Stone Hill — Philosophy made physical

He lives at the southern end of Stone Hill.

On a late summer afternoon he walked around his garden. On the slope above him, the meadow grew hip-high and protected the wetland that sent a stream across his lawn.

Here he channels the water into ponds and keeps the grass cut around natural marble intrusions and metal sculpture.

Mark C. Taylor is forming philosophical ideas — he might say figuring — in physical objects that he can touch, sit on, rake and plant around and light a fire in.

Taylor is chair and professor of religion at Columbia University. He is a philosopher, a post-modernist, an early explorer in cyberspace, and he spent 37 years as a professor of religion and humanities at Williams College. For most of that time, he said, he did not have a department. What he had was freedom to think.

In the last several years, he has been thinking about — and with, and through — the land he lives on. And this summer and fall he has made his thoughts tangible in an exhibit at the Clark Art Institute. He has co-curated “Sensing Place: Reflecting on Stone Hill” at the Lunder Center on Stone Hill, through Oct. 10, with Williams biology and environmental sciences professor Henry “Hank” Art.

The show grew out of a sense that people are losing touch with place, Taylor said.

He has turned this sense into the core of a book, “Recovering Place: Reflections on Stone Hill,” written in anticipation of the show. Working in his garden and walking in the woods become philosophical propositions, a collage of photographs and short essays, like a Modernist day book.

In the 21st-century, he writes, the world has become has faster, more digital and more uniform — a box store in Boise looks exactly like a box store in Tallahassee. Stocks can trade in nanoseconds. And people can live and work, meet and exchange from a cubicle or a windowless room without seeing one another.

Technology gives opportunities, he said; he was an early innovator in bringing the Web into the classroom. But on his own ground he recognizes that it also has costs. As digital becomes virtual, people have less value for the physical world. And the way people think about the world shapes the way they think about themselves: “When we do not know where we are, we do not know who we are.”

He began to reach out to where he is after an illness. He had taught at Williams for 17 years when he and his family moved in 1990 to the house where they live now, and it was grown over with scrub and young trees except for a paddock where the former owner used to ride. Seven or eight summers ago, he picked up his chain saw and began clearing the land.

The effort became a “clearing that allows form to form” he said — the beginning of a work of art, philosophy and landscape design that invokes ideas he has evolved over 40 years of teaching and writing. Aligning metal, raking stones, brush-hogging and mulching, he links his work back to those ideas, day by day.

He is drawn to voids, gaps and fissures.

For many years he has admired Michael Heizer, one of the first artists in the earthworks movement, known for working with negative space. In the ’60s, Heizer led a movement to get away from New York galleries and high-powered collectors, Taylor said; he insisted an artist could create with a back-hoe — and he carved channels in the top of a mesa.

Since then Heizer has spent more than 40 years in the Nevada desert, working on a monumental sculpture in rock and concrete with a design influenced by Mexican cities like Teotihuacan and pyramids built more than 2000 years ago.

When Taylor began to reshape his own land, he also built a pyramid. His is steel

and deliberately imperfect. It is a form of intersecting metal rods, standing near its own shape cut out of the earth: a reference to Jacques Derrida, a friend of his who challenged Western philosophy and has influenced social science and literature, music, architecture and art.

Working wth two artisans from North Adams, Taylor has welded philosophers into his garden. Carefully spaced among his geometric forms, he has designed the shapes of three flowing initials, more than man-high — the first letters of the signatures of Nietzsche (who signed his later work Dionysos), Kierkegaard and Hegel.

Philosophers have built theories for centuries about the ways ‘real’ physical things and imagination interact.

Hegel set out to study the ways human minds deal with the outside world — take resources from it, control it, withdraw from it into despair or obsession, measure it, or use it to measure the mind or block it.

Derrida, expanding and critiquing his argument, defined elements of experience that could be — not real, and not imagined — but in the center. His philosophy holds the idea of a gap, a fissure, between a sign and what it signifies: a word and what it means, a photograph of a hard rock maple and a living tree — or the profile picture on a Facebook page and the person who posted it.

Taylor sees some of that philosophy in motion online. In a virtual world, everything is a sign. People interact constantly now in a space where they recognize other people by aliases and images of Lolcats or anime characters.

The balance has shifted, Taylor argues, until students in the Berkshires know Minecraft landscapes better than the Stockbridge marble under their feet.

And so he decided to bring philosophy into the mud.

His garden is not planned as a whole, he said. He has moved from one idea to another, adapting to serendipity and the bones of the land. As he removed trees and brush, he found natural upthrusts of rock and cleared away the earth to expose marble ledges. Rivers of stone cross the grass like glacial moraines, and a sedimentary rock tilts up, layered like the pages of a book. A small stream feeds two small ponds from the wetland on the top of the hill.

Toward the center, drawing his metal and stone shapes together, he has formed a nexus, a stone shape of intersecting loops, crossed lines curving back on themselves with a fire pit at the empty center. He calculated the points where the sun sets  on the solstices and oriented the loops by them.

The shape represents for him a central point between poles, what the novelist Dorothy Sayers called “a balance of opposing forces” — an idea that sits at the center of his speculations and arguments, as nexus sits at the center of his sculptures. This kind of tension forms the show, the book and his vision of Stone Hill itself.

“Sensing Stone Hill” is about connection to a place, and the book and the show beg the question, what kind of connection he is defining. If place is viscerally important, what is place?

Taylor defines Stone Hill in a collage of details: coyote tracks, the musk of skunks, changes in light. “When the sun drifts south, its angle shifts and colors change. Yellows and reds, oranges and browns, ambers and umbers … create a glow” that absorbs him until he seems to hear the light as well as see it.

But as he describes it, this intense play of senses brings him away from the physical. When he is raking leaves until “it is no longer clear where the body ends and earth begins,” what he feels is not an awareness of mind and body together but a meditative quiet where the mind floats without moving and the body seems to dissolve.

Place is something he can see, hear and scent. He can take infrared photographs of it in the dark. And he reaches toward it. He wants to counteract a virtual world that has no substance. He wants to cut his own grass and wash down his welded steel to give it a coppery patina. But when fall on the hill overwhelms him, he is not touching it.

Place, in his hands, is made of opposites.

Taylor has spent time and physical work, thought and feeling to connect the land where he lives to his ideas. And yet at their core those ideas have an essential disconnection.

He returns over and again to negative space, emptiness, departure.

“The closer we draw to the near,” he writes, “the more it slips away; the closer the near draws to us, the more restless we become.”

Sitting in the barn he has converted into a studio, he looked over books and bones and vials of earth he has collected carefully over many years, and he talked about creative imagination like an alchemist seeking an alkahest, a universal solvent.

“Drawing apart,” he said, “allows us to be what we are.”

He sees human creativity surrounded by a greater creativity. Life moves on the hill and the stars mark time, and they stimulate his mind, and they are outside it.

He looks at the ‘real’ world and the imagined world that Hegel defined and Derrida linked in intricate patterns. And he writes that real and imagined are not fixed poles — like his nexus, they balance and curve toward each other. But they only cross at an empty fire pit.

And lighting a fire at the equinox does not fill the void. It clarifies the darkness.


In the photo at the top, clouds mass above Stone Hill behind the Clark Art Institute. Photo by Kate Abbott

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