I was unable to get on line all day Thursday, because it was really our last full work day.
I drove in the morning to a local dairy where I had seen pastured cows, and asked for a couple of buckets of cow manure. He led me to an indoor enclosure and gave me a shovel. The poop I scooped was nothing like the grassy cow pies I remember from childhood pastures; it smelled like omnivore poop, (like a loaded diaper, in fact) and was full of whole corn kernels and grains. But I was determined to make a kind of litema, using manure with its fine-digested grass fiber, and some wood ash, sand and a small amount of clay — so home I went, with all the windows down and my head hanging out the window. I got lost and pulled over to ask a nice lady for directions, but when she walked over to the car window, she ended up backing away looking offended and somewhat alarmed. I’m sure she thought I had pooped my pants.
For all of thursday and friday morning, my tools and clothing were so pungent that I was kicked out of the house (you stink!) and had to eat lunch at the picnic table. Of all the loads I wheelbarrowed to and from my work site (a hilly gravel road with tools and storage tubs full of clay, sand or worse) the poop trip was the least enjoyable. Once I made the quarter mile trek down the gravel road, I then had to work my way along the woods trail, and my wheel wallowed in the sand every time.
I used a broomstick on the sides of my form and built up cob around it to make fluting on my “column”. It occurred to me that what I was building was a pedestal, and the thing I wished to put on the pedestal in the place of honor was: soil. forest floor. biodiversity.
Once the column was complete, I began to plaster it with the cow manure mix. I detected a slight lean, and since the top had not yet been built, I decided to accentuate the curve, pressing it outward as I plastered with my rubber gloves. I was sorry to have included chicken wire in the project, as it was scratchy and interfered with the sensory delight of pinching and smoothing cob into place… and now I regretted the litema, which (between the wood ash, the smell, and the dubious purity of the manure) required gloves and took skin contact out of the picture entirely. All in all, given the workout of hauling and mixing cob (mostly in a rubbermaid storage tub, with my feet) I was determined that if I ever did this sculpture class again I would work with something that required less sweat and pain — like cattail fluff, or cheesecloth.
Looking back, the entire project seemed to be a compromise: between the idea, and the requirements of the profs, between the idea, and the reality of the materials, between the idea and the restrictions of time. I did budget my time well, but worked right up to the very last minute, and could still see what more I might have done, given another day.
I had put up a rain-fly arch over the column, so I could work through the thunder and rain on Thursday. I made ancient looking potshards — Native American and ancient Jomon — to embed in the upper pedestal above the fluting, and fired them back at camp in a quickie firebrick-stacked kiln with the propane tank off my camper ,and my weed burner. Brian helped me find and cut a wooden armature for the pedestal top, which I hauled back to the site and decided it didn’t look right… then hauled it back to the workshop and re-cut it.
I built a fire in the column Friday morning, by digging a tunnel underneath it and lighting the straw, cardboard and small tinder I had put inside. I wheelbarrowed my propane tank and burner and quick-dried portions of the outside. The litema/manure mix was olive colored but hardened to a khaki cement-like surface, supposed to weather-proof the cob. The underlying cob wall was still too wet for me to scrub with a brush to re-expose the stones and fossils, but I decided that was OK — that weathering would do the job.
Once the top was built, fitted and covered with wire, cob and litema, I took my shovel and wandered looking for samples of the diverse forest floor. (The top of the pedestal is about at my eye level, maybe just over five feet tall.) I scooped whole microcosms; moss that looked like a forest of tiny pines, or mounds of emerald lawn. Clusters of maple seedlings no taller than my thumb. Whole ferns, wildflowers, chunks of mossy rotting wood. I arranged them atop my pedestal like a careful terrarium, and sprinkled handfuls of seeds I had stripped from plants in passing.
I headed up the hill to find one last specimen. I had removed my shoes, because they were crocs, and the manure mix kept plopping down through the top holes and grossing me out, trapped inside my shoes. So I had been treading on lumps of the glop barefoot, working in circles around the column, but it was better than a rubber shoe full.
On my way up the hill, I stepped on something sharp, rusty and metal under the layer of leaves and sand. I still don’t know what it was; buried junk of some sort. It was clear pretty quickly that I had cut myself deeply, and I headed back down to my work site as fast as I could hop. In my backpack, with my water bottle, cheese, sketchbook and camera, I found an old head scarf, and wrapped it around my foot, jamming it into a mucky croc, and started hobbling the quarter mile home. By the time I got there the inside of the shoe was pretty gory and sticky with blood; I decided if I was ever going to get an infection, a shoe full of cow poop was a pretty good way to go about it.
I wasted half an hour of daylight irrigating the cut, spackling it with antibiotic ointment and layering it with bandages from my first aid kid, but hiked right back to the woods to finish up. It didn’t need stitching, and it likely wouldn’t hurt until later; I didn’t have time to worry about it.
