Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday

It was a good Friday. We jettisoned our plan to visit the open pools at the Blackdog Plant and instead headed north to the Coon Rapids Dam. Along the way we stopped at a Peace Park just north of I-694 and wandered down to the Mississippi, where we spotted some common mergansers and also a few golden eyes.

A bit further up East River Road we stopped at the Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts, which is housed in a Greek Revival building dating back to 1847. There wasn’t much traffic on the road, the building is ensconced in woods just south of a park where Rice Creek flows into the Mississippi, and it wasn’t too difficult to imagine the scene 150 years ago, when it served as a tavern and inn for the Métis who brought the ox carts down from Pembina, on the Canadian border, laden to overflowing with buffalo hides.

Those rough-and-ready outdoorsmen would be surprised to see what's become of their tavern.  It’s an art center now, with a gift shop and an exhibition space. There are paintings and tapestries on the walls in the front room and a miniature lecture hall off to one side. Upstairs two elderly women were doing chalk studies from life of two teenaged kids posing on the other side of the room—fully clothed, hooded sweatshirts and all.

There was also a “writer-in-residence” room on the second floor, but it was empty. The writer herself may have been talking on her cell in the room across the way.

 But the room I liked best was the art library, sandwiched between the studio and the writer’s eyrie. One wall was loaded, floor to ceiling, with old art books. I felt like I was back in McCosh’s bookstore, or B & H. Of course, the books weren’t for sale, and that was better yet. I have plenty of old art books I haven’t read at home. I recognized quite a few of the titles on the shelves.

Back downstairs, the friendly receptionist—she may have been the program director for all I know—filled us in on some of the rumors about ghosts, and trap doors, and tunnels leading off toward the river. Not long ago they hired some experts to determine if an occult presence could be verified. The results were inconclusive. But I could almost believe her. The building has a fine, arty, antique, resonance. I took a picture of what appeared to be a fleeing ghost just as I was descending the stairs.

 Our next stop was the Coon Rapids dam. I didn’t want to pay the five dollar parking fee but I’m glad we did. In the pools above the dam and on the river further upstream we saw scads of hooded mergansers, one pelican, rafts of coots, geese galore, a few shovelers, and also a smattering of scaup and ring-necked ducks. One obligatory eagle (immature) rose up from the beautiful aspen woods.

It's quite emotional, and almost thrilling, to see hundreds of ducks of several species milling about, lifting off and descending somewhere else, obeying instincts or rituals that have driven them for countless generations. 

We were walking in some places along the groomed but fading ski trails. The coloring is still nice, with the dogwoods and willows shouting out more brightly than ever. But skiing is over.

After a quaint lunch at the Cajun Potluck in a strip-mall in Shoreview, we made a final stop at the Rice Creek Regional Park in Centerville (where our Anoka County Parks parking fee was still valid). After viewing the fine collection of stuffed ducks and owls and grouse in the visitor center, we tromped out through the wet snow toward the marshes that make up the better part of the park. Along the way we saw goldfinches (now rapidly turning yellow) and a couple of mourning doves.

But our best sighting occurred on our way back to the car. We heard something that sounded a little like a woodpecker. Then I looked up and said, “Are those sandhill cranes flying overhead?”

“That’s what I thought I heard,” Hilary said. And at that moment, they clucked again, as if to leave no lingering doubts about their identity.

 “The migration is afoot,” I said. But then began to wonder out loud whether the word “afoot” can be applied to a vast movement taking place hundreds of feet in the air.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Dissidents at the Russian Museum

The Museum of Russian Art is always a good bet for a Friday morning visit, and its current duo of shows offer a fascinating aesthetic contrast. The basement of the former church holds an extensive exhibit of brass and bronze devotional icons once owned by members of the Old Believers, a diverse group of worshipers who rejected the reforms instituted during the 17th century by Patriarch Nikon involving such things as how many fingers ought to used when making the sign of the cross.

Many of the icons were cast at a foundry at a monastery on the Vyg River in Karelia, in Russia’s far north. A few introductory placards describe the strife-torn period, followed by a room full of Plexiglass cases displaying numerous examples of several themes popular at that time. Some have been decorated with enamel, others have not. Many of the objects are small—perhaps three inches square—and it requires some effort to scrutinize them carefully.

