Under the Smoke Tree

The arboretum is my favorite place. I can walk through a grove of Spanish Chestnut trees, a section of Elm and a mini Spruce forest within a matter of minutes and that’s just a small part of the collection.

Yesterday I snoozed under the Common Persimmons. It’s the worst meadow to nap in. The grass is poky with lots of blackberries coming through. But it’s a secluded area of the park and I’m always captivated my the graceful drape of the Japanese Wing nut tree boughs.

It was a hot cloudless day but something sounded like rain as I approached the trees. I walked closer and watched as little bits fell through the branches. Small and quick, it was only from seeing all the blossoms on the ground that I learned flowers were falling through the tree, each one bouncing off the leaves like a pin ball. I held out my hands to see if I could catch one and got pelted on the cheek instead.

Then I realized the tree was completely inhabited by bumble bees, buzzing from one bell shaped flower to another. My intrigue led me unawares into this dense bee zone but the Yellow-faced Bumble Bees didn’t seem bothered 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 and persimmon flowers have a similar cadence with a dry and woody timbre.

Today I’m wandering around trying to decide which trees to paint. A Red-tailed Hawk flies up the trail I’m on as if the space were carved by their own wings for their own passage. It lands on a branch that arcs over the path and considers whatever hawks consider when they decide to perch.

I set up shop under the smoke tree to paint knowing the hawk in view is not going to stay and model for me. I can add it into the scene, though, capturing something real, something that could happen on anyone’s walk here.


The crows are a riot at Reed Lake today. It’s 90 degrees and they are wet, shaggy looking, perched on the fallen branches protruding from the lake and watching their cousins play in the shallow water while making their usual ruckus.

It’s the Pedalpalooza* Bird Ride and I am the only participant. Not even the leader showed up. Four other riders came to the meeting point at Woodstock Park but decided to go to ice cream instead of riding to Reed Lake with me. 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 (it was 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. So here I am by myself at Reed Lake in an an old black shirt with red and yellow patches stitched loosely onto it shoulders.

I watch a Song Sparrow belt out its territorial song a yard away then walk along the board walk admiring the murky lake. The mallards look in bad shape, their normally shiny green heads are mostly white fluff. I assume they are molting. Their ducklings are adorable, fluffy yellow and brown with charming stripes across their eyes, swimming about in close-knit groups.

The Pedalpalooza rides are some of the few experiences I’ve had where watching humans is as enjoyable as watching the other species. The fellow at the Galactic Disco Ride wearing the gold lame bikini and purple glitter make-up was completely 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. But making it to 44 years having never married or had children helps me relate to the counterculture crowd.

When people ask me if I’m partnered or have kids, I answer no and then it’s quiet and I feel like I’m supposed to fill up the flat air with an explanation. I don’t have one. But to be honest, I’m thrilled to be here by this lake alone listening to the calls of a Brown Creeper as it creeps up a tree. For me making it past 40 without children felt like waking up on the far side of a mine field intact after sleepwalking across it.

I’m not totally immune to societal pressures so this costume-birding-bike-ride has been a refreshing way to shake off old expectations, even if people are looking at me funny because of my shirt sleeves. It’s sort of like jumping in a lake on a hot day or righting a fabulous bikini costume that tends to slip into some uptight places.

*Pedalpalooza, it is a month long festival in Portland where cyclists and cycling advocates gather for a variety of events which 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.

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 and were 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 star-struck in the trail staring at eagles with no thoughts of the future.

The birds themselves offered no recompense for our uncertainties, but this awe-inspiring encounter served as a catalyst to move ambiguities to commitments, grief to hope.

Even in a windowless office we are caught in this power of wildness: the steam from one’s coffee rises and swirls just as vapors off a lake ascend in the morning sun and each buttoned-up co-worker houses a mystery of blood and synapses. But it usually takes an encounter with an uncommon and undomesticated animal like the eagle to catapult us out of complacency.

I walk to the same place along the trail knowing the eagles are not obligated to be here again. They aren’t. But I keep seeing the flash of Great Egrets flying from the other side of the lakes. Great Egrets are leggy, long-necked, brilliant white birds with an impressive wingspan. The week before my dad died I saw one fly over the house. I stood in the driveway gawking straight up at the white bird gleaming in the blue, loping across an open sky with the same questionable grace that my spirit was traversing the end of my dad’s life.

