Thursday, May 31, 2007

Crop Art

I was looking for "crop art". This was not what I had in mind.

But Lucy and Ricky are, in fact, crop art, of a kind. It’s not hideous. It’s a serious medium. Seeds of all kinds (thistle, millet, wheat, clover, etc.) are glued to a piece of cardboard. Take for instance Che Guevera done in beans:

Unfortunately, the crop art of perennial Minnesota State Fair winner Lillian Colton was the best of the genre. I say unfortunately, because the images cannot be reproduced here (not that I ever let that stop me in the past), but her site has a portrait gallery that will knock your socks off. Everything from Shirley Temple to Andy Warhol. Colton even did a group portrait from the "We Are the World" recording session. (Seeds used:timothy, canola, pine needles, clover, brome grass, poppy seeds, grits)

Still, this is not what I was looking for. But if it were, I’d return to the most memorable stop on my trip through South Dakota, the Mitchell Corn Palace:
The world's only Corn Palace began as "The Corn Belt Exposition" in 1892, a promotional enterprise established to showcase the rich agricultural region of the James Valley. The exposition became a popular annual event, and an icon of the American prairie. The Corn Palace has occupied three different buildings since 1892. Adorned each autumn with corn, grains, and native grasses in decorative patterns and themes, the Corn Palace has hosted famous entertainers, politicians, and community events.

I seem to recall hearing some disturbing news about the Corn Palace in the past year or so, but can’t locate the story. It is basically the world’s largest bird feeder, and it might have had something to do with that. Or maybe it was the genetically modified corn. Wish I could remember.

But getting back to the subject at hand, here’s what I had in mind when I went looking for crop art:

Stan Herd is the star of crop art. For over 20 years Herd has worked the earth using indigenous materials to produce evocative and mystical works. From 160 acre plowed portraits to one quarter acre intimate stone designs, his work has become a platform for discussion of mankind's contemporary relationship to the land.

From his website –
"Several things happened to Herd in the 1970's to interest him in the idea of art from above. Two television documentaries had a huge impact on him--one about the mysterious line drawings in the Nazca Desert in Peru (such as the spider pictured here), which make sense only when viewed from the air; and the other about Christo..."
-Jim Robbins for Smithsonian magazine, July 1994

"...with a profound sensitivity to the implications of his art, Stan Herd combines an awareness of the prairie soil in his native state with a global concern for humanity, and his imagery offers a new and dramatic prospect for the interrelationship of all three."
-Joni Kinsey,Plain Pictures, 1996

"When first viewing my work, many people think they are looking at a photo retouched or computer enhanced image. This couldn't be further from the truth. The imperfections inherent in an artform which depends on wind, rain, temperature, insects, and living vegetation reveals an art whose evolving form is measured by the beauty of the struggle."
-Stan Herd, March 1998
Back in 1994, inspired by Stan Herd, Norman Greig, a fruit and dairy farmer from Red Hook, New York convinced fellow farmers to create crop art pieces to draw attention to farmers' issues, and let people know that farming is still a viable concern. 14 works were completed:

Some of the works were best viewed from the air. Others could be seen from nearby roads. Greig himself created a two-acre maze carved into his field that could be walked through on the ground or viewed as a graphic image from the air. Barton Orchards produced a petroglyphic image of a green apple with a worm in it over 18 acres (above). Most designs were thematic to the farms that participated. Stony Kill Farm, a beef and crop farm, did a 1/4-acre "Stony Kill Grazing Cow" while Moody Hill Farm Market created a 1/4-acre "Floral Field" and the five-acre "Mixed Vegetables." F.W Battenfeld and Son, a Christmas tree and wholesale florist farm, produced a two-acre "Battenfeld's Christmas Tree."

The writer of the article, Steven Durland, adds:
I raised the question of why they chose art rather than more traditional lobbying vehicles. Greig considered it a natural response. "I think farmers are artists, whether they realize it or not," he said. "It's a similar commitment and a similar aesthetic and that's what keeps farmers coming back." And why landscape-scale crop art? Greig pointed out that all you have to do is look at an aerial view of farmland to see that it's already a work of art, so crop art just calls attention to the fact.

