Biodiversity, biodestruction

As the poems in my first collection, More Than Shelter, convey, I experienced mixed emotions about building a house and residing as human animals on a field that was in the process of reverting to wildness. It is a terrific privilege to “own” several acres of property and to dwell and raise food and children here. We have, after nearly 20 years, settled many of our challenges with the environment and its flora and fauna; and often, our lesson has been to let the environment be itself.MTS002

That means our “lawn” has largely reverted to clover and to grasses that can compete with weed seeds. That means we have meadows fore and aft and shrubby, scrubby hedgerows of mixed brush along a thin row of trees and rocks. It means we cannot entirely rid the area of invasive, non-native plants or the insects that come with them. And if a season passes without regular, careful maintenance–the environment will creep in on our living spaces very quickly.

On the other hand, a commitment to use no chemicals–or as few as possible (some exterior house maintenance requires paints and finishes that just are not environmentally-neutral) has meant that the property has good biodiversity for its size. So many kinds of avian life: scrub-loving little brown jobs, woods-dwelling owls and thrushes, turkeys, four varieties of woodpeckers, brightly-plumaged orioles, cardinals, jays, bluebirds, tree swallows, and goldfinches. Also the transient hawks, buzzards, and herons, and the grass-dwellers such as killdeer–to name a few. We are host to winterberry, serviceberry, dogwood, elderberry, nannyberry, mulberry, cherry, and wild grapes, so the wild fruit-eaters adore the place. Foxes, deer, groundhogs, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, opossums, even coyotes and possibly a black bear graze here.

They do not always stick to the margins and the flora. Sometimes they get into the trash cans or the compost heap (I once disturbed a deliriously happy raccoon sucking on a mango pit). Owls and foxes feasted on the guinea hens that refused to go back into the chicken run at night.

This description has not even gotten as far as the insect life, which is lively indeed–nor to the little bats, nor the oak trees’ flying squirrels.

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For the last decade, we have been among several neighbors who worked to slow the development of about 60 acres that lies immediately east of us and extends up the last low rise of the Appalachian foothills (Blue Mountain/Great Valley section). We have had some success in limiting the development: there are now 40 acres of preserved land on the north side of the slope, and the “estates” will consist of 13 township-approved house lots instead of the initially-proposed 52.brunner

But the site preparation process has begun in earnest this summer, and each morning–an hour or so after the birds start their chorus–the bulldozers and front-end loaders rev up and begin the crash-&-bang, the delivery of large culverts made of concrete, the dump trucks with their loads of gravel, the engineered changing of swale and drainage.

We were guilty of such disruption ourselves 20 years ago, when we installed the house we love on the land we think of as our own. I try not to mourn the loss of the field next door; it was never ours to begin with, and in so many ways, neither is the property on which our house sits.

The land belongs to no one. It is earth’s. If it belongs to anything it is to the generations of dragonflies, lightning bugs, red-tail hawks, barred owls, and rotund skunks, all of which preceded our appearance here by centuries.

 

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“Local” artists & genius loci

Recently, a friend and I visited our small, local art museum (Allentown Art Museum). The permanent collection there has a few real highlights, which for me include the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed library from the Francis Little House and a limited but fine collection of glass and ceramic decorative arts. Like many smaller US museums, the Allentown Art Museum hosts traveling exhibits that can be eye-opening (last year’s exhibit of Lautrec’s works on paper, currently at Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls, SD, was one of these).

Currently, Allentown’s museum is featuring work by two artists who employ very different methods, and their styles are so different that it seems silly to compare them: Matthew Daub and Paul Harryn. Both of them live in the region, however, and both might be considered painters of place.

Harryn says he is enthralled by the concept of genius loci, and there’s a decidedly spiritual aspect to his work (as well as a philosophical and poetic aspect; view his site for inklings of these). His “Changing Seasons” series stretched along one wall of the museum gallery, initially seeming like a seamless continuum, though more careful observation proved otherwise. The seasons series anchors the viewer in a temperate region in which the hues and moods of four distinct seasons are markedly obvious by color and light. In these works, the layering and erasing methods he employs are subtle, but some of the larger works depend upon a more visible shifting and experimental approach to media manipulation. The image of “Pacificus” on his website doesn’t begin to convey the experience of his assemblage paintings, which are textural, shifting, very large, and compellingly active. These three “Transcripts” were charming, if less powerful than some of the more layered works:

Transcript series by Paul Harryn

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The near-monochrome, panoramic watercolors of Matthew Daub’s Maiden Creek series also appealed to me because of place, specific–definite–“realistic” place, if not as obviously spirit of place. This is because I know the roads and streams he depicts very well, have traveled them often; but I have seldom considered them “beautiful” enough for plein air views or photographic compositions (without omitting, say, road signage, utilitarian concrete bridges, highway off-ramps, minivans, and the like).

Daub portrays those items in his photorealistic paintings. What I found revelatory in these works is how genuinely beautiful those familiar roads are when the view or frame changes. The thin horizontal rectangle of Daub’s place-paintings accentuates parts of the composition such as bare tree branches, shadows on the curved roads, the rough texture of municipal concrete next to embankments. Daub’s choice of subject matter reminds me a bit of the later paintings of Charles Demuth, but Daub’s paintings include more of the natural environment surrounding the silos, stairs, and industrial objects.

Aucassiu and Nicolette (1921) by Charles Demuth [public domain, Wikimedia Commons]

Next time I am driving Route 143 near Kempton, I will appreciate the scenery more for having acquired, through Daub, a new perspective on the dull, drab, too-familiar landscape. The aesthetics of road-building, New Jersey barriers, highway ramps, creekside roads, and galvanized silos blend surprisingly well with the brushy trees, gentle hills, and stone barns of Berks County.

