Tag Archives: New York

Of Art and Beauty

Spring on 5th Avenue

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo by Vladimir Brezina

Why should anyone make art?

I’m sitting on the window seat on a blue-and-gold morning, sipping coffee. The breeze is warm, and there’s the sound of chirping birds competing with the blare of horns outside.

My glance runs up and down the potted ficus on the windowsill. There are new furled leaves waiting to bloom. It is spring.

What’s the point of art, and why should anyone devote his or her life to it, let alone squander precious hours of the few we’re all given?

Pondering the question, I realize I’ve unconsciously internalized a set of ideas: Art is frivolous, unimportant. Beauty is nice, but not necessary. Proper adults concern themselves with more important things.

But those are just ideas.

As I look around, reality seems to be otherwise.

I’m surrounded by beauty: The green-gold leaves of the ficus as they catch the sunlight. The geometric play of shadows on buildings. The lush greenery of the new foliage outside, sharp against the sky.

The world is beautiful, I realize. Nature is beautiful. And cities are beautiful, in their own terrible, savage, and dirty ways.

Humans are part of nature, and if Nature strives for beauty, shouldn’t humans? Isn’t the ache for beauty foundational somehow, built into our very cells?

There isn’t just one form of beauty. There’s an infinite variety, depending on how you look at things. Anything can be beautiful, from the rainbows on an oil slick to the multi-jointed machinery of an insect.

I think about Vlad, and his feelings about ants.

He hated the idea of killing them, not out of a reverence for life, but out of a reverence for beauty and the deep sense that we should conserve beauty wherever possible. “It’s just such a waste,” he said, in explanation. “That entire little intricate system (the ant) wiped out in an instant.”

If art is a deep-seated desire to reach for beauty, and Nature and the Universe is constantly creating beauty… then isn’t the desire to create art a way to align with the deepest forces of Nature and the Universe?

I feel a bubble of hope rising in my chest. Maybe creating art isn’t frivolous at all, but rather a way to authentically align with Nature…

But wait. Isn’t “beauty” just a human-made construct? Would the leaves of the ficus, or the rainbows in an oil slick, be beautiful if I weren’t here to see them, and declare them so?

The bubble begins to deflate.

If beauty is just a human construct, then the creation art is just another one of those activities we humans impose on ourselves to feel purposeful and to feed our egos…

Belief in beauty is a bit like belief in God, I realize. You posit that an idea greater than yourself exists and gives meaning, and search for evidence that it exists.

And then I remember something: The nine-year-old autistic boy who let out an audible “wow!” at the end of a Mozart concert.

David Snead, President of the Handel and Haydn society described it like this: “While [conductor] Harry Christophers was holding the audience rapt in pin-drop silence following the music’s end, what sounded like a child of about six years of age couldn’t hold back and gave out a ‘Wow!’ heard round the hall,” Snead wrote. “The crowd cheered in enthusiastic agreement.

The boy, Ronan Mattin, apparently didn’t normally communicate his emotions, according to his grandfather, Stephen Mattin, who took him to the concert: “I can count on one hand the number of times that [he’s] spontaneously ever come out with some expression of how he’s feeling.

If a nine-year-old boy whose mind and emotions are wired differently from most people’s can perceive the beauty in Mozart, isn’t that proof that it objectively exists?

Not proof, perhaps, but evidence, I correct myself.

And there is plenty of additional evidence, if you know where to look for it. By some accounts, plants can perceive and respond to music. And humans and animals alike respond to certain sounds and shapes, even across cultures. Physicists talk about using “elegance” as a good metric for assessing which theories are more likely to be true.

I think about how closely beauty and the impulse towards spirituality are linked in history. Why does the “love of God” inspire people to create, say, the Cathedral of Notre Dame?

And the suspicion grows on me, not for the first time: What if I’ve gotten everything exactly backward? What if art and the creation of beauty aren’t just nice incidentals, but the most important thing? I think of Tosca’s plaintive aria: “I lived for art, I lived for love.” Was she right?

I circle back to the question of why anyone should create art.

Because we’re hard-wired for it. Nature creates beauty, and humans are part of Nature. It’s what we do. And when we’re prevented from it (or prevent ourselves from it), our lives are constricted and constrained. Creating beauty (however we conceive of it) is part of living fully.

The bubble of hope is very large and light now. It feels almost large enough to carry me.

Trip 14: Combined Circumnavigation of Manhattan and City Island

By Vladimir Brezina

The iconic Manhattan view

Saturday, 25 March, 2000

(Note: The prosaic title does not do this trip justice! City Island is a small island in Long Island Sound; just getting there and back from Manhattan is considered an achievement by most New York-area paddlers. A Manhattan circumnavigation is a little more common—most of us have done quite a few—but still a non-trivial paddle.

But combining them both…? I wonder, from this vantage point of almost 20 years, what inspired Vlad to take this trip, after the previous runs up and down the Hudson. If I were able to go back in time and ask him, how would he have answered?) 