From an art standpoint, one can't help but note the precedents, especially the Minimal and Conceptual Earth Artists of the late '60s and '70s—Smithson, Oppenheim, Holt, Morris and others, many of whom did at least some of their creating in New York State. But these farmers don't seem to share the art "self-conciousness" of this recent avant-garde. Herd is a contemporary influence, but perhaps what they all share is a mytho-poetic response to land — the process of birth, growth, harvest and hybernation — that has inspired artists and farmers since the beginning of time to celebration and expression. They are creating art as part of the process of creating sustenance. "There's nothing new about crop art," notes Greig. "It goes back hundreds and even thousands of years."

And Stan Herd deserves at least some credit for the maize maze craze, as exemplified by this work in Lancaster County, PA:

It all lends a different meaning to the term "landscape art".

Birds and Bees

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

What Neil Young Has Learned

A best moment in music? Sometimes when I'm playing my guitar, I get to a point where it gets very cold and icy inside me. It's very refreshing. Every breath is like you're at the North Pole. Your head starts to freeze. Your inhalations are big-more air than you ever thought there is starts pouring in. There's something magical about it. Sometimes when it happens, you wonder if you're gonna be okay. Can you handle it?

Yes, there was something good that came out of having polio as a kid. Walking.

The sound of a harmonica hits you directly. There's no language barrier.

The wisest person I ever met had to be my companion in the hospital. I was recovering from complications after an operation to remove an aneurism in my brain. She was about eighty-five years old and maybe five feet tall. An old black lady from South Carolina. This young nurse wasn't really in touch with what she was doing, and the old lady would tell her how to do what she needed to do without telling her. She never talked down to her, just gave examples. I felt that this old woman must be deeply religious, but there was nothing forceful about her. I woke up one morning at a quarter to six and looked out the window. Fog was on the bridge outside the room, and I said, "Well, that's just beautiful." And she said: "Yes, it is." She turned toward me with this eighty-five-year-old face that didn't have a line on it, no strain, nothing, and she said: "So the master's not taking you. It's not your turn."

Courage is a mindless thing. People say, "Wow! How could you do that?" And you say, "How could I not do that?"

It's like having two eyes. You either look through one eye or you look through the other. Or you look through both of them. Sex is sex. Love is love. Love and sex is clear vision.

There's something peaceful about boxing. If you beat the hell out of a bag or go against a competitor, you and your reflexes will be so at one that you won't have time to think about anything else. You have to be totally yourself to box.

When I was six, I really didn't know what God was. But I did know about Sunday school. I was reading a lot about God, but I was bored. I couldn't wait to get out of Sunday school. God was secondary to the whole thing. But as time went by, I got more and more angry, to the point where I didn't like religion. Hate is a strong word. But I just kept getting angrier and angrier . . . until finally I wasn't angry anymore. I was just peaceful, because I thought: This is not fruitful for me. I rejected the whole thing and found peace in paganism. Jesus didn't go to church. I went way back before Jesus. Back to the forest, to the wheat fields, to the river, to the ocean. I go where the wind is. That's my church.

Epilepsy taught me that we're not in control of ourselves.

Most people think it's the other way around: that time is going faster and we're doing less. But really time seems to be going faster because we're cramming so much into it.

Our education system basically strives for normal -- which is too bad. Sometimes the exceptional is classified as abnormal and pushed aside.

One thing that has come out of having children with cerebral palsy is strength. At first it made me very angry. I was almost looking for a fight. I was always looking for someone to criticize my son in my presence. I would envision different scenarios in which I would become violent reacting to people's reactions to my children -- especially to my severely handicapped child. Eventually, he taught me that was not necessary. Just by being himself. By being a gift to us. He showed us how to have faith and belief and inner strength and to never give up.
I look around and see people hurting themselves for no reason. Drinking too much. Taking drugs. Beating themselves up in some psychological way. That really bothers me, knowing that these people got everything they needed to succeed. All they have to do is believe in themselves and in the gifts they're wasting. And yet there are all these other people on the planet who have none of the gifts that are apparent. The gifts are all locked up inside, yet their spirits are so strong that they just keep on going. And I think: This person who has this spirit, why can't he have some of the outward gifts?

