Monday, November 28, 2011

Francis Lee Jaques in Aitkin

Suppose you didn’t want to buy anything on Black Friday. Or suppose you didn’t particularly care to get an extraordinary deal. Here’s an alternative scenario.
We were in the car, heading north, by 9:15. (In Minnesota, heading “north” carries a special ring.) Nothing much to report on the way up to Aitkin, though Mille Lacs was as impressive as ever, and we spotted a swan, two golden eyes, and a few mergansers just off shore near Garrison.

We found a parking spot across the street from the American Legion in Aitkin and wandered inside to the Chili Cook-off. Folks were already having fun. Some of them in costume. We bought two tickets for $7 (total), were given our Styrofoam bowls, and began our circuit around the crowded room, sampling the offerings.

One of the entrants had put potatoes in her chili. “We have a potato farm up in Palisade,” she told me, gesturing at a framed potato sack hanging on the wall behind her booth. Another was serving little cornbread muffins on a stick. A third group had chosen a “Wizard of Oz” theme. One team (from the DNR) wore prison outfits, another had sombreros on their heads. I don’t know why.

Chili and cornbread (and potatoes) call for beer. At the bar I asked what they had, the bartender asked what I liked. I am no expert, and didn’t want to get into ales, stouts, porters, pilsners, IPAs… She was in a hurry, and as I was thinking of something to say she blurted out, “We have Bud, Bud Light, Miller, Miller Lite, Schmidt.”

OK. Budweiser sounds great.

Later, out on Main Street, we watched a succession of colorful floats pass by, their occupants throwing candy. Few of the floats had the slightest resemblance to ice houses, as far as I could tell. Then again, I’m not an ice fisherman.

While waiting for the parade to start, we’d walked down the street to the Frances Lee Jaques museum, which is housed in the old Carnegie Library building. Jaques, a wildlife artist, lived in Aitkin for many years when he wasn’t off in the Caribbean or the Rockies painting birds. He’s best known, perhaps, for a series of dioramas he did for the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Or perhaps he’s not so well-known. The New York Times once reported:
The painted backgrounds of the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History have a curious place in the hearts of almost everyone who has grown up in New York City during the last century. They are some of the most elaborate landscape paintings in the city and some of the most frequently viewed pictures anywhere, but almost nobody knows who did them or, in a sense, even seems to notice them when they’re staring straight at them.
Here in Minnesota, many of us grew to love Jaques work at the Bell Museum of Natural History. Children beyond counting have stared into the enormous scenes he did of elk on Inspiration Peak, of moose on Gunflint Beach, and of timber wolves on the rocky cliffs of the North Shore, as if they were real. And several generations of outdoor enthusiasts have cherished the scratch-board illustrations he did for the wilderness canoeing books of Sigurd Olson, and also the books he did with his wife Florence—Canoe Country, The Geese Fly High, and Snowshoe Country.

Jaques was raised on farms in Illinois and Kansas. Even as a boy he was entranced by the plumage of the birds he shot while hunting with his dad, and began to work at depicting them realistically. In the spring of 1903, after yet another unsuccessful year of farming, the family headed north in search of fertile, inexpensive soil, and ended up in a log cabin on a plot of land just north of Aitkin with an oxbow of the Mississippi River wrapped around it.

As a young adult, while working at various occupations—lumberman, railroad hand, taxidermist—Jacques continued to draw and sketch, and he also spent a good deal of time exploring the forests and lakes of the northern Minnesota border region by canoe. After serving in the military during WWI, he returned to Minnesota and found work in the Duluth shipyards, but his interest in nature stayed with him, and in 1924 he sent a painting of a black duck to Dr. Frank Chapman, a curator in the Ornithology Department at the American Museum of Natural History. To his surprise, the museum took Jaques on as a staff artist and he suddenly found himself working in the company of some of the country’s leading scientists. In time Jaques himself was recognized as one of America’s foremost wildlife artists.

Perhaps due to his years spent as an untrained but avid observer of nature, Jaques had developed the ability to render an animal’s posture and flair without resorting to the painstaking depiction of every piece of fur or feather. He was especially adept at capturing the form of birds in motion. Yet he also had the knack of integrating the elements of the surrounding environment into a pleasing whole—thus satisfying the requirements of art and science at a single stroke.

He once remarked:
The shape of things has always given me the most intense satisfaction. Everything one sees and senses. Geese in a storm, a landfall after a long period at sea, horses in a fence corner, the first glimpse of the ‘shining mountains’ across the plain, the eroded bank of a stream winding through a pasture. With me the keenest interest of all has been in wildlife, and that includes its habitat.
The main room of the museum was largely given over to holiday crafts, but in the back a number of Jaques’ paintings and scratchboards were still on display. As I wandered the gallery, I couldn’t help listening in on a conversation that a silver-haired man in a plaid shirt and hunting vest was having with a passing couple. They were telling him that their son had gone deer hunting for the first time—and got his deer.

“Was your brother there, too?” the seated man said. “You all must be very proud.”

“It was from 200 yards.”

“What kind of rifle?”

And on it went.

