Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa

Outdoors: Monocular vision

Jan 13, 2021

In the European sculpture wing of most art museums, one is confronted with a bewildering assortment of mythological gods and goddesses.

I can usually recognize the Roman god of doors and transitions, Janus, because he has two heads, one looking forward and one looking back.

To see both forward and backward, a double face would be necessary.

Human eyes, located on the very front of face, produce what is known as binocular vision.

Outdoors: The star of Bethlehem?

Jan 11, 2021

Visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, composer Gian Carlo Menotti viewed the Bosch painting "The Adoration of the Magi."

It reminded him of his childhood in Italy, where, on January 6, children received gifts, not from Santa Claus, but rather, from the Three Kings.

This memory inspired him to write an opera for television, "Ahmal and the Night Visitors," which my family watched every year.

Outdoors: Halcyon days

Dec 30, 2020

Well, they’re over.

Halcyon days, that is.

The phrase, I discover, refers to a period of calm, peacefulness and prosperity.

The term shows up in poetry, once or twice in Shakespeare, and even in modern articles and essays.

I used to be a bit startled when I encountered it.

Having once dutifully memorized the scientific names of bird subfamilies, I connected the name Halcyon with kingfishers. And what do kingfishers have to do with tranquility?

According to mythology, quite a bit.

Outdoors: The bleak midwinter

Dec 23, 2020

Earth was hard as iron
Water like a stone

I love the Rossetti lyrics to Holst’s carol “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

While I have doubts about the Biblical accuracy of this description, it is certainly is true in the Great Lakes region.

Outdoors: The moon of wintertime

Dec 16, 2020

Twas in the Moon of Wintertime
When all the birds had fled
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead.


The charming Huron Carol uses a French tune, but the lyrics were written during the 1640s by a Jesuit missionary in the Great Lakes region.

In trying to explain the miracle of Christmas to First Nation People, the black-robed father used images from nature.

I rather like his idea that God used birds and angels interchangeably.

Outdoors: Visions of sugar plums

Dec 9, 2020

The Interlochen production of The Nutcracker will be virtual this year, and, already, I have visions of the Sugar Plum Fairy dancing in my head.

So what is a sugar plum?

The ingredients for sugar plums have changed over the centuries, but in Tchaikovsky’s day, sugar plums were confections, most likely nuts covered with a hard candy shells, not unlike our Jordan almonds.

Outdoors: Holly and ivy

Dec 2, 2020

Of all the trees that are in wood, 
The holly bears the crown.

It’s hard to imagine the holiday season without "The Holly and the Ivy," but how did these plants become associated with Christmas?

In the pagan cultures of Northern Europe, people were quite taken with evergreens. If a plant could stay green during the cold days of winter, they believed it must possess mystical powers, many of which had to do with fertility.

Outdoors: Thanksgiving smells

Nov 25, 2020
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

"Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme."

When I say sage, I suppose most Americans think of sagebrush—the pungent plant of the West.

That sage is in the sunflower family, while, like rosemary and thyme, true sage is a mint.

Mints have been cherished for centuries because these plants give off volatile oils—which, after evaporating, have a pleasant odor.

In nature, this scent helps mints attract insect pollinators.

The same volatile oils can make food more palatable.

Outdoors: Chickadee contact call

Nov 18, 2020

Just like humans, chickadees are social.

They split up into pairs during the breeding season, but this time of year, they  form flocks with other chickadees and often with other birds such as nuthatches and small woodpeckers, and they move through the forest in a group.

By definition, a forest is full of trees, and sight lines are limited.

Occasionally, a little chickadee suddenly realizes that it cannot see its flockmates (if that's a word).

Outdoors: The gales of November

Nov 11, 2020
Shipwreck Coast Museum

This year, "the gales of November came early."   

In his haunting ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot sang of a very real phenomenon:  40% of all Great Lakes shipwrecks have occurred during the month of November.

The Great Lakes hold vast volumes of water, and well into autumn, that water retains some of the heat it absorbed last summer. 

In November, when lakes are still relatively warm, the air is light as it rises above the water surface, creating what meteorologists call "stationary low pressure.”

Outdoors: Shakespeare's starlings

Nov 4, 2020

Eugene Schieffelin loved the plays of William Shakespeare, and he also loved birds.

I get that. But I just watch them - the plays and the birds.

Schieffelin had a grand plan to pay tribute to the Bard by bringing every bird mentioned in the Shakespearean plays to the Americas.

In just one line, in just one play - "Henry IV" - Shakespeare mentioned starlings.

Outdoors: Into the Woods

Oct 28, 2020

Halloween is the perfect time to listen to a recording of the musical "Into the Woods."

"You go into the woods / where nothing is clear / where witches, ghosts and wolves appear / into the woods and through the fear / you have to take the journey."

When his fairytale characters go "into the woods," Stephen Sondheim is using the lyrics as a metaphor for a dangerous quest required to make wishes come true.

Outdoors: Art in pandemics

Oct 21, 2020

I recently re-read "Station Eleven." This post-apocalyptic novel was the selection for the 2015 Great Michigan Read, so I read it then.