Maybe this is a little too thoughtful, but we're all just passengers in a way.

The best is approaching. I have everything -- well, not everything, but a lot of things that I've accumulated through my life experiences. It's easier to communicate through music than it ever has been before. It's easier to play. It's easier to sing. It's easier to write. Nothing is forced.

When my doctor discovered the aneurism in my brain, he said I'd had it for about a hundred years. He told me I'd had it for such a long time that I shouldn't worry about it … but that we'd have to get rid of it immediately. Yeah, that's Zen medicine. He's very wise. I trusted him completely. All the people who took care of me were absolutely the best at what they do -- even though there was a complication, a complication that has a one-in-twenty-seven-hundred chance of happening in my type of operation. They go into your brain through an artery in your thigh. Later, when I was out of the hospital, my leg exploded. I was out on the street and it just popped. My shoe was full of blood. I was in some serious trouble. I was about fifty yards from the hotel and I just made it. The ambulance came about ten minutes later. I don't know if I need to go into this. I don't know if the event is important. But the result was. That's what led me to that lady. The wisest person I've ever met.

Sunday, May 27, 2007


I saw the first firefly of the year this evening, though it probably wasn't the first. Regardless of my inattention I suspect they've been illuminating the nights for a while. Around the world, folks are recording phenology data, with the first firefly appearance being one of the more popular events to follow. For more than 20 years, the Tremont Nature Center in Tennessee, associated with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, has collected information on dozens of plant and animal events, including the first lights of the firely. According to their records, it usually happens in early April. As you go toward the Midwest, the date can be as late as June...or even July in Wisconsin.

Elkmont, also on the Tennessee side of the National Park, is one of the few places on the planet where you can view synchronized fireflies:

...these are no ordinary fireflies. The little creatures are simultaneously flashing in perfect unison over and over again.

According to Jonathan Copeland, a biology professor at Georgia Southern University and one of the world's foremost authorities on fireflies, about ten to 20 Photinus carolinus in a given area at Great Smoky Mountains flash in sync from about 9 to 11 p.m., from June 1 to around June 21. They flash about five times, pause for about ten seconds, and repeat the cycle.

Synchronous flashing is a modern-day phenomenon. Scientists once believed that the phenomena did not occur outside of Southeast Asia. But in the early 1990s, an amateur naturalist named Lynn Faust saw what she thought were synchronized fireflies while at Elkmont in Great Smoky Mountains. After reading a newspaper article about synchrony, Faust wrote to a scientific mathematician who suggested she contact Copeland about her finding. In 1995, Copeland and fellow scientist Andy Moiseff confirmed that Faust had in fact spotted synchronizers at the park.

Scientists believe that the synchronous flashing is linked to mating, but little, if any, conclusive evidence has been made available. Copeland is able, however, to reveal a little more on the hows of synchrony: "The firefly has a pacemaker in his brain [telling it to] flash, and this can be accelerated or retarded…. The firefly sees a flash and, say, speeds up; the other firefly sees a flash and, say, slows down. They speed up and slow down each other, and in doing so become synchronized."

In other words, the stimulus from the preceding cycle determines the behavior of the subsequent cycle. In this way, fireflies differ from, say, a school of fish or a flock of birds. "[Fireflies'] signals get added together and some sort of decision is made. Birds and fish are driven by reflexes, whereas fireflies' flash is driven by a preceding set of signals that get interpreted in their brains," Copeland says. Elkmont's species has attracted considerable attention over the past few years from both scientists and the public. Many visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park like to watch the synchronizers light up, and scientists, now more than ever, are convinced that further study of the insects will benefit the human population.

Copeland agrees. "You might gain insight that might be useful to humans, like heartbeat, control of menstruation, [and] release of insulin from the pancreas," he says. "Synchrony is a very unique type of biological timing, and fireflies do it better than any animals. The human body is full of biological rhythms that affect our health. The more we know about biological systems, the more we can gauge."
While on the subject of phenology in the Smokies, I've heard that during a certain time of the year, rattlesnakes migrate through one part of the park, such that for a space of several hundred feet, you would not be able to step on the ground without stepping on a snake. Exactly when and where that exciting event occurs, I'm not sure.
Given a choice between the two, I'd prefer to go observe the synchronous fireflies.

