Sunday, October 30, 2011

A tornado, four months later

This past July a tornado wreaked havoc on my parents' property in rural Minnesota. It wasn't a big tornado and with their land so far removed from town it didn't make the news. The only evidence was the photos my mother took the next day, scenes filled with so much broken greenery it was difficult to decipher the destruction. The vertical lines of the woods had given way to jagged abstractions and profuse chaos. It remained that way for the rest of the summer, the starved leaves slowly dying on their broken branches.

Come autumn, the leaves have fallen and all that remains is the skeleton of the storm. Walking the paths takes some navigating, ducking under branches and scaling trunks. Some of the trees will become firewood for the sauna, stacked along the house and left to age until dry enough to burn. The rest will remain in the woods, hollowing and crumbling into detritus.

The best thing about nature is that even when it's broken it is beautiful. Then again, perhaps these are not scenes of brokenness but of forces so much bigger than us.

A swamp once named the most beautiful place on earth in a fit of youthful naturophlilia

Forgive the poor lighting but I think those roots are huge. Apparently the tornado did not.

Note that the tree trunk split entirely to the base

Homegrown happiness

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Cherries, the Eiffel Tower and thoughts on perspective

Every city has its iconic structure (or structures). Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Seattle has the Space Needle and no trip to Washington D.C. is complete without seeing the Washington Monument, among others. As a tourist, one is compelled to go and stare in awe of said structures, forced to take photos and comment on the sheer size of _______.

Yet from the ground, the Eiffel Tower looks essentially the same in real life as it does on a postcard except for the addition of hordes of fellow tourists, security guards and dirty pavement. I want to see it from the utmost top, looking down. Or laying on the ground, looking up. Few people get that experience, few postcards capture it for mass-market inundation. It would be new, a fresh sight.

In Minneapolis, we don't have any famous structures jutting into the sky but we do have the cherry and the spoon. This seems suitably Midwestern, a style favoring enigmatic representations of daily life over grandiose gestures. Officially named "Spoonbridge and Cherry," the sculpture is one of the most photographed sites in the city. Yet nearly all of the photos show the same perspective: the long side view of the spoon with the cherry perched jauntily at its tip. The truly original pose so as to be picking or eating the cherry, or perhaps even wielding the handle of the spoon.

I've lived in Minneapolis for over four years now and for four years I resisted the draw of the spoon and cherry. "Have you been to the Sculpture Gardens?" people ask. No. "You've never seen the cherry and the spoon?" Well, yes, I have. It's on every visitor's guide to Minneapolis and hundreds of postcards.

Then last Thursday I found myself with a guest, a sunny morning and the Sculpture Gardens a block away from her departure point. And there we were, standing before the cherry and the spoon.

From the side it looked (as I thought it would) just like the postcards. Yet postcards never show the view as seen above, with the handle inviting you to walk right up over the water. Rather than a simple object of contemplation, the cherry now seems only seconds from consumption.

Why is this view second-rate?

Why don't more people take pictures laying on the ground beneath the Eiffel Tower?

Why do we accept the standard view as the one we should admire?

By only noticing, photographing, writing about the socially accepted norms we perpetuate those norms. Yet there are more sides to every structure, more perspectives on every culture. Standing where everyone else stands does not guarantee an authentic experience of reality -it just means you've been lost in a crowd.

R: Why are you photographing broken electrical panels?
B: Why not?
The broken glass and wires made as much sense as anything else in the Sculpture Garden so I kept the photo.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The other kind of hiking

At age 13 I went on a hike with my sister Katie. She was working on her Ph. D at the University of Utah and I was visiting her over fall break. A brilliant geophysicist, my sister loves being surrounded by rocks. Where other people look at canyons and mountains and see interesting formations and pretty colors, Kate sees fault lines, compositions and millenia of plate tectonics at work.

Let's walk to the university, she suggested, and take a little detour through the foothills for a more scenic route.  Scenery sounds nice, I agreed, and off we went.

Several hours into the walk I realized why we had packed water bottles and an entire picnic. Though her school was only a mile or so away from her apartment, I was now standing five miles up a mountain. "Foothills" be damned - I was breathing pure oxygen and treading carefully high above dark canyons.

Here's a little Geophysics 101: when speaking with a geophysicist, notions of scale differ greatly. A layman's eternity is a rock scientist's millisecond. "Little" detours compare accordingly. Hence my position atop a mountain far from any sign of the city.

Ten miles up and down rock faces did a number on my feet. I had borrowed her sneakers, only a half-size too small, and when I took them off I was greeted with bloodied socks. A few toenails had turned purple and two months later, during the family Christmas celebration, they fell off.

Yesterday was not that kind of hike.

Yesterday involved actual hills (not mountains) and more scenery-gazing than walking. Hills are hard to find in Minnesota, a land mostly shaved clean by the glaciers. To gain a little vertical perspective - at least in the eastern half of the state - the best places to go are the Mississippi and the St. Croix river valleys.

I live along the Mississippi but for my birthday expedition I wanted something new. I wanted glacier deposits, frozen lava flows and remnants of ancient fault lines. Perhaps I'm more like Katie than I realized - I like rocks too, though I'd rather write about them than measure them.

Four of us set off for Interstate Park, so named because it straddles the St. Croix River in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. We walked. We talked. When the ascent wore us down we sat and looked down at the valley below.

We had initially agreed upon a five-mile loop but I don't think we made it three. It didn't matter. The scent of the pine cones underfoot mingled with smoke from scattered campsites and the leaves above and below us shuddered in anticipation of the winter. We shivered too, at first, but as we warmed up as we climbed.

It gets dark early now and so as evening fell we followed the sinking sun down the narrow path to the car. Back on the highway signs at first advertised "Pumpkin' Chuckin' here" and corn mazes, then Gander Mountain sporting goods stores and Dairy Queens. Eventually the signs and billboards disappeared to make room for converging highways and we were back in Minneapolis.

At home in our top-floor apartment in an early 1900s brownstone I put a lasagne in the oven and put the tea kettle to boil. We were cold and the hills-induced aches were settling in but our toenails were still firmly attached. Come Christmas I bet mine still will be.

*Hey there Kate - if you're up for climbing mountains again I've got my own hiking shoes and I don't ask "Are we there yet?" every five minutes anymore. I like your kind of hiking too.