Embracing vInes

Celastrus orbiculatus (Oriental bittersweet)

Celastrus orbiculatus (Oriental bittersweet)

When Celastrus orbiculatus grows by itself, it forms thickets; when it is near a tree or shrub, the vines twist themselves around the trunk. The encircling vines have been known to strangle the host tree to death … All parts of the plant are poisonous. –Wikipedia, Celastrus orbiculatus

Oriental bittersweet continues to spread on Cape Cod, along with poison ivy, Virginia creeper, and English ivy. We now have kudzu, which used to be primarily in the American South.

Climate change is making poison ivy grow faster, bigger and meaner. Rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and higher temperatures are to poison ivy what garbage is for rats, dormant water is for mosquitoes and road kill is to buzzards. –Templeton (2013)

Vines are spreading everywhere–lianas in Panama and air potato in Texas, which grows 8 inches a day. New York is releasing thousands of harmful Asian weevils as the only way to combat the relentless mile-a-minute vine. It’s happening all over the planet. Whether we like it or not, vines are embracing us, our walls and fences, and our trees.

Dioscorea bulbifera (air potato)

Dioscorea bulbifera (air potato)

Vines are increasing in many places because of forest fragmentation and habitat destruction. They’re also benefitting globally from increased CO2 in the atmosphere and global warming. Since they sequester less carbon than the trees they replace do, they then contribute to the growth of CO2. It’s a vicious cycle. Trees, but also ferns and other plants are at risk.

If you’ve ever walked through the jungle, you’ll know it can be surprisingly dark down on the forest floor. You see trees soaring up all around. You’re creating a dense canopy overhead. And climbing toward that canopy, snaking up the trees are the vines.

Now it may seem peaceful in there, but what you’re witnessing in very slow motion is a fight to the death: a fight between the trees and their old rivals, the vines. It’s a battle as old as the forests themselves. Now, scientists say the vines are winning. –Science Friday, NPR

Toxicodendron radicans, poison ivy

Toxicodendron radicans, poison

Vines can be quite beautiful. Grape vineyards have developed on the Cape, to what I’d consider to be a good end. BougainvilleaCampsis (trumpet vine), Wisteria can be beautiful. Lathyrus odoratus (sweet pea) and Passiflora edulis (passionfruit) have delicious fruits. Even poison ivy provides forage for many animals and the fruits are popular with birds (who help spread it around).

Vines aren’t all bad, Maybe we should embrace them back.

But we may have to say good bye to the trees. And they were nice to have around, too.

References

Reverse silhouettes

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot — “Little Gidding”

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I knew the name, György Kepes, mostly because he’s one of those notable Wellfleetians, but I can’t say that I knew much about him until recently.

My exploration started with a “Picture of the Day” in New Scientist, showing one of his reverse silhouettes, and describing an exhibition of his works at Tate Liverpool. More images are shown in the slide show above, on the website of the new Kepes Institute, Museum, and Cultural Center in Eger Hungary, and at Hommage à György Kepes.

Cape Cod Modern,  Peter McMahon, Christine Cipriani

Cape Cod Modern, Peter McMahon, Christine Cipriani

I looked up Kepes in the wonderful new book by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani, Cape Cod modern: Midcentury architecture and community on the Outer Cape. There are interesting stories and photos there about the house that Marcel Breuer designed for the Kepes family on Long Pond, and about their interesting relationship with Wellfleet and Cambridge, Mass, including living in Wellfleet without a car. There is some about his wife, Juliet Kepes, who has had considerable accomplishments of her own, including winning the Caldecott Award for Five little monkeys. They had met in London when she was then 17-year-old Juliet Appleby.

I then started examining more of the Kepes art, writings, and history.

The Wellfleet library may be small, but it’s an excellent source for this kind of investigation. It has many books by György Kepes, including his Vision + value series. As I read through the contributors, I couldn’t believe what I saw.

Kepes (1906-2001) was a Hungarian-born painter, photographer, designer, filmmaker, educator, and art/design theorist. As a young artist, he was concerned about the relation between art and social justice, seeking to alleviate “the inhumane conditions of the Hungarian peasantry.” He followed László Moholy-Nagy to London, and later, to teach design at the New Bauhaus in Chicago and later founded the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT.

