ALL THE SOUNDS

On a cool October morning in 1972, I woke up with a plan: I would write down every single sound I heard on that day.  As soon as I was aware of a sound, I began to record what I heard in a small notebook.  At the end of the day, exhausted, I fell back into bed and noted the last sounds I heard; the final sound was “breathing.”   In the following days I went through the notebook, deciphering my scribbles and working out the grammatical kinks, resulting in a 60 page typed manuscript.

Since that day I’ve contemplated repeating the exercise, but the world is infinitely noisier now than it was back then.  In any case, the piece stands on its own: a lopsided record of an ordinary day, made extraordinary by a single-minded focus on sound.

Here are a few excerpts from the Sounds piece, interspersed with images to complement, rather than explicitly adhere to, the narrative.  I noted the time sporadically throughout the day, whenever I thought to look at a clock.  In this excerpted version a line:  ___________  means I’m skipping ahead to a later time in the day.  I begin here at 9:30 am, a few hours after I woke up.

9:30am

light switch turning on

light switch turning off

stomach grumbling

sparrows chirping

blue jay calling

door opening

clothes sliding against each other

door closing

clothes falling on chair

paper falling on the floor

door opening

paper bag rustling

jars hitting each other

door closing

door opening

glass hitting the counter

door closing liquid pouring door opening

door closing

blue jay calling

___________________________

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1:13pm

page turning

lid screwing on

swallowing

glass hitting other glass

paper rustling

biting

chewing

bell chiming

my voice

voice

match striking matchbook

paper sliding across table

paper rustling

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my voice

voice

footsteps

siren whining

horn honking

bell chiming

liquid pouring

voice

my voice

footsteps

humming

chairs scraping the floor

voices

footsteps

banging

match striking matchbook

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footsteps

crash

sirens whining

papers rustling

crash

piece of wood hitting table

voice

my voice

whistling

paper tearing

sandpaper sanding wood

swallowing

fingers scratching head

voice

my voice

burp

laughing

___________________________

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6:40

truck passing on the street

feet stamping

hands clapping

fingers snapping

elevator door closing

laughing

cooing

voice

elevator door opening

elevator door closing

elevator door opening

elevator door closing

elevator door opening

footsteps

door opening

door closing

my voice

___________________

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voice

slide projector motor running

laughing

voices

chairs creaking

whispering

paper rustling

cigarette pack dropping into bag

voices

coughing

pad rubbing leg

blowing

laughing

slide projector clicking

voices

laughing

voices

laughing

slide projector clicking

____________________________

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8:40

my footsteps

ladder hitting the floor

my voice

voice

whistling

traffic passing on street

chewing

bus passing on street

hand rubbing my hair and face

elevator door opening

elevator door closing

elevator running

fingers tapping

elevator door opening

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voice

radio

voices

laughing

whistling

plastic rustling

horn honking

voice

my voice

kiss

voices

kiss

laughing

my footsteps

my voice

kiss

my voice

nibbling

subway passing by

burp

motor in clock running

 

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*

 

A few words of explanation: Early that morning I made a decision to record sounds by naming what made the sound, rather than spelling out what the noise sounded like. I quickly realized that trying to write down the actual sound I heard was impossible, in most cases. Using a tape recorder to make an actual recording was not a consideration, because my primary interest was in exploring the relationship – or the space, in a way – between the sensory traces an object makes (our perception) and a record of those traces, a concern that interests me to this day. *

What is different about a sound you hear and the mute, written words that describe that sound? What is lost and what is gained when you step back from direct experience, and put something – in this case, the written word – between you and the experience? What does a day look like when the traces that are left of it are only a written description of the sounds that were heard and some bits of memory? How is the shape of the day itself altered when one sensory component of it moves into the foreground?

I was in my final year at School of Visual Arts in New York when I made the Sounds piece. I had moved back to my parents’ house temporarily, after losing a shared Brooklyn loft and all my belongings in an unfortunate incident. Each morning that semester I awakened to the quiet of suburbia, then I commuted by bus to the city and took the subway to school or to my part time job as an artist’s assistant at a studio on Irving Place. On this October day I went to work first, then walked to an evening art history class, probably with Carter Ratcliff.  Thankfully, those classes were usually a lecture with slides, and were relatively quiet.  But as soon as my friends figured out what I was doing, they made their best efforts to interrupt any quiet that would give me a rest from mad scribbling in my notebook by producing an assortment of difficult-to-describe sounds. A few are seen above, along with my foot-stamping frustration. Unsurprisingly, it was for me, a day of few words.

I used a small notebook to write down what I heard that day. When I was in a quiet place I would hear the page turning. Later, when I typed up the piece, I chose to follow the same page spacing as in the original notebook, so that “page turning” appears at the top of some pages. The piece was submitted as part of my final work for a fine arts degree, and was well received. Now the paper edges have softened, the cover is tattered, and rust is slowly eating into the binder’s metal insert.  I hope to transcribe and digitize it one of these days.

An earlier post on this subject with photos of the original manuscript is here.

The photos:

  1. A light fixture for sale at ABC Carpet and Home on Broadway, in New York City. I took the photo in New York on October 17, 2017, exactly 45 years after I made the Sounds piece.  What goes around comes around; the artfully distressed wall behind the light is reminiscent of the way walls actually looked in downtown lofts in the early 70’s. It wasn’t chic then, it was just what existed.
  2. A rope-tied rock serves as a polite barrier in a path at Seattle’s Japanese Garden.
  3. A view of trees outside a window. A small piece of blue glass in a wood frame rests against the window.
  4. A collection of insects at an eccentric museum inside a Roman Catholic seminary in Mount Angel, Oregon.
  5. At the Seattle Japanese Garden, workers erected a tarp to protect plants while they worked on a new addition to a structure in the garden.
  6. Hoses on the old wood floor of an auto repair shop in Ferndale, California.
  7. The view across the street from the ABC store window where the lighting fixture photo above was taken. This view hasn’t changed since I was in school.
  8. A single rubber glove dropped on a sidewalk in Seattle.

