So the past couple days, I took an ekphrastic poetry workshop at the Farnsworth Art Museum.  It was taught by the poet Arielle Greenberg, whose book someone gave me last year out of the blue.  So when I saw that she was leading it, and miraculously I was free all three afternoons, I figured it was fate.  Okay, not fate.  But a lovely opportunity.

Ekphrasis is fun.  Basically, it means using one artwork as inspiration for another artwork.  In our case, we were using paintings in the museum to inspire us to write poems.  It’s not translating–though I think it would be intriguing to imagine translating from paint to paper.  It’s more like the art is a springboard to think in a way you usually don’t think.

Ekphrasis is also funny, in the sense of being complicated, equivocal in some ways. On the one hand, I think of Elaine Scarry’s wonderful succinct insistence that “beauty begets,” that when we behold something beautiful, it encourages in us the impulse to create. Beauty wants to make more beauty–and sometimes we are the agents of its reproductive urges. On the other hand, I think of Mark Doty’s lovely observations about still lives, his emphasis on their capacity to remind us of the strangeness and singularity of every thing. Which doesn’t mitigate AGAINST being inspired, of course, but does suggest that the thing created might bear very little link, finally, to the thing that did the inspiring.

I wish I could insert a little jpeg here of the painting I was using, but alas, that cannot be.  My springboard painting was by Alex Katz, and is called “Wildflowers #2″ (1956), so if you spot a legal-to-use jpeg of it and want to send it my way, I’d be grateful.

In the meantime, here’s his website so you can get an idea of what it might look like: http://www.alexkatz.com/print_archive

And here’s the poem:

Long Distance

The summer I learned how to swim far,
I followed my mother each morning
across Lake Ellis—she in a gray
rowboat (it had been cornflower blue,
once, way back before we kids were born),
and me in the tannin-pickled pond.
We’d rise at dawn and wriggle into
the black racing suits we reserved for
real swimming. Easing the screen door shut,

creeping free of the squat brown cottage,
we’d sneak away before the others
woke. Even on fog-blankened mornings,
when towels hung limply on the line,
our bare feet were thick with dust before
we reached the beach—the flaking dory
and rough oars always exactly where
we’d left them, tucked behind some gangly
alders in a nest of wild mint.

Wasting no time, we’d head for the far
shore. She faced backward, my mother, and
pulled hard. Her tanned arms drew the oars close.
As she eased them free for each next stroke,
their tips would scar the surface, roiling
everything. I swam for the eddying
rings, cupped fingers straining to reach them
before they faded back to flat. “Pace
yourself,” she’d intone, and drive harder.

One morning, out past Davin’s dock, loud
splashing snapped our tethered attention—
too big for loon, too clumsy for trout.
Soon, the turbulence settled into
the shuh, shuh, shuh of seasoned swimming.
And minutes later, we spied its source:
broad shouldered, black-capped, a lithe stranger
shuttling smoothly toward the dory.
My mother tacked, easing us away;

the man deftly followed suit. Drawing
alongside, he fell in to my pace.
My mother dug her blades deep, deftly
sliced the watery slab, gathering
too much speed. Brusquely torqueing the boat
about, she signaled me to tumble
in. “Your lips are blue,” she muttered and
tossed me her towel, before rowing
us back toward shore, the lesson over.


Not too terrible, but so fascinatingly unfamiliar to me, its ostensible maker. We made a poem a day, each with a different piece as a springboard, each with a different poetic flavor. Looking at them together, it’s hard to believe the same writer made them within 72 hours of one another. Ekphrasis unsettles old habits, set me meandering down new paths. Whether I stick with any of them, I don’t know. But it was a blast to wander.

Barbara Bosworth at PEM

My former teacher, current collaborator, and now super friend is having a really lovely show at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.  The work is mostly black-and-white, taken with a large-format camera.  Some images are solo, while others are panoramas made by taking 2, 3, or (as in the case above) 4 images in a sweeping succession.

