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Entries in landscape (93)


Urbanbees: Fleur de sel

Urbanbees. Feur de sel, 2011. Jardins de Métis/Reford Gardens Photo JM-1102

This year's International Garden Festival at Les Jardins de Métis includes Fleur de sel, a salt garden by Urbanbees, an international group which includes Farzaneh Bahrami who wrote on the use of public space in Tehran in On Site 25: identity, and Enrique Enriquez who wrote a meditation on exile in On Site 24: migration

Enrique describes Fleur de sel in a pitch for On Site 26: dirt – 'a contradiction thing that came to my mind using a material that it is considered for landscape designers as the first enemy for plants. But salt is a simple tiny material that can speak a lot about our maniac cleanness in the society we live in now.'

Going to Extremes is a Channel 4 documentary series running on Knowledge where Nick Middleton, an Oxford geographer, travels to the hottest, coldest, wettest, driest environments with particular cultures that have evolved, survived and even thrive. Last night Middleton went to a region called Dalloi in Ethiopia, once a sea which as it dried left a five metre deep crust of salt.  It is mined, hacked out in concrete-like slabs, loaded onto camels and walked out – a two day walk to the nearest source of water. 

It will be interesting to see how Fleur de sel at les Jardins de Métis fares over the summer. It will be in situ from June 25 - October 2, 2011, through rain storms, high humidity and dew.  Will it turn to a hard crust as happens with my lovely pink salt from Afghanistan, sitting in its salt cellar on my table?  Will it stay like sand?  Is it Morton's Salt: 'when it rains it pours', a slogan I heard all my life and only just got?  Will it create an eco-system of its own over the three months?  We shall wait and see. 


Gerster 2: land prints

Gerog Gerster. Harvest, Idaho, 1988

Is ploughing, cutting and threshing so individual that their patterns act as a fingerprint?  Something like the individuality of a welder's seam?

I would hazard that these are fields not part of the Dominion Survey, or in the States, the Land Ordinance Act, both of which divided the land into a 6 mile grid, implacable and immutable.  Such fields are square, ploughed squarely, unless there is a slough, or an erratic, or some awkward bit of topography in the way.  Or maybe farmers just get bored.

Well, no. The point of contour ploughing is to increase water retention in sloping soil and to prevent water erosion, survey grids notwithstanding. So something indicates the need for water conservation in these fields.

Gerster seems to have returned to this area, eastern Washington and Idaho many times.  Almost all his work, which is from all over the world, is about the interaction of industrial practice with the landscape – the mark of man, the hand, the machine and the land.  

Georg Gerster. Lentils, USA, 1980


Georg Gerstner: land

Georg Gerster. Felder im Palouse, USA, 1979

Okay, done with the hand for now, the closest landscape we have.  Georg Gerster, German photographer, did a lot of aerials from helicopter and small planes from the 60s to 90s.  Beautiful photography, National Geographic stuff, very photogenic landscapes.  The one above, found in his photo gallery on his website, is a ploughed field in eastern Washington State, near Palouse, shot in 1979.  

Wonderfully graphic, one does have to ask why it is so.  Looked up the area around Palouse on Google Maps and found that on the western slope of the Rockies it is indeed highly topographic, contour ploughing raised to land art.

We have a call for articles out for issue 26: dirt.  Land is dirt, dirt grows crops, crops determine planting and harvesting with large machines these days, those machines make patterns and we find them often enchanting.  

Google Maps: Palouse Washington USA



Approaching dust storm, Fort MacLeod, Alberta. 1930s. Glenbow Museum Archives NA-2928-28So, is this weather, or the result of a war with the land?  Literally tons of soil blew east from the centre of North America dropping on the east coast and the Atlantic Ocean during the 1930s: a drought combined with very poor farming practices that stripped the prairies of the indigenous grasses that held the soil and moisture in place with their roots. 

It made excellent mulch, evidently.  Of course it would; fine topsoil, perfect for planting seedlings.  The process of getting it spread all over your fields however was catastrophic.  


Marlene Creates

Marlene Creates. Entering and Leaving St. John's Newfoundland 1995. collection: Government of Newfoundland & Labrador, Provincial Art Bank.Marlene Creates, Newfoundland artist, has long photographed signs by the road, in the woods, attached to telephone poles, assembling the images into visual maps that indicate the emptiness of space in this country, whether they are in downtown Victoria or the outskirts of Hamilton.

