The paintings I made of trees threatened by development in Saint Johns are showing at the Elisabeth Jones Art Center this month along with three other tree paintings of mine. I hope you can stop by and check it out: 516 NW 14th Ave, Portland, OR 97209
The crows are a riot to watch at Reed Lake today. It’s at least 90 degrees and they are wet, shaggy looking, perched on the fallen branches protruding from the lake watching their cousins play in the shallow water while making their usual ruckus.
It’s the Pedalpalooza* Bird Ride and appropriately I am the only one here. Not even the leader showed up. Four other riders did come to the meeting point at Woodstock Park but decided to go to ice cream instead of riding to Reed Lake as I suggested. At least we saw a Cooper’s Hawk while we waited. Since none of us were competent birders it was fun to reason out what large bird just flew into the maple by its orange chest, long striped tail, obviously hawkish face and medium size between a Red-tail and a Sharp-shinned.
I wasn’t expecting the Bird Ride to be a large or rowdy crowd but I also wasn’t expecting to be the ride in it’s entirety. The description encouraged participants to dress like their favorite bird. Birding? Bikes? Costumes? In my world this is the equivalent of a princess-themed birthday party for a 6 year old. So here I am sitting by Reed Lake alone watching a song sparrow belt out it’s territorial song a yard away and I’m wearing a Red-winged Blackbird costume I made the night before by painting red and yellow patches on interfacing and stitching it loosely onto the shoulders of an old black shirt.
I was really pleased with myself but knew my expectations for the ride were in trouble when I arrived at the park and no one knew I was a Red-winged Blackbird or had a costume of their own. All five of us were a little suspect of the 4 pm start—not the most promising time to see birds—perhaps it was a typo and the leader showed up at 4 am.
I walk along the board walk admiring the murky lake. The mallards look in bad shape, their normally shiny green heads mostly white fluff, I assume they are molting. Their ducklings are adorable, fluffy yellow and brown with charming stripes across their eyes. I watch them swim about in their close-knit groups.
The Pedalpalooza rides are some of the few experiences I’ve had where watching humans is as enjoyable as watching other species. The fellow at the Galactic Disco Ride wearing the gold lamé bikini and purple glitter make-up was sure enjoying himself and he looked fab, as did the woman in the gold wings, thigh-high lace-topped stockings and checkered bikini bottoms which she confided needed to be unwedged every two minutes.
I may be more wholesome than the quintessential Pedalpalooza rider, I tend to be covered and sober. I’ve seen people stash an amazing amount of beer in their backpacks for these events and various other substances. But a person can develop a certain amount of counter-culture class just by making it to 44 years having never married or had children.
When people ask me if I’m partnered or have kids I answer no and then its quiet and I feel like I’m supposed to provide an explanation. It’s not a one sentence topic. I didn’t plan my life to be this, but if I am honest, beginning my forties child-free felt just like waking up on the far side of a giant landmine field amazed I sleep-walked across the whole thing without setting one off. I feel deeply obligated to make the most of this.
Now my sober, modest self feels at home in the ruckus of a rebellious bike-party and is also content to be birding alone in a wonky, Red-winged Blackbird shirt with no Pedalpalooza fanfare for context. As I walk along the lake I hear the calls of a Brown Creeper, it’s the first time I’ve identified them by ear. I spot one and watch it creep up a tree. This failed costume-birding-bike-ride has been refreshing—sort of like jumping in a lake on a hot day or righting a fabulous bikini costume that tends to slip into uncomfortable places.
*If you aren’t acquainted with Pedalpalooza, it is a month long festival in Portland where people who ride bikes and think more people should get around without cars gather for a variety of events. These often involve rowdy packs of cyclists in costumes with music blaring off bike trailers, disrupting traffic and having a grand party on wheels. Pedalpalooza is most known for the World Naked Bike Ride, but that is just one event during the festival.
Of course I want to see Bald Eagles. The last time I came to Smith-Bybee I saw about a dozen altogether. At one point we came around a bend and there were five in trees right next to the trail, one on a lower branch that was so close we could see the texture of its feathers. They did not seem bothered by us, just perched in the trees by the water, in no particular hurry with no obvious wants. My friends were embarking on a new business together, I was planning my move back to Portland after losing my father. The three of us caught in uncertainties were suddenly thought-free, star struck in the trail staring at eagles.
