Saturday, March 26, 2011

Small: the next big thing

A life lived with artful intention becomes a work of art. Honoring the creative impulse, however odd or unusual it might seem — and perhaps especially when it seems odd or unusual — often leads to the accidental masterpiece.

So concludes the pre-imminent art writer of our time, Michael Kimmelman, who explores this idea in a thoughtful collection of essays on contemporary, timeless and even eccentric amateur artists. (Among other things, he profiles a dentist and self-made curator who amassed a collection of 75,000 lightbulbs, turning his basement into what he billed the Museum of Incandescent Lighting. As a consequence of obsessively narrowing the lens, even this seemingly mundane object — man-made lighting — becomes a canvas for surprising revelations about human history, discovery, evolution, beauty, mastery and wonder: the curiosities of life.)

Journalist Kimmelman (a sensitive observer who is not to be confused with a mere critic) recently produced another one of his small masterpieces for the New York Times Magazine, this time on the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. The article reveals the character of one marginally famous man working in a creative field, what he stood for, and, by standing true, what his art conveys. Here’s a description of the hauntingly simple chapel-built-for-one pictured above right:

“(Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus chapel, in western Germany) rises from a modest ridge above the farming village of Wachendorf. In winter, a few deer gambol through crunching snow from the surrounding forest, sniff then retreat. The uphill trek from the nearest road, across an empty field, acts like a natural decompression chamber before the first glimpse of the building: an abrupt concrete block with an odd triangular door on one end.

Inside, pitched walls lead to a sort of cave or teepee with a high, teardrop oculus, open to the sky. A handful of people fit comfortably in the space, but ideally it’s made for one or two. Bruder Klaus was a hermit. There are no windows; there is no electricity or running water. Where a central altar might be, there’s a shallow pool of water, formed of rain and snow falling through the oculus. Small bottle-glass portholes add points of light, and undulating walls bear the imprints of 112 spruce trees, chopped down from Zumthor’s clients’ farm, then slowly burned, leaving blackened traces in the thick concrete.

“A small space to be quiet” is how Zumthor described the chapel to me. For the few solitary minutes I spent inside it, it seemed like the most peaceful and secret spot on earth.

The story goes that a family of devout farmers wrote to Zumthor, out of the blue, having hardly a clue of who he was, knowing only that the archbishop in nearby Cologne had hired him to plan a museum, and they asked him to build a field chapel for them — and Zumthor agreed, as long as they could wait a decade. I visited the family at their home. They turned out not to be yokels but prosperous and sophisticated, and they were perfectly aware of who he was. Zumthor, who waived his fee because he found the project intriguing, and who devoted years, as it turned out, to devising the chapel with a construction method that would allow villagers to build it themselves, house-raising-style, now grumbles about how much the chapel ultimately cost him, and how his clients kept trying to cut corners, although he said they ultimately acceded to everything.

Still, the original story has a kernel of truth, because with Zumthor a client is entering, firstly, into a relationship that entails Talmudic discussions and Job-like patience. Ask for an appointment with him, and you may get no response for days or weeks. He employs no publicist, dedicates no aide to media relations. Zumthor has long done what he wants and only what he wants. This has been his virtue and burden, inviting comparison with the late American genius Louis Kahn, another proud perfectionist who built just a few buildings, making the most of a coterie of committed clients to leave behind a handful of masterpieces.”

So many little revelations are packed into this one small slice of story. But most of all, it serves to illuminate the creative impulse that lies at the heart of the artist (dreamer, visionary) versus the mere conveyer of “product.”

In a lengthy, friendly phone conversation with Bob Blair, the chef/owner of Denver’s Fuel CafĂ©, many of the same themes arose: the importance of integrity and authenticity, of honoring quality ingredients (Zumthor, the architect, likes to work with real wood, which he says feels healthier to the body and even has an effect on the skin, but which most architects now consider “too expensive, too complicated and too old-fashioned”) and of deliberately choosing to be small and “off the beaten path” as a way to ultimately make a big impression.

