Bottle in Bear Cut

This is pretty much why I went to the University of Miami:

rsmas

RSMAS, the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

Fantasies fueled by Jacques Cousteau’s Underwater World led me to this place for college. Unfortunately, during the time I was in school, RSMAS was really only for graduate studies. If it had been otherwise, I probably would never have switched into art so early on. I really am that shallow. Most things I do in life are often met with the question – “Is this something I could do at the beach?”

Here is the research vessel, the Walton Smith, UM’s “Calypso” if you will:

waltonsmith

RSMAS also has a bar. A great bar. It’s got that feeling of some old biological lab with all its attendant flotsam, giving the place such a great atmosphere. You walk past mounted sharks on the way into the bar. I got incredibly drunk at this bar on my 19th birthday.

rsmasbar

Here’s a view of the Walton Smith from the bar:

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However, there was plenty about the art buildings to hook me. They may not have been at the beach, but they were like something out of the Swiss Family Robinson:

UMartbuildings

Especially if the Robinsons were heavy drinkers with a dim understanding of combustible fluids. The buildings were old barracks and were in fact the oldest structures on campus. They eventually got condemned, which is probably a good thing. Wood construction soaked for half a century in turpentine, with absent-minded students smoking all over the place; it was more or less one step away from this scene in Zoolander:

zoolander_gas

But I did often get out to RSMAS, or rather, where RSMAS is, which is on Virginia Key. Rode my bike out there a few times before I got a car. It was actually a lot like riding out to Ft Tilden from Brooklyn, being a similar distance with a big bridge to cross towards the end. Great views from Rickenbacker Causeway.

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causwayview

Virginia Key is an interesting place that gets overlooked for the larger Key Biscayne. There’s an old marine stadium there covered in graffiti, and there are some nooks and crannies with bits of  “Old Florida” in them. Jimbo’s was one of these places:

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Separated from Key Biscayne by Bear Cut, Virginia Key itself used to be connected to Fishers Island until a hurricane blew through in 1938 and created Norris Cut. Interesting to think about this in light of Hurricane Sandy and the new inlets created in the ever-changing barrier islands.

virginia_key

I wanted to toss a bottle into Bear Cut for a few reasons. There is a very swift and strong current there. Despite this, I always liked swimming there. That current holds promise as well as threat. Many different creatures come through the cut and with the RSMAS research vessel docked right there, a feeling of exploration and potential is palpable. To me at least. In years past, I’ve been lucky enough to accompany my friend Brian Teare out into Biscayne Bay to watch (and help a bit) him do his field tech work.

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The Bay can be as clear as an aquarium.

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And come to think of it, this exact spot was in fact an exploratory departure point for me. There are almost always cormorants on the pilings and lines here. I’ve always loved them. I had a photo of a cormorant from these very pilings. He was stretching his neck out and was a moment away from taking off. I don’t know where that photo is now, but I’ve seen cormorants in all sorts of situations and predicaments. Not sure exactly why I’m drawn to these guys. They seem kind of dumb, sometimes wise. Klutzy and graceful. And prehistoric.

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injured_cormorant

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I can’t remember now if I took the photo in college or afterwards on a visit, but I do remember that when I had finished up my thesis work for grad school I was compelled to do a drawing of this cormorant. Nothing but this cormorant, in red ink. Right before that I had been doing work like this:

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And right after school it became this:

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I don’t have an image of that first red cormorant drawing, but its the thing that started all the work I’m doing now.

 OK. Back to the plot – I swam the bottle out a bit, just beyond the pier, and tossed it. It had a sooty tern in it.

sootytern

After tossing the bottle I walked along the shore towards the southwest. As you head in this direction, you are taken right behind the Seaquarium, Miami’s version of SeaWorld. Like SeaWorld, it’s a completely fake environment and doesn’t necessarily feature native species. Although I guess you really can’t train a manatee to do anything exciting. Unless eating lettuce is exciting.

