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Archive for September, 2014

Under the railroad bridge, Tainter Gates, Sept. 2014

Two years have passed since I last set foot on the fossil beds on the Kentucky side of the river.  I had to wait until I fully trusted a bum knee to be well enough to walk upon the hard, irregular limestone surface that for most of the year is underwater.

This is after all, the bottom of the Ohio River and accessible most summers when water is diverted to fill water levels at the McAlpin Locks and Dams.  The Ohio River is a managed river for much of its length.  Closing the snow plow shaped tainter gates helps regulate water levels for commercial navigation and flood control, but it also exposes the majority of the fossil beds to inspection at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.

I have rolled my ragged jeans up and I’m wearing a pair of shoes for sloshing through knee-high deep water at best.  As I move under the old iron railroad bridge, I walk past the gigantic concrete and metal gates holding the river back.  Something in their hieratic designs reminds me of ancient Egyptian art.  Here on a massive, civic-project scale, abstracted silhouettes of seated pharaohs serve the gods of engineering.  My goal today is to reacquaint myself with this unique environment and mark the day in some way.

The railroad bridge looking back to the Indiana side.  Sept. 2014

From experience, I know that there are far fewer materials to access on this side of the fossil beds.  Most of the Styrofoam, plastic, and driftwood I frequently use is driven by wind and river currents to the Indiana bank where I’ve preformed  most of my projects.

Being out in this environment with its varied materials often inspires me to want to make something, but what will I do today?  I take advantage of the river polished coal I found around the railroad bridge and envision an image I can work with site specifically.

I have come to like working with coal as a material because it is timely and is also invested with so much meaning.  In Kentucky, coal is currently a big political issue and many good people truly believe there is a war on coal and climate change is a not supported by the facts.

Anthracite is a deeply, shiny-black crystalline material out of the mine… but the river can tumble it into dull, but smooth feeling, egg-like forms.  I prefer the more river polished pieces of coal.

I’m guessing I’ve picked up about 10 or 12 pounds of coal which I carry in a canvas collecting bag.  Okay, I have my material and my feet are already wet.  With walking stick in hand, I walk along side the high walls that separate the Ohio River from the now exposed Devonian Age fossil beds.

Wall seperating Ohio River from fossil beds, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2014

 

The dam’s concrete wall that separates the river from where you are standing on the fossil beds is maybe 18 to 20 feet tall?  It’s up there and sobering as well because the Ohio River’s waterline is just below the top of the wall which is just on the other side!  A series of pre-formed notches along the top of the wall allows water to flow over a section of the fossil beds.

A small wetlands area has been encouraged here that draws many water-loving birds.  Among the species I observed on this day included:  the Belted Kingfisher, Caspian Terns, Great Egrets, Osprey, Great Blue Heron, Double-crested Cormorants, Canada Geese, Killdeer plovers, Blue-winged Teal, Mallard Ducks, Black Vultures, and an American Coot.

Although it’s not hot today, there is little to shade you from the intense light out on the open fossil beds.  Most of these beds are high and dry, but the surface is pockmarked in places with potholes that hold water.  Most of the shallow pools that caught fish when the river level dropped have been cleaned out by the water birds.

In the above photo, a large log has become stranded on the top of the wall placed there when the Ohio River was receding from flood stage.  It was in this area that I set down my heavy collecting bag and laid out my first Coal Man design on the fossil surface.

Coal Man variation, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2014

The figure has a marionette-like presence, but I relate more to it as a simple sign for figure.  In my head I’m seeing an ancient landscape marked here and there with this contemporary pictographic/petroglyph.  The Falls of the Ohio have been occupied by man for thousands of years and I like relating to this history.  The water is shallow and green from algae.  Molted bird feathers define the circumferences of many of these water holes.  Annoying small flies and gnats fly around the potholes and around your head seeking salt or other moisture.

Coal Man Series, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2014

This figure has been laid out on a table-like boulder surrounded by very shallow water.  It’s a very temporary site-specific expression on a very tiny island.  I have heard people describe the exposed fossil beds as being a “moonscape” and it does feel like this landscape could be from another planet.

Seated Coal Man on Fossil Beds, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2014

Many of the fossil beds are in layers or courses and here I am trying out some of the pictorial possibilities using my now seated Coal Man.  The Interpretive Center is the structure in the far distance.  After a while,  it’s time to cool off a little and have a good sit.  There’s a series of small cascades up ahead that are the nearest to imagining what the Falls may have originally looked like and I head that way.

