Category: All Blog Posts

One Specific Place

I went to the arboretum this morning just after sunrise, above the shadowy deciduous trees the evergreens stood glowing green-gold in the light as the crows flew over in black-gold wings, the robins chuckled, and a morning dove flew quietly into the maple.

I feel unusually content as I walk down the slope toward the flames of trees in yellow leaves. The ground feels soft, as if this is the one place in the world I am invited to be in right now, that there is one specific place I belong in each moment but I am rarely there except this morning.

I walk to the Tupelo trees, my Autumn favorite. They are sporting a few red leaves already. I would love to come everyday to watch them turn. If I had a bucket list the one thing I would put on it would be to take the entire Autumn off, to wander around all day admiring trees changing colors.

This is just the beginning of the season, I spent the first full day of Fall walking along the Clackamas River with a new fellow I’m very fond of. Like a lot of people, I think it is Fall the moment I feel a little chill in the air and see leaves turning colors. He holds off on such celebrations until the actual equinox. This year I paid attention as the leaves turned and the air chilled and find myself agreeing with him. Autumn is still my favorite season and part of what makes late summer so enjoyable are the signs that Fall is encroaching.

 

I walk along the Maple Trail listening to a northern flicker and a stellar jay. I sit down on a bench for a while basking in this surprise contentment. It is amazing how much I wear myself out just trying to live a genuine life. I once met a woman who had lived for years at an ashram in India; she thought humans would do well to give up the idea that living a life of joy and peace should be easy.

I think of all the trees and plants and wonder what it feels like to grow—is it ever uncomfortable? Does it strain their peace in spring to produce so much new fiber in such a short period of time? Perhaps they enjoy the tumult because they trust it is their nature.

I sit down in the Beech Grove to do another study and decide to cast off the unfortunate ideas I acquired while trying to be enlightened in my 20s—that making an effort to develop my own life is contrary to living a peaceful and meaningful life.

It’s not natural to live like it’s Autumn year-round, the trees know. In Sprig they surrender to the hard work of making leaves and when Summer yields to the Autumn chill they surrender to the delicate task of letting them all go, each landing in the exact place it has been invited to rest. Perhaps I will find more humility in doing the tremendous work needed to be successful with my inborn talents than I have smugly settling for a less turbulent mediocrity.

In the Beech Grove

Tuesday morning in the arboretum the juncos are busy collecting food off the ground occasionally chasing each other into the bushes. The firs and larches are filled with their calls alongside chestnut-backed chickadees, a brown creeper, stellar jay, song sparrow and a nuthatch. I can’t tell you if it was a red-breasted or a white-breasted nuthatch because I’m just learning the songs and I haven’t spotted the bird to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a song in the trees that I am not sure of, it could easily be juncos but I want to catch someone in my binoculars singing it to know for sure, unfortunately my neck hurts after extra shifts waiting tables and I’m unusually fatigued. I sit on the grass far enough from the trees to be able to look into them without craning my neck and soon thereafter settle into a nap without having solved the mystery.

I’m supposed to be sketching the beech trees and getting familiar with the grove in an existentially deep way so that my next painting can also be existentially deep. Instead I want to soak up the sun in the meadow and maybe cry a little for it being the time of year my father died, for all the tiny things going awry in life, the large things going awry in society, and the grand conflict of wanting to be a human who has a retirement plan and follows their passion and helps humanity and lives a simple, earthy life.

The wind picks up and it’s cold like it came in off a snowy mountain slope and just thinking about being in the mountains makes me so happy I feel like it’s ok if this moody nap in the grass is the last thing I accomplish. It reminds me of my back-up retirement plan which is to wander off into the woods just before senility sets in. It probably won’t come to that but the option gives me an unexpected peace when I start fretting about the future.

I haul myself off the grass and head toward the Beech trees. Determined not to succumb entirely to the trials of mind I consider appeasing my humanitarian urge by assuming that after death my paintings will be discovered as useful to a society struggling to embrace it’s humanness. However unlikely, it is as calming as my back-up retirement plan and may just free up enough space in my noggin to allow a more genuine usefulness to develop. Now all I have to do is balance a passion to create with a passion to be simple.

