Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Platte Clove Residency: Some Remove

Plattekill Falls; Platte Clove Nature Preserve;
Catskills; NY; July 2012
On the first afternoon of my residency at Platte Clove, after settling into the cabin and familiarizing myself with local trail maps, I decided to explore a short path that begins a few steps from the cabin's porch and winds its way down one of the valley's uppermost gorges to Plattekill Falls. It was a lovely reintroduction to the Catskills. Late afternoon sunlight filtered through the mixed forest's overstory, unevenly illuminating a floor decorated with eastern hemlock cones. Hidden from view in the canopy above, red-eyed vireos ceaselessly repeated their lilting questions.

At the trail's end, I discovered four local twenty-somethings swimming in the waterfall's plunge pool. As they frolicked nearby, I searched for timber rattlesnakes among broken slabs of bluestone that littered the south-facing slope of the ravine. Although I turned up no snakes, I rousted a number of American toads, a species so common in the eastern United States that I long took them for granted. Absence, as the adage has it, makes the heart grow fonder; because American toads are not found out west, I was especially glad to see them.

Eastern hemlock cones; Platte Clove Nature Preserve;
Catskills; NY; July 2012
By the time I returned to the trailhead, dusk was fast approaching. An Eastern phoebe chipped at me from its perch on a low-hanging branch. Light in color and smallish, I guessed the bird was a female. As she pumped her tail and flitted from branch to fence post and back, I offered my best chip replies to her persistent calls and snapped a few photographs.

Half-an-hour later, while I was sitting near a cabin window reading J.A. Baker's The Peregrine in the day's last light, I heard faint scratching sounds and peeping from the cabin's second floor. Expecting to discover mice, I ascended the steep stairs but, before my eyes had adjusted to the darkness of the second floor interior, my attention was arrested by a whirring blur outside the screen of a low-slung window on the cabin's north wall. The bird must have seen me moving within, for it disappeared as quickly as it had materialized. The urgent cries of its young, however, which began when it approached the cabin, continued for some seconds after it had gone.

When the young birds quieted, I carefully lay down on the floor and inched closer to the screen, so that my face was a few feet away. I waited, though not for long, and the adult bird returned, a high-strung throb of wings. It hovered for a beat, then darted up and under the cabin's eave to join its imploring chicks. In the instant it afforded me, I recognized it as the Eastern phoebe I'd photographed, and it occurred to me that her earlier chipping was likely an attempt to draw my attention away from the nest's location.

Eastern Phoebe nest at Platte Clove cabin; Platte Clove
Nature Preserve; Catskills; NY; July 2012
I lay on the cabin floor for some time, watching the phoebe parent come and go, each visit feeding her voracious chicks an insect she caught on the wing. While I wasn't able to observe her hunting from my vantage point, I imagined it well enough. I've long been an admirer of phoebes' predatory prowess. They're members of the large tyrant flycatcher family, Tyrannidae, a group famous for "hawking" or "sallying," hunting behavior whereby the bird springs off its perch, grabs an insect in mid-air, and returns to its original position. I thought of a passage I'd read, not twenty minutes before, in The Peregrine.
"I shall try to make plain the bloodiness of killing. [...] All birds eat living flesh at some time in their lives. Consider the cold-eyed thrush, that springy carnivore of lawns, worm stabber, basher to death of snails. We should not sentimentalize his song, and forget the killing that sustains it."
Baker, like all natural historians, amateur and professional alike, recognized that death is the way of life. As my father is fond of saying, "every day something dies so that I can continue to live." This is universally true, even for the most dedicated and conscientious Buddhist. To believe otherwise is to be either ignorant or willfully naive. But, vitally, the death of a moth, worm, or man is not the end of the line but instead a point along the way. It is the end of that individual creature, of course, but the energy cached in the discrete body is paid forward, as it were, passed on to the greater whole.

Longtime readers of my essays might recall that my preferred term for this pay-it-forward process is reconstitution, the biological version of the afterlife. As I wrote several years ago,
"Most people find contemplation of the body's posthumous decomposition uncomfortable. But the knowledge that my corporeal substance will rot and, in doing so, release energy for use by the rest of things is deeply satisfying. Poet Galway Kinnell describes reconstitution in his poem 'The Quick and the Dead' as 'the crawling of new life out of the old, which is what we have for eternity on earth.' [Beyond] the biological, death remains a mystery. I can not, one way or the other, speak to supernatural transference, though I feel that metaphysical notions of self or soul preservation are misguided. The 'me,' I think, will rot with my body, but the flow keeps on keeping on, until the end of time."**
Kinnell's poem describes reconstitution beautifully and succinctly, but it was author and essayist Edward Hoagland who wrote the passage that provided me with my principal symbol for reconstitution, the phoebe. In On Nature, Hoagland muses,
"In my stint in the army, working at the hospital morgue, I'd noticed how commonly the dead had managed at the last moment a benign or temperate sort of smile. This circularity is neither alarming nor incongruous, but rather seems to make things whole and complete. In the summer, dancing butterflies of pretty colors will congregate where I've gone outside to piss in the grass. The glint of tiger yellow or cobalt blue in their beautiful wings may be enhanced by the minerals that they so crave and that my body has declared surplus. And if a nesting phoebe soon grabs one, she is going to profit also -- which is a foretaste of the myriad uses that more extensive portions of me will be put to eventually."
In late 2010, I created a small artwork entitled, "the black phoebe (reconstitution)." (The black phoebe is the Eastern phoebe's western cousin.) Shortly after my move from New York City to San Francisco during the summer of 2010, I delighted in watching a black phoebe hawking on the surf-sculpted rocks of a Pacific beach. As I did so, I thought about another, less dramatic variety of reconstitution, the adaptation and reinvention that follows a significant life transition, be it a new job or a cross-country move. The mixed-media artwork inspired by that black phoebe is a simple celebration of reconstitution, but it was also a way of attaching myself to western fauna, a way of locating myself in my new habitat.

It's curious that it often requires some remove to understand one's own inspiration. I don't think I fully appreciated what impelled the creation of "the black phoebe (reconstitution)" until, on the cool wood of the Platte Clove cabin's second story, I watched and listened to the Eastern phoebe feed her young.

Christopher Reiger
"the black phoebe (reconstitution)"
Pen and sumi ink, gouache, watercolor, marker, and thread on cut Arches paper
14 x 15 1/4 inches

** I'd amend my earlier observation; I now view "the flow" that "keeps on keeping on" as congruous with both philosophical materialism and conceptions of the numinous (in the sense that Rudolf Otto popularized).

Image credits: all photos, Christopher Reiger, 2012; artwork, Christopher Reiger, 2010

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