GREAT MEADOWS GALLERY
For many years I was self-appointed inspector of
and rain storms, and did my duty
Fairly recently retired, I find myself answering the standard
questions: So what do you do with your time now that you’ve got so
much of it? What explorations, what fresh directions do you find
yourself taking now in this new flowering of the retired life? I
have several thematic answers, but none may fit the spirit of that
question, in its truest and best curiosity, better than this: I make
small piles of rocks.
In the spirit of Thoreau’s unpaid work as “inspector of rainstorms”
for our town of Concord, Massachusetts, and “keeper of its wild
stock,” I have lately found myself the curator of a small museum, open
to if not paid attention to by the public. Many of the works on
display, I have to admit, are my own, but I have my fellow artists..
This museum - really I suppose gallery would be a more modest, and
fitting, word - is scattered over the acres that comprise the Great
Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, which extends out past our back
yard, and has long been my basic place for daily ramblings, walks of
an hour or so’s duration. Noticing one day a couple of unusually
pleasing-looking stones along the main causeway path around the
refuge’s largest pond, I thought they deserved a better chance to
catch someone’s attention. I put a little group of them on a flat-
topped low rock along the path, where their smoothness and rich color
variations showed together to good effect. Suddenly the poet Wallace
Stevens stole into my head:
I placed a jar in Tennesse,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
My pile was an wasn’t a jar, not something fully man-made, but rather
a man-made construction of the natural . The effect, however, was
similar: My obviously-artificial construct seemed - to me at least -
to lend to the surrounding woods or rocks a new dimension. Its clear
intentionality made it different from its setting, and changed the
nature of the setting itself in turn somehow. At the least, it
pleased me, and, I thought, might have given a pleasant ripple to the
awareness of anyone recognizing it as a small human contribution to
My impulse here was not unlike that of seven-year-old Annie Dillard,
as she relates it at the beginnng of her marvelous essay
“Seeing” (chapter two in PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK). She describes her
excitement, as she would place a penny somewhere “at the roots of a
sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk,”
thinking happily about “the first lucky passer-by who would receive in
this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.” I,
too, could not help imagining my little pile catching some walker’s
eye ... hey, what’s that? The impulse to leave a sign of one’s
passing is surely not uncommon.
Recently my wife and I hiked up Mount Champlain in Maine’s Acadia
National Park. I’d assumed a modest 1,000-foot “mountain” was ...
well, the quotation marks give away my insubordinate attitude. Hard
clambering it was, though, for me at any rate - Christopher’s rowing
fitness kept her strong, but she was working as well. I established
a deep and warm relationship along our arduous way with the many
(forty? more?) cairns, marker rockpiles on the ascent. Part of this
was gratitude that we had some demonstration of progress towards
sitting down and eating our limp sandwiches, but part was also the
perfect niftiness of most of these artfully-placed shapes. Most were
three large-ish granite chunks (fifteen or twenty pounds?), two
supporting the third in bench-like fashion. I gratefully tested the
sittability of a few. On some was placed a fourth, smaller rock, an
addition that sometimes leant them a distinctly turtlish aspect. The
proportions and configurations again imbued intentionality that was in
contrast to the extravagant wildness and vast views of our climb.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
Over the walking months (most of the year at Great Meadows, though
with a few periods of impassibility in the winter or at spring flood-
times) my piling impulses led me to leave a dozen or more of my
creations around and about. One successful “installation” seemed to
call for another. Was I a real artist, my increasing number of piles
representing a growing oeuvre, or was I simply a ranging canine,
marking his territory? Calder or coyote, it didn’t, of course,
matter. I might, in a day’s ramble through the place, notice one or
two of my piles, or a dozen, or none. But I did know generally where
my creations were, and knowing that gave a certain new shape to my
mental map of the refuge. I already knew the woods and paths well,
but a new, almost-proprietary dimension crept into my relationship
with the place.
My additions to the Refuge’s natural appearance gave rise, inevitably
I suppose, to wondering about other installations. What if, instead
of suddenly noticing an artful heap of small stones, one saw, oh, say,
a plump, inch-high, golden Boddhisattva figurine perched on a tree
stump eight feet off a woods path? What new dimensions of meaning
might be granted any number of tschotzkes now gracing various nooks
and desks in my house? The urge to Put Stuff Outside, which called up
great remembered pleasures from my childhood, still was powerful
within me. The smell of mint growing all around the stone wall where I
placed toy armies on long-ago summer afternoons came back to me ....
But the idea of this, seductive as it was, also scared me and seemed
problematic. What if a number of folks decided to enhance the
Refuge’s beauty with their objets? Some - horrors! - might not
demonstrate my own obviously impeccable aesthetic sensibility!
My sole introduction of a man-made object, and one about which I had
very mixed feelings, even came to regret, was the Q-tile episode.
