Tag Archives: nature

The Many Small Details

 

The seasons change in an alchemist’s patois – using a language that is rich in subtleties and mystery.  It is a sum of transmutations that have been distilled in an earthly alembic ever since the world spun itself into existence.

The change is as delicate yet invasive as a drop of paint falling into a bowl of water, spreading in a fading bouquet of coils and tendrils.  The cusp between seasons is a time of winsome details, tiny births and hushed deaths.  There is an anthology of detail to regale one of what is to come, a silent speech of promises to be fulfilled once the threshold is crossed.  This new dialogue, rough and poignant, contains a revelation of detail that curves into being every three months.  It begins with a change as delicate as twilight dripping into dawn, as elusive as the stars twisting into a new formation.

It is on a periphery, a borderland familiar yet altered, a soft and gradual rift.  If one is clever enough to look and see, to gather together the many small details like a bouquet the change does not go ignored and Nature’s herculean sweat will not be wasted.  Nor will go unheeded the four conversions of the year: fraught with as much magic as a forgotten chemist’s lab, hung with colored glass, philosophies and saucers of bubbling gold.

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Thankful

I have always believed in the existence of two worlds.

First, there was the one for which the blame could be placed at humanity’s feet. It is messy, contentious, sometimes graceless, oftentimes not. Its gears wheeze like a quarrelsome factory.

The other world is the natural one – the verdant, growing and once the only one – that began millennia before man made his debut, his awkward challenge. This is the world that witnessed battalions of formless creatures crawling out of the sea, gasping before their gills disappeared forever.

Now, I find much in our combative world that disappoints; the things that bear the scar of mankind’s twisted humor. This year has been bloated with its indignities.

But to despair, to complain is foolish: for the other, older, world waits outside. All it asks of you is one sense – sight, touch, scent, taste, hearing – in order to share its manifold gifts. It asks that you look at the stars, touch the earth, smell its growing life, taste the air, listen to the beguiling animals.

Can one world outweigh the other? I think so. Nature has her clever ways. Her wit and creativity, her ever-busy mind, will always be an encouragement and an inspiration.

So what can you be thankful for on November 24? Or on any day? Has mankind let you down? Then look to the lady spinning her wonders outside, and she will comfort you.

Then go inside and eat a hearty dinner.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Nouveau-Riche

Like a frothy lady-in-waiting, Art Nouveau emerged as the handmaiden to the Belle Epoch, following in its honeyed footsteps.  Dainty yet flamboyant, it was born out of a madness of grace and unceasing charm.  It mocked symmetry, the foolhardy composition suppressed by balance and proportion.  It was not classic, nor serene – it burst forth in a chaos of beauty, coiling with the whimsy of nature; her spectacular mirth.

It could be seen everywhere during the careless years before the Great War; rich with lethargy and leisure.  It was carved into frescoes of gardens rooted into walls, blossoming into curls so elaborate, they grew into a joyous caricature of the growing, earthy world:

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Jewelry was twisted into bowers of serpents and insects, ornate with gems and enameled hues that rippled like watercolor.

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The faces of women loomed from the depths of moonstone and opal; they hung like stars from frameworks of woven gold.

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Medusas shrieked from engraved combs; gods and goddesses ruled, bold and inalienable, from pendants, brooches and collars.

Art Nouveau was seen in the filigrees that romped throughout architecture, illustration, textiles, silverware, clothing.  Every aspect of the decorative life became a tangle of coils, twisting like ribbons of DNA.   Small Victorian modesty was replaced by the fluidity of Nature’s world, the richness of her seasons, the shameless appreciation of her power.

At no other time would Mucha’s women appear on posters with their hair melting into russet and gold tinted oceans…

or would Cheret be able to paint dancers in a torrent of petticoats and color.

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It was the time of absinthe spoons, their tiny bowels a matrix of wrought silver only large enough to embrace a cube of sugar.

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The silken lilies curling down the velvet-clad back of the Countess of Greffulhe, her shoulders and neck emerging from the sculpted collar like a living flower, is an iconic image of an era that celebrated the soft beauty of pure decoration.

The era meandered like an autumn river, rich with color and earthy detritus, following a path of nascent creativity.  Portraits of its fortunate inhabitants were painted with swift brushstrokes, before the wandering, busy imaginations of the subjects called them away.  The harsh linearity of previous decades was eschewed:  gowns, coats, even the liquid shine on patent leather shoes:  no aspect could bear to be harnessed by clarity.  Painters like Sargent…

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and Boldini…

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portrayed their sitters in a bedlam of shifting colors; of gowns swirling like hurricanes, of faces as clear yet as hard to define as reflections in a turbulent sea.  Like Narcissus, they were in love with those reflections, yet on the precipice of an approaching danger.

At first the menace was only a subtle threat.  It was seen in the smudged eyes of Klimt’s portraits; his jagged mosaics that felt like a chain mail of disillusionment.

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It beckoned from Schiele’s figures, sprawled on tangled sheets; the oblique limbs relegated to a coarse reality that presaged the death of sentimentality.