Her early work shows influences of both Ian Hamilton Findlay and Richard Long: marks on the landscape, minimal reorganisations of nature that document that one was there.  More common are the highway signs, enigmatic markers of the edges of the city, or the edges of acceptable urban behaviour found in 'no parking' signs. 

Ian Toews did a segment of Landscape as Muse on Creates – The Tolt, the Droke and the Blast Hole Pond River; including, memorably, a project where she holds a camera under the blast hole pond and takes photographs looking upward, through the boiling water to her own face. 

Of Entering and Leaving St. John's Newfoundland, 1995, she writes,
'The City Limits signs that first caught my attention are the pair across from each other on the Trans-Canada Highway. When approaching St. John’s, one comes upon a sign announcing the city’s limits, but then there’s another 30 km of driving by woods and bogs before seeing any evidence of the city. And when leaving St. John’s, one drives those 30 km before coming to a sign that tells you that you really hadn’t even left the city yet.
Most of the landscapes surrounding these signs do not correspond at all to the image one might have of St. John’s. This creates a disconnection between the label announcing the city, the actual surrounding place, and the idealized image one may have of this city. St. John’s is larger than whatever idea we may have of it, including for those of us who live here. And Newfoundland, too, is and is not the Newfoundland of the imagination. Which is why my work may or may not be what one expects of a Newfoundland artist.'


Emma Lake: Pamela Burrill

Pamela Burrill. 'Distant Prospect', 1988. 86 x 119 cm acrylic on canvas.

More on Emma Lake: Pamela Burrill was a geologist, retired by time she painted this in 1988.  Really, everyone should paint their environments.  According to how one sees a landscape, whether as a geologist, an architect, a gardener, a cook, a plumber, we might start to understand the complexity of land, rather than its instrumentality.  I mean, does this look like Saskatchewan of the wheat fields?  No, and this perhaps tells us something about how we perceive this country, generally as a set of clichés endlessly reproduced on whatever the equivalent is today of hardware store calendars.   As with all our cultural products, there is a handful of well-known artists known across the country, and hundreds of others known only in their own regions, and often only by their own generation. 

I find much of the Emma Lake work really startling, incredibly beautiful, very cognisant of contemporary art movements in whatever era the work is from, and almost completely unknown. 


Emma Lake: Wynona Mulcaster

Wynona Mulcaster. Prairie Riot, 1988. 91.5 x 120 cm. acrylic on boardEmma Lake was a northern Saskatchewan artists workshop started in 1934 by an  immigrant English landscape painter, Gus Kenderdine and the art school at the University of Saskatchewan.  When one thinks of how dire prairie circumstances were in the 1930s it was a truly civilised act.  Originally meant to train Saskatchewan teachers to teach art, it was a camp: tents and a dining hall at the next door Anglican Church summer camp.

After WWII, the romanticism of Kenderdine was superseded by a more vigorous Saskatchewan school consisting of what became the Regina Five: Kenneth Lochhead, Arthur McKay, Ronald Bloore, Ted Godwin, Morton, several US artists and Roy Kiyooka.  In 1955 Lochhead re-initiated the Emma Lake Artists' Workshop, bringing in an interesting list of modern abstractionists, often from New York, and famously, Clement Greenberg, Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland and Anthony Caro.

The effect of these powerful proponents of colour field painting, abstract expressionism and general postwar surface exploration and mark-making on the romantic landscape tradition of Saskatchewan has produced a long generation of artists that see landscape in the most interesting ways. 

Wynona Mulcaster uses acrylic like water colour in  'Prairie Riot' of 1988.   Mulcaster, born in 1915, had been one of the early Emma Lake participants, a teacher with a wartime BA from the University of Saskatchewan and discussed in Clement Greenberg's 'View of art of the prairies', 1963.