A little later, Hilary was admiring the paintings and the man said, “Do you like these pictures. I own most of them.”

When he found out we were fans of Jacques’ work, and actually knew something about him, he introduced himself.

“I’m Jerry Holm and this is my wife Cherie.” In the course of conversation I mentioned that I’d developed an appreciation of Jacques’ work while giving tours at the Bell Museum, and she replied, “I’m on the board there. There’s a lot going on at the Bell these days. The new planetarium...”

“The hardest thing,” Jerry told us at one point, “is to get anyone under fifty interested in this place. I don’t understand why. I’m just a dumb farmer from Palisade but I know good art when I see it. The front part of this building is the old Carnegie library, you know. It cost $15,000 to build. We added this part here where we’re standing, which wraps all the way around the back, a few years ago. It’s only 15 feet wide, but it cost $550,000. But we’ve got a lot of supporters here in Aitkin, and they really came through. Do you want to see the basement?”

So while Cherie went back to the front room to tend to customers, we took the elevator downstairs and Jerry gave us a quick tour: the vault, where the art collection is stored; the weaving room; the offices; the classroom. He also showed us a copy of The Geese Fly High.

“Do you have this?” he asked.

“Yes, we do. But it’s an old edition. It doesn’t have this full-color cover.”

“Take it. We’ve got hundreds of them.”

Jerry shared some stories about Les Kouba. And when he learned we were birders ourselves, he told us, “A friend of mine saw a snowy owl out on the road to my farm just this morning. I’ll tell you how to get there. You go out Highway 210 for about four miles. Turn left when you see the big osprey nest. You can’t miss it. Our farm is in about half a mile, it has a white PVC fence all around it.”

As we left we thanked the Holms' for their gracious hospitality. (Did I mention the donuts and the apple cider?) And when we left town after the parade we kept a lookout for the osprey nest. We spotted it, turned left, drove past the farm and all the way to a public access ramp to the Mississippi. The river is already fairly robust at this point. Well, river boats used to ply the route between Aitkin and Grand Rapids. It’s gotten pretty quiet in these parts. The edges of the river were stiff with ice. We could hear the sound of a chain saw in the distance. Someone clearing brush off a snowmobile trail, I’ll bet.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Eight Books, Cloud Nine

I like to tell myself that my book-buying days are largely over. A mere trickle moving through the house. Review copies. An occasional book from the Ridgedale de-acquisition shop. Well, yesterday that trickle became a flood. I picked up eight new books. I was on Cloud Nine.

An order arrived in the mail from Daedalus, the remainder house, at noon. It contained a coffee-table book about clouds, a brief history of the ontological proof for God’s existence, and a revolutionary revision of our understanding of the Middle Ages, Barbarians to Angels, by local archeologist Peter Wells.

Meanwhile, unaware that these goodies would be waiting for me at the front door when I returned, I went out to Ridgedale Library to retrieve a few books I’d requested about the early history of Texas. (Don’t ask me why.) Naturally I stopped into the adjoining bookshop...and left with a healthy stack under my arm. (Total cost: $5)

In that stack was a book of essays about books and reading by Washington Post columnist Michael Dirda; a slim volume of lectures by Jorge Luis Borges titled This Craft of Verse; a full-color travel guide to San Antonio and Austin; a book about tuning musical instruments called Temperament: the Idea that Solved Music’s Greatest Riddle, and a recently-revised Penguin paperback edition of Dante’s La Vita Nuova, (to replace my yellow and crumbling edition of 1982.)

The cloud book has quite a few full-page color photos of various cloud-forms, including the lentil-shaped altocumulus linticularis (sometimes mistaken for a UFO), the high-flying cirrocumulus stratiformis undulatis (otherwise known as “mackerel sky”), and the cumulus humilis (generally wider than they are tall, hence humble and unthreatening).

Among the heaps of cloud lore the book contains, I’ve already spotted one little-known gem: the cumulonimbus cloud, which is often associated with stormy weather, is also the cloud we refer to when we say we’re “on cloud nine.” Why? Because it was the ninth of the ten clouds enumerated in the original 1896 edition of the International Cloud Atlas.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Raking Perfect

Over the years I’ve become adept at delaying household chores until the perfect moment arrives. If it sometimes happens that the window of opportunity closes entirely, I say, “There’s always next year.”

Saturday was the perfect day to rake leaves—cool, bright, dry. I’d been over the grass a few times with the mower in recent weeks, so there weren’t a whole lot of leaves left to rake—mostly stragglers from the two big maple trees in the front yard. Due to the dry weather every leaf had a twisted, sculptural quality that I found myself admiring repeatedly as I leaned on my rake, enjoying the fall sunlight and assessing my stately progress across the yard. The wind kicked up from time to time, and I began to notice a leaf I didn’t recognize in the mix, small and heart-shaped, like a poplar leaf without the scalloped edges. Also greener than the rest. It dawned on me at last that they’d fallen from my neighbor’s redbud tree and drifted in from thirty yards way.
I hold firmly to the belief that it’s pointless to rake the leaves out from under the bushes. You can’t see them, they might be good for the bushes (who knows?), and in any case, why add needlessly to the world’s landfill problems?