I sit down in the Beech grove to draw. There are not as many bird songs here so I sit and listen to the sound of Beech nuts falling into the cover of dried leaves on the groundsome of them opened like woody stars—and the sound of the green leaves above fluttering against each other in the late summer wind. It is a song that holds all the love of the cold mountains, the preciousness of life and another mystery I cannot decipher.

I draw one tree, it’s a slender thing with just a few major branches all growing upwards. A young girl walks through the grove with her grandma, “What does the tree say?” the girl asks. Grandma doesn’t have an answer to this lofty question until the girl points out the tree has a tag on it. “American Beech” Grandma says and they walk on. My pencil feels strangely heavy and I realize my quandary has just as simple an answer. I have a nature to follow, a song that happens on its own when the wind comes through. Someone else can make a tag labeling the kind of human I end up being.

After Bugs

 

Having been in Portland for a few months now I am not surprised to find Tryon Creek State Park’s overflow lot completely full at 9 am on Saturday. Back in the day the front lot might be close to full but this is a little overwhelming. The visitor’s Center trail heads are busy with runners, families with strollers and hikers. Clearly we need more parks and natural areas so we can all have peaceful quality time out in nature instead of being on a highway, it’s nice to have more gaps between encounters.

I head down the Maple Ridge Trail to the spot where I did some studies yesterday because I realize I need a few more. I’m just getting my feet wet in an endeavor to make large paintings in the studio based on extensive studies made on-site. This will be an inbetweener, making more studies than normal to get an experiment going and see what it’s like to paint large.

There have been several 90 degree evenings this summer when I came to Tryon Creek with my paints and was unable to get myself to paint, it was easy to rationalize with all the mosquitoes that settle on a person who sits still in the woods in summer. Bug spray kept them off me but they were still buzzing around close enough to be a menace.

I knew mosquitoes weren’t the real issue though. I went for a one night backpacking trip along the Salmon River with my paints thinking that a day trip would be just the thing to inspire me. I made some drawings but instead of painting I spent a lot of time sitting by the river listening to the world. The bugs hovering above the water, zig zaging across the open space, the Lorquin’s Admiral butterflies fluttering from one rock to another then off to a tree branch, the kingfisher passing through in search of a good spot to fish, the ravens and their throaty calls, one landing in an evergreen and hopping up the boughs one by one like a ladder.

The deep sounds of the river flowing around the large mossy rocks cleared out my head and gave me space to answer all sorts of questions like how to arrange my studio schedule around a constantly changing work schedule when habits have always been my lifeline out of inertia. I also decided to to get more involved in my studies of a place prior to making paintings, to not just address a scene’s visual material but to be present there, observant, as connected as my divided brain allows me to be. To then collect all the material into a large painting in the studio at home.

At night back in my little camp a bat flew past, lurching after bugs with amazing speed and grace. It made dozens of laps through the area, passing above or alongside me each time. Where did this bat spend the day, I wondered enjoying its erratic shadowy presence, trusting its own blind technology to not collide with me even as I moved about to brush my teeth and change into soft fleece for a cozy night in the hammock.

I’m not sure how to get that relaxed and involved in a place with so many humans milling about as at Tryon Creek but the challenge is just what I need to feel inspired again instead of forcing myself to continue producing the same kind of work as I had been.

I pack up my studies and wander down the hill to the creek admiring all the orange blossoms in the undergrowth, the bare packed dirt that develops around any interesting feature like a particularly large fallen log or a uniquely shaped tree that begs to be climbed into, the yellow and orange leaves that collect around the edges of rocks in the creek.

The ravens who live here squawk at each other as I cross the park and I wonder if I could ever love the loud and brash antics of people the way I love the antics of birds. A group of women in spandex has been out of sight behind me on the trail for sometime and one of them is bellowing her part of the conversation which is sizable. I stop by the creek to let them pass while an even louder group approaches from the opposite direction, young boys with blood curdling yells.

