Like so many sophisticated adventure-seekers before us, we were driving around Cattaraugus County, admiring the cows.
There’s a whole lot of ’em.
Restaurants, movie theaters, gas stations, people…not so much.
Eventually, a small sign told us we’d arrived in East Otto.
Apparently, we’d passed through West Otto, and Central Otto, without noticing.
Soon after, my cellphone found a signal again, and could pull up a map.
We discovered that we were southeast of Bagdad, Gowanda, and the Zoar Valley.
And due east of Persia.
Strangers in a strange land.
I hadn’t known our state had these outlandish places, in such a pastoral setting, but I liked the idea of eating cheese from such exotic locales.
Bagdad Brie, Persian Pecorino, Gowanda Gorgonzola.
And yes, as you may have guessed, we’d gotten off the interstate, decided to go home cross-country, no GPS, and were a bit lost.
The endless herds of Holsteins were the only familiar faces we’d seen. It’s possible we’d seen some of them more than once, as we zigzagged around.
The roads wandered through pastures, woodlots, little hills. We passed an old guy cutting hay, wearing a wool plaid jacket in August, and as we went around the bend, and up a little hill, we realized there was something strange about our surroundings.
There were no cows to be seen.
No cows whatsoever.
Finding ourselves in a landscape totally vacant of cows made us uneasy.
There didn’t seem to be any roadblocks manned by the Children of the Corn, so we kept driving, and found we’d driven into the Griffis Sculpture Park.
A rusted but fantabulous remnant of an ancient but very groovy time, called “The Sixties”.
The wonderful man who created this place was named Larry Griffis, Jr.
He came back to Buffalo after serving in WWII, and started a business making nylon stockings.
During a visit to Italy, he fell in love with sculpture.
I saw a picture of him on the internet, and he reminded me a bit of Van Morrison. His son, and now granddaughter, have kept his workshop in Buffalo going, and the park in East Otto is now hundreds of acres of fields, ponds, and woods, full of sculptures, by Griffis and other artists.
Some are pretty literal creations, like this giraffe, peering into the woods.
Or this giant mosquito.
The woods are full of meandering paths, with abstract creations scattered about.
A pond is surrounded by flying metal geese, and rusted obelisks, which resemble small cellphone towers, as woven from rebar by a cargo cult — some overgrown, some toppled over, and merging into the undergrowth.
A shrine-like creation, marked “Santana,” held an offering of a dozen half-eaten acorns.
Statues and shapes are cast in bronze and aluminum, but most seem to be weathered and rusted iron.
One group resembles chess pieces, another, industrial elements.
We’d arrived quite a distance from the main entrance, where a series of fields and woods harbors some hands-on creations, that you can climb on, and in.
My favorite resembles the conning tower of a submarine, surfacing in a meadow.
My snapshots only show a fraction of the collection. You could easily spend the better part of a day, hiking around and discovering things.
Some of these creations, as the day got close to sundown, seemed a bit spooky, even foreboding.
But the overwhelming vibe of the place is of whimsical creativity and happiness.
We’d been walking along the shore of Lake Ontario,and stopped to watch the sailboats and drink some water.
A very nice lady saw us fooling with these rocks, and asked if we were professional artists, and if she could photograph our “stone stacking.”
It almost seemed like she was serious, so I told her, we artists prefer our creations to be called “Cobble Assemblages”. And that we’re novices, from the Spiral Jetty School, working our way up to pyramids and standing stone circles.
No money is required to view them, but an offering of fresh fruit is appreciated.
We’ve run across them in stream beds, woods, parks, even on the berms near shopping malls.
Sometimes there are so many, it appears a Neolithic cult is out there in the woods.
What is the point of this? I’ve heard a lot of people take this pretty seriously, saying “it’s kind of a Zen thing,” finding the center of gravity of these eccentric objects, and easing you into a contemplative state.
OK. Sure, you bet.
That sounds “a bit much,” New Age nonsense, and the funny thing is, I think they’re kind of right.
