Hiking through the Ruins of an Old Dam on the Pump Station Trail

by Mark Miles

At the beginning of October, I took my first hike around one of the most remarkable and historic locations in Durham, North Carolina. I had no idea before visiting exactly what I would find, and I very nearly missed my hike because of the virtually nonexistent parking–which consists of a few spots on the side of a gravel road running through what appears to be the middle of nowhere. Despite the abysmal parking, the land surrounding the Pump Station Trail at Eno River State Park–which crisscrosses the old dam for the City of Durham–is a testament to the power of water and its crucial role in society. It’s also the perfect place for an adventure you’ll never forget.

After parking along the side of the road, I got out and started looking for the trail itself. It wasn’t readily apparent, but after a little searching I found the trailhead and started my adventure. The first quarter-mile of the Pump Station Trail was fairly nondescript, passing through a forest of oak, pine, and maple in every direction. To my left there was a steep embankment that led to the edge of a small creek, but otherwise there was no indication of what lay ahead.

After traipsing along the trail for ten minutes or so, taking photos whenever the opportunity presented itself, I started getting the idea that the Pump Station Trail might be something remarkable. The first indication of this was a crumbling brick-and-mortar structure to my right that appeared out of nowhere. It was about ten feet tall and stood fifteen feet or so from the trail. I took a couple quick photos and continued on my way, soon finding a sign that warned of “dangers associated with falls.” I duly took note and proceeded with caution.

The next indication of the remarkable nature of the Pump Station Trail shortly revealed itself. Following a side-trail that veered to the north, I saw the ruins of an old building–which I would later find out was the pump house for the dam–looming in front of me. The land rose on the left and descended to the right, allowing two clear entries to the decaying building. I took the left branch of the trail first and found myself gaping over the edge of a wall from a height of fifteen feet. There were weird and indecipherable mechanical structures inside it that simply begged for closer inspection, which led me to take a closer look.

Backtracking from the high place where I found myself, I walked through the doorway to the pump house. The air was cool and musty, and there was the definite impression that this building had held a great deal of water at some point in the past. The bluish stone that made up the majority of the structure was quite beautiful in its own way and gave the place a faintly otherworldly mystique.

The first weird mechanical structure in the pump house to catch my attention was a giant screw standing three feet out of the ground. I’m not an engineer, so I’m not in a position to say what this was, but it was quite fascinating and invited a host of questions about how the pump house worked when it was still in operation.

The second weird mechanical structure to catch my attention was a very large pipe, a foot and a half in diameter, that stood not far from the giant screw. There was an accumulation of dirt, leaves, and other debris that clogged its mouth, but it was clear to see that at one point it had been a major conduit for the transfer of water from the dam.

Coming out of the pump house, I caught a glimpse of it from another angle which gives a better idea of the size of the structure. The height is roughly fifteen feet and gives pause for thought when you realize that the part of the pump house that still survives is merely the foundation of the original structure. The building itself, which stood on top of what you see here, extended another ten or fifteen feet upwards to make for an imposing edifice.

After inspecting the pump house, I continued to the east and found a series of connected chambers standing about eight feet tall which I would later find out formed the filter room, where the real action took place. To the best of my knowledge, this is where the water would have undergone coagulation, flocculation, and sedimentation. Through this series of interrelated processes, a chemical is introduced into the water which causes debris and organic matter to clump; the water is then allowed to stand for some length of time in order for the debris to form “flocs” or clumps; then a rake-like device is passed through the water to remove those clumps of debris. Presumably all of this would have taken place within the filter room pictured above, though there may have been differences in the process when the old dam was constructed in 1887.

Around the filter room, there were rolling embankments of a clearly man-made origin, which enhanced the sense of otherworldly mystique that I had encountered in the pump house. The sunlight bursting through the branches of the surrounding forest provided the perfect accent to the scene, and it was easy to forget that this site had once been heavily mechanized and much more obtrusive to the surrounding forest. But nature has a way of reclaiming things when left to her own devices.