Society has such a task balancing everyone’s needs, the need to play, the need to be quiet. I wish I could be like the bat who went about its business unconcerned with the human in its way, seemingly content to wake at dusk and hunt for bugs the same as every other day.

August

August

Designed for Flight

I’m in Corvallis for the day with an hour and a half of free time before meeting friends at the coffee shop so I drive to Bald Hill and start up the trail along Oak Creek toward Fitton Green. I love the dry grass meadows of summer and the barn swallows perched on the fence in their deep blue wings and forked tails. It’s been so hot it has been hard to enjoy the usual adventures of summer but today is a little cool, clouds above even.

I enter the woods and the drama of oaks cloaked in moss baring their long twisted history of always vying for light. A deep brown moth flies out of the brush pirouettes above my head and lands in the leaves along the bank on the side of the trail.

Moths have my heart. Drawn blindly to destructive sources of light I feel we are kindred spirits.

 

Once I was pulling English ivy off the shed at my brother’s. The ivy held a lot of dead leaves and sometimes one would flutter upward past my face as I yanked the vines loose. It was eerie; these fluttering things were them same ocher and shape as dead leaves yet they seemed alive, soft, defiant of gravity.

I slowed down and paid more attention thinking maybe a sly bird had been living in the ivy but what I discovered were moths. What a magical thing to be so ethereal as to be almost imperceptible. And what a magical thing to be in the midst of them as they are loosed from the side of an old shed.

Then there was the evening a moth dropped out of nowhere and landed on my coffee cup as I tended to a broken heart. The fluttery thing in me that looked at his web-site portrait from a list of recommendations and said, I’m going here, despite my intellect protesting that one should not seek counseling from a man one is attracted to before even arriving.

 

I likened it to a moth, that draw, and marveled at its intensity for seeking loopholes, for ignoring the one-sided nature of our conversations, for believing with such convenience that he was a lonely insightful writer with few possessions who played upright bass, loved nature, wore fedoras and would be a very sensitive and affectionate partner despite being a hermit.

My intellect considered this might not be accurate. He might not own a single fedora. He might be partnered. He might have the sort of integrity that would not allow him to pursue a client. My intellect considered that if he didn’t have this integrity my fantasy actualized would be a thing going very wrong in my life. The moth, however, had it’s own mysterious agenda that did not involve such practicalities and my intellect became a tiny afterthought barely tethering me to reality.

Eventually he mentioned a wife. I kept my cool— intellect had prepared me for this. I went to the coffee shop later to mourn the necessity of reality when an actual moth appeared and perched on my cup, white, furry, seemingly unaware of my presence. How could I not read something poignant into this?

 

How about: beings who willfully scorch themselves on artificial lights are soft and designed for flight.

Even at the time I knew what transference was, that it was normal, that it would be safe to talk about the attraction in a session if I wanted to, that I could choose another counselor. But that was scary and the moth was compelling. The draw motivated me to work and his affirmative statements cashed out in my soul at a value of 1000 times than had they been issued by an unattractive colleague. Also it kept me from getting back together with my ex-boyfriend.

It must be an intense sensation for the caterpillar to liquefy itself in order to acquire wings. So my normally rational, self-contained personality sat over coffee that evening with a moth trying to embrace this departure from sense and maturity.

Today I climb through the oaks to the top of the ridge and lay on a split log bench in the sun. The cool air and dry leaves along the trail remind me of Autumn and evoke the feeling of eternity infused into each moment and molecule. It is a beauty almost imperceptible and defiant of life’s gravity. It is a beauty that makes me feel rich and loved despite all my troubles with these ordinary parts of life. I hold this ethereal wealth all the way back to the trail-head becoming part of the meadow’s population alongside the swallows and bugs, no longer a detached observer.

Some people believe that our quirks, our troubling oddities contain the most precious parts of ourselves, things so delicate we hide them in tight cocoons to make sure no one will ever have the chance to despise them. This moth-self in all it’s intensity to dream up a perfect and epic love has something important lurking with her in the dead leaves of the ivy. What can I do besides slow down and pay attention while I pull down each idea that ever made me ashamed for holding my own epic source of light.

