Ryerson Reads takes on Harrison’s “Gardens”

Gardens largeOur most recent session of the environmental literature discussion group, Ryerson Reads, was about Robert Pogue Harrison’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008). Harrison’s Gardens is not the sort of work we generally discuss. That is, it is not a work in the broad tradition that begins with Thoreau’s Walden and includes the many American books that connect a meditation about a particular place with a meditation on the subjective experience of a sojourner in that place. These books – let’s call them what Thoreau once called Walden, “a meteorological journal of the mind” – include such very different texts as Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge and Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, and constitute something like the mainstream of American environmental writing. Neither is Harrison’s Gardens a traditional work of garden writing that might belong in the tradition that stretches from Gertrude Jeckyll to Michael Pollan, or the traditional academic monograph that one might expect from Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford University.

Gardens, which Harrison calls an “essay,” recalls the root meaning of that term: a try or an attempt. Harrison attempts to delineate some of things that the ancient human imperative to order outdoor space for aesthetic purposes suggests about human nature. The attempt, necessarily partial and incomplete, is undertaken with all the resources of a master teacher of the humanities. Dante, Boccaccio, Italo Calvino all figure in Harrison’s bibliography, as do Plato and Epicurus, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and many more in many languages. The difficulty of the book – its many references and subordinate texts – is part of the pleasure of reading Gardens: you admire the reach of Harrison’s learning even as you work to keep up with his argument.

Central to Harrison’s argument is the idea of care (cura), which Harrison defines, learnedly, by telling the story of Homer’s Odysseus stranded on Kalypso’s island of earthly delights. Kalypso has offered the hero immortality if he will only stay with her in her garden of perfect beauty, but Odysseus spends his days there pining for Penelope and Ithaca. But what he also pines for is the human world of mortality and imperfection where care and cultivation are possible:

Had Odysseus been forced to remain on Kalypso’s island for

the rest of his endless days, and had he not lost his humanity in

the process, he would most likely have taken to gardening….

For human beings, like Odysseus, who are held fast by care

have an irrepressible need to devote themselves to something.

A garden that comes into being through one’s own labor and

tending efforts is very different from the fantastical gardens

where things preexist spontaneously. For unlike earthly

paradises, human-made gardens that are brought into and

maintained in being by cultivation retain a signature

of the human agency to which they owe their existence. Call

it the mark of Cura.

Harrison extends this claim in a striking feminist adaptation of the Christian felix culpa argument by asserting that Mother Eve, an apostle of Cura, redeemed humanity from the idleness of Eden by delivering us into the world of labor and care.

The gardens Harrison surveys in this brief and crowded book are many. Plato’s academic grove is contrasted with Epicurus’s kitchen garden as divergent expressions of the Greek idea of civis virture. Harrison analyzes the temporary gardens of homeless people in New York City as exemplary of human biophilia or, as he wittily calls it, “chlorophilia.” He writes of Versailles as the monument to a suite of regal vices. And there is a lovely interlude on Kingscote, an out-of-the way garden on Stanford’s campus, which is one of several places in the book where Harrison insists that to be a garden there must be a wall enclosing it, but that the wall must have openings to people and polis: “Gardens are vital to the degree that they open their enclosures in the midst of history, offering a measure of seclusion that is not occlusion.”

In the final chapters of Gardens, with the help of a cast of sources that includes Ariosto, Pound, and the Czech modernist writer and gardener Karel Capek, Harrison launches an attack on modern Western restlessness and consumerism. Our manic modern energies, and the environmental destruction they have wrought, are for Harrison a renunciation of Cura in quest of a dehumanizing Eden of creature comforts. Modern westerners live in “the expectation of an Edenic condition, in which the sole higher purpose, if not obligation, of the citizen is to enjoy the fruits of the earth in an increasingly infantilized state of sheer receptivity.”

