Category: Landscape Diaries

Finding a Lost Trail

When I arrive at Marshall park three varied thrushes scatter from around the trailhead into the trees. I walk down to the bridge, over the creek, past the playground and up the trail—hopefully on my way to Tryon Creek State Park. Last time I got lost and wandered entirely too far on a deer trail with the absurd notion that this trail, despite being on a map of suggested walking routes put out by the city of Portland, is simply not well used.

As I descend toward the creek again I see a trail on the other side I hadn’t noticed last time. I realize that this was the spot where the trail became thin and unreliable last time so I assume not crossing had been my wrong turn. This time I walk on the wide log over the creek and follow the trail along the water and up the bank to the intersection of Arnold and Boones Ferry.

A couple blocks away I find the North Creek Trailhead. I am elated to have finally made it here after one failed attempt! I haven’t been on this side of the park much. The woods feel open where the creek winds through a wide marshy area, especially without the leaves of the deciduous trees filling in the space.

I walk through the park on my favorite trails admiring the maple blossoms and budding leaves. I love the way the new buds spring up right next to the remnants of fall, old seedpods still hanging on the branches, leaves stuck in the cruxes. It’s been such a cold winter, I am especially eager for spring.

Above me chestnut backed chickadees sing to each other in a cloud of high-pitched chatter. I only get a good look at one who peeks over a mossy branch before darting off into the high branches.

I admire a wren hopping about in the undergrowth loudly defending its territory. Down the trail a ways I find a sunny bench to have lunch on. Behind me a barred owl sings occasionally and I watch people walk their dogs past as I eat the two bread heels out of a bread bag identical to the one my sandwich is in at home in the fridge.

On the way back I startle several more groups of varied thrushes. They aren’t a rare bird but I’ve never seen so many in one walk before and it makes the day even more enchanted than finding a lost trail on the other side of a log bridge.

I’m surprised to find varied thrushes have bold black and white stripes on the underside of their wings. It’s so striking as they fly off through the deep greens. As I watch a female perched next to a broken branch right above the trail I also realize their lovely orange coloring is the exact same color as the inside of a tree before it weathers. I stay very still, watching until she flies off. Up the trail a bit I spy two males on the other side of some bare brush. I watch them foraging alongside the creek until a fellow with a dog passes and the birds scatter.

After I cross the log again and head up the hill I notice this part of the trail is not stable. It is in a terrible process of erosion which makes it seem unlikely to be a city-sanctioned trail. When planning my route I had expected to walk on streets more then I actually did before arriving at Tryon.

I pass a fork in the trail with no signage. I had taken the wider path assuming the narrower trail went into the nearest neighborhood. Now I get out my map and find that this was actually my wrong turn. I was supposed to take the narrower trail to the street.

What a dilemma! I just discovered this enchanting trail but feel morally obligated to take a boring street route next time. If the bank weren’t in such bad shape I wouldn’t mind taking the unmapped trail but it’s not good for the creek and all the life it supports having the bank wash down.

It’s tough sometimes to balance out our rights as mammals to be close to nature with our obligation as stewards to make sure we stop ruining our neighboring species’ habitat. In my ideal world, we restore so many natural areas and effuse our cities and neighborhoods with so much plant life and other-species habitat that we don’t feel deprived when we shut ourselves out of areas that need to be restored.

I walk the rest of the way home and eat my sandwich finally. It tastes all the better for having been missed.

The Exact Shape of the Sky

 

Ivy Hill was the first place I fell in love with when I moved back to Corvallis. A wide trail loops around the hill on one side ascending to it’s peak where one can stand in the bare meadows and look down on the charming city of Corvallis shrouded in its many trees. The unruly branches of white oaks and open meadows there have the most dramatic relationship with the changing weather. Fog writes intrigue with the silhouettes of twisted trees. Clouds lay heavy in their grey mist passing over the ocher grass. The blue sky shapes itself into jagged panes between each trailing branch. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Corvallis in the spring especially at the top of Ivy Hill.

I arrived in Spring and felt as though my heart was the exact shape of the sky above the contours of North Corvallis. I felt such peace being snugly back in its familiar hills, creeks, and the forested slough slipping into the Willamette.

Today I am here on a visit from Portland where I have spent most of my adult live. I head up the trail and miss the deep fir-filled woods that used to flank the sides of the hill before the oak release. The startling beauty of oaks against the skyline should salve my grief but I do not feel quite at home in the restored oak savanna.