Viewed one by one, these delicate objects put one in that lovely frame of mind in which a single image can encapsulate not only the history of the universe but also its moral valence—a  shepherd, the Virgin mother offering succor, a suffering victim on the cross. But eventually, they all begin to look alike…

At that point, you might as well go upstairs into the main gallery, where “spiritual” art of an entirely different kind awaits you. This show features seventy paintings, drawings, sculptures, and installations by contemporary Russian artists devoted in one way or another to the expression of religious sentiments that were illegal in the explicitly atheistic Soviet Union.

It’s quite a privilege to stand in the presence of these works by dissident artists who risked their livelihoods and sometime their lives to exhibit in apartments and obscure store-front venues during the Stalinist era and beyond. Often the shows were closed down by the KGB in a matter of days, sometime bulldozed into oblivion. During the 1960s Tatiana Kolodzei began collecting these pieces, and the Kolodzei Art Foundation now contains seven thousand of them.

The ones chosen by the curators of the current show differ widely in medium and thrust, of course, from Dimitry Gerrman’s beautiful Giacometti-like bronze, “The Last Journey,” of a man rowing his heart out in a little boat, to paintings that capture the essence of St. George slaying the dragon or the Last Supper in a few colorful daubs.

Unlike the artifacts in the basement, relatively few of these works are blatantly devotional. Yet a religious sensibility gives the show a gravity and feeling that’s often absent from similar exhibits we might stumble upon at the Walker, stewing in their campy or ironic or self-referential juices.

Perhaps the most “Americanized” piece is a conceptual one cooked up by Komar & Melamid Inc., a duo of artists who set up shop buying souls in the United States to resell in Russia. The accompanying description helps the viewer conjure elements of Western capitalism and celebrity, the sale of church indulgences, and the Russian “soul” into a mélange that tickles the brain while going nowhere.

More satisfying is the rendering of a huge headlight by Konstantin Khudyakov. The piece is called “The Eye of an Angel” and the careful observer will notice that each of the tiny photographic images that make up the bulk of the piece is slightly different. (Bring your magnifying glass.) Regardless of such nuances, it’s a fascinating image to view in the aggregate.

 Next door to Khudyakov’s huge piece are six photos printed on aluminum panels of New York fire hydrants. The accompanying text reads like poetry.

Some of the pieces might be described as “primitive,” others “constructivist,” and there’s a tablet near the door to the gift shop—half black, half covered with minute gold script—that’s strangely affecting.

I also liked the photo of the Madonna that evokes comparisons with Dürer and Van Eck, and the video of a woman dragging a cross-shaped raft up a river and then riding it downstream, again and again and again.  

All of this emotion had given me an appetite. We stopped in at The Lynn on Bryant. Great food. Cramped quarters. I learned a great deal about a lady’s upcoming trip to India, and I also learned that she doesn’t know where Omaha is. Her daughter’s boyfriend got a job recently and Amazon, and…

 But the duck confit with red cabbage was superb, and so was Hilary’s coq au vin.   

Monday, March 18, 2013

Bayfield Weekend

 The man shoveling snow in front of the visitor’s center is wearing a bright green stocking cap.
“I’ve got to take your picture in front of this handsome building,” I say. “That cap is perfect.” It was, indeed, a fine sandstone building, and the hat lit up the scene.
“I got this from the transportation department when I was plowing roads earlier in the winter,” the man replies cheerfully. “It’s nice to see some people in here. It gets kind of lonely.”
He didn’t seem lonely. Tall, gray hair, medium build. Early sixties?

“The guys at the entry building suggested we take the Sundance Trail out that way,” Hilary said.
"I don’t know if I’d go that way. It’s a little hillier, but the trail runs right through the worst of the blow-down. There’s a lumber crew out there now cleaning some of it up. It’s more scenic here on the bluff above the river. We spotted some swans down there last week.”
“We’re just out on a weekend ramble,” I said. “We were thinking to ski the After Hours Trails in Brule, but decided on a whim to cut across country and ended up here.”
“That’s what I’ve got to do. Work less, travel more. This is a snowmobile park, you know. Have you skied at Wild River? They have quite a few good trails there.”
“Not in a long time. But O’Brien is among our favorites.”
“I applied for a job there recently. Didn’t get it. Well, it was only seasonal. This is year-round. Maintenance … and security.” 
I got the impression he didn’t much like the security aspect.
“Here’s a question for you," I ask. "Do you pay these loggers to come in and clean up the blow-downs, or do they pay you?”
“The state is making a million and a half selling the wood,” he says, almost proudly.

