Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The (Sudden but Inevitable) Return of No Quarter (Part V)

Missed me? Yeah, it is that time of year again, when I take a cruise through this year's collectible quarter series. And this year, like the previous four, we are in the midst of the America The Beautiful series, which is also called the National Parks series, and this year, we actually have five National Parks in the running, and none of the National Monuments, or National Forests, and National Nature Preserves, or what have you.

And in the years I have been doing this, the quality and skill of the carvings has increased. The nonsensical jumble of icons of the early state quarters seems a thing of the past, and the sculptors have gotten the hang of showing depth in the very shallow surface of the coin. There are fewer really bad coins out there, which makes for better coins but boring commentary.

As in previous years, we rate this year's crop with the following rating system:
Way Cool = A
Not Bad = B
Kinda Lame (Meh) = C
Very Lame = D
Makes Video Arcade Tokens Look Good = E

Interestingly enough, there is a bill in front of the GOP-controlled House called the Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act (EPICNMA) which intends to limit the powers of the Presidency to create new "units" to the National Park Service and to subject new measures to Congressional approval, since that organization does such a fine job at such vital matters as Federal Judges and jobs bills.

But that's ongoing. Let's turn over our papers and begin.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Tennessee

I could make the obvious Beverly Hillbillies joke, but to be honest, the home state of the Clampett clan is not identified in the program (though Granny talks about being brought up in Tennessee, so there's that). I want to instead point out that this coin actually goes to effort of putting a building on the coin, a challenge for all these national parts and forests which concentrate on the natural wonders.

But this is a good example of the advancement in quarter-sculpting tech. This coin has no less than five different planes shown on it - The empty sky background, the far mountains, the tree line, the cabin, and in the extreme foreground, the split rail (or snake) fence. A sense of motion is provided by the hawk on the wing, though this adds yet another element. This is a tall order for such a small area to pull off, and the result feels a little more cluttered than it should. It get points for pushing the technical envelope.

Not Bad = B

Shenandoah National Park - Virginia

A similar challenge shows up for the Shenandoah National Park. Like the Smokies, this is beautiful country, and I recommend that, should one get the chance, they stand on one of the peaks and just watch the undulating hills spread out before them like a green blanket cast over your kids toys that you don't want to pick up. But the trouble is, how do you bring that to the coin itself?

Virginia solves the problem with fewer planes to deal with - a wide sky, the mountains, and a promontory in the foreground from which to view the wilderness. There is also a hiker, almost unnoticed, to the right of the coin (house right, not stage right), approaching the promontory before him. The rocks themselves overshadow him (and the little rain cloud over his head - hey, is he depressed? Is he thinking dark thoughts? Should we be calling a ranger for an intervention? Is there a number to call? Quick, he's getting near the edge! Stop him before it's too late!).

Not Bad = B.

Arches National Park - Utah

This is my favorite for this year, and shows that you can do a National Park Quarter in a simple, straightforward fashion, portray the area, and still make it all work. Now, Arches benefits here from an iconic image - no one is going to mistake this for St. Louis or a McDonald's. And which Arches has a number of arches on its grounds, this one, Delicate Arch, is the star that gets all the press time. This arch is the cute blonde girl who sits with her friends at the lunch table and smiles shyly but you know really doesn't have any time for you (or am I just projecting, here?)

And the Arches coin is presented in a straightforward, iconic style, literally taking a picture of the site and transferring it over to the coin. The horizon runs nearly across the center of the coin, dividing it into ground and white space, and the arch rises into that space. A good job.

Way Cool = A

Great Sand Dunes National Park - Colorado

No, I didn't know about this place either. It was a National Monument in 1932, but didn't make National Park status until 2004 (it was promoted to National Park status by President Bush, who also added seven other "units" to the National Park Service, to which there was no outcry from either his party or Congress, of course). Great Sand Dunes lacks the icons of a Yosemite, a Yellowstone, or even and Arches. It is a cool place, geologically. They are the tallest sand dunes in the country, and formed by the winds lifting the soil out of the Rio Grande before they lose interest and drop the sand out here.

(And I was surprised they didn't go for Dinosaur National Monument, but the cool stuff from that is apparently in Utah, and, of course, Utah already has its iconic look with the arches. Those snooty, snooty arches).

But the problem is, what makes the place interesting is that these are sand dunes. Really big ones. When means they are both ever-shifting and they are sand colored. Both of those traits are extremely difficult to capture on a coin sculpture, and as a result, at first glance, it looks like any other western park quarter. We don't know how big the dunes truly are - they could be a mountain range in the distance, since we tend to show that a lot.

However, perhaps seeing the problem, the sculptors engaged in almost a bit of whimsy here. In the foreground is a father and child, which sort of humanizes and redeems the coin in a way that the Shenandoah quarter does not (You're still worried about the guy on that coin, right?) The child has the ultimate symbol of this place -  a little plastic sand bucket. The symbols of beach vacations everywhere, even in Colorado.

Meh = C

Everglades National Quarter

So, here's a reverse situation - all a lot of states have to show is a big mountain, a huge promontory in a pine forest or towering over the other promontories. What do you do when your National Park has a maximum natural elevation of eight feet, max? Welcome to the Everglades, America's best swamp land.

The quarter plays off its strengths, and pushes its waterfowl. In this case, it reveals that it is the winter nesting ground of the kaiju monster Rodan. OK, actually that is an anhinga (yeah, I had to look it up), also known as the snake bird or water turkey. Both of which sound like cooler names, but you know the Monster Manual will use anhinga because they need more monsters beginning with the letter "A". Sharing the space with the anhinga is a spoonbill, which most people know from the fact it looks like a stork playing the castanets. It is actually a very good choice in the face of all the other mountains/promontories/sand dunes that the other states have to deal with.

And we're lucky that the Everglades got in the front half of the lineup, here. If it was any further back in the calendar, sea-level rise would force them to settle with a blank picture, and the notation "Not Forever-glades".

Way Cool = A

And that concludes this year. In general, they're getting better as they go along. Next year We get such stand-out vacation spots as Bombay Hook, Kisatchie, and Homestead National Monument. And I become very relieved that Wikipedia exists.

More later,