This balancing act takes focus, maybe even discipline.
I’m thinking, as we gravely heft the rocks and find the center of gravity, it’s kind of like politics.
Whether a box of rocks, or the electorate, or that portion of the electorate that resembles a box of rocks, it takes an artist to find the center, to balance every component, including the unstable and unbalanced. This is rock stacking, kids, not mud slinging, not casting stones.
When you do this stacking thing, you don’t select only perfectly flat rocks, where’s the challenge in that?
To be a sportin’ proposition, you have to take ’em as you find ’em.
That’s not to say, that sometimes, you get frustrated, it’s just not working, and you just chunk it back into the water, to get a few rough edges knocked off, or it can swim back to Canada, and wait for the next glacier to bring it south again, a bit more polished.
Politics is also supposed to somehow build things, using all of us lumpy, uncooperative, odd people, being gathered together to build something, say, a city on the hill.
My sister sings while she gathers stones, and the music reminds me of an old metaphor used in politics — the “bandwagon,” and I’ve always liked that image – – a big, brassy, hurly-burly, rock ‘n’roll hell-on-wheels.
Like taking a bunch of kids on a car trip – – just an unholy load of mischief, loud and unruly. Off-tune singing in the back seat, a bit smelly from sunblock and bug repellent, missed turns, negotiating over radio stations, seating assignments, fast food stops, arguments and sharp elbows.
But after an eternity or two, you do get to the beach, and everybody pitches in to build some beautiful sandcastles, or, in our rocky part of the world, a cool stone stack.
Bandwagon or stone stack, it has to find a place for everybody — leaning left, leaning right, centrist, positive, negative, neutral.
Doesn’t that sound kind of fun? “Come on, blow your own horn if you must, but everybody up on the bandwagon.”
(And in the case of many politicians, we can add “Stay on the wagon!”)
It has to be a big ol’ wagon.
Not a buggy of the extreme and the angry.
The surly with the lunatic fringe on top.
~ ~ ~
We had a huge old car once, that kept turning over, even after it was switched off, mindlessly “dieseling,” kind of like it had a coughing jag, and couldn’t stop.
Like a lot of folks, I find it can be surprisingly hard to shut your thoughts off, like that old car, definitely not firing on all cylinders, but just spluttering along.
Like some of our public figures, the car was too greasy, too much carbon buildup, too much hot gas coming out the back end.
Missing filters, endless idling, running on and on, throwing a smoke screen, leaking oil into the ground water. Chugging along, backfiring out half-digested dinosaur crap.
Our system right now, it appears some wiseguy snuck in, and switched the spark plug wires around, firing all out of order.
Like taking a Cadillac, all rose-tinted glass and a plush ride, in for a tuneup, to a shady shadetree mechanic.
And that bad grease monkey fast-talks us into trading for a rusted-out Gremlin, with no muffler, twisted axis, sorry, I mean, axle, and bad tie rods, so it keeps swerving to the right, and into the gutter.
~ ~ ~
Stone stacking helps us relax. You focus and forget about squabbles and arguments.
And when you don’t focus, you drop a rock on your toe, which sure takes your mind off less pressing concerns.
Like politicking, we’re just childishly happy to shut down any higher brain functions, and see Just How High Can We Pile It, before it all falls over.
~ ~ ~ ~
Meanwhile… we were On The Beach.
The lake shore we’re hiking along is a shingle — tons of piled-up pebbles, so we weren’t prying stones out of the ground and contributing to erosion, or disturbing a stream bed, etc.
Sometimes it’s fun to poke at a few things with a stick, and see what crawls out from under a rock, but we’ve had quite enough of that lately.
A key thing with these stone stacks: they’re not cairns, memorials, or markers, so take them apart when you’re done. Some of the ones we’ve seen, are big enough, they seem like a survivalist’s deadfall trap for little kids.
It falls under the “Leave No Trace” law of the woods.
Leave no stone un-returned.
And for heaven’s sake let’s get some bright new spark plugs and a tuneup for that heap.