 It’s funny and/or ironic that RSMAS and the Seaquarium are right next to each other. It’s not as though the two places are exact opposites, with completely different goals… but kind of they are. A reductive view of it would have RSMAS trying to explore and save nature and the Seaquarium exploiting it. There is much to say about animals in captivity. I’m of the opinion that in general people anthropomorphize animals too much, and assume they are unhappy in zoos. I think for the most part that isn’t true. Hell, I live in New York and a lot of humans here are in small little compartments. It is too much to assume that the concept of “freedom” is present in an animal – or stronger than a desire for food, warmth and security. Most animals do live longer in captivity, and today zoos do so much for endangered species and are sometimes the last habitats for these species. A last refuge from the abyss, and a possible salvation. And many institutions, notably the WCS, support conservation efforts in the field, helping to ensure that these species can persist in their native habitats.

 However in the case of animals with very complex social lives and high levels of intelligence, I feel differently. Animals like elephants, and killer whales. (Chimpanzees are perhaps so similar to us that it sometimes seems as though they don’t mind sitting around watching TV and having a cigarette.) Killer whales have incredibly complicated family structures, with up to four generations living together in pods. They also have – it can be argued – culture. And they live much shorter lives in captivity. The thought of these huge animals set adrift in these little pools in random areas of the planet, as though left behind by some massive retreating glacier, is unsettling. And lonesome.

 I google mapped the Seaquarium and then zoomed in:

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I then repeated it with SeaWorld in San Diego and San Antonio:

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To be able to see this animal, this individual, alone in its pool, seemed miraculous, intrusive, revelatory, and just too intimate. If I was more of a purely conceptual artist I can imagine doing something with these photos.  Perhaps I will at some point.

 Between the Seaquarium and the ocean is a thin strip of limestone, mangroves, Australian pines, and sand. There are usually pelicans roosting, and I’ve seen a few different heron and egret species fishing here. It feels forgotten and wild. A good haunt for raccoons.

coontracks

pelicanauspine

It is interesting to be right between something so manufactured and something so wild. The presence of mangroves, and their smell, assists in this feeling of wilderness. The wilderness of odor is one of the last bastions of wilderness. I’m not saying I hear a wolf howl when someone farts on the subway, but it is nice to be reminded of the fact that we are animals. And the smell of the mangroves at low tide reminds me of all that is living and dying and being born, and the constant transformation of living things into the tissues and processes of other living things.  This is where I found the paper nautilus.

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It was not far from the empty shell of something I also recognized. I’m pretty sure this is all that’s left of the hull of a little boat that served as the reference for a boat in the background of one of my pieces:

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radioseals

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As I was walking behind the Seaquarium, a dolphin show was in progress. I didn’t realize it, but softly the sound of the Beach Boys drifted in. I thought I was imagining it, and then the chipper, hyper cheerful voice of the trainer piped in over a loudspeaker. Disassociated from the imagery it was so strange and eerie. I was seeing pelicans, and the sea, and the backs of buildings that looked abandoned. Yet the Beach Boys, and this cheerful American voice was all around me. I could see NO people by the way. Nothing from the stadium, and I could not even hear applause. It felt like some sort of post apocalyptic movie. Or something out of a dream.

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Some of my work used to seem, and was described as, “post-apocalyptic”. I never meant it that way. I always felt that the stuff I was painting was totally possible now, or even in the past, as well as the future. Lord knows you don’t have to go far, even in the States to see things that would fit the bill as “post-apocalyptic”. There has been a lot of rumination on the Apocalypse these days in art, movies, and books. Some people say it could stem from the fear of ecological disaster, and our anxiety about the environment. Climate change is such a huge thing to face, too big it seems, and perhaps this is how we’re expressing that feeling.

