There was a moment in my youth when curiosity got the better of me and I stomped on a frog. It was an impulse, really. I was 6 or 7, standing alone in the driveway of my childhood home on a hot summer day. Though central New York state is notoriously cloudy, my memories of summer are all bright blues, greens and yellows, and the images evoked are bucolic: my mother on the lawnmower, the tranquil sound of my sister splashing in the pool, the wind in the branches of old oaks, the feeling of cherry tree bark on the branch I hung from, my father and his tools. When I think of beauty, my mind immediately returns to those nearly-naked days bounding about my parents’ 4-acre property brimming with imagination, unabashedly creative.
I was standing in the middle of a mural drawn in sidewalk chalk. The asphalt of the driveway expertly absorbed the heat of the summer sun, and standing on it in bare feet provided a sort of meditation. Taking a breather from my flights of fancy, I would spend time simply following the flow of my thoughts while the driveway warmed my callused pads.
So this little frog hopped beside me, and I stomped on it. I was curious. I wanted to see what it looked like on the inside, sure—but I also wanted to know what I was capable of. Would the frog just bounce a bit, nearly unaffected by my scrawny lightweight foot, and hop on annoyed? If not, what exactly would happen?
It was the first time I had deliberately caused violent harm to something in nature other than an insect. And as soon as the green and red goo had settled, I remember being struck by two seemingly contrasting feelings: this is very beautiful, and this is very wrong.
It was the latter which sent me running for my mother’s arms. But now, as an adult artist, I wonder about the part of me that saw beauty in the splayed guts of that frog. I don’t think I was advanced enough to objectively appreciate the composition of a three-dimensional living being turned flat and colorful. I think it was the act itself—my act of destruction-- that turned me on.
It’s fair to say that humans value beauty— I would add that beauty is often what makes us happy. But destruction can also make us happy. A child spends an hour building a tower of blocks, and then knocks it down with glee. Is the instinct to create and appreciate beauty the same as the instinct to destroy? Can destruction itself be beautiful?
A great photographer can make images of war, natural disasters, death or heartbreak strikingly beautiful. A great novelist can do the same with words, and a musician with song. As a theater artist, I want to know how destruction can be beautiful on stage, and vice versa.
I’m working on MARS (a play about mining), the sixth in our Planet Play series. Though it’s early in the process, I know that MARS is an all-male cast, that it is mostly movement, and that the movement will fuse dance and fight choreography. “Fance” (fight-dancing) isn’t an innovation of staging by any means; I’m in the shadow of the apache, the tango, and the Sharks/Jets, to name a few. But though I’m certainly interested in the representations of war and masculinity which “fancing” can easily evoke, I’m also attempting to explore through movement the violence of mining, and it’s place in our inner and outer world. To be more specific, I want to know precisely what it is that brings men to destroy that which they also find beautiful. This requires some hefty remembering, and so we are basing MARS on the history of Appalachian coal mining.
In the real world, the actions of both war and mining require the individuals involved to either ignore the destruction of beauty which is required of them, or to tap into a part of themselves that might actually desire to do it. Are they innate, these desires? Is a conscience really just a meme? We are constantly destroying beautiful things, even unwittingly: the act of eating is the act of destroying the beauty of nature, and then gnashing our teeth upon the beauty of a dish cooked to perfection; art attempts to destroy reality, capturing and manipulating time and space. When was I most honest with myself: in the rush of pleasure upon seeing the frog’s guts, or in the moment of guilt when I ran to my mother’s arms?
It feels like we humans are somewhere in the middle of our evolution from crude primate to enlightened Martian, and this ambiguous location is never more visible than when we shift gears between appreciating beauty and destroying it. In Cormac McCarthy’s magnificent cowboys-and-Indians novel Blood Meridian, the character of the Judge explains why he meticulously studies and records the world around him moments before destroying it: “Whatever exists...whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent. The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I’d have them all in zoos. Only nature can enslave a man and only when the existence of each last entry is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.” Was I stomping the frog simply out of curiosity, or because I inherited the desire for dominance from my ancestors?
In Appalachia, untouchable corporations are blowing the tops off mountains, filling valleys with rubble, streams with toxic chemicals and children with cancer. The rich culture made by the people who settled in the hollows of those mountains—generations of traditional coal mining families—is slowly and systematically being wiped out. In an area that boasts one of our country’s oldest and most diverse ecosystems, the 500+ mountains that have been mined by this process (called Mountain Top Removal) will now forever look like ragged, lifeless refugees.
Perhaps we need coal for a while; I’m not about to suggest we are organized or mature enough as a people to switch over to sustainable energy with the flip of a switch and simply eliminate coal as an option (despite the fact that much of Appalachia’s coal gets shipped overseas, only a small percentage lights American homes, no jobs have been added and all profits go to corporations). However, for nearly four hundred years we mined coal underground without destroying the beauty of Appalachia. Now, within a few decades, we have laid waste to a magnificently beautiful land.
Blast! Am I too easily assuming I know the definition of beauty?! When I look at images of Mountain Top Removal, is it possible for me to see the destruction as beautiful? What if there had never been mountains in the first place… would I see beauty in the way that a desert can be beautiful, the way a gritty urban neighborhood can be beautiful? Does my outrage rely on the contrast of green and gray? Doesn’t beauty also rely on contrast? And if so, where does this leave me, as a person who values beauty and as an artist who seeks to evoke it onstage?
Questions without answers are violent and stimulating. It’s what allows for science and art to exist in the first place. So that’s as far as I go with dissecting the frog. For now.
*Come see a work-in-progress performance of MARS (a play about mining) on March 24 at Dixon Place. Tickets and details here.