Circling around the filter room and the pump house, I came back to where I had diverged from the Pump Station Trail. Following the trail again, I shortly came to a dry creekbed which extended to the south for some distance. I got the feeling there was something noteworthy in that direction, but I had no idea just how noteworthy it would be.

Drawing closer to whatever it was as I continued to hike southward down the dry creekbed, I started to get the feeling I was entering a movie set for Lord of the Rings. Ahead of me I could see stone-and-mortar walls of a genuinely colossal scale, through which meandered the creekbed which had somehow regained the water which was missing earlier.

Coming closer to the walls of what turned out to be an old and defunct dam, I started to feel as if I was merely an ant surveying the work of giants. These walls were absolutely immense, reaching skyward for a solid forty feet before cresting in a massive embankment that looked like a steep hill in the surrounding terrain. I stood and marveled at the sight for several minutes, taking photos from every possible angle and wondering for the life of me how people without computers and forklifts could ever have built such a thing.

Deciding that I had to get a view from the top of the embankment, I progressed westward until I found a stretch of ground that wasn’t quite as steep and proceeded to climb it very gingerly. Upon reaching the top, I started following the clearly identifiable line of stone and mortar that ran eastward back toward the walls of the old dam. This was trickier than I expected due to the steep incline of the surrounding terrain, and I began to realize why there was a sign warning of “dangers associated with falls.” Coming as close to the edge of the forty-foot dropoff as I could, I decided that discretion was the better part of valor and headed back the way I came.

Rejoining the Pump Station Trail, I resumed my hike in a westward direction and soon found myself in the middle of a lovely fern grove, which could easily have come out of The Hobbit. The sun in the distance illuminated the area with a calming radiance and helped to settle my spirits after the excitement of climbing to the edge of a sheer forty-foot dropoff.

Following the full circuit of the Pump Station Trail, I covered another mile before finding myself back where I started. This was when I realized I hadn’t gotten a good photo of a fascinating structure near the dam which had caught my attention from the moment I saw it.

Retracing my steps back to the walls of the old dam, I found what I was looking for: a stone tower of some sort that rose about twelve feet over the surrounding terrain. It was positioned in proximity to the walls of the old dam and seemed to have been built to overlook the spillway.

Passing to the south of the tower, I found this very interesting crenellation in it. I still don’t know what purpose this tower served, but it seems to have been designed to stand in the middle of the surrounding reservoir and to allow access to the lower levels of the body of water. Perhaps it was a monitoring station or a well or a gigantic vent pipe for allowing air pressure to interact with a subterranean pipeline. Whatever it was, it was endlessly fascinating and gave much food for thought.

Walking back to my car, I found myself reflecting on the beauty and scale of the ruins of the old dam. Beyond that, I found myself thinking how the reason for the construction of such an elaborate and awe-inspiring feat of engineering was something as simple as water. For it’s water that powers our way of life, whether we realize it or not. It’s water that provides nourishment, electricity, cleansing, irrigation, recreation, and beauty to all of our lives. It’s water that provides the basis for human society, without which none of us would be alive at this very moment. And it’s water that deserves our respect, our admiration, and our unceasing effort to protect it at all costs.

References:

Eno River Park Map,” North Carolina State Parks, accessed Aug. 31st, 2017.

January — Pump Station,” Eno River Association, accessed Oct. 24th, 2017.

Kueber, Gary, “Durham Water Company — Eno River Pumping Station,” Open Durham, accessed Oct. 24th, 2017.

Schwantes, Jay P., “Pump Station Area,” Eno Trails, accessed Oct. 24th, 2017.

Water Treatment Process,” Durham, North Carolina, accessed Oct. 24th, 2017.

