“…when the ruins are cleared away”

I don’t think politicians change the world. I think artists and perhaps philosophers who become true spiritual leaders have that power. Scientists and engineers and business men and women can effect change, but in reality what they are doing is translating art and philosophy into something concrete, something ephemeral. An important role, of course, but nonetheless secondary to that which is eternal.

Chinua Achebe says that “art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.”  I would go further to say that art springs indelibly from the very stuff that is the source of life. It survives and supersedes, as Katherine Anne Porter has said, all manner of chaos and neglect, “outliving governments and creeds and… even the very civilization that produced (it).” It is, in Porter’s words, “what we find again when the ruins are cleared away.”

Art has the ability to freeze time long enough for us to see who we are, to fathom for a moment what life is, and then inspire us to move again. It springs from our unconscious and, in so doing, captures the essence of reality and our humanity. Even at its darkest, it allows us to contemplate the beauty and the mystery that informs our very existence. It is with these thoughts that I return to a visitor to Stony Brook a few weeks ago, one whose impact upon me has yet to fade.

53582ca7e3b149e0ef9e770b70de9c8cWhen Justyn Zolli came into the Nature Center with his father, Frank (a member of the local Lion’s Club who has generously supported Stony Brook as a volunteer over the years), I immediately found myself engaged in one of those conversations that renews the spirit. Justyn was back from San Francisco for a week or so and was clearing out some books, a telescope, and even some skeletal remains that he thought might be of use to Stony Brook. He wanted to make a donation, which I was pleased to accept. But I wanted more. I wanted to know about him and his art.

Punctuated by loving and proud anecdotes from his father, Justyn told me a story of his exploring the woods and fields and streams of Stony Brook when he was young and his growing recognition of, and fascination with, Nature’s patterns. He began drawing what he saw at an early age and carried his love of Nature into his studies at RISD and the Museum of Fine Arts School, and later into his work as an artist in New York and eventually San Francisco.

His words echoed those one finds on his website. At times he seemed almost to be reciting them:

CNY7tbcWxz6UeovR“My art practice is a conversation with the timeless, the primal, and the elemental. My works draw a connection between mysticism and modernism, passing beyond representation in search of transcendence, addressing silence, interiority, energy, and communion through a meditative iconography.

Through my artworks, I explore the unifying and transforming qualities of light and structure. I explore the relationships between pure color, timeless geometry, and the flowing, visual rhythms derived from my study of the dynamics of great Nature. My inspirations come from my studies of ancient and mystical art, my many travels to the world’s sacred architecture and wild landscapes, and my love of modern painting.”

As he talked, I was mesmerized, as these were flashbacks to my own interests and studies, ones which I rarely access now that I am older and “on with my life.” Though I was never an artist and do not have the talent to become one, I knew exactly what he meant. It had been years since I had heard anyone talk like this or think like this, seemingly not since my time in the classroom, whether as a student or as a teacher myself.

VGUIYJetF5KEgl0FI listened as he recounted his travels through India, the British Isles, Europe, the Himalayas, Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, and the American West. He told me about his fascination with the laws of change and transformation, especially as they work through Nature and us. He cited his study of ancient Chinese landscape painters in the Taoist tradition and, in particular, their concept of “li” (which means “natural principle”), that which gives form and substance to all life.

Heady stuff, I know, and to some extent so arcane as to be difficult to translate into reality. Justyn, however, seems determined to do just that. He referred me to the words of a 14th century Zen painter named K’un-ts’an, whose philosophy he has whole-heartedly embraced:

“Speaking of painting in its finest essentials, one must read widely in the documents and histories, ascend mountains, and trace rivers to their source, and only then can one create one’s ideas” (again, from his website).

Listening to him, I was reminded of one of my favorite plays, Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, in which he explores the possibility of translating certain natural rhythms and laws into mathematical formulae. I talked about fractals and the basic premise of order arising not out of design, but out of chaos, an idea to which Justyn seemed to give a knowing nod.

dn9qd584_C6SZzb5Our conversation continued for several more minutes, but as I recounted it to Doug (Stony Brook’s Director) a few days later, I thought that what was most striking and significant about our chance meeting was this revelation: in a time of uncertainty and upheaval, of falsehoods being cast off as truth, of money and power and socio-economic status being equated to importance or value or even dignity, it’s refreshing to know that there are still individuals among us who believe in something larger than themselves and who have goals and dreams that they are willing to pursue to the ends of the earth.

In all sincerity it was not so much the esoteric philosophy and the avant garde artwork of Justyn that impressed me. It was his humility and his honesty, his dedication to discipline and hard work, his belief in knowledge for its own sake, and his willingness to share it. Grounded in an attachment to Nature and a spiritual reality, he reaffirmed for me the basic dignity and desires of ordinary people, though in many ways he and his work are anything but ordinary.



