Category: Landscape Diaries

The Power of Butterflies

On Saturday I leave the house just after eight, amazed I resisted the temptation to sleep in. It’s a half hour drive to Beazell Memorial and I hate driving but I feel it’s time to invest more in my painting and visit new places.

On the way, the sun broke through the grey behind me and cast an eerie golden light on the meadows and trees outside Philomath heightening the sense of adventure I feel about wandering into the woods with art supplies. At the park there is only one other car in the lot. I put on my boots and grab my pack, the sound of Plunckett Creek soothing me so deeply I feel like one of those compact sponges that expand when you put them in water.

I head up the trail on the left, faint memories telling me it will loop around to the trail on the right. These woods are mossy, full of thin trees, some bowed over in grand arcs along the rushing creek, Pacific Wrens singing their long intricate warbles from every corner.

Sometimes the expectation to gather sketches from which to paint hinders it’s own goal; as I look around for paintings the trees begin to look uniform and disorganized, a little on the bland side.

I focus instead on hiking, the satisfying pull of the uphill, the clean, damp air, the cathedral of trees leaning over the trail from either side. When the path leads high above the creek in its tiny valley I stop to look out. It reminds me of Balch Creek in Portland and this memory of my favorite hike brings a pain to my heart. It’s not the kind of nostalgic devastation that has some redeeming poignancy. It is just an ache, unadulterated with any ideas that might define it as a loss to grieve or a plea to move back.

Looking for a job, moving, getting settled in a new routine, these all take time and time is the thing I covet: coming home at lunch to paint for 20 minutes, shirking off chores to write, staying up late to finish an illustration. It took so many years to learn how to make art instead of thinking about making art that I am wary of interrupting it, but this ache is not interested in practicalities.

I keep walking, trying to hang out casually with this feeling as though we are friends. I come to the end of the trail I thought was a loop. There is a large metal gate with a Private Property sign on it, beyond which the woods have been clear-cut and I see that the fog has settled in along the ridge line, the morning sun gone. It feels like an augury, a comment on my ache: eventually each thing will end but some endings will be nothing more than a metal gate. This sense of loss may even be a seedling on land I haven’t given myself permission to enter.

I head back down the hill, stopping to check out possible painting spots. I am restless and every grouping of trees seems to be lacking in interest, too close together, too similar. The more spots I look at the less potential I see for a painting until I almost convince myself I do not even like painting trees.

I remember a few years ago, walking down this hill with an ex boyfriend. He was trying to get back together without promising that anything would be different which was not enticing except that I loved the attention. Except that as we walked dozens of silvery butterflies fluttered about our feet, their blueish wings flashing here and there so quickly you could never get a good look at the almost iridescent color. The power of butterflies to enchant a soft heart! The draw of things hinted at! We turned back before reaching the end of the trail and did not know we were on a dead end.

I stop to have a snack, decide the trees to my left will have to do; a mediocre painting day is more appealing than not even trying. As I sketch I see how the group of trees are unique, their lumpy moss coats, the way one has two branches arcing from either side, the little moon shaped piece of creek between them.

When I feel I have enough information to paint I pack up and head down the last leg of the trail, suddenly everything around me is an exquisite scene that would be lovely to sketch. The pain in my heart is gone, it’s question unanswered while the creek rushes by inviting me to come back and hike the other trail to its end.

The Silkiest Black

It’s a gray day at Fitton Green. The gravel roads on the way up were slippery as if covered in ice. I regret not grabbing my raincoat as I left the house, it was sunny then.

I walk down the trail listening to a man teach children how to hike. It had never occurred to me that one needed to learn to hike. “Always carry a map and pay attention to where you are going, if you talk too much you can lose track of where you are.” This strikes me as profound, possibly even the essence of how to get along as a human.

The hills are foggy, clouds moving across the ground in discreet formations. I pick a spot to draw by some rocks, grateful there doesn’t appear to be any poison oak. I wrap a blanket around my legs and make three small sketches of a group of trees. I play with value and line in my studies, that’s all I’ve got today. I am cold and the uphill trail calls to me as a source of warmth.

I pack up my things and walk up the hill to watch the fog. I am focused today after a long spell being distracted with a new love interest, sitting in my studio, drawing a few sketches, getting lost in fantasy, realizing I want to be drawing. What can I do but yield and watch so I may come to understand the mechanics of this hopeful vigil.

