Essay Notes/Draft: "Sensitive Flesh"


Notes from the "Shawangunk Art: Philosopher's Stone" Set.

Sensitive Flesh

Charles Carver

You may click images below for more images
At Split-Rock, near the Coxing Trail head, the waters of the Coxing Kill gather into a pool after plunging through a wide gap in the conglomerate bedrock. During a previous era, the flow through the flume was utilized to power a sawmill run by the Enderly family for the mountain hamlet of Trapps. The water was harnessed to churn a wheel attached to a giant saw that became the chief Enderly laborer at the time. In more recent decades, the impressive, but still intimate pool at the end of the gap has provided a popular swimming hole in the Gunks. The pool collects just before the Coxing Kill meanders to sweep through the widening Clove Valley, initially with a series of gentle drops into little poolettes that are highly coveted during the summer months. Unlike the main pool at Split-Rock, the individual poolettes are claimed for a day by the first squatters that gain the rights to lounge and sunbath at their edge. This can be a highly competitive land-grab that requires dispatching scouts early in the day. The squatters must be prepared to defend their prized lounge for many hours on behalf of their lazier friends’ later arrival. Some visitors to the region stop at the main pool at Split Rock without venturing downstream where “clothing is optional”. Others, mostly locals, and sometimes in fellowship with members of their social community, saunter past the main pool with full knowledge of the informal rules downstream. 

After bouncing over springy boards that cover the mucky outskirts of Split-Rock outlet, the informal trail transitions and then presents the bathing region with intermittent lawn chairs either planted directly in the water, or upon the broad open conglomerate nearby, with a smattering of loungers who hang out in the low-lying chairs.
At times most of the bathers are naked, while much of the time, no one is naked.  As one can imagine, naked bathing is an entirely sensual experience. Being naked greatly increases the sensitivity and intensity of the senses while offering no breaks to the skin’s subtle receptivity. For those that have never experienced the sensitivity to even the slightest natural flux of water, sun, and air, the exercise seems to immediately invoke sentiments of exhibitionism, as if the fundamental motivation were not to sense, but to be seen. After an initiation into the experience, however, one recognizes that an exaggerated awareness of being seen is only the heightened activity of the initiate, even as one feigns a nonchalant air of composed relaxation that is entirely staged at first. But that too is natural— it is a natural response to disrobing outdoors amongst strangers in the modern era. After a little time and a quick unobtrusive set of observations, it becomes readily apparent that the only thing being exhibited if at all overtly, is a gesture of comfort with one’s own body and surroundings. Sometimes that still appears overly exhibited, as opposed to naturally inhabited. Nonetheless, despite the potential for comfort with one’s own body, the simple fact of having a body in a place where other bodies move about or situate naked in the same vicinity invokes unconscious glances that have to be controlled in the social gathering— not so much because of a hidden voyeuristic impulse at play, but more naively because visual curiosity is naturally attuned to even the slightest gestures that other bodies express in their fundamental bearing. This unconscious acuity ensures that the language of everyday discourse, and even sensation itself, will be intruded and altered by a heightened and over conscious experience, even if portions of that awareness were first launched under the radar.

Spy versus Spy

And so it was that having gone through this experience at one time or another, I was also surprised how readily an uncomfortable feeling can be transferred from those who are comfortably situated in their nakedness to those who might simply journey through the region fully clothed. Late one afternoon I decided to photograph parts of the Coxing Kill downstream after previously spending a few dawns to photograph Split Rock. I discovered immediately that if the heaviness of my hiking boots and backpack were not enough to unnerve the bather’s supple senses, the large medium-format camera mounted atop the tripod that I was carrying certainly represented a thoroughly obnoxious presentation. It had been many years since I had been one of the bathers in the region, so I had forgotten the unstated rules from the perspective of the bathers. In truth, I simply did not know the activity was still in practice. Onward I marched, nonetheless, with interrogating looks greeting me at every step. Eventually I had no other recourse but to plunge into the adjacent forest, as if it were my purposeful objective all along. This did little to settle the air I unnerved, for, I suppose in retrospect, it was simply thought that I sought a hidden vantage to set up my gear and spy on the native bathers unnoticed. It turned out, in fact, that I was followed to ensure that was not going to be the case. Even though my real objective was to place myself in the magical light as the sun grew low on the horizon, my gear was obviously interpreted as an alarming attempt to voyeuristically photograph the bodies that bathed—a clear act of intrusion. Someone decided to spy on the spy so as to reflect back the same pressure of observation to nudge me out of the region.

