Sunday, August 26, 2012

Dorothy had the right idea!

I made a trip out to Greenville yesterday to meet up with my son for the day, an unexpected pleasure since I hadn't planned on seeing him till the holidays. Besides being startled while driving when a bald eagle landed on the guardrail and drawn to the sight of red headed vultures eating leftovers on the side of the road, I watched the sky. I couldn't help but notice it, bounding with large, luscious, billows of white with lavender  underbellies. Made me think back to childhood and those lost days when I would go outdoors, lay on the sweet, scented grass and spend hours looking upwards to watch camels, cats and dragons float overhead. And perhaps like me, you too would keep a watchful eye on those shape-shifting clouds, waiting for an angel to peek over the edge.

From May of 2010 through April 2011, I painted and sketched the skies over the Outer Banks, documenting a year's worth of overhead observations from my own backyard. I kept my easel set up on the deck and my paints on a chair by the front door so I could rush out at a moment's notice to capture an elusive occurrence when wind and moisture formed something exquisite. Like snowflakes, each cloud is different, never to exactly repeat itself. I was fortunate to be invited to put on an exhibit of my studies at the North Carolina Aquarium, a show I was incredibly proud of. Even though my year of documenting skies has ended, I find I just can't stop. I still race outside to sketch and paint a few minutes of frozen time in the sky. I'm as addicted to skywatching as I am to Jelly Belly candies, one much better for me than the other!

Each morning, even before I feed my loudmouthed felines, I step outside and scan the sky. Closing my eyes, I feel which direction the wind is blowing, and I take a deep breath to smell the clean, pure air. I do this whether it's raining, cold, windy or sun-shiny. Those first few moments of the morning, when I'm using all my senses, set the tone for my day just as the wind creates movement, shifting the clouds, affecting the whole landscape. Even Buddha and Erb sit by the screen door, noses lifted, whiskers twitching and eyes half-closed, savoring more smells on the currents of air than I can imagine.

Like an adolescent, spring brings drama to the sky, but by late summer, the clouds begin to soften, and Vs of ducks streak by, geese honk overhead, sun dogs appear over Jockey's Ridge, stars "fall" at night and the moon sometimes kicks out incredible rays. I want to paint it all! I moved my picnic table to the end of the deck allowing me a wide open view to the southeast, south and west so I can set up there day or night and do my thing. And of course I am a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society. That's right, there really is an organization that celebrates clouds. Check it out:

Here's some books from my library that fellow cloud lovers might enjoy:

The Cloudspotters Guide, by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society

The Cloud Book, How to understand the skies., by Richard Hamblyn

The Book of Clouds, by John A. Day

"The sky and the strong wind
have moved the spirit inside me
till I am carried away
trembling with joy."              - Uvavnuk

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Promises, Promises

I am always restless in August. My children tell me I go through this every year, sometimes earlier in the month, sometimes later. I think it has to do with being on the cusp of the seasonal change. The madness of summer is winding down, and I become impatient for the cooler temperatures and crisp days that make sketching in the field so enjoyable. I long to open the windows and breath soil-scented air instead of the artificial stuff, and I eagerly await the sound of geese honking in the night sky as they migrate overhead.

Fall is gently nudging summer to wrap it up, elbowing in to take its place. I awaken to that glorious change of light in the morning, its tendrils already crossing the line at the Crooked Little House. My neighborhood is quieter as visitors thin out, heading back to their own version of Autumn. My bird houses are now vacant for the first time since March, and the usual blue jay perches in the mimosa, screaming, "Mine".

The trumpet vine is sporting freckled, yellowed leaves and wilted blooms to the disappointment of the bumble bees, ants and leaf footed bugs. Large, pea-colored pods dangle down through the overhead lattice, ripening inside, eventually turning into umber colored vessels that will one day split open and release another generation.