 

 

* A concern with investigating the difference between objects as they are and as we perceive them was prevalent in the 1960’s and 70’s art world. It was a time when conceptual art questioned art itself, and minimalism was beginning to battle it out with post-minimalism, a term coined by art critic Robert Pincus-Witten, who taught at SVA.  Dorothea Rockburne, one of a number of working artists who taught at SVA then, would often bring up Kant in connection with ideas like this one, from Wikipedia:

Kant argued the sum of all objects, the empirical world, is a complex of appearances whose existence and connection occur only in our representations.[2] Kant introduces the thing-in-itself as follows:

And we indeed, rightly considering objects of sense as mere appearances, confess thereby that they are based upon a thing in itself, though we know not this thing as it is in itself, but only know its appearances, viz., the way in which our senses are affected by this unknown something.

— Prolegomena, § 32

 

 

 

 

 

Contained

A random group of images from a trip to New York comes together under the rubric “Contained,” then inspires a poem.

 

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Containing, contained:

  1. What’s left of a perfect espresso macchiato and eggplant pastry at La Colombe, 601 W. 27th St., NY, NY.
  2. A freestanding window frame contains the view at Queens Botanical Gardens, 43-50 Main Street in Flushing, NY.
  3. Packing crates for sculpture on the second floor of the Noguchi Museum, 9-01 33rd Rd., Queens, NY.
  4. Basket made by Pomo Indians (?) in what is now California, photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, NY.
  5. Looking up into a sculpture by Ruth Asawa at the David Zwirner Gallery, 525 W. 19th St., NY, NY.  Asawa (1926 – 2013) learned to draw while interred in camps in California & Arkansas during WW II.  Later, she studied with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College.
  6. Stacked trash cans at Fort Totten Park, Totten Ave. & 15 Rd., Bayside, NY.
  7. Moving sculpture (probably the work of Deborah Butterfield)  on West 22th St. in Chelsea, NY, NY.
  8. An old wooden toolbox, washed up at Little Bay, East River, near the Throgs Neck Bridge, Whitestone, NY.
  9. A portion of “Lorrkon (Hollow Log)” by John Mawurndjul, a leading Australian contemporary indigenous artist. This sculpture relates to the ceremonial use of painted hollow logs to inter people’s bones after death. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, NY.
  10. A sculpture by Ruth Asawa at David Zwirner Gallery,  525 W. 19th St., NY, NY.
  11. A locked door to a now empty ammunition magazine at Fort Totten Park, Totten Ave. & 15 Rd., Bayside, NY.
  12. A broom and trash cans by the ammunition magazine, Fort Totten Park, Totten Ave. & 15 Rd., Bayside, NY.

***

Containment

 

Feet ache. An afternoon treat of espresso and pastry revives me, and

I relax and look out at the city streets, as fresh now

after coffee, as a green garden framed

by a floating

window, the window’s square geometry signaling the reassuring

order of framed and enclosed spaces, spaces

that hold us as safely as a crated sculpture, the crate’s stamped symbols

advising “This side up” and so

the contents are safe, unbroken, captivating and precious,

like the basket with feathers on its rim, the basket

that could fly, and it did, it flew

like Ruth’s hands when she wove her round forms

(“We always saw her making art, it was part of her everyday existence”),

the empty/full shapes weightless, almost insubstantial, yet

anchored in craft and material,

the looped metal wires and round contours as familiar as a trash container – but

uncommonly beautiful. And even a trash can might

transcend its surroundings, by way of

aquamarine paint –

as the horse transcends the city street even when

wrapped and tied. Waiting patiently, blue-clad movers watch the street for

signs of trouble, and daydream about fishing a strip of

derelict shore where a toolbox sits,

also patient, also transcending its setting by wearing

ragged, green seaweed vestments,

its wooden surface bearing the creamy, painted evidence of usefulness,

which the hollow ceremonial log

sitting quietly in the museum vitrine,

is denied. Covered with tiny cross-hatchings in outback earth colors

(“I put the experience in my head and went to paint the same thing”),

the somber container

sits empty,

longing for the bones it should but will not contain.

Sixty blocks south, another receptacle hangs tenuously

from the ceiling of an art gallery

throwing cross-hatched shadows, whose

curves dance until

the door is shut

and nothing remains

but a sign indicating “No” and

a worn broom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Curves and Straight Edges: Meditations on Architectural Shapes in New York

 

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A curve of glass – arched

eyebrow? Sheltering

arm? It holds us

in place,

smooths the edges,

invites rest, perhaps.

 

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A soaring stone curve leads the eye to

a place we were looking for,

anchors us to what

we might forget.

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Thick blocks of stone. The fortress

is protection

I don’t want. Inky darkness. I turn away, then

decide to venture deeper. A circle

of light floats down

illuminating an empty chair.

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Doors close.

Everything’s in place. There is

solitude.

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Will the old brick and stone buildings with neatly

closed doors

soon stand alone among

glittering glass giants

with perfect edges?

 

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Then again, the glass towers have

their own edgy beauty, an orderly flow of pattern in a

city teetering on chaos, chaos even on

the best of days, days when we

thought we could forget the

planes, the van, the

losses.

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Curves and edges duke it out. As I walk the sidewalks downtown

architectural transitions are split-second, from

order to confusion.

Turn a corner, it’s quiet,

turn again,

and gulp down

the sensory flood.

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Edges and curves,

curves

and edges.