We head off along the trail, following the edge of the bluff above the St. Croix. The river is mostly frozen over but there is a ribbon of intense, steely blue running through the whiteness along the far bank, and also some pools of open water here and there amid the river-bottom sloughs just below us. Some of the trees we pass are snapped off thirty feet up, others are down, but quite a few are upright and intact.
Red oak leaves in clusters dot the former woods here and there on the far side of the road, where the damage was worse and the debris has been removed. The devastation goes on as far as the eye can see in that direction, but under the cover of snow, it all looks quite natural and even lovely. And I suppose it is.
On the way out of the park, we spot some turkeys crossing the road up ahead, and later flush a little flock of birds a few of which alight not far ahead in a dead tree. Redpolls.


Emerging from the woods onto the roar of Highway 53 after a long and fairly monotonous drive from Danbury to Minong, we pirouette toward an A & W (not yet open for business) and end up at the Friday fish fry at Grandma Licks. It’s a log cabin affair with a bar and a gift shop. The fireplace you pass as you walk in is fake, but it’s cheery and warm. Two poker machines stand against one wall. The TV above the bar is showing an episode of Redneck Vacations, and the one in the corner is blaring a fast-paced episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. A black man with a two-day stubble and three bottles of beer in front of him sits in a dark corner of the restaurant proper. We prefer it out here in the bar with the fireplace and the windows.
Our theory is that the fish will come right away. It’s probably already cooked! But at 2:30 in the afternoon that happens not to be the case.
“We normally don’t start serving the fish fry until 5:30,” our waitress informs us. “But I could put in an order if you want. Do you want the two-piece dinner or the all-you-can-eat?”
So we sit and chat, and Hilary learns a little something over my shoulder about a vacation during which a group of women ride around on cows, and I get the inside story on a restaurant in the Castro District of San Francisco where they serve a good-looking shrimp po’ boy and 300 kinds of whisky. We step over to the window one after the other to examine the furs hanging there on a rack. You can get a skunk for $35, a coyote for $70.
Finally our fish arrives on two big platters. “Gee, now I wish I’d ordered all-you-can-eat,” I remark facetiously.
“Yeah, right,” our waitress smirks in reply.

The fish—two fillets of haddock sitting on a bed of hash browns—is flaky and flavorful. The breading is medium crisp, and everything is piping hot. I don’t know how they could have done it better for $7.95, or at any price. Long before we’re though we’ve agreed that dinner won’t be necessary. A can of cold beets or some crackers and cheese will surely suffice.

The Knee
Our room in Bayfield is high up on a hill. It has three picture windows looking out on Madeleine Island and Chequamegon Bay. Far to the left we can see tiny specks of light as cars putter back and forth from the island across the ice.
The bursitis in my knee is flaring up again. That made for a long night. I take a steroid I happen to have on hand and sit on the bed with an icepack on the knee. No skiing today. That’s too bad, but it’s also fun staring out across the whiteness, digging a little deeper into our books.
We’re on our second pot of coffee. We’re on retreat. Hilary’s enjoying it. “I haven’t written in my journal since we were in Maine,” she says.
The knee will loosen up. We’ll go into town later to see about buying some fresh fish, and maybe stop at a thrift store. I didn’t pack so well—didn’t even bring an extra shirt. If I find a classy or rugged flannel shirt, I’ll be saying for the rest of my days, “Hilary, do you remember where I got this shirt?” How deadly dull: the myth of the shirt. Even duller, perhaps, is the report I’ll give you later about the book I’m reading, Leibnitz in 90 Minutes.

No one can study philosophy for long, I suspect, without getting annoyed by the traditional accounts of the difference between analytic and synthetic propositions. Leibniz may or may not have been among the first to formalize these things. According to the author of the book I’m reading, he added a third type of concept to the discussion—sufficient reason.