We dump most of our leaves into a wire enclosure in the back yard. We occasionally dig soil out the bottom of the pile in the spring, but for the most part the leaves just sit there, sinking under their own weight, year after year.

Sunday morning new leaves were scattered across the yard, of course. Not so many as before, but fairly evenly spaced, as if some yet-undiscovered principle of physics were at work. The sky had turned gray. I climbed up onto the roof to clean out the gutters—yes, by hand—priding myself personally on how quiet the neighborhood was.

While I was up there, I also lopped off some overhanging branches of the mulberry and walnut trees that have been transformed from unnoticed weeds to impressive trunks in a remarkably short span. Not so long ago I was mistaking the walnuts for sumac volunteers and wondering why they weren’t sending out suckers.

An adventurous squirrel has once again figured out how to leap the ten feet from the roof of the house onto the birdfeeder. He skedaddles when I open the deck door, sometimes scurrying down the pole, at other times taking the plunge directly to the ground fifteen feet below. He invariably sits coyly on the far side of the feeder as he nibbles, blithely unaware, perhaps, that his long bushy tail is dangled there in plain sight. I’ve noticed that he eats less than the blue jays scatter when they visit. But he also keeps the birds away, and the feeding tray is hardly big enough to hold him.

Last night, as I was hauling the garbage can out to the street, I spotted four huge turkeys sitting in the trees above the neighbor’s house. I didn’t know they could fly so high.

Keats got it right in “Ode to Autumn”:
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too …

Monday, November 7, 2011

Deconstructing Ravel (or Debussy)

I never studied deconstructionism—that was after my time, thank God—but reading an on-line article in the Brittanica a few minutes ago, I learned that it was rooted in an effort to expose unsubstantiated and often false oppositions that guided intellectual inquiry implicitly. The authors of the encyclopedia article cite “nature and culture, speech and writing, mind and body, presence and absence, inside and outside, literal and metaphorical, intelligible and sensible, and form and meaning” as examples.

Personally, I don’t see what’s wrong with any of these oppositions, and would be hard-pressed to choose which is supposed to be “primary” and which “derivative.” I also begin to wonder what those (French) deconstructionist blokes would make of Hume’s oft-quoted set of oppositions between a)the natural and the unnatural; b) the natural and the artificial; and c) the natural and the supernatural. In each case, the meaning of “natural” changes slightly to fit the opposition. All three oppositions are illuminating, it seems to me.

I’ve thought of a similar set myself: truth and error, truth and falsehood, truth and darkness-and-confusion.

Among my great library-discard book finds of the last few years has been The Mirror of Ideas by Michel Tournier. I have never been able to enjoy the man’s novels, but this little volume stole my heart. It examines a long series of oppositions, some analytical, others poetic, such as willow and alder, railroad and highway, pleasure and joy, left and right, salt and sugar, tree and path. The analysis stands in the glorious tradition of Gaston Bachelard (The Poetics of Space), though the essays are much pithier and more entertaining.

There are also classic historical oppositions of personality to consider. Plutarch wrote several books about it. In our own day we have Grant and Lee, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Rousseau and Hume, Miles Davis and Chet Baker. I could go on and on.

One of the classic oppositions of our time is that of Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. Ravel is certainly the more popular of the two. In fact, based on revenue, Ravel is the most successful French musician of the twentieth century! This is, in part, a testament to how BAD French rock-n-roll has always been. But the statistic also reflects how wildly popular such works as Bolero and the Concerto in G have remained over the course of many decades. But we’re wandering from our point.

Ravel and Debussy both write in a shimmering “impressionistic” style. They probably influenced one another (little matter) and both were deeply influenced by “ethnic” music. Debussy drew from the gamelan music of Bali, Ravel drew from his Basque roots and from Greek and Hebrew melodies. Debussy was a closet Wagnerian. Ravel was a closet classicist, and that closet door was always ajar.

In the end, most of Debussy’s compositions turned out to be wandering, self-indulgent drivel. (That’s a little harsh.) Ravel never wrote a bad piece of music in his life. Some criticize him for never writing anything BIG.

Debussy’s greatest composition is an opera, Pelléas and Mélisande. Ravel’s is a smallish, but devilish, chamber work, Trio in A Minor. Both composers wrote a single string quartet, and the two are invariably paired on recordings. I’ve heard them both a thousand times, and until recently, I couldn’t tell you which was which.

But on Sunday I heard the Parker Quartet perform the Debussy Quartet in St. Paul, and the music poured forth. It’s so rewarding to hear the individual voices sing out, and to palpably feel how hard it must be to hold all that sinuous stuff together. Astounding.

So tonight I pulled out my seldom-played 3-CD set of Debussy’s Complete Chamber Music (Delos D235914). These are the box-sets you get for free from your “record club” when you’ve earned a bunch of “points” but no longer really want anything they have to offer. Back in the day.

Well, the CD I happened upon is one I’d never heard before. (In general, I don’t think that much of Debussy. Can you tell?) The entire CD contains music for piano four-hands. Great stuff!

The lesson being—never give up. Never shut the door…and never quit the record club.