A bracing and challenging book, Harrison’s Gardens provoked a rich discussion among the group at Ryerson Reads. Consider joining us next season, when we will discuss Berndt Heinrich’s Life Everlasting; Terry Tempest Williams, An Unspoken Hunger; E.O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence; and T.C. Boyle, A Friend of the Earth.

Ben GoluboffWritten by Benjamin Goluboff, professor of English at Lake Forest College and an expert in American literature. Ben has led Ryerson Reads for the past eleven years and is now preparing for an exciting 2015-16 season.

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It’s woodcock dancing time

Stand near the entrance to Ryerson Woods at dusk in March, April and May and you might hear the unusual courtship and flight song of an unusual shorebird, the American woodcock. It’s called a shorebird because of and habit of probing into the earth with a long bill to capture its food, as other shorebirds do.

But the woodcock doesn’t live or nest along the shoreline.  It chooses habitat that includes an open field with short grasses next to a wooded area that can be wet in spring.

And, compared with other shorebirds, its legs are quite short, especially in relation to its rotund body.

Woodcocks will stay in the woods during the day, but come nightfall, the males emerge onto a short grassy area to show their dancing and singing skills to females and competing males.

First, the male utters a nasal-sounding, “Peent,” lifting its open bill to the sky. He continues his “peenting” for up to a dozen or more times before spiraling into the sky as high as 100 or more yards, the size of a football field.

As he flies into the air, his wings give a whistling twitter – until he’s so high, you can’t see or hear him. Seconds after you’ve lost him, you’ll hear a chirpy,chirpy,chirpy or kissing sound  he utters as he returns to nearly the exact same place he started peenting. Minutes later, he starts peenting again, then taking off to the sky again.

Sometimes, he’ll peent in all directions, turning after each peent, to broadcast his vocals as far as possible.

Watching woodcocks can strain the eyes – they begin their displays when it is almost dark – just after the last American robin has quit singing for the night and when the spring peepers begin their chorus.  Stand quietly and listen for the unusual sounds and hope for a glimpse of the bird against a moonlit sky.

Here’s a better look at a woodcock:

You can find more videos here.

You’ll notice it has large eyes  on the side of its head – this gives it the chance to look out for predators, while inserting its long bill into the earth searching for a meal of worms.

Woodcocks visit other Lake County Forest Preserves to mate in spring, including Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest and Almond Marsh near Grayslake. You’ll need to enter those preserves to hear the woodcocks. At Ryerson Woods, you can turn into the entrance, then immediately park alongside the road, turn off your car, get out and listen.  If you’re lucky you’ll get to hear and see the birds before the preserve is closed for the night. Or come first thing in the morning before the sun has risen – woodcocks peent and display at dawn as well.

For a special program on woodcocks and a guided tour to hear and see them, you might consider signing up for a class at Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest on  March 27. Click here for more information.

Sheryl DeVore

Artists explore the rare bobolink in exhibition to open March 8 at Brushwood Center

Artists Ginny Krueger and Ann Blaas present an intimate and varied look at a declining songbird, the bobolink, and its migratory patterns at their exhibition, “The Bobolink Proposition,” which opens March 8 at Brushwood Center, 21850 Riverwoods Road, Riverwoods. The opening reception, held from 1 to 3 p.m., is free and open to the public.

The artists, who have done other shows together, wanted to work within a bird theme.  “We thought the bobolink had that exuberance and childlike rhythm that’s in both of our works,” Blaas said. “The word bobolink has a fun sound. We learned about the bird’s migratory patterns and there are some hints toward that in our paintings. “

The bobolink, one of North America’s fastest declining songbirds, breeds in grasslands including Rollins Savanna, a Lake County Forest Preserve District property near Krueger’s home. During courtship, the male flies close to the surface giving a tinkling sound and showing off its white back to attract females and deter intruders. It migrates to South America for winter. “I’m fascinated that the bobolink’s breast is dark and the back is white,” said Krueger. “It’s usually the reverse in birds.” In field guides, the bobolink has been described as wearing a reverse tuxedo.

