Tag Archives: seasons

Visiting the water lilies

March 28, 2014

When not covering new territory in the city or on a trail each day, what purpose does a daily walk serve? There are the obvious answers — commuting, physical health, stress relief, dementia prevention, community watchfulness, meeting the neighbors, practicing for when you get a dog. At the end of this line of thought one is left tracing the same tenuous path as the previous day, or coming up with variations in a familiar pattern.

When I was younger, I’d take a similar walk every day after school, in the evening. The moon would often be coming up. Flowers would appear and disappear on plants, leaves on trees would spring forth and die back. The air would become humid, then crisp. The light did all sorts of crazy things depending on the season, the weather, the day.

These sorts of walks invariably make me think of Monet. When he moved to Giverny in 1883, a ways outside Paris, he sat out in all seasons enjoying the garden. He acquired land across the road from his house a decade later and expanded the gardens, digging a pond and building the water garden with its famous Japanese-inspired bridge.

For all the emphasis on novelty and adventure, there is some great virtue in doing the same thing again. Viewers find Monet’s Nymphéas relaxing, serene blurs of plants melding into sky into mist, shadow, reflection. Like many pursuits of beauty or happiness, this one was tempered by an ambition that may have uprooted what looks like self-evident tranquility. (Actually, to me, a number of them look rather maniacal. That’s nature for you).

Monet's Nymphéas in 1919, via wikipedia.

Monet’s Nymphéas in 1919, via wikipedia.

“These landscapes of water and reflections have become an obsession,” Monet wrote in 1908. “It’s a continual torture to me!” Squinting at his lilies, rummaging through half-finished paintings to find the one precisely matching the conditions of the day, obsessively devoting canvas after canvas to the same damn thing — was Monet really happy? He put more and more of his energies into the garden — enlarging the pond, exchanging rare plant varieties with his friends, commissioning the bridge. He hired a gardener to boat around the pond in the morning, cleaning soot from passing trains off of the lily petals. He financed paving the road to eliminate dust that would leave an unsightly patina on his plants. He trimmed the lilypads themselves. “All my money goes into my garden,” he complained. Yet, “I am in raptures,” he is quoted as saying on the official website for the estate.

Nymphéas in 1915, via wikipedia.

Nymphéas in 1915, via wikipedia.

In the moment of doing, it’s hard to tell which work is important to be done. I have jobs, guys, and poor time-management skills, and none of those jobs could be described as neo-Impressionist painter. What does Monet have to do with walking, if all he did was sit there in the garden? Many other artists and writers have had equally solid, and highly perambulatory, preoccupations with the outdoors. But I think of Monet at these times because of his exquisite attention to the passing day, his willingness to sit and document the scene before him, and more importantly, record the less palpable things it evokes. For Monet, as one art historian said, “Memory, rethinking, double-backing and moving through space all become part of the act of seeing.”

For Monet, his obsession with the garden and the painting of it paid off, at least by external measures if not in his own joy. Of this, how much reality, how much shimmering myth?, I wonder as I walk around town, waiting for gardens to enliven. To actually see the water lilies, of course, you’d be better off making the 88 hour walk to Chicago, where you can squint at haystacks and poppy fields and a few of the famous floating plants as the master himself did.

Nymphéas in 1917, via wikipedia.

Nymphéas in 1917, via wikipedia.

Channelling Monet, I embark on my little segments of the thousand miles I’m determined to walk this year. As writer Craig Mod discovered when he experimented with tracking technology, finding himself scuttling through the night to bound up and down staircases in pursuit of his goals, we do funny things when someone’s watching, even if the someone is none other than ourselves.

It would have been great to do this experiment like science — spend a year recording without any particular resolution, establishing a control to see what a normal number of miles is for me in this city — not an average abstract number, but something personally relevant.

Walking with a generous friend into the frigid twilight earlier this month, watching the sky go blue as the snot in our noses stung and froze, he asked me about the nature of these walks. “We could be sitting inside,” he pointed out. Why were we walking? Was it for exercise? They make gyms for a reason, went the thought unsaid.
“I didn’t really think so much about it being a physical thing,” I told him. “I don’t think anything will happen to my body if I walk three miles a day. I picked the number because it seemed reasonable.” Walking a few miles a day hardly seems like a marker of any level of fitness, when the rest of the non-sedentary world wakes early in the morning to run 5 or 10 miles.
“Yeah, what’s that, 45 minutes?”
“About an hour. You see things, get distracted, take pictures, run into neighbors, friends… And that’s the point. It’s lovely. So it ends up taking a lot longer, when you factor all that in.”

