A long line trails down the sidewalk outside of MOMA when we arrive. We squeeze through the line and go inside. I had preordered our tickets, and we acquire these at a counter inside the museum that has a very short line. We take the elevator to the exhibit “Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917.”
The exhibit is not fully satisfying. While I find Matisse compelling, and there are many paintings in the exhibit that I am very glad to see, the show is not cohesive. I’m unsure whether this is a consequence of the curation or the habit of Matisse. Was Matisse inventive or merely unsettled? Did he have an interesting, curious core that spurred intentional art or was he superficial and simply compulsive? I left the exhibit unsure.
exhibit, we wait in a long line to have lunch at the Museum. The line faces a Balthus painting of an
incipient sexual assault. At a
small table on the terrace, we appreciate the warm day after the coolness of
the galleries. We have tea, fruit,
We wander through the galleries. I am pleased finally to see Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”—to see the strength of the blues in the painting and how the unmasked women in the center look like Picasso. I am mostly tired from attention to the Matisse show. As we wander, I give attention to pieces here and there and think about art history as an evolutionary selective sweep. Stylistic mutations advance new influences, leaving the older, once normative ways of seeing to be purged. I think about the artists and art not on the walls of New York museums.
I watch the people in the galleries. We are as interested in the views from the windows as we are in art. The windows frame angular compositions of buildings as brick and stone Mondrians. The city juxtaposes classical, gothic, and modern forms, among which are inserted stabs and slabs of blue sky. I watch a man, perhaps a worker on break, sit on a roof across the street from the museum. He sits with his face to the sun, then holds his face in his hands, and, finally, he smokes a cigarette.
grows loud as the day transitions to evening. There are frequent screams and
hollers. I hold my fingers in my
ears. School groups and others
pour in the doors and through the galleries. It becomes difficult to view the art as the crowd grows
massive. I am stiff from standing,
tired from the concentration, and wearied by the crowd.
having lunch at Waterplace in Providence, and I have ordered tea. I turn the waiter’s statement over in
When I fix tea at home or in my office, I use boiling water, which leads me to regard boiling point as “normal” for tea water. My mind journeys to the possibility that Waterplace has developed a technique to exceed the boiling point of water while keeping it in a liquid phase. Waterplace . . . I think the name could imply that this seemingly unassuming restaurant acts as a secret center for studies of chemistry that challenge the laws of physics. I cautiously sip the tea, taking care to slurp, in case the water remains super hot.
In the art
museum of the Rhode Island School of Design, I enjoy seeing the paintings of
New England landscapes and exotic scenes by Winslow Homer, Martin Johnson
Heade, and Thomas Cole. A guard
tells us about Heade and his favorite paintings of Brazilian jungles. I thoroughly enjoy William Merritt
Chase’s painting ‘Portrait of a Lady in Pink’—it has the perfect impressionist
quality of melting form into swishes of light—the allusion of volume,
especially in the subject’s skirt, has been surrendered. There is also a small painting of a
boating party by John Singer Sargent.
The painting is languid, flatly lit, and its rusty tones fail to animate
its subjects. It’s so very
different from the large portraits set in umber backgrounds for which Sargent
is well known. We walk through the
galleries, where the Cezannes, Egyptian antiquities, and a large Buddha made of
Cryptomeria wood are especially
We retrieve our luggage from the hotel in the late afternoon and walk to the Amtrak station. On the platform where we wait, other people arrive. We adjust our location. Where is the best spot to enter a train? There must be an optimality theory to explain this; however, in lieu of theory and knowledge, I simply tug our luggage to a spot where I think few people will rush toward the same car.The train to New York arrives on time. We board and take seats. I flip the switch for my reading light, but it doesn’t come on. The reading light at my seat on our flight the night before also had not worked. Fortunately, I had a flashlight to use to read in the dark cabin of the airplane. I don’t care to spend another evening holding a flashlight to read—so we change seats.
After we’ve settled, I walk to the dining car for tea. I sway to the train as I carry the two teas in a cardboard holder back to our seats. We resettle with tea, cookies, and reading materials. I lift my book to read and then reach for a cookie—but this knocks my tray upward, upending the tea cup, which saturates the cookies with tea before the hot fluid pours to the floor between my legs. I go for another cup of tea.It is a beautiful trip southward through the evening. We enjoy the route around bays and through salt marshes. We pass old ports of fishing boats and newer sailboats. There are towns of Cape Cod houses and outlying hills of McMansions. I read Alan Furst’s recent Spies of the Balkans as we travel and manage to drink a cup of tea without spilling.
[Noto bene: The art museum at the Rhode Island School of Design is closed during August. This present tense essay actually refers to events that might have happened several weeks ago. The photos are a fragment of a relief sculpture (1525-1506 BC) of prisoners' faces taken from the temple at Karnak, the view of our hotel from our Waterplace lunch spot, the Cryptomeria Buddha in the RISD museum, a coffin of an Egyptian priest from 250 BC, and the arrival of our train to NYC.]