An analytic proposition is one in which the subject contains the predicate. For example: “All bachelors are unmarried.” All we’re saying here is that the word bachelor means “someone who is unmarried.” Why does it mean that? Because that’s the meaning the word has taken on over time. It’s a definition of the term. It’s a convention.
Many mathematically statements are similarly tautological. Thus, when we say 2 + 2 = 4, all we’re saying is that 2 + 2 and 4 are two names for the same thing. Why? Because we’ve agreed to that taxonomic convention. There is nothing holy about such a statement, and it would be philosophically inaccurate to say that it’s “true.” Rather, it’s conventional. Following a different convention, we might with equal strength assert that 2 + 2 =  11. I’m referring, of course, to the fact that although we’re used to using base 10 conventions, there are plenty of other conventions available. Computers use base 2. In base 3, 2 + 2 =11.
But none of these statements is very interesting, and none of them is true. There is an entirely different type of statement much more interesting that any of these. It’s a statement that involved a relation other than simple identity or definition. For example: The whole is greater than the parts. This statement is true by definition, but it also carries a relation between the two terms that is logically necessary without being a mere tautology.
Is there any value to such ninnying phrases? I think so. For example, the Buddhists say “All is illusion.” But “illusion” is one of those words that have meaning only in the context of a phrasal group. (I’m sure there’s a linguistic term from such things.)

It’s been snowing all morning, off and on. We head downtown to Bodin’s fresh fish warehouse (pronounced Bow-DEENS rather than the more typical Boo-DAHNS), where we pick up some whitefish fillets. They fish all winter with nets through holes in the ice. I ask the lad how they get the nets in and out.

“We use a floating board made of wood. You shove it into one hole in such a way that it bobs up in the next one. Then you pull it out and you’ve got the means to drag the net through.”
“Do you go to St. Scholastica?” I ask him, pointing at his sweatshirt. “No,” he replies, as if that were the most ridiculous thing  he’d ever heard…though I think he was flattered I’d asked.
At the Apostle Islands Bookstore we chat with the proprietor, Demaris Brinton, about her dog, a miniature husky. Her friend has been running a wine store down the street, and she’s going to expand into a vacant barber shop next door. “She’s also been expanding her beer selection—in response to the tastes of the local clientele.”
All we need now is a thrift store on the same block and civilization will be complete.
“Do you have pets?” she asks us.
“No...We travel a lot.”

Her husband walks through the door like a vision of avuncular friendliness, and we soon learn that he’s been touring the Mississippi from the bluff region all the way to Itasca. I’d like to hear more but they have a shop to run and we’ve been bending Demaris’s ear for quite a while now.
We promise to stop in at the wine store, but don’t, seeing as how we have a bottle or two back at the room. Rather, we drive down to the ferry dock to see the ice highway, but decide against going across to Madeleine Island. There is no real reason to go, and we’d be tempting fate just for the thrill of crossing all that ice amid the snow flurries.
Later, back at the motel we mention our lack of nerve to Mike, the motel proprietor. He’s out in his shorts, shoveling the parking lot with a snow pusher.

“You were smart,” he said. “We’ve lost three people this winter—three locals—to the ice. Jim Hudson was a well-known, well-liked ice-fishing guide. He left his party at their tents and headed off with a colleague to scout out another location. Everything he did was wrong. Didn’t have a life vest on, didn’t have ice poles, didn’t have a cell phone. He shouldn’t even have been on the snowmobile. You’re supposed to test the ice on foot, drill a little hole, see how the ice is, and then bring up the sleds. I don’t know what he was thinking. It makes me angry every time I think about it.”
Mike then told us about the two bartenders from LaPointe who went through after a night of drinking in Bayfield. The one driving was reported to have said he was going to scare the living daylights out of his buddy.

Hilary goes for a ski down by the waterfront in front of the motel. Then we drive up to Cornucopia, a village twenty miles away on the north side of the peninsula, facing the big lake. The road is clean but the wind is whipping up snow devils from off the drifts and trees near the ditches. Then the clouds break, turn lumpy, and the sun comes out. At Meyers Beach we look out at all the broken ice and the bright blue water beyond. It looks like a scene from a Herzog movie.

