Tending the untended garden, and appreciating small moments in nature

August 3rd, 2016

Small Daisy flower

The Untended Garden has been truly untended lately. I’ve been focusing on other writing projects this year, and it’s been hard to find time for this blog. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been plenty of nature-inspired books, art, music, films, and other media to talk about.  In fact there’s almost too much. And the internet does a great job at letting us share these amazing things. It makes me wonder about the direction of this blog, and where I want to take it.

Eventually I will come back to it regularly, but for now, here are a few recent nature photos of my own. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the small moments in nature, and how they often seem to encompass the entirety of the natural world in their own way. The smallest flea struggles to survive, just like a bird, or a lion, or a whale, and they all play their own part in the giant tapestry of the natural world. I also think that the more we understand the natural world around us, the better we can understand ourselves.

I put some of these thoughts into an article about how to reconnect with small moments in nature. I call it The 60-Second Nature Challenge, a way to observe the tiny pieces of nature in order to better understand the whole. You can read it here.

That’s all for now, I hope you can all get outside this summer, and find your own inspiration!

Tiny bee on flower

Bunny under fence

Butterfly on a burr flower

Queen Anne's Lace

Skipper on a leaf

pond460

Lacewing

Maria Schneider, music inspired by nature

December 31st, 2015

The Thompson Fields by Maria Schneider

Jazz composer Maria Schneider draws much of her inspiration directly from nature. Her latest recording, The Thompson Fields, is inspired by the prairies where she grew up in Minnesota. As she said to NPR’s Here and Now, “The sound of my music is what it is largely because of the natural landscape I grew up with, and people who made me appreciate it so much.”

Her work incorporates elements of jazz and classical music, with improvisation from the musicians in her ensemble. Tracks like “Walking by Flashlight” and “The Monarch and the Milkweed” evoke nature and the feelings one experiences in nature.

The album was developed through the ArtistShare web community, which allows artists and fans to connect and support each other. It has recently been nominated for a Grammy Award.

Here is the official trailer for the album The Thompson Fields:

Here is the full interview with Maria on NPR’s Here and Now.

Here is an excellent profile in the New York Times from 2013.

And here is a great interview with Maria from the Detroit Jazz Festival, also featuring clips of her orchestra in performance:

This is my last post for 2015 at The Untended Garden. This site has been a little more untended than usual lately, but I hope to get back to it more in 2016.

It seems like more and more people are rediscovering nature as a balance to the world of technology we live in. Artists have been in touch with nature since the beginning of time, and I think they can play a big part in our understanding of the natural world.

Happy New Year!

Artists supporting nature

December 5th, 2015

I’ve been neglecting this blog in recent months, as I’ve been trying to focus on my art and writing.  Thank you to all my loyal readers for staying connected. I have a backlog of interesting artists to feature in the coming year, so stay tuned for more posts.

Today I want to tell you about some artists who are supporting nature directly through their art. Cathy Berman has long had an interest in art and the environment, and after retiring she founded a website called For Mother Nature, which features artists who donate some or all of their proceeds to environmental causes. Below are three of the artists on the website.

Ann Kruglak, who creates sculptures in polymer clay, donates all of her proceeds to the Rainforest Trust.  Her donations have saved over 200,000 acres of rainforest.

Art © by Ann Kruglak

Floris van Breugel is a landscape and wildlife photographer as well as a scientist, who has traveled all over the world capturing images of nature. His work supports the International League of Conservation Photographers.

Photo © by Floris van Breugel

Eileen Doughty creates quilts and intricate sculptures out of thread, focusing on the concept of “place”. Her work supports The Potomac Conservancy.

 

Art © by Eileen Doughty

 

There are seven artists so far on the For Mother Nature website, and founder Cathy Berman hopes it will grow to include many more artists and environmental organizations. A lifelong artist herself with a degree in Environmental Conservation, she also hopes that her website will encourage visitors to build a stronger connection with nature. You can visit the website here:  http://formothernature.com

If you’re looking for more ways to support the environment through art, check out Artists for Conservation.

Also the National Wildlife Federation has an online store where you can adopt a polar bear, plant a tree, and support our earth in many ways.

Do you know other artists or organizations who support nature through their work? Share them in the comments!

The magical Strandbeests – art comes alive

August 27th, 2015

Strandbeest by Theo Jansen

strandbeest_jansen_drawing

The kinetic sculptures of Theo Jansen are unlike anything else in the world. They seem to defy category, they are art and machine, but also works of theater on a grand scale. And although they are are not sentient beings, they seem to have a life all their own, and people connect with them.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, is featuring the first major American exhibition of Jansen’s work, before it travels on to Chicago and San Francisco. In a statement on his website, Jansen says he is trying to create “new forms of life” with his sculptures, and seeing them in action makes you think he might actually get there.