Looking Glass and Richland

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Haywood County, 1941

He was walking alongside the road near Waterville.
"What you got in the jug?," we asked.
His eyes twinkled: "I wouldn't be askin' you that, stranger," was his reply.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Heirloom Apples

"In the year 1798, George Swain, Esq., father
of the late Governor Swain, planted the very first apple orchard
in Western Carolina. This orchard was planted on Beaverdam
Creek, six miles north of Asheville, and was selected from the
very latest varieties of apples in Massachusetts, Swain's native
state. But to his astonishment, when his trees bore fruit, yet
there was not the first variety of winter keeping apples among
them; hense, Swain concluded that the latitude was too far South
for winter apples, and gave up the object.

My wife was a step-grand-daughter of Mr. Swain, and when we moved to Macon [County, NC] in 1830, our first baby's cradle was filled with small apple trees from
Swain's orchard; and ten years after planting, I made the
acquaintance of James Carmack, Esq., then editing an agricultural
paper at Athens, Ga. Carmack had made a great effort to
cultivate Northern apples in Georgia, but had signally failed.
We compared notes; I also had failed. Carmack remarked to me,
'McDowell, I have made an important discovery that no one has
thought of - the South must have a pomology of its own, that of
the North will not suit us, particularly as it relates to winter
fruit. It ripens too soon and falls from the tree a month before
time to put it away for winter use. But we can remedy this, and
you are the man to do it. Turn out among the mountains and get
you grafts from native seedling apples; you need'nt fear but that
you will find them, for I have seen them brought to this city by
mountain wagoners, and graft your trees with these seedlings, and
in ten years you will have the very best collection of winter
keeping apples in the United States.' Saying which, he handed me
a couple of apples of different variety (it was in February),
these two apples have no superior at the North, and the white, or
light colored one is superior to their far famed Newton's pippin.

It would be superfluous to say that I acted on Carmack's
suggestion and never intermitted for 20 years every winter to
ride, inquire for, and collect grafts of new varieties of winter
apples. I have never, heretofore, exhibited my winter apples at
any 'fair,' but they have been exhibited under other names for 25
years, and never yet, without taking a premium; the only one of
which I received was sent me by Mrs. Judge Osborne of Charlotte
in the year 1860, who, when at Macon with the Judge, I presented
her with some fine apples, when she observed, 'Judge, I will take
part of these apples to the North Carolina fair at Raleigh and
take the purse for fine apples!' All I know about the result is,
she sent me a handsome silver goblet by Dr. Samuel Love of
My catalogue of new apples I commenced with the two
that Carmack gave me, the first of which I named Carmack, and the
other Nickajack. None but late keepers in the list, Bullasage,
Mavereck Winter Sweet, Royal Pearmam, Hoover, Golden Pippin,
equal to Newton's Pippin. The Buff I would include for show, but
not for quality. Kingrusset and Neverfail I would plant because
they keep so well, and are of fine quality.

I would add a few Red Junes, and
early Harvests, and the Summer and Autumn apples you could not go
amiss for them. Were I again to plant, the above varieties would
meet all the wants of my taste, tho' I have left out a score of
worthy names; but not eminently first best."

- Silas McDowell writing in the Asheville Citizen, May 21, 1874

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Focus in Five

May 20, 1889

In his May 4, 1889 letter, A. J. Long shared his prospects for the crops planted around Webster, NC. With the passage of time he revised his initial dire forecast.

"Mr. Editor: Two weeks ago I gave it as my opinion that all the fruit about Webster was killed by the frost, but observations since have convinced me of my mistake. I find now, that in all the orchards (unforeseen contingencies excepted) there will be some peaches and out on the high lands, near the thermal belt, there will be abundance of both peaches and apples. I notice that the peach and damson trees in Webster of full of fruit; and I can see that the people in town are flattering themselves, that they will yet, have a peach pie this summer. ... A. J. Long, Sr. Near Webster, May 20th, 1889"

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Sharp or Rounded?