But I think there’s a part of this focus on the apocalyptic future that is actually a kind of “looking back”. By looking forward into a wrecked world where our existence is reduced back to basics, it’s as though we’re trying to understand what we are at our core. Maybe this focus is a desire for a simplification of our world. Or in this future we’re trying to see our past, and what we are, where we are, when we are, here in the 21st century. On the shore of Biscayne Bay.

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Or maybe it was Utah.

Bottle Found in Bayside Park, Miami!

A Letter to the Boys Who Found the Bottle

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First of all, Happy Birthday to Josh, who’s birthday it was when the bottle was found at Bayside Park on December 14th. It was the bottle I tossed into the Miami River, and even though it didn’t go too far, I am surprised it even got found. There is indeed a lot of boat traffic on the river and a fair amount of garbage floating around.

I am very happy that kids found the bottle. Young people know so much more about animals and the environment than they did when I was young. There is so much more on TV about wildlife, and seemingly more attention paid in school to the environment. But a lot of this “Shark Week” type of stuff doesn’t get beyond a flashy surface. You should look further and deeper. And closer to home.

cormorantpiling

South Florida is an incredible place. This limestone slab jutting out from the North American continent is a driftnet for the tropics. And so many interesting animals live there. Know where you live. Know the different birds. Know which ones have come from the Arctic for the winter. Know which ones have journeyed up from Argentina for the summer. Know the fish. EAT the fish. Know how to eat the RIGHT fish so that you may always have fish to eat.

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The more you know about something, the more you care about it. And the more you ENJOY it. Places that seem polluted are still worth investigation. Sometimes even more so than a place that seems more “clean”. Get off the beaten track and explore. The day before you found the bottle I found this on Virginia Key in an area not too picked over. It was amongst the wrack with pieces of Styrofoam and coconuts and bottle caps and seaweed. It’s a paper nautilus. A very rare find indeed.

papernautilus

I love that you guys were so enthusiastic about finding the bottle. I think SEVEN of you called me to say you had found it. That was awesome. You guys sounded like you were having a blast. When you said you smashed the bottle to get the drawing I was picturing you all like The Lord of the Flies, but you were actually more like the Goonies, and if you don’t know that movie, when I was your age I thought it was pretty much the best movie ever. And although one of the characters loses their glasses, no one gets killed.

goonies

Keep your enthusiasm. There are not many kids in America that live in such a unique place, with panthers and manatees, and sharks and sea turtles, paper nautiluses, crocodiles, bobcats, raccoons, and all manner of birds. Even your pigeons are interesting because some of them are actually doves from the Bahamas. So keep exploring. And start eating all those pythons and lionfish instead of the groupers.

All the best,

George

P.S. Thanks to Elvia, mother of Josh, for the pictures!

Miami River Bottle Toss

Miami has a history. And a river.

MiamiRivermouth

Above is an image of the mouth of the Miami River from around 100 years ago. Miami, like most cities, exists where it does because of certain environmental and geographic features. And people have been here for thousands of years, in shuffling order. Manifest Destiny did not just push westward. Florida during the late 1800’s has been referred to as the “forgotten frontier” because so much more attention has been paid to the Wild West. But while they were shootin’ it out at the OK Corral, some crusty guy from some overcrowded northeastern city was whacking his way through gumbo limbo and chewing on gator jerky. And when white settlers did push into Florida, they certainly weren’t the first people there.

SeminoleMiamiRiver

Here are some Seminole Indians on the Miami River. Clearly they’re taking their dugout to da club. Dances With Snooki and Stands With a Situation are waiting for them.

In places like Miami, in Florida generally, it can be hard to see this history. Everything seems new. The flatness adds to this I think, making the state seem like a blank slate. But if you look closer you can see slight changes in elevations, and in them the layers of the past. Peel back that skin of neon orange spandex (and possibly also the neon green spandex) and you can get a glimpse of the “Old Florida” that people talk about. It took me quite a while to see this side of Miami, and while I lived there I never poked around the Miami River. As it turns out, the river is a great place to see some of the old backbone of this city.