 

***

The photographs:

  1. The clean lines of Brookfield Place, a few blocks from One World Trade Center.
  2. Brookfield Place is a six building office complex built in the 80’s (it used to be called the World Financial Center). After extensive damage on 9/11, buildings underwent renovation and restoration. The arched roofed glass building houses the Winter Garden, an airy atrium with tall palm trees, a welcome respite on winter days. The complex has abundant outdoor space for sitting and enjoying close-up views of a marina on the busy Hudson River. You can walk underground though a new passageway to the Oculus (below), the transport hub of the World Trade Center.
  3. A limestone arch and dome inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With two million square feet of gallery space packed with two million works of art from all over the world, it is New York’s high church of culture. The building dates from 1879 and is the largest museum in the US. This view of ceiling details in the Great Hall is from a balcony on the second floor. HERE, you can peruse a well-thought out presentation of 100 works from the museum.
  4. Fort Totten, in Queens. Construction of the coastal defense fort began in 1862 and halted after the Civil War because this type of masonry became obsolete. It was used by the Army for various purposes, including developing underwater minefields, electric powered torpedo experiments and Army administrative offices through the 1970’s, then it was transferred to the Army Reserve. Rumor had it that a mob boss who ratted was hidden here for a time. Much of the sixty acres is now a park.
  5. Inside the Fort Totten battery. There is a small museum on the property and a long, dark underground tunnel leading to the battery, which on a sunny October weekday was almost deserted. There are beautiful views of the East River converging with Long Island Sound under the Throgs Neck Bridge.
  6. The battery.
  7. Deep inside the ammunition magazine, which is now empty, someone carefully placed a metal folding chair under a circle of light formed by a skylight. Was this a clever reference to the ghost of La Cosa Nostra’s “Cargo Joe” Valachi, rumored to be hidden here by authorities in 1970? After all, his testimony about the Mafia brought the inner workings of the criminal organization into the light.
  8. The exterior of the magazine is overgrown with Porcelain berry vines. New York City has a surprising number of romantically overgrown, seemingly (but not really) abandoned spots like this.
  9. This stalwart pre-war brick apartment building on West 27th Street in Chelsea is literally a stone’s throw from the High Line. Art galleries and the popular High Line park have transformed this area from a rough and tumble, Wild West-like wholesale meat market to a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of wealthy New Yorkers. The land this building sits on is worth a lot; it may not last.
  10. A nice late 1860’s example of New York’s cast iron architecture seen through a window at ABC Home, a large home goods store on Broadway. The Arnold Constable Building was also a retail enterprise. I like the way the window arches curve more sharply as your eyes move skywards. Manufacturing went on upstairs and retail and wholesale below. It was one of New York’s most important stores, catering to the carriage trade in the 19th and 20th centuries. Later, the store moved uptown, closing in 1975.  The building is now protected as part of the Ladies’ Mile Historic District, which includes the famous Flatiron Building.
  11. A lower Manhattan scene contrasts old and new. On the left, a sliver of the Beaux-Arts style Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, now housing the National Museum of the American Indian. The “new” building is 1 Whitehall Street, in the heart of the financial district, built for offices in 1962.
  12. Another look at architectural contrasts in the city, with One World Trade Center on the left. The older Art Deco building towards the middle is 21 West Street, an office tower built around 1930 and converted to residence rentals in 1997. Currently, a tiny 5th floor studio can be had for $2975/month.  The glass tower with rounded corners is 50 West Street, a brand new 64 story residential building for Manhattan’s elite. As I write this, a 1000 sf one bed, one bath apartment on the 21st floor was rented at $5,700/mo.  For three bedrooms you’re looking at over $15,000/mo.  Or you can purchase a 3 BR penthouse (Fantastic Views!) for $24,540,000. Ah, life in the city…
  13. Looking west on Ann Street, One World Trade is in the center. St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church, built in 1766, is on the left. This beautiful little church was the location of a ninth-month long, round-the-clock ministry to workers at Ground Zero after 9/11. Upcoming events include a Conversation on Achieving Racial Equity and a presentation of the Rachmaninoff Vespers, an a capella choral composition.
  14. One World Trade soars above office buildings at Brookfield Place, a six building office complex built in the 80’s (formerly called the World Financial Center). Some buildings suffered extensive damage on 9/11. These days, the complex has abundant outdoor space for sitting and enjoying close-up views of the North Cove marina and the busy Hudson River. You can walk underground though a new passageway to the Oculus, the transport hub of the World Trade Center.
  15. One World Trade reflected in the glass skin of Four World Trade Center, a 1.76 billion dollar project completed in 2013. Osamu Sassa of the architectural firm that designed the building said, “We like the idea of the building dematerializing.” It is essentially a parallelogram topped by a trapezoid with an especially thick glass facade making for a smooth, flat appearance, in deference to the Memorial.
  16. A favorite view from Zucotti Park, a tiny park in lower Manhattan. This is where Occupy Wall Street was encamped back in 2011. The park was replanted after 9/11, so its Honeylocust trees are relatively young; their delicate branches are a nice foil to the glass and concrete masses surrounding the park. Here’s a photo I took during Occupy days, after work one evening.
  17. Frank Gehry’s IAC Building in Chelsea is now ten years old. Made of reinforced concrete and glass, the building has only two vertical columns – all the others are off vertical, by as much as 25 degrees. The glass “curtain” walls, which were cold-warped (bent on site!), have two laminated panes, an airspace, and a tempered pane. Small white ceramic particles are embedded in the glass, increasing energy efficiency and reducing glare. Perhaps my favorite building in New York.
  18. The IAC Building again. Here is a photo I took in 2012 of it in the evening through a fence covered with morning glory vines gone to seed.
  19. The World Trade Center’s Oculus, a transportation hub designed by Santiago Calatrava. Cost overruns were “insane” and of course, the building’s facade is controversial. I doubt there was ever much controversy about the quietly dignified office building behind it, 90 Church Street. I used to work there. We had a fascinating bird’s eye view of the excavation and construction at Ground Zero. When Obama came to lay a wreath in 2011, we watched as snipers methodically unwrapped their gear on the overhang below our windows. We had to stay in the building while he was on site – it was lunch at the desk, or eat late.
  20. The Oculus inside.
  21. The ammunition magazine at Fort Totten in Queens.
  22. Broadway and John Street, downtown Manhattan. The red building is the Corbin Building, an 1889 Romanesque Revival style office building. It was restored by the Metropolitan Transit Authority as part of the huge Fulton Transit Center next door; you can enter the subway through the John Street entrance.  While hand-digging the foundation for the transit center renovation, an old well and artifacts such as a clay pipe and ledger books from the 1880’s were found under the building, now a city landmark.
  23. Looking west on Dey Street, Friday afternoon crowds move quickly down narrow sidewalks. On the right is 195 Broadway, the old AT&T/Western Union building, built in the early 1900’s with oversized columns designed by the architect who designed Rockefeller’s country home, Kykuit. Harper Collins has offices there now. Just to the left of the American flag is the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Idiosyncratic View

