Here is a little souvenir of our trip to Italy in July 2016.
Here is a little souvenir of our trip to Italy in July 2016.
When I was a kid, my family almost never went to the movies. Movies were considered an extraordinary expense, not something you got to do very often. When we did go, my mother would take my brother and me, and my father would stay home. He claimed the theater seats hurt his back. I accepted this at the time. I wonder now.
My mother, cheap to the core of her inner being, refused to buy the expensive candy at the theater. Instead, she would stop at the drugstore first, buy a bag of Brach’s lemon drops, and softly rattle the bag all through the show, as she passed them out one by one to us. Almost all our real movie watching was on TV, where Alfred Hitchcock was the family standby for entertainment. Rear Window is one of a handful of movies I consider perfect.
It was my college boyfriend Henry who introduced me to the idea of movies as art, as narrative vehicles on a level with my beloved fiction novels. Henry called them “films,” which to me signified the stupefying educational movies we saw at school, rattling through classroom projectors. Caught up in his enthusiasm, I signed up for George Weed’s Introduction to Cinema at UT. Weed took us through the history of film, from silents to spaghetti Westerns, with stops at various genres along the way. The class was an easy A if you saw the movies, two or three a week, and to some business majors’ shock, an easy F if you didn’t. I attended them all.
These days we are awash in documentaries. They are inexpensive to make with average equipment. Netflix is flooded with them. But in the 1970’s this was not an easy art form. Equipment had to be set up, sound separate from film, and then the filmmaker had to wait to capture those cinematic moments. Film and processing were expensive; there was not nearly the room for error and waste there is now. Weed showed us two documentaries by the Maysleys brothers, Albert and David. The first, Grey Gardens, has had the most unlikely resurrection in recent years, as a Broadway musical. Though I loved Grey Gardens, it was the other film, Running Fence, that captivated me.
Running Fence is the story of an art project by the artist Christo. Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude began making ground-breaking public art in the 1960’s. The Running Fence was a giant fence made of white nylon fabric, eighteen feet high and 25 miles long. It swooped, climbed, dipped and meandered over the rolling green and brown pastures of Marin and Sonoma Counties, California in September, 1976. The movie was made over several years as Christo and Jeanne-Claude persistently worked the county’s citizens around to the idea. Each Christo project is like a little community development project with a long timeline of its own. Some take twenty or more years to produce. The movie gives you an appreciation of how the quietly persuasive, unassuming artist conceptualizes the work and then brings it to life. It is the last few scenes, though, of the completed fence, its nylon sails filling, luffing, flapping majestically, speaking the language of the wind, a constant life of movement through all shades of white, backlit or brilliantly reflecting the California sun, and finally disappearing into the Pacific ocean, that blew me away. It was just like Christo and Jeanne-Claude said it would be, only better.
So a few years later when Christo and Jeanne-Claude came to the Laguna Gloria Art Museum in Austin to give a talk, Henry and I went. We saw the film again, and they spoke about their work and showed slides of projects they were working on. One of these was to wrap the Berlin Reichstag, the old German parliament building, an unused shell of its prewar self, in nylon. Why? I’m not sure, but it would look cool. Wrapping things—statues, buildings, trees, small islands—was Christo’s trademark. He uses the landscape as both the inspiration and the raw material for his work.
This was in 1980, and Christo did wrap the Reichstag, and it looked much like the drawings we saw that night. But it didn’t happen until 1995 after German reunification. I did say the projects took years to complete.
Something else we learned that night was that all the projects were financed by Christo himself, through sales of his art, much of which is conceptual drawings. This is especially amazing because they are never small projects. They are enormous, one-of-a-kind, never-been-done-before feats of engineering requiring many people to construct and oversee. They are also ephemeral. Christo usually leaves them up for about two weeks, then they are dismantled and the materials recycled.
I vaguely followed Christo’s career over the years, never losing interest in him but never thinking to see a project in life. Many are set in Europe; the last large project he did was in 2005, The Gates in New York’s Central Park. I wished I could go to that one, but couldn’t get away.
