Today I paddled to the Aitkin Campground from about 18 river miles north of town. Aitkin County is mostly farmland, and it was interesting, to say the least, to hear cattle lowing for a good 45 minutes before I rounded a bend and saw a good-sized herd hanging out by the river. At another point, I saw corn growing right up to the edge of the river, replacing the cattails and reeds that have lined the banks up to now. The huge distance between agriculture and nature has never been clearer to me, and I understand in a new way how strange it must have been for the Ojibwe to have had their lands divided up into 160 acre parcels, which were then bestowed on them with the idea that each nuclear family group would become farmers.
I managed to take a photograph of the cows, but I didn’t get out my camera for the corn, and I’m sorry for that. It raises a funny issue that Richard and Mac and I have been talking about since almost the beginning of our travels. It’s very difficult to overcome the urge to take pictures only of picturesque or iconic sights: the growing corn doesn’t make a particularly compelling photograph, so I’m too lazy to take my iPhone out of its waterproof container. But since I am interested in trying to communicate the river as it is, not as I would like it to be, I feel like I am failing in an important way if I neglect to photograph the corn.
I keep thinking about Mary Ellen Carroll‘s artwork where she strapped a camera to her back and walked down Broadway from the top to the bottom of Manhattan, snapping a photograph at each intersection. Because she didn’t frame the photographs, choose any particular feature, but just clicked a remote, the photographs are a random sample of Broadway as it radically changes character on its journey through Manhattan. It’s a fascinating trove of images of the city at a particular time (mid-90’s if I remember properly), and the ”bad“ photographs are precisely what makes it such a compelling piece of work.
I started out doing audio recordings inspired by this idea of random samples, but I found it less interesting than I had imagined. As I think about it, though, perhaps I should be patient and try doing at least one recording each day and see what unfolds over the whole journey. It isn’t about emulating the elegance and beauty of Annea Lockwood’s sound maps of the Hudson River and the Danube: it’s perhaps a more Cage-ian idea, one that requires me to embrace the process and let go of the results, as they say…
I did take some other photographs, and you can see what I mean about capturing the picturesque and the iconic: a nice farmhouse with trees, and one I really like of a living tree and a dead tree intertwined. I think very often these days about how the natural world is half-living and half-dead all the time. One set of stuff is fallen and decayed and another set of stuff is growing out of that decay, and the living is completely dependent on the dead. The muddy, organic river intensifies that sense of death-in-life, I think. I don’t really like the river water, it’s murky and scary even here at the early part of the river; and while it’s of course a river of life, the rich and varied wildlife are proof of that, it also seems to carry a daunting amount of death in it.
And of course, we are in late high summer, the trees are fully deep green, no new life is left in them, they are at the fullest flower of their maturity.
Ah, but corn, too, is beautiful — it’s grass, after all. Ok, so corn supports (still) my lifestyle. But I heard John Cage once describe the beauty of the Illinois corn fields, and I believed him at once. He was then at the University of Illinois; I was a senior in college in Ohio. He’d come to speak for a Freedom and Order inter-term study.
I enjoyed reading this, Eve! I’m becoming obsessed with this question of how not to make the Mississippi picturesque, which is perhaps ironic given that so many English travellers have spilled so much ink complaining about how it isn’t picturesque enough. But, of course they were usually talking about the lower reaches of the river and the headwaters are a different matter. As you say, there’s plenty there that *is* picturesque, but there’s so much more as well, and that particular aesthetic seems to eclipse everything else entirely. We need fiendish strategies to hold the picturesque at bay…(devilish laughter)…
Evie, following your beautiful mind down the Mississippi is every bit as fascinating and—yes, picturesque—as following the river itself.
Woo… the view of the area on Google earth is very cool! I think I see a cornfield… and OMG there’s a cow! ooops… no it’s a tree…. ha ha
Some other’s thoughts on your topic:
It is pleasant to have been to a place the way a river went. – Thoreau
The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason. – John Cage
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it may be necessary from time to time to give a stupid or misinformed beholder a black eye. – Miss Piggy
Again, such a fantastic post. Fun and beautiful revelations you are having. I wholeheartedly suggest—no, beseech—you come up with some process for taking photos and making sound recordings in regular, predetermined way. Unloosing oneself from tendencies, especially aesthetic tendencies, seems to me one of the most powerful things a person can do. I try to do that as much as I can, even though failing plenty myself.
@ Mary: LOVE that collection of quotes! Perfect!
thanks all of you!
Susan, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that corn isn’t beautiful! just that it isn’t exactly picturesque in a place you’re expecting cattails and reeds… but I agree wholeheartedly about the cornfields: I was blown away by how cool they were when I was visiting WIU last year… I would love to know more about John Cage and Freedom and Order. That sounds really interesting to me…
Mary, those quotations are GREAT! thank you…
and Yvan, thanks for the support: I starting back to random recording and filming yesterday, and we’ll see what takes shape with all this…