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Peeks & Piques!



By Raymond J. Steiner
ART TIMES October 2005


BORN IN BROOKLYN, I was a “city kid” until the age of 12 when my parents, wishing to raise their kids away from city streets, moved their brood of five children to a forty-acre parcel of land in West Hurley, NY, complete with home, barn, chicken coop, woodshed, and abandoned bluestone quarries. Secluded and neglected for some twenty-or-so years before we moved in, the house, the last of less than a half-dozen on a dead-end dirt road, had no electricity, a wood-stove, a hand-pump on the sink and no indoor toilet; we were the only year-round residents. During winters, life was concentrated in the kitchen near the ever-going stove, going to shut-off bedrooms to undress at nighttime a bit of an ordeal.  My older brother was still in the Navy when we moved in that June; my two sisters, teen-agers with boyfriends left behind, seemed not as keen on the move as it seemed to be to my younger brother and me. I had left behind a trolley-tracked Gates Avenue and a large parochial school to find myself surrounded by terra incognito and, that September, a pupil assigned to a well-worn and scarred up seat near a large potbellied stove in a one-room schoolhouse that boasted a rope-pulled bell and a grand total of twelve students spread unevenly over grades 1 through 12. It was 1945 and, though I had to do my homework with the aid of a kerosene lamp, it was magic. In time, we raised chickens and pigs, but not even the chores required for their well-being could long keep me from the lure of those surrounding woods. Now at the age of seventy-two, I still feel that sense of enchantment with nature, even though the forty-acre plot that awakened my sensibilities has long been sold and my life is now condensed to the two acres that currently surround my house and study. I can perambulate the boundary lines in no time at all — once a quasi-religious ritual performed on Rogation Day — and nothing compared to the several hours it took my father to do the same through thickets, swamps, and quarry holes in search of “iron rods” and “cairns” with his sons back in ’45. Still, to the initiated, two acres — nay, even one square foot — offers up enough mystery and surprise to fill a lifetime of enchantment. Walt Whitman, you might recall, found an entire universe in a single blade of grass. Ours is not a utopian Eden — insects, rabbits, deer, woodchucks, vagaries of rainfall and frosts, all combine to disappoint, aggravate, and destroy. We do not use insecticide so vegetables and fruits are shared with bugs and animals — that is, when an extended heavy rain or early frost doesn’t rot or kill them before the pests, herbivores, or we can enjoy them. Still, what doesn’t make it this year, does the next — and, though we grumble, we yearly renew the gamble with nature. No matter how flawlessly formed the fruit and vegetables found at the corner greengrocer, there is a satisfaction to eating imperfect peaches from one’s own tree or misshapen tomatoes picked from a garden that you “sowed, hoed, and growed”. I cannot easily put into words what I feel as I sit in a wisteria-covered gazebo that I built myself and survey the garden I tilled, the fruit trees I planted, the bluestone path I laid from house to study, the field I periodically have to mow. To feel a part of and responsible for a piece of land is an experience that few apartment dwellers in metropolitan areas can truly appreciate. To begin with, there is the curious sense of being a part of not only a specific locality, but also of a much wider world that contains the cycle of seasons and grand geological eras. Trees, shrubs, fruits, flowers, vegetables — those I’ve introduced and those which were native to the original landscape — are seen as both individual things which I must tend as well as parts of a greater whole about which I have no control. Rock-embedded fossils in the surrounding stone wall remind me that I am merely an afterthought following vast reaches of time. Thus, one resides in both worlds, local and universal at one and the same time and, as attached as I might feel to my circumscribed plot of earth, I am acutely conscious of the fact that my life is subsumed in a wider context, a context that has not only defined my environment but my very existence. As consciously empire-building as they might have been, even such ancient Roman city-dwellers as Cicero and Virgil knew — and wrote eloquently about — the salubrious effects of being a caretaker — no matter how minor the husbandry — of the earth. Need I say that all of this conditions my viewpoint on things? It almost certainly informs my “long view” of art and its making. Still, as opinionated as that might make me, I am thankful. Surely, my parents cannot have given me any better gift than that of turning me loose some sixty years ago on that untamed tract of woodland full of hard and wonderful lessons.

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