Feel-good marketing aside, there still aren’t a lot of chefs who exhibit Zumthor’s level of missionary zeal. Or Bob Blair’s. As he described to me his quest to track down a non-GMO cooking oil, his level of commitment to sourcing wholesome, sustainably grown products was abundantly clear. It’s exciting to find examples of such artists in our midst: architects who take their cues from nature, history and a sense of place; chefs and farmers who remain first-and-foremost dedicated craftsmen; writers who unearth the complex and subtle truths about what it means to be fully and deeply human. In a time when so much of what surrounds us has been reduced to assembly line commodity, these “accidental masterpieces” stand out, give us pause, light up our imagination.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Get your green on

"What butter and whiskey will not cure, there's no cure for." — Irish proverb

Tender corned beef or a dark rich Guinness beef stew come to mind for St. Patrick's Day. But with a warm, moist breeze blowing and the vernal equinox only days away (that's when the sun crosses the equator and begins concentrating its warmth on the northern hemisphere, marking the official beginning of spring), I can't help thinking about a different kind of green.

Foraging today I discovered some of the first tender spikes of asparagus, to combine with some still-green sage leaves and a saute of red onion, olive oil, a couple of drops of good vinegar, sea salt, ground black pepper and a nice sharp cheddar. How amazingly tender the spears of asparagus as I cut them into pieces!

Another recent pleasure: red swiss chard (U.S. grown although unfortunately not local), chopped and wilted in a saute pan with a similar cast of ingredients except for this time a crumbled blue cheese and fresh chunks of the season's last pomelo grapefruit. Simple pleasures!

If you're looking for more green-is-good ideas, the Wall Street Journal ran a weekend feature paying tribute to the artful possibilities of fresh artichokes (including an appealing roast artichoke, asparagus and potato combination.) Adding to the fun, Food & Wine Magazine devotes an online "page" to multiple recipes for using fresh spring produce, everything from apricots to watercress.

Yes, it's still early. The area gooseberries won't be ripe until July, and they are among the earliest fruits. But the artificial warmth of plastic has helped coax the first baby greens from the ground on area farms, and there will be more, much more, to follow.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Life is a trip: Following the sheep

The latest issue of Spirituality and Health magazine includes a beautiful article on something called “transhumance,” a term I had never heard despite growing up on a farm and earning a degree in agriculture. It’s apparently “the seasonal movement of livestock from lowlands, where they’re fed in the winter, to high mountain areas, where they graze in the summer.” To get a taste of this tradition, travel writer Judith Fein, accompanied by a small band of curious city dwellers, tags along as Portuguese shepherds finish moving their flocks. Along the way she notices the curving horns, dark faces and other unique characteristics of the individual sheep, the ancient stone road beneath them constructed by “Roman hands” and a fig tree sagging under the weight of ripe fruit too luscious to ignore. Once they arrive in town, musicians are playing their accordions and guitars, the homes are brightly decorated and the locals are offering an array of goods and services. She discovers an elderly basket-weaver, one of the last living practitioners of his craft, who reminisces about the colorful local market he still remembers from his childhood.

She finds the people around her deeply moved by the experience of participating in this ancient pastoral tradition. “The main by-product of transhumance is fresh, natural dairy products from cows, goats and sheep, but equally significant is the nature-based, communal way of life that is now teetering on the edge of extinction,” she writes. She quotes another woman nearby as saying: “I loathe the idea of going back to the modern world, with all the noise, chaos and buzz of electronics.”

Here and around the world, the agrarian culture is fading away in the name of progress, taking with it a way of life uniquely suited to feeding the human spirit. At the Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture last month, futurist and keynote speaker Lowell Catlett cited fascinating research from the Institute of HeartMath that showed 90 percent of the time when women and horses are around each other, their cardiac rhythms synchronize, evidence of the mysterious depth of the animal-plant-people connection that we are only just beginning to fathom. (Interestingly, heart entrainment only happens 10 percent of the time between horses and men.) Despite a widening disconnect between field and table, this time of year seems to tie everyone inevitably back to a nature-based life, with the early fruit trees blooming, new calves appearing in pastures, the first vegetables sprouting in gardens, the farmers busily preparing to supply another season of abundant summer markets! And it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that we humans have the parasympathetic powers to tap into the vitality of all those flowering bulbs bursting up through the earth or the first sweet blossoms popping out of their buds.

