An Urbana Almanac
by Kiko Matsing
Summer has definitely set in. After a bitter winter, and spring weather that lingered till mid-June, we’re finally getting stretches of sweltering days in the 90’s. My kind of weather. I love solar heat that is palpable to the skin. It turns golden as if touched by King Midas. I love sweat cooled by wind when I ride my bike in the cornfields, now almost tall as myself. Joseph Black, a fellow of the Royal Society in the 18th century, called it the latent heat of vaporization. Heat that is hidden–that does not register as a temperature rise, but as a change of state. The skin is said to be the largest organ of the body. This supple shell is also our heat sink.
The first route is a big loop around the twin towns of Urbana and Champaign, which shares the University of Illinois, split in the middle between the two at Wright Street. I start by going south on Race, turning west on Windsor, north on Matthis, and finally east on University. This route gives me a good spatial sense of its extent, its environs, and the distance from one downtown to the other.
The second route takes you east of Urbana on Washington, past High Cross, and into the maze of cornfields. It’s pretty straightforward, except for a couple of jogs, and a gentle southward bend that takes you all the way to Homer Lake, where the country road becomes State Road. As a lawyer in the late 1840’s, Abraham Lincoln used to frequent this road, which was the main artery that connected Urbana and Danville.
Homer Lake is halfway to Kickapoo State Park, which would be another hour and a half biking on Lincoln Trail Road. The park is just west of Danville, the last Illinois city on I-74 before Indiana.
It’s amazing how snow instantly transforms the landscape. I peered through my curtains one evening, and lo, everything was white. It had snowed, perhaps for a couple of hours, and the world outside has changed completely. It has become dreamlike, otherworldly. I stepped outside with my camera. It was midnight, but the veil of whiteness made it bright as dusk. Johann Heinrich Lambert, an 18th century Swiss astronomer, called this diffuse reflection the albedo effect, from the Latin for white.
Snow had also leveled everything. It was disorienting. I did not know where the driveway ended and the street began. This glittering powder, twirling as it fell, accrued into a white crust that made the streets disappear. It removed all human demarcations, and re-imposed a continuous, undifferentiated natural order.
Mid-April: Daffodils, Hyacinths, Magnolia, Tulips
Daffodils signal the arrival of spring. They are the first to flower once temperatures become mild, along with hyacinths and tulips, but they quickly wilt away when it gets any warmer. They are also called the Narcissus, after the Greek youth who became enamored with his own reflection. Vegetation quickly fills the barren ground with life. I swear the ferns in the backyard grew two feet overnight. As the season waxes, the various species of flowers come and go in a set progression of blossoming and withering. What gross expenditure in but a transient opulence! But flowers are angiospermous sex organs. They are nature’s investment in fecundity.
My favorite flowering tree is the Japanese magnolia. Its enormous flowers with pink-to-purple ombré shading bloom dramatically from bare branches, and hang around for only a couple of weeks before they are replaced by deciduous leaves. It is glorious to be standing underneath this canopy of daintiness, like being in attendance at a royal court or a Kurosawa dream of a peach orchard. In the fall, it will change color again, for the third time.
Dreams (1990), Akira Kurosawa
Tulips are not all red, or yellow, or pink. Some of the most surprising colors are tangerine and purple, sometimes so deep they are almost black.
Mid-May: Poppies, Onion
Poppies also bloom only briefly. Their petals look as delicate as crepe tissue. They teeter in the wind on long gnarly stems, which make them look even more fragile. While I meant to take pictures of poppies, I also saw these interesting globes of small, lavender-colored flowers. It took me a while of image searching to find out what they were, which all the more added to my surprise: they were the common onion.
I love photographing flowers up close, so their visage fills the frame of view and spills over the borders. This simple change of scale creates a dreamy, surrealistic quality. The flower becomes an abstract object, like the voluptuous flower paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, or the bold color fields in post-painterly abstraction.
Red Poppy (1928), Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986)
Late-May: Peonies, Irises, Roses
These are the royalty of flowers, much celebrated in the canvases of Dutch School flower painters (van Huysum, de Heem, Mignon). Peonies are exceptionally florid and typically form the centerpiece of their still life’s. I’ve always wondered what those monumental things were. The flower heads mature to a great size until their weight makes them stoop to the ground, in what seems like a comeuppance for their proliferative hubris. Owing to this, they get dashed, stepped on, or pelted by rain. Nature is no respecter of beauty, no matter how exquisite.
Mid-June: Lilies, Dasies, Hydrangeas
Lilies seem to be the sturdiest of the bunch. They have been abloom for weeks, well into the summer, but don’t seem to be bothered by the intensifying heat. Across where I lived, there’s an orange fire hydrant, beside which tiger lilies flourished. Their long narrow petals curl back, exposing tender, antler-like stamens. This opening up that risks vulnerability in the impulse to flourish makes the flower a central metaphor for the loss of innocence. This was best exploited in the opening titles of Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Ironically, I think it is not May Welland (Wynona Ryder) nor Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), but Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) who was the flower in the story.
The Age of Innocence (1993), Martin Scorsese
from The Leaves are Falling (26 Oct 2009):
Leaves have finally turned color! I had been waiting for this all summer, not having lived north enough before to see the four-season cycle. The streets are covered in opulent gold and red, and gleam in late afternoon light. Color changes first at the fringes. It is not so much the production of yellow, as the retreat of green–the disappearance of chlorophyll–that light-harvesting molecule that transforms air into the trees’ very substance. Now, it is shutting down operations, one-by-one dismantling its photosynthetic accoutrements, until a mere black skeleton remains of a once dazzling fullness–a naked stick to stand up to winter.
Reds and purples also appear, at the right conditions, as excess sugars of winter hoarding are transformed by light into color. An occult conjunction of moisture and weather, the onset of spring, the end of summer. No two autumns are thus ever alike.
Hero (2002), Zhang Yimou
Fourth of July
I had since moved to a new place, just a couple of blocks from where I was staying. Shelley, the woman who owns it teaches yoga, but is an artist at heart. She paints in the abstract expressionist mode, a form (or formlessness) that I have recently come to appreciate. Her house is somewhat in a purposeful disarray, like an unfinished canvas. It feels scuffed by life. Friends openly come and go. In the evenings, things may suddenly get energized, and jazz music would play on the piano.
It’s been two years since I moved here in Illinois for a job at the university, and seven years since I relocated to the US. It is a long time to be away from my country, but I have also grown fond of this one. Shelley invited me to a party for her yoga class on the Fourth of July. It was at a house in Homer surrounded by trees in the middle of soybean fields. As the evening set in, thousands of fireflies rose from the ground. The children brought out jars to collect the “lightning bugs”. A sickle-shaped moon appeared on the indigo sky just above an orange horizon. Soon the fireworks began. We had a wide view of three towns in the backyard, but our attention turned to the kids. The jars were forgotten in the grass, and they started playing with glow sticks, twirling them in their arms. “Oh, how beautiful!,” Shelley cheered. “Who needs jazz when you can watch children play with colors!”