Then one day last fall (2015) I was scanning the New York Times online when my eye was snagged by an article on Christo. He was working on a huge project, the largest ever for him, and the first new one since Jeanne-Claude died in 2009. The Floating Piers had been on his drawing board as various proposals for over thirty years, and it would be realized for two weeks beginning June 18, 2016 in northern Italy. The project was to build a set of floating piers wrapped in bright yellow nylon, to connect the island of Monte Isola in Lake Iseo to the shore of the lake at the town of Sulzano. Two additional piers would connect Monte Isola to an islet off its own shore, San Paolo. The piers would be made of buoyant plastic pontoons each about one square half meter, pinned together in floating rafts. The brilliant yellow path would extend partially around Monte Isola’s shore and entirely encompassing the much smaller San Paolo. Unlike the Running Fence, the Reichstag, and many other projects, it was not just to look at. People could walk the wonderful yellow nylon road, feel it with their feet, view it from every angle. Like The Gates, this one was interactive.
I read this and began to think, I could see this one, I really could. I’ve been to Europe before, I could handle this. And Henry and Sean could come. Sean’s an art student at HSPVA. He would love it. And Christo is eighty. How many more Christo’s will there be?
So for several months I just talked about it, then I began to haunt Skyscanner for airline tickets and in March 2016 it became a reality when I scored three reasonably cheap tickets to Milan, the nearest big city. A lot of other planning had to be done—I got us an Airbnb apartment in a tiny town near Sulzano, rented a car, and planned the rest of the trip to Venice and Florence. I get way too far into this stuff. I can spend two hours reading hotel reviews online and then still not pull the trigger. It’s kind of a disease. But eventually all the pieces were in place.
A few weeks before we left, friends sent me a link to another NYT article. The project was on schedule and ready to open. It’s really an engineering marvel and required 200 anchors set by divers over a period of months to attach the piers to the lake’s uneven bottom. I choked up a little at the end of the article when Christo is quoted about the short duration of all his projects: “The work needs to be gone, because I do not own the work, no one does. This is why it is free.” Yes, all Christo projects are free to the public. There is really nothing like him on the planet.
So the big day came and we found our little apartment near Lake Iseo. Our host, a nice young man named Omar, advised us the place had gone crazy for The Floating Piers, which had now been up for twelve days. Following his advice, I got us shuttle bus tickets to Sulzano for later in the day (the crowds were expected to be thinned out) at 6:30 PM, and chose 11 PM for the return (you had to schedule the return, you couldn’t just stay as long as you wanted). We hung around and ate lunch in a little tourist-y town on the other side of the lake, Sarnico. We noticed the ferry running from Sarnico to Monte Isola was another way to get to The Floating Piers and filed that away as food for thought.
Our bus ride to Sulzano took a discouragingly long hour to go about 6 miles as the traffic was one big snarl. Once off the bus, we crossed the street and joined the throng waiting to get onto the Piers. Though we had glimpsed the first pier from the road, we didn’t know how far we were from the entrance.
By exiting the bus, we at least got to cut in line in front of a huge crowd lining the hillside behind us. I think they were coming from some local parking spot. Nonetheless, we queued for at least an hour and a half. But queuing implies a line and some organization. We were just in a big hot (but well behaved) Italian mob. About every ten minutes the throng would surge forward some twenty feet or so. After awhile we could tell the difference between a good, constructive surge and a crummy petering-out one.
And did I say it was hot? It was probably 90 degrees. The sun was almost down, but this is very far north and almost the longest day of the year (it was June 29, 2016) so it was still light, and the heat of the day had not dissipated at all.
One nice thing though, we were waiting on the yellow nylon fabric of The Piers the entire time. Christo had extended the path from the lake into Sulzano, up a long ally, around several buildings, and up to the main street with the bus stops. There was a thick felt padding under the nylon, probably so we didn’t grind it to pieces against the flagstone beneath, but very welcome to my middle-aged feet.
Finally around 9 PM we made it onto The Pier. It was about 50 feet wide and glorious. We were delighted to find it was moving under our feet, floating up and down, undulating with the waves of the lake and of the many boats zipping around it. By now it was nearly dusk and the yellow fabric seemed to glow in the deepening sunset. The edges of the pier were beveled, slanting down into the water, as if the pier grew up organically from the lake. The edges were wet, and where the fabric absorbed water it was a brilliant citrus orange, different from the more schoolbus yellow of the rest of the pier. Henry said he thought it was supposed to be a sea monster, a living thing. It did seem to be alive.
People were everywhere. This project was pretty much mobbed after the first few days. All of Italy knew about it and most of Germany, too. Those were the two languages all around us—surprisingly, almost no English. Everyone was snapping pictures, selfies, group shots, and videos. People sat down and posed with the pier. The scene of the old villages of Monte Iseo at one end and Sulzano at the other, with the pier and its humans and boats before them was so photogenic. The off-white buildings glowed with the last light of the day. The yellow pier rocked and teemed with people.