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How Dunnagan Trail Led Me to an Old Graveyard and a Renewed Appreciation for Life

by Mark Miles

A few weeks ago I went in search of a new hiking trail. I wasn’t intent on finding anything more than a few good views and a little peace of mind–the latter of which is increasingly hard to find in our culture of constant bombardment by advertising and social media. In the process, however, I found a forest of emerald green, a lady doing yoga in the middle of the Eno River, a great blue heron swooping through the foliage, an abandoned dam, an old graveyard, and a renewed appreciation for life which results whenever you immerse yourself in nature.

It started when I arrived at Eno River State Park’s Cole Mill access on a Sunday in early August. There was a sizeable crowd–which I’ve come to expect from prior hikes on the weekend–but I nonetheless managed to get a parking spot and soon found myself at the trailhead for Pea Creek Trail, which leads to Dunnagan Trail after a mile or so. There were a few other hikers lollygagging by the river, enjoying the cool weather and peaceful scenery, but I soon left them behind.

The trail was very narrow and somewhat steep as it followed the Eno River on the north bank, giving little room for maneuver. When a group of three guys in their early twenties crossed my path going in the opposite direction, there was barely enough room for us to pass without tackling each other, even though they were walking in single file. After passing the three guys, I then followed the trail beneath an underpass for Cole Mill Road, where an informal access point allows fishermen to park on the side of the road and avoid the occasionally overcrowded parking lot.

After the underpass, the trail divided, with the left branch going uphill into the adjacent forest and the right branch hugging the north bank of the Eno River. I wanted to see as much of the river as possible, so I decided to take the right branch and soon found myself in a floodplain with ferns and tall grasses in abundance. It’s hard to believe how green a floodplain can be, but once you’ve seen that distinctive shade of emerald green you’ll realize how much of the rainbow is missing from our culture of concrete and plastic.

In addition to the ferns and tall grasses, there were sycamores all along the bank of the Eno, jutting their roots into the river with the enthusiasm of children at a water park. Two sycamores in particular caught my attention. Their roots were configured in such a way that they were nearly conjoined at the base while allowing room at the top for someone to descend into them in a kind of giant cradle. Of course I had to check it out and promptly lowered myself down four feet of steep riverbank to do so, but unfortunately I was only able to get a decent photo of one side due to the extremely awkward angle and close quarters.

Climbing out of the cradle of sycamore roots, I continued on Pea Creek Trail. After a short distance, I reached a footbridge crossing a small tributary of the Eno. The bridge was very basic in construction but had no difficulty bearing my weight as I passed over its beams to the east side and found what had brought me to Eno River State Park in the first place, namely Dunnagan Trail.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

There wasn’t much difference between Pea Creek Trail and Dunnagan Trail, but it was plain to see from the minimal level of maintenance and the occasional overgrowth of surrounding vegetation that the area didn’t get much foot traffic. None of this deterred one woman, whom I saw in the middle of the Eno River on a stretch of exposed river rocks, from doing yoga without a care in the world. I thought about photographing her from a distance through the foliage, but there were too many intervening branches to get a decent photo, and I didn’t want to I intrude on her communion with nature.

Heading on once again, I stopped in my tracks when I heard the distant call of an approaching bird. I recognized the call as soon as I heard it and was delighted when I saw a great blue heron swoop through the undergrowth down the middle of the river, showing his distinctive plumage and giving the park a tinge of the wild despite its close proximity to downtown Durham, North Carolina.

Before long Dunnagan Trail reached a point where a stone outcropping intervened, requiring a bit of climbing to surmount it. When I reached the top of the outcropping, I looked south across the Eno River to see a brick and mortar structure that looked like nothing so much as the remains of a dam. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I found out in my research for this article that this was one part of the old pump station, which was built in 1886-1887, and supplied water to the city of Durham, North Carolina, until 1916, when another dam was built on the Flat River to provide the city’s water instead. Regardless of the history, the ruins were quite imposing and provided a nice photographic opportunity.

After passing the remains of the old pump station dam, I continued on my eastward hike, eagerly anticipating Dunnagan Trail’s sharp turn to the northwest. It took a while, but the turnaround came, and when it did I decided to pause for reflection before the Eno River disappeared completely from view. After a few moments, I headed northwest on the return leg of Dunnagan Trail as it climbed a considerable bluff toward the most unexpected part of my hike.