Coal Man by the Cascades, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2014

I see in my mind’s eye, each different Coal Man design introducing a different feature on this side of the park.  I have been wading in shin-high to knee-high water to reach this place.  It’s like an oasis on the exposed and fossilized ancient coral reef.  I like resting here and having a water and snack break.  If you remain inconspicuous you can often spot many different bird species here.  The shallow but swiftly flowing water has small schools of baby fish seeking places of safe harbor.  I’ll bet the oxygen levels in this water is very high?

Cascades, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2014

Cascades, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2014

I cool off wading and exploring this area before moving on.  This space has a bit of the amphitheater feeling about it.  The cascades take on a larger horseshoe formation connected by many small waterfalls.  In the recent past, much larger cascades existed and put on a water show that I wish I could have seen.

Cascade at the Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2014

Time to move on and dry off.  Today, I’m only planning on walking to the beginnings of Goose Island where I will make my final images with this Coal Man.  I definitely see returning out here again soon while the river level remains low.  It won’t be too much longer before autumn rains and winter snows replenish the Ohio River and re-submerges these fossil beds until next year.

Skyline of Louisville as seen from the Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2014

So far, I had kept the Coal Man dry.  At this location which was the extent of today’s visit…I took advantage of clear, shallow water to create these pictures.

Coal Man Series, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2014

Coal Man Swimming, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2014

The wet coal turned deep black and I liked how many of the images graphically benefited from that.  I guess this is Carboniferous Man swimming above the Devonian Age?  From here I bagged the coal and started the walk home over the fossil beds.

Before closing, here are a few actual fossils I photographed along the way.  This was once an active coral reef over 300 million years a go.  Life was in the oceans.  The species first discovered here have greatly expanded our knowledge of life at this time.  This was the high point for corals and sponges and also gave rise to the first fishes.

Fossils from the Falls of the Ohio State Park, Sept. 2014

Fossils from the Falls of the Ohio State Park, Sept. 2014

This was my last river excursion of the summer.  It is amazing how quickly this year is flying by!  I was really happy that my left knee did not give me any problems.  I am feeling encouraged and I still have this bag of coal I can keep playing with on a future visit.  Thanks again for coming along…from the fossil beds at the Falls of the Ohio State Park…so long for now.

Fossil Beds at the Falls of the Ohio State Park, Sept. 2014

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Distant view of Louisville skyline as seen from Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2014

It’s a fresh month at the Falls of the Ohio.  Today has opened up on the cloudy side and there is a slight chance for rain…but I’m going to risk it anyway.  The lure of the river is too strong and I’m looking forward to exploring the western fringes of the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  Stray migrating Monarch butterflies pass by me and the loosestrife flowers are still in bloom.  I can tell the inevitable changing of the seasons is near.  Already I can detect a slight yellowing occurring in the canopies of the willow and cottonwood trees.  In a few weeks, all these leaves will be on the ground and ready to become recycled by and for life.

Old man as seen from the back, Sept. 2014

I’m walking along the shoreline which is a mix of limestone rocks and sandy/muddy beaches.   Mostly I’m being engaged by my own thoughts which change quickly like the reflections on the water.  I was so preoccupied by my own surrender to nature that I did not immediately notice the elderly gentleman sitting on a nearby log.  With a motion of his arm, the figure said to me in a clear voice, “It’s alright my man, I saw you coming down the beach.  Wonderful day to be alive isn’t it?”  I replied something affirmative and instinctively walked towards him.

Old Man drinking tea, Sept. 2014, Falls of the Ohio

Old Man holding a Thermos cup, Sept. 2014, Falls of the Ohio

“Now that I’m retired…I like to come out here and sit by the river.  Can’t think of a better place to have my morning tea and breathe deeply,” said the old man.  I admit to being intrigued by him and I’ll bet he’s a real character too.  I also sensed a kindred spirit since he was doing essentially the same thing as me, namely hanging out by the river.  I asked where he was from and with a nod over his shoulder, he said:

“My friends call me Jimmy D. on account of my bulbous nose. I don’t expect someone as young as you would remember the entertainer Jimmy Durante?”  I told him I had heard the name before, but it really was before my time.  Jimmy D. then said, “I’m a life-long resident of Clarksville, Indiana.  You know, that little town beyond the giant berm behind us?  I was just a boy in 1937 when the whole town disappeared under twelve feet of Ohio River flooding. My family and I spent about a month with kin in Indianapolis before we could move back and start over.  They had to rebuild the whole place because it’s just too historically important…you know, we date back to 1783 and we’re the oldest settlement in the Northwest Territory?”

I agreed that is indeed a great distinction and one I noticed being touted on several signs in the local parks.  I then gave Jimmy D. my particulars which included my name, being an artist, and living across the river in Louisville.  I then said, “Jimmy, I guess that makes us Metro neighbors.”