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If you squint your eyes, you can kind of see it.

One thing I’ve noticed on this trip is that there are a ton of wintering Laughing Gulls down here. Some of these same guys are undoubtedly in New York in the summer. Just like the art world people, they migrate to Miami in the winter. It’s only a matter of time until they opt to take Jet Blue over their own wings. No direct TV in them there feathers.

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I didn’t see any Art Basel tags on them, but a couple of them looked sort of pretentious. They also totally look like New Yorkers waiting on the subway platform. Just waiting for the L train…

commutergulls

We went over to the other bank of the river, to Jose Marti Park, to toss the bottle. When I was in Cuba you couldn’t take a step without tripping over an image of Jose Marti. He’s sort of their Virgin of Guadalupe. I dug my bottles out of my bag. I have no idea how I got these through security without being checked. Could this look more like some kind of IED? -

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Pulled out the one that had a Caspian Tern in it -

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And tossed it in the River right here -

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It certainly doesn’t look like this anymore:

miamiriveroldboats

Florida went through the changes that the rest of the US did. It just went through them so much faster.

I had a professor at the University of Miami who had grown up in Miami. That’s a rare bird indeed. In class once she was reminiscing about her childhood and talking about just how quickly the city changed. She was NOT old by the way, probably her late 30’s early 40’s, and this was in 1993 or so. She told us about how she would see so many sea turtles in the Miami River, and how the manatees would gather there. She grew up immersed in the wildlife of this place. And then she recalled the day she knew everything had changed. There were a bunch of kids on a bridge over the Miami River. They had recently moved to the state. She walked up to them to see what they were up to and realized they were throwing rocks. Then she realized they were throwing rocks at a manatee. And then, as she put it, “I knew it was over for Miami.”

I really hope that’s not true. For the manatees, for the laughing gulls, for the turtles, for the gumbo limbo, for me, for people who still don’t know how beautiful and amazing South Florida is when you look beyond that margarita with two Corona’s jammed into it. People just gotta keep their eyes open…

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Two Bottles and a Fish Sandwich

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This was a nice and auspicious thing to see on the way to the beach this morning – a pelagic bird and a bottle. Thanks Coca Cola Corporation! You really DO unite the world! Had a nice morning swim and then headed out towards the Miami River to find a nice spot to toss a bottle.

Yes. Miami has a river. I’m going to post more in depth when I get back to New York because there is more to say about Miami. More than just Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen can handle, that’s for sure. Every time I come back here I forget how truly weird this place is.

At any rate, Annie and I got a bit lost trying to find Jose Marti Park on the shore of the river, but we did eventually get there, and I tossed a bottle. Then we went and got excellent fish sandwiches. Damn, fish sandwiches can be good.

From there we headed towards RSMAS, the University of Miami marine science school. This is basically why I ended up going to the University Miami:

rsmasbar

This is my view right at this moment. It is also the site where I got incredibly drunk on my 19th birthday with a bunch of way cool older kids. A couple of hours before (now, not then) I swam a bottle out into the channel beyond the ship. That’s Bear Cut, and there is always a strong current. And, I’ve heard, a fair number of sharks, including bull. Although I’ve never seen sharks there (except for maybe a nurse once and it was small) I have seen a lot out there, and today I found something very special washed up in the wrack. But I’ll get to that when I actually write properly about this trip. And I don’t have my card reader and I have a really awesome picture of it so what’s the point now if I can’t SHOW you what I found.

So, one more bottle tomorrow. I’m going to launch it right off of South Beach so it has a high likelihood of being snagged by a thong-festooned tourist.

Til then!

New York Pelagic in Miami

manutara

New York Pelagic is going on location to Miami. Proving yet again how similar this project is to Jersey Shore.