Friday after lunch was “critique time”. We walked about three miles of trails to see the 13 pieces, strewn across the 86 acres of Parsons property. I will go through photos in the days to come and put up some of the projects and their makers. For now, suffice it to say that some were inspiring… a few reassured me that mine maybe wasn’t so bad… but all of them were a fascinating look at the variety of ways a project could be interpreted.
By the time the group reached my piece, they were weary of walking, and took a seat up the hill from my column — and thankfully, upwind as well. Tracy, the very gentle and kind ecologist who had showed us morning yoga stretches for our tired muscles, offered that she liked how it “engaged all of the senses” — but others were more direct with their opinions about the pungent cow shit odor.
I admit that the end of the project and the whole “tah-dah!” moment was kind of a letdown for me. I was not overly impressed with my final project, especially after seeing some of the more Andy-Goldsworthyish approaches used by others. It occurs to me that as a newbie to sculpture and the Parsons land, I was naiively thinking in terms of making “an object” — while others were thinking of an arrangement, a presentation, an effect or event.
I pride myself in being a really hard worker, and pushed myself to my physical limit with this sculpture, taking advantage of the uninterrupted block of time to see what I could do if I tried. But apparently the skillful execution of a half baked idea can’t stand on hard labor alone. I have to wonder what I might have done if I had pursued my original dome ideas, which had started to look at fabric, paper, or something translucent arched on saplings over a hole, from a ring of cob foundation. If I had seen the site, first, and the materials at hand. Or if I had gone with my original “hippie totem pole” idea, something less ordinary, with the eye in the side or bristling with sticks.
I feel so bound by that firstborn instinct to please, to get it right, follow directions, do what I am told, that I can too easily discard ideas that excite me if they
are dismissed by a teacher or a peer. In a year I will be back in my own studio space, dancing to my own tune, and I am very much looking forward to regaining that freedom.
I really was almost in tears after the “crits” were over, though little was really said at any site in terms of crit or comment. I just wasn’t that impressed with the results of all of my labor. I wanted it to knock my socks off, and inspire great applause from my peers. Instead, I ended up standing on the hillside saying to myself, “It looks like a f***ing birdbath.”
As for the fine idea of raising biodiversity to pedestal-status, inspiring faithful reverence nature, forest and soil… it occurs to me in retrospect that the straw I used to make cob had heads of wheat in it, and the cow manure had whole kernels of corn, and they will likely sprout (well fertilized) in the wet cob walls and grow, cracking the structure. Agriculture will likely bring down the natural space, as it has in so many other places.
This morning as we all worked on the house, I cleaned the little bathroom, pulling community hairs out of the shower drain and wiping community toothpaste slobber out of the sink. I decided I’d clean my own little dwelling later, at home.
When I seemed to have one of whatever anyone was looking for in my camper-home, campfire compatriots joked that my pop-up was a magic Harry-Potterish place, with several big internal rooms invisible from the outside. I’d claimed to have a full basement, with a jacuzzi and a rec room. Turning my week’s lodgings into a little box on wheels always feels like a magic trick, pushing in beds and cranking down the roof, like a turtle that can pull itself into a shell a third its normal size.
But little by little, this morning’s cleaning, packing and preparations felt like breaking the spell. One prof’s family arrived, so he kind of morphed from team-coach to half-distracted dad (his boys were adorable.) Our sketch books and notes were reviewed by the profs this morning over coffee, and we filled out evaluations, but the week’s adventure just seemed to trickle to an end.
Tents were rolled up, leaving squares of yellow grass. We took a group picture on the front steps and then the team of camper-buddies drifted off to their individual cars, oddly strangers again. Some will graduate and never be seen again. Others we will bump into on campus and say hi, but for a week we were a team, a family where each one had a specific niche, something to offer, a network of inside jokes and shared experience bonding us into a group. We’d shared meals, chores, stories and back rubs. Friday after crits we spread sheets and blankets on the sunny hill in front of the Parsons house and took a big group nap in the grass, like hippies, or puppies; some of us snoring, others chatting. Now we were mentally headed back to the real world, half heartedly exchanging email addresses and waving each other down the driveway.
750 miles I drove this week, and walked a dozen more with the wheelbarrow I came to know, love and hate. I left behind a big ugly plant pot, in the woods. It’s possible that if I had a few more days to “cool down” and get past my own preconceptions and expectations, I could see it with new eyes, forgive it and even appreciate it. It is possible that passers by will at least stop and scratch their head over it. I suppose it might age in an interesting way.
At any rate, I am home. My kids ran out to the driveway for hugs, telling stories about the Harry Potter party at the library and the fun they had at grandma’s. Jeff made me a wonderful moussaka. I got home about dinner time… I’d stopped on the way home to buy sweet corn, and sweet cherries, and stopped in Midland to visit my grandma in her bright and lovely new senior apartment.
Tonight I will drift off to sleep hearing traffic, a snoring hubby, cat arguments and familiar house-noises instead of coyotes, loons and owls. Tomorrow I will be wading through a week’s mail, cleaning out the camper, and unpacking the tools, tarps and buckets still sprinkled with north woods pine needles and chunks of clay, and carrying the unmistakable, lingering odor of cow manure.