Prairie fields as, literally, a field of marks is also found in the work of Reta Cowley, Dorothy Knowles and, bringing us up to a young generation of Saskatchewan painters, Rebecca Perehudoff. It is a way of registering the detail of the landscape without painting the details.


prairie landscapes

Greg Hardy. Distant Rain Across the Marsh, 2008. Acrylic on Canvas, 32" x 64"That carving out a little corner of the wilderness in which to live, seen in colliery and garrison towns and which Margaret Atwood's Survival, her thematic examination of Canadian literature, discusses in depth, has never really been how Canadian prairie artists have seen the landscape and their part in it. 
Perhaps this is because settlement of the prairies, much later than that of eastern Canada, was facilitated by the CPR which didn't carve out settlements, but rather overlaid the great plains with the Dominion Survey Grid, charting the land with a system that made everything equal in importance. 
The land, indifferent as ever to ill-prepared settlers, was, by virtue of its abstract delineation, made to seem disinterested in the people living on it.  The relationship between town and land was not precise: the Homestead Act clustered services at the grain elevator and around the railway tracks.  The land was simply the surface upon which such things occurred. 

Compare this Greg Hardy 2008 painting with the 1962 L S Lowry painting, Hillside in Wales.  Lowry is looking at the land and human occupation, Hardy is looking at the weather.  Lowry's horizon is up near the top of the frame, Hardy's is at the bottom.  This is what I mean about the indifference of the land on the prairies to our little struggles: it floods, it dries out, it freezes, it is hailed upon— all these things would happen whether we were there or not.  Yet the mindset of the early immigrants to the Canadian west had developed in the impacted landscapes of Britain, where centuries of manipulation of the landscape had occurred.  One is constantly driving over surprising hills that turn out to be fragments of Hadrian's Wall or some such thousand year old installation.  People and their activities, their material culture, their animal husbandry, their system of fields, crops, stone walls and complex hedgerow cultivation – all that was irrelevant here.  Wind-scoured fields hundreds of acres square was how the prairies were farmed, and how they are still painted.



Here is another example of a settlement carved out of what was perceived to be a fairly hostile and certainly unknown landscape.  Halifax, 1750; a commercial map inviting settlement.   A bit ominous is the large cannon wrapped up in the blue ensign at the top of the cartouche, protecting plucky workers building a wooden building below.  What I've always liked about this map is the precision with which Halifax was laid out: a garrison, all the blocks militarily aligned – an orderliness against the wilderness. 

This block of buildings and roads constitutes central Halifax still; the Grand Parade is as it is shown here.  What doesn't show is that it is all built on a steep hill going down to the water, so each block becomes a terrace. 
Oh well, it is caveat emptor when it comes to maps.  


coal mining towns

Eric Ravilious. The Vale of the White Horse,  circa 1939. Pencil and watercolour on paper: 451 x 324 mm Tate Collection N05164. This cutting of small villages into the landscape, especially in the L S Lowry painting (of yesterday's post) where in the front of the village are some fenced off yards as stony as can be, brings to mind the 3000 year-old Uffington White Horse cut into the Berkshire Downs.  These are inscriptions in the landscape, rather than sprawls across its surface. 

Nanaimo, which today sprawls determinedly north and west up the mountain, was originally a coal mining town, incised in the woods as a tidy fan-shaped diagram around the harbour.   You can see it drawing from the British colliery typology: small compact houses in small compact towns.  One can already see, in the 1891 map, new development inching northward.  In 1891, 762 working men lived in the south end; 70% were miners.  
They are almost gone, but Nicol Street (now the Island Highway going south) until fairly recently was lined with tiny miners' houses, no bigger than two rooms.  It was a rough place, early Nanaimo, very unlike its present prosperous and prolific self.

Nanaimo, 1891


colliery landscapes

L S Lowry. Hillside in Wales, 1962. Oil on canvas, 762 x 1016 mm. Tate Collection T00591The 1824 drawing of Bath reminded me very much of the 1962 L S Lowry painting of a coal mining village,  believed to be near Abertillery in South Wales.  It is another town carved out of the rural landscape: tight, dense and relentless.  Do we mistake this density for a kind of urbanity or should it be more realistically considered expeditious worker's housing, one step up from the hostels of Fort MacMurray, or South Africa.
Lowry didn't include the rest of the colliery landscape, seen in this photograph below, with the pit head at the end of the terrace.
It is this historic spatiality that allows England to fit 51 million people into an area a bit larger than Vancouver Island and still have huge agricultural landscapes, estates and forests. 

South Wales mining valley, early 20th century.