The birds themselves offered no recompense for these uncertainties, but this awe-inspiring encounter served as a catalyst to move uncertainties to commitments, grief to breath. We are always caught in the power of elements and wildness. Even in a windowless office the steam from ones coffee rises and swirls in the air just as steam off a lake in the morning sun and each starchly clad coworker houses a mystery of blood and nerves, cycles and synapses. But it usually takes a less common encounter with an undomesticated species like eagles to catapult us out of complacency into the wondrous underpinnings of the universe.
I walk to the same place along the trail knowing the eagles are not obligated to be there again. It’s a different time of day, a different time of year. I would have to visit often to have a chance at predicting when and where I might find them.
No Eagles in sight or by ear but I keep seeing the brilliant white of a Great Egret flying from the other side of the lakes. Great Egrets are another striking bird, leggy, long-necked, brilliant white with an impressive wingspan. The week before my dad died I saw one fly over the house. I had only seen an egret once before in the neighborhood at Jackson-Frazier Wetlands so it was a notable moment. Standing in the driveway gawking straight up at the white body gleaming in the blue, loping across the open sky with the same questionable grace my spirit was traversing my dad’s transition from sickness to death.
A week later the egrets starting hunting in the meadow near the house. My mom once saw eight, I only ever saw three moving slowly across the field looking for frogs and mice. Their presence seemed to fill the void my father left as he took his last breath, the heat of his body leaving in one quick current under my hand. As if the only thing that could fill the shape of his spirit was a delicate looking hunter, its simple plumage in stark contrast to the complex world, elegant and awkward in the same moment.
I know the Egrets themselves are not concerned with my father’s death, with my loss, they are looking for food and would prefer not to be involved with us humans. But this feeling of events connected, this desire to make meaning out of the egrets’ arrival weighted against my father’s departure as a sort of mystical physics feels like an indulgence my heart needs as much as iron and ATP.
I sit on a bench at the end of the trail and watch a Great Blue Heron hunkered down in some brush at the edge of the water just moving his head this way and that. I’m not sure if it is hunting or digesting or just being a bird by the lake but it is fun to watch along with the occasional Great Egret flying over, swallows here and there, a couple Bald Eagles who perch in the pines to the north, a lone duck.
I sketch the lake with no confidence in my ability to paint a scene that is not predominantly arboreal. I notice some white spots in the trees on the far side of the lake that look more like paint blobs than light coming through the leaves. I look through binoculars and see that there are egrets in the trees, all these egrets flying over are coming from this spot and it is probably their rookery where they will all return to at dusk. And so it begins: learning a new place, weighing its rhythms against the rhythm of my pulse to make new meanings where a life and a comforting love once was.
Sunday morning: my plan is to spend a couple hours at Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge before I go to the writing group at Ford Food and Drink but this would involve getting up right at 6 am. Do I get up right at 6 am? No. I get up at 7:18 because day dreams are a necessary substitute for snuggles and I may be a little obsessed with this fellow I met the other day.
It is not normal for me to like someone at first sight. He was standing in a group of people, I caught a glimpse and the cells in my body started clamoring with delight. It felt like they were saying, You like everything about this man, you should try to date him. The message was then routed through synapse loops wired in my brain during middle school and revised to, DO NOT LET HIM FIND OUT!
Later at home, the adult in me admitted it would have been nice to have chatted more, perhaps casually investigated his relationship status. But what is there to be upset about when it is so fun to dwell on this mysterious attraction?
Eventually I get out of bed and make it through my usual routine on schedule to spend forty minutes in the woods. I’ll take it. It’s Sunday morning after all, and a lovely day—windy, rain here and there. The layered chorus of birdsong is full of tunes I don’t know as well as the usual: robins, song sparrows, black-capped chickadees, an Anna’s Hummingbird. The steep trail down into the refuge feels like a cavern under the leafing oaks. The foliage is so dense and shady it feels unfamiliar. When the trail forks at the bottom I know where I am again and saunter along in the spring damp just enjoying that I am there at all.
