Art, Life & Everything
Lean and hungry for art. That’s what I’m thinking these days. Capillaries’ nuance of love, intensification of desire. For Metaphor. The poet and my thesis advisor Jim Whitehead settled in his chair, his photo on my office door, reminds me, I am where I should be. Should is one of my worst enemies. I realize I have no idea where I am supposed to be.
The openness of an artistic personality allows for curiosity. I let the future unfold. My son sometimes is mystified. If it has been raining for weeks and the sun suddenly comes out as we’re leaving a grocery store parking lot, I will turn west, toward Whiskeytown National Park, rather than back east, toward home.
“Where are we going, Mom?”
“The sun came out.”
“I thought we could watch the sun set over the lake.”
“But where are we going?”
“I don’t know yet. We’ll see where the best view is when we get there.”
He has integrated my artistic personality into his psyche now; he understands that we sometimes go where the front of the car takes us. This summer, we decided to go to Disneyland by way of Pismo Beach, because it was famous and beachy, and because I had not been there yet. He was quite annoyed with the long stay on the cold beach in the morning. “Shouldn’t we just keep driving?” he asked. “It’s cold out here.”
We live in Redding, California, and yet we call the whole state of California home. That’s because I’m not afraid to drive it. From the Sierras to the Trinities, the high desert of SoCal to the Siskiyou summit.
I do driving outdoors artistic adventures. I used to call them nature adventures. I have come to see the two as one and the same. My artistic temperament was formulated a long time ago, when I used to walk the property line with my father to inspect the magnolia blossoms, the azaleas, the rose bushes (always eaten by Japanese beetles), and the corn and the tomatoes. Later in life, my father went out each morning to feed the fish he had caught in the Delaware River and at Lake Nockamixon and then stocked in our own back yard pond, Purina Trout Chow from a small enamel basin. He loved to watch the channel cats come up from the bottom first, their cloud of sediment announcing their arrival, then their whiskers appearing briefly on the surface between the churn of sunfish and largemouth bass. The fisherman became a sentimental old fool who just wanted to look at the fish. He too was an artist, down underneath it all. We all stood on the bank of the pond beside him in his delight in our morning adventures.
The artistic temperament comes from the earth. The elements that pound that shape the earth call forth the artist within all of us.
That’s my theory. I grew up learning to love art by loving the natural world, the turn of seasons in the cold of Northeastern Pennsylvania. I grew up with the importance of going and looking.
In a few weeks, I will be in San Diego again. I visit one painting by Peter Hurd that is part of the permanent collection at the San Diego Museum of Art. I have an art print of that painting, “The Eve of St. John,” on my wall at home. A young girl stands in the twilight of the desert, sheltering her candle from the inevitable wind. Her beauty and happiness and the quality of light draw me back to the painting every year.
Bullhead and Balboa
Standing in Balboa Park in San Diego, California, looking down the long reflecting pool near the museum populated by artists and photographers, jugglers and musicians, I feel I am in some version of paradise, California style. Open sky above me is constantly blue, or rainy for what seems like a few minutes, and the only troubling aspect is the parking lot. I walk the length of the pool, looking at the large koi, pondering their life among tossed coins. Then I stop, shocked. There, below me, not three feet away, is a bullhead.
Nothing beautiful about a bullhead. This ratty catfish resident of swamp waters comes from my hometown in the Delaware River Valley, Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania. Bullhead is native to brackish ooze, littered with rotting leaves, bullfrogs, and rich, cold blackwater. The Delaware River has swift, unpredictable currents that fold into layers of shale and have sucked many a good swimmer down under. The current is legendary. I lived in fear of the underwater demons of mud, of dying down there with those bottom feeders. “They make a good chowder,” I remarked to my friend. You don’t want to eat a whole slab of bullhead. Too muddy-tasting. But in a soup with plenty of butter and salt, you can stomach the bony flesh.