Here are 25 images from 8 days in New York City, where I lived on and off through the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 2000’s. My view of the city is never the same two days running, but it’s likely it will be in line with this:

“There is no surrender of beauty, only an effort to find beauty by going past the typical and arriving at the common. I do not love the travel pages. I look past them and go to the substratum of the visible environment. What I love about Bali is what I love about Sao Paulo, Nairobi, Seoul and Reykjavik: the material evidence of human life, which goes on in spite of the world’s enmity. In this search, the intense attachment to the beautiful remains. The sun pours itself all over the world and the world’s things. Things are being built, or repaired, or broken. Things sit in the street, free of use. Things are on the verge of speech. Ladders rise, angels invisibly ascend and descend.”

“Assemblages inhabit their own complexity and color. What I visit less often is what has been labeled beautiful ahead of time, what has been verified by the tourist board. I want to see the things the people who live there see, or at least what they would see after all the performance of tourism is stripped away.  I love these places that are not mine for the underground channel of perception by which they are connected, the common semantics of used space, the shock of familiarity, the impossibility of exact repetition.”

Teju Cole, from the book “Blind Spot.”

***

 

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***

1) A Long Island Railroad crossing in a town just outside New York City

2) Graffiti sticker at historic Fort Totten: Queens

3) A photographer in the garden at the Noguchi Museum in Astoria: Queens

4) One World Trade seen through a scrim of Sycamore branches: lower Manhattan

5) Waiting to cross the street at Fifth Avenue and 80th Street: uptown Manhattan

6) Overgrown ammunition magazine at Fort Totten: Queens

7) One seat left at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: uptown Manhattan

8) I wore silly shoes, I dropped my scarf

9) The residential buildings, Toren Tower and Avalon Fort Greene: Brooklyn

10) The W train (elevated subway) in Astoria: Queens

11) Two crab escapees at the fish counter at a Chinese grocery store in Flushing: Queens

12) Looking up Broadway near Wall Street at rush hour: lower Manhattan

13) There’s always construction: lower Manhattan

14) There’s always construction: Queens

15) Ductwork and fire escape, vicinity of Church Street: lower Manhattan

16) Texting in a cafe in Chelsea: Manhattan

17) “All is Not Lost Too” when texting while walking in Astoria: Queens

18) A high rise seen through ornamental grasses in Battery Park: lower Manhattan

19) One World Trade Center seen through trees in Zucotti Park: lower Manhattan

20) Pedestrians at rush hour in Zucotti Park: lower Manhattan

21) The Oculus at the World Trade Center: lower Manhattan

22) Train tracks outside the city: New Hyde Park, Long Island

23) A woman rests her gaze at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: uptown Manhattan

24) A migrating Monarch butterfly on Verbena: Battery Park, lower Manhattan

25) The Throgs Neck Bridge seen through Black locust tree seed pods at Fort Totten Park: Queens

 

 

 

 

 

The Three Graces

Ever since I first saw a reproduction of a statue of the Three Graces, I’ve been drawn to the idea and manifestation of Three Graces. In mythology the three graces are Aglaia (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Abundance). Who doesn’t need more of those qualities? Who would foolishly turn away from them?

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I walk though the Greek and Roman Galleries on my way to see another exhibit, and I’m stopped short by the vision of my old friends, the Three Graces. Full size, the hover above me but are not out of reach. The galleries are crowded with visitors but the familiar form burns into my retina, cancelling out everything else.

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The three women connect with each other, joined in a relaxed stance that belies the importance of their work: bringing joy and beauty to the world. Facing, not facing, facing, they include everyone in grace. Fellowship and power – the power of grace – are embodied in the feminine.

(Also called the Kharities (Charities), they attended Aphrodite and Hera. Dance, song, joy, goodwill and adornment can be added to their virtues. Cults worshiped them in southern Greece and Asia Minor, and many artistic renditions of them sprang up in pottery, on coins, in sculpture, etc. At first they were clothed, later they were shown naked. From Botticelli to Niki de Saint Phalle, artists continue to work the theme.)

The 2nd century AD statue was purchased in 2010 with the help of, among others, Oscar de la Renta, the fashion designer. Mr. de la Renta, famous for clothing women elegantly, helped the museum keep these unclothed beauties in the public eye.

 

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Upstairs I noticed another rendition:

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The painting (titled “Meeting (The Three Graces)” is by Manierre Dawson, whom I hadn’t heard of. An American born in 1887 to an art-loving family, he studied civil engineering and worked in an architectural firm. In 1910 he traveled to Europe, where he looked at lots of art and attended a soiree at Gertrude Stein’s. What an education it must have been!  After returning to America he was producing innovative abstract paintings, one of which Stein purchased. He supported himself and his family by working a fruit farm at his family’s summer property in rural Michigan. The contradictions artists often live within:  Dawson purchased a Marcel Duchamp painting at the Armory show in 1913; on the farm he mastered orchard skills: what trees need to bear fruit.

In a 1913 journal entry he writes, “Why not stay here on the farm, add a few acres of level land … and earn a living from the soil, with every spare hour devoted, at times to the pleasures of married life, or at times to the pleasures of painting, sketching or carving.”  “The pleasures of” – the Three Graces’ whispered message is heard, and heeded. The farm became successful and Dawson devoted more time to making art, finally achieving recognition late in life with shows in Florida, and later New York.  He is considered an American pioneer of abstract art.

The day after visiting the Met, I was in Chelsea and again I was stopped short by a vision of Three Graces.

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A water offering sits at the base. Traffic streams down Ninth Avenue. The women are a counterpart to all that rushes and flows around them and I’m drawn in to the warm, sensual feeling emanating from gray stone.

One more image from New York seems to fit the theme:

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A tree mars the composition but you take what you can get when you’re taking pictures on the street. The women are part of a wedding party gathering for pictures on a Friday afternoon in Battery Park, in lower Manhattan. There are more than three people and they’re not all women, but Beauty, Mirth and Abundance are embodied here, on this October afternoon.

