Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Jack Meyer writes in his daily report, among a list of species sighted: Red-tailed Hawk (Pale Male & Lola, copulating, 7.40 AM.)

At 8 a.m, the Early Birders saw Pale Male or Lola on the nest, working on twig arrangement. [Couldn't tell which hawk it was, since only the rear part of the bird was showing.]

On our walk this sunny, relatively mild morning we heard the persistent spring songs of Cardinals, Titmice and Red-winged Blackbirds. And for me, the final reward for rising early: from my west-facing window at 6:00 a.m., the sight of a luminous full moon setting over New Jersey.

This was sent to me by Eleanor Tauber, one of the Early Birders. As with the Somerville Gates, I think that being the inspiration for greatness bestows greatness on the Christos!

"The Crackers" 2005

Gift to the City — is it Art or for the Birds? "The Crackers" is as much a public happening as it is a tasty snack, defying the domino theory. Peanut butter or cheddar cheese. They poured their hearts and souls into the project for over 26 minutes. It required three dozen crackers and spanned over nearly 23 inches along a footbridge in the park at a cost (borne exclusively by the artists) of $2.50. Is it art? You decide. The installation was completed with no permits or bureaucracy, and fed to the ducks after about a half hour. "The Crackers" is entirely for profit,

2/23/05-- Susan Keiser responds emphatically to the Caplow attack on the Gates [See below]

I think Mr. Caplow's analysis is alarming because it offers the kind of detailed engineering numbers and data that impress most of us nonscientific types. But he has done his analysis totally out of context. To actually make a fair environmental case against the "Gates," wouldn't one have to do a similar analysis of all other art or entertainment projects or activities in New York and then compare cost–benefit ratios? And maybe even figure out how much pollution is already in the park area and whether the "Gates" represents a significant increase. I also think it's unfair to assume that the artists are lying about recycling all of the materials, which is what they say they are going to do, just because they specifically mention it in some of their notes about each individual part and not in others. Shouldn't one first ask them for more information about their recycling program? There is a questions icon on their website.

The mink analogy sounds good, but is it really appropriate? Many of us don’t wear fur because of the way ranched minks get treated when they are alive and how they are slaughtered rather than what happens to them after they’re dead. And mink ranches are just a symbol of the inhumanity of numerous animal-related industries. Many of us are vegetarians for similar reasons as people who avoid fur.

While I accept that humans are carnivores, persons who eat pork are either callous or in denial about how industrial pig farms work. And forget the poor chickens, both those grown for meat and eggs; they are treated even worse. Cattle have destroyed the vast grasslands of the Midwest, virtually an entire ecosystem, and deer are more numerous now than at anytime in the history of the continent. We have driven out all their natural predators except for us, and then refuse fulfill our responsibility to keep their numbers down because Bambi is too cute to kill. The result is an overpopulation of deer, who denude woodlands of anything but nonnative plants and threaten some of the most beautiful natives with extinction. And in particularly hard winters, they themselves suffer slow starvation. It has always struck me as a bit insane that we are willing to destroy two ecosystems rather than switch from eating beef to venison.

This all may seem a bit off track, but I think it raises crucial questions of proportion and contextual thinking, which is what I believe is missing from the “ecological” discussions of the “Gates” I’ve read so far.

When the project is removed, we have been promised that it will leave no visible signs that it was ever there—no holes in the ground, no broken branches, and, because of J-C and Christo’s maintenance force, no litter. Because they used all their own money, we have not had to look at donor’s names or corporate logos plastered everywhere, which is becoming exceedingly rare in the public sphere. And because they paid everyone who worked on the project, no one was exploited (even those who wanted to volunteer). John Blakeman has told us that it will not endanger the hawks, an assurance that I think logic dictates applies to other park animals.

While I am not a botanists, as a horticulturist I can’t imagine how it could hurt any of the plants, which tend to be even more adaptable to constrained environments than animals. Central Park is a rare gem, but not all gems are incredibly fragile, not diamonds and not the park’s “ecosystem.” To be honest, complaints that the “Gates” have interfered with people’s routines seem shortsighted and a little selfish, given the transitory nature of the installation. And romanticizing nature other than in poetry or some other form of art can be dangerous, as it often leads us into making poor decisions about conserving it, such as allowing the deer to destroy northeastern woodlands.

That the “Gates” is an insult to the park is certainly a valid opinion, but it is only one of many, and certainly not a reason for banning the project. As for complaints that the J-C and Christo’s drawings emphasize the project and not the park or city, they just leave me mystified. If one wants a drawing, photo, print, or painting of the park, there are thousands to choose from. These are drawings of the project, and as such, the project is and should be the primary image. As for the color of the fabric, some people may not like it, but it really is the color of saffron. If you look at the photos on the Christo site at full scale, you’ll notice that the curtains are bright orange when the sun passes through a single layer and a red orange when there are two layers—at the hems and where the wind has created folds. And when you look up into direct sunlight they become more golden. This combination of hues is exactly like that of the parts of Crocus sativus from which we get saffron, only as it appears in the plant, not in saffron-spiced rice. It literally takes thousands of crocuses to make a single ounce of spice. For people looking for a message, the fact that the “Gates” are the color of the living form of a highly prized and valuable seasoning, and that the artists make a point of mentioning the color whenever they mention the fabric, together make me think about the relationship between nature and human beings and how we make decisions about “natural resources.” For someone else, it may just be an ugly color with unpleasant associations. Both are just opinions.