These urges are born from the deepest places in our bodies, the emptiest places in our hearts. Anyone who tells you you should learn to be happy alone instead of pining for love is talking too much. This repugnance society has toward romantic longings, does it inspire anyone to transcend their need for love? Or does it dress us in a sort of dunce cap, no longer paying attention to the tender desires that lead to the kind of people we can share love with?For now, I am enjoying this quiet mood, taking in the shapes of the branches, the mossy clumps, the ocher meadows, clouds obscuring the steep hills in varying grays that lift and slide away. It brings a sense of majesty, as if I am nowhere near civilization.

Something white and brilliant catches my eye moving on the hillside. It is tipped dramatically in the silkiest black. It is the wing of a Northern Harrier. I watch mesmerized as it flies back and forth over the hillside low to the ground, his pale belly stark even in the subtle colors of fog. His wings so long he moves at the farthest edge of grace, making his own wave-like rhythm. A cloud blows in veiling his flight as he drifts to the far edge and disappears behind the pines.

Once, I sat on the bench at Jackson-Frazier wetlands tearing myself up over whether or not to leave my boyfriend of the time, while watching a couple Harriers playing in the wind over the meadow. One glided low over me and I wanted to believe this was a message, that the friendliness of the universe had synced my schedule with the Harrier so I might be moved by his grace to have faith in my relationship. The Harriers became my personal emblem of romantic love until I learned the males will mate with as many as five females at once which, at its essence, was the reason I was considering a break-up.

I decided Harriers would make a better emblem of wildness and peace for the soft way they fly over the wetland meadows and through the forests under the canopy. The boyfriend I left when I got so cold I longed to walk uphill.

This pining for a new man, I cherish as evidence I narrowly escaped the pressure to stay on the wrong trail just to avoid wearing the dunce cap. I will watch these new dreams build and crash, and every time I slip back into my own skin I will be ready to pick up my pack and hike quietly through the fog with sketches to make, a map in hand for the life I want to live.

One Tiny Thing

Saturday morning I woke up to fog and made pancakes while sending my new love interest an unintentionally mixed message over e-mail. I ate the pancakes, considered whether this could be fixed with another message or only made worse. I sided with worse then lay on the couch for a moment of just being cozy which turned into a long moment of imagining what it might be like with him there.

I put on warm clothes and hopped on my bike for Bald Hill. There was nothing left of the fog but what harm was there in enjoying the January sun even if alarmingly unseasonable? Along the bike path a Red Tail swooped off a power line into the grass, a Downy Woodpecker hopped around the backside of a tree by the trail.

As I parked my bike three Ravens soared in an arc over the oaks and disappeared into the woods scolding each other.

The mud was thick on the side trail. The sparrows and Towhees, surprised by steps, darted from each side of the trail into the brush. Suddenly I remembered a dream with Varied Thrushes. He and I lay together, as if it was settled, and I heard their haunting calls all around us as the room shrank, just enough for two bodies and the rest was wilderness.


I wanted my hike to be an epic adventure but it was hard to be present, planning the escape from office work, wishing I could share the walk with him: the sunlight, the temperature of my hands. Occasionally I remembered to admire the undulating trunks of the oaks shimmering in their green moss, steam rising off their limbs into the sun. I heard the sound of the rocks under my feet and enjoyed the feeling of finally being in my element and resting there.

The ordinariness made me miss the poignancy of hermit life. My desire for intimacy projected so deeply into everything that everything was silver and vying for my love, each molecule, each thicket of wood and green leaf entwined in my strange union. It gave me so much more to write about besides:


Three ravens arc over the oaks. 
The moss steams under the sun. 
My boots beat on the rocks 
while I think of someone who isn’t here. 

I can’t go back. It is so nice to have friends, to feel my unwavering worth, to have moments considering a real person who may actually lay on my couch someday.

But this place l became so intimate with—where creativity and love of nature become a road into the soul, where psychology is a mystical branch of Science, where spirituality is a personal act no one needs to see but ourselves—it is so compelling. How does one write about it without a grand suffering holding it together? What is the name for this place? Is it so simply just the human heart perched in the mossy woods of the soul like a still crow that it alludes the intellect who searches for an easily googled term to wedge in a 30 second elevator speech?

I stop and draw a tree. It is not any great study, I’m hungry, the high sun has washed out all subtlety, and my attention span has left with the sparrows. Sometimes it’s enough to do one tiny thing.

Back on the bike path the horses linger along the fence line wearing blankets that make them look like monks. A harrier flies over and lands in the middle of the field where there may have been a mouse.