Category: Landscape Diaries

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.

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.

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.

A Little Suspect

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.

Questionable Grace

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.

Tender Enough

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 daywindy, 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 interestedwhat 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.

A Little in Love

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.