Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - January 29, 2010

Flora, fauna and sculpture

New Stanford podcast tour explores connections between science and outdoor art

by Rebecca Wallace

The rusty, geometric sculpture looks like a giant origami creature in the grass. Angles reach skyward. Are they wings? It's a funny sort of crane.

Actually, Donald Kennedy tells me, this 1982 Charles Ginnever sculpture planted on a Stanford University lawn is called "Luna Moth Walk I." Ah, the wings. Real luna moths are pale green, he says. "They look like the moon."

Kennedy adds that luna moths' caterpillars often feed on persimmon trees, and points out a tree nearby. My companion is already mesmerized, gazing up as the orange fruit slowly disappears. We can't see any caterpillars, but there are plenty of birds having a chattering persimmon feast. We grin at the cheerful sight, which we might not have noticed if Kennedy hadn't encouraged us repeatedly to look up.

Kennedy is not actually on our path. His voice is coming from a podcast that we're listening to on earphones. We're taking a new self-guided tour of the Stanford campus' plants, animals and science art, put together by biologists Kennedy and Paul Ehrlich, plant ecologist Katherine Preston and writer and artist Darryl Wheye. Several guest voices, including that of Patience Young, the Cantor Arts Center's curator for education, pop up from time to time.

While the tour often urges walkers to check out birds and trees and mingles human voices with birdsong much of it is about the relationship between science and art. This particular loop, which runs from the Stanford post office to the Quad, encompasses five works of outdoor art while pointing out flora and fauna.

In some cases, the connection between science and art is very direct. Several works of art, such as "Luna Moth Walk I," represent nature's creatures on campus.

By the law school, the podcast points out "The Falcon," an Alexander Calder sculpture. Young remarks that the work "has been guarding the courtyard for 30 years." It's a 3,800-pound sculpture that started life as a small paper model.

Kennedy chimes in to give some history of the tradition of falconry. He also notes that American kestrels small falcons can be seen on the Stanford campus, especially on moderately windy days. "These little falcons are formidable flyers," he says.

In other cases, the podcast alternates discussing art with talking about the plants and animals that can be seen nearby, or simply delves into local nature and campus life.

The tour lingers in the citrus courtyard, a graceful space near Lasuen Mall hosting lemon, lime, orange and kumquat trees. Preston points out the long, smooth leaves, then tells a story from 1979, when nearby avocado trees were set to be felled for a campus renovation. The late professor Ron Bracewell, an engineer and tree devotee, threatened to chain himself to one of the trunks. All but one of the trees were saved.

Overall, the tour is meant to draw visitors' attention to their place in the environment, to help people see how human creativity and nature's works can complement each other.

"One of our themes is sustainability. How can humans live sustainably in a campus setting?" Preston says in a later interview.

Kennedy agrees. As a former university president, he is used to looking at the campus through a broad lens.

He says making the podcast made him think about many questions: "How, as you develop the campus as a physical space, do you make allowances for nature? How do built and unbuilt spaces connect? And as we plan new buildings, how can we draw attention to what's here?" He chuckles. "Students shouldn't have to go on vacation to see and identify a scrub jay."

Kennedy and his cohorts began making the podcast tour series after receiving a $12,000 grant from the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts, hoping to make a series of 10 walking loops that would appeal to students, faculty, staff and visitors. So far, one hour-length loop is available for download at birds.stanford.edu, with two more recorded and awaiting editing.

The group is seeking more funding for the other walks making the first three proved to be quite an involved endeavor.

At first, they thought Kennedy would do all the speaking, but then decided to have him be the main narrator, with other Stanford voices woven in.

"One person can't talk all that long," Wheye says, laughing.

One podcast also isn't recorded at a single go. The group walked the tours several times, covering lots of ground. Loop 2, for instance, includes the New Guinea Sculpture Garden and Kennedy Grove, while loop 3 focuses on Lake Lagunita. (The completed walk that's online is actually loop 7 the creators went a little out of order.)

Then the group had recording sessions in Kennedy's office and other quiet places so voices could be clearly heard. Other sounds, such as birdsong and mosquito and bat noises, got blended in later. Wheye has been the main editor, donating much of her time.

"I was amazed at how much I learned, and I've been here since 1960," Kennedy says.

Ultimately, the group would like to supplement the tours with educational display cases at buildings near the loops. "We haven't figured out how to fund that yet," Wheye says.

Back outside, strolling along loop 7, my companion and I see sculptures and raven nests, woodpecker holes in palm-tree trunks and the faces of the Stanford family in a cedar totem pole by Don Yeomans. A long copper tear falls from the face of Jane Stanford, who's weeping for the loss of her young son.

My companion remarks that the podcast tour "helps you to focus on a smaller level." And on a taller one. "I walked through there (before) and didn't even notice the totem pole," he adds.

We gaze for a long time at the nearby "Mozart 1," a stainless-steel geometric criss-cross of a sculpture by Kenneth Snelson. Through the tubes and wires of the piece, we can see the Hoover Tower standing tall.

"The sculpture is about essential forces," Young says in our ears. "The tubes represent compression and the wires represent tension ... The piece stays together because the parts are mutually supportive and press outward to form a tense, stable network." Young muses that this is like the push and pull of an ecosystem.

"That's it," Kennedy says. "Change one part of the system, you change all parts of the system to one degree or another."

Info: For more about the podcast tours, and to download the 10-minute introduction and one-hour tour, go to http://birds.stanford.edu .

Comments

Posted by Sarah, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 4, 2010 at 12:19 am

Thanks for posting this. Sounds like way to spend an afternoon.


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