Without ambition or binoculars I spot and hear several acorn woodpeckers, one of the declining species the oak release aimed to make habitat for. Even the oaks themselves were not doing well with so many evergreens crowding them. I didn’t used to see acorn woodpeckers this far east so I imagine this project has been successful.

I walk up the hill looking for the distinct white spots on the wings of the acorn woodpecker as they fly from tree to tree. I stop to admire a group of juncos crossing the trail together. A little grey bird I don’t recognize flits about in the branches alongside the trail with a patch of yellow on its sides. My best guess is that it’s an immature or female yellow-rumped warbler which the internet agrees with later at home.

At the top of the hill I spot a couple white-breasted nuthatches high in an oak, the first time I’ve identified them solo. A western bluebird flies by and I look out across the valley wondering if it will spark the same sense of home, the same sense of paradise and good fortune it did when I moved here. It doesn’t. Which is a relief because I am really enjoying my life in Portland even with its challenges.

I walk back down the hill considering the intelligence of the heart to make itself at home in whatever place it needs to be. It was so peaceful to be in Corvallis the first two years, staying with my folks on 11 acres along the slough, working two days a week at a cafe, riding my bike here and there in no particular hurry, painting in the woods. When I got a full-time job the small town charm instantly evaporated. Then they cut down the firs in Chip Ross Park, gathered the debris in piles all across Ivy Hill and burned it. I regretted the smoldering piles but knew it was right for them to do. I also knew it was right for me to be here with my dad at the end of his life. That the snugness of my heart had more to do with him than the hills. That I might end up back in Portland as if one of a species crowding out the devoted Corvallians.

I hear some hollow drumming as I walk down the other side of the hill blinded by the afternoon sun.

I shade my eyes and look up into the oak by the trail to see a Pileated woodpecker working away, striking in its size and brilliant red crest. I stay and watch it until it slides around the back of the tree, still pecking at the bark.

 

Illuminated by Gravity

 

This morning I woke up to find a fresh undisturbed blanket of snow on the ground. A rarity in the Willamette Valley, I decided to go to Gabriel Park to admire the trees and riparian brush under the wintry elegance.

I pass through Spring Garden Park, deeply sloped it has attracted many sledders making impressive use of a scant inch of snow.

I stop at the cafe to say hi to my waitress friends who are mostly unoccupied. There are two customers in the restaurant. No matter how little snow is on the ground it’s almost always wet here and the temperature is generally just above or just below freezing so people are terrified to leave their homes. It’s an easy target for humor; Portland acting like an inch of snow is a life threatening blizzard. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that no one is really great at driving on ice which is what we most often end up with on the roads.

The traffic creeps slowly along the boulevard as I head up the hill to the park admiring the amazing lace of the trees, a Stellar’s jay quietly perched on the top of a branch and two Anna’s buzzing past me with alarming closeness en route to a feeder.

Gabriel Park is dazzling. The star-like patterns of white on fir boughs, polka dots of white in bare brambles, the structure of each brushy swath of woods illuminated by gravity and snow’s brilliance. Everyone I pass looks buoyant and privileged to be out in the spectacle.

Crows call across the woods to each other and I get distracted from the loveliness. I think about what a headache it will be to paint snow in watercolor. This is the territory of artists who like to paint boat docks and architecture.

I try my best to come back and enjoy the day, to trust the struggle to paint will yield something more interesting than expertise would. Something one could at least cut up and use in a collage.

I manage a couple minutes of contentment then start plotting the most efficient route through my favorite parts of the park to take on days I am too tired or cold for a leisurely stroll. I discover I am already on the most efficient route and consider there is some metaphor in there.

 

 

The next day I walk through Spring Garden Park again on a loop through the neighborhood. The ground is frozen and crunchy under my feet. The cold gray sky feels larger than normal, or maybe nearer, certainly more exposing. There are only little bits of snow left here and there. The robins collect in holly bushes feasting on the red berries.

I’m absorbed today, as I so often am, considering my direction. A serial haver-of-epiphanies, a connoisseur of fresh starts, I will do everything to make my life lovely except actually believe in myself. I imagine living a personally meaningful life instead of a productive one as a long drive on a solid sheet of ice instead of a stroll through one’s favorite parts of the woods. I don’t really need another reason to judge myself so I decide that when it comes to one’s path in life the shorter route won’t do. Perfection won’t do. Adventures like learning to believe in the compass of one’s own heart should not be abbreviated.

