Sunday, July 01, 2007

Island life

When our plans for a long weekend in Manhattan fell through, we decided it would still be fun to spend Friday on an island, albeit one much closer. And much smaller. So we packed a pic-a-nic* and headed downtown to catch the ferry ten minutes out into Boston Harbor. Destination: Spectacle Island.

Spectacle has only been open to the public for a year--this time around, at least. In the past, it has housed a horse-rendering plant, a grease-pressing factory, a smallpox quarantine hospital and illegal casinos. It was also used as a municipal waste dump for almost 40 years--which added 30 acres to the island--before it was capped with excavated rubble from the Big Dig.

Now it has five miles of gentle walking trails, an eco-friendly visitor center, a small beach and 28,000 hardy native plants, attracting butterflies and migratory birds. There are great views of the Boston skyline and of flightpaths in and out of Logan airport.

Much more inviting than horse glue.

Part of our reason for visiting--apart from giving us an excuse for a picnic--was to check out the
ICA's "Art on the Harbor Islands" exhibit. There's something different on each of four islands--including a white-clad water-carrier who wanders mutely around George's Island and some woman who spent some time living in a yurt on Lovells --but we wanted to check out Teri Rueb's Core Sample, an audio soundscape tour of the island's history that uses GPS to play back different sounds, depending on one's location.

We picked up portable audio systems from the visitor center and headed out to listen.

It took about five minutes for the GPS systems to kick in. And then there was a gentle rushing sound; birds and water and motors and wind tangling together and separating, building and rising.

We set out along the trail around the island's perimeter, feet crunching on the gravel path like a thousand soldiers on the march and setting up a rhythm for the noises of the soundscape.

Sometimes the sounds seemed like enhanced foley for the surroundings: a low roar that coincided with a jet taking off over the harbor, or an aural close-up of the water lapping against the distant rocks below. At other points, it was hard to tell where art ended and reality began: were those bird calls coming from the headphones or from the pine trees ahead?

But as unusual as the experience (and as cool as the technology) was, we decided to return the headphones after about a half-hour. The island's natural soundscape--birds, crickets, wind and water, free of cars and sirens and the hundred other aural urban interruptions--was all we needed.

*Picnic consisted of mozzarella-sopressata-tomato-basil sandwiches on Iggy's French baguette; cherries, grapes and apricots; and a chocolate with celery, truffles and port wine from an Austrian company called
Zotter, which also offers such crazy combos as banana-curry, date-shiitake and coffee-plum with caramelized bacon (see? It's catching on!).

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