I’ll be launching some bottles while I’m down in Miami for all the art fair business going on. P.P.O.W., along with six other excellent galleries will again be mounting Seven – http://www.seven-miami.com/ The piece you see above, Manutara, will be in Seven.

Stay tuned for updates from the road. I’ll be tossing a few bottles, hopefully not getting any citations, and perhaps even writing about some art. And perhaps some reminiscences of my time as a citizen of Miami, the strangest city in America.

Or maybe that’s Tampa…

A Note on the Economy From Your Friend George

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I think it was Jesus who said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” I’m not entirely sure it was He, but since so many people seem to be so fond of putting words in His mouth, I’ll just join the club.

And lately, it seems like “stupid” is the operative word in that quote.

In this election cycle, people can’t seem to be able to get enough of talking about the economy. They sure do like saying that word. ECONOMY. Well, I’ve got something to say about the economy too. And about taxes. And about voting. But first, let me take you back…

Remember the 90”s? Remember when all the wealthy Americans, your CEO’s and such, were all living on the streets in cardboard boxes, with nothing more than comforters stuffed with thousand dollar bills to keep them warm? It seems like only yesterday that I’d have to rouse the CEO of Exxon Mobil from my doorstep on my way to work. He’d apologize for being there (and for the smell), all the time lamenting the fact that if only the government would give him a break on his taxes he’d be able to pull himself together, quit the junk, and create some jobs. And then he’d offer to clean my windshield.

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You don’t remember that? What?! Hmmmm. Maybe it’s because THAT NEVER HAPPENED. During the 90’s, during Clinton, during our former tax rates, the wealthy were still incredibly rich, and in great shape to become even wealthier. Those are the facts, even though some people would have you believe otherwise.

So what is the economy anyway? Roughly speaking, the economy is the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. In other words, basically everything we do. An economy is movement, and in general a healthy economy is one that moves. A stagnant economy is… well, stagnant. And that’s no good. So how would you avoid a stagnant economy?

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Say you had a million bucks to distribute amongst a small community of 100 families. A pretty self sufficient community of farmers, carpenters, plumbers, hair dressers, bakers, etc… One family in this community is much, much, much more wealthy than all the other families. They employ the services and buy the goods of the other families, but there’s only so many cabinets you can get built, and so many times you can get your hair did. So things are getting a little… stagnant. How would you try to inject a little life into this local economy? Would you give the million bucks to the rich family? Of course not. You’d spread it around so that the farmer can hire the carpenter who can get his hair did by the barber who is going to buy some extra things from the farmer who is going to hire the musician to play at the party he’s having to celebrate the new barn the carpenter built. And so on…

Watch This

Well, Romney and the Republicans want to give the million bucks to the wealthy family so that they can create jobs. Seems ridiculous, right? In order to justify their role as “job creators”, and the tax breaks they got under Bush (and want to keep) the very wealthy would have to be starting new companies – whole new industries in fact – roughly every 20 minutes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“Job creators”. It’s such a slick, dirty euphemism. That’s right, the party of FREEDOM wants us all to work for these job creators rather than helping us into a position where we will be our own bosses. When you’re tied to a job for fear of losing health care, you’re not that free. When you can’t afford to ever be sick because you can’t afford health care, you’re not free. When you can’t afford an education, you’re not free. And all this restriction of freedom cuts down on the mobility of the economy, makes it more dependent on a few massively rich individuals, and thus more susceptible to injury and collapse. And stagnation. The American economy is based on innovation, and innovation does not happen easily with so many restraints. And taxes, unlike what the Ruhpublicans say, are not a restraint – they are an investment.

