Thursday, August 26, 2010

Down By The Sound

Yesterday while the Fu Hua from Panama loaded with grain at Pier 86 I looked for remnants of the Seattle Hempfest. Specifically, precariously balanced pinnacles of rock along the riprap of Myrtle Edwards Park. These little structures fascinate me. They’re so delicately poised. Rock balanced on rock balanced on rock. The shapes tend toward the pyramidal, but not always. I wonder if it’s a single individual that makes them, or a group of people. I presume they do it for the sheer fun of it, though I would not rule out a deeper significance.

I’ve never attended a Hempfest. It’s not, so to speak, my cup of tea. I realize that hemp has many uses, including rope, textiles, and paper, but let’s face it, people go to Hempfest to get stoned. Which, here in Seattle, is a practice surrounded by strange, contradictory laws. During the Hempfest, there are hundreds of people of smoking marijuana openly, often right in front of the police, with no arrests. Whereas arrests for smoking pot in city streets is up by 29 per month, almost triple of that last year. Puzzling.

The trail along the Myrtle Edwards beachfront has long been a favorite run of mine. I go down to Aloha street, which leads into West Olympic Place, which leads to the entrance of Kinnear Park, and a small switchback trail that takes me down to Elliott Avenue West. I like to wait a couple of days after Hempfest, which occurs in late August, sufficient time for the cleanup crews to pack up all the lumber and poles and debris. That way I don’t have to dodge trucks and people.

I have mixed feelings about Kinnear Park. It’s a pretty, well-kempt park, but it gives me the creeps. In the past it has had a reputation for drug deals, since a good portion of it is well-hidden from city streets, and a popular place for homeless people to set up their camps. Last June, a man’s body was found, dead from stab wounds. I’ve never encountered a single homeless person, drug deal, or corpse in all the times I’ve run through the park, but it has that kind of atmosphere. A weird, ineffable, film noir shadiness to it. Sinister. Louche.

But there is also a lushly wooded and groomed section of lawn that would be perfect for a production of As You Like It, or Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m not sure whether I would be less surprised to find Duke Senior and his men roasting a deer there in the park than I would the cast from The Panic In Needle Park.

As soon as I exit from Kinnear Park, I encounter another creepy place. This is a former retail space on Elliott Avenue West that has long since been shuttered and closed. Its interior is a complete mystery. The windows have been painted over. There is no way to see what is in the building. It seems to be deserted. And yet, on one occasion, I saw a group of men barbecuing in the parking lot. And there are always at least one or two cats hanging around, which indicates that someone must be feeding them. What goes on in that building, and why all the secrecy? It’s spooky.

Yesterday I saw a decrepit old man with white hair and a cane make his way slowly toward the back door. Was this the wizard of the building? Inside I imagined Goldbergian complexities amid dizzying Piranesian corridors.

Or was it just all shabby furniture cluttered and dusty with rats scurrying about and Batman or the Green Lantern chained to a wall?

A little further down things escalate very quickly into more upscale retail stores. The Creative Home Center offers windows and doors, blown glass, water-saving toilets, countertops and cabinetry, travertine tile and old world stonework, even sample wall murals by artists who can be hired for custom work. Next to it, the Wine Outlet offers pricey bottles of pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and Riesling. No one ever seems to be there when I pass, but I can see lots of tables and glasses set up for wine tasting.

Further down is the most interesting place, Wilson Machine Works, established in 1926. This place gives me a potent feeling of nostalgia, as if I had just stepped back in time by about 80 or 90 years. The United States doesn’t do this sort of thing anymore. Odd, to think the U.S. was once famous for our machinery and factory production. Its current zeitgeist is better represented by the wealthy elite sipping pinot noir next door at the Wine Outlet, or the homeless looking for a place to sleep in Kinnear Park.

Wilson Machine Works makes everything from nitrated and triple keyed crankshafts to polished and shot peened connecting rods. A peek through the large open entrance reveals a plethora of milling and drilling machines, lathes and cutting tools. It is a strange vision. I hear echoes of Eddie Cochran singing “Summertime Blues” and see Neil Cassady doing pull-ups on a crossbeam.

Across the street is Blackstock Lumber and the Amgen bridge, built by Amgen Inc. Amgen is a Fortune 500 company working in biotechnology. The 420-foot Amgen Helix Pedestrian Bridge spans eleven railroad tracks. It is called a helix bridge because of the three-dimensional helix design symbolizing the DNA research going on behind its walls. I’ve noticed that the pigeons really like it. And not a few sparrows.

I drop down and pass the Pier 86 grain silos. They’re immense. Each of the 68 silos is 130 feet high, 28 feet in diameter, and holds 54,000 bushels. The grain gallery extends the full length of the wharf. Two electric-belt conveyors with five loading spouts drop the grain down into the holds of the big tankers parked underneath. I’m guessing this is grain grown in the Palouse country of eastern Washington, down around Pullman. German farms impeccably clean. High sloping hills of fine wind-blown loess. How they operate their tractors on such steep hillside I don’t know. But this where their grain goes.

It’s a noisy place. Lots of whooshing and hissing sounds.

Off in the distance, hovering over West Seattle’s Alki Beach, is the colorful chute of someone parasailing. Pier 57 Parasail offers rides for $49 to $54 for one person, or $89 to $95 for a tandem ride. They strap a parasail on your back, hook you to a long rope, two you around Elliott Bay, and you don’t even get wet.

A few yards offshore, not far from Pier 86, is a large rectangular structure of netting that used to puzzle the hell out of me. No one seemed to know what it was. At last, the Port of Seattle put a sign up explaining this structure: they are salmon net pens maintained by the Muckleshoot and Suquamish Tribes. There are two pens for salmon hatchlings to mature enough to release them into the open water where they can fend for themselves, more or less, in the highly polluted and boat-crowded waters of Puget Sound.

