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City Boy - Country Boy

By Raymond J. Steiner
ART TIMES Jul/ Aug 2010

ALTHOUGH I’VE LIVED in the Catskill foothills since 1945 — moving to upstate New York when I was eleven years old — I am still, at heart, a transplanted kid from Brooklyn, a “city boy”. This, despite the fact that from those side-walked streets and a parochial school I was moved to a sparsely populated rural woodland and a one-room school house (that had a total of eleven kids scattered over grades 1 through 8) and to a house, the only one on a dead-end road, some seven miles from the nearest town, Kingston, New York. Oh sure, I explored those woods to my heart’s content as I grew through my teen-age years, learning it’s lore and the secrets of nature. Awe, however, always contained a kernel of fear — a suspicion that a careless move on my part could spell disaster. Three abandoned bluestone quarries were close by and enough wild places to harbor things that might resent a nosy boy. The quarries, for sure, had their fair share of copperheads — a deadly snake that gives no warning when it would strike — so caution was always a must. What exactly the dense copses or shale caves might hide, however, was never clear, never overt. I loved nature — its seasons, its surprises, its beauty, its uncompromising presence — but I also kept a little knot of fear tucked somewhere down deep in my gut. Those woods, as familiar as they became over the years of my boyhood, constantly reminded me that, at heart, I was a city kid. Here it is some sixty-five years later that I still live “in the country”, share a couple of acres with Cornelia on a piece of property that features Overlook Mountain as a backdrop — and again live on a dead-end road — and yet, the fact is that I still feel that knot swell and surge within me if I come across a snake — experience that “zero at the bone” that Emily Dickinson wrote of — or have to venture too far from the house in the dark of night. Caution is warranted — we do occasionally have a visiting bear come within feet of our front door. There are coyotes that roam the woods. And though I have not seen any copperheads on our property, we have come across a pit viper in our herb garden. So danger does lurk. But they are known perils. What gnaws at my innards is vague, intangible, that, if let loose, threatens to become huge, monstrous, overwhelming. The presence of this malevolent “something” hidden within nature was confirmed for me in the midst of a raging storm while on a troop ship in the North Sea. Whatever it was back in the woods had followed me far beyond, into my mature life. Still, I love nature — would not consider ever again living on a city block, surrounded by concrete. Descended from Swiss ancestors, my love for the mountains is far too ingrained to permit even thinking of moving to any city. My love of natural beauty comes out, of course, in my avocation of painting landscapes en plein air. And, although I almost always leave out any traces of human incursion in my compositions, I still detect the “city boy” lurking at the easel as I attempt to capture the play of light on running water, leaf, cloud, rock, or distant mountain. Another landscape painter — one more precise in capturing verisimilitude — or a botanical artist — would perceive my aloofness — my “detachment” — from my subject. They’d note an “impression” rather than a depiction of what I am rendering. Part of my distance stems from a sense that there is a mystery to natural phenomena, an ultimately unknown “essence” that we ought respect — even revere. Light itself remains resistant to everyday reason, a quality that we can only reflect in pigment as it itself reflects from matter. We see it by not “seeing” it. My reverence notwithstanding, I know that, at bottom, that kernel of fear persists, colors my perception, and yes, even my veneration. Though I feel part of Her, I never feel one with Nature — and this, in spite of my various forays into mysticism over the years. Nature still rebuffs me, still warns that the woodland relative of what lurks at the bottom of the ocean is watching me from those “lovely, dark, and deep” woods surrounding me. You can’t fool Mother Nature — She knows that I am still a “city kid” and keeps me in thrall through that tiny knot of fear.