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I’ll close with a poem by Maggie Anderson, from her now, alas, out-of-print book Cold Comfort (1986). Daub’s paintings made me think of this one, though the river is different.

Gray

Driving through the Monongahela Valley in winter
is like driving through the gray matter
of someone not too bright but conscientious,
a hard-working undergraduate who barely passes.
Everybody knows how hard he tries. I’m driving up
into gray mountains and there, it may be snowing
gray, little flecks like pigeon feathers, or what
used to sift down onto the now abandoned slag piles,
like what seems to sift across the faces
of the jobless in the gray afternoons.

At Johnstown I stop, look down the straight line
of the Incline, closed for repairs, to the gray heart
of the steel mills with For Sale signs on them. Behind me,
is the last street of disease-free Dutch elms in America,
below me, a city rebuilt three times after floods.
Gray is a lesson in the poise of affliction. Disaster
by disaster, we learn insouciance, begin to wear
colors bright as the red and yellow sashes on
elephants, whose gray hides cover, like this sky,
an enormity none of us can fathom, though we try.

(© 1986 Maggie Anderson)

Endemophilia, toponesia, psychoterric states

Thanks to poet Annie Finch, I came across a thoughtful essay in Aeon magazine–an exercise in synthesis and interdisciplinary thinking that connects with Naess and his notion of ecosophy; and with Bachelard and others whose work I have lately been reading and thinking about. Liam Heneghan combines ecology, botany and topography with Winnie-the-Pooh and explores transience and trans-placement from several viewpoints. He looks at how so many of us are transplants, foreign “invaders,” culturally and biologically, and asks us to think about how we feel about place–home-place, in particular.

Not all of us connect with the concept of a home-dwelling anymore; but if we do so, that place is generally closely associated with childhood, observes Heneghan. He cites environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht and says:

…we do not yet have an adequate vocabulary to address our ‘psychoterric’ states — or how the state of the Earth relates to our states of mind. To balance the negative psychological state of ‘nostalgia’, a couple of years ago Albrecht proposed ‘endemophilia’ (the sense of being truly at home within one’s place and culture — or ‘homewellness’). To balance the term ‘topophilia’, a love of place, Albrecht opposes ‘solastalgia’ — the desolate feeling associated with the chronic decline of a homescape. Solastalgia names the emotions we have at the loss of species and habitats through climate change and other environmental changes. We should all expect a lot more of it.

I do know those feelings, and I feel happy to have terms for them! Yet I argue that we do have an adequate vocabulary for how the state of the Earth relates to our states of mind, and that vocabulary is artistic. I believe the finest expression of these kinds of emotional-memory sensations can be found mainly through art. My task for myself in the coming weeks is to gather a few examples of endemophilia, solastalgia, and other “psychoterric states” in poetry. I’ve already got a few in mind.

Please read Heneghan’s essay if ecopoetics or the notion of homescape appeals to you.

Place

A family member has recently complained that she wants to move from her apartment because her feelings for the place have changed. It’s been on her mind so much that she seems obsessive about this urge to find a more suitable home, somewhere she feels she can “fit in.” My response, initially, was compassion; then, I began to feel irritated (other people’s obsessions often seem irritating). I’ve been reading essays by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess for the past few days, however, and his work has tempered my irritable response. Place matters.

Naess was an originator of the “deep ecology” movement, a follower of Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy, a mountaineer; his influences include Taoism and Spinoza. Deep ecology, as a movement, is fairly controversial and has been subject to some pointed criticism–but as a philosophical practice, its inquiry and premises have been valuable to subsequent thinking and critical problem solving as applied to the earth and its environmental limitations.

What appeals to me about Naess, though, is the personal aspect of his “ecosophy,” a term he coined to refer to earth-wisdom, to place-wisdom. He called his own place-wisdom Ecosophy T: the “T” stands for Tvergastein, a mountain he loved and sometimes chose to live on. Living above the timberline for weeks at a time, Naess observed tiny flowers, diverse lichen forms, changeable and severe weather systems, mice, foxes, herds of reindeer bedding down in front of his hut. He contemplated life’s interconnectedness, the concept of peace in all aspects of earth-dwelling, compassion for all sentient beings, respect for earth-forms from rock to plant to insect…


(saxifrage photo–http://torirotsstitches.blogspot.com)

As Buddhist studies say: “When one has great loving-kindness towards all sentient beings, there are limitless beneficial effects.” Naess seems to have believed this whole-heartedly. He loved the mountain, he loved the miniature saxifrages, he loved the view of the valleys and the lake. These things enlightened him about the inherent earth-wisdom of the place itself. All of his thinking seems to spring from the mountain’s earthy source, its seasons. A mountain seems unchanging to most of us, but Naess appreciated its transformations. Such acceptance can lead to an abiding sense of peace and peacefulness, and certainly to a comfortable feeling of belonging to place.

I understand that urge to belong to place. It’s one reason I have stayed in one region for so long: I do not live in an area of breathtaking natural beauty or harsh extremes, as Naess chose to do, but I respond to my surroundings deeply here in the valley. The temperate climate with its four distinct seasons, the plants I recognize, the familiar birds and mammals, insects and toads, salamanders, the gravel and the different soils, the creeks and meadows, the agricultural fields and–yes–the suburban sprawl and nearby highways all make up the place where I exist. It’s comfortable, and it is comforting, and it is always surprising in small ways as I push my observations and attempt to deepen my understanding of and connection with the place I call home.

There have been times I’ve had to leave places that felt like home, and there’ve been times I’ve felt uncomfortable in the place I dwelt. And I needed to move on when that discomfort became too nagging, to irritable to ignore.

So I’m back to my place of compassion again.

Here’s “Urge for Going.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3EofN3Flag