Friday, October 23, 2009

Square 73: Water

Square 073

I grew up on the shore of Lake Erie, but it was a much smaller body that formed my first intimate vision of water. The golf course across the road had a water trap by the thirteenth tee, alongside a marsh. There each summer I would collect a pail of ripe water with a few tiny black polliwogs in hopes of raising them to froggy adulthood (I had a book that showed how a particularly clever boy might do it). Invariably I would forget the pail in full sunshine where those cute amphibious progeny met a swift demise. It was a harsh lesson in good intentions. People fancy themselves stewards of nature. In fact we are her subjects.

To no other aspect of our physical environment are we more indebted than the hydrological cycle, and we are at its mercy.

Until the 1970s scientists believed sunlight was the single most important requirement of life. Then we discovered entire ecosystems thriving around deep sea vents, food chains utterly independent of sunlight. At the base were microbes deriving energy not through photosynthesis but chemosynthesis, from chemical reactions between sea water and gases erupting from the vents. Considering this, astrobiologists suggest that we might find extraterrestrial life in our own solar system, particularly in oceans or caves under the surface of moons such as Jupiter's Europa.

Meanwhile we're having a hard time finding enough water to survive on our own planet. Since 1990, 1.6 billion people have gained access to safe drinking water, however a United Nations report predicts the quantity of water available to everyone will decline by 30 per cent in the next 20 years. And climate change is expected to intensify the hydrological cycle, causing drought in near-tropical areas, increased precipitation near the equator and in higher latitudes.

Water is another one of those things we tend to overlook or take for granted until we don't have it. If the threat to biodiversity is not enough inspiration for us to be more careful with our water resources, we should at least recognize that mismanagement is ultimately self-destructive.

The colours in this square remind me of wetlands, considered the most biologically diverse ecosystems. Historically people couldn't derive much economic benefit from them, and drained them. Belatedly we learned the cost. Wetlands are powerful water purification systems. As the world's need for clean water grows, governments and industries have begun to cooperate in conserving wetlands and constructing them artificially.

Since the days of my childhood, I've never been happy living far from water. I miss the lake, but have learned to find inspiration and solace around smaller bodies. In Guelph the Eramosa River has become for me a personal symbol of the journey of life.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Square 72: Small

Square 072

On Sunday afternoon Danny and I took in the Guelph Studio Tour. In a typical Bohemian apartment on Suffolk Street we encountered a new artist to the roster, Ellen Jewett. Her website is Creatures from El, and her sculptures feature a menagerie of creatures—dragons, phoenixes—or the more mundane—dogs and snails—transformed in clay by El's whimsy.

What caught my (and Danny's) eye the most were two "two dimensional" works, actually sculptures bursting out of their frames on the wall, depicting the forest floor. It looked like she had sawn off part of a rotting stump covered with an army of lichen, tongues of fern and spritely mushrooms. It was a miniature landscape utterly familiar to me.

In one of my earliest memories of Lake Fletcher, our friend and neighbour, Joyce, had given me a few of those little ceramic animals that used to come in packages of tea. She took me and Mom on a walk over the ridge to the darkest, moistest part of the forest where the ground is coated with rich moss. I collected some and brought it back to the cottage where Joyce gave me a dish in which I could arrange it and create a verdant home for the tiny sculptures.

To this day it is the tiniest plants and fungi that enchant me most. With my daughters' help I have created a moss garden in one shady corner of our cottage property. Lichens don't transplant so well, but ferns do nicely, and every summer a new host of mushrooms volunteers itself from the surrounding carpet of mouldering leaves.

The rippling lake is a grand lady of peace, and the sunsets are oh so breathtaking, but the most intricate vistas are the ones right at our feet. Look out so you don't trample biodiversity!

What are the small, powerful things most people overlook, but that engage your imagination?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Square 71: Sibelius's Second Symphony

Square 071

As promised, this time I chose yarn first, then started knitting and waited for the colours and textures to suggest a story. I began juxtaposing intense purple Noro Silk Garden with some dark, rich browns. The combination was unusual, but the story came to mind more easily expected. For months I've wanted to create a square for my favourite musical composition, but didn't know how to describe it in colours. Now this was it.

Friday on Tempo, CBC Radio 2's midday Classical music program, host Julie Nesrallah launched a feature called Music that rocks your world. She described how her grade seven teacher took the class to see the movie, Fame; when Julie heard the final movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, it changed her life forever. She asked listeners to write and tell her about similar experiences of their own.

Later the same day, same station, different program, Rich Terfry described how some music actually affects us physically. It can make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

I've had that happen. I wonder what causes it: dynamic tension, I suppose. My favourite symphony used to do it practically every time I listened. Over the years the effect has worn off, but still I am profoundly moved.

Unlike Julie, I grew up drenched in 19th Century music, especially Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, Chopin piano pieces, a little Brahms, and the music of Fantasia. Every day my parents listened to WQRS, the Classical music station from across the river in Detroit. I began finding my own favourite composers, like Schubert, Dvorak and Sibelius, and exploring their repertoire.

I don't remember how or when I first heard Sibelius's Symphony Number Two in D Major, but it became my favourite composition by my mid teens and has remained so ever since. In the evenings when my parents watched TV, I would close the door to family room, go down the hall to the empty living room, put on my vinyl recording of this symphony, turn up the volume, turn off the lights, and go on a long journey. It was only 45 minutes, but also a lifetime.

In those days I experienced music intensely visually. The symphony seems to begin on a sunny hillside, traverse wide open country, move through stormy winter darkness, shift to a windswept mountain cliff, and plunge into deep, mysterious shadows. At the end of the darkness, the traveler glimpses a shining city and slowly approaches. The finale is resplendent and transcendent.

This square is not a literal description of the landscape I saw with my inner eye, but an impression of the music's deep, enigmatic qualities.

I have always related deeply to Sibelius's music without understanding why, but recently came to realize it is because he was deeply inspired by nature. I was an isolated and lonely teenager, and I suppose this music also gave me hope. To my mind, Symphony Number Two suggests all fears and trials are worth enduring, and life is an adventure of inestimable richness.