It was clear that I had disrupted the peaceful tranquility— and I completely understood. At the edge of the forest I discovered a little moss-carpeted streambed that probably flowed only in early spring. It was barren now— though beautiful in the green-luminant starkness of its carpeting. The streambed dropped off a small series of rounded white boulders and ran parallel to the Coxing Kill stream for a short distance before merging with it downstream. Shadows deepened in the sparsely forested region at the edge of the main forest as I attempted to set up shop and photograph the moss-carpeted bed in the opposite direction to the bathers. Even this activity became overly exhibitional on behalf of my trailing inquisitor, however, for he did not appear to be comforted as he stood his ground within sight. The independent nature of my act was in vain, for in the end, all that I captured was a cluster of mosquito bites and a hasty retreat— fully clothed, chin up, and with just as much nonchalance forced into my gesture as those who had become overly aware of my presence. I resolved to come to the region at another magic hour: the dawn of another day. And so I did.

At dawn the bathing region reverts into the bosom of nature. Here, the pre-dawn hour is not the prelude for the coming day with its scattered population of occupants. It is a prelude, more primordially, to a renewed existence. Objects emerge not so much from darkness, but with darkness and shadow integrated as spatial regions of their deeper forms. Dawn is the withdrawal of that immersion into a different formation of depth. As little pools swell their liquid masses into a side-winding mass, the dark Coxing Kill seems to pulse and upwell repeatedly, pushing forth from the depths of the bedrock itself. In truth, the water has arrived in the form of these recurrent currents after a journey that began way back in the ravine between Millbrook Mountain and the outlet at the south end of Lake Minnewaska. The distance has extracted tannins from pitch pine, hemlock, and other species along the way— brewing up a root beer colored tea— much like that of the Peters Kill stream only a mile on the other side of the rising landmass that houses Dickie Barre and Lost City on the west side of The Clove. There, after departing further south from the outlet of Lake Awosting, the Peters Kill stream steeps its tannins even longer than the Coxing Kill. But here, without the reflective brilliance of full daylight, the Coxing Kill’s body appears dark and viscous, until sunlight arrives to throw a spotlight on its finite depths. With the rising sun, the scene immediately transitions into its namesake: a scenic image; a region that might suggest the right setting to invite a lone deer or a bather into its midst— or perhaps a romanticized member of the Lenape tribe kneeling near the water’s edge. With its streaming portals ready to highlight the subject matter, the sun plays host to this scenic space. Beneath the waterline and just outside the reach of the sun’s portals, light-colored splashes of lichen paint symbolic patches on the submerged rocks. The painted splotches bolster the general significance in the air. Even if only self-referential, for the moment, the lichen have provided another source of luminance for our free-roaming eyes. To the east, in the direction of the Coxing Kill’s flow during parts of its meander northeast, the sun rose from a point directly at the end of the broad corridor of the stream. It seems now to course for no other reason than to greet it. Sunlight immediately plates the creeping, undulating surface with molten silver and gold. Edging the outskirts of the wide corridor, a mixed forest gains a mysterious unified presence with the disclosure of depth through the shadowplay that hints through the sun’s filtered light. It would be easy to follow the corridor directly toward the rising sun, or veer off into the mysterious shadowy forest on each side of the molten flow. Instead, the hour of magic is rapidly closing, and there is still more photography to be done. Soon, the self-luminant rock will bleach to mere substance. The Coxing Kill, like the Peters Kill, will project its snakelike ripples onto the surrounding bedrock. Its surface, and then its shallow depths, will display the same reptile skin— which is quite appropriate for its side-winding slither. Soon after, it will shed also that temporary skin and deepen its translucent clarity just in time to gently enwrap the exposed and sensitive flesh of the next round of bathers.