 

A Strange Amount of Courage

Cascade Head South Trail is a fairy tale staircase of exposed roots climbing though a cavern of giant spruce trees and berry thickets into the meadows that overlook the ocean and a dense lumpy cloud cover. I got a late start on this hike and figured I could walk in for 30 minutes before I needed to turn around and drive back to Portland. 60 minutes out I’m looking at the top of Cascade Head from below wondering, is that a 5 minute walk? A ten minute walk? It’s 8 pm and I decide to be reasonable, stop taking pictures of the cloud bank, and head back.

The forest light is dim now. Swainson’s thrushes are filling the wood with their mystic arpeggios and sometimes it sounds like there is one right next to the trail. I stop and try to spot one in the tall leafy brush to no avail. They are good at hiding, being still, throwing their voices. Around a bend I startle one into noisy wing beats and watch it fly deeper into the brush. I still can’t get a good look at it and eventually move along until one flies up the trail and lands on a tree in plain sight. I spot it in my binoculars long enough to recognize the brown spots across its breast but it flies off before I can focus. The light continues to fade so I forget about spotting birds and listen instead to the spiraling songs coming from every direction, the water-drop calls traded back and forth.

Once a coworker asked me if I knew what bird made a certain song, before he even began his description I knew he was talking about a Swainson’s Thrush because of the wonder in his eyes. He had clearly been touched by something soft and shimmery, something transcending the roughness of the world. He looked the Swainson’s song up on-line and was excited to finally give the singer its proper name, to know what it looked like.

Down the trail a ways I hear a couple Varied Thrushes sing, the eerie harmonic of their simple one note song drifting elegantly through the woods. If my coworker had been asking about a Varied Thrush his eyes would have held awe and a slight apprehension of the seedy underworld this bird had given him a glimpse of by parting his thoughts into silence like a heavy velvet curtain. Could the woods be more charmed? Listening to two of my favorite bird songs at the same time is so lovely, I kid you not, all I can think is: why do people eat ice cream when they could wander off into an evening of bird song and mossy shadows?

I don’t want to leave. I just taught a one day workshop at Sitka Center for Art and Ecology and I think to myself, it should have been a week-long workshop, this is paradise. Before I checked in I hiked the Cascade Head Trail that starts near the Highway. It was not as magical as this dusk walk but it was equally enthralling to watch the Wilson’s Warblers flit about in brush making their fierce kissing calls, indicating I was unwelcome. The Chestnut-backed Chickadees entranced by berries along the trail were so close it seemed I could hear the softness of their feathers in their noisy fluttering and see how they can sing even while holding a berry in-beak.

A Raven then flew over in its varied commentary which made me feel watched and laughed at. This seemed appropriate because at that point I was pretty sure I didn’t really want to be an art teacher—what better way to deflect the stress of wanting so much to be good at what one does? I had spent the whole car trip worrying about running out of paint. Luckily there was nothing to do but proceed as planned. I started the workshop nervous, wondering if it was such a good idea to trust that my knowledge of the book form I was teaching would inform my words instead of planning what to say.

My knowledge did inform me what to say and my love of seeing people making books emptied me of my normal agendas and judgments in the same way the Varied Thrush’s song does. It was not a barren kind of emptiness. It was a tangible contentment supporting people in voicing their creativity while learning a new and sometime puzzling art form. It was not unlike watching a chickadee sing while holding a berry between its beak and I felt like I was being of service as I do when I volunteer.

A few days after the workshop while I am at home in a seemingly unrelated conversation I will learn something about purpose, about singing regardless of what we hold. I tell a friend about my latest muse, how I’m sure he has many admirers. Men are so attractive when they share their expertise, I say.

Humans are attractive when they are in their purpose, my friend says. He’s right. This man’s intellectual prowess is not the draw, it’s his passion. I imagine he spent his life immersed in the things he loves and now seems deeply imbued with them.