When we got onto Monte Isola, we ran into a bottleneck in the crowd. Here we were not on the pier, but once again on a wide fabric-covered flagstone path on the shore of the island. Our destination was the other two floating piers, to and from San Paolo. But the crowd in this narrow place came to a complete halt, worsened by the offloading of a ferryboat full of people and another set of passengers queued up to get on the same ferry and head home. We saw a woman yelling and gesturing and people running up a steep alley as she led them away, and we followed. We puffed our way high up into the old town, past its ancient parish church, and finally started back down, ending up blessedly back on the yellow road on the other side of that crowd.
But by now we had a couple of problems. We were famished, low on energy, and running out of time. We knew we had to be back at the bus by 11 PM, and it was close on 10 by now. We dashed out onto the first of the San Paolo piers and did our best to enjoy it. But it was dark and the beautiful orange character of the pier was gone. Workers had put out battery powered halogen lights every fifty feet or so along the sides of the pier, but these were only for safety and each one only provided a glaring spotlight on a small section. Sean later said he didn’t think those were Christo’s idea. They seemed like an awkward afterthought, but better than shutting the pier down after dark. I agreed.
Reluctantly, I turned back well before reaching San Paolo, and for dinner we ate salami sandwiches as we made our way back to Sulzano. There were plenty of food tents set up and we would have loved to sit down to a meal and a beer but there was no time.
We made the bus just exactly and it was jammed full. I don’t know what we would have done if we had missed it—our tickets were closely examined for the boarding time. I don’t think there was any room for error.
I was very disappointed not to have seen the whole work. I thought I would get up very early the next day and catch the first bus, but the earliest I could get was 8:30 AM and I couldn’t stomach what might be another two and a half hour wait in the heat. We drove back to Sarnico, and though I made many inquiries about the ferry, and revisited it several times that day, it too required a very long, hot, patient wait of about 2 hours, and no guarantee of passage even then. I was very intrigued by the ferry, because I noticed the one from Sarnico docked on Monte Isola far away from the crowds, near the end of the third pier. If you could make it onto the ferry, your waiting was almost over, and you got a nice boat ride too, but it was not to be.
Instead, we drove further along the lakeshore hoping to get up onto the mountainside to get a nice view of The Piers from up high. Following the advice of the girls at the ferry ticketing stand, we google-mapped our way to Tavernola across the lake from Monte Isola. The pleasant voice on the iphone instructed us to turn here and there until we were hopelessly lost and stuck in a blind alley. A nice Italian man helped Henry get the car turned around and out of that tight spot. We found a parking place and walked pretty far up the hill, finally finding a pleasant headland with a cool breeze. Alas, The Floating Piers were far away, and not much of a photo op. Nonetheless, I kept thinking they seemed almost empty on this side, which could be, because this was the furthest pier from Sulzano. I was envious of the people I imagined enjoying The Piers, taking their time, plenty of time and space to really get into it.
As we ate our very late lunch in Sarnico, I couldn’t help kvetching about not seeing the whole Piers. Henry said he felt quite satisfied and tried to persuade me the same. So did Sean. I pointed out that a), seeing The Floating Piers was the entire premise of the trip, and b) neither of them did any of the planning and work that went into getting us here. It was just different for me. I had so looked forward to it and I felt like I missed it. I never expected it to be such a mobbed event, such a struggle to get my little piece of it. I was swamped by it, really.
Then Sean said, “Mommy if you want to go again tomorrow before we leave for Venice, if we can get on the first bus at 7AM, I’ll go with you.” And Henry, who was so dreading the drive to Venice on Italian toll roads with Italian drivers (a harrowing story for another day) and who I knew wanted to get that drive over with as early as possible—Henry said he’d be happy to stay behind and pack the car and study the maps while we went back to The Piers. I hugged them both with grateful joy.
That night we had one of our best meals in Italy—foccacia bread and cheese and wine from the local Supermercado—sitting on the tiny balcony of our apartment, enjoying the view and sound of the nearby church bell tower in the late day’s sun and listening to the kids riding bikes in the alley below.