After cresting the bluff–which rose from the Eno River over a distance of a quarter mile–there was a fork in the trail. One branch extended to the north, outside of the official limits of Eno River State Park; the other branch extended to the west, back toward the parking lot where my car was waiting to carry me home. Despite the allure of the northward trail, I took the westward trail and soon found ample reward for my choice.

After passing through a valley and cresting another hill, I saw a pile of stones to my right which looked decidedly out of place. They seemed to be assembled in a pile by design and were sufficient in number to stand roughly five feet tall. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but these were the foundation stones for the family house of the woman after whom the Dunnagan Trail was named, Catharine Link Dunnagan.

Progressing a little further I was startled to find that there was another landmark associated with Catharine Dunnagan, specifically her grave. It was off to the left of the trail and clearly visible to any passing hiker, veritably begging to be inspected. Despite my reservations about approaching a grave in a forest rapidly dimming with the lateness of the hour, I decided to swallow my apprehension and get closer. With as much respect as I could muster, I stepped across the stone ring that surrounded the graveyard and took a good look at the headstone of Catharine Link Dunnagan, who died in 1914 at eighty-five years of age and was buried in the spot where I was now standing over a century later.

It’s hard to say what you’re supposed to feel when looking at the final resting place of someone you never knew who died long before you were born and gave her name to the land where you’re now standing. On the one hand I was apprehensive about being so close to a place of the dead, even if I’m not inclined to believe that the dead are malevolent toward the living. On the other hand I was deeply honored to be able to see a place that must have been profoundly meaningful to the woman who chose it for her burial site.

Wrestling with both feelings, I decided it was time to continue on the return leg of Dunnagan Trail. Walking through the serene forest of oak and pine, I was able to able to reconcile my internal conflict, leaving behind my previous apprehension and carrying in its place an appreciation for the way in which the dead imbue the land with sacred significance. For every piece of land is the final resting place of someone, whether human or animal or plant, who lived and died and gave her flesh back to the soil for future generations to cherish in turn. It is this return to the soil which binds the loved ones of the deceased to the land and which reminds us of the brevity and sweetness of every life, even the life of a complete stranger.

References:

Eno River Park Map,” North Carolina State Parks, accessed Aug. 31st, 2017.

Kueber, Gary, “Durham Water Company — Eno River Pumping Station,” Open Durham, accessed Aug. 23rd, 2017.

Schwantes, Jay P., “Pump Station Area,” Eno Trails, accessed Aug. 23rd, 2017.

Southern, Dave and Denny O’Neal, “Catharine Link Dunnagan,” Eno River Association, accessed Aug. 23rd, 2017.

Hiking to Eno River Rock Quarry, a Swimming Hole with a History

by Mark Miles

When I think of quarries, I generally think of big holes in the ground with levels upon levels of excavation that are devoid of life and inhospitable to anyone with an ounce of sense. What I don’t think of is a swimming hole in the middle of a state park that, despite two deaths in the past ten years, has nonetheless become one of the most popular summer hangouts in the area. Now that I’ve visited the Eno River Rock Quarry in Durham, North Carolina, I’ve begun to think of quarries in terms which highlight the simultaneous beauty and lethality surrounding so many of our culture’s byproducts.

When I arrived a few weeks ago at the parking lot for the Cabelands access at Eno River State Park–which leads to the quarry–I got my first clue that this was going to be a memorable experience. Unlike most other parking lots at state parks in my area of central North Carolina, this one was full to bursting. There was literally nowhere to park at all; a sign at the entrance even proclaimed the fact. Turning my car around in frustration and muttering a few choice words, I was ready to leave in a huff. However the park ranger on duty noticed my reaction and called out to me. I had my windows open and responded, half-expecting to be told to move out of the way. Instead he told me there was room to park now since a few cars had just left. Pleasantly surprised at my turn of luck, I found a spot and started my hike on Laurel Bluffs Trail.

