Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Surf's Down, or To (Move) the Lighthouse, or Hey, Hey, You, You, Get Out of My Canyon

Let's go surfin' now, everybody's learnin' how... hey, who moved the freakin' breakers?

To the lighthouse, Virginia... hey, who moved the freakin' coastal phallus!?

Well, who cares about these seafaring squabbles (or is it "squalls") anyway? Enough people, it seems, to make headlines, op-ed pieces and letters in the Times. (I won't link to the Times because it requires registration, but if you want to see the articles go to, register, and do a search for "Montauk Lighthouse".) Yes, it seems that battle lines have been drawn at the water's edge: the Army Corps of Engineers have proposed building a big sea wall to save the lighthouse from a wipeout as the beach erodes before it; while the Surfriders organization is suggesting that someone beam the lighthouse up the hill instead. What they fear is that a serious wave, affectionately known as the "Alamo", would get clobbered by the new sea wall. Apparently, they're unmoved by the fact that if the "Alamo" indeed became a memory it would make a really catchy battle cry.

Meanwhile, 3 time zones away, skiers and snowmobilers in the forests of Utah are at loggerheads over whether the gassy vehicles should be given expanded racing rights in currently restricted areas of the Wasatch Mountains. And to prove that they mean business, some iron horse owners apparently ganged up on a yurt where skiers crash during overnight trips and bashed it up. Don't rush to judgment here; it is entirely possible that the goons were simply confused between a "yurt" and a "yeti", and thought they were attacking the Abominable Snowman.

So you think these conflicts have nothing in common? Just because one is East Coast, the other is West coast, one is at sea level, the other is up there in the UV-danger altitudes, and one group wears four layers from head to toe while the other wears one on a bad day? No, you don't really think that, do you. Everyone knows you can't judge a sport by its clothing, or lack thereof. (Actually, from the one time I tried taking a dip out at Montauk, I'd expect the surfing experience there to be enhanced by a few layers of insulation). Anyway, snow is just water in disguise, which I guess makes a mogul a wave in drag. So maybe snowmobilers aren't the winter wonderland equivalent of the Army Corps of Engineers; perhaps
a better analogy would be the Panzer Legions that rumbled through the Ardennes forest in the Battle of the Bulge. But the setup has a basic similarity: you've got this group of outdoor enthusiasts who think they have a grip on some really quintessential, low-tech human experience, something where you more or less place yourself in the grip of nature's forces and not only survive them but join them, plug into the cosmic material and feel a spiritual oneness with it (insert appropriate lines from Hindu mystical poetry here)... Okay, I got a little carried away, but basically, I am no stranger to this sensibility.

And on the other side you have, let's see, the same bunch of guys who were going to create a huge landfill in the Hudson River to make room for a superhighway-slash-luxury-housing-development known as Westway, until they got stopped (in part) by some striped bass who didn't really want to have to navigate this obstacle course; and some yahoos on powder-grade Harleys who want to experience the wilderness at 80 mph and about as many decibels. Did I slant the equation any? Sorry... never said this blog was going to be a lesson in objectivity.

Anyway, you see why the Parrot has his avian eyes trained on these contests. You have in the first corner a group that is having a kind of aesthetic experience, and they think that on some level, this is the kind of experience you should have, and that by the very fact that it involves communion with nature as it is, with very little interference from modern technology, they have a kind of right to this experience. In the other corner you have folks who also want to have some kind of experience, but this one requires the enhancement (?) of nature by some technical means that will in some way ruin the first group's experience. So it is argued that the famed lighthouse must remain exactly where it was built because the site is part of the lighthouse's aesthetic nature; and that snowmobilers have the right to enjoy the same nature that skiers enjoy, by whatever means they choose.

Now, to the extent that history and place themselves have a certain aesthetic appeal, the lighthouse stabilizer contingent at least has an argument. There is surely some greater aesthetic pleasure in seeing a pyramid exactly where it was built than, say, a site half a mile away where it was moved because the shifting sands threatened to destabilize it. How much is the question. I recently visited another famous lighthouse, the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse
in Acadia National Park in Maine. This one might as well be blown up as moved to another spot. Location, location, location... it stands at the edge of a cliff, and is reached by a narrow winding path. That's part of the charm of this little place. The Montauk lighthouse also stands on a promontory, but isn't built into it in the same way. It's just not the same problem; moving back a little makes almost no difference from an aesthetic point of view. I am not going to get involved in the arguments over technical feasibility and cost; of course if it can't be done, it can't be done. But odds are it can; I mean, the Cloisters, a museum of medieval art in the Bronx, was moved here from Spain and rebuilt brick by brick, so I don't really believe it can't be done. And as for the cost ($27 million as some estimates go) you could say there are better things to spend money on, like hospitals and hunger. Then again, there are a lot more things to waste money on, like bombs and urban superhighways, and this at least would have a purpose in human appreciation over decades or centuries.

As for the NTV's (that's Noisy Terrain Vehicles), I'm not quite sure what there argument is. They kind of remind me of the guy who stood up at a meeting to support an oversized housing development in Brooklyn (about which more in a future post) and made the argument that "bulldozers are coming!" Yes, I see your logic... Well, why not tour the Wasatch in bulldozers? But I have a solution that should work for everybody. Ban the snowmobiles from recreational activities, but let them help remove all the skiers and hikers who end up stranded, lost, injured, exhausted, or stuck under an avalanche. That should give them plenty of opportunity to get out their dragsters and haul ass up Logan Canyon, the reverberating echoes of their engines suddenly sounding pleasant and reassuring to the desperate, frostbitten children of nature. Surely this is a solution worthy of Solomon; I hope the Forest Service is prepared to recognize me with a medal of honor or something.

Ultimately, this kind of conflict reaches into much wider issues in our aesthetic attitudes. Because something very similar again is going on when someone puts up a piece of public art which offends someone else, and defenders of the artist insist they are entitled to this aesthetic experience as a right, while opponents are equally convinced that they are entitled to the experience of not having to see this thing, whatever it is. Do the arguments over the appreciation of nature give us a leg up on these difficult public art issues? I think so, but I'm going to let my readers (I think I must have at least two by now) ponder its significance.

Disclaimer: When H.A. Monk is not winging it over the urban jungle looking for cultural issues and aesthetic trouble, he may sometimes be found on a Vermont slope, enjoying a moment of pristine isolation on his old scratched-up Rossi 400's, or body-surfing along the Atlantic coast (no board, I've never tried it) . Indeed he has experienced a few sublime, terrifying moments on top of a peak at Alta or Snowbird, and as I said, placed a toe or three in the chilly waters off Montauk. But as I have already disclaimed objectivity I don't see why I should apologize again.

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