The next morning, Sean and I were the first ones on the 7AM bus. It took a quick 30 minutes to get us to Sulzano and into the queue. We were heartened when we saw that many of the switchback railings had been removed, and the surges were twice as good and twice as frequent. By about 8:30 AM we were on the Pier. The morning was overcast and blessedly much cooler than on our previous visit.
We spent a little time on the Sulzano leg. I noticed the intrusive battery-powered lights were gone, all taken down before the Piers opened at 6AM. The color of the piers was different today and would change again when the sun came out of the clouds later. But on this heavily overcast early morning, it seemed more orange, deeper and more contemplative.
We stopped and got maps and little square samples of the yellow fabric passed out by an Italian girl in a Floating Piers official shirt. I was thrilled! A fabric swatch!
We then aimed directly for the San Paolo piers. These were arranged in a triangle. The first one angled out from Monte Isola to a point offshore from San Paolo. It was very long, as the origination on Monte Isola was along the shore well away from being directly across from San Paolo. The other pier was a shorter one, coming together with the first one at the same offshore point, but originating on the Monte Isola shore much closer to San Paolo. Between them was a triangle of almost still, dark water. At their intersection, a third pier took off straight for San Paolo, aiming directly for its center, like a long private avenue.
San Paolo is an island with no shore. It consists entirely of a villa and its gardens, the walls of which rise directly out of the lake, like buildings in Venice rise from the canals. There are boathouses and garages at the waterline, but no other access.
Christo had surrounded this entire jewel with yellow floating piers. Here they were not just a roadway wide, but huge plaza-like expanses on every side. It was wonderful to reach this and spill ourselves out into what seemed to be the end destination. Around on the backside of the island, facing away from Monte Isola, there was a spot where the Piers were very wide, like a giant beach. Everyone was treating it so, lounging, sunning, napping, relaxing. It had a completely different character from the excitedly arriving vibe of the Sulzano pier. One girl was doing gymnastic moves while friends took photos over and over again. Sean walked off, talking on his phone to someone at home. I sat down and breathed. I went out to the very corner and took a picture, the furthest point of the work.
Eventually we gathered ourselves and trooped around the villa and back to the intersection of the three piers, and took the short one to Monte Isola’s southwestern shore. We noticed, as I had from Tavernola, that this leg of The Floating Piers was indeed less populated. There must be some people who were happy to see the Piers without going to every stitch of it. Not me. The fabric was pristine over here. In Sulzano especially, and on the first pier, it was fairly dirty and stained. This did not seem to detract from the artwork, as it was still very bright and on the whole worked on the eye exactly as it did in the conceptual drawings. But here on the third pier, the fabric seemed nearly untouched, on this, the fourteenth day. The visual effect was even better, an expanse of eggyolk yellow that gleamed in the sun against nearly black water. Let me clarify, an organic egg from a grass-fed chicken. I understand those have a deeper, richer color (thanks Michael Pollan for this info).
Reluctantly we debarked from the last pier, but there was another scene to be savored by those who wanted to have it all. Like me. From here on Monte Isola, we turned left up a long hill, on a road that would eventually take us around to another side and to the next village on the island. On the way, we had fantastic views of The Floating Piers. The two piers and San Paolo and its boulevard pier were glowing in the midmorning sun, with boats, ferries and Zodiacs zipping around them.
Eventually we stopped for a croissant and a few pictures, now completely out of sight of the Piers. We spotted the place on the shore where we had been the day before at Tavernola. Even this far away from the Piers, there were food tents and bathrooms set up. If we had had time, we could have climbed to the peak of this end of the island.
On the way back down I stopped at a booth and bought a book about The Floating Piers. That was also something I had imagined doing when I planned the trip. I knew about the books, and being a happy bookstore browser, I had envisioned myself choosing from the various literary souvenirs. And so I got one.
There was a little anxious moment as we worked our way back to the Piers. We got stuck in another crowd, ironically the people arriving from the Sarnico ferry. But these guys were unschooled. Their mob was loosely packed, completely porous to two old hands like Sean and me. We pushed and dodged our way to the front, cognizant of our bus time coming up at 12:30 in far-away Sulzano. Sean got up on a garden wall that ran along the path and walked on top of it for quite a way, and no one scolded him. Just as we reached the front of the crowd, the minders let a group through and we flowed back in.
I said goodbye to each part of The Floating Piers as we passed them. When we got near the Sulzano pier, we didn’t want to take a chance on the bottleneck, so we dodged up the alley and this time took a few extra minutes to look inside that old church. We improvised our way back down and came out right in front of the Sulzano pier.