It is midnight. We step from baggage claim into maritime air—moist and cool. The disjunction of air travel—a modern oddity—wraps time in discomfort. It had been brightly sunny and aridly hot when we left Washington about noon. The hours of flight disappear in a miasma of immobility, in which muscles stiffen and the mind, racing impatience, searches the minutes for way stations.
Pulling our bags behind us, we walk to the taxi stand, find a cab, and begin our next journey. The driver has jazz on the radio. We look out of the windows at the trees and then the nightlights of the industrial margin of the city. A sense of the dark city begins to take shape, and we exit the freeway. We are downtown at a stoplight when the driver first speaks: “Been in Providence before?”
He is surprised when we say it is our first visit. In the block that remains between the stoplight and the Biltmore Hotel, where we will spend the night, the driver says, “It’s an interesting city. A lot to do.” He points left and says, “The art museum is up there at the Rhode Island School of Design. There’re wonderful restaurants. On Federal Hill—there are good Italian restaurants.” And we arrive at the Biltmore. I am beginning to taste pasta.
hear it before we saw it arrive in the eyes of our speaker. We were situated in a hilltop
building. There was a wall of
windows behind the speaker, and, in the early afternoon, the cords of the
window blinds began to move in the wind. “Knock . . . knock.” The weights at the bottoms of the blind cords banged
against the window sills. “Knock .
. . knock.” Soon someone was
closing those windows to stop the distracting knocks, but blinds’ slits
revealed the changing sky.
The other side of the building, the side faced by our speaker, was open to hills of dried grasses. A breeze came through this open wall to cool our meeting as we proceeded through the day into the early afternoon.
We could see
the eyes of the speaker, a visitor from the East Coast, lift periodically above
the faces of the audience. Those
of us at the margin could follow her gaze to look out of the open wall. The blue sky of the morning had gone—it
had fuzzed and yellowed. The
yellow seemed almost amoeboid—as if it extended by pseudopods, thick and
round-tipped—as it rounded the hills.
Then the sky was gone. The
fuzz had thickened, obliterating the horizon, shortening vision. Sky and landscape had become one—a
dense, brownish yellow plasm.
stopped. She stared, gape-jawed at
the surrounding scrim. “So this is a dust storm!” the speaker exclaimed.
had been our weather forecast for the day. Fresh winds out of the west have caught the dust of
harvests, amassing it in dense, dark clouds. This is the season of dust.
A member of
the audience responded to the speaker:
“This is how the hills formed.”
Our hills came
from dust. It was a time near the end
of the last continental glaciation some ten thousand and more years ago. Stone scoured and ground by glaciers
poured as floury outwash from the melting glacial ice. As the outwash dried, the particles
lifted into the wind and fell here, where winds gain rainy weight as they rise
on the western side of the Northern Rocky Mountains. They created this place called the Palouse, a landscape of rolling
may have been formed by glacial milling, but the dust storms in our wind do not
tell a story of glaciation. Our
thick dust storms are a consequence of agriculture.
the Pleistocene glaciations, the soils of arid eastern Washington developed
thick cyptobiotic crusts that consisted of algae, fungi, and bacteria. These complex crusts became integral to
the ecological dynamics in which water and elemental nutrients moved from
atmosphere and soil through plants and animals.
For thousands of years, those cryptobiotic crusts kept the
thick, glacially tilled soil intact.
The crusts, disturbed by agricultural machinery, disappeared along with
native vegetation. The soil, once
held by the crusts, was released to the wind. It blows away by inches and feet. On calm days, the soil swirls and rises in isolated
twisters. On a windy day when the
wheat is being harvested—a day like today—the soil lifts like a yellow curtain,
obliterating the sky.
When I arrived at home this evening, I wiped my finger across the kitchen countertop. A thick smear of yellow grit covered my finger. A kind of ecological displacement has been at work. It is surely a disaster for the land. It is a cleaning disaster for the house.
[The photograph above was shot into the sun as I came home from work.]
After we have crossed the Red Desert and begun our drive north, we find a ridge, banded with white and pink strata, that runs east to west. We go east along this ridge through a plain of sagebrush and shadscale. Sand makes mini volcanoes around sagebrush. There are pale umbels of buckwheat flowers and tight yellow heads of Rabbitbrush flowers.
We stop at a
crooked finger of beige stone that points southward from the ridge. Shallow caves have been hollowed from
the base of the stone. On facets
of stone near these caves we find petroglyphs. We walk from facet to facet and most are crowded with
designs. Incised striations and
hatching or arches appear to be abstract, and, yet, a zig-zag line could be a mountain
range or string of days. Many
designs are doodle-like but others offer a story that even those us who emerge
from cars can read. There is a hunt scene. There are various animals—elk, deer, dog, and bear. There
are many humans. Stick
figures. All are composed of
deeply incised lines.
We have camped in a matted opening in forest. It’s a hunters’ camp. The fire ring is the size of a volcano. Smashed cans and other debris litter the thin grass. Deer bones are strewn at the margin of the opening.
The early morning is bright and calm. The pines that circle our campsite appear yellowish in the morning light. They release yellowness. The truck accumulated overnight a film of yellow pine pollen. I sweep an index finger along the truck’s fender to gather a thick, scythe-like ridge of yellow pollen and gray dust on my fingertip.
