Journal Entries

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Patterson's Pellet (A Glacial Erratic)

Lake Minnewaska, New York

December 2021

14,000 years. That's a long time. But that is how long this glacial erratic has been precariously perched on the edge of the Palmaghatt Ravine in New York's Shawangunk Mountain range. The ravine was carved by an ice shelf working its way south during the last ice age, depositing these "erratics" along the way as the ice melted.

We owe a lot to the end of that last ice age in terms of the natural beauty we enjoy today, including all those beautiful glacial lakes such as Lake Minneswaska itself just a mile away to the north of this spot.  It is amazing that such a powerfully destructive force can leave such beauty in its wake.

The "Gunks", as this area is affectionately called by the rock climbing community,  owes its natural beauty to that glacial movement all those years ago. Climate change, it seems, has been with us a long time; but unfortunately today there are a lot more people in its way.

I wonder what people 14,000 years from now will be looking at when they stand in this spot? I wish I could trade one year of my life today to live it 14,000 years in the future. That was my thought as I stood here on a 60 degree day in mid-December; usually I'd be cross-country skiing to this spot this time of year.


Adirondack Life

August 2021

I fear that if I go to heaven when I die, it will only be a disappointment. For I cannot imagine a place more beautiful, or an experience more divine, as that of canoeing on a lake in the Adirondacks in the early morning hours of a late summer’s day. I wonder if they even have canoes in heaven?


Whistling Dixie

Gettysburg

July 2021

"I have always thought `Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it."

Abe Lincoln


He’s not just whistling Dixie; he’s hammering it out on his vintage 5-string banjo with a sound that echoes right back to 1863. Perched atop the famous Gettysburg battlefield site of "Little Roundtop" he drew few spectators, but I was immediately drawn to his playing, which was crisp, and attested to many hours of practice. And as a dutiful young confederate rebel, the song “Dixie” would likely have been one of the first tunes he cut his teeth on. Every year thousands of civil war reenactors descend on the Gettysburg battlefield in July on the anniversary of that historic battle. Over the years their numbers have been steadily declining; from the tens of thousands in its heyday back in the 1990s to just a few thousand at this year’s gathering. Perhaps the allure of dressing up in wool uniforms on steaming hot summer days in Pennsylvania’s countryside is losing its appeal to the current generation. Times and attitudes are changing as well, and there’s just not enough youngsters like this banjo picker to keep the tradition going. 

But hearing Dixie plucked from his fingers reminded me of just how much times and sentiments have changed over the past generation. The song Dixie has a long and storied past. Originally known as “(I Wish I Was in) Dixie’s Land”, the song was written in 1859 by Daniel Decatur Emmet. Emmet was from Ohio and was a member of a traveling minstrel show when he wrote the song (just knowing that the song's origin was part of a minstrel show is enough evidence to affirm its sordid past). The song's popularity started in the north and slowly worked its way down south. Its popularity was at its height just as the Civil War had begun and the south quickly claimed it as its own, effectively earning it the status of a de facto southern national anthem. Jefferson Davis had it played at his inauguration, and in short time it was etched into the fabric of the southern cause.

The song has managed to survive to the present day, although it has recently joined an ever-growing list of unacceptable and divisive symbols of racism. Last year the country band "The Dixie Chicks" renamed themselves "The Chicks", dropping the term Dixie to distance their band from its offensive symbolism. We are living in an age where we are reexamining much of what we previously paid little attention to. It’s as if a century’s worth of neglectful indifference is now being remedied in a tidal wave of protest against a slew of offensive symbols, objects, and names that have been hidden in plain sight all along. But while it is easy to remove monuments, or rename an institution, or a sports team, or a country music band, how does one remedy a piece of music that has been deemed taboo? Music is not easily divorced from memory, or more importantly, from emotion. Music, by its nature, lingers in the collective airwaves of society; you can't simply erase it.