From "Western North Carolina," published in Appleton's, Journal, May 1871:

"We have stated that the soil of this region is singularly fertile. This is due in the valleys to the wash from the mountains, but many of the mountains of the interior basin present strange anomaly of being fertile to their very tops. It is a singular fact respecting this country that the sharp-peaked mountains are all poor land, while those which are rounded, and come up rather rolling and gentle, are almost invariably rich."

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Buck Knob Moon Rise

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.

Mountains are the beginning and the end of all natural scenery.

Beauty deprived of its proper foils and adjuncts ceases to be enjoyed as beauty, just as light deprived of all shadows ceases to be enjoyed as light.

Faking Authenticity

If you teach an actor to farm, and you give him two acres and tell him to work the land, is he acting or farming? Is it performance art or food production? For artist David Levine, this is a riddle for which all answers are correct.

Writing at Worldchanging, Sarah Rich reports on Levine’s project in "Bauerntheater and Biorama Projekt: Farming, Acting and Critical Art":

Levine trained an American actor in farm technique for one month in New York, as any director would rehearse a show, then flew the actor to Brandenburg for the debut. Bauerntheater will run continuously for one month, during which time the actor-turned-farmer will cultivate two acres of potatoes, "in character," for fourteen hours per day.
Levine characterizes it as an exploration of the interplay and conflict between tradition, performance, labor and art:
Bauerntheater is concerned with global labor markets, with the performance of cultural tradition, with the representation of labor, with representation as labor, and with the troubled relationship of Endurance and Land Art to questions of "authenticity."

Rich asked Levine why he chose to have an actor play a farmer, rather than having an actual farmer. He responded:

a) Both America and Germany locate their...what should we call it…"cultural authenticity" in the figure of the farmer. It's silly, and it's a cliché, but that's what we do. So then the question is, can it be faked? And what happens if you fake it by using an actor, the epitome of everything urban, rootless, inauthentic? And yet, wasn't the image of the farmer highly aestheticized in the first place?
b) As an American artist—i.e., one whose work earns very little — I'm interested in the idea of representation as hardship; or representation as labor (even though art is often construed as being the opposite of work). So, I wanted to create a situation where the labor of farming became indistinguishable from the labor of acting.
c) Eco-Tourism, at least out here, turns agricultural work into a tourist attraction. Out here, for instance, tourism makes a much larger contribution to the economy than agriculture, even though agriculture is what the tourists come to see performed. What does it mean when your work becomes a kind of performance?

I got to thinking about Levine’s comment:
"cultural authenticity" in the figure of the farmer. It's silly, and it's a cliché, but that's what we do.

Grant Wood’s American Gothic comes to mind. And I’m not alone in seeing the American Gothic couple as a farmer and his wife, when the painting was meant to portray an older small town man and his daughter.

On the NPR series Present at the Creation, Melissa Gray explains that Grant Wood had his younger sister, Nan, model as the woman, with local dentist Dr. B. H. McKeeby holding the famous pitchfork.

Here’s the best news of all. Whether it’s your younger sister, or your dentist, or an actor portraying a farmer, or a farmer portraying an actor…you can pose them in front of the home that inspired American Gothic.

From the Iowa Historical Society, we learn that the house still stands in Eldon, Iowa:
The home, built in the 1880s, has been restored by the State Historical Society of Iowa, which also owns and maintains the site for visitors. The Historical Society restored the property to its 1930 appearance so that it serves as a backdrop for visitors wanting to replicate the famous couple in the American Gothic painting.

Next time I’m within, oh, a hundred miles of Eldon, Iowa, I’ll be sure to visit!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Edison in the Smokies

101 years ago, Thomas Edison spent a few days in Jackson County examining cobalt deposits for a storage battery that he was developing. It was not the last trip that Edison would make to the mountains.