I could not help but remember then Abbie Hoffman’s last stand, the Point Pleasant Pumping Station, the brainchild of the misnamed Neshaminy Water Resources Authority. Hoffman joined the protest to “Dump the Pump,” an attempt to save the environment. The water would be sucked up from the river bottom and pumped to draught-suffering areas of Bucks and Montgomery Counties, and to the Limerick Power Plant in Philadelphia. The protest was eventually lost when company appeals took the case to the state level, where politicians were wined and dined handsomely. The grassroots movement, blocking the roadway on my drive to work in 1983 with shouting protestors bitter with Pennsylvania cold, died, as did Hoffman, of suicide.
In Balboa Park in January, wearing a light jacket, this memory seems biblical. Something mythic that determined the fate of everything that followed. Eye to eye with a bullhead in a reflecting pool in Balboa Park.
Delaware River Chowder
My father taught me to fish when I was very young. We’d hike along the Delaware Canal to a place he called Widewater. We cast our lines and pulled up bluegills if we were lucky, carp if we weren’t. One day, I even snagged a snapping turtle. He fought me all the way to shore, but once we were eye to eye and I lifted him toward the bank, he took one great from claw and swept the hook out of his mouth. I guessed that on all fours, he simply fought me, but once I began to lift his legs, he took his freedom and his last chance in one swipe. I remember how like a hand the claw looked as it raked the claw free. Then he was gone in a cloud of sediment.
In the early days of his river antics, the whole family would meet him after he’d spent the night out on Bull’s Island, an island in the Delaware accessible only by pedestrian bridge. We were young teens by then, and he took us along on boat trips to Lake Nockamixon. My mother sent bologna and cheese sandwiches. I can still taste the massed ooze of earthworms on my fingers whenever I eat bologna. Rarely, my brother and I agreed to go together in the ten-foot john boat. Our bickering disturbed the fish, my father said, and he preferred to take us one at a time. We traded off until summer’s end, when we were all tired of bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish on Friday nights and bullhead chowders on Sunday afternoons.
My father never let us fish the river with him. The dangers of the Delaware’s undercurrents and the steep, muddy banks were too much of a challenge. He fished the river solo. When he brought back bullheads, we ate catfish chowder.
I pulled up a bullhead now and then along the canal. My father showed me the barbs behind the pectoral and dorsal fins, the wide, roving eyes, and the whiskers. We watched the fish suck at the air, and then we threw them back. “They clean the bottom,” my father would say, as they disappeared into the merciless slime.
The last time he fished the river, he slipped on wet leaves and catapulted down the bank while straining to pull up a bullhead. He broke his finger. I saw the jagged finger no longer held its steady direction, his right ring finger. He was in deep pain. A trip to the doctor and a few weeks on a splint, and he was healed. However, there were people around when he fell. He was near the boat ramp across from Tinicum Park, and a whole host of young fathers and their children ran over to help him out of the muddy sandpool that had captured him. They landed the bullhead for him. He could never live it down. We both quit fishing then.
Summers along the Delaware River in Upper Black Eddy were not all that hot, but they were humid. Clothes and small gnats would stick to skin and need to be peeled off. We swam in the stone quarry upriver near Kintnersville, parking along River Road and marching past the No Trespassing signs to the clear, deep pools where the land had been raked clean of stone. Rain filled the cavernous pocks in the earth, and when the sediment cleared, we could almost see the bottom. The steep mounds of earth provided a good lookout toward the river and a good diving board. If we walked in slowly, our toes gushed with slime until we could float away from the bank into the cool still water.
Most of the people I knew who swam here on dates dropped out of school to have babies, then raised their children while they worked at the James River Paper Company, a Virginia company that bought out our local paper mill. They took their kids swimming down past the No Trespassing signs.
The river current was a powerful psychic force churning in my imagination. The distance along the Delaware Canal from Easton to New Hope is about forty-three miles. Kintnersville is about seven miles north of Upper Black Eddy along the river and a long way from Easton. On the way north, the view along the river is stunning, revealing, and harrowing, as the road itself seems to wind precariously along the small stretches of land between the river and the canal, crossing over the canal sometimes to lean into the river itself, and crossing back along the locks of the canal over old one-lane bridges. Most of these spots flooded annually, and recently, almost all of downtown Upper Black Eddy washed into the river. It is lowland, unpredictable. My father told a story about a dam breaking during the flood of 1955. He was standing in ankle deep water swirling upward around the axles of his car, and he managed to jam the car into drive and wash across the rising water before it engulfed him. Others were not so lucky. Whole houses washed downstream to Philadelphia.
