Category Archives: The Roost

A blog at Thoreau Farm, written and edited by Sandy Stott

Solstice Lights

Today is short work. That seems appropriate to Thoreau’s 12/21/54 entry on Americans’ love of jest. But what catches my eye as I read through the entry is the paragraph before it; it shines like a mirror of my own thoughts:

We are tempted to call these the finest days of the year. Take Fair Haven Pond, for instance, a perfectly level plain of white snow, untrodden as yet by any fisherman, surrounded by snow-clad hills, dark evergreen woods, and reddish oak leaves, so pure and still. The last rays of the sun falling on the Baker Farm reflect the clear pink color. I see the feathers of a partridge strewn along on the snow a long distance, the work of some hawk perhaps, for there is no track.

“So pure and still.” Yes, and there is also the strew of feathers to remind us of life’s action, of what may fall from the sky. Still, it is time for a walk in the woods.

Those of us who walk the woods prize the sense of solitude we find there, with its expansive chance to breathe and watch without speaking. And yet – also true, I think – we rarely feel alone, in part because we become keen in our tracings of other animals whose prints, feathers and tufts of fur are everywhere. And woods-walkers also develop a heightened sensitivity for movement, especially that on the periphery of vision, where once, (in the old world, and, perhaps, in the new) predators kept track of us. All of that is part of the everyday walking world.

Here, on the other hand, is another sign of presence that is rare and random, yet common enough to make me wonder if you too find it on occasion. Yesterday on my way to local woods, I came upon a small balsam fir. Okay, not uncommon; this is, after all, Maine. But this one twinkled with strings of tiny colored lights, even though it was far enough into the woods to be unlinked with any particular house. And no extension cord ran long yards over the ground to point to such linkage. Easy enough then to conclude that the lights were battery-powered. But whose presence did this sudden holiday tree signal?

IMG_0295

The lights winked in the dark woods, growing brighter as the sun slid behind the trees and the early dusk came on. I felt a smile play across my face. Usually, I’m not wild about human announcement of presence in our common woodlands, but here at the winter solstice in diminutive form were reminders of the communal light we share; here were dots of color dressing the dark. They felt like tiny kin to the companionable yellow light cast from the window of a hut on a winter night.

Every once in a while – and that is as often as it should happen – I happen upon some little lights or other ornaments in the woods; they are kin to a quick smile from a stranger passing by in a crowd, reminder of the light side of who we are.

Best wishes to all for the solstice/holiday season.

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

There Was An Artist…

A recent conversation sent me, as many do, to consider what Henry Thoreau had to say on the matter. The trigger-question was about what separates art from life. Or, put differently, how does an artist integrate her or his art with life? Or vice versa? This is an age-old question, but also one that each generation bumps into. And it seems more pressing with the proliferation of art objects and us. What’s necessary, and artist may ask.

It seems to me that Henry Thoreau saw his life as his primary artistic expression – “to affect the quality of the day, that is the highest art.” Thoreau sought to be awake to and to affect the quality of each of his days. He deemed being so awake and aware the hardest of assignments.

Yesterday, while I was walking, I mulled the question further. It strikes me that a problem with art is captured by the word “representation.” Thoreau, for example, wrote to represent the experience and experimentation that he sought out every day during his Walden years. But when we pull apart the word, we get re…presentation, or presentation of something again. So, in a representation life is not art, it is instead an attempt to present some of that life again.

I think that Thoreau worked on this question near the end of Walden in his story about the artist from Kouroo. This artist sets out to make a staff – note, it’s not a representation of a staff, but the object itself. The artist’s goal is that the stick be perfect, and he is willing to spend whatever time necessary to achieve that perfection, because, as Thoreau writes, “Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.” p.326, (Princeton Edition)

As the artist sinks into his work, time disappears, dynasties fall, all of earth’s history passes by. I make of this that the markers – minutes, hours, years, etc. – of usual life vanish. And the artist enters a timeless act of creation. As he works, and whole eras and worlds go by, he concentrates on his staff; his whole life becomes the work.

When he finishes the staff, the artist looks up; everything is different. He is elsewhere. His staff is not a representation. It simply is, as is he.

So, perhaps when we create work in a way that means we “do nothing else in [our] li[ves],” the division between art and life disappears. We are present, as is our art.

There are also Thoreau’s thoughts about “volatile truth” at the top of page 325 in the Princeton Edition. Here’s he’s reflecting on the immediacy of creation and how its “residue,” the leftover language on the page, is inadequate to the moment it sought to capture. This again points to time’s passage as widening the gap between life (lived in the present) and art (re…presentation from the past).