Still, on grey days that alternate between drizzle and hail that bends the eyelids in half, I wonder if I’m just, so to speak, gilding the lily.

Spring cleaning

March 25, 2014

Nothing particularly exciting happened to mark the flip of seasons last week. The equinox came and quietly went with a little fuss of wind. Days are 2 minutes and 53 seconds longer. Today it’s been snowing. People groan and make small talk, wishing the weather would break. A breath of fresh air, a cool glass of water.


It seems that someone has decided it’s time for spring cleaning anyway. For the past two weeks, toothbrushes have been materializing everywhere, in all conditions, minty fresh to old and scrubby. Is there a new dentist in town, handing out freebies? A clean-teeth evangelist making rounds?


An odd flush of toothbrushes isn’t the only anomaly to puzzle sidewalk users — repeated instances of a particular item will appear in the tight space of a week or two, then vanish. If not all over the city, this is at least the case in the small wedge I most often explore. At the end of February, citrus peels suddenly decorated the snowbanks. Why did pedestrians go so nuts about fruit in that moment? Warm enough for picnics already? Citrus on sale? (Citrus sale happens in January, too). A viral listicle enumerating the health benefits of oranges? What can account for this peculiarity? As mysteriously as they began, the appearances of bright mandarin rinds, half-eaten grapefruits, and smushed clementines ceased abruptly about two weeks later. I can’t wait to see what the world comes up with for April Fool’s next week.


In another type of spring cleaning, Detroiters shooed out the dweeby Nain Rouge again this weekend, hooting and hollering over the 0.9 mile trek through the Cass Corridor to banish the legendary demon. After standing around getting wasted outside Traffic Jam for an hour, the parade slowly threaded south, past new parking lots and imminently shuttering businesses. This obliviousness to history and environment seems to be part of the new tradition of the march. Allegedly a revival of the French colonists’ annual rite to bring peace to their city by chasing the evil red man out, this story is really, as one of the parade organizers admitted to radio producer and journalist Mike Blank in 2011, a complete fabrication. It seems instead to be, if anything historic, an appropriation of Ottawa myth.


There was sun but it was chilly, and the march seemed much smaller than past years, though certainly no more shabby. Most people were in costume, except the uniformed cops benevolently corking sidestreets. Amid drag queens and hotdogs and people with grotesque masks there was a funeral procession for Capitol Park, some kind of perambulating coffin setup attended by a cluster of people in black clutching umbrellas. The whole effect was comic; despite the spangles, it was slightly reminiscent of goths in high school. Their presence is appreciated, but these are probably not the same kids who would offer to help the evictees move out of their apartments this week in the hideously rebranded Albert building.



While there were important messages to be conveyed, few seemed to be in the mood to send or receive them. It was a Sunday, and these people are called ‘revelers’ taking part in a ‘parade’ for a reason. Inebriation and spirits were high, and questioning the debatable history or political correctness of the march was out of the question. One person told me that he cared a lot about our neighborhood but really just wanted to drink tequila with his soccer team. Whatever, I say, as long as it gets people walking. After a dull speech by the Nain, revelers quickly dispersed north toward the starting point or descended into the bowels of the Masonic Temple for the afterparty.


Unlike previous years, nobody even touched Cass Park, which isn’t all bad — less spring cleanup. One resident muttered that having people in the park might not be the best idea anyway, given the creaky trees and downed branches. Did I want some firewood?, he asked. Mike Ilitch doesn’t seem to out there making good on the pledge to make or keep the park a functional greenspace. With the ominous shifting of land and narrative, the march just wasn’t as fun this time as previous years. Whether the march is what they say it is or not, Detroit needs fun, and it’s hard to argue against such earnest attempts at it. But must fun come with a certain amnesia?

Today the ground and bushes on Canfield and on Cass are brightened by dyed feathers and snippets of ribbon. I imagine a lot of the unfamiliar faces I saw on Sunday back in their elsewhere, recollecting a boozy memory of the weekend gone by. The wind scrubs clean the shrubs bit by bit, Detroiters lose their toothbrushes, and flowers come up soft and unsoiled.