Our companions can encourage us to view the familiar through fresh eyes.
By Mark Fenton
Published August 15, 2016
What shall I do with this absurdity -
O heart, O troubled heart - this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog's tail? —from The Tower, W. B. Yeats
It was a hot, hot summer day. I had just done an early morning grocery run to the Dundurn Fortinos and I needed to make a call before my next meeting. The parking-lot was loud. My car is black and un-air-conditioned. These factors drove me to the first micro-holiday of my day.
I found shade and relative quiet in Cathedral Park, that almost inaccessible green space behind the Dundurn Plaza loading docks.
The straight side, separating the park from Fortinos, is unnavigable due to the deep rail canal
which I would dare the reader to try and cross if I weren't, at last, in late middle-age, a responsible enough adult to discourage life-threatening behaviours.
By the time I'd gotten past the murderous stream of traffic delimiting the Park's two tapering sides, and entered the cool oasis in the urban desert, my serenity was hard to recover.
Let's be honest. Urban green spaces are not bordered by roads, they are bordered by traffic. If there were no vehicles, the flat expanses of asphalt and concrete would function as interactive minimalist sculpture. An unending Carl Andre that curators allow us to walk on.
Carl Andre, Subfield, 1966
And so when I pulled up a map of my location I was unsurprised to discover that the limits of the plaza and the park outlined an I.V. drip,
the nourishing splendour of Cathedral Park draining into the hose of King Street.
It's a discouraging thought that parklands are consumed by the roads that border them, the arteries that pump blood through a city's heart. For a contemporary city without traffic is deemed a dead city.
There I stood making my phone-call and thinking vaguely that Cathedral Park does not contain the Cathedral, but serves merely as a space from which to observe it (the reverse situation of those parking bays on multilane highways that allow motorists to stop and capture an authorized photographic view of nature.) We demand of nature that she cast her eye on the things people build, or be viewed from environments people have built.
Here the viewing location is separated by a stretch of King Street that is almost uncrossable by foot, bicycle or motor vehicle. It might remind a religious person how arduous and uncharted is the journey to his god.
"News from the Pews", the diocese publication, tells me that the tower is currently under repair by Abbey Masonry.
Now personally, when I see scaffolding ascending a tower I don't see reverence for the divine, but rather the vanity of human aspirations, thanks to the countless medieval and renaissance depictions of the Tower of Babel.
From the Mass of the Virgin, Book of Hours illustrated by Gerard Horenbout. S. Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent), circa 1500.
And this line of thought became so engrossing that I temporarily lost focus on the discussion with my coworker, and had to pretend that the phone was cutting out at my end. I forced myself back into the conversation and my coworker and I awkwardly reëngaged, like people whose languages have been scrambled in punishment for the arrogance of trying to find deliverance with the materials of earth.
Walking away after the call I ignored the cautionary tale of Lot's wife and her fatal backward glance and gave my own backward glance to the church, which I half expected to find smashed to ruin by the fist of a wrathful God. But there it continued to crouch as though awaiting orders to leap from this world into the next. Back in my car it occurred to me that maybe the hot months stimulate the collective unconscious more than is healthy.
I seldom make lists when I go to the grocery store and as usual I had missed some stuff. Around lunchtime I was back at my North End apartment and had a bit of time on my hands so I SoBi-biked from Hughson to the dock on Mary Street, just North of the Food Basics. As I approached it I noticed a tree united in a decades long marriage with three parallel bars of a railing.
What better metaphor for the compromises natural geography and urban geography are continuously making to each other. Two entities without shared elements or a common language, codependent probably for as long as I've been alive.
At first I wasn't sure if the tree was living, but clearly it is. Look carefully at the upper branches.
Some branches are barren, but others thrive. The partnership has taken its toll. But would the tree have done better without the rail? What if a high wind had come up one day, and only the threefold reinforcement of the railing prevented the tree from blowing down?
I am not the first person to note this tree/rail symbiosis as art. Someone has identified the entanglement as a ready-made/found object sculpture. Marcel Duchamp-like she has applied her artist signature to this thing she had no part in making, in a fitting location at the bottom left of my photo.
(True confession: I didn't even notice it until I got home and found it in the rectangle of my photograph. How sadly oldschool that I need the conventional structures of pictorial art to find meaning.)
Surely it's appropriate that this is not a "readable" signature.
It barely references the roman, or any, alphabet, yet it is very clearly writing, rather than drawing. Conceptually it resembles the faux calligraphy of Cy Twombly.
Cy Twombly, Letter of resignation, 1959/67
The linked figures tease us into trying to decrypt them and then declare that they have no encrypted meaning. That they are simply abstract.
Such an attribution is fitting. For the signee did not make this work, she only discovered it. The signature "directs" the viewer, but doesn't take credit. Directs literally. An arrow points us to the exhibit and the author drops in her personal tag along the way (no artist ego is never fully absent, even when anonymous).