Mount Royal

Mount Royal, Calgary. 1911. Glenbow Archives NB-41-22Mount Royal in 1911.  Nary a tree to be seen.  Now a forest. 


large landscapes, small signs

Drive in near Clayton, New Mexico. 1996Rural isolation is at the heart of Rosalie Gascoigne's work in yesterday's post.  Yes, rural communities are lively and busy, but these are islands of intensity in a much wider landscape that receives little human attention except for the extraction of resources or the harvesting of crops.  Small details such as highway signs, fenceposts, billboards, here a drive-in, there a barn from an earlier farming era, small towns – such things are left in place where they eventually fall down, bit by bit. 

According to the biographical material available on Gascoigne, from the beginning her work was made from salvaged iron and steel, wire, wooden boxes, construction debris: the detritus of rural occupation.  This is not the rubbish from aboriginal occupation which is in an entirely different realm, but rather the cast-offs of the struggle for settlers and farmers to bring an order to a huge landscape project. 

In the background of the old drive-in screen with its field of speaker posts is the armature of a centre-pivot irrigation system.  Its days are probably numbered as well.


St Michael's in the Nicola Valley

The old Highway 5A runs from Merritt to Kamloops up the Nicola Valley.  It is a beautiful road, and allows one to avoid the arid Coquihalla.  On it is this graveyard, established in 1905 by St Michael's Anglican Church.  Most of the old graves are fenced off, ranging from a plain picket fence to chain threaded through four corner granite posts, to a very elaborate wrought iron fence and gate. Some of the headstones, most from around 1910, are granite or marble, beautifully carved, elaborately inscribed

It is a dry landscape, dry grass, pines and sage; the fences are quite precise delineations of territory, even in death.  Clearly the grass is mowed here at some point during the year, keeping down weeds and sage, so one finds even today, a century later, the fences often enclose a kind of indigenous garden.  There are new graves in this little cemetery, closer to the river, so this isn't entirely an archival landscape.  No fences for the new sites, but lots of flowers which sit in all their plastic gaiety like bedspreads.  


Paul Nash: the surrealist eye

Paul Nash. Boat on the Shore, South of France, 1933/4

Last week the Guardian had this photo on their website from an exhibition of Paul Nash's photographs currently on view in Sheffield.  Coincidentally, I just finished reading Pat Barker's novel about the Slade, WWI, war artists and the purpose of war art, Life Class, published in 2007. This appears to have been loosely based on the WWI experience of both Paul Nash (1889-1946) and his brother,  John Nash (1893-1977) who also enlisted in the Artists Rifles. Both might be called meticulous and passionate landscape draughtsmen, rendering complex landscapes into simpler sheets and planes that record an ancient topology usually scarred by some form of modernity.

Between 1931 and 1946 when he died, Paul Nash had a No. 1A pocket Kodak camera with which he photographed landscapes, objects, rocks and rubbish with a slightly crooked surrealist eye.   The exhibition mounted by Abbott and Holder shows a few of these photographs, from the White Horse at Uffington to an Avebury standing stone.  Tree trunks and fence posts become sculptural, ploughed fields become pattern, a topiary garden with a large looming house on the other side of a hedge becomes comically Gothic. 

The Guardian blurb mentions a pathetic fallacy at play in these photographs.  I must say I'd forgotten what the pathetic fallacy was for a moment, but I don't think this is what it is.  One might project all sorts of social preoccupations on the subject matter, but if one was a visual artist, a surrealist and insisted on using your pathetic little pocket Kodak for everything, I would take the cue from surrealism instead.  These are photographs of curious, inexplicable things. 

Paul Nash. The Box Garden, Beckley Park, Oxfordshire. 1943


PLANT: roof garden at Nathan Phillips Square

PLANT. Sedum garden, Nathan Pillips Square, Toronto 2010.

Rooftop garden atop the podium at Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto.  Once the acme of Brasilia-like windswept concrete pavers named open space in the plan, the top of the podium is now a garden of sedums of various hues and heights.  Sedums store water in their leaves and are primitive fat-leaved clustering plants that one can imagine were chums of horsetails and such plants trampled by dinosaurs.   They are also known as Stonecrops, succulents and sempervivums – all Crassulaceae of various genuses.  Sempervivums (which means live forever) have a curious hermaphroditic reproductive cycle, and some species were used medicinally in ancient Greece.  They are also called houseleeks in some places, especially those with slate roofs on which they can live.  Good luck evidently. 
The podium garden will be a sturdy garden, frost resistant, drought tolerant and beautifully coloured.  The garden opened this week, pictures are on Plant's website.