The book, set during and following a catastrophic pandemic, draws comparisons between a group of actors and musicians who travel and perform along the familiar shore of Lake Michigan and the troupes of itinerant performers who traveled through Shakespeare's England.

Outdoors: Goldfinches

Oct 14, 2020

Antonio Vivaldi wrote the Concerto for Flute in D in 1729. This work, known as "the Goldfinch," includes a birdlike cadenza and is filled with twittering passages.

I've heard recordings of European goldfinches. Vivaldi did a bit of embellishing of the bird's trills and warbles. 

In my opinion, the name "goldfinch" for the European species is a stretch. The bird is sort of brown, with yellow and black wings.

Outdoors: Taming shrews

Oct 7, 2020

Why is it that when men speak derogatorily of women, they refer to them as animals?

This beastly name-calling dates back at least to Shakespeare's time. The Bard referred to Kate as a shrew in the play "The Taming of the Shrew."

Admittedly, to describe a vicious, aggressive individual, the type who, whenever she opens her mouth, poison seems to flow out, that name might have been apt.

If the shrew fits...

Outdoors: Seeing red

Sep 30, 2020

How many actors and dancers are bugged when they have to wear rouge?

What if they knew that, in many cases, they were smearing crushed insects on their faces? Would they see red?

Any makeup listing "carmine" as an ingredient is made from crushed insects called cochineal. 

The actual cochineal insect is puny, similar to a mealy bug. They live on the juices from prickly pear cactus.

In areas of Mexico, Bolivia and Peru, the insects are raised and harvested.

Outdoors: Black swans

Sep 23, 2020
Orange County Register

When economists talk about "black swans," they're referring to an unpredictable event, often one with a severe impact.

The year 2020 has certainly had some black swans.

Even during migration, I can't imagine seeing black swans on Green Lake or Duck Lake.

Outdoors: Cricket percussion

Sep 16, 2020

I play the keyboard for a little country church. After one of the COVID-careful services, I complained to my husband that it felt wrong, somehow, to play hymns when nobody was singing.

He pointed out that, although the congregation wasn't singing, a cricket was.

To be technical, crickets do not sing.

It's more like percussion, a sound made by striking or scraping. 

Outdoors: Art and trees

Sep 9, 2020

We all know that trees are essential for the environment, but trees are actually quite important to visual artists as well.

While the finest papers are still made from rags, these days, most paper comes from wood pulp.

Paper also is processed and sized with various gums derived from trees.

Rosins, usually from pine trees, are used as surface coatings for many papers.

Many historical works of art - especially Italian paintings - were created by dissolving pigments in walnut oil.

Gums from trees act as binders for watercolors.

Outdoors: Birds' farewell

Sep 2, 2020

Back in 1772, playing in Haydn's orchestra at Prince Esterhazy's summer palace probably seemed like a pretty sweet gig.

But as the long season wore on, the musicians were more than ready to return home to their wives and families.

According to the familiar story, rather than pleading the musicians' case to the Prince directly, Haydn wrote the work that has come to be known as the Farewell Symphony.

Outdoors: Monarchs of the lake

Aug 26, 2020

"He was an Englishman." I'm thinking that when W.S. Gilbert wrote "I am the monarch of the sea" for the operetta "HMS Pinafore," he was not referring to the North American butterflies known as monarchs. 

Occasionally, either because of defective instincts or being blown off course, monarchs are found roosting on drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

But monarchs do not belong on the sea.

Outdoors: Shakespeare's Roses

Aug 19, 2020

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Apparently, Shakespeare liked roses. He mentioned them - not just in "Romeo and Juliet" - but in more plays and sonnets than any other flower.

Being emblems of the Houses of York and Lancaster, red and white roses thrived Shakespeare's historical plays. 

What could be more romantic than a long-stemmed red rose?

Outdoors: Summertime birds

Aug 12, 2020

"Summertime, and the livin' is easy." Easy, perhaps, but it is incredibly quiet at Interlochen these days.

"Summertime" is from the controversial George Gershwin opera "Porgy and Bess." The way I read the lyrics, the song "Summertime" speaks to white privilege.

But it's hauntingly beautiful, and the tune has been stuck in my head this summer.

It's about the only music I hear outdoors. Even the birds have stopped singing.

It's summertime.

Outdoors: Lazy circles in the sky

Aug 5, 2020

A few years back, the annual musical at Interlochen Arts Camp was "Oklahoma!" 

The Juniors all went to the dress rehearsal, and the next day, one of the campers asked, "Why do hawks make lazy circles in the sky?"

Understand that hawks hunt from the sky, so the higher they fly, the more area they can see.

Their eyesight is phenomenal. Apparently, birds of prey can see in the ultraviolet range of the spectrum, which turns out to be important.

Outdoors: Renaissance of trees

Jul 29, 2020

From 1450 to 1620, dramatic changes took place in Europe. The period, now called the Renaissance, resulted from a complex interaction of factors that brought about changes in politics, religion, economics and the arts.

I've recently read a number of articles that suggested that a pandemic led to the Renaissance - a hopeful thought, because during that time, educated people came to believe they could learn from nature.

Science as we know it came to be.

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