Through the first mile of trails leading to the quarry, there wasn’t much scenery apart from a forest of oak and pine. A black snake crossed my path, but I didn’t have my camera ready and wasn’t able to get a shot before he disappeared to my right. Otherwise there was little wildlife apart from the other groups of hikers, mostly composed of students from Duke University and neighboring colleges, who had decided to make a day of it.

After twenty minutes of solid hiking, I was beginning to think the quarry was little more than a rumor and a myth. Then I saw the first sign: a creek bisected the trail and had to be forded before I could reach the other side. Crossing the creek, I crested a small hill and got my first glimpse of the quarry itself.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

Of course I’d seen pictures of the swimming hole on Instagram, since some of my followers live in the Durham area and go hiking nearby. The quarry was nonetheless much different than I expected, looking for all the world like nothing more than a peaceful lake in the middle of a state park, the handiwork of nature and wilderness. Yet I was aware that it had been a working rock quarry at one time, and from the signs around the site I could see that it was much deeper than a traditional lake, with no shoreline to speak of but instead an immediate sixty-foot dropoff from the surrounding land to the lake bottom. Still, all looked pleasant and peaceful on the surface.

After passing the quarry, I knew I wanted to explore further north and west along Laurel Bluffs Trail. I’d never hiked this section of Eno River State Park, so the allure of unexplored terrain was too much to resist. Continuing on the same trail past the northeast corner of the quarry, I noticed several piles of very large and imposing rock, which were part of the legacy of the old quarry from what I could tell. These rock piles were adjacent to the Eno River and bordered the floodplain, where the trail now led.

On the opposite edge of the floodplain, the land crested in front of me. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the rows upon rows of pine trees that spread out in front of me were a definite change in scenery. Their appearance was uncanny primarily because of their grid-like layout, as if someone had planted all of these trees at once and laid them out just so as to be ideally spaced for a future harvest. On that basis I would guess the area is a pine plantation, which will probably be chopped down in whole or in part at some point in the not too distant future.

After passing the ostensible pine plantation–which was the first section of Laurel Bluff itself–I reached a grove of laurels which encroached the trail on all sides, leaving barely enough room for two people to walk side by side. Presumably these were the laurels that had lent their name to the trail. To my surprise they reached a height of seven feet or so, thereby obscuring my sight and lending the impression that I was passing through some kind of vegetative labyrinth.

At last the laurels began to clear, and the forest regained her spaciousness, revealing a small gorge where a creek crossed the path of the trail. The bridge which crossed the creek at this point was very charming and provided the perfect opportunity to take a brief rest, which was much-needed at this point.

Continuing past the bridge and another small creek, I reached the last portion of Laurel Bluff. There wasn’t much to see in this section of woods, but the gurgling of the Eno to the north was a calming and familiar presence that kept my feet moving.

At last I came out of the forest and was greeted by shoulder-high blackberry bushes and mixed vegetation, accompanied by the dull roar of traffic not far in the distance. The brightness of my surroundings was a mild shock after the pleasantly diffuse light of the forest, but it matched the tenor of the sonic onslaught. Before long the trail passed under an overpass and led to the the Pleasant Green Access, where the trail ended.

Turning around, I retraced my steps over the mile and a half that had originally led me away from the quarry, all the while passing people in bathing suits with flotation devices who were making their exodus. At last I rounded a corner and saw the quarry again, now with the light of late afternoon bathing it in a golden glow. It seemed as if nothing bad could ever happen in such a place.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

And yet–as I was to find out in my research for this article–there have been two deaths in the past ten years at the quarry. One took place in 2008 and the other in 2015. In the first instance, Ian Creath, an eighteen-year-old from a nearby university, drowned after attempting to retrieve a raft which had floated forty or fifty yards from shore. In the second instance, Lamont Burt, Jr., a seventeen-year-old who was planning to attend college in the fall of that year, drowned after jumping from the unofficial diving hotspot on the north shore of the quarry.