A week later the egrets started hunting in the meadow nearby. My mom once saw eight, I only ever saw three moving slowly about the field looking for frogs and mice. Their presence seemed to fill the empty space my father left—the heat of his body gone in one quick current under my hand after his last breath. 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 this complex world, its form both elegant and awkward.

I know the egrets are not thinking of my father. But this feeling of events connected, this desire to make meaning out of their arrival, and weigh it against my father’s departure is a sort of mystical physics that 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 while an occasional Great Egret flies over, swallows here and there, a couple of Bald Eagles who perch in the pines to the north, a lone duck.

I sketch the lake and notice some white spots in the trees on the far side that look more like paint blobs than light coming through the leaves. I look with binoculars and see egrets in the trees. All these egrets flying over are coming from this spot and it is probably their rookery where they will return at dusk. I weigh their presence against my dad’s absence and decide his awkward elegance is always near.

Tender Enough

On Sunday morning my plan is to get up at six AM and spend a couple hours at Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge before I go to a writing group. This doesn’t happen because daydreams are a necessary substitute for snuggles and I get up at 7:18.

I leave on-time to spend forty minutes in the woods. I’ll take it. It’s Sunday morning after all, and a lovely day—windy, rainy 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.

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. Then I head up the trail, just far enough to watch some chickadees chase each other aggressively through the leaves. As usual I can’t tell if they are mating or fighting.

I suppose that would be true of humans, too, if I didn’t know the language. Everyone is so agreeable in my daydreams, so mutually interested—what 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 writes one romance after another and people read all of 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. It was my dearest imaginary romance. 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 with a shoddy costume in disarray but a heart intact in its 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

The warm rain was especially gratifying after a shift at the restaurant. The big trees, the gravel roads lined with gardens, crows sauntering 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 I admit that it is more fulfilling.

Perhaps it is the lack of expectation, how the landscape doesn’t judge. The crows may very well judge but since we speak different languages I can conveniently pretend they don’t. Mostly they ignore me and I give them their space but crows are curious. They probably have some thoughts about the tall, wingless creatures that unwittingly make such great habitat for them.

In the evening I sit on the couch with the radio playing and work on a few sketches. Outside a crow sits in the very top of a fir. It’s raining harder now and this crow is still, 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 the rain? The possibility, however faint, that a crow may love the rain—that we may have this in common—makes me feel sweet and 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’m walking through Gabriel Park half-asleep which puts me in a mystical space where I am only aware of the afternoon heat and loud things like the Dad lecturing his son about his attitude on the baseball diamond sidelines. I personally support the son in not enduring an entire day of sports ball gracefully.

Past the ball field, I enter the majesty of Cedars that surround a grassy area where a crow aggressively dissects the remains of a family picnic. The humans are off in the grass playing games and another woman suns herself and reads a book. I stop and sit on a bench for a bit then head into the forest by the creek. Here the cedars are too close together to grow all the way to the ground like cones and they create an intricate interior full of long curvy branches and deep shadows. I walk through them to the little meadow at the far corner of the park then lay down to watch the birch leaves bob in and out of the light above me.

Suddenly I wake to a loud splashing noise which is confusing because I’m not by a creek. Then I realize it is actually a car on the gravel road behind me. I sit up watch a couple of 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 I see is actually a bunny when it moves its ears. I get out my sketchbook and draw, charmed by the quiet way my body tends to her own agenda while I think I’m doing important things.

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.

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 have been fatigued and while it is possible to paint fatigued it takes 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 an internal slapstick the way chess is a sport. My normal battle with a short attention span was all but lost at Hoyt. It is odd to feel a resentment toward branches for their complexity when their beauty is the reason I am 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. 

It is as absurd. I’m impatient and I like to work symbolically, to illustrate.

I find it very uncomfortable to climb into and stay in the part of my brain that can work on direct observation. When I do the resulting paintings have a sense of breath that is compelling. But I’m drawn instead to make the place into a whimsical story—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 a fairy-tale bog.

Having 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 these stories. Sometimes I forget and lapse into illustrating but have practiced more direct observation than naturally inclined.