Jimmy D. drinking tea, Sept. 2014, Falls of the Ohio

I decided that I had a few minutes to get to know Jimmy better.  When I make my excursions to the river…I try (not always successfully) to not rush things and be in a hurry.  I will confess, thinking about time and the nature of time has become a preoccupation with me of late.  I see so many people rushing around and I wonder what’s so important about being in two places at once?

Jimmy D., facing forward, Sept. 2014

I broached this subject with Jimmy D. and here’s where I can get a little preachy.

I told Jimmy, “It seems to me that one of the best things we can do for ourselves and the planet is to slow down to the speed of life and find a good log to sit on.”  I further added, “Nature has evolved processes that have been hard-won over millions and billions of years.  What is it about our kind that wants to accelerate and consume the experience of living as quickly as we can?  Sometimes it can come as a big relief to stay put and appreciate the good around everyone which is all too easy to take for granted.”

Jimmy D. puts his cup down, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2014

Jimmy D. put his cup down on the river-polished log he was sitting on.  I could tell he was weighing my words through his own sensibilities.  Before too long he turned back to me and said, “Fella, you just might have something there.”  He then began to explain a little more of his own life’s experience.

“When I was a young man I couldn’t wait to leave this little town and experience the wider world.  I thought my chance would come during World War II.  I could both do my duty and get out of here at the same time.  All my friends who were of age (and even a few who looked older than they actually were) were joining the armed services.  I decided that this would be my ticket out too and I tried to enlist.  As it turns out, I couldn’t pass the physical on account of having one foot larger than the other!  I tried not to get discouraged and wanted to do my part.  So, I walked next door (bum foot and all) to Jeffersonville and joined up with Jeffboat.  I learned how to weld, which became my profession.   I helped build the LSTs (Landing Ship-Tanks) that made the invasion of Europe a success for the allies and the free world.  I realized that even from the comforts of my home, I could help shape events in far away places.  After the war, my wanderlust had diminished considerably and love found me. After that there was a family of my own to take care of.  I stayed on at Jeffboat and helped make them the largest inland ship builder in the country.  I can’t recollect how many towboats and barges I helped construct.  And when it was my time…I retired and that is why you are finding me sitting on this log.  I can honestly say I have no regrets for how my life turned out.”

Jimmy D. lights his pipe, Sept. 2014

My new friend then pulled out a blue-colored pipe with a long stem and lit it.  A puff of white smoke was quickly dissipated by a light, passing breeze.  Jimmy D’s pipe kept going out and so I offered to help.

Me helping to light Jimmy D.,s pipe, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2014

My new friend thanked me and asked to hear something about my own story.  I obliged him although as a rule I’m not all that crazy about talking about myself.  I said that like him, the military factors into my life.  My dad was a career soldier and our family shuttled back and forth between the United States and Europe.  It was great being exposed to so much history and culture, but as a kid I wondered what it would be like to have a deeper relationship with my extended family?  My mother is Dutch.  I was born in Amsterdam.  My dad’s family hails from the New York City area and we have relatives in southern New Jersey.  Seems that we only saw our relatives when we were in transition from one place to another.  I grew up without having life-long friends.  After art school, I settled in Louisville, Kentucky and have been here going on thirty years now.  My two sons have had the nice experience of getting to know my wife’s family and so have had the reverse experience I had.  Much about the art I make revolves around a sense for place and seeing the value in materials that are considered worthless.  A lot of what I do is about being in the moment which is why encounters at the river are so valuable to me.  Jimmy D. just nodded and took another drag off of his pipe.

Profile of Jimmy D., Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2014

It’s funny how often I have been willing to reveal some detail about myself to a complete stranger…especially if we are traveling together and there is little chance of running into one another again.  I have had some great conversations with persons unknown to me while sharing rides on European trains.  I suppose after conversations that might be of an intimate nature, can you truly say you are still strangers to one another?  Jimmy D. and I alternated our conversation with just staring at the river going by.  The Ohio River may not be a train, nevertheless, it is moving on a journey of its own.  You can tell when two guys are comfortable with one another if time goes by and neither feels like they need to break the silence by saying something forced and stupid.  When the tobacco was spent from the pipe, Jimmy D. knocked the ashes against the log.  Among the last words I recall from our meeting at the river came from Jimmy D.  “I’m an old man now and my time is coming.  I hope my ashes will get the chance to mingle with the river.” I completely understood and wish for something similar for myself.  I like the idea of merging with nature with the chance to become part of something else.  I left Jimmy D. where I found him waiting for that train that will take him to the ocean and the wide, wide world beyond Clarksville.

Jimmy D. by the river, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2014

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