Mario's Autumn in America
5 November 01
Although I generally regard nature with measured distrust, and the fetishizing of "natural beauty" as basically atavistic and obliquely anti-human, I do also live in New England, and am the child of epic gardeners, so as autumn creeps through my life I feel these little twinges of opportunity-guilt that do not go away until I pay some sort of service to the visual effect the season has on the landscape. I procrastinate, but last week one of the trees in my back yard discharged all its leaves, reminding me that foliage has its own commitments, so Sunday I finally made this year's state-of-the-landscape expedition.
The best light in which to observe New England autumn foliage, of course, is warm afternoon sunshine under a flawlessly blue sky. New England, however, has an uncooperative streak the width of New England, so the forecast for the day was "partly cloudy".
This, for example, is "partly cloudy".
On the other hand, so is this. No matter. It is a poor bread that has to be eaten warm, and my favorite vantage point for autumn foliage is so inherently spectacular that anything short of an eclipse would probably be fine conditions.
This is it. It is a small contemporary-art museum and sculpture garden in Lincoln called the DeCordova. There are exhibitions, and they're usually pretty interesting, but that's not why I go.
I go to pay six dollars to stand on this roof.
There are probably a hundred thousand people living in the area this roof surveys, but as long as the leaves are still on the trees, in whatever hues, you can't see them. The pristine pond the museum overlooks, whose name I invariably forget because it seems too untouched by people to need one, probably isn't even that pristine, but you aren't allowed close enough to it to have the illusion of its purity dispelled. The tiny little island in the middle makes me want to write a series of unanthropomorphized children's books about migrating raccoons, just to be able to set it there.
Abstract sculpture stands implacable guard on the hillside, whether more afraid of people encroaching on wildlife or the reverse I don't know.
Although unless migrating raccoons can read better than I remember, I do have a theory.
If you turn to the right, on the roof, it's also possible to momentarily imagine yourself atop a tiny European village, albeit one with uncharacteristically modern air-conditioning equipment. But the inevitable difficulty with landscape photography, in all but the most contrived conditions, is that most landscapes are so much more impressive in person than in pictures. Standing on the roof of the DeCordova I can momentarily imagine New England unsettled, and all of its, and everywhere else's, problems still uncreated. But in trying to give you this experience, I have interposed myself, and so the pictures end up being of something much smaller and less inspiring. Even in the tiny monitor on the back of my camera I can tell it's not working.
And so, on this precipice above the planet, I find myself backing away from the leading edge and wandering around the rest of the roof's perimeter looking for things that will be more alive in pictures than in person.
I have come to look out over miles, and instead I am obsessed with inches.
I have come to be awed by the sweeping palette of forests, and instead I am crouched in corners, summarizing it in a miniature I could have staged at home.
I have, in a kind of zen nihilism, found a way to demand the composite majesty of an entire countryside from a single dying leaf.
But so be it. I don't really care much about leaves, anyway. And why would I hope to escape human intercession in a sculpture garden? "Pristine" is no virtue; empty spaces wait to have stories written on them.
The DeCordova tends towards the "rumpled concrete slab of no clear significance" school of sculpture, as opposed to the somewhat more popular "British Naval Commanders" and "nude figure after twenty thousand years of erosion" schools, but that happens to be the one I personally prefer.
There's also a large collection of the sorts of OCD constructions that would feature prominently in documentaries about humans, if public television were run by bees.
But as is often the case, I sometimes have to hunt around for labels to figure out whether my favorite pieces are part of the art or part of the gallery.
And they don't let you take pictures inside.
But if your camera can focus close enough, amusing it is easy. There are always surfaces,
And wherever there are people walking the boundaries between found beauty and made, there are people. The other reason I love the DeCordova is this piece, an enormous xylophone tuned by lunatics. There are jars of sticks at either end. Children usually begin with sprinting glissandos down the whole instrument's length, as if music were a matter of conveying your stick from one end to the other as expediently as possible.
But eventually a parent makes them stop running, and the ones with sufficient patience discover that notes (like people) are more interesting one by one.
and if you let yourself, you can disappear into them. Possibly this is also true of people.
The older the child, of course, the less willing they are to vanish.
This is Mario. His parents spoke enough English to tell me they were from Italy, and presumably enough Italian to tell Mario that this is America. Bless them for refusing to leave the xylophone until the other children, of whom Mario was clearly terrified, gave up and wandered off.
America is crazy, and makes bizarre noises. I cannot fault Mario for being reluctant to take part.
But eventually, if we hang around long enough, courage finds us.
And so I will go into this winter once again without the cover of leaves, but with Mario's note still ringing.