It was hard for me to go back this direction, knowing I would never see it or be on it again. It would be dismantled three days later. I had Sean take some photos of me sitting there, yellow expanse around me, the village on Monte Isola behind me. I said goodbye out loud as I finally stepped off onto dry land.
We were a bit early for our bus and while we waited, right beside the giant queue waiting to enter the Piers, the Sulzano fire department arrived and began spraying a fire hose up into the air. The mist floating down on the delighted crowd drew cheers. A little dampened, but hugely sated, I took my seat on the bus.
Later that night, in Venice, I awoke with a splitting headache and a fit of nausea. I was dehydrated. Henry brought me some sugar water and a damp towel and I recovered, dropping exhaustedly back to sleep. I later noticed my phone said I had walked 30,000 steps that day.
As I toured around Venice the next few days, I had the feeling the street under my feet was floating gently up and down. Each time I saw the water of the canals the sensation intensified. My inner ears were still on the Piers.
I think back on the long road that brought me to The Floating Piers. So many years have passed since I saw Running Fence and then met Christo and Jeanne-Claude at Laguna Gloria. Thank you George Weed, for showing me that film. Thank you Maysles for making it. Thank you Henry for leading me to the film and for letting me take us on this little adventure. Thank you Christo and Jeannne-Claude for your wonderful loving generous work, and for sharing your inspired creative spirit with all of us. I am so grateful to have seen a Christo, and this one may be the most grand of them all.
First postscript. I mentioned that I bought the book. Of course. I always buy the book! Here are some interesting facts about the piers I learned from it, and a few more photos.
The project actually came together in about 22 months. Christo had two other floating pier projects proposed in the many years before this, as long ago as 1970, but neither had been built. By now, of course, it does not take much persuasion to get permission from local governments and landowners. Amusingly, the book shows Christo and his small team meeting with the Sulzano mayor with a couple of Christo and Jeanne-Claude coffee table art books and an iPad. (Amusing if you’ve watched the contentious city council scenes in Running Fence.) The owners of San Paolo are a wealthy Italian family who were recruited early on. Christo checked out several northern Italian lakes and chose Lake Iseo because of the two islands. He has used islands in quite a few other works.
The international engineering firm ARUP designed the piers. Everything in the project, from the plastic pontoons to the anchors on the lakebed, was custom designed for this project. There were 200 anchors in all, each attached to one side or the other of the pier with a specially manufactured rope, each anchor rope stretched diagonally, so the pier stayed in place relative to the lake floor. More anchors were centered beneath the piers. The anchors were 5.5 ton blocks of concrete with metal teeth on the bottom to grip into the mud. Great care was taken to map the various electronic and other cables on the lakebed and to make sure nothing was harmed. Each anchor was placed with the help of a dive team from France.
The wonderful yellow nylon fabric was manufactured in Germany by a company that has custom made fabrics for Christo projects before. It was not tightly stretched across the piers, but gathered and shirred, textured to create the visual effect of sketched shading lines in a drawing. This required 20% more fabric. I curiously examined the pier until I found a very inconspicuous seam. Another German company sewed the 18-foot wide sheets of nylon into giant panels of various designs to fit the piers and the town streets. A photo shows two women at a large sewing machine surrounded by a sea of yellow fabric. One is sewing and one is guiding the fabric. Giant rolls of fabric are stacked in the background. I used to sew a bit, and I am amazed at how they put these huge heavy panels together.
The intersections of the three piers at San Paolo were carefully thought out. The pontoons are cubic, so they did not fit together at any but a right angle. Triangular arrowhead-shaped metal pieces were designed to fit the three piers together. This intersection is an important crux of the work, and I should have paid more attention to it. I believe the quieting of the water between the two piers from Monte Isola was intentional. For this reason, the movement on these piers was not as dynamic as the Sulzano one. Each pier section had a different character.
I described how the two piers to San Paolo were of different lengths. One connected the little island to the village of Peschiera Maraglio, the other connected it to Sensole, a different village along the shore. Unity is a theme in the work.
Wherever I have said simply Monte Isola in my narrative it usually means the village of Peschiera Maraglio, the village opposite Sulzano. The entire large island is Monte Isola.
The beveled edge of the piers was accomplished very simply, by partially filling some of the pontoons with water.