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Yet the Beautiful Age would linger for a while; its gilded culture pulsating and changing shape like a jellyfish – only to sting the onlooker before he turned away.  But its death came; and it was only as a herald to countless more deaths, beginning with a distant assassination in the summer of 1914. When British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time” he no doubt was referring to the darkness of impending despair, the inevitable destruction of war, but surely, he must have given a thought to the end of the golden world which was all he had ever known.  He must have known the fear of ugliness which had begun its approach in an apocalyptic gallop.

But this joyous life, as enchanted as a flower, was not meant to last long.  Rather, it was destined for the memory, where the regret of losing its fey beauty would linger like perfume; where that perfect world could be safely buried and the earthy spirit of Art-Nouveau would live forever.

 

Neptune’s Beard

Tendrils of Neptune’s beard

Rising in ivory coils

And covering the sea like a veil of marble

To reach through the weeping breakwater

Like mischievous fingers

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The pale curiosities

The mermaids breathless fans

Busy explosions of salt and light

Wink beneath the seaweed like drowned irises

Amidst the blu-eyed scallops

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Cast across the waves like nets

That stretch over pelagic miles

And pull at the chin of a submerged god

Who lies beneath the wandering patterns

To watch the ocean’s lively tapestry

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Spring’s Ahead

In Palos Verdes, the cliffs overlook the assortment of beaches and coves like a weaving terrace of basalt and shale, layered with skeletons – the
strata of prehistory.

Climbing out of those towering deserts are bushes and trees.  Dry, salt-ridden and barbed, they harbor living creatures above the ocean, for all their inhospitality.

Not long ago I was watching the sea, standing by the cliffs, when I heard a bird singing close by.  It was balanced on a gorse bush; singing with such passion, with such blithe intensity that it didn’t notice how close I really was.  I was near enough to see the muscles of its throat fluttering, to see the small, sharp beak open to release the notes into the air.  I was able to visualize the music, tiny filigrees and arabesques twisting in an invisible fabric:  lilting and lowering, as the bird saw fit, to suit the musicale its joyous blood would dictate.

In the city, where I live, I have been hearing music too.  Pale and plaintive, it rises with the morning, a lavender echo of breaking clouds and a sunrise swathed in watercolor.  A mourning dove – always alone – rests on a telephone wire, its sadness filling the air.  All I see is the dark silhouette, but I know well the prism of its feathers:  mauve, grey and lilac:  the accepted dress colors for Victorian ladies in half-mourning.  Though there is only one, its mate is undoubtedly nearby.  Whether they are collecting materials for their nest, or scouting for new real estate, their impatient DNA urges them on.

Spring is coming.

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Forever Amber

Throughout the temperate climates there are trees that hold on to their spring and summer greens throughout the later, demanding months.  They wear them as stubbornly and foolishly as one who wears a favorite coat in July or refuses to take an umbrella into the rain.  They live their evergreen lives eternally, proud of their verdant blood and the succulent life that will not blink in the face of the shifting seasons.

But there are some trees that pay attention:  to the altering temperatures, to the shadows that lengthen before noon, to the greedy night – Nature’s subtle hints that it is time to change.   Their leaves become melting prisms, with colors that undulate and flow:  creating microcosms of sunsets within a dying morphology.  Garnet, ginger, bronze and scarlet, they are as pure and fluid as the stained colors in cathedral glass.  The tints of Chartres, Notre Dame, Cologne are reflected in their autumnal DNA.   The air is bright with their departure; the earth and streets are crisp with the trees’ brittle sacrifices.

In the mid-17th century, Spanish naturalists stumbling through the Americas took note of a pretty tree with leafs shaped like clipped stars and a clear, perfumed gum that looked like liquid amber.

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350 years later their happy discovery is alive still, in backyards and cities, celebrating the cyclical weather, the migratory temperatures.

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Liquidambar styraciflua is known for its fluid colors and fragrant liquor.  It bleeds a clear or tinted resin reminiscent of the musky scent of burning amber.  This aromatic hemorrhage is what gives the tree its name.

The Amber’s round seed pods create sheet-music when superimposed against telephone lines.  Its roots are discreet.  Sidewalks do not buckle or erupt into mountain ranges that wait for pedestrians to stumble over, like unsuspecting gods.

It is used for decoration; above succulents and firs, cedar, oak and spruce its colors wink with whimsical flamboyance.  During the summer its canopy is lush with green youth.  By year’s end breezes rustle the crisp leaves like a mother running her fingers through her child’s tousled hair.

It drinks from the subterranean rivers that tumble through the earth in a web of fertile tributaries.  The green elixir permeates the body of the tree, creating an ornament that glories in the year and celebrates the four changing quarters.  It is a reminder of the comfort of change; the knowledge that beauty does not end but renews itself in perpetual rebirths:  that it lasts forever.

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Flight of Fancy

They stand upon their pelagic kingdoms, looking past watery acres and the silvery minions flashing their livery beneath the waves.  Noble and chaste, they balance on the currents with a white, feathery poise.  

