“Only Connect”

We are driving through the New Mexican desert, occasionally spying a river valley of green to the left, though the rocks and sands to the right are invariably dry—dun, umber, ocher, tan. And as different as this landscape is from that of England, I find myself thinking about the Salisbury Plain, and about driving toward Stonehenge.

I am feeling the same tingle of anticipation that I felt when we made that drive a few years ago, feel alive with the sense that we’re about to behold something incredible. And since I’m not sure how far away it is, I stay alert, imagining it could be around each next curve or rise.

Rob and I have been quiet, each pursuing our own thoughts, for many minutes and miles. I’ve been trying to parse out the connections I am feeling between today’s foray and our visit to Stonehenge when Rob unexpectedly speaks, says “just like Salisbury.” Even after all these years, such moments of being in each other’s head can still startle. This one seems especially wonderful and quirky, for we are traveling toward the Plains of San Agustin to see the Very Large Array.

The VLA is a radio telescope. Comprised of 27 big (okay, very large) dish antennae, it is used to explore the galaxy. VLA antenna near railbed And while Jodi Foster used it in the movie Contact to find intelligent life in Vega, in real life SETI has only used it a couple times—in ’95 and ’96—with considerably less luck. Still, the VLA has enabled scientists to discover much, including important things about black holes and the heart of the Milky Way, as well as letting them observe lots of astronomical objects like quasars and pulsars.

On the summer and winter solstices, a significant set of the stones that comprise Stonehenge are aligned with the rising or setting sun—making it, too, an astronomical instrument of sorts (though its overall use remains a subject of some debate). Antenna puffing clouds

I think the real connection goes deeper. Both Stonehenge and the VLA are monumental efforts, technological feats that allow humans a glimpse that exceeds ordinary space-time. And that glimpse is one we yearn for, letting us make contact with something greater than ourselves. Or at least different than ourselves. No, scratch that effort at precision. I do mean greater—greater than our everyday selves, greater than a single self.

Our trip to the VLA was shoe-horned in between a visit to Santa Fe to celebrate the power of art with the fine folks at Radius Press and a visit to see Rob’s sister in Albuquerque. Both were lovely, human-scaled moments of connectedness, of locating ourselves in relation to others, via images and words and shared memories. But Stonehenge and the VLA are sacramental, outward signs that endure, odd, mammoth proof of our inner yearnings to find ourselves at home in the universe.

Walking Back in Time

In December, Rob and I joined 30 or so other folks on a week-long trip to the Galapagos Islands.  We went to several of the “younger islands,” bits of rock whose ages range from 0.7 million years old to 1.5 million.  Those dates reflect the length of time the island’s surface has been above the water line.  Most of the islands were formed by volcanoes, although at least one, Baltra, came to be due to geologic lift.

I came curious as to whether Darwin’s dangerous idea would be obvious still–whether one could get a sense of the forces that shape evolution, sense the power of environmental and ecological pressures to drive natural selection.  And you know what?  I think you can.  Granted, maybe not in a way that stands up to scientifically rigorous review–but you can definitely grok it.

Part of what I saw clearly was the way in which systems become more complex over time.  Or, to put it in the converse, how simple those systems are at the outset.

Here’re a few pictures from Bartolome, one of the youngest of the islands:

Galapagos Islands

If you google Bartolome Island, this is the kind of image you’ll see.  It’s taken from a viewing station pretty high up, and looks out onto a place where there’s vegetation at the edge of an old caldera.  If you come expecting more bursts of green scattered here and there, then the other 99% of the island will come as something of a shock.  Most of it looks like this:

Galapagos Islands

And this:

Galapagos Islands

That silvery scrub in the middle picture was the prevailing visible life on the island.  I think we saw one lava lizard.  No birds, no tortoises, no iguana, no feral anything.

Our tour guides said that the astronaut Buzz Aldrin had visited and described this landscape as the closest thing on earth that he’d seen to the moon.

For me, it’s the furthest back that I’ve walked in time.  It became so amazingly clear that this place, except at the water line, lacked a soil rich enough to support many sorts of plants, and therefore also many sorts of critters.  As you can see, there’s very little in the way of an ecosystem here.  And that’s not the case on all the islands.  Some are wildly diverse, as Darwin discovered.  For him, moving from one island to another allowed him to develop ideas about speciation.  For me, it became a chance to wander back and forth through time.

Orion at Breadloaf

BreadloafLike Reese’s peanut butter cups, these two great things that are even better together!!

Let me just say wow.  Yep, wow.

ORION and Breadloaf teamed up this year to create a writing conference that filled my little enviro-art heart with joy.  Six instructors (Alison Hawthorne Deming, Jane Brox, Maurice Manning, Camille Dungy, Rick Bass, and Alan Weisman), lots of editors and agents and etc., and sixty or so aspiring writers spent the week in beautiful Vermont writing, listening, editing, learning, and just generally remembering what it is that pushes us to want to do this kind of writing, this kind of world-work.

All the instructors gave a craft talk and a reading, held workshops, offered one-on-one advice, and generally made themselves really available to the aspiring writers.  It was collegial, serious work with collegial, serious people.

Breadloaf sceneryStuff I loved:  Alison Deming’s reading from her forthcoming book ZOOLOGIES, Alan Weisman recounting some of the back story of his book COUNTDOWN, Rick Bass urging us all to get arrested–and the truly useful and complicated and sophisticated conversation that that provoked.  Jane Brox’s craft class, Camille Dungy’s revitalizing the role of definitions as a hugely useful element in non-fiction.  And Maurice’s poetry reading.  How did I not know of his work before?  Sad for me, but now a new discovery.

