Category: Landscape Diaries

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.

Intricate Interiors

I thought I was going to Gabriel Park to make sketches for a painting but apparently I was going there to take a nap in the meadow. I would blame this on the Pedalpalooza Kick-off ride but it was just me waiting until nearly 11pm to look at the bus schedule and then having a 2 hour journey ahead of me. There are reasons older people become set in their ways and do silly stuff like go to bed early and it’s not that they don’t like to have fun. We come to find it’s not fun to spend an entire day sleepwalking just for a little extra nonsense the night before.

All the same, I was excited to be on foot en route to my painting spot. Any time I can shirk off a car ride I feel accomplished, like putting off the laundry an extra day. Multnomah Village is a more active place than it used to be, a hub of urban life with a giant overpriced apartment building on the main street, an old favorite restaurant closing its doors because the rent is too high. I’m glad, at least, that so many people are drawn to live in a woodsy, walkable neighborhood. We have a desperate need to humanize more of our habitat but we need to do it for everyone, not just those who can afford to live in or near luxury apartment buildings.

Anyhow I’m half asleep and it’s hot out because I’m on the slacker schedule of leaving my house at 2 pm. This puts me in a mystical space of being aware of nothing besides being hot and sleepy and loud things like the Dad lecturing his son about his attitude on the baseball diamond sidelines. I personally support the son in not being able to gracefully handle an entire day of sportsball.

Past the ball field, I enter the cathedral of Cedars that make up the mid section of Gabriel Park. There is a crow aggressively dissecting the remains of a family picnic while the humans are off in the grass playing games, a woman sunning herself while reading a book. I stop and sit on a bench, I’m in one of my favorite parks, where do I want to go to sketch? I head into the forest by the creek and admire the cedars who do not grow all the way to the ground like cones when they are so close together; its an intricate interior without a lot of undergrowth. The shapes and shadows are intriguing but someone wants a cozy spot to sit so I walk through these woods to the little meadow where I used to go at dusk in the winter to watch the crows settle into their rook.

I sit on the grass and contemplate sketching, contemplate how long its been since I spent a lazy day laying in the grass with no goals, then lay down watching the birch leaves bob in and out of the light above me. The next thing I know I am confused about what is making so much noise splashing in a tiny creek when I realize there is a car on the gravel road behind me and I have been fast asleep. I watch a couple crows pick around in the grass and fix my eyes on a perfectly round black spot on a log at the edge of the wood which reveals itself as a bunny when it’s ears move. I can’t resist a chance to include wildlife in a painting so I get out my sketchbook and take some notes, draw a bit. Sometimes we have to finish a secret mission before we can get on with our goals.

Other Mysteries

Shotpouch Creek is lined with little homesteads and ranches, homes and barns on organic shaped plots of emerald grass between the highway and the creek protected by hills on either side. Some of these steads have tiny herds of livestock, perhaps 8 head of cattle, a dozen goats. Some have odd collections of alternative dwellings like converted buses, most run-down, or just cars sinking into the mud. It does not seem to be a very prosperous valley except for the tree farm on either side. Still, the enormous maples covered in moss and the rich green along the creek make it seem idyllically pastoral.

I am driving up the gravel road on my way to the Springcreek Foundation’s cabin where I am to do a 4 day artist residency. Of course I have been looking forward to spending 4 days in the woods painting trees. Taking 2 days off from the office job to do so felt like getting away with something even though there was no subterfuge required. As a relatively straight-laced person I derive an enormous amount of pleasure out of any sense that I a bucking an oppressive system. The discovery that I could wear flannel pjs under my work slacks, for instance, kept me in good spirits for weeks.

I had planned to arrive early this morning but now it’s just after 3 pm and my former excitement has waned to a dim hope that whatever I have become so desperately allergic to in the last few days is magically not present at Shotpouch. The organizer of the residencies did inform us that there is no poison oak on the land. This is the sort of miracle that could be followed by more miracles, I reasoned.