And, finally, here’s a short scene from a recent visit to the Picasso Museum. Perhaps, it’s just me, but I find myself distracted from the art on the walls by the people surging around me; they seem to mimic the art, to take on its characteristics, but in more compelling fashion. Life becomes what I watch; I get separated from it. The distinction between what’s on the wall and what’s around me blurs, the framing gets rearranged. Then, I come to my senses.

 

Acrobat - Pablo Picasso

The Acrobat, Picasso, 1930.  My favorite piece.

 

At the Picasso

At the reopened Picasso
Museum, bobbing amid the incoming
tide near the man with the out-
sized nose and the woman tipped
sideways by her chest and
every one is breaking up is
about to leave the frame
when I smell the orange and
turn – the woman next to me
peels it idly (like any breaker
of rules); the whole room
rushes back into place.

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

Eyed

Sometimes a spate of occurrences becomes confluence. For me, a series of news stories and movies built from older news stories have been that confluence. In language, the two streams flowing together are best caught by two verbs, “survey” and “surveil.” Readers of Thoreau will, of course, see the link in the first word. Surveying landscapes of all sorts was both a living and a habit for Henry Thoreau, and I’m guessing that there were times when his watching made folks in Concord uncomfortable, but not, I think, in the way the intrusive second verb does.

I worry about photos.

It’s not the selfie I worry about; that’s just another form of handprint on the cave wall, runes on the rock, or paint scrawl saying, Kilroy was here. Sometimes I even link such markers with Thoreau’s opening apologia for the lens of “I” in Walden. It’s the other eye that bothers me, the Cyclops of camera peering (mostly down) from light poles, buildings, from the flying-eye drones, or set like a stoic beside the worn path in the woods. Why do we insist increasingly on such peering?

Always Eye

Always Eye

And then, there is the eye staring at me right now from top center screen. Is it off? Should I worry? Last summer, for the first time, I read of a writer who tapes a covering scrap over that eye, goes all Odysseus on it and blinds the beast…every day…just in case. And I looked up after reading, and I began to wonder…

Can you see me now? How about now? Now? I take some comfort in what a dull movie I’d be, what a sleep-inducing study. Still.

When I was a boy, my father became the family photographer, taking thousands of shots of us all. His always-request was that we look off into the distance, away from the camera, and we all grumbled at this posing, even as we waited avidly for the year-end albums that came of his hobby. There was also a mild discomfort in the uncertainty of what would appear when a photo was developed. How would you look? Who would you appear to be?

I recall, at some point, reading of various indigenous people who, when introduced to the camera, refused to have their photos taken because they felt the image-taker would steal their souls. There seemed to be a sliver of sense in this fear, not that soul would be stolen, but that it would be exposed. And later, as I began to take my own photos and looked especially at the portraits of Walker Evans and other “Depression-era—photographers,” I understood that exposure was the point. Catching people in ways that let light into the darknesses of their (and our) lives was the aim. I wondered then if this was a sort of stealing.

But all of this usual sort of photography was in service of memory – “Remember when…” No one was being recorded to control his or her behavior; no one was being surveilled.

Not so today, as recent revelations about broad habits of surveillance have made clear. This posting could now aim into the murkiness of CIA and corporate surveillance; it could consider the tension between freedom and safety. Surely my viewing of Citizenfour has intensified that thinking. I’m guessing I’ll go in that direction soon, just not today.

Here's Looking at You

Here’s Looking at You

Instead, I’ll go (with Henry) to the woods, where my habit of looking for lions shapes my mind and walking. To be clear, I know there are no lions (yet) in my daily woods, so this column heads into territory I hear of daily via the Internet. It considers the famous LA-area lion, P-22. Here’s a recent headline: “P-22 coughs up a hairball from the deer he’s eating.”

Caught at his meal by a trailside cam, P-22 stands, I think, for all of us being surveilled unaware, unblinkingly. Instead of walking our way to a fleeting sighting with its awakening frisson of closeness, we have bland recording; we have a hairball that must be hacked back up. Are we meant to see in such a monotonous, unblinking way? Without the effort of walking there? Should we too be seen this way by the lenses now everywhere in our lives?

As noted earlier, I feel ambivalent about the invasive nature of much photography, even as I look at its pictures with a sort of wonder and hunger to know. But what I’m certain I can’t sign onto are the unannounced lenses of an always-looking world, whether they are posted trailside or borne by drone overhead. I don’t like the certainty that I am always being framed even as I can’t see the framing eye. I like to walk to outlooks from which I can look out, survey a slice of the world. I don’t like the feeling that, as I walk, I am being surveilled.

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Walden