One of the remarkable things that emerged in reading after reading, conversation after conversation, were thoughtful explorations of the way(s)  beauty can mediate urgency, give it a shape we can face, help us think through it–maybe even beyond it.  The wisdom quotient was high, and the BS quotient low.  That hardly ever happens.  I don’t know how they orchestrated it, but they nailed it on the first try.


Nevada Museum of Art (+Environment)

Talk about psychic whiplash!  I just spent a few days in Reno, mostly at the Museum of Art + Environment, which was extremely cool.  The Museum is so thoroughly grounded in sense of place, in assorted notions of what constitutes art that is specific in its engagement with environment.  The Director of the Center for Art + Environment, Bill Fox, shared his wisdom about the exhibits, the library, the archives they are collecting.  It was a rich and riveting few days.

But in the evenings, after dinner, I went “home” to my hotel room on an upper floor of a local casino.  Casinos are the antithesis of specific.  They mess with your sense of space and time.  The light is all artificial, so you can’t tell what time of day or night it is.  And you move among spaces that kind of blur into one another, with few markers to help you orient.  Plus, it could be any casino anywhere.  Casinos, I think, are the sort of place Michel Foucault was talking about when he coined the term “heterotopia.”  Places that are not really places, in a sense.

246-147x300All my to-ing and fro-ing between museum and casino might have been the thing that made me so captivated by the work in the “small works gallery,” a set of tiny photos by Jean-Pierre Bonfort that he made with his cellphone    camera during trips between Grenoble and Paris.  According to the squib on the wall,    the  images are “not a record of the journey so much as of the artist’s state of mind.”

A train is probably also a heterotopia, a place that isn’t a place–as it moves through the  landscape.  But Bonfort’s images are intriguingly specific, even though they rely on a visual vocabulary over which he has limited control.  The cellphone camera doesn’t allow for much image manipulation.  And it doesn’t look like he did much afterwards in photoshop.

Though both heterotopias, casino and train would seem to invite diametric responses.  The one asking you to lose yourself within its confines, the other to find yourself by looking beyond.

Cuba on My Mind

Rob and I and our friend Jean (and a dozen other folks who were in our tour group) just got back from CUBA!! I’ve wanted to go for a long time, and it is getting easier for Americans to go legally.  It turns out to be a beautiful island—no surprise. Havana looks a lot like, well, this:





We also traveled to the countryside, where we visited a tobacco grower:



And the studio of Jose Fuster, an unbelievable mosaic artist.  He has covered his own home and that of many of his neighbors in intricate, quirky mosaics:


And an organic farm that is also trying to incorporate some permaculture practices:


There’s a lot that I could say about the trip, which was full of wonderfully jarring moments.  But in terms of the subject of this blog, I feel like the main point should be the way that a sustainability ethos is manifest in everything from food growth and meal prep to building repair to the materials that artists have access to for their work.  In that regard, Cuba is incredible.  I understand that the emphasis on sustainability is of necessity.  But what we saw was most definitely a reduce/re-use/recycle world.  And while I also realize that as tourists our access was managed, some of what we happened upon was most definitely the product of chance.

For me, one lingering question is whether this will last as the climate changes.  While we were there, Raul announced that he would not seek another term as president after this one ends.  And that means that life there is bound to change in ways that are hard to imagine.  It’s hard to know whether living lightly will be a value people strive to retain or a remnant of a hardship-filled past they are glad to leave behind.

(thank you Rob and Jean for sharing your pics!)

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.

Stonehenge, Part One

Just got back from a very quick and yet pleasantly full trip to England.  Among the highlights was heading out toward Salisbury so that we could visit Stonehenge.  Lots of people had sort of discouraged us from going, saying that they’d gone and been disappointed because you can’t get close to the monument anymore–which is true, in a sense.  There’s a cordon at knee height that encircles the stones, twenty or so yards away from them.  Still, since we were there in April, mid-week, the crowd was small and we were able to amble around the perimeter at a slow pace, taking it in.  In some ways, the most exciting view came not there, but in the car when we had almost arrived; we crested the last hill on our way there and suddenly, there it was.  We were all struck by this shock of beholding.

I am really glad we didn’t succumb to other folks’ recommendations that we skip this visit.  Being present in this place mattered to me in ways that I can’t yet put clearly.  While we were there, I couldn’t help wondering about the other people who had also made a point of coming to this place.  What were they encountering?  Could any of them put it into words?  And if they could, would their words help me find mine?

I’ll never know, of course.  Those are not the questions one can ask of strangers.

While I don’t know what they might have put into words, I do know what they put into pictures.  We saw folks making lots and lots of pictures–with everything from a tiny cell phone to a pair of digital SLR cameras carefully calibrated to create a stereoscopic image.  And as we picnicked, I paid attention to their act of paying attention.  Throughout our lunch, I photographed everyone who paused nearby to take a picture, made a record of their effort to record.  For some reason, several folks asked Rob to take their pictures during that interval, so I recorded that as well.










This set of pictures tickles me.  But here’s the thing; I made them partly to protect myself, to avoid the hardest part of being there.  Because places like Stonehenge risk paralyzing me, at the same time that they strike me as one of humanity’s few sources of hope.  More, perhaps, about this terrifying paradox some other day.  Far sooner, I’ll try to put into words something more manageable about Stonehenge and the other celestial sighting site we visited during the trip–The Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

More Firefly Begetting

My good friend Abigail just got back from family vacation, and wanted to let me know about a song she heard a LOT in the car that week. Yup, ’tis another creative work about fireflies to add to the growing list, this one by Owl City, & called “Fireflies.”

Thanks so much Abi, and happy 8th birthday!!