Blaas, who teaches art at College of DuPage and Joliet Community College, is creating some of her works on Mylar, a type of drafting paper.“The transparency of the paper allows the artist to work on both front and back surfaces,” she said.

Krueger will display her encaustic paintings of melded wax, resin and pigment on wood. She’ll also showcase two colorful quilts depicting woodland birds, and several ceramic sculptures.

“Brushwood Center is a wonderful venue for artists. It has such intimate spaces,” Krueger said.

Visitors can meet Blaas and Krueger at the March 8 opening. No registration is necessary for the free event. The exhibition continues through May 5. Gallery hours: Monday – Thursday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sundays 1 to 3 p.m. For more information, visit www.brushwoodcenter.org.

January’s Ryerson Reads gave us a chance to delve deep into Abby Geni’s “The Last Animal”

by guest blogger, Benjamin Goluboff

The-Last-AnimalOur January meeting of Ryerson Reads, the environmental literature discussion group, was focused on Abby Geni’s The Last Animal (2013). Geni’s debut volume, this collection of short stories explores the troubled, sometimes contradictory relationships between humans and the natural world, specifically our interactions with animals — wild, captive, and domesticated.

Perhaps the most striking thing about these stories is Geni’s mastery of various voices and various modes of prose fiction. In “Terror Birds” Geni writes in a gritty naturalistic vein about a child growing up all but feral on an Arizona ostrich farm.  In “The Girls of Apache Bryn Mawr” she spins a brisk New Yorker-ish social satire that turns alarmingly dark as the kids at a Wisconsin summer camp for Jewish girls discover that one of their counselors may harbor a kind of inner beast. And “Captivity,” possibly the finest story of the collection, is a comic tale that owes something to the Magic Realist tradition, and describes, among other things, an Octopus and his (or her) relations with the keeper of the cephalopod wing of the aquarium where they both spend their days.

One of the pleasures of Ryerson Reads is that no matter how carefully I prepare for these discussions the group’s talented readers always surprise me, taking the discussion in directions I could not have foreseen. As we discussed “Captivity,” for example,  collating the story’s two intertwined plot lines about different sorts of captivity, the group engaged in a rich (and unresolved) debate about the ethics of keeping animals captive for scientific or educational purposes. Does the scientific mission of institutions like the Shedd Aquarium (where Geni’s story seems to take place) redeem those institutions from being what “Captivity” suggests they are: prison camps for animals?

Ryerson Reads 1491One of the stories that provoked a particularly rich discussion among the Ryerson group was “Dharma at the Gate,” a story of social realism roughly in the Raymond Carver tradition. This story features an ill-starred high school romance, and a golden retriever who acts as a kind of tutelary spirit to the young woman of the pair. I believe we found the story so engaging for at least two reasons. First, the story is about social class, and like Americans in general we take a kind of illicit pleasure in talking about class because it is one of our democratic culture’s dirty secrets. Second, the story explores the unique bond that has obtained, since our species hunter-gatherer days, between people and dogs. Geni may have gone somewhat out of her depth in “Dharma at the Gate” in advancing a particular hypothesis about Homo sapiens and Canis lupus familiaris as coevolutionary partners, and then offering that hypothesis — tentatively, ambivalently — as a template with which to understand her characters’ troubled romance. What the reader is left with — opinions varied among the group — may be a startling insight into her characters’ motivations, or may be a richly readable muddle. Read “Dharma at the Gate” and decide for yourself.

GardensThe Ryerson Reads selection for March is Robert Pogue Harrison’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008). This is a challenging academic book that endeavors to find in gardens — real and imaginary — clues to what makes us human. Harrison ranges from Epicurus to Bocaccio to the gardens of the Manhattan homeless in this learned study that is anchored in what he calls the ethics of care. Join us in March as we take up this rich and difficult book.


Ben Goluboff

Ben Goluboff, professor of English at Lake Forest College and an expert in American literature, has led Ryerson Reads for the past 11 years.  He will be revealing the book selections for the 2015-16 season at the Spring session, to be held on March 11th.