A crow swoops out of a bare tree leaving his partner to pick at the moss for bugs in the bare branches.

A scrub jay flies across the street holding something bright orange in his beak, a bright orange ort that perfectly compliments his blue body.

Smaller Adventure

Stephens Creek Natural Area

It’s sunny in the neighborhood today. I head north with my sketchbook. A tiny grocery list is in my pocket because I love to be quaint and today that means walking to the store for my weekly food stuffs. It would be 24 minutes to Fred Meyer by foot if I took Barbur but a stroll along the main thoroughfare sounds like a terrible morning. Besides, I’m short on adventure lately so I take the long route, crossing Barbur to meander through South Burlingame. From the Terwilliger exit the patch of trees along Burlingame park looks like a dense forest. From here in the park I am surprised to find it a thin, scraggly barrier barely veiling the cement wasteland behind it.

I walk past the playgrounds and through the abandoned tennis court at the end of the park then up the hill to Canby street where there is a shrine of various toys and figurines on an ivy covered burm. I’m not drawn to plastic toys even in the spirit of irony and these dolls have become so dirty outdoors they look even more like trash.

I walk down stairs in the hillside and watch a Cooper’s Hawk hunt in a neighbor’s yard across the street. He dives into the ivy but comes up with nothing before disappearing around the backside of the house, each movement so quick it is only the distinct stripes on his tail that confide his identity.

I take another staircase up to Terwilliger and endure several minutes of traffic hell while I cross main streets to get to the store where I engage in the odd practice of selecting my groceries by weight so my book bag won’t be too heavy on the way home. Next time I’m going to wear my backpacking backpack so I can distribute the weight onto my hips and buy more food.

I feel squeamish about becoming impractically idealistic. No one is going to be happy to bag my groceries into a deep outdoor backpack and placing the eggs just right will be an act of unwieldy devotion. In my 20s I refused to buy a car, new clothes or even packaged food. One day I felt I needed some clear tape and it was a moral dilemma. I bought the tape but I’m not sure if I have forgiven myself yet.

At the time I thought I was an inspiration for good stewardship but looking back I believe I was mostly just a grim and neglected relic of my own ideals.

I leave the store out the parking garage and take Bertha Street to Stephens Creek Natural Area. The first time I came here it was dusk. I was on my bike headed home from downtown and more than a little saddle sore. I locked my bike up along Capitol Hill Road and descended toward the creek raising the ire of a large group of crows. I wasn’t sure if this was their rookery or if there was a particularly nutritious dead animal in the park but they were quite vocal about not wanting me around. The dark sprawling branches of willows with their odd, obtuse angles in the dim light enhanced the menace of the crows into a Hitchcock-like scene. I loved it of course.

Now it is midday and there is not a single crow here. There is an Anna’s singing it’s lungs out above, robins hopping about listening for worms, a couple song sparrows calling. The crows are elsewhere, possibly even in my back yard hunting for bugs.

I stop and sketch the brambly woods a bit and head up the trail. I’d planned to take Capitol Hill Road but get sidetracked on a foot path that sashays up the hill through the unmanicured neighborhood. Sometimes dirt, sometimes gravel, sometimes the bend of a narrow paved lane or the cracked pavement at the end of a cul-de-sac, sometimes lined by ivy or cut deeply by run-off the path carries me up the hill by the water tower and back down the other side to Barbur passing blackberries, brambles and disheveled gardens, a wooden cart with wheels sunk in the mud, a tarped boat. There’s an impressive variety of evergreen trees I’m not able to identify along with some fragrant cedars and at least one Doug fir so tall the wind sings through its needles like the ocean.

I arrive home tired and happy to put my groceries away, enamored that I just carried them over a small hill having an even smaller adventure. I don’t have to walk to the store. I have a working car in the driveway full of gas. It’s a privilege for me to indulge my quaint notions of life. I think of it like a shrine I built to a simple, slower and possibly fictional time when people weren’t cogs in a fast moving economy. If I don’t maintain this shrine it will get overgrown with ego. I will start walking to the store grim in the notion that it’s the right thing to do, that everyone else should too.

Crows at Stephens Creek Natural Area

Catastrophic Currents

I leave the house today solely on the advice of many past outings where what seemed like a deep depression lifted into a light melancholy and became joy just by going for a walk. I trudge up the narrow side street into Spring Garden Park without any such relief but decide to keep going.