I sit down on a little cement-block wall along the trail and sketch the trees in front of me, their dark forms elegant against the green. I wanted my new body of work to reincorporate text and bits of poems but I seem to be unable to write anything deep or metaphorical, subtle or even interesting. It’s OK for now just to sketch trees. I finish and head up the trail, just far enough to watch some chickadees chase each other aggressively through the leaves. It is hard to distinguish mating and fighting with birds. I suppose that would be true of humans too if I didn’t know the language. Everyone is always so agreeable in my day dreams, so mutually interested—what special skills do birds have that they fight and mate and mate and fight and do not need counseling in the interim? Is this just the advantage of an undivided brain?
At the writer’s group I meet a woman who is a romance author. She actually writes one romance after another and they are different enough that people keep reading them. Have I missed my calling? I must have hundreds of quirky running-into-an-attractive-fellow-I’ve-been-pining-for-and-ending-up-together scenarios rolling about in my noggin. That time I was attracted to my counselor and imagined an elaborate Mardi Gras scenario so we could hook-up without sacrificing anyone’s integrity or mental health. The tryst ended with him waking first, tenderly ascertaining my identity while I slept in his bed, glitter-smeared, mask crushed under a pillow. After reflecting on this disastrous turn of events and his deep feelings for me, he slipped into the kitchen to make me gluten-free pancakes for breakfast.
I think about the Chickadees and the fact that I probably wouldn’t envy their relationships if I knew what all went on. Then I realize that this parody my imagination makes of longing and love is the advantage of having a divided brain. I get to reflect upon my true self while she is fast asleep, glitter-smeared, a shoddy costume in disarray but a heart intact in it’s own illogical integrity, gluten-free pancake mix conveniently stashed wherever she goes. It is just so funny, and tender enough to warrant tip-toeing into the kitchen to make her breakfast.
Walking outside after my workday at the restaurant was especially gratifying in the warm rain. The big trees, the gravel roads lined with gardens, crows sauntering across from one yard to another as though it’s too much trouble to fly. If I believe humans are as much nature as the landscape then these things shouldn’t be any more fulfilling than the room full of chatty humans acquiring lunch that I just came from, but it is definitely more fulfilling.
Perhaps it is the lack of expectation, how the landscape doesn’t judge. The crows may very well judge but relationships across languages are rife with convenient misunderstanding of who one really is. Mostly they ignore me and I give them their space but crows are curious. I’m sure they have some thoughts about the tall, wingless creatures that make such great habitat for them unwittingly.
In the evening I sit on the couch with the radio on, working on a few sketches between day dreams. Outside a crow sits in the very top of a fir. It’s raining harder now and this crow is still, just adjusting to the wind and occasionally shaking off the water from its head. There are so many other places to go when one has wings, is this crow enjoying itself in the rain? The possibility, however faint, that a crow may love the rain—that we may have this in common—makes me feel sweet, a little giddy, a little in love.
Grey clouds drift past the crow, I sit and watch until it jumps off the tree and swoops out of view.
I’m getting started on a new body of work, Myths and Prayers in which I will be working intuitively and sensually from my experiences and observations in the landscape as a route to erase the distinction my culture makes between humans and nature.
One question I will explore is about how we relate to our current explanations of life, our myths, if you will. These are now based on methods instead of metaphor. This gives us a much more sophisticated understanding of the world which we have leveraged for incredible development but does it stunt some aspects of our humaness?
Since my goal is to work intuitively I can’t expect that my pieces are going to make any logical sense regarding this question but if I can blur the distinction within myself between humankind and nature I believe I will gain insight into the situation.
I’ll be working in layers on handmade paper, layers always inspire me to post lots of process shots.
I thought I was going to Gabriel Park to make sketches for a painting but apparently I was going there to take a nap in the meadow. I would blame this on the Pedalpalooza Kick-off ride but it was just me waiting until nearly 11pm to look at the bus schedule and then having a 2 hour journey ahead of me. There are reasons older people become set in their ways and do silly stuff like go to bed early and it’s not that they don’t like to have fun. We come to find it’s not fun to spend an entire day sleepwalking just for a little extra nonsense the night before.