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***

Besides seeing various versions of the Three Graces, I made other connections on this trip, connections that are inevitable if you think about what you see, and unfetter your mind. There was the work of two Japanese American artists who were interned during WWII, Isamu Noguchi and Ruth Asawa. I don’t know if they ever met, but I saw connections in their experiences as Japanese Americans with complicated identities, in their mastery of materials and in the simplicity of form in their work.

Trees were a running theme, whether at an old African Burial ground in Queens or a busy downtown park. Monarch butterflies too, because they were flying at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Battery Park. Bamboo, featured in a Metropolitan Museum exhibit, also drew my eye at the Noguchi Museum and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Architecture and ordinary buildings held my attention everywhere. The sensory overload was intense, but my eyes were hungry.

It felt good to return to the gentle rains of the Pacific Northwest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BACK AGAIN

I went back again to

my beloved

New York City

now

I’m back again, in

my treasured

Pacific Northwest.

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And needless to say, there are many photographs to look at, think about, process and share. There are more in my inbox; the backlog is eleven days old. Today I’ll begin catching up with what everyone is doing.

On this trip, we spent a lot of time in the outer boroughs – five days of seeing sights and lively, often raucous, get-togethers with family and friends in Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island – leaving just three days in Manhattan. New York is divided into five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island.  Manhattan is at the center, the others are the outer boroughs. When people say “New York City” they usually mean Manhattan, but a city resident could spend their entire life in the Bronx and never go into Manhattan.

As we traveled from borough to borough by car, glimpses of the Manhattan skyline captivated me, just as they have for many years. I first came to New York as a five-year-old to visit my grandparents. We went up to my grandfather’s office in a building on Park Avenue, and looking out his window, I was transfixed by all the yellow cabs, the activity, the color and movement. The view up Park Avenue and the energy on the streets and sidewalks of New York became focus points driving a deep longing to fully experience life in the city. By the age of 18 I was living in Manhattan. A photo from that early trip:

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Here are a few views of Manhattan from the elevated BQE (Brooklyn-Queens Expressway), a notorious traffic nightmare. It wasn’t too hard to grab shots of the skyline as we went from Queens to Brooklyn at a 20 mph clip, which is decent for the BQE.  The old Kosciuszko Bridge over Newtown Creek had just been demolished, leaving sections of the roadway angled wildly into the air like a sculpture John Chamberlin or Mark di Suvero might have done back in the 60’s. That’s the kind of eyeball-popping excitement I expect from New York, and I’m never disappointed. There are always surprises in New York, especially when you’ve been away for a few years…

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How about that? The iconic Empire State Building and Chrysler Building stand proud behind a foreground lush trees and a cemetery. Not your average NYC skyline view.

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The Chrysler Building is on the left, and to the right is the soaring, skinny 452 Park Avenue, said to be the western hemisphere’s tallest residential building. The East River, which separates Manhattan from Brooklyn and Queens, can’t be seen here. It’s between the high rises and the older buildings.

 

 

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Pieces of the old Kosciuzko Bridge roadway, seen from the new one, after the bridge was demolished. The center section of the bridge was cut off, lowered towards the water and barged to a New Jersey scrapyard, then sections of bridge roadway on either side were VERY carefully detonated. Watch the demolition here and here. I think the sections I photographed are farther from the main bridge, so they haven’t been fully demolished yet – but if anyone knows better, I’m all ears.

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This view shows Newtown Creek in the foreground. It separates Brooklyn from Queens, and has been a busy hub of industrial activity for decades. It’s a Superfund site now because of copious amounts of raw sewage and industrial waste dumped there over the years, along with 30 million gallons of spilled oil. How placid the polluted estuary seems!

In my mind, the old smokestack echoes the new residential tower in Manhattan, tying together two very different sides of New York – the glitzy world of high-price Manhattan real estate and the workaday world of heavy industry and sewage disposal. Just two days ago an 8-acre residential site went up for sale on Newtown Creek, in the middle of what has been an industrial wasteland for many years. Someday, this could all be gentrified…

I’ll be back soon with more from New York….where just five miles from the places pictured above I saw this magical sight – a group of hungry Monarch butterflies feeding on asters at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

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***

 

FIVE YEARS

Five years ago today I began this blog.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that my subject that day was summer’s “impending dispersion into fall” – a similar theme to my last post, about the “slow morph” that takes place as summer fades away. Nature is usually my subject matter but I do still love the city.  Here’s a shot from another August day, six years ago, before I moved to Washington. That’s the Freedom Tower going up two blocks from the office where I worked. It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon and I was taking a walk to de-stress before going home.

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Now I live in a different city that is much smaller, and closer to the country. I take advantage of that proximity, as anyone who regularly visits this blog knows. I also take advantage of the proximity of people here on the web, where digital magic brings images and narratives from Europe, South America, Africa, Asia and Australia right to my desk.

There is a community here, which I deeply appreciate. The relationships that materialize from what I’ll call the cloud of internet ether space, enrich my life. Because of those relationships, I work harder. I try to put my best foot forward each time I post here, and that means my photography and writing skills keep growing. I’m inspired by what I see happening on your blogs, and by a variety of websites, like Flickr for example. Museum shows, books, and of course nature – there are so many sources of inspiration. But what happens here, between my blog and yours, is singular. It’s a continuous spiral of growth.

This photo of swirling water was taken on another August day, five years ago, on the shore of an island here in Puget Sound.

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Below is a photo from November, 2012 of a magical, moss-draped Pacific Northwest forest. Its not a dramatic mountaintop or an exquisite orchid. It’s not a fascinating portrait either. Just a spot in the woods which for a moment, glowed with meaning. Maybe that’s what we find here on the better days: a spot on the web that glows, for a moment, with meaning. Or with pleasure – that will do too!

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*

Whatever we may say about needing to unplug, it is good, being plugged in to this ever-expanding community. Thank you for being here, and for the work you do.

