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.


Art Opening!

Please come!  Michael and Elizabeth are the first ever artists-in-residence in a program that the K2 Family Foundation and the Georges River Land Trust have put together.  Here’s a documentation shot (made by Michael) of an installation (conceived by Elizabeth):

Blue Cloud at Trolley Marsh

Pretty sweet, no?  Rob and I went to see it in person on Christmas Day, and this is what it looked like then:

On Christmas Day

For details about the show and hours and such, check out this article in the Bangor Daily News:


High Line and Promenade Plantee

Right before Rob and I left for a “significant anniversary” celebration–a trip to PARIS!!–I got the latest issue of ORION.  As part of the Infrastructure series, they ran a photo series about the High Line in New York.  The High Line is mostly completed, and very cool.  An elevated train track has been converted into green space:











Seeing the images reminded me that there’s a similar park in Paris, which I learned about years ago thanks to the movie Before Sunrise, the first in what turned into Richard Linklater’s series of “before” films.  So, off we went, in search of a romantic day and the progenitor of the High Line.  (Yes, we found both.)

The Promenade Plantee is in the 12th, and we started at the beginning, at the Viaduc des Arts.  It’s about 20 years further along than the High Line, so the plantings are much more established.











ORION was giving the High Line folks serious props for the thoughtful way they engaged decaying infrastructure, and used it as an opportunity to not only redress a problem but also to solve other problems beautifully at the same time.  And they deserve it!  But a little credit to others who’ve done similar projects can help all of us remember that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, that there are lots and lots of sustainable solutions being deployed and refined.  ‘Cause there’s no shame in borrowing a beautiful idea and making it work in a new locale.

Judi Harvest

2013denatured6-300x225The Venice Biennale is the oldest biennial in the art world, and many regard it as a critical bellwether for contemporary art.  It’s absolutely monumental.  The main exhibition is split into two parts:  a curated show in the Arsenale, and dozens of buildings designated by country in the Giardini.  Each of those portions can be viewed in a long, intense day.  Then, in addition, there are satellite shows and happenings throughout the city.

The Biennale doesn’t tend to have an environmental focus.  But among the works that most caught my attention this year was a resolutely environmental exhibit by Judi Harvest.  The show was off-site, on Dorsoduro well up the canal from the main scene, near Campo San Stae.  As we  entered the church, the first thing we noticed was the smell of beeswax.  Absolutely overwhelming, but in a really good way.  The space was filled with Harvest’s 2-d work, and dozens of glass blown into biomorphic, hive-like vessels that Harvest made on Murano working with master glassblower Giorgio Giuman.  On the shelf by the check-in desk were tiny jars of honey.

2013denatured7-300x225The work is definitely visually engaging.  But I am as captivated by the back-story as by the objects.  Murano, the famous glass-blowers island in Venice is (like much of Venice) largely bereft of trees and other greenery.  It provides an inhospitable environment for bees.  But beside the studio where Harvest created the glass for this show, she created the other “part” of the show.  She turned an abandoned lot into a Honey Garden.  She brought in topsoil, sourced fruit trees and other plants from other islands in the Veneto, and created a beautiful and inviting place for bees.

And came they did.  The tiny jars of honey for sale at the show are the first harvested by Harvest.

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!)

Christine Collins’ “The Keepers”

KEEPERS_NEW-20-300x240I love bees.  I’m allergic to them, which makes the relationship more vexed than it might otherwise be, but it does not diminish my fondness for them.

I’m also really interested in the way that bees are depicted in contemporary culture.  They are lauded for the work they do as pollinators, presented as the hapless victims of some human foolishness that causes colony collapse disorder, and function as a trope for a whole suite of concerns about how humans interact with the natural world.

KEEPERS_NEW-5-300x236And, in Christine’s photographs in THE KEEPERS series, they become very nearly sacramentalized.  In a really good way.  What I am often struck by in these images is that they resonate with religious imagery.  It’s as if the beekeepers, in their effort to simultaneously connect with and control “nature,” are reproducing the relationships to the world that we see in many religious rituals.  I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise, since so many rituals are efforts to set aside our sense of alienation–either from one another or from the larger more-than-human world–and feel deeply connected.  Not connected, exactly, more like oceanic.

Looking at them, I cannot help but think of a high priest or priestess invoking something holy, of a Catholic priest swinging the thurible, of the labor of the keepers as a kind of offering.  Images from this project are on view right now at the Foster Gallery, at the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, MA.  So, so worth a visit!

Chris McCaw

In NYC this week for work, and doing a little gallery visiting on the side.  I’ve just discovered Chris McCaw.  He’s been working in this particular style for a while, but I didn’t know about it.  Of course, I love it–he’s dealing with time, the nature of light, the particularities of what cameras and lenses can do, referencing the history of photography.  All at once.  And the pictures themselves are weirdly great.  What’s not to love?!


Here’s the backstory:  McCaw is interested in recording time, as marked by the movement of the sun, and rendering it with a sense of directness and immediacy.  So, he uses gelatin coated paper AS THE NEGATIVE.  The intensity of the sun literally burns the paper, leaving solarization effects, wacky color shifts, singe marks.