I think this is a kind of artwork we're going to see more of in the 21st Century with its arsenal of 24/7 surveillance devices and information systems wherein representation generates itself. Potential art manufactured continuously, but which becomes art only when a human notices it. And we will see more oddities of natural and human geography thrust together at random, the human footprint having expanded exponentially over the last century.
And to meet these phenomena, might there be new artists less interested in getting their hands in materials than in removing their hands from materials? Artists who simply point to the impression our boots have left in the mud. The human footprint (literally).
There is a remarkable song on the final Talking Heads album called "(Nothing But) Flowers." The parentheses are telling. As though the reclamation by flora is tentative, an as yet unlegislated bill in congress, or a rebellion nature might visit upon us in the near future.
The song is a dramatic monologue told by a citizen of the hyper-industrialized world. The man has been happy enough with his quotidian visits to restaurant franchises and shopping-malls, but for some unexplained reason (urban entropy, the initiatives of environmentalists, natural or political cataclysm) nature has reclaimed what was hers.
This used to be real estate
Now it's only fields and trees
Where, where is the town
Now, it's nothing but flowers
The highways and cars
Were sacrificed for agriculture...
On first listen the song is the lament of an unreflective suburbanite who fears losing the comfort of late 20th century ubiquity. The implied political depths are drawn out more in the music video, during the course of which we see, in the manner of the Harper's Index, printed statistics about global production and consumption
Frame from '(Nothing But) Flowers' video, directed by Tibor Kalman
But the video resists didacticism. The texts flash for so brief a moment that they couldn't have been processed by the semi-attentive MTV viewer of 1988. It's the recognizable format of statistical authority that communicates their menace, if only subliminally. The video seems to know that YouTube is less than a generation away. That today we can freeze-frame the text, Google each subject to discover how the stats have progressed in the interim 28 years, and then commit suicide.
At one point the singer all but screams, "If this is paradise, I think I need a lawn mower." In Matins I griped about how the natural beauty of Cathedral Park fed the traffic that becomes the circulatory system of any city. But if things fell apart. If nature reclaimed the asphalt, the parking lots, the buildings, the factories. Would I prefer that?
The preceding is more theoretical that I usually choose to get. When I snapped these photos it was simply because a trunk wrapped around rails is a wicked cool thing to look at.
The overlap intensifies the arresting "organic" form of the tree and the rigid mathematical repetition of steel bars.
Nature made this. But is there a human made object that counterpoints the organic and the human? One with a similar balance of logic, whimsy and geometry?
Someday visit the Casa Batlló in Barcelona, by Antoni Gaudi
Like the trunk of the tree, the window detail appears almost fluid, as though squeezed out of a tube. Yet we're also aware of the horizontal and vertical rectangularity necessary to make any building habitable.
It is programmed in post-industrial life that one must have a summer vacation. Whatever method of transportation one uses, this involves burning a lot of fuel to travel several hundred kilometres to places much like the ones we have left. I have chosen not to do that this summer, but it has nevertheless been beaten into me that during the summer I must I leave my highly technological life for the illusion of a natural life.
That we escape anything at all is pure fantasy, but it's an unshakeable collective illusion. So if, in scattered minutes stolen from the workday over the course of the season, I can take myself from buildings to trees on foot or by bike, I feel I've a) experienced a vacation, albeit in a pointillistic, sporadic manner; and b) saved the earth some wear and tear and still restored my mind, spirit, muscle groups, and nervous system by fleeing the four square walls of office and apartment.
It is late afternoon now. My work is done for the day and for the third time today I move towards trees. The practical motive is to walk with Édouard, pictured below.
Édouard (not his real name) has just been informed he is going for walk, hence the blur of his rear appendage excited to joyous motion as it does in his kind for reasons no one has ever explained to me. He is not normally in my care, we are just spending time together and I have no means of gaining permission from Édouard for his appearance in this essay, as he is mostly a French speaker and I am mostly an English speaker.
Obviously our post-Babel challenges are a function not just of cultures, but species. (Our conversations are, to say the least, choppy.) And even if he had explicitly agreed to participate, he's so far shown a complete inability to sign release documents either on paper or electronically.
Édouard and I went to Gage Park.
I snapped the above photo noting that Édouard's gaze was outward. Meaning what?
Meaning that Édouard is interested in the perimeter, not the centre.
I glanced around, struck by how our companions can encourage us to view the familiar through fresh eyes. How often I'd looked toward the South end of the park but never actually gone back to see what might be found there.
From a distance there seems to be no defined border to the park, giving the impression that the park's south edge metastasizes
into the Hamilton escarpment. At times I imagine it morphing into a fantasy world available only to children from a British young adult novel. And today I imagine that if Édouard and I were to wander through its trees we would first find oases of climbers, fountains, splash pads, and flowers; and then find the forest steadily and artfully and insidiously-at least to happy urban dwellers like myself-overturning the human-constructed environment, as in (Nothing But) Flowers.
So we walked southward where we quickly and prosaically discovered that the border to the south of Gage Park is delimited very harshly indeed by Lawrence Road. No ambiguity. No flowers growing through asphalt.