This mood began after my counselor pointed out how much pressure I put on myself to find success as an artist and my secret belief that such success would spill over into my personal life saving me from having to find friends in an aloof town and date so many Mr. Wrongs to find Mr. Right-enough. She wondered if it wouldn’t be beneficial to make art into more of say, a hobby.

I hate the word hobby but I was feeling failed enough in that moment to take up this suggestion. Why wouldn’t I prefer to just make the art I want to make instead of trying to develop a consistent body of work, market it, submit it to galleries and sell it. I have never loved these activities and clearly prefer the stability of waiting tables.

I walk along Dolph Street considering if I have the vitality to make it all the way to Woods Memorial Park. This fatigue I’m under is not subsiding and the cold wind is quelling any benefit I should get from the brilliant sun and blue sky.

After cleaning out the studio to focus on my passions instead of commercial interests I found myself grieving as if having lost a love. Sobbing often and uncontrollably was a very new and alarming thing for me but I had always wanted to be one of those genuine, heart-feeling individuals. Here was my chance to feel and hurt and love.

After I cross the highway I walk down the gravel streets wondering what my former therapist would say about this. (Yes, the one I had a giant crush on.) He had such a quiet spirit it radiated an intense and tangible compassion that had a certain pithiness to it. As though his life was a large ship with a cracked hull that he beached on the shore and loved as-is instead of repairing. There it filled with seawater, rust and starlight. It sank into the sand and each night’s black sky.

I walk down the trail into the park immersed in this vision when I look up and see that the trees are unusually luminous as though they are also considering starlight and seawater. As though they have something to say about a life that does not include the word failure even as their lost branches break into the soil at their feet.

I bask in the beautiful light of the trees and as I approach the mandala the Fairy of Woods Memorial leaves on a drain cover by the trail I notice a Varied Thrush on the ground. It’s been a while since I’ve seen one and delight in his dapper orange brows and the deep gray crescent across his breast. He sees me and flies into the branches above the circular arrangement of flower petals, pine-cones, seedpods and winter berries.

I once met the woman who keeps this mandala. She had a mischievous, uplifting presence so it wasn’t a surprise when she mentioned the local paper deemed her The Fairy of Woods Memorial. I looked up the article at home and curiosity lead me down an internet rabbit hole where I discovered a performance she did about an abusive relationship with a spiritual teacher. It was so touching that she would reveal such a large crack in the hull of her life. Yet doing so allowed her to mend, to help others being drawn into or getting spit out of similar catastrophic currents.

Having had some less-than-glorious relationships with guru-types myself it was healing to watch. So now I walk through the woods, my imagination filled with both a rusty half-sunk ship and an expertly patched fairy-skiff darting through swift rapids.

As I walk back through the neighborhood I get deeper into the day’s boat theme considering my long-held belief that it is important for humans to have a mystical canoe made of things one loves. These help us to stay afloat in the great mystery of life even when our identities, religions or loved-ones fail us. I made a canoe of art and words and believed that, even if I had some other calling I had missed, it was good and right to have utmost respect for my canoe.

Suddenly I feel my feet in the dirt by the road, the sunshine all around empties my thoughts for a few moments. Each step feels to be a gift, an opportunity to be here in this one tree-lined street, on this giant planet, in my own pithy aliveness.

Arrogant spiritual teachers don’t have to be abusive to cause damage. They have a way of espousing freedom while allowing only one right thing to live for. Even years after the fact I live in their shadows afraid that the little ideas I like to elaborate into grandiose spiritual adventures aren’t right enough to be worthwhile. It’s just as much pressure as believing I need to actually sell art to have a meaningful career.

Why wouldn’t I respect these travels? Paddling between my ego and heart, asking question and collecting bits of wisdom that don’t always fit together. Perhaps this excuse to admire seawater and starlight, to celebrate sunlight and neighborhood walks is my own kind of right.

Embracing Inefficiency

I left at 7:25 am, walked against the flow morning traffic along the gravel edge of my street and hopped onto 32nd after crossing Capitol Hwy. It’s peaceful now, just neighborhood houses with luminous pumpkins glowing in the thick fog alongside outrageous spider webs, comedic skeletons and other Halloween bric-a-brac. Thirty-second street jogs around at Florida then crosses Vermont into a part of the neighborhood I’ve never been in. I descend into the dark greens, glowing yellows and oranges of Autumn admiring the quaint homes of an old woodsy neighborhood. I take a staircase in and out of a little gully to Beaverton-Hillsdale Hwy and cross to a path through Hillsdale Park which spans Trillium Creek on a narrow, chain-link covered bridge. The fencing has collected an impressive crown of maple leaves under the dark forest along the creek making it into the kind of tunnel where one would expect to find trolls or woodland sprites.