ASHOKAN

Ever since my first taste of the outdoors as a tiny infant, and my introduction to New York City at age five, the bustling stimulation of big cities and the primal beauty of wild places have had equally powerful holds on me. As a teenager stuck in the suburbs I dreamed of city life, and fled to New York as soon as I could. Living in New York City, I longed for big, open spaces. It was a tough longing to fulfill, with truly wild places being far from the city.

In 2004 I took a job with New York state that required traveling within a hundred mile radius of downtown Manhattan, where my department was headquartered near the present day Freedom Tower. When I could schedule work upstate I was so happy. I knew I’d have a chance to steal an hour or two in a wilder place, and reconnect with nature.

The Ashokan Reservoir was one of those special places. Set down among the soft folds of  the Catskill Mountains’ eastern edge, the reservoir isn’t far from Woodstock, Mount Tremper and  Phoenicia, places many city dwellers fondly recall from upstate jaunts. The Ashokan settles across miles of beautiful rolling countryside, hiding the remains of several communities abandoned over a hundred years ago, when it was created as part of a vast system to collect fresh water for New York City.

These days, the giant silver-blue basin supplies up to 40% of the city’s drinking water, and it’s a long journey to city apartments.  From the reservoir, water is shunted south through ninety-two miles of aqueduct to a holding reservoir closer to the city. The water settles there, flows south to yet another reservoir, and finally travels through two very old tunnels into the city water system. It was not a modest project, but then most projects associated with new York aren’t small scale.

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Hours from home, standing at the reservoir’s edge, I could breathe in the essence of the landscape that surrounded and held my own drinking water. The quiet spread out and enveloped me. Herds of grass-grazing deer and the occasional sight of a Bald eagle tearing at a fish on the shoreline, refreshed my city-sore brain cells.

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On a primal level, the reservoir was simply space – wide and plain and rolling out beyond the imagination. It was undulating hills, cold, deep water, sharp air and wildflowers at my feet. It was bigger than I was. I needed that.

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Is the name Ashokan familiar? It probably is if you’re American and you watch TV. Ken Burns’ popular TV series about the American Civil War featured a haunting lament by the name of Ashokan Farewell. Composed in the early 80’s by Jay Ungar, an American folk musician, the song came to signify all the troubled emotions and regrets of our Civil War years.

These days Jay Ungar still makes music and directs the Ashokan Center, the oldest environmental education center in the state, located just south of the reservoir. Listen to the song in a pure rendition by the composer and his family. And by the way, Jay is a Jewish boy from the Bronx. Go figure.

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For me the song conjures a poignant longing for deep connection, symbolized in the hills and valleys around the Ashokan reservoir, where there is something I can’t quite put my finger on, something that seems at once lost, and present.

***

The photographs were taken in the summer and winter of 2010 and summer of 2011, from the causeway separating the reservoir’s two basins.

VIEWS FROM A CITY WINDOW: from the archives

I’ve been spending time scrolling back through the image archives, as I recover from an injury that prevents me from using a camera.  Also, a year ago my desktop computer crashed and though most of my files were backed up, there’s the laborious process of importing photos back into lightroom, keywording and rating them…I’m working on that, too.

The last post about Staten Island reminded me of a series of photos I took out the windows of the apartment where I lived, from 2008 -2012. It was a top floor corner apartment in an older building, drenched with light from many large windows, but quite vulnerable to the impact of powerful storms. A favorite window faced west, down my street. Lined with older two story homes and punctuated at the end by St. Peters Catholic church, it’s a quiet block in an area of quick transitions from low-income projects to middle class homes. My building struck the bargain between the two; there was nothing swank about it, but it retained a considerable charm from decades past.

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I became interested in the intersecting roof lines and shingle patterns of the older homes.

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The shadows were interesting, too. Below, the sun dried part of the cupola, leaving the shingles under the chimney’s shadow and out of the sun still wet from a summer shower.

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There was plenty of light for cuttings to root in the windowsill.

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Foggy mornings, summer and winter storms, September hurricanes – the weather always provided something to ponder (or cringe from).

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This is a northwest-facing window after yet another major snowstorm, with the snow piled up like cotton candy on the screen. Those ugly black bars are NYC required child-proofing (no, I didn’t have a young child living with me, but neither was this the sort of building where the landlord would honor a request to remove the bars…nor requests for more heat!).  The radiator under this window didn’t work. But like I said, the light was plentiful even in winter, and hey, I had FIVE closets, high ceilings and hardwood floors!

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Are you feeling cold yet? The man in the old house next door kept the cold away by burning anything he could find. His chimney belched smoke that made us gag.

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There were days when we enjoyed a classic winter wonderland…

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Enjoyed? There’s the matter of cars covered by fresh mounds of snow, thanks to efficient NYC snow removal.

Digging your car out, walking the dog, everything is a chore after a heavy snowfall.

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On more than one occasion I got busted for not helping…

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I admit, I was happier upstairs checking out the view. To the northwest we could see ships, barges and tugs on the Kill van Kull.

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We benefited from beautiful sunsets and evening views out the west-facing windows.

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All that, from one window! The second window I liked to look out is on an angle facing northwest, overlooking the busy shipping lanes of the Kill van Kull. According to Wikipedia, the strait is “the principal access for oceangoing container ships to Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal, the busiest port facility in the eastern United States.”  A critical transportation corridor since at least colonial times, the channel tends to be too shallow for huge, modern bulk carriers. One of our many complaints about living on the north tip of Staten Island was the constant noise of dredging, as huge machines worked day and night to deepen the passageway and keep stuff moving.

Another complaint was hot summers (we were right under a flat, dark roof) and cold winters. It’s an old building with an old furnace system, monitored remotely by an un-generous landlord. The windows let in a lot of weather. In fact, once one window blew right out of the frame and landed on the floor in shattered pieces!

But here was a better day:

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It was interesting to see the container ships with their tugs being guided in and out of the narrow passage. I found a ship tracking website which enabled me to identify amd ;earn about the ships I saw floating by. As I write this, looking at a ship tracking site, I see the ubiquitous McAllister and Moran tugs are racing through the Kill van Kull, the oil tanker Tenacity is tied up across the way in Bayonne, and Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas, a huge cruise ship just launched last year, is at home port in Bayonne readying for a Bermuda cruise on the 15th of this month (it would be on the right edge of these photos).