In fact the stream of traffic was close and constant enough that Édouard urged us to move back into the park. I, however, wanted to continue to the Southeast corner of the park, suspecting that there Édouard's traffic anxiety would relax.
The park has an entirely different aspect depending on how you approach it. Much, I imagine, as coming at Europe through the Mediterranean rather than the Baltic would affect first impressions. Though I've only ever landed at European airports that offer no particular sense of place, and I feel I should immediately arrest this slide into writing about places I've never been to.
The south approach to Gage Park is less cultivated, less concerned with aesthetics of landscaping than with formal activities. As Édouard and I passed places for organized sport-bowling greens and baseball diamonds, etc.-I recalled my own childhood and how easy it is, in these activity-specific places, to feel left out.
Sensing the nuances of self-pity in my step, Édouard pulled us quickly to the corner of Lawrence and Rothsay. Immediately the reduced tension in his leash told me how happy he was to be on a quiet side street. Here were houses with the good fortune to have the park as an extended back yard.
Walking along Rothsay I glanced westward to discover a way back into the park. A way that felt instinctively forbidding, as though it were for Rothsay residents alone.
The readings one can give to anything in the world are infinite, however in this case two and only two readings occurred to me. I will express them in historical order:
1) The punishment enforced by the armed Cherubim, that Adam and Eve might not reënter the garden, having proven disobedient honeymooners.
Gustave Doré: Adam et Ève jetté hors d'Éden(1865)
(It is not lost on me that Édouard and I are east of the park. East of Eden.)
2) The lines from Matthew, that "straight is the gate and narrow is the way." I.E. that this is a way it would be virtuous for me to follow.
Édouard was all for entering the park here. But since I like avoiding punishment way more than I like being ordered into things (quelle surprise: when I look at a church tower I imagine the hubris of Nimrod, not the inviting masterworks of Wren and Hawksmoor) and since I'm bigger than Édouard, we continued along the perimeter, fenced now with spiked, wrought-iron railing.
This is a design element I have shied away from since early youth when, too young perhaps for such disturbing scenes, I somehow was allowed to watch Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945). And was haunted for years by the 6.4 second sequence (or roughly 150 frames and, yes, I have done the math, it's therapeutic for me) in which Gregory Peck's character remembers
and I sincerely hope building codes have smartened up about putting spikes like that at the base of irresistibly fun concrete banisters. Since anyone who has had kids knows that no equipment designed for children's play (examples of which Édouard and I spy from our vantage point on the far side of the creepy railing
) is ever as appealing as the unintended climbing equipment children discover on their own, particularly when they have a good idea that it's forbidden fruit.
(I think the scene's ability to affect me as an adult lies in the detail of the wool vest snagged on a spike. I know Hitchcock thought about it, just like he thought about the popped shower hooks in Psycho. The fabricated detail so mundane it convinces the audience that the event couldn't be fabricated. )
I try and soften the film memory by switching my image to sepia.
so that now the memory overlap is with a photograph by Eugene Atget, of a French garden circa 1900.
And I am struck by how little gardens vary even over vast distances of time and space. Which may explain their power as a religious metaphor.
Édouard and I moved on. And stopped before a much more natural entry. Nonexclusive. The way in neither narrow nor straight. Neither forbidding nor welcoming.
The trees form a cathedral-like vault. But there is no scaffolding here. No sense of human vanity. Thus no way I feel invited to be there.
This phenomenon of viewing nature such that it imitates art I first learned at an exhibition of the work of British photographer Frederick Evans - roughly contemporary with Atget - who made a connection between the pathways between trees and the passages within great English Cathedrals.
And I recalled my time spent that morning in Cathedral Park, and my suspicion for all things which direct me towards paradise, be it earthly or transcendent. Emerging like the guilt complex of Hitchcock's very neurotic Gregory Peck in Spellbound, was a sense of Gage Park as a garden I might never be admitted back into...
... that Gage Park was garden from which I was exiled.
So we didn't go into the park at all. We continued along Rothsay until we reached Main Street
and headed east. Édouard was not happy about this. It was dusk and Édouard knew well that all walks are finite. Édouard had not gotten what he craved from his walk. But he brightened somewhat when we came to FACES at Rosslyn and Main.
My last memory of that evening is Édouard ordering us round after round of some boisson mélangée that consisted of absinthe, egg white and bitters and some mystery ingredient I'm just as glad I can't name.
As we ingurgitated this goo, Édouard spoke of his time in the French resistance, moving intelligence on microfilm across enemy lines. And how if captured he'd have bitten down on his cyanide ampoule in a heartbeat, rather than risk betraying a comrad under torture.
Even given that I missed 70 percent of his rapid French, the verisimilitude was compelling. But I think it was mostly bricolage et fanfaronnade. Édouard just doesn't seem old enough.
After that my memory goes blank. Édouard must have enlisted some help to get me to a room upstairs. When I opened my eyes I was on a single bed and Édouard was at a deal table playing some form of solitaire he'd invented with an incomplete set Mille Bornes cards, and mumbling what might have been La Marseillaise. That Édouard can drink me under the table.
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