So let’s talk about taxes for a second. And let me take you back once again…

Remember that time when George W Bush took our post-Clinton surplus (can you even believe that we ever had a surplus?) and bought you a nice dinner and a pair of shoes? I don’t know about you, but I got a few hundred bucks from W. But if you were wealthy, you got A LOT more than a few hundred bucks. I honestly have no idea how I spent that check. But I know for sure that for 300 bucks you can’t buy health care, pay for school, pave your road, research new technology, or hire an army to defend yourself. To do anything big like that, I’d have to pool my money with the tax break money that everyone else got, entrust it to some sort of governing body that maybe I voted for (a government?) so that they could use this money to do big things without the over-riding mission of making a profit getting in the way of accomplishing actual goals.

This is why taxes are good, and this is why government works. But taxes only work when they are COLLECTED. And when we work collectively we can accomplish so much. For everyone. Rich and poor alike.

The Republicans would have you believe that all services provided by the government can be provided by private companies and charities. But what if you get that disease where a hand starts growing out of your forehead and no one ever researched a cure because there was no good celebrity to get behind it? What if it turns out that you forgot to raise money for the sewage treatment plant? And the invention of the internet?

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She could have benefited from Hand-head Syndrome research

I, for one, like the idea of a government taking care of stuff that I’ve never even thought of. Even if I never personally benefit from those things. We are stronger if everyone here is strong. So please, take some of my tax money and give it to someone on Welfare. They obviously need it. And I gain nothing from someone starving. Nor does the economy.

In light of Superstorm Sandy, it’s only too clear how important government is. How important bureaucracies like FEMA are. Romney wants to privatize FEMA. When a disaster strikes, you certainly don’t want someone putting profit over people. And there has rarely been so clear an example of how a strong environmental policy IS a strong economic policy. We need to acknowledge the reality of climate change and start actual preparations for actual things that will actually happen. God forbid we had used that post-Clinton surplus money to retrofit the infrastructure of New York, thus protecting the powerhouse of our economy. We don’t need a self-professed “coal man” who makes jokes about climate change.

“I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus actually did say that. It’s too bad the Christian Right is too obsessed with gay sex to think about the poor or to think about that quote. I guess Romney doesn’t have to worry about that because, as a Mormon, he’ll be god of his own planet when he dies. But what if there is no afterlife? What if it is just this? Well then, I’d argue that we don’t have time to wait for opportunity and freedom to trickle down to the rest of us.

So who would you trust to lead us into a better economy? Someone born into wealth, who’s idea of hardship was having to sell some stock during college? Or someone raised very modestly by a single mother on food stamps, who was smart enough to get into the best schools, rise to the top of those schools, and eventually become president of the United States? Oh, and he’s also black which is basically like doing all that with one hand tied behind his back.

Exercise the freedom that you have and VOTE. And vote for Obama.

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Time and Sparrows

It isn’t often that you can actually excavate your own past. You can find a pile of old photos, or drive by an apartment you used to live in. Other, more visceral experiences are harder to come by. Like the scene in the movie where you go back to the old abandoned homestead. Pushing aside the half open rusty hinged door, startling the raccoon in the cupboard, the swallows in the eaves. Running your fingers across the wallpaper, finding the record of your growth on the kitchen doorway jamb. Hoping you’re not breathing in the Hantavirus.

Ever since my quick swing into Four Sparrow where I saw the fox, I’ve been wanting to go back. The perfect opportunity arrived upon meeting writer Brandon Keim. He had written about a show that I was in this summer and had been curious as to what I was up to with this bottle project. So we decided to go out and spread my art garbage together.

Ducking into Four Sparrow on my birthday after Jamaica Bay was a bit of a Proust Madeleine situation. And I’ve never even read “Remembrance of Things Past”! But I did see “Ratatouille” and I know from cookies.

I moved to New York about 11 years ago to go to grad school. At the time, my childhood marine scientist friend (doesn’t everyone have one?), Tali ,was working at the New York City Parks Department in a division known as NRG – Natural Resources Group. They were doing restoration work on a saltmarsh near Marine Park called Four Sparrow, an area designated as a Forever Wild (this will be ironic later) site. They needed someone to make illustrated informational signs. Turns out I knew how to draw animals, and after beating my computer with a stick for long enough I was even able to DESIGN said signs and make some charts, etc…Eventually, under the direction of Tali and David Kaplan, I went on to draw and design a map, logo and ads for the Forever Wild program as a whole.