Other things on this website include a really great 20' x 70' back yard in Cabbagetown: a minimal masterpiece which goes up a hill to a terrace at the very back walled by brick-filled gabions.  No grass, just deck, gravel and a folded metal plate stair that makes a path through precisely planted bands of plants chosen for seasonal colour and texture.  The planting pattern doesn't show in the photos, but on the plan one can see everything is planted in rows. 

The garden at the Schindler House comes to mind, reconstructed supposedly to Schindler's original plans where the ground was pushed about in strips: a ditch, a berm the shape of a speed bump, a flat bit: each condition planted with something different – what ever grew well in ditches went there for example, or specific grasses on the overly-drained berm.  There was a romantic relationship between the rigorous organisation of the garden and the willfulness of plants all shaggy and blowing about, and all of this with the concrete house walls as background. 

Plant's Wellesley Cottages garden has this same simplicity and the same uncompromising severity.  It is amusing, this fierce kind of organisation of the near-unorganisable.  It just looks so brave and so wonderful.

PLANT. Wellesley Cottage garden



Department of Unusual Certainties. Parkettes, Toronto March 2010

Department of Unusual Certainties is a research group in Toronto which is holding a magazine launch for On Site 23: small things this Thursday evening at the Toronto Free Gallery.

Their connection to On Site came with this issue where they sent us part of their massive Parkette study.  Parkettes are very very tiny parks, left over pieces of ground really, strips of grass on a median, front yard setbacks to city buildings, scraps of ground between two roads too small to develop, which nonetheless have been named and are officially part of Toronto's park system. 

They speak to the ad hoc use of public space in an urban environment: the question for most cities is whether the City itself looks after it – one can think of all the petanque or boules boulevards throughout Europe – or whether such public space appears to be un-owned and therefore rubbish.

The distinction is going to be in the degree of civic responsibility felt by each citizen. Are these corners of park 'owned' by the citizens and respected as such, or, again, are they rubbish?  Will they be the site of a guerilla garden and left to flourish, or will the city parks department keep them as shaved grass, denoting the parkette's listing on the parks register?

We are a nation of front and back yards where our gardening attention is private and personal, where city parks are visual 'green space' with little use unless they contain a bunch of playground equipment.  The centrality of public parks in our civic daily lives rarely attains the centrality of Central Park, for example.  When almost everyone lives in apartments, people value parks, deeply.  The city is made beautiful when all its corners, its trees, its thin strips of grass, are loved. 



Everett Baker. Joe Murray Family, 10 July 1954. Shaunavon, Saskatchewan

The Saskatchewan Communications Network (SCN) has been axed by the Saskatchewan's Wall government, saving $5 million a year.  SCN is one of a little clutch of provincial arts networks that comes with the basic package on Canadian satellite tv services: Knowledge Network in BC, TVOntario in Ontario and SCN.  Once there was Access in Alberta, radio and tv, but the Klein government divested themselves of cultural programming in the 1990s.  Access TV now is just a feeder for a lot of American programming via Global.  CKUA the radio part when independent, and survives still as an alternative music station. 

It seems today that with Saskatchewan entering a new era of huge prosperity through its oil revenues that $5 million a year is a very small sum to support such a good station.  I don't live in Saskatchewan, but I watch SCN a lot.  It has the kind of programming one used to hear about in the Netherlands, where little one-minute to five-minute gaps between programs are filled with shorts about poetry, about craft, about native grannies telling stories, about wind blowing across wheat fields. 

One of the first things I saw on it, years ago, was the photographs of Everett Baker, who, in his job with Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, travelled all over the province and took thousands of Kodachrome slides of all the people he came across between 1937 and the 1970s.  They are presented without voice-over, just as the images with music and run once or twice a week, always different, always fresh.  It is the Saskatchewan we knew about where all the older men looked like Tommy Douglas and mothers wore odd glasses.  Today it is all terribly poignant, given the changes Saskatchewan has seen over the last thirty years.  The grain elevators are gone, most of the towns, farms have been consolidated and they have a hard-line government in the Klein/Harper mode. 

