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Archive for July, 2011

It’s been a hot, hot summer at the Falls of the Ohio.  For me, the best time to be out here is as early in the morning as possible.  One advantage in doing this is you are more likely to see birds and other wildlife.  I found this Indigo Bunting singing away from the topmost branch of this tree.  For as open and publicly trampled as this park is…witnessing such small and intimate moments where man and nature freely mix keeps me coming back for more.

This adventure occurred during my last visit to the park and early in the month.  As it turned out, it was a memorable visit.  I’ll go ahead and tell you that I twisted my right ankle which isn’t big news or a particularly rare occurrence.  But this time, I was sure it was broken and I limped out of the park with the aid of my trusty walking stick.  I was walking along in the sand and my ankle just collapsed.  That’s all it took.  All my early sports injuries have left me with a weak ankle.  The x-rays didn’t reveal a fracture, but I was surprised by the bone spurs and bone deterioration.  As I write this three weeks later, I’m still limping along but without the aid of crutches so I guess I’m on the mend.  Returning to that day and before the sprain,  I revisited the sand sunken tire from previous posts and replaced the coal that was removed from it and then moved on.

I created a little friend to keep me company and to help me with the day’s projects.  He’s made with Styrofoam, sticks, plastic, and a little bit of coal for his eyes.  I have used the coal that washes up here for as long as I have been doing this particular body of work which is approaching eight years now.  As a material, its relevance has always been appreciated by me.  Like the corals and brachiopods that have left their traces in the limestone at the Falls…these black rocks also speak of ancient life, but coal has a different and contemporary purpose that is won at great cost.  Walking along the eastern section of the park, I explored and gathered the coal I found interspersed among the sand and driftwood.  My little helper tagged along and soon we filled the hole in a second found tire.

I noticed after I selected this tire that it had once been painted white.  I have seen this before where people of thrift have used cast off tires for garden planters.  On this one, most of the paint has worn off and the river has given this tire a unique patina.  For the Little Man and myself, this would just be the beginning of our play with the found coal out here.

Among the other found objects I scavenge along the beach are empty pint bottles made from glass and plastic.  I like them when I find them with their labels soaked off by the river and their bottle caps in place.  A little more than a year a go I shared a river adventure with video artist Julia Oldham and we marked the day by putting notes and colorful fishing floats in other empty bottles.  I sometimes think of those bottles and wonder if anyone has ever found one of our notes?  In all my years here, I have never found a note in a bottle and by now I have looked at thousands of bottles.  Some of my friends at Living Lands and Waters report finding notes in bottles all the time and I’m guessing that this happens more along the Mississippi River than it does the Ohio River?  For me, finding a note in a bottle will happen when it’s supposed to…I just hope that it’s written content will be interesting!

You have just seen a few of the bottles I have filled with coal.  The white flecks you see mixed into the coal are bits and pieces of mostly zebra mussel shells which is another unwanted element in this river.  Filling these bottles with coal is meditative for me.  Usually, there is still a little bit of whiskey or alcohol in the bottom of these bottles that scents the coal inside its container.  Coal is such a complex subject in our region that it is enough to drive one to drink.  On one side it is a common and available form of energy, but the costs to the land, people, and larger environment are extreme.  Having visited the coal fields in eastern Kentucky, it is certainly plain that the people whose land and mountains have been mined out from under them haven’t benefited to the extent that you would think since poverty and despair are far too common.

I’m going to continue to explore coal as a material and social issue with the help of some new friends.  I have been invited by a group of mostly younger Kentucky artists to participate in an exhibition to be held sometime in the near future.  A blog has been set up called Project Reclamation and if you would like to follow along…just click on the link on my Blog Roll on the right column. I will keep you posted.  To close, here is one other bottle or carbon storage image I photographed with a found rubber duck behind the transparent bottle.  I look forward to going back out to the Falls of the Ohio as soon as my ankle fully heals.

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The fishing had been good and attracted both experienced and novice fisherman.  People were catching some of the smaller striped bass and the occasional catfish.  Summer has descended full-bore with its twins…heat and humidity and so a visit to the river is a welcome diversion for many.  The parking lots around the park are full.  To me, this is a mixed blessing.  You want those who can appreciate nature and the surrounding area to enjoy themselves, however, there is always that element present that can’t resist despoiling for their own selfish reasons.  Sometimes it seems that visitors leave as much trash here as the river does in its wildest moods.  Please pack your garbage out.  After checking out the fishermen, I head up the bank to locate my last project with its polystyrene figure.