Five Little Monkeys, Juliet Kepes

Five Little Monkeys, Juliet Kepes

Kepes promoted an idealistic conception of visual communication as a universal language that could enhance communication and social relations:

Visual communication is universal and international; it knows no limits of tongue, vocabulary, or grammar, and it can be perceived by the illiterate as well as by the literate (Language of Vision, p. 13).

There are many reasons to question that bold statement, and Kepes must have done so as well. While at New Bauhaus he developed ideas about design theory, form in relation to function, and the “education of vision.” This implies that although visual communication may be universal it is not immediately apprehended. Kepes’s teaching and writing, including the anthologies he edited argue for it as something to be studied and learned. Kepes goes on to say: “Visual language must be adjusted, however, to meet its historical challenge.” This challenge is to reunite people and knowledge, to establish a more integrated being in a changing world.

What especially struck me about Kepes’s work was how much it tied together disparate threads in my own life. He saw fundamental connections between people in fields that are often considered to be far apart. In exploring his work I felt that I was getting know a new friend, but also, as Eliot suggests, getting to know myself better as well.

Kepes’s Bauhaus strand is strong in Wellfleet, including in the life and work of friends Ati Gropius and John Johansen, Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Serge Chermayeff, Paul Weidlinger, and others. He worked with science educators, such as Gerard Holton and Philip Morrison. He was involved in the development of computer sciences, especially regarding data visualization, and worked with Norbert Wiener and Jerome Wiesner. He worked with psychologists, including Rudolf Arnheim and Erik Erikson, mathematicians–Stanislaw Ulam, biologists–C. H. Waddington, communications theorists–Marshall McLuhan, artists–Piet Mondrian, Mark Rothko. And he is most strongly identified with designer/theorists such as Christopher Alexander, Buckminster Fuller, and Charles Eames. Thus, the worlds of art, science, education, technology, and social justice were in the same mix. This can be seen in his exhibition/book, The new landscape in art and science, in which artwork was interlaced with images from x-rays, stroboscopes, electron microscopes, sonar, radar, telescopes, and infrared sensors.

Some more examples are his reverse silhouettes. Using a technique that has become a children’s museum staple, Kepes made “photograms” by arranging objects directly on top of light-sensitive paper and illuminating them. I wish I could see the new display in Liverpool, but in lieu of that am enjoying the art and ideas in his many books. These ideas are still fresh and have inspired many others, including the whole field of computational aesthetics (see for example, Form + code)

References

  • Kepes, György (1995/1944). Language of vision. New York: Dover.
  • Kepes, György (1949). Graphic forms: The arts as related to the book. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Kepes, György (1956). The new landscape in art and science. Chicago: Paul Theobald.
  • Kepes, György (1965-66). Vision + value [series] (The education of vision; Structure in art and science; The nature and art of motion; Module, symmetry, proportion, rhythm; Sign, image, symbol; and The man-made object). New York: George Braziller.
  • Kepes, György (1966). The visual arts today. Wesleyan University Press.
  • Kepes, György (1972). Arts of environment. New York: George Braziller.
  • McMahon, Peter, & Cipriani, Christine (2104, Spring). Cape Cod modern: Midcentury architecture and community on the Outer Cape. New York: Metropolis.
  • Picture of the day (2015). Reverse silhouettes capture the beauty of nature. New Scientist.
  • Rawsthorn, Alice (2010). A master of image and information. The New York Times.
  • Reas, Casey; McWilliams,Chandler; LUST (2010). Form + code: In design, art, and architecture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press.

Light from the Castagna

Castagna

Castagna

Over a century ago, on February 17, 1914, the Italian bark Castagna was thrown on the backside of Cape Cod near the Marconi Lifesaving Station. See Italian bark Castagna comes a cropper on the Marconi Station beach and Shipwrecks on South Wellfleet’s Shore.

There’s a large photo of the Castagna in the Wellfleet Post Office and the general story is well known. But there’s a side to it that not many people know.

The Castagna was bound from Montevideo for Weymouth loaded with guano. It struck ground during a blinding snowstorm and northwest gale. Lifesaving crews shot three lines for breeches buoys across the Castagna’s deck, but the sailors were so cold that they were unable to handle the tackle. The skipper of the Castagna was washed overboard, four men froze to death in the rigging and one died in the lifeboat on the way to shore. The loss of life was the largest in a wreck on Cape Cod in 12 years.