Evening Light
The late end of the afternoon is very fine. We’ve been out; now we’re in. I finish the little book about Leibniz, read a dreadful short story by Nabokov, play some chess with the computer and resign a game in which I have a definite advantage but no motive for pressing it home. Then it’s the New York Review of Books: articles about Chinese foreign policy and Beethoven and religion without god. So much to learn about.
We drink tea from a variety pack Hilary picked up at the store in town on our way back to the motel. As I wait in the car, I see two women get out of their cars and embrace—not a long, serious embrace but a brief, friendly embrace. They may be neighbors; they could have been my friends. We might have gone to college together. Now we’ve drifted apart. They had kids, we didn’t. They had money, we didn’t. People go their ways. Who can explain it? 
So many lives going on all around us. Here is the point at which Leibniz got a little bit right. We all live within our own skin, we’re all monads—souls, if you will. And the rocks on the beach are the same way, and the waves, and the holes in the ice. What Leibniz failed utterly to recognize is that souls interact. They affect one another, drawing towards or repelling. They form clusters of affection.

Morning Ski
We arrive at the Pike Creek Trailhead by 8:45. It’s five below down in the valley, warmer up above. It snowed seven inches during the night. The air is crystal clear, as exhilarating as Colorado

We’ve skied here before. Across some fields and then one murderous hill will take us down to the creek. We walk down, respecting the still-dubious knee. From there on its 90 minutes through the woods, part of it shuffling through new-fallen snow, and the rest on wide trails groomed by the ski resort to our south. Tracks here and there. And at one point we hear a pack of howling coyotes. There’s a thick hemlock wood on the south bank of the creek. The creek itself is mostly frozen over, but you can hear it murmuring.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Swedish Institute: Sámi to You

Way back when, looking at a scale model of the planned addition to the American Swedish Institute in its little Plexiglas case, I always imagined it would contain exhibition halls that would free the Turnblad Mansion to be just what it is—a mansion. Evidently I didn’t look very closely.

Exhibits are still being mounted in the mansion’s rooms and corridors. But perhaps the addition has given the Institute something even better—a café. I’m not sure why they located the café in the lobby of the new building, but it lends a pleasant bustle to the place, both for those who have come for lunch and for those who’ve come to see an exhibit or take a class. The food is consistently better than average. It’s the kind of food that elicits gustatory double-takes. There are invariably flavors behind or above or in the midst of other flavors.

We stopped in the other day with friends to see the exhibit Eight Seasons of Sápmi, The Last of the Sámi People. But we paid a visit to café first. I ordered the pork belly and cabbage soup, followed by a fried cod smorga with onions, grapefruit, and remolade. Very tasty stuff, and it hardly seemed to matter when it occurred to me they’d forgotten to include the fish. Hilary pointed to a big brown ball on one corner of the toast.

“There’s the cod,” she said.

“Oh, I thought that was a potato!”

Other things on offer include white asparagus with house-cured gravlax, smoked almonds, pine syrup & shallot emulsion; fingerling potatoes in a creamy herb sauce, capers & anchovy; juniper-spiced meatballs with potato purée, cucumber, lingonberry & mustard sauce…and these are just a few of the side dishes.

We wrapped up the meal with coffee and a few ginger cookies and went down the hall to the exhibit.

The Sámi people have been living north of the Arctic Circle for centuries, if not millennia, herding reindeer back and forth from summer to winter pastures without leaving much of a trace. The exhibit consisted of various articles of clothing, hand-made tools, hide bags, woven belts, and other stuff, along with photos both historic and contemporary and two very interesting films. One showed a bunch of teenagers getting drunk and racing around on their snowmobiles. The other followed the reindeer herd and showed the perils of traveling cross-country in winter, among other things.

I noticed on one of the display posters that the Sámi  have eight seasons rather than four. We Minnesotans could probably put a few to good use.

Gidáddálvve is when there’s still snow on the ground but the sun begins to shine more brightly. Gidá is spring pure and simple. Then there comes the one we in Minnesota get so much of. Gidágeisse refers to the period when there’s warmer weather but still no greenery—but no mosquitoes either.