And when everything else seems to be winding down, my moon flower vine by the front door now claims its own season, and I see the beginnings of buds forming. The small, conical sculptures grow when no one is watching, in the middle of the night. I noticed just this morning they had grown almost an inch overnight. Every evening through late fall, I will be treated to one or two, dinner-plate sized, white blossoms. By morning they will be wilted and slack. Its last event will be forming the beautiful pods, full of milk white seeds for me to collect and replant next year.

My mimosa tree now has its seed pods strung like fresh laundry from its branches, some still green, others already turning cardboard brown. They too will soon become paper-thin before spilling their bounty to the soil below. I love going to bed late at night with the windows open, listening to the mimosa pods rattling like tiny bones in the darkness.

It seems I always find lots of dead butterflies this time of year, their lives spent in a flurry of summer activity. I'm amazed at how torn and tattered their wings are yet they were still able to fly. Perhaps that's a good lesson for me: becoming a bit worn and tattered doesn't mean my season has ended. It's more a sign of a life well-lived don't you think?

And so, as Joni Mitchell sings, the circle game continues, and each spent leaf or seed will reconnect with everything else and begin again in the spring. Ah, but there are joyous Autumn days ahead, leading to one of my favorite seasons, Winter, with treasures all its own. But that's for a distant time.

I placed this angel, a recent find at a local thrift store, under my wild cherry tree. Her wings make a perfect place for sunflower seeds when the weather turns colder and birds will appreciate a handout.

As a child I walked with noisy finger
along the hemline of so many meadows back home,
green fabric stretched out,
shy earth
shock of sky.
I'd sit on logs like pulpits,
listen to the sermon of sparrows
and find God in Simplicity,
there amongst the dandelions and thorn.

                      - Jewel Kilcher

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Take a walk on my wild side!

I am delighted to report that some of the wildness I've been missing has returned to the Crooked Little House. Though late in the season, my spiders, leaf footed bugs, grasshoppers and butterflies, along with other crawling and flying beings, have come home. So I thought it might be fun to show you what keeps my backyard wild.

I relocated to the Outer Banks in 1995 from New England, bringing only those possessions that were near and dear to my heart like huge quartz boulders and a favorite river rock to sit on and remember the home I'd left behind. These natural objects were the bridge, helping me to adjust to a new environment. Slowly I began to plant bushes, trees and flowers that would encourage wildlife to make their home in my backyard. I also felt it necessary to not only provide a habitat but food sources as well to combat the dwindling wild land as a result of overdevelopment. (FYI : I did not build another structure; I purchased a small existing house built over 20 years ago.)

I've seen a lot of changes since I moved in. The family of foxes that used to live in my hedgerow has had to relocate when the lot behind was leveled of all things green to put up a new house. The new neighbors to the west removed all traces of plants in their backyard destroying box turtles and rabbit dens. And the town continues to pump poison into the air in an effort to control mosquitoes when all we really need is a balanced habitat and a little effort on our part to get rid of standing water.

A ligustrum shrub sits near my front door, drawing all things winged. It flowers for a brief three weeks or so in late spring and catbirds arrive each night at precisely 8:30 to catch the tiny moths that live in the foliage. My trumpet vine spirals throughout the lattice on top of my pergola inviting bumble bees to crawl inside the blooms where they can be heard chattering to themselves or to the hummingbirds waiting to get their fill. My huge rosemary bush hosts egg cases from the Carolina mantis, and of course the honeybees are frequent visitors. Other plants I have in my yard that appeal to the birds and bees are holly, American Beauty Berry, mimosa, chokeberry, honeysuckle, moonflower vine, blanket flowers and more. Some of these are not native I'm sorry to say but were here when I landed.

 I also provide numerous sources of water, a bumble bee house, stacked logs for various critters to call home, many bird houses, roosting boxes for cold weather shelter, and lots of feeders for when food is scarce.  Luckily I have wonderful brother in Massachusetts who is very willing to construct all the wooden items I require or want.