All the same, I was excited to be on foot en route to my painting spot. Any time I can shirk off a car ride I feel accomplished, like putting off the laundry an extra day. Multnomah Village is a more active place than it used to be, a hub of urban life with a giant overpriced apartment building on the main street, an old favorite restaurant closing its doors because the rent is too high. I’m glad, at least, that so many people are drawn to live in a woodsy, walkable neighborhood. We have a desperate need to humanize more of our habitat but we need to do it for everyone, not just those who can afford to live in or near luxury apartment buildings.
Anyhow I’m half asleep and it’s hot out because I’m on the slacker schedule of leaving my house at 2 pm. This puts me in a mystical space of being aware of nothing besides being hot and sleepy and loud things like the Dad lecturing his son about his attitude on the baseball diamond sidelines. I personally support the son in not being able to gracefully handle an entire day of sportsball.
Past the ball field, I enter the cathedral of Cedars that make up the mid section of Gabriel Park. There is a crow aggressively dissecting the remains of a family picnic while the humans are off in the grass playing games, a woman sunning herself while reading a book. I stop and sit on a bench, I’m in one of my favorite parks, where do I want to go to sketch? I head into the forest by the creek and admire the cedars who do not grow all the way to the ground like cones when they are so close together; its an intricate interior without a lot of undergrowth. The shapes and shadows are intriguing but someone wants a cozy spot to sit so I walk through these woods to the little meadow where I used to go at dusk in the winter to watch the crows settle into their rook.
I sit on the grass and contemplate sketching, contemplate how long its been since I spent a lazy day laying in the grass with no goals, then lay down watching the birch leaves bob in and out of the light above me. The next thing I know I am confused about what is making so much noise splashing in a tiny creek when I realize there is a car on the gravel road behind me and I have been fast asleep. I watch a couple crows pick around in the grass and fix my eyes on a perfectly round black spot on a log at the edge of the wood which reveals itself as a bunny when it’s ears move. I can’t resist a chance to include wildlife in a painting so I get out my sketchbook and take some notes, draw a bit. Sometimes we have to finish a secret mission before we can get on with our goals.
Last weekend I got to be part of the Elisabeth Jones’ Art Center’s Painting to Save the Trees. It was very rewarding. We spent 2 days painting trees that are threatened by development. I find it so backwards that we cut beautiful trees down to make way for development when human habitat is clearly improved by access to nature. Developments that preserve notable elements of the local landscape are more unique and inspiring. What keeps this from being standard protocol besides how deeply we have buried our heads in the bottom line.
There is so much more to life than profit. We know this, we see how many of us are depressed, sick and stressed out. We now have daily reminders on the news of how being rich doesn’t make someone admirable. It’s time for each of us, in some small way, to bring more nature back into our lives: visiting the park more often, planting a native species in our yard, planting a flower in a pot on our apartment window sill, talking to our friends and neighbors about how lucky we are to have the natural features nearby that we do, paying attention to developments in our neighborhoods and commenting on them, sending messages to our representatives to let them know we prioritize nature and equal access to nature.
I have made some small efforts in my personal life to preserve and prioritize nature but I’ve always wanted to use my art to this end also and have not been able to wrap my mind around how to do that without merely making art as commentary. Painting to Save the Trees was a great way for me to get involved on a deeper level and I hope it inspires me in new directions.
I painted the oaks twice because I had extra time and I thought I might like them better in a more illustrative style, which I do!
I moved a couple weeks ago, here’s my new studio, still getting organized!
I am pretty excited to be back in Portland, I have already been on a couple birding trips, a yoga class. There are just so many more options here it’s easy to make fun things work with my schedule. Tomorrow I am going to a tarot meet-up as I have finally reckoned with my mystical side. As someone who loves and appreciates science I felt a little squeamish about how drawn I am to tarot but there are a lot of people these days using it for personal growth instead of fortune telling.
What I like about the cards is the archetypes combined with art and chance. It creates an opportunity to see things from a new perspective and think different thoughts on an area of my life where I was stuck. Whether or not my spirit is drawn to particular cards based on a message it wants me to hear or if my own creativity simply makes a meaningful message out of the cards I happen to pick is a question I don’t feel like I need to answer. I’ve been reading for friends lately and they find benefit in the readings so I’m eager to learn more.
In the meantime here’s the first art journal pages in my new space.