What do we need and what don’t we need? What have we taken for granted? One word we hear a lot during these pandemic days of reassessment is essential. And many people now include outside on their list of essentials. “After home-schooling on Zoom all morning, my kids just have to get outside,” says a young mom balancing work, school and child-care. Alongside the City sidewalks are worn pathways, a sign of the times, many more walking and jogging feet outside, distancing as we pass. The City parks, now more than ever, are essential. Trails that in springtimes past were unused and overgrown are now well-trodden.
Folks need to get outside, burn off steam. We are doing our best to comply with Stay-At-Home Orders, including lots of time in front of our screens. But the soul needs more than screens. Especially during hard times, we can’t live on screens alone. Some neighborhood friends stop by on a sunny April day, standing six feet apart in the back yard, youngsters running around. As the adults chat, a three-year-old, exuberant in the spring sunshine, goes natural, shedding his diaper along with a primal scream. His mom turns to the adults and deadpans: “Don’t you wish you could do that!”
Turns out that the three-year-old naturalist is just being Exhibit A for what American biologist E.O. Wilson calls “biophilia”: the essential affinity and connection between nature and human health and well-being. “Nature,” Wilson writes, “holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” That said, not all of us sadly can be outside. A friend who is ill and older is quarantined in a nursing home, unable to leave her room. We are mindful of how many fellow Americans don’t have outdoors as an option. Those of us fortunate enough to be able to go outside can take in a breath of fresh air with a new and simpler form of gratitude.
Among our favorite places in this town are the Cincinnati Art Museum and Cincinnati Zoo, currently closed by order of Governor DeWine. I’m not here to whine about closure orders but only to say we miss these places, even though we screen-visit and use their social media resources which have always been excellent but are especially so during Covid. Biophilia has something to do with our missing. Both places are neither just indoors nor outdoors but a beautiful synthesis of both. The Zoo is in a park and botanical gardens. The Museum is in a park, Eden Park. Both the Zoo and the Museum are not only in, but of their natural settings, which is why they lift the spirits of hundreds of thousands of people year after year.
One example of the outside-inside CAM is Vincent van Gogh’s Undergrowth with Two Figures (re-imagined by the way in LEGOs for a CAM online contest), a masterpiece that explores human relationships to nature and vice versa. Van Gogh connects a deep forest of shadowed trees, a lush undergrowth and a man and woman among the trees, walking toward the viewer. Adding to the painting’s mystery and mood is the absence of a path. Typically, a landscape painter would eagerly include a well-defined path for the figures to walk on and draw the viewer into a painting. But there is nothing typical about van Gogh whose biophilia was off the charts, an essential outsider with genius-level sensors to outdoor light, air, color, form and meaning.
Let’s imagine he left out a path because he invites us to make our own.
Van Gogh’s pathless figures will have a woodsy pathway soon. It’s well under construction now, right out the Museum’s front door among the trees and undergrowth, a new one-of-a-kind outdoor civic and art space on the hillside grounds of CAM: Art Climb. Art Climb re-connects the Museum to its historic neighborhood, artfully linking Mt. Adams, Walnut Hills, Mt. Auburn, Gilbert-Sinton, Pendleton and Downtown. Art Climb’s planning and construction bridges our pre-and-post pandemic community. So Art Climb will come to symbolize the power of art-in-nature to connect with people—families and neighbors, citizens and strollers, kids and teachers, picnickers and out-on-a-daters, musicians and artists…all are welcome and admission is free.
Note to three-year-old naturalist: it’s free but not TOO free.