Among the things that I love about the work is that it blends the precision allowed by the very cumbersome (and slow!) 8×10 camera with a sense of deep intimacy and connectedness.  An image like the one above must have taken at least 1/2 hour, probably a good bit more, just to set up the camera and make the negatives, but it reads as a moment apprehended and shared.  Not that the arduousness is what matters.  I’m just saying that it’s striking that Barbara Bosworth is able to incorporate people really seamlessly into images that take a lot longer to make than your average cell phone selfie.

Included in the exhibit are artifacts from Barbara’s life–an egg collection and the pencilled effort she made as a child to identify them reveal that her passion for looking carefully at the natural world began when she was very young.  And it persists in her family, as is clear in the images that look back to her parents and forward to young nieces and nephews.  The Bosworth world seems to be, in Heidegger’s words, one of being-there.

The show is up for a while, as part of PEM’s “year of photography.”

Castles in the /Real World/

The tag line for this blog is “on art, the environment, and what might suffice.”  And, earnest girl that I am, I meant it pretty precisely.  Which is why being in Italy this month, at a place called Castello di Spannocchia, is both a fabulous and congruous opportunity, and also an occasion for some soul-searching.

The castle and surrounding hundreds of acres are the extraordinary remnant of a tenuta—an agricultural estate that once was home to more than a hundred tenant farmers (and the landowner).  The egalitarian disposition of the present owners and some mid-century changes in Italian law both contributed to the end of sharecropping here.  However, a desire to keep alive the traditional methods of working the land persists.  Now, that work is done by a staff whose numbers swell each season with interns and WWOOFers.  These young apprentices learn about age-old agricultural practices, and bring those insights home.  The recent explosion of interest in sustainability, and in organic and artisanal foods, has contributed to creating a fantastic pool of candidates for these physically demanding (and usually volunteer) jobs.

The current owner has both a keen sense of the architectural and cultural history of the castle, and of its significance within the system of social life in the region.  He understands the links between the agricultural production of the Tuscan countryside and the rise of banking culture and hence of a commodity-rich culture in nearby Florence.  And he knows what that has meant to the consolidation of an arts culture dating back centuries here.

I also now know this because I am currently one of more than a dozen guests staying in his castle.  Our group will be here for just under three weeks, as part of a doctoral program in art and philosophy.  The program, IDSVA, blends short residencies with distance education.  The five year program includes time spent at a range of locations.  The lucky first and second year students start each new academic year here, a location chosen in part for the immersive opportunity it affords, away from family and the distractions of everyday life, and in part because the castle is a hop and a skip from where the Renaissance began.  During their stay, the students read and discuss philosophy and art theory, travel to Florence and Siena to see artworks, and forge an understanding of the ways in which even seemingly “straightforward” artworks evidence thoughts and beliefs and ideological commitments that are worth noting.

Amazing art and art conversations.

An extraordinarily beautiful location, and hosts whose commitment to the environment is manifest through sustainable agricultural practices and lifestyle decisions.

I should feel like I’m in heaven.

And I do.


When I went to NYC in conjunction with an IDSVA residency last January, I could not help but wonder whether the now-common claim that urban areas are models for sustainability took all relevant factors into account.  I’ve come to believe that they actually do not.  Here, again, I cannot help but engage that question.

Our hosts certainly seem to be living and working sustainably.  It is we, their guests, about whom I wonder.  Most of the interns and WWOOFers are from the United States.  And while I think WWOOFing is amazing, I question whether it is, in and of itself, truly sustainable.  Tonight at dinner, I was talking with two WWOOFers who have spent time at five farms this season.  They are from the states, and the farms where they worked were Spannocchia, two others in Tuscany, one in Sicily, and one in Switzerland.  No doubt they’ve learned a ton.  And they’ve been of real help to the farmers.  But they are doing this as a gap year, rather than as preparation for future farming careers.  So I wonder whether the amount they’ve contributed balances the amount they’ve used in resources in order to have this experience.  And similarly, I wonder who “foots the carbon bill” when we calculate the sustainability of this system—is it the farmer who employs the WWOOFers, the WWOOFers themselves, or has it been left unregarded?