I disturb the calm morning by opening and closing the truck door, setting up the stove, sloshing water, and then start the stove to roar. After a few minutes the roar loses power—the gas fuel canister is depleted. I change canisters. Soon, hot water spews from the tea kettle, which begins to whistle. I pull on a black, fleece pullover to sit facing the sun, tea in hand and book in my lap.
The shadows of mosquitoes dapple my photographs. Thousands of mosquitoes swarm my head when I stop, and, when I lie on the ground to make a photograph, the insect cloud shimmers as shadows in the camera’s viewfinder.
I sweep my hand around my head to clear the cloud. There are only moments now—to focus the camera, take a deep breath as I steady it, and then depress the shutter—before the swarm lands on my face and hair, which will shiver me, and I will feel the insect bites. Through all of that, the mosquitoes have been landing on my legs. After I snap the shutter, I slap and kill several. I must walk to avoid insect insanity.
We walk up a broad alpine slope near Powder River Pass. The fellfield blooms. As I walk, I write the names of the
flowers. Pygmy bitterroot. Pussytoe. Sky pilot. Sandwort
and its cousin, the moss campion. Shooting star. Two plants commonly called alpine forget-me-not, Myosotis alpestris and Eritrichium nanum, are here. Alpine aven. A paintbrush and a saxifrage. Wyoming kittentail, an old friend that has been included in several
of my publications over the years.
Rockcress. Larkspur. Lousewort. Western bistort.
A deer vertebra lies nested in grass blades and mountain
phlox. The tableau should incite a
story of the living and the dead, but I can think only of texture as I
look. The bone, weather bleached,
is minutely scabrous, where fissures and pores catch my fingerprint, unlike the
velvety petals of the phlox. The
petals flex and deform under my fingers, but my fingers are no match for the
hardness of bone. To get a
response from bone, I must use a fingernail to raise a dull scrape.
As we drive down the east slope of the Bighorn Mountains, I regret our departure. I dislike leaving mountains. The walking, botanizing, slow evenings warmed by a fire, dusk calls of birds and coyotes, the morning shivers of trees in a breeze, and the warmth of tea in the early sun will be missed—at least for a few days.
We stop in Buffalo, a pleasant town at the edge of the
plains where the population is lower than the elevation, for an early lunch at
a busy diner. I eat too much.
When we leave, Adrian takes the wheel of the truck for our
southward drive on fast interstate highway. I need to think about a research talk that I must give,
although I am distracted by the landscape. I would drive into the alluring hills and walk the
badlands. If only there were more
time to botanize.
We stepped into a sea. It was brilliantly blue in the morning sun and reflected sharp yellow dots. Patches of white broke the blue. We walked across this sea and went uphill. The bright blue came Myosotis alpestre, an alpine forget-me-not; the yellow from Geum rossii, the alpine aven; the white from assorted flowers, such as bistorts and sandworts. The lush alpine meadow of Little Bald Mountain, in the Bighorn Mountains, was like a walk through water.
We were there to look for Mertensia oreophila, the mountain bluebell, which is known only
from the Bighorn Mountains. It was
named several decades ago from collections made on Little Bald Mountain, which
makes it the type locality. When
we try to understand the concepts that earlier botanists had of the plants they
named, it can be important not only to examine herbarium specimens gathered
from various locations but also to the explore the diversity of the population
in the type locality. One or
perhaps a few specimens collected in a single gathering at one location serve
as the “type” on which a plant’s scientific name is based. That gathering represented by the type
may or may not represent well the variation characteristic of the population at
the type locality. We walked
across the alpine meadow of Little Bald Mountain, a type locality, to survey,
albeit informally, the diversity of mountain bluebell.
The air was so calm when we began to walk that the bistorts,
despite their long, spindly inflorescence stalks, stood still. It was cool, too, and I wore my anorak
as we walked up the slope. The rut
of an old track ran up the mountain slope. It was mentioned in an ecological study of this area
conducted a couple of decades ago.
That ecological study also noted a population of mountain bluebells near
a rock outcrop on the flank of the mountain, and that landmark directed my
The slope of the mountain was so gentle that we stopped only
twice to rest and catch extra breaths.
Around the rock outcrop, the meadow was disrupted and patches of exposed
soil could be seen around the stones.
The soil of the outcrop, displaying the effects of weathering of the
rocks, was more reddish than that on the rest of the slope. It was in the patches of exposed soil
that we found the mountain bluebell. I kneeled to examine them and then crawled around the meadow to make
When we had finished examining the bluebells, Adrian asked, “Do
you want to go to the top?”
“Yes,” I said, “I think it’s good to go to the tops of
mountains when you can. I think
about the time when I will no longer be able to walk to mountain tops. We should take advantage of easy strolls
We continued upward, walking over the false summit and on to the broad
flat top of Little Bald Mountain. More
mountain bluebells populated the summit, and I lay on the mountain top to get a
close look at them.
* * *
Photographs: Mertensia oreophila, meadow of Little Bald Mountain (photograph by A. Aumen), LH on summit of Little Bald Mountain (photograph by A. Aumen).