Citizen Science at Its Best


By all accounts Stony Brook’s Purple Martin Project has been a tremendous success. We’ve seen the martin population increase two-fold this year to approximately twenty-eight birds, counting fledglings. Anyone who has walked out to the nest site has no doubt seen the playful swirling of the birds around the nesting boxes or heard their distinctive song which is easily identifiable and always memorable. With a little luck and a lot of persistence, these birds will make the trek back from South America next spring to nest here again and increase the population even more. We are already thinking of adding more gourds in anticipation of their arrival.

The success of this project is no doubt due in part to the new gourd houses we installed (thanks to the generosity of our many donors) and the inspired efforts of our Volunteer Director, Jess Watson, who solicited donations for the gourds and who put together a volunteer team to manage the nest sites. The impetus for the idea, however, came from Madeleine Linck, a retired wildlife technician who came to Stony Brook several years ago when her grand-daughter had a birthday party here.

At the time she had not moved to this area and was managing several martin colonies for Three Rivers Park District in Minnesota. When Madeleine happened to notice our martin house in the field, she saw the potential for a colony at Stony Brook and was excited that Doug, our director, was open to her helping out at a future date. This year that initial dream came to fruition, but it never would have happened without the leadership of someone like Madeleine who had the knowledge and vision and sheer tenacity to see the project through.


Madeleine is a larger-than-life figure who commands respect immediately without ever saying a word. She rushes into a room with the look of an adventurer who has just came back from an African safari and is late for her next expedition. Her demeanor is reminiscent of accomplished women from the past who pioneered wilderness exploration or natural history studies. She has the decorum and soft-spoken wisdom of a Jane Goodall mixed with the gritty pluck of an Amelia Earhart. This is a woman who will always make her mark.

Madeleine oversaw and mentored an enthusiastic group of volunteers who, to a person, can’t say enough about their experience and, in particular, the leadership and guidance that Madeleine provided. To me, she is the story here. The volunteers cited her enthusiasm, her tremendous knowledge and patience. They touted her willingness to share, her dedication to environmentalism and land protection, her gracious manner and ability to draw upon a wealth of life experiences to illustrate a concept or drive a point home.

Last week I went out with Madeleine and two other volunteers to view the nest site and to understand their process. In simple terms Madeleine explained that “successful nesting gourds and boxes must be managed,” or else they will be subject to disease and predation. House sparrows in this area are particularly problematic and aggressive. They can overtake a nest and drive out the martins, destroying their eggs and attacking their defenseless fledglings.

The group kept very specific records of how many eggs had been laid in each box or gourd, how many had hatched and for how long, disposing of eggs that had not gestated and looking for signs of mite infestation. They also noted which sites had been taken over by house sparrows and, when appropriate, addled any unhatched eggs. When I looked into one of the gourds, I could see as many as six babies huddled around each other to preserve body heat, layered together in what looked like a dark puff pastry or souffle. In another there were five newly hatched babies, featherless and exposed, more gelatinous than distinct. Like everyone, I was amazed to see life so raw and unvarnished.

All the while Madeleine recorded the volunteers’ findings, answered any questions they might have had, and shared relevant anecdotes that were as much informative as charming. Madeleine told me, for example, that the toiletry habits of the birds can be particularly interesting. The parents actually remove the fledglings’ fecal sacs early on, but near the end of the 28 day cycle, she “had seen them actually back up in the nest and poop out the door.” She added, “You don’t want to check the houses at that time because they will sometimes get so excited they come out of the nest too early, not fully prepared to fly.”

When I sat down with Madeleine later, I learned that she had earned her Masters in Biology at Worcester State here in Massachusetts, and had worked for the Three Rivers Park District in Minnesota for nearly 25 years while her husband was teaching at the University of Minnesota. At Worcester State she concentrated her studies on the Blanding’s turtle, an endangered species, and later published the results of her work. She retired to this area because her daughter’s family lives in Foxboro and she can be close to her grand-children there. One grand-daughter in particular seems to share Madeleine’s fascination for birds, keeping a notebook of drawings and having committed to memory many of the birds’ songs.

Madeleine talked freely about the current socio-political climate in which “people may have jobs but may not be able to breathe the air.” She fears that the average person will stand by silently as the EPA is stripped of its authority and those in power demonstrate an increasingly scary disregard for the Earth. She worries that children are raised in front of monitors and tv screens and not in the outdoors, unable to understand their connection to the natural world, its diverse life-forms and shapes. “We’re all connected,” she says, “and our survival may depend on the fact that we don’t throw any of the pieces away.”

She says, in fact, that “if human beings disappeared from the Earth, it might not matter. But if insects disappeared, the whole eco-system would collapse. It would make a huge difference.” That’s how insignificant we are in the scheme of things. Her hope is “to educate, to make a difference, to open little windows.” According to the volunteers who assisted Madeleine, that’s exactly what she did for them. Listening to her, I thought, if citizen science projects are ultimately to succeed and effect worthwhile change, we might look to emulate this one.