I consider this alongside my experience of service and decide we have the most to give when we allow our own purpose to guide us. It is not a thing to double check, to asses rationally in terms of the world’s needs. I don’t know what my muse is like as a person but the attraction uncovers my own animus: how I want to be in the world.

We all have a right to choose that our lives matter deeply to us even if they matter to no one else. It seems like a small thing. But for some of us it requires a strange amount of courage to choose because choosing obligates us to do things we imagine will lose the affections of others.

Making this choice obligated me to part with privacy and start an odd autobiographical and illustrated blog about being outdoors a little engrossed in my own thoughts. To my surprise, keeping the blog feels like growing out from under the large rock that has always rested on my spirit. And now that I understand purpose a little more I’m imagining these posts as an eerie harmonic floating through the far woods, occasionally touching a dusk traveler who, for a moment, slips out of their agendas to be presented with a choice to love the seedy, unplanned life they so elegantly inhabit.

July

July

Starts

I’m sitting in the shade of an arborvitae hedge at Headwaters farm painting the row of evergreens behind the plots, watching the starlings fly in and out of crop rows and listening to a white crowned sparrow belt out its best song. A hawk soared over while I was scouting spots so I have a second opportunity to include a hawk into my plein air pieces.

Headwaters is an incubator farm. Would-be farmers apply to get a grant of ½ an acre for 5 years plus access to most of the necessary infrastructure and equipment to start a farm. My friend is in her first year growing medicinal herbs and mushrooms at Rise-up Remedies. I came out to visit and get a little dirty helping out. I couldn’t resist the impulse to come early with my art supplies.

I paint the trees’ shadows in the awkward blotches of a short attention span, set the painting aside to dry for a bit and watch a woman farming flowers in a purple plaid shirt and requisite straw hat. It’s such an idyllic scene, this woman surrounded by flowers in her purple shirt.

I paint some colors over my shadows and lines. I set it aside again as Lizzy arrives and we leave to tour the farm and pick-up some tools. I wonder about all the farmers out here. Our society places such status on working indoors in a cushy environment. I see how people would be drawn to working with plants, to the romantic vision of a life tending the earth, but does the reality of long days outdoors doing repetitive physical tasks hold up to the draw? Having worked on a farm in my youth I know a full day of outdoor work is exhausting.

I water some plant starts with Lizzy before I wander back to the arborvitae to finish my painting. When I am reasonably content with it I walk back to the Rise-up Remedies plot to help weed. It feels so good to be outside doing work with my body. I have never been so miserable as I was sitting behind a desk for 8 hours a day being polite to people as a medical receptionist. I did not even feel human in that environment. Sometimes I would day dream of starting a farm at my mom’s place but it seemed too hard. It would be too hard, but today I consider it may have been better than wilting in a windowless room generating income for other people.

Lizzy and I weed the oats which I didn’t realize were a grass. Not that I had some alternative vision of what they looked like beyond flat, soft grains in a cardboard cylinder with a pilgrim on the front. Oat straw is an elegant grass. It’s satisfying to pull the unwanted weeds from the soil by the root and pile them between the raised beds.

After my first year at The Evergreen State College I came to my hometown for the summer to work on an organic farm. I had spent spent three solid terms deconstructing my beliefs and society’s paradigms in a postmodernism course. Growing vegetables and melons for people was a decent antidote to all that intellectualism. The need to eat was one of the few realities I felt I could take for granted.

When I remember the farm I always think of a conversation we had in the packing shed while loading zucchini into waxed cardboard boxes. I don’t know how we got on the subject but I informed my co-workers that I wanted to be composted after I died. Charles suggested they spread me out in the back field. “We’ll have a really good zucchini crop next year.” he said straight-faced. I never forgot his subtle humor. He was an attractive fellow, single, present, considerably older than I, but who knows what would have happened if I wasn’t busy having an identity crises I thought everyone should be having with me.