I didn’t fully appreciate while I was there, how extremely generous was the scale of the project. I walked every bit of the main parts of it. From the aerial photos and drawings, however, I see how far the yellow fabric extended into the towns of Sulzano (which I knew because I stood on it waiting) but also Peschiera Maraglio. When we detoured up that alley to get around the bottlenecked crowd, we actually could have gone up any number of passageways, each of them partially paved with Christo’s bright fabric, which squirted up from the main river of sun yellow into each small tributary.
Something else apparent from the aerial photos is the layout of the piers around San Paolo. The outside edge of the piers is a perfect rectangle, with an irregular cutout for the island in the middle. This is why some areas were wider than others, with that one corner remarkably large. I think it definitely was intended to have the feel of a large European plaza, but it also became a beach.
I loved feeling the pier shift and rock underneath me. In the NYT article from June 2016, Christo mentions something I also noticed. There were no railings and few minders stationed along the sides to keep people from the edge. People freely sat down on the sloping sides of the piers. Though I never saw anyone actually splashing their feet in the lake, the project’s generosity extended to the visitors through this trust. Christo told the NYT that “the moment you have a parapet, forget it.” The feeling of walking on water is gone.
In all there were 220,000 cubes and pins holding them together, made of recyclable plastic. There were 3 kilometers of pier and 2.5 kilometers of fabric-covered pedestrian streets. There were 100,000 square meters of fabric and 80,000 square meters of felt underneath the fabric. There were 1,000 employees. Although in the June 2016 NYT article the expected number of visitors per day was 40,000, the final count was 72,000 per day. The cost was € 18,000,000, entirely paid by Christo.
Second postscript. If you are film buff, I may have convinced you to see Running Fence. I have a dvd of it myself, bought I don’t know when, but a long time ago. I have searched for it online, and it is very difficult to find. As of this writing, other than some very expensive VCR tapes for sale on EBay, the only way to see it that I could find is on the streaming service Fandor. You have to subscribe to it, but there is a free trial offered.
There are some adult pastimes that cannot be conceived as interesting until one reaches middle age, or even after. My mother fondly pursued several of these without embarrassment. Only one of them would leave me tumped over unconscious with boredom on the back seat of the car, breathing through my mouth with wet huffing sounds while she prowled the edge of the salt marsh at the entrance to the Baytown tunnel.
Birdwatching, my brother and I called it, with an offended emphasis on the first syllable.
Mama carried her camera with the telephoto lens in the car. We could be stopped for an hour in the course of the most mundane outings. At home on Galveston Bay she had a telescope for keeping watch on birds, kids, boats, ships and goings on in the neighbors’ yards. It was a Navy-surplus scope, two and a half feet long, with an octagonal rubber guard ring at the lens end. It was tightly wrapped in waxed twine, an old form of waterproofing, black and high-tech for its day. It lived in a special wooden crate with supports to keep it from rolling. It was heavy and impressive. Mama, who regarded herself as an old salt, never referred to it as a telescope. “Pass me The Spyglass,” she’d say, peering intently at a bright blue cargo ship churning up the Houston Ship Channel. Without removing her heavy bifocals, she would hoist The Spyglass, holding it aloft with one hand, twisting the focus ring with the other. “Norway,” she might say conclusively, identifying the vessel’s flag.
I cannot use The Spyglass even now without propping it on a knee, a porch railing, a window frame. Even then I spend all my time trying to chase out the half moon of black that jitters around the image. Is it my eyelashes? I have never known.
But now, decades later, I seem lightly, very lightly drawn to watching a few birds now and again. With little effort I can join a group of very knowledgeable birders once a month in a park near my house. I let them tell me where to look and what to see. I trail along behind them wishing I had drunk less coffee before joining this bathroomless early morning excursion. I make that same mistake every month.
One cannot be even a sometime birder in Houston without being aware that we have some superlative birdwatching areas nearby. High Island is famous for its capture of passing migrants, for nesting in the spring, and hawkwatching raptors in the fall. I recently decided it was time to see High Island.
I drove there on a Monday afternoon at the end of the first week in May. My first stop was Boy Scout Woods, where the one other person there informed me I was about three weeks late for the songbird migration, which peaks in mid April. I wandered around exploring the preserve, but it seemed empty, dark, and mosquito-y. I gave it up and followed the signs to Smith Oaks Rookery about two miles away.