The jazz singer Rene Marie had her own solution to this dilemma; she recorded her own version of "Dixie" in an effort to reclaim the song as her own. Rene, who is from Virginia and grew up during the civil rights movements in the 1960s, is well aware of the song’s offensive nature to the Black community. But she always liked the song and insisted: “Why should I let someone’s misuse of a song determine if I like it? I want to reclaim it as my own – I’m from the South too.”  So in 2001 she recorded what is possibly the most symbolically charged song medley ever recorded. In a burst of musical inspiration, blending her personal experience with her musical sensibilities, she arrived at a heartfelt and blues inspired pairing of the song "Dixie" together with the famous Billie Holiday song "Strange Fruit" as her personal reclamation of the song. I wonder what our young banjo player here would think of Rene’s version? Perhaps he’d draw some inspiration of his own from Rene's interpretation? And just maybe, with a newfound perspective on the tune, he might inject a little more soul into his own playing? But I doubt he'd ever match the force of Rene's performance.

Listen for yourself:  Dixie/Strange Fruit


The Changing of the Mask

July 2021

A new year, a new mask. One year ago this scene would have looked starkly different. The little girl’s face seen here, awash in a mask of comically over-applied sunblock, would undoubtedly be masked to guard against a much different and more sinister threat. I can think of no better way to rejoice as we enter the dawn of the post-lockdown world than to spend a day at the beach with family and friends. A day at the beach is an experience universally enjoyed by virtually every one of the world’s eight billion or so people. It is an experience that transcends culture, race, nationality, age, gender, social class, and just about any categorization that we so commonly like to lump the human race into. In that sense it is the perfect antidote to the past year of lockdown and the ensuing hardship that also transcended all walks of life across the globe. Although the recovery at this point is still unevenly shared, let’s hope everyone can soon enjoy the simple pleasure of a day at the beach. Just remember to bring the sunblock.



Skull Art

June 2021

“...to me they are as beautiful as anything I know… the bones seem to cut to something that is keenly alive on the desert even though it is vast and empty and untouchable” – Georgia O’Keefe


Skulls make for interesting art. Mexicans celebrate an entire day filled with skull art; Dia de los Muertos is a joyful celebration using skulls painted with colorful decorations (cavaleras) to honor deceased loved ones. The Day of the Dead dates back thousands of years to the Aztecs and is a joyful celebration of death that honors those who have passed on to the next life. Native American Indians have used skulls for centuries in their ceremonies as a symbol of reverence for the dead and a sign of prosperity for the living. They believed the energy of the skull’s former spirit is passed on to those who possess it. The buffalo skull is used in sacred rituals like the Sun Dance as a symbol of gratitude for all of the gifts the buffalo bestows to the living upon its death. Indians revered the buffalo for the bounty of riches it provided: food, shelter, clothing, tools, and medicine. No part of the buffalo was wasted, but the skull remained as an affirmation of life.

But there is no mistaking what a skull ultimately represents: death. It is a stark reminder of the fate that awaits each of us. In Renaissance Art, skulls were frequently used as images of memento mori (remember to die) to instill the notion that possessions, achievements, and riches are fleeting, and that one must prepare oneself for the afterlife and God’s judgment.

In the early twentieth century Georgia O’Keefe injected new life into the use of the skull as art. She would produce highly stylized paintings of skulls in the same bright, colorful palettes that she used for her popular flower works. She collected hundreds of skulls and bones around her home in New Mexico that she would incorporate into her work. She made nine works of skulls from 1930 to 1938, more skulls than flowers by my count. She shipped skulls back to Lake George in New York where she spent summers with Alfred Stieglitz (apparently she was not sufficiently inspired by the Adirondack landscape, “everything is so green”). It was in Lake George in 1931 where she painted her most famous skull: “Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue”, which became an icon of American identity, just as she intended it.