The terrain steepens and I note that this will not be the same low-key bit of exercise as my amble through Gabriel Park the other day. I climb the railroad tie steps through a narrow passage between one-off homes in Southwest Hills, stop to check my notes to the map, and continue upward to Council Crest. The trees at the crest are layered by distance and fog in a stately veil of gray. I walk through them along a leaf covered path to the Hilltop intersection then plunge into another swath of urban forest on the Marquam trail, traffic noise steadily picking up as I get closer to Sunset Hwy.

I have to admit that I’m tired and this might not be the most realistic way to get to the Arboretum on a regular basis. That wasn’t the hope but it would be nice to never have to drive. It’s 20 minutes by car to Hoyt from my house but it feels like a harrowing trek with all the traffic and impatience. This walk is far more enjoyable. In part, I planned to do this as an experiment in not being so captured by time. So often on my walks I feel hurried to get back to the studio to work.

The last couple walks I took after embracing inefficiency were so luxurious and relaxing I know that I need to do this regularly even if I can’t exactly sell my car. I cross Hwy 26 and step into the Arboretum 2 hours and 10 minutes after leaving home. A little farther to the meadow behind the Forestry Center I stop to take a rest under a maple. Juncos flit about overheard, yellow leaves dart from their branches into the unknown spaces below, filtering through the limbs then landing on the ground.

When I start walking again I am suddenly unable to absorb the beauty spilling out of every inch, so many textures, lines and colors; dark seed pods creating dense rhythms against the embers of glowing leaves on an intricate lace of limbs, everything soft in the damp air. The black Walnut stops me in my tracks; just the leaves on the tips of the branches remain, a delicate, earthy yellow, gracefully arced and sparse like a Phillip Glass composition. Each main branch makes it’s own angled pane in the sky in differing shades of gray. Fog is a much better painter than I will ever be.

The tupelo trees have shed most of their leaves, just a week ago they were full and red and brilliant.

The gerding maple, with yellow leaves so pale they look erased, feels to be halfway between here and eternity, juncos camouflaged on the trail dart into the grass as I approach. They seem to be everywhere in the park at once.

When I am too tired to wander anymore I take the MAX train to my favorite coffee shop and draw what I can remember of the walk but mostly I want to do it all over again.

A week later I do. This time the sun comes out as I arrive at Hoyt. I lay down in the grass under the London Plane trees, sinking deeper into a day with no agenda. To rest, to have nowhere to go at any specific time is a mind-altering experience with no unwanted side-effects. Each junco and robin sailing above, each leaf twirling wildly in the breeze are like fables of lost truths generously stitching themselves back into my being where I lay, half-erased like the leaves of the gerding. The manuscript of everything I want to do with my life fades into eternity, each ambitious plot erased into one line of a richly questionable poem.

 

 

Three Walks

Gabriel Park

Today I wander out into the day with a singular desire to immerse myself in beauty. I leave in the mist and walk to Spring Garden Park mostly preoccupied with my thoughts but walking along the soft trail of cedar chips though the grey-green landscape feels quaint—of some other, better century. I head to the Village, stop by the restaurant to pick up my paycheck and deposit it in the ATM a block away then wander towards Gabriel Park feeling even more quaint for having accomplished a necessary errand by foot.

Gabriel Park is majestic The wooded area along the creek holds layers of colors and textures that are especially thrilling in Autumn when the canopy rusts down and bares the rough branches, the dark air of the wood, the diligent generation of soil from leaves and twigs.

Fall is so lovely I want to walk along every path of the park. I plot out the best course from the end of Nevada street and immediately begin ignoring my surroundings in favor of mentally arranging my life so I can do this all the time.

 

Occasionally I notice my transgression and focus instead on the grace of the hills sweeping the skyline,  a crow’s silhouette slipping overhead in its usual poetry. The sun breaks loose right at the edge of the cedar grove where the chickadees and cedar waxwings talk among themselves above the tiny trace of a creek flowing through the lowest point of the park.

Back in the streets, the cacophony of starlings on the electric lines, juncos hopping along a stone wall chipping in the company of a single crow while robins chuckle loudly across the street.

 

Woods Memorial

I didn’t mean to walk to Woods Memorial. It seemed a good day to be unambitious but Dolph street found me not ready to go home, “I may as well walk to Woods Memorial.” I think.