The map without the text and legend

While working on the signs, I went to Four Sparrow a lot under the auspices of “doing research” for my drawings. But I was drawn there for much more than that. It was – and still is – a sort of sneaky park. Tucked away next to a Toys R Us, it was a peaceful, mosquito ridden place at a time when I desperately needed one. Kind of like “The Secret Garden”, if it was set in a Cambodian swamp and the little girl was a scruffy 20-something bartender/carpenter. You get the gist. Here’s a couple pictures I took back then – with a REAL CAMERA.

So after going back there the first time I went home and got on the ol’ google to see what’s what with the Four Sparrow. WELL. It turns out that my little secret garden was slated to be developed by… wait for it… RATNER. Yup. Same guy. Can you believe this shit? It was like a set up for a Disney movie or something. I’d have to assemble my gang of plucky pals and charismatic animal friends and defeat the big bad developer who would probably be SMOKING and maybe even doing something mean to one of those charismatic animals!

FOREVER Wild my ass! This, from the parks department’s own site:

“As the larger and older of the two remaining salt marshes on the north shore of the Jamaica Bay estuary system, Four Sparrow Marsh serves two critical roles besides nesting habitat. It is a rest stop for up to 326 species of migrating birds on the Atlantic Flyway, and acts as a “kidney”, filtering pollution and excess nutrients from the Bay.”

Would you sell your kidneys to Bruce Ratner? I don’t know about you, but the last time I went on a bender and woke up missing some organs I did not feel good.

Wait. Hold on. This happened. It seems as though Four Sparrow is safe for now. For now. But make no mistake; just because we have lost 90% of our wetlands in New York does not mean we can’t lose 95%. I also had the great fortune of running across a great blog which you should all subscribe to: Backyard and Beyond

But I will take us back to the story…

Toys R Us behind Four Sparrow – or the other way around

Brandon and I parked the Holy Corolla in the Toys R Us parking lot and proceeded to make our way through some thick growth towards the water, a slender hooked finger of high tide that would just start to be flowing out towards Mill Basin at that hour. It was amazing to see how much growth and transformation had taken place in the last 8 years or so. There were new trees, plants spazzily going to seed everywhere, and a homeless guy’s encampment.

some carts near the encampment

People may think a homeless (I should say “houseless” as he obviously calls this place home) encampment may spoil the view of an otherwise beautiful place. But keep in mind that he lives lighter on the Earth than any of us with houses and computers. And does not have the luxury of having his refuse taken away for him. People are just another species of animal, so I see it as an example of health that Four Sparrow can support both foxes and homeless dudes.

Only yards from Flatbush Ave, with planes overhead, it actually felt like real wilderness. Whatever that even means now. I know what the common conception of wilderness is as represented by the Discovery Channel etc… Those documentaries (which I do love by the way) are as editorial as anything. The very fancy cameras used to film “Planet Earth” are pointed in a particular direction, showing us an idea of wilderness that is pure and unmarred by the hand of man. But turn those cameras around, or change their depth of focus, and a different picture emerges.

As clearly illustrated by all the pelagic plastic that inspired this project in the first place, our mark is everywhere. Whether you think that’s good or bad is beside the point; it just is. We find the image of a polar bear rummaging through garbage sad. But who’s to say he’s sad? He’s looking for food. We project our aesthetics onto animals. A bird doesn’t care if there’s plastic bags around its nesting site. Unless it can use them as material. Animals are just trying to live, so if you’re depressed at the sight of a sandpiper pecking around a Doritos bag, that’s your guilt. He’s not affected by the exxxtreme packaging; he’s just hoping there’s something to eat near it.