Award winning writer Fein reminds us to open ourselves to the subtle magic surrounding us — whether we are traveling around the globe or just around the corner — and to live with the awareness of a pilgrim seeking to be transformed rather than a tourist looking for momentary amusements. She’s collected her 14 most memorable travel experiences into a book, Life Is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel, assuredly a fascinating and uplifting read, inspiration for the journey.

Friday, March 4, 2011

On farming, healing and quality of life

At the recent Governor's Forum on Colorado Agriculture, keynoter and New Mexico State University agricultural economist Lowell Catlett (shown at right) sought to broaden the definition of agriculture beyond the production of commodities like corn and wheat by pointing to its vast potential contributions to human health and well-being. One of the pioneering programs he mentioned involves putting returning soldiers afflicted with PTSD to work on NMSU's extension research farms. Having a regimented schedule of what his father's generation simply called "chores," plus working around plants and animals, is proving to be one of the most successful treatments available for suffering soldiers, he said.

It reminded me of a recent program I'd heard on American Public Media's The Story, called "Warrior to Farmer." New Mexico native Matthew McCue served in Iraq, but while there he was struck by the important  role of farmers' market in that culture and eventually came to the conclusion that he could do "more good with a shovel" than a gun. He's now engaged in sustainable agriculture. He wants to return to Iraq someday, this time as a farmer rather than a soldier.

And this week's New York Times Wednesday food section chronicles a program in New Jersey that trains people with disabilities for jobs in the hydroponic greenhouse business, supplying stores and restaurants with fresh greens and herbs. The program was inspired by the fact that even someone born with Down syndrome can get blearily bored doing repetitive tasks all day. Through the Arthur & Friends program, which hopes to replicate around the country, trainees nurture life, working with their hands and engaging a wide range of skills, as they go about their day in the midst of a "green oasis."

Not so many generations ago, most kids grew up in a rural setting and many of them had the option of returning home to a family farm or a small town for their livelihood. In the years since, a huge out-migration has occurred, leading to concentrated cities like Denver where long commutes are the norm. Many farm kids who would like to stay and work in agriculture no longer consider it an option if they want to eventually put kids of their own through college or live without the financial cloud of huge operating debts constantly over their heads. Few are willing to live the austere life my own parents did. And as a new generation struggles to get a toehold in today's tough economy, having steady means, savings and assets is becoming more important than ever within families who hope to provide meaningful opportunities for each other.

That said, it seems ironic that we've removed so many people from the farm, only to bring them back again for healing when modern life proves overwhelming and unsatisfying. Or that we wait until someone is suffering from a psychological condition of some kind before giving them the option to experience a way of life that is inherently healthy and rewarding. Our society has been denigrating and devaluing food and fiber production for decades, to where it is hardly viable as a way of life without some additional financial support brought in from an outside funding source.

Catlett believes his generation, the Baby Boomers, will force our world to change. They have the wealth and the numbers to do it. He predicts they will want to return to the old model of being born and dying within the comfort of home (rather than in a hospital.) They will want their pets with them when they go into a care facility, and horses grazing on a green slope outside their window. They will want artisan cheeses and bio-dynamic wines served with their dinner. And as a consequence of these desires, the importance of agriculture will experience a renewal, creating unforeseen opportunities to work in the field. He's considered a "futurist" and that's his vision of where things are headed. He calls it (for lack of a better term) a "plants-animals-and-people thing." They all just seem to go together and form a whole that's more than the sum of their parts. It's old wisdom, of course, being rediscovered in our time.