How different Puget Sound would sound if Puget were given a French pronunciation instead of the usual Puh-jet. But then, Poo-jay Sound wouldn’t sound quite right either.

How polluted is Puget Sound? It’s pretty polluted. Some 92,000 acres of mud and sand on the seafloor are considered moderately to highly contaminated by toxic chemicals and sewage. Water runoff from Seattle’s streets and parking lots go directly into the water. Even something as seemingly innocuous as tapping one's brakes a little has an impact; each time one's brakes are tapped, which occurs a lot in Seattle's heavy traffic, a bit of copper is lost, dribbles to the street, and becomes liable to get washed via drainage sewer into the water. But the worse damage is from industry. Navy ships, cruise ships, and hundreds of government and private facilities legally dump billions of gallons of polluted water each day into the Sound.

And yet life persists. You can gaze into water and see swarms of smelt, or the translucent beauty of jellyfish floating idly amid tangles of kelp. Sometimes the bald shiny head of a seal emerges and dips, emerges and dips. The purple varnish clam has even become increasingly abundant.

Last year there was a hoax. Rumor got around that one of Ivar’s signs had been brought up from the sound, and remounted at one of Seattle’s busier intersections. The story was that the popular seafood restaurant was making an appeal to passing underwater subs. I was one among the gullible that bought into the story. The billboard was warped and splotched as if it had been underwater a long time. I was rather crestfallen to find that it had been a hoax. What a charming vision, to see a billboard erected on the sound’s muddy bottom with a big luscious happy clam luring you to the tables at Ivar’s from the porthole of a sub.

Do subs even have portholes? Or just periscopes?

Further down the asphalt covered trail is a totem pole that has been recently installed. It was originally erected at Pier 48. It’s a 52 foot pole carved by Tlingit Indians, John Hagen, Ed Kasko, and Cliff Thomas circa 1975. It represents, from top down, an eagle, a brown bear, a killer whale, a hawk, a grizzly bear holding a mosquito, Strong Boy and Sea Lion. Apparently, the totem is some sort of fable, or novel. That’s the way I tend to see totems. As stories. Carved out of wood.

The totem’s overall theme was intended to celebrate the relationship between Washington and Alaska. The eagle represents a main clan of the Tlingit tribe. The brown bear denotes the great size of Alaska, and holds a “Tinnah,” which is a money piece symbolizing the great wealth of the land. The killer whale portrays tenacity and strength. The hawk depicts sharp eyesight, hence, perception of the future. The grizzly bear denotes bravery. The mosquito he holds is a cautionary note warning people that life isn’t always easy. At the bottom, Strong Boy and the Sea Lion provide the nucleus of the totem's quixotic tale.

Strong Boy spent a lifetime of ridicule for his doltishness and laziness. But, somewhat like Shakespeare’s Henry V, exercised in secret. When his uncle was swallowed by a sea lion, all the other nephews ran, while Strong Boy remained, seized the sea lion by the tail and tore the animal in half, letting his uncle out alive.

It’s amusing to think that the totem preceded the blog. But it’s not so amusing to think that the blog has superceded the totem.

Or that Sarah Palin was once the governor of Alaska. How would you depict that in a totem?

As for the rock pinnacles, I only saw one. This was a disappointment. Had there been many more that had already been toppled?

The lack of rock pinnacles is made up by the three giant slabs of concrete and corresponding granite boulders that comprise Michael Heizer’s Adjacent, Against, Upon. Never have three prepositions been dramatized with quite so much rock. Each of the rocks was quarried from the Cascades and delivered by barge in 1976, where, for a time, it enjoyed a little controversy. Is this art? People are used to seeing men posturing solemnly and nobly as they gaze with stony pupils into city squares. Heizer’s prepositions invite participation. You can climb on the rocks. Jump from the rocks. Explore your own capacity for prepositional play.

There were still a few trucks loading up with poles and other festival equipment. I saw a colorfully dressed man with a long pointy beard giving directions, and experienced a nice little pinch of nostalgia, remembering back on Haight Ashbury in 1966, when people wandered the streets day and night, offering food and places to sleep. Then 1967 reared its ugly summer of love head and the summer of love turned to filth and squalor as thousands showed up to cash in on the scene.

Mark di Suvero’s Schubert Sonata marks the end of the Myrtle Edward trail. I love this sculpture (see picture to right). It is music made out of steel. It is a music of space and structure. Weight and form. It was created in 1992 and is constructed of partially painted steel. It measures 22 feet by 10 feet.

A sonata is a three-part musical construction whose charm springs from the interplay between the differing tonalities. Di Suvero’s sculpture plays with this structure visually, with steel. Lines curve and bend, reach and contract, pinch and release. It has a large, generous energy. It echoes sound without making a sound. Accompanies the sound in the mute sonority of steel.

1 comment:

Steven Fama said...

The photo of the di Suvero, while showing well it's marvelous overall shape and some of its color, makes it look like it's 22 x 10 centimeters. I was astounded to read in the post that it's in fact 22 x 10 feet! I gotta someday see that one in real life!

I've often thought that just about anything in "real life" would get mighty fascinating mighty quick if given what I'll call a John McPhee once-over. Know what I mean? Like -- and this is one I know that you, John, because you hepped me to it a long while ago -- who'd of thunk Florida oranges could take up a whole book, let alone a supremely interesting kind of prose-poem digressive documentary with human-interest angles kind? But there you have McPhee's Oranges (1967).

The paragraph in this post about the grain silos brings that book to mind. The 68 Silos of Pier 86. It could be something....