For more information on Ryerson Reads, visit our website.

Listening for the song of the Chickadee at Ryerson Woods

chickadee2On a cold winter day, if you listen closely while walking Ryerson Woods, you can hear the unmistakable call of the black-capped chickadee. “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” it calls, perhaps to connect with its brethren at a good feeding spot or alarm them of an intruder, possibly a predator. Both male and female chickadees give this call throughout the year.

Chickadees live at Ryerson year-round – they can survive the winter because of special adaptations that other birds living in cold climates possess: by fluffing their feathers to trap warmth, by growing more feathers, and by shivering as a way to regulate their body temperature. They also seek tree holes and other crevices on the coldest days to protect themselves from the chilling wind.

Chickadees have other special techniques that help them during the coldest time here in northern Illinois. First, they can hang on the undersides of branches to retrieve hidden larvae and eggs. Yes, the insects that will come this spring are waiting there for just the right moment to emerge. Chickadees help keep the population in check.

Chickadees also feed on seeds – as you know if you feed the birds in your backyard.  Have you ever watched them at your feeder? They sometimes take the seed and fly off with it in their bill – they’re hiding it for future retrieval. They actually remember where they hide the seeds – usually underneath tree bark.

In January, the cheerful sound of the black-capped chickadee’s call brightens anyone’s spirit. And when February comes, you can hear a new sound from these hardy birds – their spring song. They start early. Listen for “fee-bee” or “fee-bee-bee” or “hey, sweetie” with the first syllable higher in pitch.  Click here to listen to the song:  http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-capped_Chickadee/sounds

That means they are starting to think about raising young, establishing territories and finding a cavity in which to nest. Sometimes one will even sing in January.

While out at Ryerson Woods, take a walk and listen for the chickadee’s calls and songs – then step inside to warm up and view the art exhibition featuring sculptures and drawings of the birds you love. You also might hear chickadees when you’re on the free Soundwalk scheduled for Jan. 25 at Brushwood Center.

Have any questions about chickadees? Let us know.

– Sheryl DeVore

“Hear the Rhythm of the Birds” opens at Brushwood Gallery this weekend

Two important qualities unite very different artistic approaches in “Hear the Rhythm of the Birds,” the exciting new Brushwood exhibition of paintings and sculpture. Painter Kimberly Beck and sculptor Don Rambadt, are both passionate and knowledgeable about birds and they are also both extremely skillful in their chosen medium. Nature lovers and art lovers equally will find much to appreciate in this major exhibit of new work inspired by birds.

The concept for the exhibit was the brainchild of Beck. “Birds connect us to the rhythms of nature. They help us understand the changing seasons by their comings and goings. They soar above us and around us and live amongst us in our backyards. We learn about beauty, grace, persistence, hope and ourselves when we take notice of the rhythm of the birds.” Beck spent the twelve months of 2014 creating the thirty paintings in this show, preferring to work in the field from life to directly experience the changes in the landscape and light as the birds moved through their year.

“I have observed them through the four seasons, taken note of their daily behaviors, routines and habits. I watched them nest and faithfully care for their offspring, I learned about their preferred trees and perches…I listened and learned to recognize their song…I missed those that departed in the winter, and rejoiced at their return.” This intimacy is conveyed in her paintings through a deep knowledge of her materials and is supported by her past experience as a professional illustrator. “I want the paint to participate,” she says with strong conviction.

Beck describes her creative process as beginning with an internal dialog based on an experience. That experience grows into a concept and then, through the artist’s rendering, tells a story. For example, the concept for her painting titled Graziozo (the musical term for gracefully) emerged from her emotional response when a great blue heron rose up languorously and flew off as she approached it. Musical terms provide titles for many of her paintings as befits art exploring rhythm.

Don Rambadt is also exhibiting almost entirely new work. Rambadt’s personal statement declares “I sculpt because I enjoy the challenge of manipulating space. I choose birds as my subject matter because they fascinate me to no end.” A birdwatcher, falconer and former taxidermist he knows birds extremely well, but his work is more stylized than Beck’s. The species are recognizable, but the forms are “distilled like a haiku”, a liberty that is only possible when an artist is completely familiar with the natural form.

