Saturday, April 28, 2007

Orbiting, untethered

Last night we watched The Conformist, Bernardo Bertolucci's 1970 movie about a disconnected man trying tragically and hopelessly to connect. He wants to connect to whatever society is in power, and unfortunately the one in power is the fascist society of 1930's Italy. The result of his choice is destructive and violent to himself and others. The story seems instructive of the Virginia Tech massacre, and generally about our desire to belong to a society that we know, in some part of our being, is corrupt and unsupportable. How hard it is to avoid wanting to be a part of respectable society, whether we're Huckleberry Finn, Colin Powell, George Tenet, or Marcello Clerici. Huckleberry made the heroic existential choice, the others could not. Clearly, it is much harder to act than to read about it in literature [duh!], or look at it in photographs. The literature and the photographs help us to understand. But understanding isn't enough.

This is a photograph of an astronaut's suit with camera and transmission equipment that was used by NASA as part of a student awareness project. No one is in the suit.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Alice through the looking glass

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.

I begin to wonder just who has a grip on reality--maybe I just don't get it? Today, the Washington Post reported that "The president said that Gonzales' testimony before skeptical Judiciary Committee senators last week 'increased my confidence' in his ability to lead the Justice Department. Separately, a White House spokeswoman said, 'He's staying.'"

Each day the universe that contains the limits of the surreal for the Bush administration expands further. Can this expansion continue until January of 2009? Or will some force of gravitational morality cause the universe to begin to contract?

`Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall:
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King's horses and all the King's men
Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty in his place again.'

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Rain and a first grandchild

Today I am no longer an expectant grandfather. Tate Bradley Robertson was born into this world yesterday in faraway Reno, Nevada. I can't even imagine what the weather was like yesterday in Reno on Tate's birth day, but In north-central Minnesota yesterday was beautiful, sending much needed rain to what had been a cool and dry month. Last night, with the wind coming up, choirs of frogs insisted that spring was arrived. The frost is mostly out of the ground by now, and the lilac buds have greened and are just about ready to open. The talk of the rain here at the farm was a good respite from a week's talk of tragedy in Virginia and foolishness in Washington.

My wife, Sally, found this nice piece by Thomas Merton about the rain speaking with so much more eloquence than the voices of politics and commerce we hear all around us. I like to think that the way Merton hears the rain in his cabin is kin to how we are able to hear it at the farm too. And that, even though separated by half a continent, we'll be able to help Tate experience a little of our life here in the weeks and years ahead.

"The rain I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and its porch with insistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer. I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone in the forest at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligent perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows.

Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, the rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen."

Friday, April 20, 2007

At the Gonzales hearing

Photographs sometimes mislead and sometimes they tell the whole story. This photograph appeared in the N.Y. Times.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Interpreting the landscape

William Henry Jackson's "Phantom Curve" (late 1800's) and Robert Adams' "Clear Creek Canyon, near Idaho Springs" (ca. 1970). If you click on the Jackson photograph to enlarge it you will be able to see the man standing at the base of (what's left of) the rock formation to the right of the tracks.

Along the Colorado front range

Robert Adams is the most literate of photographers, and his photographs of Colorado and the West remain the most important model of landscape photography for me. This image called "Burning Oil Sludge, North of Denver, Colorado" (1973) is part of a show held at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2006 called "Robert Adams: Landscapes of Harmony and Dissonance."

Florida landscapes

Clyde Butcher's landscape photography is beautiful--he is regularly compared with Ansel Adams. And the world seems beautiful in his large landscapes and waterscapes of Florida. I would love to be able to look at that world regularly. In fact I do, living in rural northcentral Minnesota.

Do these photographs offer just another perspective on the world or an entirely different way of interpreting the world from David Maisel's work? Mr. Butcher argues that his photographs may lead us to be better caretakers of the beautiful world by helping us become more sensitized to a beauty we miss in our everyday lives. Susan Sontag would argue something quite a bit different. David Maisel's landscapes describe a world where catastrophe like yesterday's mass murder in Virginia happens. That kind of thing doesn't happen in the world of Clyde Butcher's photographs. I love them nonetheless.

Unfortunately, the facts seem to point toward Maisel's vision.
Witness yesterday's massacre and the just-published-report by the
UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that 40% of plant and animal species in the US are in danger of becoming extinct in the next decades. No answers from me on this one I'm afraid.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Post-apocalyptic landscapes

David Maisel's aerial photographs are beautiful and terrible at once. This image is part of The Lake Project which can be looked at here. The Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, where my son Colin works, has a show of his photographs that will be hanging until July 29. The Nevada Museum of Art has a special collection focus on the altered landscape. Colin helped me learn about Mr. Maisel's photographs.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

first post

Spring is arriving in our latitude. The snow is nearly gone today, and eagles--an adult pair and a juvenile--are perching in popple trees along the Leaf river near our farm. The Sandhill Cranes have been back for ten days or so, and we hear them every morning sing their prehistoric clacking song. The ground hasn't settled yet. We're afloat for a time while the skin of earth remans disconnected from the frozen ground below. I continue to hope that Thoreau was right about this flowing time when he proclaimed that all men's sins are forgiven on a bright spring day.

There are only a couple of weeks remaining till new life change arrives for my son and daughter-in-law. Soon they will introduce my wife and me to our first grandchild. If the world hadn't been giving us news enough about spring, our expectation provides confirmation that the frozen time is dead. It's good to wipe away the crust of winter from our eyes and hear and smell the commotion of the world born again.