Category: Landscape Diaries

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.

Awkward on Paper

I have been remiss in my diary and my treescapes are all out of order. I started 100 at Hoyt Arboretum after making sketches for 99 at E.E. Wilson Wildlife Refuge but then I finished 100 and as soon as it was finished, it became 99 which makes what was 99 now 100, sigh. I know, it’s a small thing, really.

I have been besieged by fatigue and while it is possible to paint fatigued it has taken so much effort to do my day job and feed myself that the sketches from E.E. Wilson sat for three and a half weeks before I even looked at them.

And while it is possible to paint fatigued it is a sort of internal slapstick the way chess is a sort of sport. My normal battle with a short attention span was all but lost at Hoyt, attempting to paint en plein air for the first time since winter. It is odd to feel a resentment toward branches for their complexity when their beauty is the whole reason I am out there in the first place. Do I really have to add in the foreshortened branch, those are so hard! I don’t know if I’ve painted this one already, they’re so crowded. These long larch branches look awkward on paper. You’re kind of ruining this painting, long-awkward branch…no, really, it’s not me, it’s you. 

It is as absurd as it sounds, the root issue could be impatience. But also, I like to work symbolically, to illustrate. Painting does not think, it observes and records at varying levels of realism or abstraction.

I find it very uncomfortable to climb into the part of my brain that can work on direct observation. When I do the resulting paintings have a sense of breath that is so compelling, I’d like to think I could become that kind of painter full-time if I worked at it. But I’m drawn instead to tell the story of a place—to illustrate the moment of three trees growing together like old friends in a shroud of lichen on an island of unruly foliage in the middle of a meadow that was just like walking into a fairy-tale bog.

Having pursued an academic training in art I decided to make 100 paintings of trees and their surrounds from observation to develop my facility from which to tell stories. I lapse often into illustrating but have always maintained an uncomfortable effort to use more direct observation than I would normally be inclined to and now I am almost done with the project. I finished the awkward larch and dawn redwood from Hoyt Arboretum in my studio with the help of a sketch and a photo. Now number 100 sits on my table as a silvery line drawing, fine as lace and waiting for paint.

Singing Shamelessly

 
I wake up unsure if I will make it out to sketch today. After fighting off a sinus infection all week it seems like rest might be the more reasonable path. But as I mill about the kitchen making breakfast the room fills up with sunlight and Chickadee songs, the outdoors have a way of improving one’s health on sunny days. I decide that the truly reasonable path is the boardwalk at Jackson-Frazier. It is short, surrounded by wild, bird-filled wetlands and has no elevation gain what-so-ever that might tax my busy immune system.

I leave after breakfast and take a slow saunter into the park. Just a few yards in I hear an Anna’s hummingbird. I spot him flying straight up, diving dramatically downward and then flying off after his preferred mate. Another catches my ear, he is sitting on the tip of a branch turning from side to side, his magenta feathers catching the sun like a signal lamp every time he turns toward me.

The Juncos are up in the tree tops for once making their little chit chit noises while the Towhees scree over the ethereal round of Red-winged Blackbirds, their obliquely shaped melodies ringing electric at the height of each crescendo.

Along the boardwalk I greet another human. “What a beautiful day!” we both say because we are human and exclaiming the weather is our song. We share our excitement over the spring and all the bird song and continue on in our separate directions.

The sun is lulling me into a strange contentment, my own thoughts hold no interest, sifting through my attention while I tend to the more important business of listening for birds. I look up just in time to see a male harrier slip over the treetops into the meadow, the bright sun making dramatic shadows on his wings so they look almost black next to his white body.

Around the corner I hear a female Harrier squeak, she is sitting on the low branch of a tree at the edge of the meadow her chest glowing like last autumn in the sun. I see the male again, his formidable wingspan moving through the sky in the watery way only harriers do. He enters another little meadow I can barely see into through the trees. There he climbs into the air like the hummingbird did and dives straight down with such speed I think I see his wings ripple like fabric. He lifts up just before the ground. I have never seen them do this, did he catch a mouse? It was so stunningly acrobatic. Then I see him flying in circles with a female. So, it is she he is after with the splendor of his flight.

A bit down the boardwalk I stop a woman with binoculars to tell her about this, she confirms that’s what they do when they mate. Having built a modest ego for myself, one of having more control and class than boasters and name droppers, it is a shock to find myself blurting out all the tiny scraps of knowledge I have about birds anytime I encounter a birder. I am as amateur and unstudied as could be, who exactly am I trying to impress?

 
These threadbare egos of ours take such a beating when we decide we want to be evolved. Perhaps this compulsion is as natural as the territorial songs of my beloved birds. This is my trail, because I love it, I come here all the time. Those are my Marsh Hawks because I love them and read about them on Allaboutbirds.org. Also, that first bench on the sunny side, that’s my favorite, don’t sit there. 

I look for a spot to sketch and end up at the start of the walk where I saw the Anna’s. The trees before me are small and thin, it will be a challenge to make an interesting painting with them but I have always admired the stark and rhythmic lines of their branches, each one placed just so. An immature Anna’s lands on the tip of one branch and starts singing shamelessly. It’s his tree, his beloved home. I have been warned.