Today I took a bike ride along the East River to the Brooklyn Bridge where there’s a small beach--perhaps the only one in lower Manhattan (and by “lower,” I suspect there may be another beach somewhere or nowhere above the George Washington Bridge). There I watched a drama peculiar to urban ecologies. Several seagulls fought over what looked like a cupcake wrapper, with one finally grasping it in its beak and flying around to escape (without any luck) the other seagulls trying to snatch it back. I wondered how the seagull was going to enjoy his booty when he began gulping the wrapper down, one crinkle at a time, paper along with crumbs.
Back in the ground action, another seagull busied itself dragging empty plastic bags out of the surf and defending these useless bits of garbage against other seagulls, puffing its feathers up and hunching down. It finally found a bag that had two oranges in it and pecked a bit, but seemed to find the defensive act much more interesting. I looked at the surf to see what else the seagull would find, but I only saw what appeared to be the disintegrated pieces of an entire newspaper floating in and out on the small waves. Of course, in the city, you are never the only witness--a man stood a few feet away from me, snapping photo after photo (he was there when I arrived and stayed after I left) of the scene. (I should mention here that the poet Brenda Coultas once made an amazing film of seagulls eating french fries.)
Monday night around 8:40 pm, I watched the East River flood its banks. It’s funny to think of the East River as even having banks. For so much of my life, I hardly thought of it as a river—or estuary, really. It was completely off limits—I didn’t drink from it, would never have swum in it and didn’t boat on it. I thought of it as sort of a giant drainage pipe, if I thought about it at all. But one week ago, like a “real” river, it flooded and was an amazing thing to see. There is a park that runs along the river, and inside the park are soccer fields and on those soccer fields were giant floodlights illuminating what had turned from a strictly bounded river into a contiguous field of water. I had to look twice as it was such an unexpected sight. On the other side, I could see water coming over the FDR drive and into a parking lot, then halfway into a basketball court behind my building. Just as I was wondering whether it would make it to me, yes, me personally, a giant flash lit up the sky and the power cut out. I can’t remember if there was an actual “zzzzt!” but it sure seemed like it.
I just returned from a brief trip to Denver, which is in its urban spaces quite a contrast to New York City. It’s a vaster, emptier city, with harsh high desert sunlight that makes its public squares seem even larger, anticipating the hordes of people for which they seemingly have been designed to arrive, eventually.
But then, these initial impressions of Denver were wrong, as they always are—like anything, like a forest, or desert, or beach, once one stops and waits and observes, life begins to emerge, interactions start to happen. Movement makes stillness—in speed is action erased.
I had inferred from pictures that the world was real and therefore paused, for who knows what will happen if we talk truth while climbing the stairs. In fact, I was afraid of following the picture to where it reaches right out into reality, laid against it like a ruler. I thought I would die if my name didn’t touch me, or only with its very end, leaving the inside open to so many feelers like chance rain pouring down from the clouds. You laughed and told everybody that I had mistaken the Tower of Babel for Noah in his Drunkenness. — Rosmarie Waldrop*, “The Reproduction of Profiles”
I was thinking about why I wanted to write about still lifes, which perhaps don’t seem so directly a ecological and/or poetic topic, really. I guess it’s partly because I think so much about intentional landscapes and the still life is a miniature of that. Still lifes also are an intersection between art/nature, and in the physicality of their arthood (artiness?), actual places in which to think about where the creative soul can have something to say about how we exist in and of nature.
In French, the still life is called nature morte or “dead nature” — appropriate for the posed piles of plucked fruit, cut flowers and dead fish, fowl or mammals that used to be painted by art students (my father still reminisces about how, if the teacher left the room, he and his hungry fellow students would ravage the pile, leaving apple cores and fish bones).
So, a still life is a composition — natural things juxtaposed with a human-made object such as a vase or glass — arranged for visual surfaces and shapes. Cezanne’s still lifes, for example, get down to the geometries (speaking of cores) of the artificial and natural — finding their essences as shape and color within paint. And thus the painting finds its own life; is brought into existence; has its own light, texture and color; is discrete from what it began from. Artificial and natural are made equivalent in this double process of composition (or “dividing the plane”).