The Life Line, Winslow Homer, 1884

The Life Line, Winslow Homer, 1884

My Great Uncle Jack Whorf, had just turned 13 years old. When he heard about the ship going aground, he and a friend decided that going to see the wreck would be more interesting than whatever was planned for school that day. When they arrived at the ocean, they saw the crews from the Nauset and Cahoon’s Hollow stations set up with their beach gear.

The crews had managed to rescue the ship’s cook with a breeches buoy. Presumably he had survived in part from being in the warm galley, rather than up in the rigging. He was set up in a chair on the beach. Jack and his friend were told to rub his arms to keep him alive.

The next day, Jack and his friend scavenged some teak from the wreck and made a desk lamp from the wood. A Wellfleet lampshade maker painted a Cape Cod map and a picture of the ship on the shade. He and Great Aunt Polly used that lamp in their den. For them it was a quite ordinary fixture; for me, it was a talisman to adventure and tragedy.

Ripley, RIP

Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, XXVII [Book Two], (tr. Cliff Crego)

Does Time the Destroyer really exist?
When, on the mountain, will it bring /
down the fortress?
When will the demiurge overpower this heart
that belongs to the infinity of the gods?

Are we really so frightfully fragile
as Fate would have us believe?
Does the promise of childhood, the depths,
remain later quiet in the roots?

Ah, the ghost of that which is transient;
it passes through the guileless receptive ones
as if it were but a bit of smoke.

As that which we are, the driving ones,
still we are considered a custom of the divine
by the powers which do not change.

Ripley, the snow dog

Ripley, the snow dog

About two weeks ago, Ripley, the snow dog, came into being through an act of love and homage, only to be destroyed shortly after. The destruction was obviously part of the artwork, representing something about the fragility of existence. But “are we really so frightfully fragile as Fate would have us believe?” (Ripley is named after Ellen Ripley, who is Sigourney Weaver’s character in the Alien films.)

A three-year-old, one of snow Ripley’s co-creators, leaped into her, exploding her material being into a flurry of snow. This took what I estimate as somewhere between 7.5 and 9.5 seconds, just long enough for the horror to sink in, but not long enough to prevent it: A snow dog, who should live a week or two, lasted but a human breath. The demiurge had won.

Ripley's defiance of Time the Destroyer

Ripley’s defiance of Time the Destroyer

Later, however, when I went out to check on the diminishing snow, I looked to where Ripley had once proudly stood. I saw her ears, her nose, her eyes, and her collar. There was even the slightest mound of snow from her fragile body.

Time the Destroyer may yet win this one in the end. But Ripley, the snow dog, lives on the soil and the plants attempting to break out of winter. The “promise of childhood … remains later quiet in the roots.” His spot in the yard will not disappear and his memory is now part of Ripley himself. Perhaps Rilke is right that “the ghost of that which is transient; it passes through the guileless receptive ones as if it were but a bit of smoke.”

The ants are coming

Today, Susan saw our first ant in a while, a sure sign that spring is coming, even if the snow hasn’t heard the news yet.

Then, I saw the New Scientist article, 3D-printed bionic ants team up to get the job done. Festo, the company featured in the article was perhaps thinking that there aren’t enough ants in the world. They probably know that it was once claimed that ants collectively weighed as much as all the humans. However, while that was possibly true in the past, human size has expanded both collectively and individually, putting us well in the mass lead.


Perhaps to remedy that situation, Festo is creating artificial ants about the size of a human hand. They make individual decisions that result in cooperation to achieve a common goal, which they couldn’t accomplish alone. Using a GoPro-like head-mounted camera and floor sensors, they develop a sense of their surroundings, then communicate using a wireless network. Their bodies are 3D-printed with electronic circuits overlaid. When they need to recharge they can go automatically to a charging station to be ready for more work.

This is not a far-out experiment, but an example of how assembling various state-of-the-art technologies can lead to impressive, sometimes surprising results.

The ants remind me of the “brownies” in The Mote in God’s Eye (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1974). These were small, dextrous beings who could build or repair anything in an efficient, organic way. They also reproduced at an explosive rate. The Brownies seemed to help humans in many ways. In the early days of their interactions, humans developed an affection for them. But later they discovered that the Brownies posed a dire threat.