The tile, special of course by virtue of its being one of the five
letters of which each Scrabble set has only a single one, I set
Dillard-like into a richly green, mossy spot at the base of a pathside
oak. It lasted there no more than a couple of weeks. It was not a
glossy plastic competition-quality ProTile in an eye-catching color,
but a dark wood tile from a standard old set. Its disappearance gave
rise in me to various possible scenarios of its being noticed and then
removed. I mean, after all, one would always pick up a noticed piece
of litter, wouldn’t one? Can’t have people dropping things, leaving
things, throwing things away.... Beyond simple neatness and
environmental responsibility, though, there might be at least the
question as to whether or not the finder/remover was a scrabble
player, even perhaps with what degree of seriousness? Then, too, one
remembers tales of jays and magpies and other corvids picking up stray
baubles to embellish nests.
However it disappeared, the original “art,” the installation, as it
were, no longer exists. Good-bye, Q-tile, and bless you whether
you’re in a drawer, forgotten, tossed away in some garbage dump, or
maybe even resting back among your fellows in a Scrabble tile bag.
The “art” has life, though, in that it’s been replaced by exactly
these speculations of mine . One would say that this shift to an
existence only in my imagination has rendered that public art work a
private one ... though it now has also a private life in the
imagination and stories associated with it by whomever found it,
too ... and what if that finder, in turn, showed the tile to someone
with a laugh later? The ripples of story might spread, a butterfly-
wing-changing-the-world effect ...
That Q was, in any case, an aberration - my entire body of work
otherwise consisting of my simple piles. Some grew to as many as six
or seven consituent rocks,
and once I had a few in place here and there other locations seemed to
beckon to me regularly as possible grouping-worthy spots.
I’ve been delighted on occasion to find a new sculpture created by
someone else. Two lovely piles, each of three smooth, flattened ovoid
rocks, dark but of pleasingly contrasting earthtones, I noticed one
day about five feet to the right of a woods-path I walked along, up
four feet or so above ground level on a natural shelf on the side of a
protruding boulder. What excitement! Crusoe discovers a footprint!
I’ve re-stacked these when the piles have dissolved, by whose hand I
know not, extending my curatorial duties to all works in the gallery,
not only my own.
Anpother example of someone else’s creativity came in mid-August,
when water levels had sunken down very low. Walking in on the main
causeway, over the last footbridge area headed back to the main
parking lot, it was so dry I didn’t need to take the footbridge, and
instead walked right across the concrete blocks that form the bed of
the dip that sometimes is a channel streaming from the west side of
the causeway to the east side ... and there I noted the big rock
blocks that spread out from the west side. And zap! That’s where I
saw a lovely work of museum art, a clearly human intention: seven of
the black dead water lily clusters, looking like strange shower
heads, are lined up in an arc, one each atop a line of rocks. One
could have conceivably been left on a rock by the vagaries of wind and
water, even a couple. But this graceful parade of shapes had to come
from someone carefully laying them out one at a time down the line. I
loved it! By the next time I passed that spot a few days later, a
storm had passed through and the pods were gone, scattered into the
masses to be found clumped at the base of the reeds that edge the
ponds or in piles along the side of the path. That “art” probably
existed only for a day. It made me think of Andy Goldsworthy’s
wonderful natural-object mega-structures, many purposely designed to
eventually dissolve in currents of whatever kind.
And yes, I surely know that the real art, the Great Art, at Great
Meadows is wrought by nature’s hand, not mine or any other human’s.
A beautiful September example was the astonishing feat of the
spiders. The morning had begun with a sort of fog - the previous day
chilly and damp, this day much warmer, though it took the sun until
after 8:00 to break through the mists. Tomorrow would be the fall
solstice, and the seasons lately had been alternating days, a summery
one followed by crisp autumn flavors, then back to warmth. The
spiders had been at work overnight, and for virtually the entire
length of the causeway’s east-west axis stretch there were dew-
bejeweled delicate complete webs, dazzling in their intricate
architecture. Some were quite small, only two or three inches across;
most seemed closer to half a foot. There were as many as seven or
eight on some of the high plants - blue vervain, I thought, seemed to
lend itself best, but I saw webs on everything out there, jewelweed,
evening primrose, ancient loosestrife, meadowsweet, sometimes even
strung from one plant to another, though more often limited to one. I
was lucky and happened to be there at exactly the right time that
morning, as the sun had just broken through and the moisture hadn’t
dissipated. A glorious gallery of glistening artistry. Charlotte’s
Web for as far as the eye could see, its message unwritten but clear
as the morning: not Some Pig! but in this case, Some Day!
It wouldn’t have been a wasted morning to watch these webs
disappear. Already some were torn - surely the bumblebees left around
couldn’t be captured by these gossamer nets, nor the many early-fall
goldfinches and other little perchers with their own errands in the
neighborhood. And who knows? Perhaps a studious watcher would be
rewarded by the actual sighting of a spider! Their total absence from
the splashy display was, to this amateur at least, conspicuous. By
this evening, would these masterworks all be gone? Could some big
ones survive longer than a day? The biggest I saw was probably over
two feet top to bottom and more than a foot wide, 22 or 23 radial
divisions and as many tree-ring widths. But no spider was on it
anywhere, nor could I see one curled up along a stem or leaf sleeping
off its exertions or admiring its own handiwork. Could the creators
have already harvested any morning crop and retreated to their living
rooms to read quietly?