His camping trips with Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, John Burroughs and others notables are legendary. The old photo [above] shows the “vagabonds” camping (and shaving) in the Smokies in 1918. Left to right: Henry Ford, Bishop William F. Anderson, Harvey Firestone (stooping). Thomas A. Edison and President Warren G. Harding

One tale of the campers’ adventures is re-told by Patricia Zacharias of The Detroit News :

En route to a new campsite on a rainy day, the Lincoln touring car carrying Harding, Ford, Edison, Firestone and naturalist Luther Burbank bogged down in deep mud on a back road in West Virginia.

Ford's chauffeur went for help and returned with a farmer driving an ancient Model T. After the Lincoln was yanked from the mire, Ford was the first to shake the farmer's hand.

"I guess you don't know me but I'm Henry Ford. I made the car you're driving."

Firestone chimed in, "I'm the man who made those tires." Then he introduced two of the campers: "Meet the man who invented the electric light -- and the President of the United States."

Luther Burbank was the last to shake hands. "I guess you don't know me either?" he asked.

"No," said the farmer, "but if you're the same kind of liar as these other darn fools, I wouldn't be surprised if you said you was Santa Claus."

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Great Blue Heron

It's always nice to see a Great Blue this one seen on the Tuckasegee just the other afternoon (surrounded by a dozen lesser herons).

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Many Spicy Hits

The Black Mountain Farmer's Alliance met Saturday, May 10, [1890]. The choir opened the exercises by singing, 'Sweet Hour of Prayer,'...

The silver-tongued orators and the audience were then made welcome by Mr. T. R. Randolph, our popular and suave young teacher, who in a neat little speech made many spicy hits. ...

Gen. R. B. Vance kept the audience interested for two hours...
His talk was doubly interesting by the scientific and indisputable data brought to bear out the fact that as things now are legislation exists for the favored few. He implored the Alliance to cling and work together and be no longer like 'Issachar, who bared his shoulders to the burden,' but to cast off the yoke in order to become freedmen. ...
This address ended in a masterful manner and reached the tender depths of pathos by reciting that quaint Scotch poem, 'John Anderson my Joe, John.' ...

Gen. Vance's speech was followed by an address from Maj. D. A. Blackwell, the President of the County Alliance, who in a happy manner gave both valuable instruction and good advice, which it would be well for all interested to heed. He won many friends by his gallantry and tender reference to the fair sex and the bright jewels of happy childhood...

The choir sang 'Sowing the Seed,' then Mr. Stepp introduced Mr. T. F. Reeves, who made quite an eloquent speech...
Little Bertha Clements entertained the crowd after dinner by reciting very sweetly, 'Deliverance Will Come,' by Rev. B. A. Clark."

(From the Asheville Democrat, May 15, 1890)

May 10, 1879

W. G. Zeigler traveled west of the Balsams on May 10, 1879 and observed the area near Cherokee:
A great part of this hilly land away from the river is now under cultivation. Dismal young forests of field pine show that it had once been cleared, worked until worn out, and then left for nature to again train into its primitive wilderness. It reminded me of the dreary pine woods of the State next south of this. Nothing could look more lonesome than, surrounded by these pine fields, old, empty farm houses, one or two of which we passed, with dingy, weather-beaten sides, moss grown roofs, crumbling chimneys, gaping, sashless windows and doorless entrances. Not a domestic creature could be seen around them, and even the birds seemed to sing mournfully in the still flourishing orchards.

Zeigler later wrote about the conditions he had seen:
The question naturally comes up: why are these so many of these ugly blots, marked by scrubby pines, upon the face of an otherwise fair landscape? The answer is, indifferent farming, resulting, in a great many cases, from the ownership of too much land. There was no object in saving manures and ploughing deep, when the next tract lay in virgin soil, awaiting the axe, plough, and hoe.

Zeigler’s entry for May 10 included this:
We were in Swain county. Fine farms of rich black soil lay on either side between the river and the environing mountains, which grew higher, steeper, wilder and closer together as we advanced. The farm houses were large, looked old fashioned in their simple style of architecture, ancient with the gray, unpainted exteriors, but homelike and cheerful, surrounded by their large, blossoming apple orchards.

(W. G. Zeigler, "On Foot Across the Mountains," May 10, 1879, Asheville Citizen, May 22, 1879)