The idea of order on Longboat Key

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Mangroves from my parents’s back door at dawn

First of all, there’s one central irony in all this. I hate crickets. When August arrives, they emerge and begin that creaky, rhythmic din that at first seems seasonal in a nice way and then quickly begins to sound like a monotonous dirge announcing the heat death of summer. Soon, they begin to ride into our house on cut flowers and then crawl into our cabinets and start chirping in a way that’s nearly impossible to locate. Somehow they’re able to send out waves of throbbing sound for hours at a time and it seems to come out of all the walls at once. If I do find them—they’re tiny—I’m unsparing. They either die or are caught and tossed outside. So that’s my official position, for most of the year, on crickets. You may be amused by this as you read on.

That said, I spent most of last week on Longboat Key, a barrier island off the coast of Sarasota, helping my parents settle into their home there for the next four months. My studio stayed in Pittsford, NY, of course, so I’ve been unable to paint for almost a month actually, with my income-generating work as a writer taking up most of my time, which will continue for another week or so. I flew to Florida with them and stayed for five days and passed most of the first three days doing nothing but handling random simmering emergencies: restoring cable service, which took nearly 24 hours off and on; two separate plumbing repair jobs; grocery shopping at the new Publix (it looks like three Whole Foods fused into one shiny new uber-market); turning on the water heater which had inexplicably been turned off; resetting passwords; rebooting anything rebootable; and a dozen other tasks that neither of my parents is young/healthy/Internet-friendly enough to do. I pulled a dolly laden with three large boxes full of their summer wardrobe up a flight of stairs in almost exactly the seated pose of someone rowing a galley—probably curling/leg lifting 150 pounds with each bump and pull, one step at a time. Move up a step, squat, stand, pull, move up a step, repeat, up the entire flight. I was determined to turn this task into a lat-and-quad workout, all three boxes at once, and it took . . . OK, it took a while. My mother and father are both in the mid-80s and generally still healthy, though stenosis has compromised my father’s ability to walk, and macular degeneration is finally eroding my mother’s vision. (She was diagnosed with it more than twenty years ago and somehow halted it with supplements and diet for two decades, or so she believes.) She still golfs, though, with her diminished vision, and though she drives the ball hardly more than 120 yards, she likes to say she’s finally hitting it “out of sight.” Bottom line, I’m a laborer this week who gets a bonus of hugs and home-cooking for a week of being handyman, problem-solver, help desk, general contractor, and chauffer.

So it was busy, not a vacation, but it was also a sunny, warm, pleasant change of environment. No whining here. In a few hours, I as able to traverse almost the entire U.S., longitudinally, and I also went back in time by six months. The dead winter of Rochester, NY became  an 80-degree sunlit world you experience only in mid-July throughout the rest of the states. At this time of year, Pittsford, and Rochester, are shaded by an icy kind of fog that seems to condense both high over the city and yet also outside time and space. It erases the sky and leaves nothing behind in its place other than an indeterminate gray void. Twlight Zone episodes loop over and over up in there somewhere. Everything earthbound appears to be illuminated by the sort of light that comes from nowhere in particular, the light you would normally see around 7 or 8 p.m. in June, with the sun low and exhausted. Not a photographer’s Golden Hour, though; not even close. This dull lake-effect glow leaches the color from everything. Alaska has to be like this as the long dusk begins, or maybe it compares with Westeros just before winter comes, in Game of Thrones. This year it’s been cold, with a foot of snow in December around the holiday. I left in time for the heat wave, which brought temperatures into the 80s in Florida and initiated a weeklong melt up north.

My parents own a mid-sized condo on this barrier island with a view of Sarasota Bay, facing east. You can stand at their back door and see the Sarasota skyline three miles away, over the water. Through their open rear door, you can hear and see fish leap in the little channel behind their lanai, a strip of green water between the shore and the dense growth of mangroves on a sand bar less than a hundred yards into the bay. Step out their front door and it’s a ten-minute walk to the shore of the Gulf of Mexico on the other side of this very long, narrow island. On a map it’s shaped a bit like the skull and backbone of a dinosaur or a bird. (The shot I took, above, shows their view of Sarasota, but it’s so far away you can hardly discern it in the photograph except for a couple specks of light.) A long row of mangroves—they look like baobabs in Africa—rise on thin, elegant trunks and leaf out at the top, with a flat dense hedge of foliage that halts at exactly the level of the distant shore when you stand on the first floor and look out toward the pastel high-rises on the mainland coast. The skyline now seems to rise directly from the top of that groomed mangrove shoal. It amazes me that the landscapers can scale the trunks and take a little off the top of this jungle that precisely, since it’s an enormous stretch of trees. They give the mangroves a crew cut, basically.