It’s not as far as I’d imagined so I descend into the park towards the creek and walk up the Staircase Trail to the empty, forest-lined street on the other side. I’ve never walked this trail to its end before and I’m enchanted with this empty street. The dense forest on the other side, the little grassy area near the trailhead.

The Little Trail takes me back to the creek to head home while the sun comes out over the houses on Marigold Street and lights up the yellow leaves in the tops of the big-leaf maples.

It is not a small thing to me to be out in the soft grey day, the Autumn sun breaking lose in a splendor of green and gold with silvery edges where the rain lays. I live for these moments as though collecting tokens in a game. Each one leveling up my existence from a struggle with a jerry-rigged psychology to a human element entwined with the weather, geologic history, paths of deer and every being’s song.

Multnomah Village

I don’t notice the day turn to dusk out the giant windows of the restaurant as I stretch my multi-tasking ability past it’s fullest capacity, orchestrating people’s food and beverage consumption in a giant obstacle course of dishes, sharp objects, scalding liquids, and elaborate requests that need to be typed into a computer designed to be a cash register—all timed by at least 13 different people’s sense of patience and need.

Mostly it goes well but there are always moments that try me. It goes best when I make an effort not to judge people according to my own, very personal, set of pet peeves and deflect the same directed at me, but I am no Buddha.

Tonight I tried to stifle a sneeze while taking an order and it came out sounding like a very purposeful and exaggerated clown fart. The lovely, put-together woman at the table gave me a long, icy look of disbelief which seemed to say, you are too gouache to be in my existence, I’m filing a complaint with God immediately. Even absurd moments like this take energy to let slide so I am pretty wound up by the end of each meal.

At the end of this shift, in which I failed to notice the day slip into night, it is soothing to walk out into the black air of the rainy neighborhood, the gentle cadence of water meeting the street and roofs, big wet drops plopping out of trees in a melodic timbre. There is no challenge to be in this song as I walk the narrow streets under trees in the damp night before I make it home.

Diligently

In the senate justice turns to parody. In the woods rain turns to damp earth without any untruth.

It’s raining at Woods Memorial. I’m out-of-breath after riding my bike up the hill along Spring Garden Park. I haven’t ridden much since the hot weather we had in summer and now I have just enough strength left to enjoy the quiet forest trail—robins chuckling here and there but mostly just the sound of rain.

It has been a tough week for all of us who support minimum standards for employment. I believe Dr. Blasey Ford, but even if I didn’t I would still be appalled that an unstable, vengeful and paranoid man who can’t answer simple questions coherently now has one of the most important jobs in the country. I would not hire him to look after an unwanted pet.

The trees don’t appear to care. It’s not that they aren’t impacted by the decisions government makes. They clearly have more important things to do that never required evolving the kind of thinking center humans have. They stand in one place breathing, making shade, providing shelter from the rain. This comes in handy for me today. After making one really drippy sketch on the trail I find a dry spot under a lush tree, sit down and make some more sketches on reasonably dry paper.

It is strange that someone as educated as a judge wouldn’t take the high-road, wouldn’t admit to drinking too much to remember all of his actions, wouldn’t own the obvious disrespects he expressed in his year-book. I could forgive someone who engaged in ill-repute during high-school and college if they apologized, demonstrated how their understanding of women’s humanity has since evolved, publicly denounced the social structures that allowed such barbarism and expressed gratitude to feminists for diligently moving us all forward into a more just society.

Politics are not my strong suit in life, nor even my mediocre suit. I still vote, write letters to representatives, occasionally join a march. I’m not convinced this is enough but instead of doing more I draw trees. Today I am making very loose line drawings. I used to fill up sketchbooks with off-hand renderings of trees floating in space, no attention paid to their surrounds. I then started a project of making 100 tree paintings that would include the landscape and foliage around them. Since finishing that study I’ve been struggling to come up with a new body of work, a new way of talking about trees.

Today I decided to go back to my old ways, just loose drawings of trees, their structures and anything else that catches my fancy. It feels good to draw without thinking and I see that the project changed my voice. I can’t help but include things besides branch structure. I’ve learned to see the importance of the tree’s community. I’ve come to love the places that hold the trees, the places the trees protect with shade and cover.

I just received my voter’s pamphlet, I hope you are registered and planning to vote. In the meantime we could consider our other suits in life. How we can be honest about our wrongs to evolve a more sophisticated thinking center, how we can breathe and provide shade for each other.

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.