday to the Cliffs in the rain, misty rain. As I approached their edge, I saw the woods beneath, Fair Haven Pond, and the hills across the river, — which, owing to the mist, was as far as I could see, and seemed much further in consequence. I saw these between the converging boughs of two white pines a rod or two from me on the edge of the rock; and I thought that there was no frame to a landscape equal to this, — to see, between two near pine boughs, whose lichens are distinct, a distant forest and lake, the one frame, the other picture. In November a man will eat his heart, if in any month. Journal, 11/1/52.

A different sort of November day, to be sure, but no less lovely in its grays and greens and browns. Here too was Thoreau in the museum of his vision, finding “frames” for the “pictures” hung liberally there. He walked his woods with no less reverence than the slow, heel-clicking strides of museum-goers as they cross polished stone floors and contemplate painters’ visions.

Tree-framed November Light at Walden

Tree-framed November Light at Walden

But what stopped me was the final sentence in this passage – what does it mean to eat your heart? And what in November might incline one that way?

It’s common enough to say “Eat your heart out,” when we think we have something others want. Well, okay, but envy seems unrelated or a small reading of Thoreau’s sentence. Somehow, I thought, it is the unequaled nature of the “frame” that triggers his observation. And the image of Thoreau stopped near the edge of the Fairhaven Cliffs, looking at this loved landscape came clear to me. There he was, and here I was, looking through his eyes at a landscape hung just so; here, contained by the lichened boughs, was the best world, a world to swell your heart.

Tree-framed Cardigan Mountain - heartland

Tree-framed Cardigan Mountain – heartland

For a while I could live on that expansive vision, in that framed, chosen world. Perhaps feeling such affectionate surplus is what it means to eat one’s heart.

But you may see through other eyes, see it otherwise. If so, let us know.

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

A Thoreauvian Artist in Amsterdam

By Corinne H. Smith

You never know when or where you will meet another fan of Henry David Thoreau. Even if the person may be long gone and may have left only a few clues behind.

In my part-time job at a bookstore specializing in art books, I recently came upon a unique catalog from 1965. It consisted of black-and-white illustrations of artwork by an artist named Viktor IV. I had never heard of him, and we certainly didn’t have any other books about him. From what I could tell, he then lived in Amsterdam and created unique pieces out of wood and other materials. This was a small and quirky publication that was probably self-published. Normally, I wouldn’t have thought too much of it. But the three-line dedication at the top of the opening page took me by surprise:

viktorwords

What? Wait. Who WAS this guy? I had to do some online research to find out.

Viktor IV was the professional name of New York-born artist Walter Karl Gluck (1929-1986). As a young man, he traveled around the world before settling down in Amsterdam in 1961, with the intent of being a photo-journalist. It is said that the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy had a profound affect on him. He immediately decided to become a full-time artist instead of a photographer. After he made a collage based on the assassination, he renamed himself Viktor IV. He set up his studio and home on a small ship docked in one of Amsterdam’s waterways. And he soon became one of the art community’s notable characters. People got used to seeing him riding his painted bicycle or walking around the city, in bare feet and dressed all in black, with wild white hair and a bushy beard, looking for inspiration.

Viktor at Home

Viktor at Home

Viktor’s early art was created from driftwood and other found pieces in the river. He assembled decorated wooden panels that he called “ikons.” But he didn’t limit himself to small creations. He also put additional structures like extra masts, towers, and rafts on and around his ship. As long as he didn’t block the entire waterway, he was free to add to it as he pleased.

Throughout his life, Viktor kept a set of artist journals filled with writings and drawings. He later developed these into thousands of individual pieces of artwork. When Viktor eventually became intrigued with time-keeping, he devised what he called “Bulgar Time,” and designed a clock to run backward. You can see a virtual example of the clock on his web site at http://www.viktoriv.nl/en/home.html. It’s a tad disconcerting at first to watch the hands move the wrong way, but it’s fun.

Sadly, Viktor drowned one day while making underwater adjustments to his flotilla. He had gotten tangled in the ropes beneath his ship. He was 57 years old.

Reports say that the two people who were the biggest influences in Viktor’s life were Dutch painter Anton Heyboer and American writer Henry David Thoreau. He read “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience” at some point in his youth. How Henry led Viktor specifically to Amsterdam is not spelled out in the brief bios I read. What IS clear is that Viktor IV followed his Different Drummer, and he found his own Walden. He discovered not only where he needed to be, but what he needed to do in life. This Thoreauvian lesson attracts both the heart and the head.