I’m not shocked at all to come across Joe Coalman’s eyeless skull resting in the hot sand.  To be honest, I would be more amazed to find him still intact.  My postmortem revealed that he had the stuffing knocked out of him.  I found his body about thirty yards from his head.  I take some photographs and gather the remains.  I’ll probably recycle him into another project in the future.  As for the tire with the coal in it…

…well, it too has been altered.  I can see how a standing Styrofoam figure would make a tempting target, but what about a tire filled with coal?  It must have provoked someone because the coal had been knocked out.  The black rocks were scattered all around.  I regathered them, but I could not find all the coal that was originally in the tire.  Curiously, if you look at the rim of the tire you will see something I had not originally placed there.  It’s a tiny white clam shell left perhaps by another visitor?  I appreciated this simple gesture and moved on.  Soon I reached my outdoor atelier with its latest cache of Styrofoam.  I laid Joe Coalman, skull and all back into the pile and wondered what to do next?

While sitting on the enormous wooden beam that defines one side of my outdoor studio, I spied something interesting on an equally impressive log.  Growing along the margins of an old bird dropping was this wonderful fungus.  At the Falls of the Ohio, there are many different types of fungi that help break down the organic bonanza that washes into here.  I wish I knew more about them, but realize that this is another entire field of study.  Nevertheless, fungi are of immense importance and help recycle nutrients among the many other useful services they perform.  With this particular fungus, it looked like it was on the downward cycle having already released its spores from the fruiting bodies that were now arranged like some organic version of Stonehenge.  After studying this curiosity for a few minutes, I settled into the familiar activity of creating a figure that would be the benchmark for the day.  Before revealing it to you…here are a couple of other things that I want to show you that I happened across during my walk.

I’m always looking at the evidence and trying to figure out what occurred at a particular place?  Here a fisherman on his way back to the rest of his life has dumped out his bait bucket and left the four tiny bluegills in the sand.  Perhaps they were dead already since fish in a bucket die of oxygen loss without an aerator to cycle air back into the water?  I wondered if the use of these bluegills broke any laws since using other sport fish for bait is generally frowned upon?  I could imagine the size of the bucket from the wet area in the sand.  The silver circular object is the bottom of an aluminum can.  Near this scene, I also came across this discovery.

Less than a stone’s throw from the dead fish I found this arrangement in the sand.  I love it when people opt to leave their mark on the land in this fashion.  Present were two complete circles in the sand defined by upright sticks with mounded sand in their centers.  In my mind, I imagined two gears or cogs moving in response to each other.  The movement of the sun provided some of the energy needed to activate this metaphorical machine.  I decided that this place was a good site to unveil my latest figure which implies movement too.  I let it dance throughout this arrangement in the sand.

Maybe this was originally made by a child while his family fished?  It doesn’t matter because it gave me something positive to react with and made my day.  Feeling satisfied, I started back to my own vehicle, but there would be one more surprise on this day.  Perhaps this was also made by the same folks who did the circles in the sand?  Again, sticks were employed albeit much longer in length.  See for yourselves.

Logs and long branches were leaned against a willow tree and the effect implied shelter to me.  Other long sticks were placed upright into the sand and helped define the area.  A wooden palette was dragged to this location and left to provide seating.  Because the materials used are all local, it would be very easy to walk by this if you weren’t paying attention.  That’s one of the things my Styrofoam figures have working against them…their stark whiteness usually gives them away even at some distance.  But then again, for me that’s part of what I do which is to call attention to the stuff that doesn’t belong out here and through a little creativity, show what can be done.  I appreciate the stick pieces because they only use the natural materials that are out here.  I wish I could do this more often myself, but this isn’t the reality I usually discover out here.  Leaving the area, I came by this wonderful flower and in its center…was this tiny bee carrying on as her kind has for as long as there have been flowers in need of pollination.  Until next time.

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I threw my arms up into the air and said “WHAAAAA”!  I had been resting in the shade after a couple of hours of junk scavenging when I heard this low vibrating sound and the bump of something landing on my head.  Reflexively, I knocked off whatever was on my noggin and it fell to the ground…and this is what I saw.

This is the Eastern Eyed Click Beetle or Big Eyed Click Beetle, (Alaus oculatus).  It’s one of my favorite indigenous beetles and one I’ve seen at the Falls of the Ohio on numerous occasions.  As beetles go, this one is on the large side approaching two inches or about five centimeters in length.  Getting smacked in the head by one certainly surprised me, but it turned out to be a good one.  I love the cryptic bird dropping coloring and those two large eye spots get your attention!  After the beetle recovered its senses, it flew and landed on a dead tree trunk right behind where I was sitting.  It turned and started walking down the tree towards the ground.

I watched as the beetle lowered the tip of its abdomen at the base of this dead tree.  I’m hoping it might be laying an egg or two.  When it was done, it walked back up the tree trunk before flying off for the next tree or head that catches its fancy.

I was rummaging around one of the driftwood mounds for whatever secrets it was carrying and to separate out materials for the river sweep clean up.  Nearby, was the beginnings of another garbage pile that someone else had started.  I decided to throw my junk into this lot to consolidate it and make the removal just a bit easier.