Combined Manhattan and City Island circumnavigation

Launched at Dyckman St. around 6:45 a.m. Low tide: wading through horrible mud, careful launch between pilings under pier. Sunshine already lighting up Palisades, but sun dimmed periodically by thin clouds. Quite warm: later, high around 60° F.

Paddled south with ebb current, against slight head wind from the southwest. Under George Washington Bridge, past 79th St. Boat Basin, Chelsea Piers; Downtown Boathouse in about 1 1/2 hours. (Note: This is very fast). Very few boats. Round the Battery; tourists already waiting for Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island boats; in a few minutes saw three of them emerging from their dock in East River.

Up the East River; waves from two of the tourist boats and a tug bounced around and built to about 3 ft. in the triable between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Under the Williamsburg Bridge; hazy sunshine. Now going with the wind and strong current. Out of the muddy Hudson, water now very clear. Just south of the United Nations narrowly avoided seaplane taking off, and later, almost at Roosevelt Island, landing. (Note: That seaplane will appear later in our writeups; nearly two decades on, I still encounter it regularly on the East River!)

Air traffic in the East River

Took the east channel past Roosevelt Island. Current dramatically speeding up. Through Hell Gate: water quite flat (no boat wakes) but heavy swirls. Still with the current and wind, past Rikers Island, under the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge and the Throgs Neck Bridge. Reached Throgs Neck at around 11:15 a.m.: 4 1/2 hours for about 25 (?) nm. (Note: That’s a blistering pace, 5.6 knots, or 6.4 miles per hour!)

Past Throgs Neck lost favorable current, in fact now some contrary current. Good view of Stepping Stones lighthouse. Crossed Eastchester Bay over to City Island and around the east side. Water beautifully clear, blue and green. Some intermittent sun, but increasing clouds. Strong contrary current flowing south between islands. Lunch on small island with tall transmitter just off City Island. Two huge white swans looking at me suspiciously. Beach littered with oyster shells. Inviting view east among the islands, past the Execution Rocks lighthouse, out on to the open Long Island Sound.

After lunch, round the northern tip of City Island, under bridge connecting it to mainland, and south through Eastchester Bay. Now paddling with some tail current, but opposed by head wind, now building up to 10-15 knots. Whitecaps everywhere in main channel. Slow going. Back to Throgs Neck again at about 2 p. m. Turning toward manhattan, beam to the wind. Severe weathercocking: boat not balanced. Crossed over to the south shore and landed to take on water ballast (not much, but perhaps some, effect). Starting to rain; misty views of Manhattan. Back under Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, past LaGuardia and Rikers Island. Still slow going, partly against, and still weathercockng into, the wind. Speeding up with favorable current toward Hell Gate. Sun coming out again. Through Hell Gate easily around 4 p.m.

Orange sun setting into Palisades

Through Harlem River, sun low in the sky, wind dying down, water smooth. Rapid smooth progress with good tail current. Emerged into Hudson again just as the orange sun was disappearing behind Palisades. Hudson hazy and calm. Back at Dyckman St. just after 6 p.m.

Paddling time around 11 hours; about 50 nm.

(Vlad’s humorous, gentle sensibility emerges so clearly from this entry: The “huge” swans look at him “suspiciously”; the “inviting view” looking out across Long Island Sound; and the “orange sun disappearing behind the Palisades”.

Perhaps I’ve answered my own question: Vlad was forever in search of new beauty to delight his eye and heart.)

Trip 4: Hudson River, Hudson-Coxsackie Area, October 1999

Text and photos by Vladimir Brezina

Dawn at Stockport Middle Ground

Friday, 15 October

7:10 a.m. Amtrak to Hudson. Emerged from Penn Station tunnels just after sunrise; views across the Hudson with the rising sun reflected orange, against the clear blue sky, from windows on the New Jersey shore. Beautiful views of the river all the way up to Hudson: fall foliage colors spectacular particularly in the Hudson Highlands; in many places mist rising from the river, with the sun breaking through in dappled patches. Worth the $31 fare just for those two hours. Launched at Hudson around 10 a.m.

Day 1 Route

Sunny, but distinctly cooler now: crisp fall weather. Water warmer than expected: still possible, mostly, to do without gloves. Southerly wind, ebbing current, quite strong here. Decided to go south along the western shore, photographing the fall colors. Past entrance to Catskill Creek. Large, three-masted replica of an 18th-century (?) sailing ship (couldn’t read name) but with sails furled, motoring, a bit disappointingly, north against the current.

Also a fleet of canoes, probably returning to Catskill from Ramshorn Creek. Paddled slowly up Ramshorn Creek for a while. Very still, winding creek, with muddy banks at low tide; sun behind the screen of leaves, now partially bare. Leaves dropping and floating down on the current.

Then back out into the river and across to the usual lunch place at the mouth of the Roeliff Jansen Kill. South wind now around 20 knots; lots of whitecaps in the main channel. But water around lunch place too shallow just now, so retreated north to Oak Hill Landing for lunch. Fall views of the Catskills.