Maybe today Viktor and Henry are floating in a boat somewhere, looking for driftwood, nodding to each other, and laughing about time running backward. Good for them.

 

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After the Hawk

By Ashton Nichols

I have a sad story to tell today. It is about one of those red-tailed hawks that I have written about in an earlier piece on The Roost, perhaps; or, perhaps not. Not so long ago, I was out in the locust and pine woodlot behind Creekside, and I saw a splash of brown and white against the green of the grass underneath one of our largest pine trees. Pine needles littered the ground, but this different brown stood out, a deep burnished color set off by the white lines that surrounded it. As I drew closer it was clear: this was a hawk, a dead hawk, and a big one, lying under the pine tree with his wings splayed and his head cocked to one side, unnaturally crooked as though he had tried to look too far behind him. A red tail.

“He is so beautiful,” I thought to myself and, since I was alone, there was no one to talk to in any case. What can I do? I knew it was a Federal offense to possess even the dead carcass of a raptor. These birds are so valuable as species, and especially as consumers of carrion, that even American citizens can only report dead raptors and then let the Department of Natural Resources take over. Otherwise, we would be awash in the bodies of small, dead mammals, rodents of all kinds: rats, and mice, and voles, and more. But then I remembered something else: Dickinson College, where I teach, has permits–both state and federal–that allow for the obtaining raptor specimens, as long as they will be used solely for educational purposes. Of course, what else would I use this hawk for? Not just to sit on my mantel like a hunter’s trophy. Not just to hide away in a private collection of once-living specimens. Here was a beautiful creature, dead now for who knew what reason, and starting to rot back into the ground unless I intervened. So I did.

I got a large plastic trash bag and spread my hands wide on both sides, lowering the bag down over the body of the hawk. I picked him up, and I thought for a moment that he moved, but then I checked his eyes–one was clouded, the other one was closed–and so I was assured that he had breathed his last breath. (I keep saying “he” in full knowledge that I do not know his gender; sexing birds is very difficult, primarily because their sex-organs, such as they are, are all internal, and they are very often very hard to see and even harder to determine). As fast as I could I got him to our out-building, a large nineteenth-century, chimneyed structure that was used as the summer kitchen back in the day when Creekside was built. Once there, I placed him in the refrigerator’s freezer, closed it tight, and called Dickinson to make sure that I had access to our permits.

I did have such access, and several weeks later I contacted the best taxidermist in South-Central Pennsylvania to help me out. We met and made a plan, and he took the hawk and placed it into his own freezer until he had sufficient time to work on it. Birds are perhaps the most difficult of animals to stuff, primarily because of their feathers, evolutionarily adapted scales–from their lizard-skin days–that often “slip” when even the slightest bit of rot has begun to decay the cells around the follicle. The follicle is a small cavity, just like the one that holds your individual hairs into your head, but in a hawk’s case the follicle keeps the feathers from falling out. The taxidermist assured me that I had gotten him into my freezer in time, and he would make a fine mounted specimen. At least, that is what the taxidermist said.

Several months later I had my result, and here he is:

HawkStanding

He is as beautiful a specimen as you will ever see, stuffed in the perfect way that makes me worry–and ask my students–about why it is that human beings like to take dead animals, return them to a lifelike condition, and then display them as though nothing has ever happened to them, as though they are still alive. I have been to natural history museums from New York to Naples, from Philadelphia to Florence, from London to Bologna, from Edinburgh to Rome and, in all of these settings I have wondered what it is that causes humans to track down these creatures, capture and kill then, and then finally display and exhibit them as though all of them are still among the living creatures on the planet.

I have no definitive answer to these questions. “I have killed and mounted this creature, so I am in control of its life,” is, of course, the most obvious answer. In colonial settings, we might say that every colonizer wants to say, at some level, “Look at what I have done; I have gone to the wilds of Africa [or Asia, South America, or the Arctic realms], and I have brought back these creatures and dominated them to such an extent that I can show them off to you now in a mighty civilized city.” But perhaps such an explanation is not sufficient. Perhaps we all collect, and kill [I work hard never to kill], and then display these creatures simply out of a desire to know them, a desire to possess, not out of greed, but out of a longing for knowledge, a longing for understanding. If I have this creature, then I am a part of this creature’s world. “I want to know you,” we seem to be saying; “I want to know you as well as other members of your species, and other species around you, know you.”

“Let me into your world,” we seem to be saying; and here is as close as we can ever get:

HawkClose

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