But perhaps even with imported, short-term labor, this system really is ecologically sustainable.  And even if not literally ecologically sustainable, perhaps the social benefits and possibilities for personal transformation are its carbon offset.

It is more when I am forced to think about us—art and philosophy appreciators who have come all this way—that the question really takes shape.  Like nearly everyone else who works for or participates in IDSVA, I traveled here from the U.S.  And that was no small feat.  I left my home 100 miles from Portland, Maine, and drove to the airport there, then flew to Philadelphia, then flew to Rome, then rode by chartered bus (with the others in the program) to the castle, which is not too far from Chiusdino, in the Tuscan countryside.  So much transit, as you know, gives me pause—not because of the jetlag, unpleasant and illustrative as that is, but because of the tacit presumption that it’s appropriate to expend that much fuel for a non-extraordinary circumstance.

With those gallons of crude starting to weigh heavily, I have tried to take a step back, and look at the program from a bird’s-eye (jet plane’s?) perspective.  Seen as a whole, this program probably carries a very modest carbon footprint.  Without a bricks-and-mortar infrastructure to maintain, without a daily commute for students and faculty and administrators, we are not burning fossil fuels to do our work most days.  True, we have travelled far, as have our guest speakers, but any given group of students makes just four flights a year (to and from two residencies), while the faculty and administrators make six, occasionally eight.  And once we reach a locale, we tend to stay put or to use public transportation.

I’m pretty sure that our carbon load is less than that of the average graduate program.  But what the WWOOFers and we bring to the fore, beyond all my fancy justifying footwork, is the real question:  what reasons do we (should we) deem legitimate for such grand expenditures of energy?  I don’t mean our own energies, which are (supposedly!) renewable, but those non-renewables that can only, in truth, be said to belong to us all collectively?  How do we decide which potentially transformative experiences are, a priori, worth the collective cost to the commons?

While I don’t presume to know the answer, I do feel sure that among our sundry jobs here at the castle—whether we’ve come as advocates of sustainability or as philosophers—is to formulate precisely this sort of question.  And to face even an uncomfortable answer with open eyes.

Bird Doors, Garden Questions

I ordered my seeds last week.  Shout out to Comstock Ferre for sending the ones I ordered from them so quickly.  It warms a heart to imagine what will be, and the effort of imagining is somehow easier with the bumpy packets of potential in one’s hot little hands.

No doubt such fantasizing about the coming season infused my thoughts about “he-of-the-bird-doors.” If you’ve read a few of these posts, you may remember that Barbara and I are undertaking a supremely fun art-science exploration of a meadow in Carlisle, MA.  And in the middle of that meadow sits a very old home.  And in one of the outbuildings adjoining that home are a set of doors that used to be in the house.  I think there are eleven of them.  The doors are covered with lists of birds–the first arrivals each year for all the species the writer spotted.  Spring and fall, he noted the various birds.  The two doors below show a small sample from the decades-long record he created.


It seems no outside concerns intruded on this naturalist’s life, for the lists are as long during war years as during calmer times.  Or perhaps such careful attention was a balm for him.  At any rate, the chronicling of the birds clearly dominated his life;  the list claims the middle of each door, with any other information relegated to the margins, quite literally.  Even at this scale, you can see that those peripheral notes compose a far smaller set.  An occasional snow storm is recorded, a particularly momentous family event, a cause for sorrow.  And also, with the same faithfulness that he gave to the birds, he recorded the arrival each spring of the first asparagus.

