Wit's End

Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Lighthouse

Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse
on a light, lovely November 30, delightfully sans tourists

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
1850

The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
  And on its outer point, some miles away,
The Lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
  A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day. 

Even at this distance I can see the tides,
  Upheaving, break unheard along its base,
A speechless wrath, that rises and subsides
  In the white lip and tremor of the face. 

And as the evening darkens, lo! how bright,
  Through the deep purple of the twilight air,
Beams forth the sudden radiance of its light
  With strange, unearthly splendor in the glare! 

Not one alone; from each projecting cape
  And perilous reef along the ocean's verge,
Starts into life a dim, gigantic shape,
  Holding its lantern o'er the restless surge. 

Like the great giant Christopher it stands
  Upon the brink of the tempestuous wave,
Wading far out among the rocks and sands,
  The night-o'ertaken mariner to save. 

And the great ships sail outward and return,
  Bending and bowing o'er the billowy swells,
And ever joyful, as they see it burn,
  They wave their silent welcomes and farewells. 

They come forth from the darkness, and their sails
  Gleam for a moment only in the blaze,
And eager faces, as the light unveils,
  Gaze at the tower, and vanish while they gaze. 

The mariner remembers when a child,
  On his first voyage, he saw it fade and sink;
And when, returning from adventures wild,
  He saw it rise again o'er ocean's brink. 

Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same
  Year after year, through all the silent night
Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,
  Shines on that inextinguishable light! 

It sees the ocean to its bosom clasp
  The rocks and sea-sand with the kiss of peace;
It sees the wild winds lift it in their grasp,
  And hold it up, and shake it like a fleece. 

The startled waves leap over it; the storm
  Smites it with all the scourges of the rain,
And steadily against its solid form
  Press the great shoulders of the hurricane. 

The sea-bird wheeling round it, with the din
  Of wings and winds and solitary cries,
Blinded and maddened by the light within,
  Dashes himself against the glare, and dies. 

A new Prometheus, chained upon the rock,
  Still grasping in his hand the fire of Jove,
It does not hear the cry, nor heed the shock,
  But hails the mariner with words of love. 

"Sail on!" it says, "sail on, ye stately ships!
  And with your floating bridge the ocean span;
Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse,
  Be yours to bring man nearer unto man!"

Even though I routinely blame Prometheus for the impending spectacular downfall of humanity, it's worth remembering that the discovery of fire is at the genesis of our consciousness - with all the myriad blessings of intellectual and artistic creativity, even as it is inextricably entwined with the curse of knowing mired in the trap of evolved behavior.

It is most likely that Longfellow wrote that poem inspired by his many treks to the Portland Lighthouse, which I finally visited, a year and a half after moving to Maine.  After spending the holiday with my family on New Jersey,  I stayed in Portland on the way back to Stockton Springs.  Following are photos of paintings I saw at the museum - art is wonderful because it's possible to interpret it, like dreams, in whatever lens the viewer chooses.  What I saw led me to musings on some of my favorite topics: glorious abundance, motherhood, depravity, death, and extinction.  Also of course along the way I had some yummy food.


Asian slaw at BaoBao - delicious!!

This plate is from Duckfat - it was so good that MuMu didn't get even ONE TINY MORSEL (but I did share some confit from the poutine).

Rabbit Rillettes - apple curried mustard seed, apple butter & rye crisps

MuMu N Nogu

The museum has exhibits from around the world but naturally with an emphasis on New England scenes, and most especially Maine artists and inspirations.  This one evokes the intensely glorious colors of autumn that have already ceased to exist, and never will return.
Albert Bierstadt
United States, 1830-1902
Autumn Birches (Approaching Storm), 1860
Oil on board
With all the concern about the 6th mass extinction, scientists would like to but don't understand why the end-Permian was so much worse than any other.  That's because they don't account for the death of trees and other vegetation, unique to the "Great Dying".  They realize there must have been acid rain from the volcanic activity, but ignore toxic ozone in the air - just as they do now.  With plants dying, CO2 is no longer absorbed.  Seems kind of obvious that climate change would rapidly accelerate as a result, destroying the delicate web of life in bottom up trophic cascades.

One of many Wyeths in the collection depicts a thriving tree of the sort that can no longer be found.
N.C. Wyeth
United States, 1882 - 1945
Georges Islands, Penobscot Bay, Maine
1928-29
Oil on Canvas
Likewise, a recent interest in the loss of insects elicits many theories but researchers are still puzzled as to the cause.  If it's pesticides, why are areas in the tropics far from any agricultural spraying experiencing the same extirpation?  None of the scientists considers that the ecosystem is collapsing because plants are dying from ozone, the background level of which IS distributed fairly evenly in the atmosphere.
Frederick Childe Hassam
United States, 1859-1935
Isles of Shoals, 1915
oil on canvas
A recent examination of the extinction of Steller's Sea Cow, which occurred in a matter of decades during the fur trade, ignores the evidence that the species was endangered from indigenous hunting before the trade began, in a pattern that reflects evolved tendencies stretching back through prehistory.

N.C. Wyeth
United States, 1882-1945
Dark Harbor Fishermen, 1943
Tempera on panel
Very soon, wild animals will be known only as figurines, in illustrations or movies.  If you haven't seen the lecture, "Are human like a virus", you probably should - it's so refreshing to hear from a scientist who doesn't lie about our prospects for survival.
Leopard, antique European porcelain
As Albert advises, it's left to each of us to forge meaning, however absurd and false and pointless, from the purposeless void of existence.  This is particularly difficult in the shadow not just of death, but of extinction...something which I doubt he had reason to seriously contemplate.
Henri Manguin
France, 1874-1949
Decorative Fruit, 1919
Oil on canvas
Why write, or blog, or paint?  How to take joy in being a grandmother?


It's a good idea to keep historical perspective ever in mind, whether the long history of bad behavior humans exhibit, or the many obstacles we have overcome, or ignored.  Until very recently, parents had every reason to expect their baby would not make it past infancy, but they had them anyway - risking a short existence for them, and the heartbreak of loss.


Edward Henry Potthast
United States, 1857-1927
Children Wading, 1920
Oil on canvas
Children are adorable but also demanding and purely selfish, and motherhood is fraught with pangs of separation.
Mary Cassatt
United States, 1844-1926
Hélène is Restless, 1890
Oil on canvas

 What is Picasso saying with this decapitated rooster and bloody knife, just after WWII?
Pablo Picasso
Spain, 1881-1973
Cock and Knife, 1947
Oil on canvas
[sold by the artist to a NY gallery in exchange for a 1948 Oldsmobile convertible]
 This Maine "vacation" could be shorthand of my entire life.
Matt Blackwell
United States, born 1954
Vacation, 2002
Oil on canvas
In a very large work, the same artist places a bewildered moose in the center.
Matt Blackwell
United States, born 1954
Moose, 2015
 The human pandemonium rages beneath him.
Moose, detail
 It looks like a modern Pieter Bruegel to me.
Moose, detail
I suppose it might be much nicer to go through life believing in human progress, and innate goodness, and a future.  But either I prefer the truth, or I just tell myself that to feel better.
Frederic Edwin Church
United States, 1826-1900
Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp,
1895
Oil on canvas

The accompanying plaque says:  "The solitary paddler gliding toward a grove of trees suggests Church's contemplation of his own mortality.  As he wrote to his wife: 'Your old guide is paddling his canoe in the shadow, but he knows that the glories of the heavens and the earth are seen more appreciatively when the observer rests in the shade.'"

Negroni Bianco at Fore 
 Bottoms up!





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