This past spring - mid-March? - I was thrilled to see a small
tumble I recognized as having been some handiwork of mine from the
previous fall on a wide stone along the pathside on the main causeway
loop. Broken up though it was, the notion that it had in any form at
all survived the snowy winter gave me a warm feeling. No weavings of
mine would ever rival the masterpieces of the spiders, but I had an
edge in staying power, whatever that was worth.
But art is emphatically NOT eternal. Many of my efforts I’ve been
perfectly content to lose to winds, varmints, or whatever fate there
is that doesn’t like a pile. In the few cases where my handiwork has
been associated with another man-made structure I never made any
curatorial efforts at restoration once time took its course, having
come to be dissatisfied with that juxtaposition of human intentions.
One little group hunkered down at the base of one of the railing
supports around a new viewing platform lasted for nearly a month - its
chief virtue was that I could make it out from back on the main path,
gracing its little corner plot. Another small grouping on the
concrete pedestal base of a viewing bench lasted quite a while before
But the proper distance between the natural and the artificial had
not, somehow, been maintained, and this sort of thing I generally view
now as a failed experiment.
Most of the time I can stroll past piles simply observing, but there
are times when my curatorial urge compells me to tidy up the bunch in
some way. Once in a great while, I can see evidence of someone’s
having noticed my work, generally by seeing that it’s been altered in
some way. One long-in-place pile became, suddenly it seemed to me, a
line of rocks instead, artfully curved. My excitement was, I hope,
some variant on the excitement of others who might have noticed my
original piles. Communications from other civilizations!
Though it’s a year-round gallery, seasons naturally bring changes.
It’s most open in the early spring, though there are high-water
periods that limit access. As the plants along the path around the
largest pond grow higher, the constructs are at times obscured, even
at times made invisible by the luxuriant burgeoning loosestrife,
evening primrose, and other lush growths.. This too pleases me, as I
like the idea of the piles going into hiding, as it were. This seems
to me to amplify the reward granted by the universe (to use Dillard’s
construct) to the perceptive wanderer whose pilgrim eye drifts onto
it. Here too I diverge from Stevens, whose final stanza
overemphasizes negatives and the artificality of the jar. Rock piles
do not behave the same way.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
Supposing my walks to have some exercise value, my curatorial duties
can be fitness-frustrating, forcing me to make stops along my rambling
way far too often, whether to re-group a disintegrated pile, to snap a
photo, to simply to admire a friendly little heap again. I try to
accomplish this just in passing, but sometimes need to slow down or
stop to really look for a pile. Sometimes I look in vain, finding
nothing where I knew I’d had something in place before. It’s always
interesting to speculate on how my magnificent artworks disappear (“My
name is Ozymandius, king of kings,/ Look on my works, ye mighty, and
despair.”). I imagine sometimes a gleeful knocking-down by a toddler,
sometimes an oblivious swishing-past of a fat, wet muskrat. I myself
would never dismantle an intended pile, but I guess there must be
those who do ... I console myself for disappearances by realizing that
in order to disassemble something, that something must first be
noticed. Thus destruction is at the same time recognition. (Less so,
of course, in the case of critters or the elements.)
I worry occasionally about obsessing too much ... is it in fact
possible for me to walk around Great Meadows any more without slowing,
stopping, peering, searching, assessing, grooming, placing? Luckily,
the answer is yes. And I consider at times that what I lose in
fitness benefit I make up, to some degree at least, by attention
paid. Walking can’t be only a fitness activity, after all - it has to
be associated with waking as well, being awake to the world.
Actively taking on the curatorial role simply adds a dimension,
another layer of meaning to my ramblings. By making any
construction, I become more a part of the scene, as I also do by
noticing them. My piles are little alarm clocks of a sort, calling
me to wake, and possibly, at best, even nudging some others into a
thoughtful or pleasurable noticing.
And noticing, waking, is what it’s all about,in the end. Or the
beginning: on the title page of Walden, Thoreau places under a line
drawing of his little woods house a quote from a later chapter. I do
not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as
Chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my
neighbors up. In this sense, I needn’t be entirely ashamed of my
modest curatorial efforts, and when I confess to being, in my
retirement, a pile-maker, I can even admit to satisfaction.
Sunday several of us were admiring the recent installation, "Rocks on Stumps" along the lower impoundment dike trail, near the curve by the old beaver house.
I've noticed many. I don't know why I haven't photographed them. It is interesting to see where they pop up.
I agree that man-made objects are in appropriate. We have a hard enough time picking up the stuff that people accidentally (or deliberately drop) as they tour the refuge.