Pandemic Stories: Art in Nature, An Invitation

When I first came across the installation in Menotomy Rocks Park, early morning light streamed through the trees onto the translucent flags. A sign explained that Nilou Moochhala, the 2021 Artist in Residence in Arlington, Massachusetts had created this work, “Reflecting on Our Pandemic Experience.” As she describes, individual flags were designed in response to interviews she conducted with a diverse cross section of this town of 50,000.

Every other flag had a word embedded in its design. I found Freedom, Madness, Tolerance, Humanity, Denial, Inclusive, Collaborative, Wary, Grateful, Unreal, Healing, Cautious, Overwhelming, Devastating, Love, Comforting and Confusing among others. Patterns and colors out to the edges suggested that the stories that inspired the multi-media flag drawings are still going on.

The words, patterns and colors all seemed part of a lively conversation going on within and among the flags, and I was being invited to join in – literally, as I learned. There was an opportunity to add my own responses to the pandemic via an online questionnaire. All responses plus this art work would remain in an archive at the local library.

We are connected like the flags by this pandemic, I thought. None of us can escape being affected in one way or another. Nilou’s art asks us to bear witness to the diversity of experiences. While there are great challenges, grief and suffering, the flags remind us that supportive connection and even growth are also still possible in these dark times. This art asks us not to turn away but toward. It asks us to hold and honor all of it with kindness and care.

Closeup of section of a sign posted at the installation.

Closeup of section of a sign posted at the installation.

Closeup of section of a sign posted at the installation.

Trouble at Menotomy Rocks Park

According to Don Mattheisen’s Menotomy Rocks Park; A Centennial History, this woodland park in the midst of a dense grid of small yards in Arlington, Massachusetts, USA was once called “Devils Den.” Transforming its tangled woods with looming granite outcrops and a swamp into a usable park required considerable will, expense and effort. When muck and leaves began to fill the pond, the town once again secured funds to dredge it out and installed aeration devices.

It was particularly colorful last October when I started capturing what I saw happening through the seasons. Some ducks began to follow me as I walked around the pond on my daily visits. Only a few stayed through the winter as the paths became slick with compacted snow. After the pond ice thawed, turtles clustered on a rounded rock jutting out from a wetland area. Two swans probed for tender shoots for a few days, and a pair of Canada geese acted as if the pond was their own private resort. A muskrat swam over to hide in plain view under foliage at the water’s edge. A bull frog’s loud voice startled a dog walking with its owner around the pond.

In late May, robins and red wing blackbirds were as plentiful as ever, but only a single duck slept atop a boulder and I wondered if the other ducks had left to raise their ducklings away from dogs and snapping turtles. I saw other animals in the park but not in the pond water. Then I saw a notice in a plastic sleeve – Sixteen fish had died and water testing had been requested.

As if to ensure I had gotten the message about the larger threat we all face, I saw a squirrel lying by the side of the road next to a rock as I left the park, it was still breathing. I spoke in gentle tones wishing it (and all of us) well.

The effects of human activity and climate change on the natural environment are ever more apparent these days, and I will continue adding updates to this post if I notice any other signs of trouble in this park that are worth sharing.

Only a single duck slept high on a boulder in late May

Many ducks of various species frequented the pond last October

A pair of Canada geese came in early March and stayed for several weeks

Turtles sunning themselves on a rock jutting into the pond on one of the first warm days

Swans probing for tender young shoots in the wetland at the side of the pond

Looking a bit like a small beaver, this muskrat has a narrow tail

The muskrat with its head poking up looks like a rock or log by the edge of the pond
A bullfrog making a rare appearance out in the open on a rock where it can be seen.
A raccoon to left of the tree trunk stared at me while I took its portrait
This park is lucky – people care and have the resources to work at preserving its health. May testing found the water was safe, however later testing in September found toxic algal bloom:
Warning sign posted
Hills pond was treated one year later
Another kind of trouble – rat poison killing owls as well – spring 2022

Moments in words and images

Sometimes I encounter moments that feel like poems. There is a clarity to them that has me stopping to notice.

They can be small and quiet, easily missed. Nonetheless, every once in a while, such a moment can leave me breathless.

The first two spoke volumes without words but others inspired me to write haiku.

Heads up, dog coming

Grazing geese splashdown

Safe on Hills Pond

Taped to the arm of

A Menotomy Rock’s bench,

Mother’s Day balloon

Warm fall evening

Water tower lantern lit

People drawn like flies

More images of this water tower event, and information about it may be found here.

Spring Transformation

Puffy white clouds made lovely images in the pond this time of year. Now on warm days in late April, turtles gather on a rock that juts into the pond beyond a marshy area (see below).

In early March, when the branches were bare, ducks walked out on the ice heading toward open water. A bit later, tiny buds spangled branches by the pond before the pastel haze moved up the bank and blooms began to appear along the woodland trails.

Fallen Branches in Snow

The pond was covered with snow during my last few walks. It was popular now that the ice was thick enough to be safe. But the path around the pond had been compacted to ice which made for slippery walking.

It was the fallen branches that caused me to pause. There was something about the contrast with the textured white snow that made these complex objects stand out so I could notice them and see that their beauty deserved my attention.

Place as Winter Guide

I wondered what the beginnings of winter would look like on this crisp morning in early December. After several inches of snow followed by thawing and freezing, I expected snow on the pond banks.

As I entered the park, I noticed certain rocks were beginning to become familiar friends. But I fought against all such expectations, all such stories. Walking for my health here in these times of pandemic provides opportunities too precious to waste. Most of all now, I long to be open; to not even know where I am going.

I noticed the pond had a skim of ice, but only in certain places. Scattered ice fragments captured light. The few dog walkers I encountered understood the preciousness of solitude. Offering quick greetings in soft voices, they did not disturb the infinite sweetness of the melancholic luxuriance.

As the place, itself, took over as my guide, shifts in light and mood signaled when to stop and look deeper. I aimed my camera with awe and humility knowing I was a participant observer, not separate from such generous grace.

Pond Reflections

Now that the peak leaf colors and our election in the United States have passed, there is a softer, not so urgent feeling. The burnished colors have their own appeal as does not knowing yet what will happen. Come with me on my walk. Everything can change with just one small foot step.

It is hushed and quiet by the pond at this early hour. You can hear the ducks’ small sounds. And perhaps notice that reflecting on reflections is nothing new.

Dog Walkers Rule the Dawn

As I start my early morning walk, I notice it is quieter with fewer cars starting up. In my Arlington MA neighborhood, dog walkers have always been out and about at dawn. Seeing them now provides a most welcome sense of normalcy.

As I approach, Robbins Farm Park has a view of soft pinks over Boston framed by deep red leaves. Dogs romp as their owners call out greetings, recognizing each other despite their masks. A playground attracts a few children with its long slide and harvesters in the community garden seem most appropriate for a park that was once a farm.

Continuing down the sidewalk, I come to Menotomy Rocks with its glacier-carved granite outcrops rising here and there. Fallen logs molder on either side of a wide path as yellow leaves glow on the living trees. Dogs seem to love it here and families come down to watch ducks swimming through vivid reflections.

Despite all of this radiance, the dogs and their owners are what speak most to my heart. Even from a safe “social distance,” there is no mistaking their contagious joy and contentment. They know how to live in the moment.

Sometimes, and especially now, I find it helpful to get back to basics. Remembering what is still here for us in this most troubled world has been helpful when there is so much to be worried about