Drawn from Memory

Confirming that it is possible to make it snow on Wednesday by planting peas on Tuesday. But on Thursday the sun comes out.

Took the binoculars out to spy on the top of the willow tree this morning. Thought I might catch that warbling creature whose song tickled my memory when I was planting peas. I listened to songs at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website, and the closest I came was Warbling Vireo. But what I saw flicking from twig to twig today was not plain and gray. I actually never saw a whole bird, only parts. There was a gray head, yellow flanks, a hint of red or russet on top of the head. Probably a Nashville Warbler. Possibly there was more than one bird. Possibly more than one species. It’s hard to tell when they are in constant motion, picking insects off the willow catkins, tweedling and trilling away. Birds being themselves are hard to draw from life. I completely understand why J.J. Audubon shot them in order to look at them. Only way to get them to hold still. The contemporary bird artist (most notably David Allen Sibley, whose field guide I use) has the advantage of fine spotting scopes and study skin collections in museums and universities. Also the patience of Job and apparently lots and lots of time.

I staunchly maintain that I am not a birder. I do not keep a life list, nor do I travel solely to observe birds. I shamelessly play favorites, preferring thrushes to ducks, corvids to gallinules. Birds are part of a larger world of life, and as an artist I am far more concerned with capturing their essence than their details. Nobody does detail better than Sibley. But I have an affinity for those Japanese and Chinese artists of the 19th century who caught specific birds with a stylized economy of brushstrokes. That’s why I let the morning’s bird viewing sit in my mind until this evening when the yellow and gray of the birds and blooming willow catkins had rested long enough.

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