Fall colors

Then north through Hallenbeck Creek back to Hudson. Arrived at the same time as a duck hunter in camouflage outfit, with camouflaged boat, and vigorous complaints against the game laws. (Saw a few other hunters, and many duck blinds everywhere, but almost none occupied. Relieved to hear only very scattered shots.) Phoned Kathy around 4 p.m. Outlook for joining me tomorrow not good.

(Note: It’s very like Vlad to record the hunter’s “vigorous complaints against the game laws”.  He was not a hunter himself, and throughout these logs, hunters emerge as faintly comic characters, in their obsession with camouflage and other para-military gear, which Vlad found amusing. But he also had striking libertarian, if not downright anarchic, tendencies, and would have sympathized with those complaints. )

Current now turned to flood; wind still from the south, though dying down. Evening paddle up to campground at the north tip of Stockport Middle Ground. Halfway up saw, from a distance, a fox (coyote?)-like animal on shore. Arrived at campground just in time to see huge freighter move down the channel to the west against the setting sun.

Night not too cold, probably around 40°F.  New North Face sleeping bag luxuriously comfortable and warm.

Sunset at Stockport

(Note: It’s about time! The last few trips Vlad has been complaining about the inadequacy of his sleeping bag. It’s fun to watch him grow increasingly interested in kayaking and expedition gear; he was always mechanically minded, but generally appreciated gear for its effectiveness and the quality of its design rather than for the status it might convey.

By the time I knew him, he’d arrived at a gear collection that worked for him, and was less enchanted by every new item. He looked tolerantly on as I went through my own trajectory of fascination with gear.

It was very common for me to remark “I wish I had a gadget that would do (whatever)”… and for Vlad to reply, “I have one of those.” He’d rummage in his overstuffed deck bag (how he ever found anything was a mystery to me!) and pull out a rusty, but still serviceable, whatever-it-was.

Several log posts later we’ll get to read about his discovery of the GPS, and the way it can be useful in tracking one’s speed in different conditions.  That, in turn, leads to a deep understanding of the currents and how they vary—which lies at the heart of Vlad’s legendary knowledge of the NY area currents.)

Saturday, 16 October
Sunrise around 7 a.m. A little chilly, but clothes adequate. Took some pictures of the rising sun illuminating the fall colors on the western bank opposite. Left around 9 a.m., reached Coxsackie around 10 a.m. Very happy to see, from afar, John and Kathy putting their boat together. Sneaked up on them out of the rising sun, got out of the boat and came right up to them without being detected.

Coxsackie very nice launch site: the paved boat ramp (though no floating dock visible), grass, plenty of parking, portable toilets, phone.

Day 2 Route

North around Coxsackie Island, then across main channel over to eastern shore, south past Nutten Hook, into marshes on either side of Little Nutten Hook. Few herons wading in the shallows, but generally many fewer birds than a couple of weeks ago. Palisade of trees lining the river almost wintery; foliage past its peak, or it may be that the natural tree species here not very flamboyant, just yellow and grey-brown. (Oranges and reds noticeable mainly around houses, probably planted.)

Main river now ebbing but south wind intensifying to a sustained 20 knots.

Waves building to 2 feet in the main channel; we kept to the side but could not get out of the wind. Kathy complained but sticking it out. Lunch at deluxe campground at Gays Point. Dock now out of the water, but there is a sandy beach, grassy area, pagoda, picnic tables, barbecues, outhouses (open), a building (closed) which may have water in season. But all this open to the south wind, so had lunch in sunny and warm clearing in the wood beyond.

Displaced a sunning snake.

Few grasshoppers and butterflies, but insects, like birds, mostly gone. Returning to the boats, we could see wind now 25 knots, treetops swaying and whistling, waves in main channel lengthening, with prominent and very frequent whitecaps.

Continued south past the beaches at the tip of Gays Point and into the channel to the east of Stockport Middle Ground. Somewhat sheltered for a while, then back out into the headwind for the last stretch across the flats to the entrance to Stockport Creek. Here very shallow; ran aground before found proper channel. Four other kayakers, disappearing into the creek. Creek sheltered, but shallow, and with strong current flowing out of it.

Finally, back the same way past Stockport Middle Ground, across the main channel and along the western shore back to Coxsackie. Current now turning to flood; wind dying down somewhat but still strong. Not as rough as it would have been before; waves no more than 2 feet. Moving very fast with the tail wind and current, surfing on the waves. Back at Coxsackie around 4:30 p.m. Car to New York.

Stockport Creek

Capable

By Johna Till Johnson

Yellow Submarine Paddle 3

Vlad in his element: eminently capable!

In response to today’s daily prompt.

What does it mean to be “capable”? It’s more than having a set of skills that enable you to cope with a situation. It’s about knowing which of those skills to deploy, in which order. Knowing all the little nuances that affect the situation–and how to adapt and respond to those nuances.

It’s an understatement to say that Vlad was a capable paddler. That he was, and much more, too.