Speech, Speech!

Everyone was looking for the FDR or the Lincoln and President Obama went Washington--recalling the Valley Forge time, citing Washington's in-the-winter woods address:
"Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger came forth to meet it."
(From the journal of Dr. Albigence Waldo, who was attending to the sick at Valley Forge, himself fretting the hot in-tent smoke, relieved only by the "cold and piercing wind": "Though this may be contradicted by many, impartial truth in future history will clear up these points, and reflect lasting honor on the wisdom and prudence of General Washington." ) Of course, the call to service line of JFK that the TV news analysts had been running over and over in anticipation of Pres. Obama's inaugural --"Ask not what your country can do for you..."--has its genetic beginnings in
Theodore Parker’s “A Sermon for Merchants,” from 1846:
"Remember your opportunities—such as no men ever had before. God and man alike call on you to do your duty. Elevate your calling still more; let its nobleness appear in you. Scorn a mean thing. Give the world more than you
take. You are to serve the nation not it you; to build the church not make it a den of thieves, nor allow it to apologize for your crime, or sloth."
Parker was a Transcendentalist, speaking at a time of economic collapse (prices and credit had big trouble after a wheat bubble). The Transcendentalists were all looking to apply the lessons of the Revolution, or even the idea of being revolutionary to their contemporary then reform-thirsty American life. A great thing about President Obama's speech was that he linked vast poetic change in the word to the prosaic tasks of everyday life, to in his words, "the parents willingness... to nurture a child that finally decides our fate." This was very Transcendentalist, especially amongst the Transcendentalists represented by Thoreau. Thoreau looked at abolition as an issue not just facing new territories coming into statehood, such as Kansas, but as a practical everyday issue that could be attended to locally, rather than with a protest about a far away place. From Slavery in Massachussets, a great and fiery political speech that of course belies the idea of a quiet, in-his-cabin Thoreau:
I lately attended a meeting of the citizens of Concord, expecting, as one among many, to speak on the subject of slavery in Massachusetts; but I was surprised and disappointed to find that what had called my townsmen together was the destiny of Nebraska, and not of Massachusetts, and that what I had to say would be entirely out of order. I had thought that the house was on fire, and not the prairie; but though several of the citizens of Massachusetts are now in prison for attempting to rescue a slave from her own clutches, not one of the speakers at that meeting expressed regret for it, not one even referred to it. It was only the disposition of some wild lands a thousand miles off which appeared to concern them. The inhabitants of Concord are not prepared to stand by one of their own bridges, but talk only of taking up a position on the highlands beyond the Yellowstone River. Our Buttricks and Davises and Hosmers are retreating thither, and I fear that they will leave no Lexington Common between them and the enemy. There is not one slave in Nebraska; there are perhaps a million slaves in Massachusetts.

--i.e., the work is at hand.

Æolian Art

Tonight, in Brooklyn, at Third Ward, there is an inflatable sculpture show. Inflatable sculpture is a lot like an Aeolian harp. Thoreau talked a lot about Aeolian harps. He loved Aeolian harps. The transcendentalists all seemed to love Aeolian harps, in fact. The Aeolian harp--the instrument of the god Æolus, god of wind--is a harp of just a few strings that makes sounds as a result of wind. Often, the Aeolian harp was placed in a window, the way we would fit a small air conditioner in a window today, and the wind running through the window would vibrate the strings, which were tuned, which would in turn vibrate the wooden base, which would in turn vibrate into the wall of the house, the wind making music with the house, the house a musical instrument. Thoreau liked to joke about how the telegraph wire running through the woods around Walden Pond was like a giant Aeolian harp. Here is another version of an Aeolian harp, using the wind of the subway to charge the art with life, or our street life with art:

The challenge that Thoreau sets in Walden is to figure out how to make your self into an Aeolian harp, rather than just an airconditioner. From Walden: There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still. There was never yet such a storm but it was Æolian music to a healthy and innocent ear.


Speaking of Steven Colbert, who addressed the idea of the commons yesterday,

as noted by the N.Y. Times' Opinionator, the commons is old: that we live in the commonwealth, sharing the general good, predates kings, of course. The idea seemed to have died in the U.S., as the country aged--some towns in New England still keep their center-of-town commons common--i.e., a park--but the commons are returning in a lot of differnt ways. As far as a common landscape goes, Thoreau was referencing the English when he referred to keeping lands and land forms in a kind of common bank, for the civic good. Here's this from The Thoreau You Don't Know:
Thoreau was not a conservationist, per se; the job title did
not yet exist. But he was on his way to becoming one. He
recognized that Concord needed land- management practices
similar to those followed in En gland. “Why not control
our own woods and destiny more?” he asked in 1860.
He wondered why people did not donate land to the town.
He saw that trees—as well as hills and ponds and natural
landmarks— were as much a part of the town as its homes
and statuary, and that the landscape had a civic value, a
value off the books. “What are the natural features which
make a township handsome?” he asked his journal the year
before he died. “A river, with its waterfalls and meadows, a
lake, a hill, a cliff , or individual rocks, a forest, and ancient
trees standing singly. Such things are beautiful; they have a
high use which dollars and cents never represent. If the inhabitants
of a town were wise, they would seek to preserve
these things, though at a considerable expense; for such
things educate far more than any hired teachers or preachers,
or any at present recognized system of school education.”
Corporations may not like the idea of the commons, but--whether we are talking about videos or blogs or songs or arts or crafts or books or patents--we have more in common in the common than is commonly recognized.


In Thoreau's time, one of the fads was walking in the moonlight.
A lot of the so-called Transcendentalists would go out on hikes in the Walden woods, or any of the nearby woods that weren't cut down--most were--and hike on nights when there was a full moon, or close to it. In addition to the many Romantic ideals that moonlight and moonlit walks touched upon, they also spoke to the idea of finding new ways to adventure in your backyard. The past few night have been good moon hiking nights.And then, even in the morning, the moon has been there, for early morning moon hikes or walks or runs, or early morning moon-lit coffee, an excellent moon-lit finale with which to begin.

Post-Rain Puddle

In Brooklyn, after a big rain storm in the fall or winter, the winds often pick up quickly and boldly, and, usually at night, blow the borough clean, giving to the streets the invisible squeegee effect that happens to the windshield of a car in a car wash's end-of-the-wash wind tunnel phase. In the city, that kind of wind can make for a mingling of rain water with other liquids, such as oil and gasoline—what hydrologists call non-point source pollution, America's #1 water polluter—and, in this case, what looks a lot like milk, and most likely is milk, due to it being adjacent to a large milk consumption station--i.e., a Starbucks.

After A City Rain

During a big rain in the city, umbrellas appear; like buds on a warm spring day, umbrella salesman materialize on corners; newsstands manifest boxes of umbrellas; umbrellas crowd sidewalks, making human passage difficult, especially in the area where over-sized, so-called golf umbrellas are prevalent. The day after the storm, the remains of the umbrella's wash up in gutters and near garbage cans like the bones of whales along distant shores.

The View from Thoreau's Apartment

If Thoreau lived in an old apartment building in Brooklyn, and it was winter, just around the time of the solstice, on one of those cold mornings where the briskness seems to make the sky itself seem a little more brisk than usual, the clouds a little more detailed, then he would see clouds like these. They are like cloud paintings.