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

The kitchen fills up with sunlight and chickadee songs while I mill about making breakfast and decide it’s the prefect time to visit Jackson-Frazier wetlands. After my meal and just a few yards down the boardwalk of the park I hear an Anna’s hummingbird then spot him flying straight up, diving dramatically downward and flying off after his mate. Another catches my ear. I find him sitting on the tip of a branch turning from side to side while his magenta feathers catch the sun like a signal lamp every time he turns toward me.

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, the sunshine and all the bird song then continue on in separate directions.

The sun lulls me into a strange contentment, thoughts sifting through my head-space unacknowledged while I tend to the more important business of listening for birds. The juncos are up in the tree tops 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.

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 from the low branch of a tree at the edge of the meadow, her chest glowing like last autumn in the light. The male moves through the sky in the watery way that only Northern Harriers do and enters another little meadow I can barely see through the trees. He climbs into the air like the hummingbird did and dives straight down with such speed his wings seem to ripple like fabric. He lifts up just before the ground then flies in an upward spiral with another female.

Down the boardwalk I stop a woman with binoculars to tell her about this, and she confirms my suspicion that I saw their mating ritual. Having cultivated a modest ego for myself it is disconcerting to find myself blurting out all the tiny scraps of bird knowledge I have anytime I encounter a birder. I am unstudied and unimpressive, but the words fall out of my mouth before I can censor myself.

This threadbare ego took such a beating when I decided to be evolved. Perhaps my compulsion is as natural as any bird’s territorial song. This is my trail; because I love it, I come here all the time. Those are my marsh hawks because I love them and I 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 but I have always admired the stark and rhythmic lines of their branches, each one placed just so. An immature Anna’s Hummingbird lands on the tip of one and starts singing shamelessly.

Fairy-tale Style

It is sprinkling a bit at Witham Hill Natural Area. A chorus of crows are lauding the morning at the house across the street while robins and chickadees keep the background melodic.

I start up the trail and hear a metallic drumming from the neighborhood—who is being so industrious (and inconsiderate) on a Saturday morning? I hear it again and realize it is a Northern Flicker carving out its mating territory by drumming on something metal, a chimney perhaps. What a boon metal fixtures are for the prowess of the woodpecker, a development not unlike that of the guitar amp for musicians. I walk up the hill listening for other birds and am breathing as deeply as I can; I’m finally in the woods where I have wanted to be all week.

Along the trail I hear the peeps of juncos and rustling of towhees in the undergrowth. Most of the time when I hear a bird making a ton of noise in the brush it is a Spotted Towhee, as I told Jay last weekend on our first birding walk together. We were at Finley and saw more birds from the car on the way to and from the hike than we did on foot.

Stellar Jays dominated the outing and while they are by no means an unusual sight, their luminous blue with stark black crests never get old. Neither of us were looking for a flush list, it was nice just to be out together.

Later in the day Jay read to me from Victor Emanuel’s One More Warbler, a book he picked up after learning I liked to bird. It was my favorite part of the weekend—listening to him read aloud and snuggling against the vibrating drum his body.

He reads differently than he speaks. Normally his inflections and lingo peg him as someone who smokes a lot of pot. This tempted me to leave our first date after one cup of tea, but I stayed. When he wrapped both arms around me, my heart opened up with the kind of crystalline warble that defies sense with fairy-tale style.

Our ensuing romance was bound with convenient ambiguity about just how much he smoked. It was fun to imagine Jay’s steady and grounded reading voice as the real him. That he could be coaxed out of this deep sleep with a brilliant kiss or a newfound interest in birds. My fantasy, however, only lasted a few hours before the fairy dust wore off.

The towhee, meanwhile, had hopped up on a branch and was screeing at the other towhees, maybe at the whole forest. His partner sifted through the leaves of the underbrush below and would join in absent-mindedly with soft scree like a friend who wants you to believe they’re still paying attention.

As I walk into the middle of the park I hear the songs of Pacific Wrens and then, high above me, the transcendental opera of a hidden warbler. The tune is so pure and crystalline, my whole being is drawn into its beauty. I consider the songs in my heart. I have lived as though she should sing only for the things I am meant to keep but maybe she sings for the whole forest.

A brief rain passes through; I find a lumpy old tree to sketch. While I draw the traffic noise and bird songs disappear. It is just me and the intrigue I have with the exact shape of each tree, its relationship with all its neighbors, each immersed in its own amazing tale of birdsong and fairy dust.