Now that Mother Nature's children are well fed, watered and sheltered, I needed to create a little "wildness" just for me. Cupids hang from my ligustrum and perch beneath the pergola, and an old trumpet plays quietly, tucked into the base of, you guessed it, the trumpet vine. A woman's wire torso hides amidst the lilies and daisies, and cobalt blue wine bottles emerge from the earth catching afternoon sunlight. Peeking out from spots around my garden are unexpected surprises keeping a sense of fantasy in my often too-real world. My wild backyard is where I gather strength and reconnect with the earth. Next year I think I'll add a small pond to go along with a moon garden.

 "Come out of your warm, angular, house, resounding with few voices, into the chill, grand, instantaneous night, with such a Presence as a full moon in the clouds, and you are struck with poetic wonder."

                          - Emerson

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Dropped Calls from Mother Nature

The word biophilia has been around for a long time, but has currently been made popular by naturalist Edward Wilson. It simply suggests that we humans have an instinctive bond with other living things, meaning nature. Along with this theory, books are popping up about "nature deficit disorder," a real problem in children as well as adults. This lack of interaction with the natural world is resulting in physical and mental health issues as well as a disregard for our fellow residents on this planet. Technology and heavier workloads in tough economic times are both contributors, resulting in a lack of time and interest in getting outside. I also believe a lack of parental encouragement is a component in preventing our kids from getting outdoors.

I grew up collecting leaves in the fall and pressing  them between wax paper, looking for the Big Dipper and the North Star, hiking through patches of woods, catching fireflies, spending every possible minute outdoors till the dreaded call from my mother echoed through the darkness to come indoors. This created my passion for the natural world and in turn a desire to capture it with paint and paper.

This blog began with a reference to field sketching, so indulge me please while I talk a bit more on this subject. It is a great way to reconnect with nature. When you spend time outdoors drawing a tree or bird or flower, you begin to see what makes that life form so extraordinary. Seeing = learning = caring = protecting. Everyone wins.

It takes real courage to learn something new, and I am grateful to those willing to spend a couple of hours with a stranger in hot, humid weather. What I am seeing are transformations. Students are noticing things they hadn't seen before. And those who say they can't draw are realizing they can produce a meaningful sketch along with lasting memories of the beauty of this barrier island. Sketching in nature is also meditative, offering a break from life's obstacles. I always hope people will continue sketching when they return home and perhaps encourage family and friends to give it a try.

I think kids today as well as adults are missing out on a lot of fun that easily would rival the newest video game. So go explore a stream bed, lay on the grass and look at the clouds, grab a field guide and identify the birds that frequent your backyard, or pick up a pencil and pad of paper and go sketch something. I promise you will have a good time and develop skills that will last a lifetime. There are tons of fabulous books on the subject suggesting great activities for all ages.

This coming week will be the perfect opportunity to enjoy one of nature's most spectacular displays. Grab a blanket and lay out under the night sky to see the Perseid Meteor Showers. Peak times are August 11, 12 and 13. You can see upwards of 60 "falling stars" an hour. Google the event for lots more information. (FYI : A meteor is a tiny piece of material moving through space at high speed which becomes incandescent when it meets the earth's atmosphere.)

For anyone interested, I thought I'd share with you what I take into the field when I go sketching. But remember, all you really need is a pencil or pen and a piece of paper. It's not about the equipment, it's about using your eyes.

hardbound, spiral sketchbook
brimmed hat
watercolor pencils
Pitt Artist pens
watersoluble graphite pencils
Prang watercolor set and brushes
cup to hold water
paper towels
bag to pick up any trash I see
bug spray
water bottle
(all tucked into my Ameribag backpack)
and my Walkstool 

PS : My oldest son was born during the peak of the Perseid Meteor Showers. As the heavens rejoice in his birth, I will be watching the celebration wondering how I got so lucky.

"Note on a page with a hole burned through it : I saved this star for you but it got away." - Dave Masons