The Thing on Southeast Farallon
"Today the count of objects in the world," begins a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, "has increased by one." He was talking about a wreath he wove: I link the words to another weaving that has occurred, a plaiting of artistry and biology and technology and hard physical labor, on Southeast Farallon Island, twenty miles off the Golden Gate.
And this island, what a piece of nature! If the highest beauty requires both prettiness and harshness, perfection and discord, this place is sublimely beautiful. Ringed by cliffs and tricky surfs, rugged as an alpine peak or lithic desert hill, the island has very strong bones. To the painter Chester Arnold it suggests the bony point that protrudes in the human neck (tilt your head back a little and see): "If there is any land-mass that resembles the seventh cervical spine of California," he says, "it's the Farallon Islands."
But of course the chief meaning of this place is in its living cargo. Great colony and refuge of the wild, the island supports the kind of animal mobs that few mainland sites can muster any more: the acres of black-and-white, upright, penguinish murres on their startling jewel-green eggs; the elephant seals, comically sprawled and piled, showing the scars of mating battles andgreat white shark attacks; even the inescapable western gulls, mouths agape to eat or attack the world, that rule the roost nine months of the year. Say "Farallon" and I hear an instant music, a kind of animal ocean-noise, built mainly of gull cries and sea lion barkings. Every gull is saying Mine! Mine!Mine!, but the lions sometimes seem to be sounding off for the sheer pleasure of it.
Southeast Farallon will cure you of any notion of nature as pastoral. It's serious, deadly, full-time business here, none of it laid on for our amusement. That such a place should nonetheless be beautiful to us is one of the mysteries of evolution. What is beauty, or our sense of beauty, for? Where did it come from? Is it some accidental off-flowering from sex? Was the lion I saw swimming alone up and down an inlet, parting its sleek dark head to bark and bark and bark, feeling something we might recognize as an aesthetic zest?
And the new object, introduced into this rich, cruel, teeming world: how does that fit in?
From a distance-from a boat offshore, for instance-you have trouble spotting it. That's part of the plan.
Closer up, you see a sort of tumulus, a slightly lopsided pile built of tan local stones that are in fact fragments of concrete (scavenged from one of this wild island's numerous human ruins). Many laborious, argumentative hours in the making, built by techniques a drywall mason taught, the structure is meant to look like a plain old piece of island. A person can clamber up it with no fear of anything's shifting. A small bird-a Cassin's auklet, a pigeon guillemot, or (the builders hope) an endangered ashy storm petrel-can probe its chinks and layers in search of a nesting place that the gulls, being larger, can't reach and rob.
The structure, then, is both a habitat and a blind, a place from which scientists can observe creatures with minimum disturbance of them. Its 32 nests serve the function of 32 of the separate wooden nesting boxes you see scattered all over the flatter parts of the island. Designed from the start to scientists' specifications, it awaits the critical verdict of the birds themselves. "If the birds are terrified," Henry Corning remarked at its completion, "it's just rubble." First signs, however, are good: the first season after its completion, seven Cassin's auklets had moved in on the lower floors. The petrels, fussier, have yet to write their review.
What about our review? The blind is billed as an art object. Is it?
Let's back up about three steps. What can we say about the kind of object it is?
To start with, it is a *useful* object. From the first sketches to adjustments still going on, it is designed and built to a purpose: to meet the requirements of the birds and the people who study them. Every detail has a practical origin. Except for one grace note-a mosaic on the door, made up of bits of painted plywood scavenged from ocean beaches-there is no hint of decoration. It seems to put new life into that long-unfashionable modernist claim that form should follow function. Here, it seems to work.
Second, it is a *well-built* object. Created by artists and supported by grant money, the project cuts no corners. Each feature designed, each material used, each small decision made, seems to have flowed from the question: What is best for this purpose? and never from the questions: What can we do in a reasonable time? and What can we afford? In our era this headlong artisanship is a kind of baroque extravagance, and one never meets it without a subtle thrill.
Third-and this gets back to where we started, with the challenge of the setting-this is a *modest* object. Say rather: an *embedded* one. It takes its meanings from the place; it is almost an extension of its place. There is no possible competition, after all. The island is not demoted to a pedestal. Lots of luck, if you tried.
Fourth-and this point is just a little different-this object is a *hidden* one. Not many people get onto Southeast Farallon. Like the island itself, the new thing on it must be appreciated from a distance. The makers (and sponsors) can't call the project complete until this appreciation happens-through photography, through painting, through poetry. And because the thing is so embedded in its place, it can only be appreciated through a heightened appreciation of the Farallon Islands themselves.
I went to the island the first time prepared to wrestle with this question. I came back the second time convinced that it might be the wrong one to ask.
For a century now artists have been accustomed to pushing outward the boundaries of what's called art, delighting in the squeals of people whose expectations are violated. But the old fun is gone. the conservatives, by and large, have given up the game. In my particular field, a commentator has decreed: "Poetry is whatever the writer decides it is." These days the transgressive thing to do is really to suggest that there is some realm of human creation to which the label "art" might better *not* be applied.
Increasingly I prefer to jettison the question in favor of a harder one, to jump from a definitional bog into the Great Dismal Swamp itself, and frame the question rather in terms of quality: Not is this thing art, or not; but is this thing any good, and how?
When it comes to the new object on Southeast Farallon, I think you know my answer.
In drywall masonry, you can tell by the sound when your new stone has mated solidly with the old; the meeting of the surfaces gives off a confirmatory *clunk*.
To me, from every aspect of this undertaking, that *clunk* seems to resound.
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