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Apr 29, 2018

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.

Apr 14, 2018

Awkward on Paper.

The Larch and Dawn Redwood


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.

sketch from EE Wilson


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. 






Mar 16, 2018

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.

Mar 2, 2018

Fairy-tale Style

It is sprinkling a bit at Witham Hill Natural Area, a chorus of crows lauding the morning at the house across the street, Robins and Chickadees keeping the background melodic with their usual songs. Misty rain is one of the things I love about Oregon and it doesn't happen as often as it used to so the day feels like a special occasion.

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 breathing as deeply as I can; I'm finally in the woods where I have wanted to be all week.

 This park has lots of twisty old oaks, there is no shortage of places to paint. Along the trail I hear the peeps of Junkos 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, 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 spotting their luminous blue with stark black crests never get old. We also had the privilege of admiring the orange brows of four Varied Thrushes and spotting a few Kinglets of some sort. That was it beside the neighborhood regulars.

Neither of us was 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 surprisingly fascinating book about birding he picked up after learning it was an interest of mine.

This was my favorite part of the weekend. To hear someone who loves words read aloud, to be snuggled against the vibrating drum of their body. He reads differently than he speaks. His normal lingo and exaggerated inflections peg him as someone who smokes a decent amount of pot. This is not exactly my preference in dating partners so I was tempted to leave our first date after one cup of tea. But the two month e-mail conversation we had prior was so enjoyable I wanted to find some shred of the person I imagined I'd been talking to.

We took a stroll through the park. Being outside improves everything—maybe I was too quick to judge, I thought. Then he wrapped both arms around me and my heart opened up with the kind of crystalline warble that defies sense with fairy-tale style.

So we spent the following weekend together, my fairy tale bound with a convenient ambiguity about his occasional pot use. The chapter Jay read to me had a more genuine magic about an ornithologist failing at academics who devoted his life to field work. He ended up living a charmed life in remote forests, his heart full of caring friends and interesting neighbors, all the while making an epic contribution to his field identifying countless birds and their songs.

It was a touching story. It was also fun to imagine Jay's new voice was the real him just waiting to be coaxed out of a deep sleep with a brilliant kiss or maybe just a newfound interest in birds. I did not get to entertain this fantasy for more than a few hours; ambiguities piled on top of one another and no amount of fairy dust could save me from their impending collapse.

The Towhee, meanwhile, had hopped up on a branch and was screeing at me or the other Towhees, maybe the whole forest. Another Towhee across the way would respond dutifully. A female, still sifting through the leaves of the underbrush, would join in almost absent-mindedly with a soft scree like a friend who wants you to believe they’re 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 high pitched tune is so pure and crystalline, my whole being is drawn into its beauty. It makes me think about the importance I give to the songs in my heart, as if she should only sing for the things I am meant to keep.

 A brief rain passes through, I find a lumpy old tree to sketch and, like clock-work, I am suddenly tired and have to pee. As if it would be torture to engage fully in this endeavor, the one that makes no pretense of happily-ever-after yet keeps me afloat in life like a magic canoe on a wild ocean.

I wander off for privacy then come back to my tree to make some studies. 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 exact relationship with all its neighbors. Each immersed in its own amazing tale of birdsong and bug travels, storm clouds and fairy dust.



Feb 3, 2018

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.

Jan 20, 2018

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.

Jan 13, 2018

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.