Long ago, but not really long ago (40 years — and in those 40 years Earth has lost half of its wildlife) one could drive Route 2 along the top edge of the Massachusetts plain and pretty much have a countryside drive until one reached Concord, home of Henry David Thoreau.
So a notice to all zombies — you need the world of Thoreau and Finlay. 19th and 20th century marvels who were shunned for the greater part of their lives and slowly but surely gained some glory after their deaths. Men who built things outdoors. Who lived by the commerce of sunshine and rain. Who never needed you but eventually you'll get to them.
It's 89 miles according to Google, but we don't need Google except my partner has told me it is spot-on with the calculated distance from our back door to Thoreau's back door at Walden Pond. Not 90 miles, but 89 on the button. Same distance from Florida to Cuba. We drive down in a day of rain. We're coming to hike the pond since we last hiked it one May evening this year and now we want to hike it before breakfast in October. Usually swimmers are in the pond no matter the time of day but this morning we only catch one swimmer lifting out of the pond as we arrive and he's quickly aiming for his towel. Slim and fit like all the swimmers are at Walden Pond. It's a deep pond, over 100 feet (according to Thoreau and everyone who have measured since Thoreau) and standing along any part of the shore line returning from the hut one can see a quick drop off a few steps into the pond. Three steps and you're over your head. It's a deep bowl kettle. New England serious.
the divided exhibit
One can take a drive on Route 2 in Massachusetts and visit either the birth places and or graves of the three giant beatific figures of the 19th-20th century, the real deals, the real mccoys, and I call them beatific, working toward and away from the over used word "beat," as classic examples of going by the route of the individual drummer: Henry David Thoreau, Herbert Huncke, Jack Kerouac. All Massachusetts born. And in these three gems we receive the literature, the lifestyle, and the complete aura of the free spirit. Two would pass from this world cruelly before the age of 50, and one would hang in there by a thread, maybe electrified by amphetamine. All three makeup the frontier and pioneer and the modern of American literature. Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Burroughs and the like would have been diminished without them. Add as a final note, since he is always forgotten, and always taking up the rear: John Clellon Holmes, the fourth corner of this Massachusetts-born cube, who wrote the first Beat novel "Go," and we get to them all by wandering on and a bit away from Route 2.
Today, a mere stone's throw off Route 2, we came to see Ian Hamilton Finlay. Not Ian himself, since he passed away in Scotland in 2006, but a fine fiddle exhibit spanning an attractive portion of his life.
The poet, the gardener, the activist, the fighter, the classicist, the prankster, the publisher, the artist. A very full life, lived for the greater part with himself in rural Scotland, small family, small pond, windy mowing, grandeur designed buildings, sculptures, pathways, delightfully historical and personal at once. Much like Thoreau — his neighbor the last five months while this exhibit has been up at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, MA., — a once in a lifetime individual. They certainly would have visited one another.
The exhibit is grand and Finlay is well appreciated. There are maybe two faults about the exhibit though: in one example they divide Ian's portion up with another artist in the same large room not at all pulling the Finlay magic, even if the artist is borrowing Emily Dickinson's poems, and another poet's, it all feels forced and unrealized. Exaggerated. Maybe a better choice, at the very least complimentary and of contrast, would have been the art world of Jenny Holzer. Some of her outdoor landscape art may be seen at The Clark Museum in Williamstown going in the other direction on grand Route 2. Or the Robert Seydel exhibit currently on display at Smith College, down the road from Route 2. But perhaps the best choice would be Tomi Ungerer (see Longhouse Birdhouse for October 5, 2014) like Finlay, Ungerer is drawing straight from his own straw and guts. By dividing Finlay's great share this way, asking us to move to another floor to continue our Finlay quest (and Ian can handle it), we lose the wonderful opportunity to feel a continuity of the whole Finlay world pulsing inside one large room. It would have. I'm missing that.
The second cringe is seeing all one hundred of Finlay's beautifully printed broadsides and small posters and poem cards displayed more for the benefit of an irritating artful design (half the problem with museums) in five broad rows of frames and only the bottom row is at our eye level. The rest of the frames you have to crane your neck and look up, as the already smaller and humble gifts of each piece diminishes by the mere distance between the artifact and the viewer. And these are each distinguished pieces meant to be seen, read and soaked into. You can't. I can imagine Ian sort of dying at seeing this part of the display. Since there is plenty of open space to reveal each frame down at eye level around the pie wedge arena.
Other than that, the exhibit is gorgeous, generous, and we can easily adopt to the next floor of more Finlay by enjoying how two parts of the exhibit vibrate because they have been sequestered into smaller rooms. In there you get more of Ian the sailor, and Ian with Saint-Just of the guillotine lore. Both rooms will nicely overwhelm.
You have less than a week to get there for the show.
I was lucky, a friend who comes and goes, notified me of the exhibit or else I would have been lost.
There was a time when Ian Hamilton Finlay wrote to me handwritten letters straight off his writing tablet and folded these letters up into little gifts like books and cards and even once a whistle. The whistle was old and it was still in its box that was old and that maybe told me it once was Ian's.
~ Bob Arnold