SCN isn't all nostalgia and harvest suppers.  It also runs Rabbit Falls, a powerful drama series about contemporary reserve life, quite a bit on the RCMP and how they train, and a lot about Saskatchewan's contribution to Canada's military.  Oh, and it also showcased, for many years, Landscape as Muse, about the relationship between Canadian artists and Canadian land.  This is now running on Knowledge. 

If a subsidised communications network does not exist to show such material, where will it be shown?  Look at the once-vital Access Network in Alberta.  You can watch any amount of American garbage on it, but nothing about the history of Alberta, or cultural producers in Alberta or First Nations life.  Subsidy vs market is an old and tired argument, not worth revisiting one would think.  But it is an argument still current in provincial legislatures where they can give culture the chop with no warning, no foresight and no regret.  

Everett Baker. Gillie Thorarinson's Homes, 7 September 1950. Climax, Saskatchewan,


small moments

Derek Jarman. The garden at Prospect Cottage, 1989.I see that I bought this book for $7 at a second-hand bookstore, sometime in the late 1990s.  How could I have missed it the first time round?  My copy is Derek Jarman. Modern Nature. The Overlook Press: Woodstock NY, 1994.


Monday 6

Weeded the back garden, wired over the fennel the rabbits keep cutting back, planted two new irises and montbretsia.  At 5:30 I sat on the old wicker chair facing the setting sun and read the newspaper.  A slight chill descended; a choir of gnats floated by, golden sparks catching the last rays of the sun.  The wind got up, bringing the smell of the sea; a russet kestrel flew by.
  Extraordinary peacefulness.

Sunday 12
Warm overcast day with a sea mist that triggered the foghorn at the lighthouse.  Worked on the front garden, weeding; planted carnations and more sea kale seedlings.  Spent the evening assembling objects from the flotsam and jetsam gathered on the beach.

Tuesday 21
The heavy rain has left sheets of water reflecting the grey sky lying on the sharp green of the spring fields.  All along the rail embankment to Ashford the buds are breaking on the hawthorn bushes.  There are drifts of primroses everywhere. ... Deep in the middle of the woods, in the most secret glade, primroses are blooming, the only ones I have found; but there are carpets of violets almost hidden by their bright green leaves.
   The unobservant could walk by them without noticing, as the leaves and flowers create an almost perfect camouflage, the elusive purple vanishing in the green.


Derek Jarman

Prospect Cottage, Kent.Thinking still of the importance of small things, the best guide is Derek Jarman's Modern Nature, Diaries 1989-1990 (Vintage 1992) which covered the making of a small garden around his cottage at Dungeness on the south coast of Kent, in the shadow of an enormous  nuclear power station.  I went there once as a student; the beach is shingle, small round pebbles, excruciating to walk on in bare feet.  There was, in 1973, a row of tiny cabins, sheds and old railway cars sitting on the beach. One had a path from the laneway to the back door made up of the enamelled parts and panels of a gas stove taken apart and laid on the pebbles.  It was all a fierce, pathetic landscape of small scrapings and savings perched tenously on the edge of the English Channel.

Derek Jarman acquired a small cottage, painted black with creosote, and built a garden of local flowers and plants that could survive the salt spray and general inhospitability of the beach.  Jarman had AIDS in the pre-retro-viral era when it was a death sentence.  His diaries for 1989 and 1990 are staggeringly beautiful, elegiac but never sentimental.  His entry for February 2, 1989:
The gorse is a blaze of golden flowers forced by the wind into an agony of weird shapes, twisted branches wrung out like washing.  It's the only winter flower on the Ness; some of the bushes are six feet high, crowned with tight bunches of spines which creak in the wind.  Other bushes cling to the ground, shaped in neat cones and pyramids which are clipped by the rabbits with the precision of topiary.  'Kissing is out of season when gorse is out of bloom'.  No-one need worry – here it is always in flower.

All the time he was making his garden he was continuing to make films; he had a London life and a Dungeness life – one large, complicated and worldly, the other full of nature and intimate with it: he writes on August 31, 'In front of me a jade sea is running wild.'  and then goes on the next day with the complications of dying, of getting financing for his film, of people and their demands. 

I read this book every few years for the lesson that nature is both solace and indifferent.  It is there if we want it and if we don't it continues nonetheless.