Of course, the reason for these drownings goes back to the origin of the quarry. Between 1960 and 1964, Interstate 85 was being constructed not far away. Because there was a need for gravel due to the ongoing construction, a site was chosen where a sixty-foot pit with precipitous dropoffs could be sunk into the ground to gain access to all that gravel. When construction of I-85 ended in 1964, there was presumably no clear idea of how to make the site safe again, so state officials decided on the course of action which created the Eno River Rock Quarry: they flooded the sixty-foot pit with water from the adjacent Eno River and let nature take over from there.

In the end, however, it’s not nature that’s to blame for the drownings which have happened here. It’s the culture of industrialism, which views nature as nothing more than a resource to be plundered and looted at will and which fueled the construction of I-85 so many years ago. Unfortunately that culture is still alive and well today, chomping at the bit for any and every opportunity to turn nature into a graveyard and the world into a concrete slaughterhouse. And that’s all the more reason for each of us to fight like hell to preserve every bit of the natural world that we can. If we don’t, it may not be long before there’s nothing left of our world but a graveyard for our own, and every other, species.

References:

Eno Rock Quarry,” Local Wiki, accessed June 22nd, 2017.

Sweat, Candace, “Despite dangers, swimmers flock to Eno River Rock Quarry,” WRAL, accessed June 22nd, 2017.

Vuncannon, Douglas, “What lies beneath,” Indy Week, accessed June 22nd, 2017.

Honoring Nature in the Spirit of Leonardo, the Unbeknownst Animist

by Mark Miles

I’ve always known the earth is alive. From my earliest childhood, I’ve been prone to explore any patch of forest or meadow I can find, searching for any and every indication of life. Frequently as a child I would go outside for hours on end merely to look for insects — with which I was and still am immensely fascinated — and would occasionally collect them for my improvised terrarium. I’ve often collected leaves in fall to identify them by my field guide, and I’ve learned names for clouds which most people ignore altogether. I’ve always been intent on finding the deeper meaning, the ultimate purpose, the overarching spirit behind nature in all its forms. From my earliest childhood, I’ve been an unbeknownst animist.

It turns out there are many societies — most of which are being encroached by industrialization and impoverished by capitalism — which are still animistic. Aborigines in Australia, Bushmen in the Kalahari, Inuit in Alaska, and Cherokee in my own state are merely a few of the ethnic groups who were, and still to some degree are, animistic in their religious practices. Based on the recognition of life, spirit, and intelligence in all beings, animism is essentially the root to every branch of human religion. It’s the way our most distant ancestors viewed and interacted with the world; and it’s still relevant to this day in the way it provides a familial relationship to all creation, motivating the preservation of the earth for future generations. While the name itself is a construct of European anthropologists working in an academic setting that’s been largely antagonistic or indifferent to anything outside the domain of scientific materialism, the word nonetheless conveys a sense of the mystery at the heart of any meaningful religious practice, in which the divine is recognized to be immanent within all creation, waiting only for our willingness to listen closely to the world with all our senses.

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It turns out Leonardo da Vinci was also something of an unbeknownst animist. Throughout his life he had a reputation for purchasing birds in the market not to slaughter them but to release them. He was perennially mesmerized by the power and beauty of water, which he captured in many of his works of art. In his writings, he frequently imbued natural elements with human qualities in what would today be considered the most blatant anthropomorphism. And while he never would have applied the title of animist to himself — if only because the title didn’t exist in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when he lived — he nonetheless worked throughout his life to find the underlying holistic principle that united his pursuits in art, engineering, anatomy, design, and optics. Most people are unaware that his interests were so varied, and they’re similarly unaware that one of the reasons for this diversity of interests was the basic tenet of his religious and scientific outlook, expressed by this quote from what’s now known as his Codex Leicester:

“We might say that the earth has a spirit of growth, and its flesh is the soil, its bones [are] the arrangement and connection of rocks of which the mountains are composed, its cartilage [is] the tufa, and its blood [is] the springs of water. The pool of blood which lies around the earth’s heart is the ocean, and its breathing… is represented in the earth by the ebb and flow of the sea; and the heat of the spirit of the world is the fire which pervades the earth, and the seat of the earth’s soul is in the fires.”