It was the usual lot.  A few plastic 55 gallon drums, a bit of hurricane fencing, tires, and a palette or two were among the larger items that were deposited here by the last flood.

Of course how these things came to be in the river is another story.  It’s amazing what our kind can tolerate and consider acceptable.  I suppose this represents the collateral damage we are willing to endure to support our ultra consumptive way of life.  It makes me want to retch! I think this partly explains why so much of this trash is colorful.  If we have to look at it…it might as well be pretty.  When I finished up in this area I moved on like the click beetle did to new surroundings.  There is no shortage of trash out here.  After this Spring’s floods there is also an abundance of coal gravel and coal chunks in the eastern section of the park.  Here’s an example.

The Falls of the Ohio is famous for its fossils, but this black rock wasn’t originally a part of the geologic scene here.  More than likely, this piece of coal was removed from the top of a mountain in Eastern Kentucky and shipped by barge to this area to be burned in a plant to produce electricity.  For some reason, this and many other pieces of coal got into the river where they were tumbled and ground to bits.  In case you were wondering…coal does not float.

In places the coal gravel was several inches thick and reminded me of the black beaches made of volcanic sand.  Also interspersed on this river bank were many automotive tires.  I couldn’t help but associate the coal with the tires and I began to combine both of these elements in this landscape.  Here’s a picture of me in action.

Walking around in this area, I found enough large coal pieces to fill a tire.  Doing this was highly addictive for me.  Here I was picking up real chunks of fossil fuel to place inside a circle that itself is made from fossil fuels in an area that’s well-known for its Devonian Age fossils.  How all these things affect or reference life made my head swim more than the actual heat and humidity.  When I finished filling one tire…this is how it looked.

And now, for an aerial view.

To me, this looks like some kind of unusual and bizarre fire pit ready to go.  Scientists have already established that “burning rubber” and coal are contributing to the excess amounts of heat, energy, and toxins now found throughout many of the Earth’s systems.  In Kentucky, the coal debate is a complex one.  We have an abundance of coal, but it comes at a dear price to the land and the people who call the coal fields home.  The sun is getting hot and I have already had a busy day watching fishermen and making sand drawings!  For now, I will have to leave the coal debate where it is, but I’m sure to return to it since there is so much coal here at the Falls.  It will remain here until the forces that shape this planet decide otherwise.

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The huge mound of recently deposited driftwood under the railroad bridge is both an obstacle and a magnet.  It’s not easy to walk over and it helps to have a good walking stick to help maintain your balance.  The rewards for persevering are a nice elevated view of the Louisville skyline and the potential for finding interesting junk intermingled with the wood.

Once you move over or around this mound you enter the margins of the willow forest and you can see what the full force of the river can do to a landscape.  These black willows are tenacious and their roots hold on.  Here’s another image of a remarkable willow tree and its root mass.  This one wears a trophy from the flood like a victory pennant.

From all the cars in the parking lot, I’m guessing the fishing must be pretty good today.  I stepped by some earlier evidence in the form of this longnose gar skull.  I think this one was caught by rod and reel.  But, I have seen the remains of hundreds of these fish before stranded and killed by a retreating river.  Longnose gars are routinely in the 3 to 4 feet range in length.  The jaws are lined with small needle-like teeth for catching and holding on to smaller fish.  The gar is a surface fish and floats in on its quarry like a piece of driftwood very stealthily before surprising it with a quick flash of the jaws.

Moving to the river, I decided to watch what the fishermen were doing and catching.  In about twenty minutes, I watched two large catfish being landed.  Here are two guys that have this down.  Using multiple poles, they cast both worms and cut shad into the swiftly moving waters.  Snags and lost tackle are common since this part of the river is also full of rocks and boulders.

I was inspired by the scene and left them this contour drawing in the sand before moving on.

Earlier I had seen a flock of grackles by the water flowing under the bridge.  They were catching some food item here that I wasn’t able to figure out what it was…perhaps dead minnows?

The grackles were working the river just like the fishermen were.  I left them a drawing in the sand as well made with the tip of my walking stick.  The sand today is moist and firm which holds a fine line better than usual.

Of course, while I’m walking along I’m filling my collecting bag with the odds and ends that make up the rest of this riverblog.  Some of it is just stuff that I will attempt to make art with and the rest are souvenirs of our material culture.  Once the bag was full, I turned and headed up the bank to get under some trees and out of the sun.  I then made this sand butterfly to mark the spot where I turned for the willows.

I have set up a new outdoor studio near the margins of the driftwood mound.  Instead of a plank to sit on, I’m using this large wooden bridge or railroad tie.  I haven’t found the large sections of Styrofoam that mark last season, but what I can find I’ve gathered at this spot.  I did make a figure on this day which extended this adventure, but I will wait until next time before unveiling it to you.  Thanks for tagging along…you have been good company!

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