After some trekking and backtracking (lot’s of underbrush, but I’m not one to machete my way through Brooklyn) we eventually hit the water. And it was beautiful.

Surprised a couple cormorants. Because it’s hard to get to, I wanted to make sure to toss the bottle after high tide, but while the water was still high enough to float the bottle out. It seemed to be flowing well, so I waded out a bit and plopped it in.

This one has a common tern in it. A bird that never fails to thrill to me. And yes I know that’s corny. But it’s true.

We watched it float away, and then continued bushwacking. I wanted to see if the signs I had drawn were still up. Four Sparrow isn’t really open to the public as a proper park, and I wasn’t sure if they had taken down the signs or what. We made our way towards where I thought they would be, although with the amount of growth it was hard to tell. And then – boom. There they were.

I almost bumped right into them as they were quite overtaken by phragmites and new small trees. I brushed aside the fallen leaves and looked at my drawings.

It was eerie, digging up my own past, the bones of my artwork. It felt like finding a time capsule, even more Indiana Jones than that actually, and seeing this passage of time so literally represented affected me more than I let on to my companion.

The thing is, it didn’t affect me in a bad, “holy crap I’m so old” way. It felt like a kind of triumph. When tracing the path of one’s past, the markers are usually seen in the giant condo replacing the little house you remember, the local bakery eaten by a Dunkin Donuts, the wooded lot supplanted by a mall. Surrounded by a veritable jungle, my own marks being taken over by natural forces, it all felt like nothing less than a clear green shout cutting through the litany of loss.

I also don’t think I realized how much Brooklyn, especially this place, shaped me artistically. I talk about how formative New Jersey was to my world view and the work that I make, but I think I’ve given short shrift to Brooklyn. It was in fact right in this place that I first got interested in birds in a substantive way. Seeing nature still making it in such a place made me SEE nature differently, and it was after working on this job that I started making the work that I now make.

Sharp-tailed, seaside, swamp, and song. Say those names out loud and hear the poetry of it. Those are the four species of sparrow that give this place its name. Not all little brown birds are the same. Many people don’t think about that. (Certainly not the first time a powerful hubristic society thought all little brown beings were the same…) The more you learn and know about something, the more you care about it and value it. If you don’t know how to read, a book is just a bounded stack of paper. We have become illiterate to the natural world, and that puts it, and us, at risk.

Found near the hull of a boat in Four Sparrow

As Brandon and I walked back towards the car, I was shocked at how much this place felt like home.

Those of us in the First World are able to go to a lot of places. We swing in wide migratory arcs, growing familiar with a wider world, establishing homes in the places where we land for a while. For the first time in history it’s possible that we conceptualize the Earth in a way similar to that of migratory birds. It’s a shame to think that this moment, when we understand these birds more than ever, corresponds with their decline.

A couple years ago I was watching this thing on PBS (George likes PBS?! What?!) about Red Knots. They’re shore birds that make a tremendous migratory journey, and they are in a precipitous decline. (One of the places most important in their journey as a refueling station is in New Jersey. They are dependent on the eggs of horseshoe crabs at that point, and they’re being over-harvested.) One of the scientists being interviewed up at their arctic nesting grounds was being all science-y and talking about weighing and banding them as they come in etc… when all of a sudden she broke down. She was describing holding a tired bird that had just made it to the arctic. It was thin and she could feel its heart beating, and that’s when she lost it. This small thing, fighting so hard against so many odds just to make it, just to live.

There is something heartbreaking in that. But there is also something noble and inspiring in this blind drive to live, to survive. To not notice the Doritos bag, to keep fighting, to keep going, not knowing or caring that Ratner is out to get you. Because isn’t that what we’re all doing? Just trying to make it? That raccoon in Prospect Park, that homeless dude, that tiny bird in your hand. Its heart pulsing against your fingers, the clutching claws surprisingly strong.

Sharp-tailed, seaside, swamp, and song.



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