Leonardo was also homosexual, which put him at variance with the ideology of the Catholic Church and resulted in the most traumatizing event of his early life, the Salterelli affair. This took place in 1476 when he was accused by one Jacopo Salterelli of committing sodomy along with three other men. Despite the relatively tolerant atmosphere of Florence at the time — Florence was a vibrant artistic center that was effectively the San Francisco of its day — the full legal penalty for homosexual behavior at this time in Catholic Europe was death by burning at the stake. While the charges were most likely fabricated for political reasons and were eventually dismissed, the period of two months during which the threat of burning at the stake hung over Leonardo’s head must have been enough to awaken him to the brutality of life in the city amongst powerbrokers and their pawns.

Despite living much of his life in the city, Leonardo was nonetheless a country boy at heart, raised by his Uncle Francesco and his grandparents in the sleepy Italian village of Anchiano. Leonardo’s father, Ser Piero, had conceived Leonardo out of wedlock in 1452 and consequently regarded his firstborn in the manner of unwanted luggage. Uncle Francesco however regarded the young boy with love and affection, showing Leonardo the hidden secrets of life in the Italian countryside. It was indeed Uncle Francesco who instilled a love for the land in his precocious nephew and gave Leonardo the first inkling that he might indeed be good for something after all.

Despite his Uncle Francesco’s efforts, however, Leonardo was largely estranged from his family in later life. He took to the road after his apprenticeship in Florence came to a close and forged a new life for himself with a small band of travelling companions who formed the nucleus of his improvised family. There was Luca Pacioli, one of the foremost mathematicians of his day; Salai, the “little demon” who took up residence with Leonardo after the latter recognized the surpassing beauty of the young man; and Francesco Melzi, a young aristocrat with artistic talent who idolized the genius of Leonardo and may have been his lover in later life. It was in fact to Francesco Melzi that Leonardo bequeathed the greatest portion of all his worldly goods when he died in 1519.

Long before his death, however, Leonardo distinguished himself as the foremost polymath of his generation. Most people know that Leonardo painted The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, but he also painted numerous other works of art that were revolutionary in their time and hold up to scrutiny to this day. He was an engineer of weaponry for military campaigns in the service of Ludovico Sforza and Cesare Borgia. He created schematics for flying machines, scuba gear, a primitive tank, musical instruments, and party favors. He was a skilled musician who was sent by Lorenzo de Medici in the capacity of musical ambassador, so notable were his skills. He was an anatomist of the first degree, a man who risked charges of heresy to better understand the physical form of his own species and who advanced medical knowledge incalculably because of it. He was an endless explorer of the potential for visual perception, demonstrating principles of light that foreshadowed the work of physicists centuries later. He was in short the original Renaissance Man.

For all these reasons, I admire and empathize with Leonardo. In terms of religious outlook, sexual identity, cultural affiliation, familial dislocation, and polymathic propensity, I find a man after my own heart, a man who was successful in ways most people can’t even imagine yet who wanted nothing more than to explore the intricacies of nature in peace and quiet. I take inspiration from the life he led and the passion that drove him to greatness despite so much hardship. And I dedicate the following piece, depicting creatures of the water — the element which Leonardo revered throughout his life in his artwork and designs — to one of the few people in history whom I’ve ever adopted as my personal patron saint. This is for you, Leonardo.

References:

Mander, Jerry. In the Absence of the Sacred. San Francisco, CA, USA: Sierra Club Books, 1991.

Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development. New York City, NY, USA: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966.

White, Michael. Leonardo: The First Scientist. New York City, NY, USA: Saint Martin’s Press, 2000.