Now I’m out hoeing a fennel row with Lizzy talking about how the ideals of permaculture don’t hold up in environments where people actually have to earn a living and grow food in amounts that can feed people. We both laugh about how idealistic we were as youth, how convinced we were that we knew better than everyone. I was especially arrogant and judged anybody who created a meaningful life for themselves that they didn’t question while my questioning kept me from creating any sort of life.

I ask Lizzy if she likes the actual farm work as a daily lifestyle. She does. I think about it and decide I could enjoy doing this everyday, but maybe not full-time.

We take a break to give away some herb starts to the other farmers and Lizzy insists I take a thyme plant despite my assurance I’m not much of a gardener. When I get home I realize I could be. I used to grow flowers on the window sills of my apartments. It was after I finished school and had to figure out how to pay off my loans that I stopped having time for such things. Now that I’ve escaped the office I find myself gifted with thyme. I even have a back patio. I see some potted zucchini in my future but I’m going to have to compost the residuals of my postmodern-self to get anything to grow.

Under the Smoke Tree

Hoyt Arboretum is one of my favorite places, it’s like an amusement park for nature lovers. A person can walk through a grove of Spanish Chestnut trees, then a section of Elm and through a mini Spruce forest within a matter of minutes and that’s just a smidgen of the collection.

Some days I go there to hike and sometimes I go there to saunter from one scenic bench to another, usually stopping for a nap at one of the meadows.

Yesterday I snoozed under the Common Persimmons. It’s the worst meadow to nap in, poky grass with lots of blackberries coming through. But it’s a secluded part of the park and the Japanese Wingnut trees are some of my favorites with their graceful draping lines.

It was a hot cloudless day yesterday and I heard something like rain as I approached the trees. I walked up to the boughs and watched little bits fall through the branches. Small and quick it was only from seeing all the blossoms on the ground that I could confirm that flowers were falling through the tree, each bouncing off leaves in its decent like a pin ball. I held out my hands to see if I could catch one and got pelted on the cheek instead.

The tree was completely inhabited by bumble bees, buzzing from one bell shaped flower to another. My intrigue with the sound of flowers apparently granted me a super power to walk into a dense bee zone without fear. The Yellow-faced Bumble Bees didn’t seem bothered by me and it was magical to be surrounded by their buzzing, dedicated presence. I stayed and watched the petals fall before I threw a blanket down next to the tree to rest. I love the sound of rain, persimmon flowers have a similar cadence but a dry and woody timbre.

I have spent many hours of my life in this park and still there are new and wondrous things. Once I watched an Oregon Junco hop up on a dandelion stem and pin the head to the ground to eat the seeds. That was back when juncos, robins and jays were the only birds I could name. If I were to make a screen play of my life that moment would be the ominous foreshadowing where my character’s fate veered in a new direction. Later we’d see her buying a pair of binoculars and staring into shrubs with folks who name drop bird species and birding hotspots like they were celebrities.

Today I’m on a different mission. I’m wandering around trying to decide which trees to paint, fretting about how my latest body of work is not exactly coming together. A Red-tailed Hawk flies up the trail I’m on as if it was made to provide hawks passage through the woods. It lands on a branch that arcs over the path and considers whatever hawks consider when they decide to perch.

So this is where I will paint today, not that the hawk is going to stay and model for me. I can add it into the scene, satisfied that I captured something that happened, something that could happen on anyone’s walk here. There are many birds I never saw before I went birding. Once introduced to a new bird on an outing with competent birders I begin to see the bird as if it magically just moved into the neighborhood. There are so many more birds in my world than their used to be and it is just from a little study, a little preparation.

I find a spot off the trail and set-up to paint. I have one of the miraculous moments while I am drawing where I can focus on what I am actually seeing in a lighthearted way. No laboring of exactness, no making stuff up out of impatience. It is so delightful! My leaves look like maple leaves! What magic!

I will nearly ruin the painting in the studio later but the moment, sitting in the grass under the Smoke Tree trying to sort out the infinite greens of the forest to frame the perch of a common but majestic hawk is worth it and may provide ominous foreshadowing of its own.