I get that.  Asparagus is not my bellwether.  If I had to choose, I guess I’d say that rhubarb is.  Though now we’ve a witch hazel, so perhaps that will be the assuring sign.  Nonetheless, I can certainly see why asparagus would be someone’s.  And so, with a tip of the hat to he-of-the-bird-doors, I offer this promise that spring will, in fact, eventually arrive:

“First asparagus”

Amid the litany of birds,
a single garden note each year,
tucked between his penciled chronicles
of avian attention:
“asparagus, Apr. 28″
or “1st asparagus, May 3rd.”

I picture him peering at
the unkempt bed, brushing away
errant strands of moldering hay
hoping to find dogged, knobbed tips
puckering the untilled loam.
A day hence, or two at most,

faintly purpled stalks will follow,
erect despite the chilly nights.
He well knows how quickly they thicken
to record-worthy readiness,
into the notes of his mellow-
throated rhapsody to spring.

Mapping the World

I just came across the website “worldmapper” and I love it.  Of course, I’m predisposed to love maps.  But this one makes me think of Edward Tufte and others who manage to pack a lot of information into a simple visual display.  At worldmapper, the information load is enhanced by comparisons between maps.

Here’s the “regular” map, the one indicating land area for each of the marked nations or territories:


But here are a few in which additional data is used, and represented by skewing the size of the territory to reflect that info.  In order, top to bottom, they represent nuclear power production, housing prices, personal computer ownership, and deaths of males aged 95-99.  These all loosely correlate with national wealth, I guess, which is in the fifth image in this set.






To be sure, the skews are not identical, but when you compare them to some of the others maps, their similarity to one another seems more striking.  Contrast them with this one of the total number of children:


Or this one of the number of deaths due to epilepsy:


In a way, these remind me of some of the maps in the series “Mappa Mundi,” by NYC artist, Kim Baranowski. Hers are more wry, but they similarly take the convention of a map and render it provocative through the addition of new data.  Check ‘em out!

Fireflies Attract


Earlier this week, my friend Barbara and I headed out to a meadow just before dusk to meet with Sara, a firefly expert, and Michelle, a fellow firefly fan.   Barbara and I are working on an extended project about this place, and she has made many gorgeous pictures of fireflies here, so we thought it’d be great if someone wise in the ways of fireflies could school us about what we were seeing.

We had a terrific  time, although we didn’t see nearly as many fireflies as we had expected to. It was, it turns out, a bit of a seasonal low point–the waning days of summer’s earliest fireflies, and very early in the waxing of the next species, whose time to spread their wings starts soon.  Still, we learned a ton–including the difference between photuris and photinus, and between boy flashes and girl flashes, as well as assorted details about the evolution of firefly glow and about their mating habits.

Equally captivating, to me, is what the fireflies engender.  As we tell folks about our interest in these beautiful bugs, people send us pictures or point us toward other artists also interested in them.  Two great images that came our way last week were from 19th century Japan.  Here’s one of them:


Many people in Japan, it turns out, have a profound affection for fireflies.  In fact, that ardor rises to the level of a being a general cultural appreciation of them. Sara had been in Japan earlier in the month, giving a talk at a scientific conference.  To her surprise, even lay people attended.  And not only did they listen avidly, they also asked great questions and seemed to fully appreciate the information being presented by the scientists.

In addition to the images that have come our way are recommendations of other pieces–like this haiku by the poet Issa, who lived approximately two hundred years ago:

A giant firefly:
that way, this way, that way, this –
and it passes by.

Michelle also told us about an artist she’s especially fond of, Canadian Michael Flomen. He uses photographic materials and a deep appreciation of light and chemistry (no wonder he likes fireflies!) to make his images–which are utterly literal and entirely abstract at the same time.    Rather than using a camera, he lets the fireflies walk on photo paper, for example, and leave their own trail.  Here are a couple of his collaborations with fireflies:



These, in turn, remind me of the work of Martin Prothero, who sets out carbon-coated glass plates and lets animals trace their own paths across them.  Here is one:


Firefly traces, animal tracks, human artworks — fleeting marks of lives being lived well.