Our Wellfleet Public Library now has a MakerBot 3D printer. Maybe we can make our own bionic ants.

First encounters with snow

Preparing to face the snow

Preparing to face the snow

OK, I confess.

All those about me were complaining about the never-ending snow and what accompanied it: bitter winds coming off the ocean ice, people trapped in their homes, snowplows closing off newly shoveled driveways, while burying or knocking over mailboxes, falling on the ice, roofs collapsing, and such. Meanwhile, I prayed for it to continue. I wanted it to be here for my family from Austin who were to visit during spring break.

Front yard

Front yard

They had never seen snow before, at least not of this magnitude. But they prepared as well as they could.

We prepared for the visitors as well. I had stored some clean snow in the freezer for making snow ice cream, just in case the outside quality wasn’t up to standard. We had sleds, extra hats and mittens, and topped off the propane tank. We’d also made a list of indoor activities–the Brio train, the dollhouse, piano, rummy for indoors for inside the house; the visitor centers at the National Seashore’s Salt Pond site and at the Audubon sanctuary, to get out in case of freezing rain.

Out the garage window

Out the garage window

When they came, we took full advantage of the snow. we had snow ice cream in the classic vanilla as well as the maple syrup varieties. We made snow angels and devilish snow balls.

We made a snow dog (aka Ripley), when our planned snow man didn’t cooperate. We also got to see how much fun it is for a three-year-old boy to jump on top of a snow dog and scatter the snow in all directions. And how annoyed his six-year-old sister can be whenever he does something like that.

Frozen Ripley

Frozen Ripley

And we went sledding. There were awards for being the first to go beyond the end of the run into the sand road, for going furthest off the main track, for unintentionally going down backwards, for getting buried the deepest in a drift, and for screaming the loudest.

The visit was wonderful for me, although way too short.

Testing out the equipment

Testing out the equipment

Now that we’ve completed it, I’d like to amend my earlier call for lots of snow. It’s still beautiful to see, but it makes it hard to walk in the woods without snowshoes or skis. I’m starting to tire of putting out a special bin for mail with the mailbox packed in ice. I sympathize with the friend who’s decided to move after five weeks of being shut in. So, let’s have a few more days of sledding or skiing, then move on to another season.

Daniel Dejean, cartoonist extraordinaire

Daniel Dejean

Daniel Dejean

Daniel Dejean, a Wellfleet artist, is best known for his acrylic or oil paintings. These have been shown in galleries around Cape Cod and exhibited at a wide array of venues over 25 years, including recently at the Éspace Croix Baragnon in Toulouse and the Galerie Charlotte Norberg in Paris. See http://www.danieldejean.com and below.

Squash fashion

Squash fashion

Daniel’s paintings are often stunning, and always interesting. Like the best contemporary conceptual art, they invoke inversions of our usual ways of thinking. But whereas that art is sometimes thin to the point of obviousness, Daniel’s paintings are rich and generative. They invite repeated viewing and study.

One might instead think of the traditional style of art prevalent in Cape Cod galleries–seascapes and boats, wildflowers and ponds, portraits and houses. Daniel’s work then appears anarchic, conversing in some of the same language, but with an exotic dialect and a unsettling vocabulary.

New directions

Mozart on a snowy evening

Mozart on a snowy evening


Daniel’s artistry has recently expanded into what appears to be a new and growing venture, cartooning. I first became aware of this when his tromboncino cartoons, such as “Squash fashion” (above), began spreading uncontrollably across the ether. Whatever the topic, DeJean cartoons began to capture the essence of what was happening, bringing together humor, critique, and insight. I especially like his “Mozart on a snowy evening,” but also a new one about the major sport on Cape Cod this winter.

Skiing on the backside

Skiing on the backside

Some of Daniel’s graphic art has assumed a programmatic direction. For example, Women Directors: Navigating The Hollywood Boys’ Club, developed by Maria Giese and Heidi Honeycutt, is a website for people to share experiences with discrimination and explore strategies to create gender equity among directors of film, television and new media. It is “the world’s foremost website to explore, expose and remedy discrimination against women directors – because global culture depends on who tells the stories.” Daniel has created a wonderful series of graphic representations that tell the story in a succinct and memorable way.

Where are the women directors?

Where are the women directors?

Women directors: The coming tsunami

Women directors: The coming tsunami