In A Land Faraway

Boyfriend, A Board and A Bird

Wrapped in the blue air, the maritime fragrances of kelp and salt, their bodies are antediluvian and unchanged.  Their ancient plans are betrayed only when the prehistoric arms are silhouetted in the revealing sunlight.  They dared evolution, and soared over the writhing natural world below.

And when they fly over the ocean, their pale reflection melts into the waters below, like a warm frost, like a memory merging with hidden, oceanic realms.  Necks fold and bend like corsets, but the legs are free, like yellow-tipped rudders.  Their movement is slow and leisurely, a royal wave flying through the air.

A Leisurely Journey

They land on rocks, in a rush of wind and white.  They walk with disjointed grace, each limb engaging in a graceful life that is refined, but separate.  The light is creative with their feathers – in the shadow, it rides the silhouette in a single, radiant outline, then dissolves into a lavender dusk. 

Behind The Foam

 In the sunlight, they become a blast of unspoiled, blank color that blinds in its purity.

Pond Prowling

Their name comes from the French word “aigrette” – a word that also refers to the feathers that bloomed from ladies’ turbans and from their jeweled foreheads during the breathless years before World War I.  The world had discovered color, craved exoticism, and women indulged in rich shadows, paints and stolen decorations.

Fashion Demands

In 1918 a law was passed, preventing the harvesting of feathers…causing the turbans and hats to tremble, like angels when they first felt the birth-pangs in their shoulders.   Wings sprouted from their brims, alive and blood-warm with their ancient DNA.   They then flew away: back into the wild, nautical air, towards heaven, towards their kingdoms in the sea.

Sparkle

I was walking to work, my attention cheerfully wandering, when a splash of sparkle caught my eye.  Whatever it was, it was caught fast in a tumble of leaves, glittering mercilessly in the too-early sun.

I took a step or two before stopping – but the image was already burnt inside me - so my mind's eye studied the mysterious memory.  Was it a brooch, its icy crystals warming in the light?  Will it melt before I had a chance to look at it?

I peered closely: 

It could have been a spangled veil – of diamonds, of pearls, of rain, of tears.  It could have come from the hem of a petticoat – petit point crinoline and tinsel – and the lady had not noticed until later the ragged, wounded stitching.  It could have been a swatch torn from a mantilla that had witnessed bloody sport in the ring and then fluttered hundreds of miles to rest in sweat and sadness amidst the thriving leaves.

Each grain of light held a world of purity inside, yet it glittered like Madame du Barry's scandalous necklace.

I honestly did not know what it was.  And it was thrilling.  The ideas that were occurring to me were as myriad as the prisms sprinkled among the vine's comforting arms.

But ultimately I realized that this was not a denizen of time, light, closets or jewelry boxes.  What I had been theorizing and dreaming on was nothing more than a conspiracy between a spider's woven bed and the evening's dewpoint.  The droplets pulled from the rich, saturated air had been strung like glass beads, or galaxies, along the silken threads.

Scheming Nature had once again contrived to surprise me with her clever beauty.

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Raptor Rapture

In the year that she was born, something happened to her.  Something that would keep her tied to the earth for all her life; that would keep her wings, spanning nearly seven feet – folded, helpless – forever wrapped around her body.

Ten years ago she was born in Minnesota, where she was hit by a car…carelessly crossing a road; possibly flying too low, in front of a driver too foolish to stop in awe – too preoccupied to gasp at what Nature hath wrought.  She was found two weeks after the accident, dragging her injured wing in the dust, but with gold eyes still searching the sky, as if waiting for her injury to unleash her, so she could fly back to her home in the blue atmosphere.

The complex crush of bones in her wing and shoulder was treated at The Raptor Center of the Universitiy of Minnesota, where her kind was welcome.  After three years of rehabilitation, experts realized that she would never again fly well enough to live in her cold forests, to search for rivers running silver and scarlet with salmon, to raise her family on the tops of mountainous trees – looking down on wild acreages thrumming with life. 

So when those three years had passed, she traveled West, to be received by the Institute of Wildlife Studies, in the balmy arms of Santa Catalina Island.  That is where I saw her earlier this month.

We had stopped in front of a large enclosure of paneled wood, with the aviary itself like a curtain of meshed steel.  Through a single window I was able to see her:  frowning, statuesque, still – save for a predatory tilt of her head, as if she were still looking for something edible and scurrying through the brush.

Her name is Pimu.  "Pimu" was the name given to Santa Catalina Island by the Gabrieleno/Tongva tribe – aboriginal inhabitants of the island.  She is a bald eagle – its majestic gem:  glittering, noble and rare.  Pimu is now being trained to accompany Institute biologists whenever they visit school and civic groups – so that they might train their audience to respect the closeness and wonder of the natural world.

But when I saw her that day I thought of so many other things:  the Presidential Seal, the Maltese Falcon, the dollar bill…all flat, stagnant symbols suddenly come to lofty life.

Her head was held so high – with a dark crease of feathers over her eyes, making her resemble a feathered fury.  She saw above us.  She saw beyond us.  There was danger in the hook of her beak; in the tearing potential of her talons.

And there was magnificence through and through.

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