Gwen Willows sends in the following article and writes: "You may have read this in yesterday NY Times. (I am from El Sobrante, California, visit your and Lincoln's sites every day, and thank you for them!)"

Seeing Orange

Published: February 20, 2005

THE exhibit that began last weekend in Central Park is many things to many people. For me and my beagle, Hazel, with whom I share a daily walk to work through the park, "The Gates" is just a distraction. What she wants to know is, where have all the squirrels gone? What I want to know is, from the standpoint of industrial ecology, how can Christo and Jeanne-Claude justify the environmental impact of this project?

On their Web site, the artists, with apparent pride, declare that "The Gates" has required 10½ million pounds of steel, 60 miles of vinyl tubing and one million square feet of nylon fabric, plus thousands upon thousands of steel plates, bolts and nuts to hold the whole thing together. The plastic tubes and fabric are described as "recyclable," but no mention is made of the fate of the steel.

According to the United States Department of Energy, the steel industry in this country consumes about 18 million B.T.U.'s of raw energy to produce one ton of steel. If the cast steel in "The Gates" is typical American steel, then making it has required 97 billion B.T.U.'s, an amount equivalent to the entire annual energy consumption - including that used to run cars, furnaces, air conditioners and home appliances - of nearly 500 New York state residents.

Energy for the steel industry is supplied in roughly equal thirds by coal, natural gas and electricity from the grid. Based on generally accepted rates of carbon dioxide emissions for these three sources, it appears that making steel for "The Gates" churned out 7,000 tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to the combined output of about 1,600 average American cars for a year (carbon dioxide is viewed by most scientists as a threat to the global climate system). We would have to plant more than 200 acres of trees and grow them for 10 years to remove this carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Central Park has an area of about 800 acres, but only part of this has trees; and the mature trees that dominate the park do not absorb carbon dioxide effectively, so we cannot look to the park to clean up the mess.

In terms of sheer mass, the amount of plastic in "The Gates" is dwarfed by the steel, but emissions of carbon dioxide, dioxins and other toxins from plastics manufacturing are also a concern. The plastic chosen for the supports, polyvinyl chloride, or P.V.C., is an increasingly controversial material that releases dioxins and other carcinogens to the air and water during manufacture (and possibly afterward). Polyvinyl chloride has been singled out as "the poison plastic" by Greenpeace and other environmental groups. We now have 60 miles of it in the park. Clearly, the squirrels were not consulted on this choice.

If the plastic used in "The Gates" is in fact recycled (Greenpeace warns of the "false promise" of polyvinyl chloride recycling, noting that only 1 percent gets recycled), some credit might be allowed, but at best this credit would account for only a fraction of the energy used and emissions produced. Nearly all steel is "recyclable," but the recycling rate (around 70 percent nationwide) is already accounted for in the energy intensity calculations above. More fundamentally, one cannot dismiss responsibility for the use of a primary material simply by claiming that this material could be reused. That's like claiming that no mink were harmed in making your fur coat, because you might donate it to good will someday.

This is an unenlightened view of ecology. Why could the artists not have chosen a 100 percent postconsumer material, or better yet, a biologically derived material, to begin with? Such a choice would have reduced toxic emissions from the material itself, although we would still be left with the diesel trucks and propane forklifts scuttling to and from the park to carry this enormous mass in and out.

It has also been loudly declared that the artists are paying for all of this out of their own pockets, through the sale of spinoff drawings and paintings to art collectors. These drawings can be viewed on the artists' Web site, and all share a pattern of coloration in which the city and the park, the buildings, the trees, the grass, are devoid of life, while the "The Gates" are portrayed in vivid color - the only objects of apparent interest to the artist. The setting could have just as easily been any other city, or no city at all, and little would change in the paintings. These depictions of a lifeless New York City are supposedly financing the materials, manpower and energy required to bring us "The Gates," but there is no mention of any fee paid for the pollution of the air and water, to say nothing of the threat to Hazel's squirrels.

The choice of such an unfortunate orange hue - "saffron" to the artists, but to the rest of us more evocative of sanitation trucks, prison uniforms or road pylons - becomes clear: this is the color of hazard and danger. Hazel and I have chosen to interpret the whole business as an ecological warning sign.

Ted Caplow, an environmental engineer, is the executive director of Fish Navy, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable technology