Part of the magic of these creatures is that they are self-propelled, and their limbs seem to move like those of animals or insects, and yet their movements are unique to themselves. It is truly like seeing a new species, and it makes us think about what it means to be “alive.” Designed to walk on the beach, some of his creations can detect when they are walking on wet sand, and thus avoid going into the water. There is a kind of artificial intelligence here. How much “intelligence” is necessary before we say that something is alive? Computers have far more artificial intelligence than the strandbeests, and yet because they move around like giant animals, we somehow relate to them more as intelligent beings, we want them to be alive.

From a purely visual standpoint, it amazes me how “natural” these creatures appear, both in their structure and movements. Despite the fact that they are entirely built from human-made materials (PVC pipes, plastic bottles), they seem like creatures that could occur naturally in the world. And yet some of their parts are purely mechanical — no animal uses a wheel and piston to propel their legs.

Here is a short documentary on Jansen and his art:

In the film, Jansen says, “To make my animals, I try to make a new nature, I don’t want to copy the existing nature, but it’s hard to avoid that.” He finds that when he designs the working parts of his creatures, he inevitably winds up with elements like those of living creatures — bones, muscles, legs — because that is the most efficient way to propel an object over uneven ground. He thinks of his creatures as going through their own evolution as he perfects them, much the way nature itself has gone through evolution over a much longer period of time.

The exhibit will run from September 19, 2015 through January 3, 2016 at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Here is a TED Talk by the artist:


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And here is a lecture by the artist at the University of Michigan in 2008.

 

A few thoughts about H is for Hawk

June 24th, 2015

H is for HawkI recently finished the audiobook of H is for Hawk, written and read by Helen Macdonald, and immediately wanted to write about it on my blog, to share this extraordinary book with the world. Then I discovered that it was an international bestseller, winner of numerous awards, and apparently everyone already did know about it, deservedly so.

I was actually surprised to learn it was a bestseller, not because it isn’t good, but because it’s so unique, so personal, so specific. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, it is a memoir about the author’s efforts to train a goshawk after her own father’s death, weaving in a biographical account of T.H. White and his less-successful attempts to train a goshawk while dealing with his own life issues.

What inspired me most about the book was that it combined such obscure and personal narratives into something universal. Most of us know very little about hawk training, much less about T.H. White. Yet these things were meaningful to the author, and brought out larger narrative themes that everyone can relate to, like love and loss, and primal instincts that have no name.

Some have argued that it isn’t really a nature book, because nature is something wild and untamed, while the main focus of this book is a tame and captive hawk, which does most of its hunting in suburbs and college campuses. But I think there is still a wildness to this hawk, and this book, which explores powerful themes of nature and what it means to be animal or human. Nature may be at its most elemental far from civilization, but sometimes a thing has to be pulled out of context in order to study it and see it in a new light. So while the book straddles the worlds of humans and animals, the themes of wildness and nature are still very much present.

So, what exactly constitutes “nature writing”? It depends on who you ask, and the topic has received much debate lately, but I will save that for another post. For now, you can read an interview with Helen Macdonald here, and also here.

And here’s a video interview from the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

 

The Floating Flower Garden

March 27th, 2015

Floating Flower Garden, by teamLab (2015)

Spring is here, even though there is still snow on the ground and the trees are bare in many locations. To help get you in the spirit, here is a glimpse of Floating Flower Garden, a gallery installation by TeamLab, a Japanese art collective. (Check out their other work, it’s all amazing.)

Over 2,300 flowers are suspended from the ceiling, and as the visitor walks through the garden, the flowers rise upwards, creating a dome of space. The scent of the flowers is constantly changing as well, as each scent increases when the flower’s partner-insect is most active in the wild. It is currently on display at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo.

More images and information here. Happy Spring!

 

Floating Flower Garden, by teamLab (2015)

Floating Flower Garden, by teamLab (2015)

Song of the Sea

March 5th, 2015

Song of the Sea

The new animated film Song of the Sea is an artistic triumph, and its strong connection to nature only enhances its power. The story is based on the legendary Selkie, a creature who can change from a seal to a human and back again. Inevitably this pulls in themes of the nature, humans’ relation to the sea, and what it means to be human ourselves.

The film was produced by Cartoon Saloon, whose first feature The Secret of Kells was reviewed on this blog a few years back. I don’t want to give away any of the wonderful surprises in the new film, but I will talk about three things that make it especially powerful in relation to themes of nature.

Song of the Sea

The folklore in the film draws from ancient tradition, and a time when stories were used to explain the mysteries of the world. By entwining the lives of humans and animals, folk tales convey an interconnectedness that is largely lost in today’s world. Science tells us more about nature than we ever knew before, but folklore lets us experience it on a more visceral level. In a recent interview, director Tomm Moore says, “I felt it important to reinforce that losing folklore from our everyday life means losing connection to our environment and culture.” The film manages to bridge all of these worlds very effectively.