Rambadt expresses delight at being a returning artist to Brushwood and to provide sculptural support to Beck’s theme of Rhythm. About Rambadt, Beck says “He’s fabulous! We are fortunate to have a nationally recognized sculptor whose work adds so much to the show.”

It should be noted that the leadership role for the art program at Brushwood Center has recently changed. This is the final exhibit curated by former Executive Director Sophie Twichell. Long time Brushwood staff member Julia Kemerer was promoted to the position of Director of Arts and Administration last fall and is looking ahead to creating other exhibits to fulfill the mission of Brushwood.

“We will continue to focus on art that explores the themes of nature and the environment. It’s a great way to make people think about their relationship with the natural world.”

An opening reception will be held from 1-3pm on Sunday, January 11. Exhibition runs January 11 – February 26, 2015.​​For more information visit www.brushwoodcenter.org.

Ryerson Reads celebrates 10 years

Ryerson Reads 1491

New season starts September 10

For 10 years, book lovers with an interest in ecology have enjoyed lively discourse at a unique book club held at Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods. The 11th season starts this fall.

Longtime participant Dick Ettlinger of Highland Park said the leader Ben Goluboff guides the group in a thought-provoking way that stimulates fascinating discussions. Goluboff is a professor of English at Lake Forest College.

“He asks questions and invites responses,” Ettlinger said. “He gets the discussion going. He doesn’t want to make a lecture out of it.”

Goluboff said that’s his intent: To invite comments and encourage readers to delve into issues and themselves.

“I really try to make it a dialogue, like a good literature class,” he said.

One of Goluboff’s selections this season is Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Pogue Harrison.

Ben Goluboff - Ryerson Reads
Ben Goluboff, a professor of English at Lake Forest College, leads the Ryerson Reads book discussions.

“This is a powerful book, a delightful, challenging wonderful book, “Goluboff said. Participants will likely discuss whether the author is truly talking about gardens or something else, he said.

Over the years, Goluboff has been fascinated and excited about what participants say and observe about themselves and the environment.

“One book, The Creation by E.O. Wilson, elicited a wide-ranging discussion,” he said. “One participant talked about how Wilson’s writing caused her to re-examine her faith,” he said.

“I thought that was extraordinary. It makes people around the table recognize the power of the writer. It’s been one of the many experiences in my life that reminds me how literature can make a big difference in peoples’ lives.”

Brushwood Center Executive Director Sophie Twichell said, “We are thrilled Ryerson Reads has thrived for 10 years. This is a truly wonderful way to discuss literature in a beautiful setting with a thoughtful, knowledgeable and well-read leader.”

Copies of the books chosen for the 2014/15 season of Ryerson Reads will be set aside and available at the Deerfield Public Library, 920 Waukegan Road as well as the Vernon Area Public Library, 300 Olde Half Day Road, Lincolnshire. Books are also available for purchase at the Lake Forest Book Store. Limited copies are on hand at Brushwood Center. The fee is $15 per session, $10 for Brushwood Center members. The entire series is $45 or $30 for members. Discussions are held from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m. on the dates below.

Ryerson_Reads_Fall_2014_final_frontSept. 10, 2014:            When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle
Nov. 12, 2014:             The Paradise of Bombs by Scott Russell Sanders
Jan. 14, 2015:              The Last Animal by Abby Geni
Mar. 11, 2015:             Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert                                                                Pogue Harrison

To register for Ryerson Reads or for more information, call 847.968.3308 or visit http://www.brushwoodcenter.org/Programs/Discovery/RyersonReads.html.

Brushwood Center is located at: 21850 N. Riverwoods Rd., Riverwoods, IL 60015.  http://www.brushwoodcenter.org.

 

Ryerson Reads is partially sponsored by a grant from:

Rosborough