In summers, when I was old enough to ignore the warnings about the river from my parents, I drove the distance halfway to Easton where a small island extends out into the Delaware, an island called Hog Island. There is a small parking lot at the canal lock, as the whole length of the Delaware Canal is a protected state historic park. The island is barely visible through the trees, and only a native dweller of the region would even know of its existence. Well north of Bull’s Island, this particular island is green with strong maples and oaks, but frequently, much of it is underwater during the winter months. In summer, sometimes it is dry enough long enough that a person can walk across the stones of the shallow area to reach the island. Otherwise, one needs a canoe, like the dugouts used by the Lenni Lenape. A slender and agile boat is best in these changeable waters.
At eighteen, I waded out alone to Hog Island and stayed up late to watch the sun set, made camp and dozed by the fire until morning to watch the sunrise over the river fog. The edges came unfurled. I walked the stones to the island’s headwaters to watch the current crease and walked the stones back down stream to watch the waters converge. I fell in love with American impressionism born from a long night in river fog.
In between my sophomore and junior year at the University of Delaware, I went to work for my mother, the administrative assistant to the newly renovated James A. Michener Art Museum. I helped transport some of the paintings of the New Hope School of American Impressionism collection to their new home within the museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. One of my favorites was by Redfield, “The Frozen River.” I rented a small apartment along the river bank on the river’s east side, looking back at Redfield’s New Hope.
Steelhead and Heroism
The painters and the fishermen have the river in common. Here in California, I am astounded at the division between environmentalists and sportsmen. Hunters and fishermen are the people who are out there all day. They know better than anyone else how the environment has changed.
When I moved to Trinity County, California, an angler’s paradise, I studied the fishermen angling for steelhead. They did not “pack it out,” but left their beer cans by the side of the river, their human waste, even their bait and hooks. I’ve been told they aren’t refined like the fly fishermen, and that respect for the river and the fish are a matter of an elemental education. Fishing is only environmentally sound if it is coupled with meditation and contemplation. Respect for life comes from this sensibility.
My father threw back the most heroic fish. He could not eat them. Big, beautiful fish had lived a long time. He would sit back on his heels and examine the fish and whistle. If there were other snapped lines dangling from their supple mouths, his sentiment neared that of Elizabeth Bishop in her poem “The Fish.” Her speaker romanticizes the battle this fish has won; he is adorned with “medals with their ribbons/ frayed and wavering, / a five-haired beard of wisdom / trailing from his aching jaw.” Bishop’s poem is reverent in its regard for the fish, for the fish’s personal achievements: “victory filled up / the little rented boat.” Bishop allowed her speaker to be transformed by the fish she held, and then she let the fish slip back into the ecotone. My father brought some of those heroic fish home to stock his pond, the channel cats he claimed would clean the bottom. He didn’t bring bullhead, because he said they disturb the bottom too much, creating muck. He wanted catfish to clean up after the largemouth bass fingerlings he stocked in the pond, purchased from a local fishery. He hurried out in the mornings with his enamel pan filled with Purina Trout Chow.
All the fish died in the summer of 1995. He died just after Labor Day. The insurance claim he filed for reimbursement of the fish he stocked as fingerlings paid his funeral expenses to the penny.
I stood at the kitchen window one last time looking out at the pond with his binoculars before I said goodbye to this good place, my home in Northeastern Pennsylvania. We kept our family binoculars in the kitchen windowsill and looked out upon a landscape and small pond on the last crest of the hill before the long drop into the Delaware Valley. We could see New Jersey from the kitchen in the winter time. In between our supper and New Jersey, a slate-colored junco, a red-headed woodpecker, some whitetail deer.
Nothing special crossed my field of vision that day, nothing but the ongoing stillness. I am always in the right place when it comes to art and life.