Song of the Sea

Another way the film celebrates nature is through the animals. The big sheepdog, even though he doesn’t speak (which is refreshing in an animated film) is more perceptive than most of the humans, and serves as a link between the world of humans and the magical world of animals and fairies. The seals are another constant presence, beckoning the humans to sea, and helping them in their time of need. The film is populated with creatures of all shape and size, and the constant tug between land and sea is a central conflict and highlight of the film.

Song of the Sea

Finally, the visual style of the film is not only gorgeous to look at, but has an organic quality that helps convey the natural setting. The watercolor backgrounds evoke the watery world of the sea, as well as the damp hills and landscapes of Ireland. The geometric abstraction of Secret of Kells gives way to a softer, more organic design sense, though the strong shapes and patterns make each scene a marvel of beauty and design. Nature is built on pattern and form, and the style of the film conveys this beautifully.

Everything works together for the greater good of the story, which is not just about Selkies, it is about humans and families and never giving up on each other. We are all part of a bigger world, we are all connected, and that is a message worthy of any work of art.

For more information about the film, visit the official website.

 

Poetry and music – Vivaldi’s Winter

January 9th, 2015
Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi published his famous group of violin concertos, The Four Seasons, in 1768 at the age of forty-seven. They were what was known as “programme music”, or music written to depict specific scenes, which was looked down upon by some at the time. But Vivaldi’s compositions rose above the typical programme music of the day, creating a quartet of classics that are still heard today.

What makes them so popular? They are certainly catchy, though there is also a note of melancholy that runs through each of them, especially in the slow movements. And of course, nature is a theme that resonates with nearly everyone. Many composers have written pieces inspired by nature, but somehow The Four Seasons has captured the public’s imagination like none other.

Each composition is accompanied by a sonnet, written by Vivaldi himself, which describes the scenes depicted in the music. Below is a translation of the Winter sonnet, along with a video of the great violinist Itzhak Perlman playing the concerto. See if you can recognize the scenes as they are brought to life in the music.

Winter – Concerto in f-minor

1. Allegro non molto
Shivering, frozen mid the frosty snow in biting, stinging winds;
running to and fro to stamp one’s icy feet, teeth chattering in the bitter chill.

2. Largo
To rest contentedly beside the hearth, while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.

3. Allegro
We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, for fear of tripping and falling.
Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and, rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up.
We feel the chill north winds coarse through the home despite the locked and bolted doors…
this is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.

You can read the text of all four seasons, along with the original Italian, here.

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Haystacks in the snow

December 21st, 2014
Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun), 1891, by Claude Monet

Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun), 1891, by Claude Monet

In 1891, an exhibit by Claude Monet in the Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris included a series of 15 haystacks. It was unusual at the time for an artist to exhibit so many paintings of the same subject at once, and it was a conscious effort by Monet to make viewers focus on what he was most interested in, the variations of light and color in nature.

In honor of the first day of winter, here are some of the winter haystack paintings. Many painters of the time would sketch outdoors and create the final painting in the comfort of their studio, but not Monet. He would set up his big canvas and paints outside in all seasons, even the freezing cold. Talk about becoming one with nature!

Over his career he made at least 140 winter paintings outside, which is a level of dedication that I think few artists today could match. These tiny reproductions cannot replicate the beauty of the originals, but you can click on each image to see a larger version of the painting. You can learn more about Monet’s haystack series here.

Grainstacks, Snow Effect, 1891, by Claude Monet

Grainstacks, Snow Effect, 1891, by Claude Monet

Haystack, Morning Snow Effect, 1891, by Claude Monet

Haystack, Morning Snow Effect, 1891, by Claude Monet

Stack of Wheat (Snow Effect, Overcast Day), 1891, by Claude Monet

Stack of Wheat (Snow Effect, Overcast Day), 1891, by Claude Monet

Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning, 1891, by Claude Monet

Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning, 1891, by Claude Monet

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The Diatomist – microscopic artwork created from nature

December 12th, 2014

Sometimes the beauty of nature is so small, you need a microscope to see it.

Diatoms are single-cell algae, encased in glass shells, invisible to the human eye without a microscope. During the 19th Century, diatomists would make intricate arrangements of these tiny objects, creating beautiful designs.

Today there is one living practitioner of this microscopic art form, Klaus Kemp, the subject of a new documentary short by Matthew Killip. Klaus developed his own techniques for arranging these tiny works of art, because the original practitioners never passed down their secret techniques.

Below are some of Klaus Kemp’s designs. You can learn more about Klaus and diatoms in this interview with the filmmaker at the Smithsonian website. For more scientific reading on diatoms, visit the Identification Guide and Ecological Resource for Diatoms of the United States.

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Diatom by Klaus Kemp

Diatom by Klaus Kemp

Diatom by Klaus Kemp

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