(INTERLUDE)

Never a “cruise type” of person, I was not enthused when offered a cruise trip from NY to Bermuda on Holland America’s SS Statendam, back in the late 70’s. Eventually I capitulated to family pressure and went, bringing a friend. It was a fortunate decision – I was to be amazed on that trip, again and again. I was impressed by the elegant beauty of the ship with its teak decks and formal dining rooms, moved by the Indonesian and Dutch crew who were to a person, competent, gracious and dignified, and thrilled by Bermuda’s beauty and the sweet scents that floated on by as I scooted around the island.  But I was most deeply moved by an encounter on the island with a noted naturalist, David Wingate.

As a young, enthusiastic birder I thought I might as well contact someone on Bermuda to show me around. Birders are good that way. I knew little about Wingate but I wrote to him and he agreed to take my friend and me on an outing while we were in port. It turns out he is a notable naturalist, the man responsible for restoring the island’s national bird, once thought extinct, to a viable population. An intense, single-minded man who grew up on the island, he became Bermuda’s first Conservation Officer and embarked on a major project to save the endangered Bermuda petrel. His decades of tireless work creating favorable nesting habitat likely prevented the petrel from going extinct.

Wingate had enough focused energy for two people. He actually recreated the original habitat of native plants, which had been destroyed hundreds of years before, on one of Bermuda’s small islands, Nonsuch.  How did he accomplish that?  By hand, over fifty years time. Dedication.

We didn’t have time to see Nonsuch but Mr. Wingate took us in a small boat through a Bermuda mangrove swamp. As he introduced us to the ecology of mangroves he began to describe, in vivid detail, the depredations which resulted from all the introduced fauna people brought to the islands over the centuries. Islands are particularly vulnerable to loss of species when humans arrive with their pigs and rats and agricultural aspirations.

Take the Great kiscadaee – a cheerful, common bird that delighted me the first time I saw it on Bermuda. I was wrong to assume it was native – no, it was brought in to control a lizard problem (and the lizards had been brought in to control scale on plants) but it ate just about everything else, wreaking new havoc.

What is the solution? In a country with strict gun laws, it was shocking to hear Wingate quietly, almost cautiously declare that the answer was the gun. Kiscadees can’t be caught easily, but they can be shot. Pick them off, one by one, and Bermuda would have one less problem species. It was a chilling conclusion to reach in such a gently beautiful place, but the logic was clear.

David Wingate has retired, but that idea lives on.  When we met him, he was the only conservation officer allowed to use a gun at work (and he was probably the only conservation officer). Last year the Bermudian government considered widening the authority to use guns to destroy feral chickens, crows and pigeons to a certain members of the public. It’s controversial, but it may yet happen.

The big success story in Bermuda ecology is that Bermuda petrels are now successfully nesting on Nonsuch Island after a 300 year absence, thanks to Wingate’s work. Rising seas threaten some nesting sites but Nonsuch seems safer, having higher ground. However, in recent years hurricanes have taken a toll. There are only about 250 – 300 of the birds living on our planet now. They remain vulnerable.

But however the petrel’s numbers wax and wane, David Wingate’s passionate work on behalf of native Bermuda ecology continues to inspire.

Back to watching boats in New York:

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There’s my favorite boat, below – must be a tight squeeze for the captain in there!

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You’re looking at an industrialized part of Bayonne, New Jersey, but that is a golf course on the hill behind the oil tanks! The NY/NJ border runs down the middle of the waterway. The Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan are off to the right, out of sight.

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Looking out the same window, a grand old tree held my attention on many afternoons.  Cherry trees bloomed under its sheltering branches in Spring.

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Parting shots: even with the screen covered in ice, or obscuring the view at night, the view satisfied!

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Note on the photos: Taken with an older camera phone, a Lumix point and shoot and an early SONY Nex, the quality of these photos wasn’t always what I wanted. I have reworked them in Lightroom.

ODE TO STATEN ISLAND

Three years ago I posted about New York City’s Staten Island, the borough New Yorkers love to hate. As I said back then, I had lived in the city on and off for four decades – on Manhattan’s Lower and Upper East Sides, the Bowery, the Upper West Side, Brooklyn, the Bronx’s pretty Riverdale neighborhood, and other city locations. In 2008 I worked in Lower Manhattan and commuted from Connecticut – a four hour round trip by car, train, and subway: pure madness.  At the time I couldn’t afford Manhattan or Brooklyn rent, so I decided to look on Staten Island. I found a big, rambling apartment on the north end of the island, a pleasant ten minute walk to the ferry to Lower Manhattan. After the ferry ride, I could jump on the subway or walk the last bit to my job, in an office building next to the old World Trade Center site, then under construction.

On weekends I explored my new back yard: the somewhat wild and very weird Staten Island. I found it to be an endlessly fascinating mashup of the sublime and the ridiculous.

I’m grounded this month – I can’t drive, I can’t use my camera. I can pick away at the keyboard with my left hand though, so it’s an opportunity to dredge the archives and see what surfaces.This handful of images from New York’s forgotten borough has waited long enough.

As I said in that last Staten Island post, when I lived there I found plenty to hate – noise, traffic, pollution, rudeness, stupidity – but I also found lots to love, and much to wonder about.

This too, is New York City:

Great egrets stalk prey in a flooded park next to a Staten Island beach, after a September hurricane ripped apart the thin margin separating ocean and lawn. Like New York’s other boroughs – Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx – Staten Island has an abundance of bird life. It offers good habitat variety and sits right on the Atlantic flyway, one of North America’s main avian migration routes.

The beaches also attract island residents, who migrate here from all over the world.

Our favorite stretch of beach for walks was off the beaten track and boasted a series of cairn sculptures that grew into an elaborate installation, transforming a good half mile of coastline into an ingenious wonderland.  A dedicated local zookeeper named Doug Schwartz was behind this obsessive labor of love. We ran into him once. A quiet man, he seemed to be a typically eccentric Staten Islander. Every piece of the stone monoliths was found on site, hauled and stacked by hand. Beach walkers, captivated by the impressive effort, would sometimes lend a hand, or add their own touches in typically spontaneous New York fashion.