So so cool.


His work has got me thinking about Marco Breuer, on the one hand, and Sharon Harper, on the other.  And that’s pretty great, because I’d never before had a sense of connection between those two.  Now, I’m thinking about assorted ways to play six degrees of Kevin Bacon photographically.  Let’s say:  Thomas Joshua Cooper to Mario Testino, ready set go!  (okay, that one might be absurd, but isn’t that part of the fun??)

Are Amateurs “Sufficient”?

This is a slightly different vantage than usual on the question of “what might suffice”?  But it is definitely about sufficiency.

St. George, Maine Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Association sealI spent a good portion of the weekend at a conference for Emergency Medicine Providers (aka EMTs).  In Maine, most EMTs are professional, but quite a few smaller squads also include volunteers.  When I got my license, which was less than two years ago, our entire squad in St. George was comprised of volunteers.  And that’s a big part of why I joined. Plus, the service was free to people who needed to use it.  I loved the idea of neighbors being so fully present for one another in a time of crisis.  I loved that people didn’t have to worry that they couldn’t afford help.  Loved that when help came through the door, it might even have a familiar face.

This is changing quickly.  Partly, it is that folks want a paramedic on call 24/7, and it’s hard to do that for free.  Partly, though, and this is the crux of what I want to explore here, it’s that it is getting harder to get and maintain a license.  My course was 130 hours, plus two final exams.  Apparently, it used to be about half that long.  And to remain licensed, I need to get continuing ed units, which is a big part of why I spent my weekend at the conference.  I can get a bunch of them here on topics that are relevant.  And since our squad is a volunteer squad, getting them in clusters like this is a real help–as we don’t have many opportunities for continuing ed credits at “work.”  Sure, we can go to other people’s events, but part of the issue here in Maine is that we are a geographically widely dispersed population.  It takes a lot of time to get to, participate in, and get home from training at other stations.

And here’s the thing:  of course we should be well trained.  But I feel compelled to point out that this increased emphasis on professionalization is happening AT EXACTLY THE SAME TIME that healthcare in the US is in a horrible spending spiral, and is wildly unaffordable, and is spotty in the service it can provide in rural areas.  I have to wonder why the group that licenses EMTs is making it harder to get and maintain a license in such a moment.

I don’t think it’s a conspiracy or evil intention.  My best guess is it’s a fundamental lack of forethought.  While the notion of professionalizing such service is laudable, the down-sides are potentially dire for the very folks who are meant to be served by increasingly well-trained medical folk.  Which is where the whole issue of sufficiency comes in.  The pretty-darn well trained amateur model was working.  A model with well-paid and well-trained professionals can also certainly work.  But is it necessary?  Was the other truly insufficient?  And on what grounds?   That’s the heart of it:  what are the criteria that are being brought to bear that make a system that celebrated community caring for each other suddenly deeply inadequate?

The old model was very much about good will, about neighbors helping each other for free.  And as the fine folks at Freakonomics have amply demonstrated, paying someone just a little to do something that they used to do for free (plus the satisfaction of a deed well done) does not work.  Just as paying people to donate blood actually leads to a decline in the number of donors, paying a token to folks to be on the EMT roll does not work very well.  When people lose the ‘feel good’ factor, they either want to be paid well or to not do it.  And going from an all or mostly volunteer squad to a mostly paid squad significantly increases costs.  Which then get passed on to patients, who have to pay for the service.  And what was once an inspiring instance of community self-sufficiency becomes a commodified service within a capitalist framework.

For now, I’ll keep up my license, as I wait to see if the local efforts to develop a Community Health Program take off, but I can already read the writing on the wall.  Even if my town cherishes volunteers, at the state level, they’re just not that into us.

Mushroom Foraging

Today, Barbara and I went for a mushroom and lichen hunt at and around the meadow with a woman name Kay, a local very, very knowledgeable amateur naturalist.  We found a LOT of mushrooms.  Apparently, the conditions were somewhere between very good and ideal for such a hunt.  Check out a small portion of our find:






Kay was amazing.  We walked for maybe two hours, and we found 24 kinds of mushrooms, plus nearly a dozen types of lichen, and some slimes.  I’d say that about 1/2 were, in principle, safe for eating.  A few of them she said were hallucinogenic in certain quantities, but deadly in others.  Some of them could be used to make natural dyes.  For someone like me, who always thought of mushrooms as basically the shape that has given its name to a nuclear cloud, it was illuminating to see the gorgeous variety of shapes and sizes and colors that they come in.


My favorite lichen were Cladonia cristatella, or British Soldiers.  You have to look closely; they are the ones with the red tips on the top of the wooden fence rail.  I e-mailed my brother who lives in Ireland to find out what the common name for Cladonia is there, since I didn’t think that the whole “red coat” reference would go over particularly well that close to England.  Turns out that they call them, yes, British Soldiers.

Barbara made a pic of a bunch of the mushroom laid out on a piece of linen.  I’m sure it’ll be awesome.