Smith Oaks is a preserve owned by the Audubon Society, centered around a manmade lake with a manmade island. The island is a long knob of hard-packed sand covered with tallow trees and scrub, ringed by marsh grass and cattails, about a hundred feet out in the lake. There are three or four wood viewing platforms spaced along the levee’d edge of the lake, from which the birders can view the rookery on the island.
I was unprepared for how amazing, how great, how cool this place is. I can’t come up with the right adjective, because it’s that good. It’s like being inside a National Geographic Special.
There are four main species of waterfowl nesting on the island by the hundreds. The cormorants are the least interesting, except for their human-sounding hooting. As I approached the lake from the gravel parking lot, I heard men shouting to each other—but it was the cormorants. You can see them mostly from the first platform, opposite their rookery. They look like plain black ducks. I stopped at this platform and took closeup photos of a Great Egret (also known as a Great White Heron) and a cattle heron perched on the vegetation right below me. There was not a soul there.
I moved to the second and third platforms, and staked out my favorite position from the last one. From here you could see almost the length of the island and the nesting ground of the three magnificent water birds that cohabitate there. The largest are the great white herons, long-necked birds of almost pure white, three or four feet tall. Their legs are black, their beaks bright yellow, and their plumage is a brilliant blinding white.
Equally entrancing are the roseate spoonbills, another large wading bird with pink, white, and rust plumage, and odd spoon-shaped bills they use to capture and eat shallow water animals. These birds are so over–the–top beautiful yet comical, you might think they were not God’s own creation but Disney’s.
The third bird is the Snowy Egret. This long-legged wader is smaller than the great white heron, but also pure white, with a light crest of filigreed feathers. It sports bright yellow feet at the ends of long black legs.
All three of these species, and several hangers on, were hopping, flapping, yapping, regurgitating, and screaming at each other in complete oblivion. They ignored the humans on the shore, going about their family business in the open, airing dirty laundry, insulting each other, and slapping the chicks around, not to mention eating and pooping. The noise was like living near a freeway—not so loud you can’t talk over it, but never ceasing.
I was enraptured. I have read that there is only one comparable, viewable, rookery in the United States, and it’s in Florida. I was astounded to find only one other couple in the park that afternoon. They were a retired couple from Spring. The woman, Sherry, is an artist who paints gorgeous portraits of the birds from photos she takes with a long lens. We murmured appreciatively as the birds strutted and posed for us. The roseates, especially, seemed willing to stand still for our lenses in the late afternoon light, their pink bodies glowing. The great egrets fought and flapped their giant wings, creating an almost limitless stream of photo op’s. One of them had a nest at the top of the island silhouetted perfectly against the sky. I was in heaven on my side of the lens. I couldn’t stop shooting. When the camera battery conked out I took movies with my phone. It was something like eating a whole bag of potato chips. Or four bags. There was some kind of loss of control, the sensation was so enveloping and satisfying. I couldn’t stop.
Around six-thirty, with the sun’s horizontal rays painting the birds in luminous tones, they all became very excited. It must be an end-of-day roosting time. The flapping and flying and squawking became very intense as they all competed for space. I took movies of this, and finally, reluctantly left the place.
At home, the photos proved disappointing. They weren’t in sharp focus and all the white birds were overexposed and the details of their feathers had been lost. I read up on this, and it’s called “blowing the highlights.” It happens when the camera’s auto mode averages the exposure between the brilliant white bird and the dark green around it. A common problem, which could only be solved by a return to The Rookery.
Two days later I was back, this time with a better camera and a longer lens. I also had the camera from before, and my phone. I timed the trip to catch the birds in the late afternoon light. This place is so perfect, the island is even oriented so that dramatic evening light drenches it for hours. I also made sure to be there when the 6:30 roosting excitement would provide many shots of opened flapping wings and birds in flight.
Sherry and her husband were there again. I think they were in the same potato chip thrall as me. In addition, there was a professional wildlife photographer named John Eriksson. John travels around in a camper shooting mostly deer (they sell very well) and some birds (not as lucrative). He arrived in camo gear with a huge tripod and a ten thousand dollar digital camera with a lens easily a foot and half long. Even the lens wore a little camo outfit.
We all shot and shot until we could shoot no more. I endeavored to sharpen the focus by using the railing as a tripod. I also bypassed the auto exposure, opting for “spot exposure,” so only the white bird would determine the setting. I guessed on a few other techniques, bracketing the exposure and increasing the ISO. I wasn’t confident that any of this would work, but again I was seized by the spell of just being there and watching the birds.