Powerful storms washed the sturdy cairns away several times, but Doug kept at it. Then, unbelievably, he was ordered by the Department of Environmental Conservation to remove all the sculptures. I thought the sculptures were an intelligent, attractive solution to the problem of debris that continuously washes up on Staten Island’s none-too-pristine beaches. The DEC guys thought otherwise.  Here’s a story about that fiasco.  It exemplifies the bloated, inhuman, bureaucratic side of New York, which was partially responsible for my leaving the state.

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Beach debris is so tempting, isn’t it?  The day I took this picture, we were sorely tempted by these rusted artifacts, but the car was too far away – a photo had to suffice.  In the background are migrating ducks and Brant geese.

Speaking of debris washing up, while exploring the industrialized north shore one day, we noticed a promising dirt road leading towards the waterfront.  OK, it was private property – but no one was around and the gate was open, so I insisted on checking it out. At the end of the narrow, overgrown road we came to a sliver of sand littered with debris. Looking closely, I realized that dozens of small, old potsherds and bits of glass were scattered about, and were still washing up in the gentle tide.

It was an amazing find – everything was quite old and seemed to have originated in the same place – maybe Britain circa 1920, or even earlier. A shipwreck?

I was unable to ferret out any clues as to the origin of this small bonanza. We returned once more that summer to collect more artifacts. The following year we returned again, but a tall fence blocked access to the road and property. A younger, braver member of our group tried to scale it, but he couldn’t. That was the end of that.

I wonder if old fragments of forgotten lives still wash ashore there, and if anyone notices.

Inland on Staten Island, the greenest borough, there are many parks and preserves – over 12,000 acres. Some are still fairly wild, considering you’re in a city of eight million souls.

But wildness attracts the “wrong kind” of New Yorker, too, and Staten Island has plenty of those. This park was beset with rusting car wrecks, tires and garbage.

In another park nearby, a sweet statue survived relatively unscathed at an open air shrine. Perched on a bluff overlooking the water and dating to 1935, the shrine is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. People leaves flowers, crosses, hand written prayers, photos of loved ones, rosaries…and during the four years I lived in the area, the offerings remained undisturbed. An old broom leaned against the wall, ready to tidy the shrine.

You can see the figure take the weather in stride – the second photo was taken a few years before the first one.

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Staten Island is a famously Italian borough. Besides the shrine at Mount Loretto and fabulous Italian food, a local cultural center boasts a pretty little Italianate building and reflecting pool, built a few years ago for weddings and receptions.

A few steps away, the center (Snug Harbor) offers a charmingly overgrown botanical garden. It may be a poor cousin to the well known New York Botanical Garden, but I came to love it more, for its simple charms and air of subtly elegant neglect. I must have a thousand pictures of the gardens and flowers at Snug Harbor. It became my go-to place for R & R after long weeks of working for the state department of health, monitoring services for people with brain injuries.  My office in a building adjacent to the twin towers site was a stressful place to be during the reconstruction, and Snug Harbor provided respite.

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There is a Chinese Scholar’s Garden at Snug Harbor, too. Other than a nominal charge to enter the Scholar’s Garden, the grounds of Snug Harbor are free to all.

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Surprises are a dime a dozen on Staten Island – turn down a side street in a residential area, and you may find something like this next to a modest home.  Explore back roads in sparsely populated neighborhoods, and you’ll see the occasional rooster scratching in a side yard.

Here’s Superman atop a business that makes awnings. Around the corner in this mixed use neighborhood was a dignified, if dilapidated older home, with interesting curtains on the door.

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The island was (and still is, I hope) a rich hunting ground for oddball attractions. One sunny Saturday we ventured warily through an open chain link gate in a post-industrial wasteland just off a highway. Someone had been living in an abandoned trailer on a concrete-covered lot that was quickly reverting to weeds. It was hard to tell how long ago they last used the space, but they certainly left their mark. Behind the trailer, hard by a marsh and winding creek, sculptures constructed from waste dumped at the site dotted the rough landscape.

This is REAL outsider art! Who else ever saw these? Anyone? What impulse moved the artist – you’d have to give them that – to create these?

On the trailer wall, a broken plastic candy cane played visual tag with a series of stencils. I couldn’t decide whether it was creepy or poignant.

I think the latter.

Staten Island offers quotidian delights like magnolia blossom-strewn sidewalks as readily as the strange sights of less traveled roads. This was on the block where I lived.

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And sunsets – I remember sitting alone on the sandy beach and watching the sun go down on this beautiful April evening, reveling in that brief, glowing meld of color that settles in once the sun is below the horizon. How about wild deer on an island in New York City? Staten Island has that. Folks say they swam over from New Jersey. (We were in a car, when I took this, exploring back roads again).

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The flora of Staten Island is what a botanist would consider degraded, since it is overrun with alien species and invasives. Still, I enjoyed my regular wildflower forays each summer and fall. I explored every back road I could find on that island. Pretty soon I knew exactly where I could go to put together a bouquet.

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I drew maps to remember where I’d been – and how to get back.

If the weather didn’t cooperate, there was always the view from my window. Looking west, the old St. Peters clock tower is just visible during a winter ice storm. A neighbor is burning cardboard and trash in his old furnace to get warm – just don’t inhale too much!

To the northwest are the busy ports of Bayonne and Elizabeth, New Jersey, just past the Kill van Kull’s busy shipping lanes. I never tired of watching the ships and tugs. I would google a container ship name to learn where it came from and where it was going.  Here, a barge is pushed out the Kill van Kull by a local tug as another tug returns to port. Dramatic skies vie for attention.

There are too many window views to include here – they deserve their own post. Another day.

Parting shot: sunset on the Kill van Kull with the Bayonne Bridge in the distance. A curve of neglected rail track glints and a trio of gulls soars west past the ubiquitous chain link fence – a typical meeting of the mundane and sublime, on Staten Island.