This afternoon I wandered out on the Surly for my longest fixed gear ride to date. I covered approximately 32 miles with 2,100 feet of climbing from the New North End to South Burlington around about ‘Reverence’ – the whale tails sculpture off I89 – and Hinesburg.
Reverence is a sculpture created by Jim Sardonis in 1989. The sculpture depicts two tails of whales “diving” into a sea of grass and is meant to symbolize the fragility of the planet. The tails were made from 36 tons of African black granite and stand 12-13 feet tall.
Whales in Vermont
The Whale Tails are more than just fanciful. Fossils of marine invertebrates found in the Champlain Valley reveal that Vermont was underwater as well during the Paleozoic Era, more than 300 million years ago. the last glacier melted away about 12,500 years ago, and the sea poured in. This inland sea was inhabited by many of the animals that inhabit the North Atlantic today, including mollusks, sea urchins, squid, herring, cod, salmon, seals, and belugas. In 1849, while constructing a railroad, workmen uncovered the bones of a beluga whale in a swampy area in Charlotte, Vermont. The fossil beluga is housed in the Perkins Museum at the University of Vermont. By about 10,000 years ago, the Champlain Valley had risen above sea level. The Valley’s waters drained northward into the St. Lawrence River. This river flows north of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. Over 20 fossils of ancient beluga whales have been found around Lake Champlain.
I had hoped to get close to the sculpture – I’ve been curious about it since I first ventured to Burlington more than 6 years ago. They reside just off of I89 in Williston – approaching by bike I rode through a business subdivision – Technology Park. They were far off in a deeply snow covered field near the interstate – so I’ll have to make another journey this summer to get a closer look. The sculpture has found itself into several art history books, as well as onto Roadside America, and onto the cover of Weird New England. Reverence is not as odd as the Free Stamp which caused quite a stir in my hometown of Cleveland – but the tails are a bit surreal and oddly out of place the first time you come upon them from the interstate. Silhouetted against the sky, they are a stark reminder that the only constant in this world is change.
Contemplating the sculpture in the winter landscape as I pedaled along I came upon several snowmobiles at a trail crossing. While I was out keeping myself relatively warm in my wool layers and minimal gear, riding along on a simple machine powered by my legs and lungs – the snow machine operators were bedecked in goggles, helmets, and heated thermal suits sitting atop complex, noisy machines requiring significant inputs of energy not only to move about – but to transport and maintain. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them as they tore about atop their cloud emitting two stroke machines – insulated from the environment they were traversing – and the friends they were out enjoying it with. A simple twist of the wrist and the whine of the engine would rocket them over the road and up the trail. In contrast I pedaled in relative silence listening to the occasional winter bird and the hum of wheels on the pavement and the sound of my breathing. The only clouds I created were those of my breath in the cold air as I blended the gearing on my machine and the strength of my body to power me through the local topography. The contrast between us became even greater when I approached a gas station with a parking lot full of SUVs and pickup trucks with attached trailers for pulling their machines to and fro. The operation of these rigs and the structure of the society which makes them possible are jeopardizing the very thing they are designed to help people enjoy – the world of winter. Culturally reinfoced addiction is a complicated beast – we can all battle it in our own lives in different ways – being aware of mindless consumption, needless fossil fueled travel (for work and play), the convenience of a car to run into town, eyeing the next latest and greatest bit of bicycle gear, fresh strawberries during a Vermont winter, and on and on and on. Questions like these tend to put my mind in a swirl – the choices I make seem so small relative to all the ‘big’ news of the day – yet millions of these small choices make up the world we live in – and I find myself guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The whales that once swam in Vermont didn’t have much choice in how their environment was changing – as I doubt their lifestyle choices could have affected the recession of the great inland seas. We may be headed for the same fate – if we don’t figure out what people are for – and what we want to do with our lives in relation to this unique place we find ourselves in the universe.