With a stronger telephoto lens this time, I could see into the nests. The juvenile great egrets were a few weeks old. One family with three chicks was directly across from the platform, feeding, fighting, and flapping. I took many shots with up to four species in a single frame. This is one of the most amazing things about The Rookery, how they all nest so close to each other, even different species.
John showed me his trailer and his set-up after we finally decamped. His photos are flawless, with every pinfeather in gleaming focus. In one photo, two Great Egrets appeared to be standing in midair confronting each other. He explained that at the beginning of the roosting season, the males fight for the best nesting sites. He has been to The Rookery many times.
Ultimately I took about 600 photos, none of any great quality. Sharp focus and perfect exposure eluded me, but I had great fun sorting the best shots into categories such as Single White Bird, Multi-family, Food Fighters, and Hilltop Bird. They are so amateur compared to John’s and Sherry’s, and truly, the scenery was so gorgeous a chipmunk could have taken them.
I wish my mother could have seen it, but The Rookery was only established about twenty years ago, and her birding days were over by then. I feel so lucky to have it near home. I’ll be back.
My mother grew up spending her summers on upper Galveston Bay, a sheltered and shallow lobe, where Buffalo Bayou drains into the greater Bay. She rode horses, swam, sailed and explored. She sold Cokes from her rowboat to the people fishing from the public pier at Sylvan Beach. She fished and crabbed and ate the catch. She inherited the summer home in La Porte that she loved dearly, and watched as industry took over the shores of the bayou upstream from the Bay.
Chemical plants were deliberately located alongside the ship channel, ostensibly for shipping but equally important, to dump their waste into the water and belch their smoke into the sky. Who lived near there anyway? Not anyone with any money, not anyone who would speak up. The nearby towns were Pasadena, Deer Park and La Porte, once country cousins of Houston, now blue collar barracks for chemical plant workers.
But she didn’t watch the takeover helplessly. Adair Sullivan was an environmentalist when they used to call it “conservationist.” As in, let’s conserve the earth and not throw it away. A fine concept, but a new one in the 1960’s and not much welcomed in Houston, Texas, then and now the petroleum capital of the nation, if not the world.
Though she dabbled in group efforts, she really was not a joiner. She was a documenter, a photographer and a writer. Her cameras progressed from the 120mm Yashica series to 35mm Canons. Usually they died a moldy death—the humidity at the bay would ruin the lenses eventually. She would buy another. At first there were a lot of pictures of us kids. There were photos of far-away flocks of the water birds that congregated in great numbers in the upper Bay, even as their food source was slowly poisoned. She was an early birder, too. She was ahead of her time in so many ways.
But soon the photos were of pollution. Air pollution was the easiest to film, but an oil spill in 1971 was thoroughly documented.
The waters of the Bay and the Channel were frequently in the foreground of battered skies, as if she could not leave out the main character. Twenty years would pass before her obsession with photographing the sins of the petroleum and chemical industries would wane even slightly.
There were rolls and rolls of film, so many repetitive that we jokingly referred to the birds as flyspecks and the pollution as “blank.” Daddy said she talked about pollution so much that he required her to insert a “blank” every time she wanted to say pollution. Of course, we all said “blank” even more than “pollution,” and my brother and I knew more about the subject than any other kids—who were completely oblivious, as were the vast majority of citizens. It was a time when few people questioned capitalism. Pollution represented “progress,” and beware anyone who tried to impede progress.
She wrote to her congressman, to county commissioners, to the USGS, to the Army Corps of Engineers, who she referred to as “the castle boys,” for some reason. She wrote letters to the editor. She was not quiet. She once got on TV for sending Christmas cards to all the major news outlets in Houston. They were photo cards of a chemical plant blanketed in clouds of its own smoke with the tagline “Merry Christmas, from our home to yours.”
She loved the ironic photo best of all. The photos in this series were mounted in books, which very few were, so they were her personal favorites. She must have been proudest of “Litter Barrel” and “Moonday,” as both were enlarged. “Moonday” was taken on Monday, July 21, 1969, the day of the first lunar landing. It was shot at 7:30 AM as the sun rose over upper Galveston Bay. The smog is so thick the sun is a mere white disc, easily mistaken for the moon. On a note included with the photo, she notes the date and says simply, “The day of the moon landing. This is the sun.”
Mother’s Day 2016