I arrive and settle in with great hope, chatting with the other artists between coughing bouts. I go for a walk in search of a place to hang a hammock. My allergies are not improving and sleeping outside is not a promising option. I hang my hammock anyway then spend some time admiring the art projects former participants left at the cabin, visit some more, journal, make a simple dinner and then head out for a dusk walk

I know I won’t be able to stay long and am strangely at peace with this lost opportunity. It is so calm here I can’t help but wade through the stillness and feel that things in the waist high nettles are as they are: answering to no one, accounting for nothing. The robins are making a late night of it, chuckling and flitting across the trail, their gray bodies easily mistaken for bats, mischievous fairies or other mysteries. It is not a peace I am sinking deeply into, I have a move to make, a housing application pending. Perhaps my psyche is so invested in future concerns I can’t fully grasp that my painting retreat is slipping through my fingers.

After attempting to sleep outside, feeling that each particle of pollen is a tangible presence in my lungs I go in to sleep on the couch and leave in the morning when I realize I’m losing my voice and I can’t not talk to the other guests.

I am a bit slow to the ways of the world. In a few more days it will occur to me that other people medicate themselves and go on with their lives when the pollen hits. But I will still feel magically as though nothing went wrong. The creek still winds through the homesteads and the cabin’s land. It is a place protected and cherished and there is another time for me to be there.

Little Else

 
The day is brilliant, it’s the end of April but it is so warm I have to take my long sleeves off as I start up the trail at Bald Hill with my old friend Consternation. We have been inseparable since the day I realized that being a receptionist wasn’t exactly my calling and failed to come up with an alternative that could be found in the want ads. Consternation has been such a faithful companion, together we mull over each option, tear it apart and look for a new option that doesn’t involve possible failure.

I look around for a moment outside, the section of the trail I’m on usually feels like a magical passage through an enchanted wood. Today it is just trees and grass. Has something changed? I wonder, is it better walking trough from the other direction? I know I am just too engrossed in these escape plans to feel the day.

“There is no way to peace, peace is the way,” A.J. Muste once said. He wasn’t thinking of internal struggles and yet it is very sage advice for any conflict. I take a deep breath, consider the strength of my legs on the uphill and look for trees to sketch. I remember last week when I searched the internet with “jobs for people who are not detail oriented.” I’d received a couple work emails asking me to do things I am not good at remembering to do. Names, call-back numbers—shouldn’t a fax number suffice in the modern age? I’ve done plenty of job searches before but this one turned up something interesting, “Adult Recreation Instructor.” I already do this, which makes it real, within reach, something besides heart ache.

 
Not wanting to be left out Consternation piped up and reminded me how hard it would be to have a full schedule. We’ve been scheming around this ever since, but now I’m in the woods, its beauty is lost on me and I blame my companion. What if he is like a bad boyfriend who knows the moment I believe in myself I will walk out the door without a single glance backward? What if every time I start to see a new possibility Consternation snares me in a question of how to make my exit completely risk free, knowing it isn’t possible?

At the top of the hill I bask in the sun on a bench with two other women and watch a buzzard glide past. We talk about our shared experience of participating in the Women’s March the last two years. It’s a simple conversation but I am suddenly awash in a desire to be here in someone else’s existence, someone besides Consternation. My smile feels awkwardly uncontained but somehow I don’t mind being the odd, needy girl in the park.

 
Did he leave? Is this who I am without him? Was my whole curmudgeonly, cynic-self the only person I could be in his presence?

I head back down the hill, finally able to be with the fresh green leaves of the undergrowth, the lilies and irises along the trail, the mossy oaks breaking the radiant blue into odd shapes. Consternation is not gone. He still butts in and pries me away. But by some grace I have changed a little, I know the way out, all I need is a little courage and maybe a lot of patience.

When the woods get dense and the lighting is just right I stop to draw. Three firs sharing a triangular space, each beautiful, slightly different from each other. I don’t sketch much. I am done with my studies and it’s time to experiment with new ways of painting. I just record the things I find compelling and don’t take a photo for reference. This is new, it is a tiny risk, as it always is to begin with a blank sheet of paper, a desire for peace and little else.