Cold Spring Diary: Vanishing Wildflowers; Quality v. Quantity

by David St.-Lascaux


Galaxies in greenspace. Queen Anne’s Lace, Cold Spring roadside.

31 July 2014

WORDS OVERFLOW WHEN ONE ATTEMPTS to describe the bounty of summer in the Taconic region. In June, I found myself on a high hilltop at Glynwood Farm weeding parsley, eggplants and green peppers. It was with some reservation that I removed a half-dozen black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars from the parsley. These beautiful black, yellow and white creatures somewhat resemble monarch butterfly caterpillars with the exception of their retractable yellow-orange horns (the monarchs’ intimidating dragon streamers are black). A few weeks later, I saw a black swallowtail in the high wildflowers on the approach to Maya Lin’s “Storm King Wavefield,” easily one of the greatest achievements of human ingenuity. It was the first time I had viewed this work from the north and west (the southern way is inaccessible). I have yet to weave my way through Lin’s moundy labyrinth: while signs prohibited access due to recent rains, apparently illiterate visitors (examples of extreme right-brain dominance?) trampled and took selfies, ruling out a pristine view of Lin’s undulating landscape. (Referentially, Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” [c. 1829-32] Mt. Fuji woodblock waveprint and many other associations spring to mind.) Given this experience, I suspect that I never shall: while the artist may naturally have intended human “interaction,” it feels satisfying reverential (if oddly Olympian) to observe “Wavefield” from a slight distance, whether promontarily from north or west, above the hills’ crests, or from the east, ground level with their troughs.

“Wavefield” and Isamu Noguchi’s primordial, mythic “Momo Taro” (1977-8), also at the Storm King Art Center, confer a light, confiding human touch on elemental nature. While these works appear less formal than a French garden or cypress allées, they – like the short-lived Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970), nonetheless raise the question of human intervention on earth. As to this question: Where to begin? A great place is Lewis Mumford’s essay, “Quality in the Control of Quantity,” in Natural Resources: Quality and Quantity (1967).

In this important essay, Mumford says that the “quants” have unbalanced nature, and calls up Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Thorstein Veblen, Robert Frost, Norbert Wiener and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to make his case, citing the latter’s poem “Der Zauberlehrling” (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”; 1797) as a prescient metaphor for science and technology. The apprentice, unable to control the summoned forces, begs his returning master:

Herr, die Not ist groß!
Die ich rief, die Geister,
Werd ich nun nicht los.

Master, the need is great!
The Spirits that I’ve conjured
I shall now not be rid of.

Citing Goethe’s apprentice’s broom and pail, Mumford succinctly sums up science’s inventions (and those of totalist consumption) as having

“no built-in brakes or regulators and no place for limiting purposes or goals that lie outside the system.”

Mumford closes with a prescription to restore balance between quantity and quality, namely a “new ideology” in which

“… quantity will not reign supreme. It must always be modified and justified by quality. Our object is no longer the one-sided domination [over] nature, but the creation of sympathetic associations and cooperations favorable to life and to vivid intercourse with nature on many levels besides the physical one.”

Mumford himself was a resident of the Hudson Valley at the time of publication, living in Amenia in Dutchess County. His celebrated œuvre, which focused on humans, technology and society, would bear a lifetime of self-interested reading. Mumford blamed the clock and money – in the form of coins, rather than industrial machinery, for our enslavement to technology. He retrospectively recanted with regret his forgivable early (his life spanning 1895-1990), enthusiastic embrace of electricity and media.

Mumford’s academic biography, Lewis Mumford: A Life, 1989, by Donald L. Miller, is a cautionary example of the hazards of the genre. By conventionally commencing the book at the beginning of Mumford’s life – in Mumford’s case highly unadvisable, and by detailing unendearing and unenlightening facts about Mumford’s quotidian and personal life, Miller snuffs out Mumford’s bright-burning soul, and fails to bring to light Mumford’s incandescent creativity. Surprisingly, Miller omits explicit mention of Greenbelt, the utopian, federal government-supported intentional community in Maryland, in the book’s one-paragraph reference to the film The City (1939; which you can watch, and contrast with Leni Reifenstahl’s earlier Triumph des Willens [Triumph of the Will], 1935). Greenbelt, an unrealized vision of American communitarianism (derailed by World War II and the rise of the military-industrial-media complex), is the reification of Mumford’s life’s work. The City, shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, was a frontal attack, through footage of Pittsburgh and Greenbelt, on the physical and spiritual poverty inflicted on humanity by industrialism, contrasted with the prescribed antidote of localized, greenspace communities. Its script was written by Mumford, and its score was written by none other than Aaron Copland (and posited the prototype for Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” 1944). To his credit, Miller says that “planners were experimenting with [Mumford's] ideas for urban resettlement” – [italics mine] an informative framing.

Despite Mumford’s and others’ admonitions, technology (which Mumford might call practical – as in soulless – “science”) marches on: the dehumanization of our species through the twin forces of technology and technology-driven media seems a fait accompli. Still, technology isn’t all-powerful. As Mumford would say, technology, which is by definition dependent (that is, less charitably, parasitic), requires context for justification: there would be no filling out of Facebook forms if people weren’t social animals; there would be no Google searches if people weren’t curious (or acquisitive); there would be no weapons if not for our imprint for control.

Equally important, it must be recognized that technology hath also taken away: Photon pollution has deprived us of the Milky Way (as Charles Darwin and DNA displaced divinity); so that many have never seen the stars. Without them, and with the completion of the technological erasure of the natural world, art and craft, music, dance and literature, and ideas, dreams and imagination might well be lost, if replaced with quantifiable color and monetizable noise. We have choices: On a recent Tuesday, the Agrarian Librarian and I picked up our vegetables at Glynwood’s Community Supported Agriculture program, and learned that the beautiful striated string beans are called “Dragon Langerie” (Dragon Tongue, not Dragon Underwear!). We savored the scent of rosemary and oregano rolled on our fingertips; I picked bouquets of snapdragons, zinnia and statice. A week ago, we met and conversed with two new (to us), unquantifiably charming humans at the philanthropically storied Fishkill Farms in Hopewell Junction, New York. There and everywhere in the Cold Spring environs, late July is abloom with Queen Anne’s Lace, purple clover and the enigmatic, daily-disappearing periwinkle chicory (the flowers of which, according to Ohio State University’s Perennial and Biennial Weed Guide, open each morning and close as sunlight increases in intensity around noon. Only a few flower heads open at a time and each head opens for a single day.”) – flowers of unquantifiable beauty. The modest mystery and resilience of these roadside weeds stand in stark relief to the artificial products of today’s industrial technocracy.

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August 5: Turn! Turn! Turn!

Image and text copyright © 2014.

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