Let's Split

Split-Rock dawns an entirely different experience. The region is more enclosed and self-contained than the region downstream, which is ever beckoning beyond itself. By virtue of the rustic walk-bridge above the Coxing Kill and the stream’s subsequent journey through the bedrock flume, the trees and fractured boulders in the vicinity step forward to comingle a self-enclosed space. This space is bounded by the flaring depths of the deepening pool that acts as its edge as well as the local consummation of the Coxing Kill’s flow. On the inlet side of the gap and beyond the walk-bridge, the stream prepares for its joyride by gliding through a series of wide, elegant sweeps in a picturesque woodland environment that includes an open glade and a small field that was once part of the Enderly’s subsistence soil. Today, a tunnel effect is administered by the bridge over the stream. The flow is guided into the tunnel by blocks of conglomerate that nudge the rippling eddies into a sharp series of steps and turns before collecting into a steady sweep atop an undulating surface that has been sculpted smooth by millennia of polishing flow. There, the waters pile up on the outer edge of a gentle arc before spreading again in preparation for the abrupt drop inside the wide gap of displaced bedrock. The plunge creates a little curtain waterfall whose incessant crescendo is amplified within the elongated gap. An extended wading pool boisterously swims the entire length of the gap and then serves as the inlet to the larger main pool that flares out just beyond to terminate the momentum into an enclosed duration— a single space from a unified time. Like a pleasing answer that solicits no further inquiry, the main pool affords the Coxing Kill a chance to linger in the deepening joy of its recent journey. There, it has gathered and compressed the history of its recent adventure— consummating in the manner of a self-contained thought. Because Split-Rock is self-bounded in a woodland environment, the gathering light of pre-dawn intensifies a barely registerable transition. The sun makes its arrival long after sunrise, so the dawn is a smeared into a duration rather than an event. During the early hours, the waters of the Coxing Kill still remain pregnant with mysterious boulders and subtle hues of blues and greens that do not merely reflect the substance and shadows, or remain true to their surface pattern, but seem to embody the living depths of the Coxing Kill itself. The flow has a single body. The rock emerges from the same dark sinuous body with its own bearing— a soft metallic luster encapsulating hardness as a presence, as opposed to a relational term of description. As the light increases, however, a radical shift occurs, just as it does with the overt rise of the sun downstream. Early on, color is not that literal range of sensations that we attribute to it, but rather colour— that moody, feeling-based, and sometimes enchanting disposition— at least in the arresting use of the term. With this quality, our own body and the terrain itself were in perfect agreement early on. Pre-dawn hues did not so much present reflected light in the form of color as they affirmed a coherent experience prior to the light and color bundling into their discrete qualities. Only then do they bounce off objects to display independent entities. Only then do they collectively arrange a natural scene. Prior to that presentation, the Coxing Kill was the center and principle manifestation of a sentient flow. Afterward, the flow was no longer a submersion and partial disclosure of sentience. Like the space itself, it was once self-evident and unquestioned. It was not conscious, but it was immersed in a coupled receptivity that included us. With the gathering intensity of dawn, the flow and the terrain began to separate first from each other, and then from our witnessing presence, until they finally fused again into a witnessed scene.  It is only then that the scene can begin to playfully solicit from the photographer attempts to capture its style of temporary manifestation. The shadowy feelings that were once embodied in the rock begin to shift yellow and red, thereby canceling the moody feeling of the blues and greens that emanated from the depths. The shift pulls the metallic luster off the rocks so that they may be bleached appropriately white and grey, as is their anticipated rendering as ‘real’ rock for the senses. They situate then, as everyday objects for observation.

Split-Rock usually welcomes a small party of individuals who will inhabit it for more traditional sunbathing or wading, but even if made up of independent strangers, the party is bound into a single social gathering by the embraced space that has been created through the bounded flow. Within the pool and upon the land, rock cairns balance to float gentle reminders of presence between individuals. The cairns remind us also that it is silence that must shout above the incessant crescendo in order to be heard. And indeed, the native language spoken at Split-Rock is silence, but still it appears to shout simply because humans are present. That human presence does not taint, however—  it is simply incorporated into a more primary duration that is always underway beneath us. During the spring and summer months, the pool absorbs silence so that it may in turn shout the abundant greens reflected from the surrounding trees. It is silence that enables the abundant richness of its surface. The colors of fall are displayed in the same liquid body later in the year, but somehow the intense array of autumn color is reabsorbed into silence by means of the pool’s depth. Meanwhile, it is the surrounding forest that shouts in concert with the water’s volume. As the year matures, the region will increasingly shed its seasonal inhabitants and offer a different kind of silence that works through contrast to unveil the vociferous land.

Like so many destinations in the Gunks, the seasonal gathering of humans gives the false impression that they will stick around and indwell the environment with a residual presence all the year round. The most popular destinations into which we journey in these essays, however, address themselves to their own self-disclosed structuring even when that structuring retains sediments laid down by layers of human experience. Secret times and secret seasons are always capable of shedding, thereby, even sensitive skin. That is the mix that we have come to appreciate in the Gunks. During populated times, human perception addresses itself first to other inhabitants even when the environment is the reason for the gathering. But just below the surface, just around the corner, just the next morning— the center of perception is gently prodded outward and introduced to an externality that swirls over itself not through an act of interrogating sight, but rather, through the native presence at the core of perception as our own internal activity allows it to spread into a space that it already knows at a deeper level of constitution. This perceptual space and depth— the movement outward— is gently propelled and heightened by a subtle seeking and a residual hint of astonishment that is more than mere functionality employed in freed up observation. In those moments, the “there-is” of the already existent and stabilized world that we confront, is self-enclosed with us at its core, yet it is still boundless with a sense of the unknown even while it echoes a forgotten identity that we not only participate in, but recognize as ourselves at a level that cannot be grasped. It beckons, and we simply experience.

............


Click for Entire Image Set
COMMERCIAL