The life inside that shoal is probably what I love most about my stay in their condo, and it’s why I started writing this little piece more than a week ago. The first couple nights, as I was sitting at their dining room table, the sound of crickets outside lured me back to the patio. It’s an ambient sound that quietly emerges after sunset in a gradual way, hardly more than white noise, so that most people along the bay probably don’t even notice it, or, if they do, pay it no attention at all. When I’m there in the middle of winter, it feels like a completely different sound from what I hear in August up in Rochester. It reminds me more of the sound of spring peepers, the frogs that emerge in upstate New York in April or so and sing continuously for a brief part of the season: they make a kind of sweet ringing that throbs just a little and goes on without pause for hours. It’s almost bird-like, their chirping. It’s just as much a ubiquitous part of the woods as fresh air itself, at certain hours of the day. In Florida, though, the cricket choir starts up early after sunset, and then something else joins in that sounds exactly like a type of cicada, but I can’t seem to find any evidence that cicadas sing at night in North America. Maybe it’s a katydid, a different kind of cricket, or whatever. It’s something alive, sneaking it’s own little song into the mix without calling much attention to itself. It sounds precisely like this, which is a cicada, so I’d love to think I’ve discovered a night-singing cicada, but I doubt it.

So there are these crickets in the background and then the slightly more buzzing sound of the cicadas or whatever they are. Together, the different layers of sound seem to switch my brain into alpha rhythms immediately: something about all this faint background noise sounds perfect to me, like a reverberating gong in a temple somewhere. (The irony, right? From August’s cricket hunter to January’s blissed-out snowbird.) Standing there listening to all of it, I thought of that celebrated poem by Basho: The old pond–a frog jumps in, the sound of water. When I was in college, that poem seemed so slight, I flew past it in favor of other, more colorful or intriguing or human haiku, but the older I get, the more profound those few words about a stagnant pond seem. Standing there listening to those Florida sounds, only two weeks into winter—I could hear all that life, under the stars, steadily, constantly, diligently making the same chirping, buzzing tone, as if it were the sound of the bay breathing. I felt as if I could slip into that sound, like a bed, and it would hold me up as I leaned back into it, until I would just disappear into the act of listening. What I was hearing seemed intensely alive and yet almost equivalent to silence: there was nothing to it, just a droning monotone, like a chant. At that point, I wanted to capture it, and so I went upstairs and got my voice recorder. Everything in that Florida bay, even in the middle of winter, seemed alive and fully active in a restful, almost effortless way. In retrospect now, it sounds as if I’m describing a mind in deep meditation, utterly calm and still and yet humming away in a state of intense awareness.

Afterward, as I was transferring the recordings to my computer, I was struck by the nature of what I’d done with my recorder—the way I became aware of the sounds, the way they induced such a state of quiet attention, and then the way it caused me to make a recording of them. All of it was analogous to what I go through as a painter. Awareness. Appreciation. A sense of the living energy of a scene, a person—some part of the world. And then an effort to capture and convey that energy in a way that lasts, in order to preserve it or share it. There’s a “hey look what I found” aspect to this, and in art the process ultimately gets sidetracked into a work ethic of of creating objects, where you can easily lose sight of that intensity of awareness that made you want to get to work in the first place. But what I’m always really after as a painter is the ability to show a little glimpse of how perfect something seemed, how fully alive and amazing and “just right” it looked—or, in this case, sounded. If I could paint the sound of the night there at the edge of Longboat Key, I would. Burchfield sure tried, and, in my view, he succeeded. But I’m no Burchfield. I think I’ve pointed that out before. And to think all of this was about a bunch of those loathed crickets—and maybe a little something else out there—that made a Florida night seem whole and complete and exactly as it should be. Life, just as it is.

Of course, come summer, back in Rochester, I’ll be hunting crickets with extreme prejudice.

 

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