So here is my skull. Not exactly an O’Keefe, nor a Cavalera, and certainly not a Renaissance still life: just a dead deer skull in the woods along the Ramapo River in NJ. Whether or not there is any spiritual significance to it I can’t say, but I can say that its final resting place was adjacent to a Native American prayer camp, so perhaps some of its energy did find its way into my being. Or, in the spirit of “memento mori”, maybe I can just leave the picture tacked to my wall as a grim reminder that life is fleeting, and to keep me focused on those things in life I find important, while I’m still here to enjoy them.



Trout Season

April 2021

Trout season opened this week. It is yet another grim reminder of the one-year anniversary of the Covid-19 lockdown that will likely continue through another spring season. It seems as though every aspect of our daily lives has been altered to some extent over the past year.

But this angler appears to be blissfully enjoying himself in solitary tranquility as he casts his line towards a freshly stocked lake, oblivious to any worldly concerns other than the placement of his line in the water.  I believe there is a lesson that we can all draw from this simple and timeless human activity.  Perhaps we should all seek to discover our own "fishing hole", a place unique to each of us where our minds are most fully at ease, where our thoughts are not burdened by the past nor in fear of the future. For what better lesson can we take away from this pandemic than to fully appreciate the importance of living in the moment?


Interior Design

March 2021

You are fools to make yourselves slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hard-tack, and a little sugar and coffee” — Sitting Bull

What would Sitting Bull think?  The Senate has just confirmed Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior making her the first Native American Indian to hold a White House cabinet position. For the first time in our nation’s history a Native American Indian will be responsible for the stewardship of the nation’s land and natural resources. As Secretary of the Interior she will also oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs; a bureau originally created to negotiate land treaties with the Indians and ultimately assimilate them to the white man’s culture. Sitting Bull spent his entire life in resistance to everything this bureau represented. He was committed to preserving the traditions and culture of his people and fiercely opposed being forced into life on a reservation. It was a fight he would eventually lose; he died on a reservation in 1890. With the passage of time the Bureau of Indian Affairs has evolved in its mission from one of oppression to one of protection. Native Americans are celebrating the Haaland confirmation as a major victory, and understandably so. I just wonder if Sitting Bull would share their enthusiasm. Or would he consider it the final capitulation to a lost way of life?

Secretary Haaland is going to face a battle no Indian has ever fought before. There is a tremendous pressure placed on any individual who first breaks a racial barrier. Expectations run high and outcomes can either pave the way for future generations or slam the door shut completely. Her supporters will have great expectations of her, but powerful interests will be watching closely and will fight to guard their financial interests that typically run at odds with those of the Indians and land conservation. It is not an enviable position, nor one that can be easily navigated. This photograph was taken at the site of the Split Rock Sweet Water prayer camp in NJ, a camp originally established by the Ramapough Indians to protest an oil pipeline slated to run through their land. The Ramapoughs may want to consider holding a special prayer vigil for the newly confirmed Secretary, I think she is going to need all the help she can get. I wonder if she takes sugar in her coffee?



Trail of Tears

Split Rock Sweet Water Prayer Camp - Mahwah NJ

February 2021

Tears are a recurring symbol for Native American Indians, just ask any Cherokee. With the recent nomination of Rep Deb Haaland (D-NM) to the cabinet position of Secretary of the Interior it may be the first time the flow of those tears represents joy, not sorrow. If confirmed, Haaland will be the first Native American Indian to serve as a presidential cabinet member. Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe; her mother was a Native American who served in the Navy, while her father was of Norwegian descent who served in the Marines. Haaland’s ancestry positions her on a culturally precarious and complex tightrope where she must balance herself politically between adversarial factions.

But keeping politics aside, it does seem fitting, if not overdue, that stewardship of the nation’s land be placed in the hands of a descendant of people who were here long before the arrival of European settlers. I remember the “Crying Indian” television commercial from the 1970s that was part of the Keep America Beautiful campaign against litter, where an American Indian is shown standing along the side of a highway as trash is thrown from a passing motorist and lands at his feet, the camera zooms to the Indian’s face to show a tear steaming down his cheek. So perhaps what is so surprising about the Haaland nomination is not that a Native American Indian is being nominated, but that it took so long to nominate one.


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