Hiatus: any break, gap, or interruption of continuity.
Regular readers will have noticed that there have been no posts here for a few months. I’m taking a break from writing Fieldwork. Life has been different as I recover from ankle surgery. I am still not cleared to do trail work, but the time grows near when I will return to the woods. The blog will be updated when I have something to say. Right now I’m thinking.
My left foot is still encased in a fiberglass cast. April has been magnificent so far and I am determined to get outside to play in the garden. I stump around for awhile, then flop into the outdoor recliner and lean back. This takes the weight off my foot and tilts me toward the sky, where I gaze at the blooming maple tree. All those brilliant yellow-green tassels are flowers. What you can’t tell from looking at this photo is that the canopy of the tree is gently humming. It’s a low soft sound, which might be mistaken for something else. Lying on my back, listening, my eyes focus and then I can see the tiny shapes silhouetted–lots and lots of insects. They’re hover flies, and a few honeybees.
My honey bees have been quite active on these warm days, and male rufous hummingbirds zing through the garden as they establish territories. Butterflies and moths are starting to appear. Pollinators have been much on my mind since someone at work mentioned a website where you can submit photos of bumblebees for identification. It’s called bumblebeewatch.org. While checking that out, I visited the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation where I learned about the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. Why not? I registered my garden, since it appears to be providing lots of pollinator habitat right now.
The arrival of honeybees in my life six years ago has been an experience in witnessing how connected all things are. As a beekeeper, I still have much to learn. They are alien and mysterious, but I’ve fallen in love with them anyway. All I have to do is provide flowers and water in the summer, and some sugar candy in winter. The hive is located in a place that receives morning sun, afternoon shade, and is somewhat sheltered from the wind. It’s tucked out of travel paths, but near enough that I can keep an eye on it. Henry, my big gray cat, spends hot afternoons in the shade behind the hive. My approach to beekeeping is pretty hands off. I figure they know what they’re doing better than I do. I don’t have any particular need to open the hive and look for the queen or see how much brood there is. Knowing how chemically sensitive honeybees and other beneficial insects are, I garden as organically as possible. By creating healthy soil and choosing climate-adapted plants, I rarely have problems that require chemical intervention. Diatomaceous earth takes care of the dreaded earwigs that devour my zinnia seedlings. Slugs are trapped with beer and aphids can be sprayed away with the water hose.
People who don’t keep bees can still do a lot to help pollinators. Avoid monoculture, both in your own outdoor environment and in your food choices. Plant a diversity of shrubs and flowers (including natives), minimize lawns, let some of the vegetation be wild and less-tended. Avoid pesticides and other garden chemicals. Do your homework. If you purchase plants from nurseries, make sure they are grown without the use of neonicotinoids. These are a group of systemic insecticides which remain in plant tissues, including pollen. Very bad for bees. Neonicotinoids are also sometimes used on hay. There have been reports of composted horse manure containing neonic residue, which contaminates gardens. (See, everything is connected!) Pollinators require water. I’ve seen bees landing on plants after I’ve turned off the sprinkler. They will also drink at puddles, bird baths, and swimming pools.
Lying there on my back listening to the maple tree hum, I am able to put aside all these concerns and worries about the messed-up world. I will do all I can in my small way to help these creatures thrive. But it is also necessary to marvel at the sheer wonder of flowering plants and pollen and how plant success is made possible by flying insects. (And birds and bats.) Amazement is a counterbalance to the uncomfortable knowledge of just how fragile the web of life is. Which leads me to the most important thing I have learned from bees so far…when I squat down in front of the hive and watch them coming and going, each of them doing her job, I know that their business has nothing to do with me at all. Or any other human, or any of our works. How marvelous to not be as important as I think I am.
My latest adventure revolves around decades of being bipedal. The human body is an amazing organism, but it’s not designed to last forever. I’m talking about wear and tear on the joints. I feel fortunate that no bones have been broken in my travels (except maybe for one or two that didn’t slow me down much). But at the age of 56, I am experiencing a cast for the first time in my life.
After the past couple years of managing to hike, ski, and clamber around, my left ankle was so wobbly that I wanted to find out what was wrong. I have vivid memories of each time it has rolled to the outside, leaving me lying on the trail faster than I could blink. It’s not a good feeling to know that I could fall down miles from anywhere and find myself unable to walk. (Which is the case all the time, but more likely with an unreliable ankle.) Why risk it? In the immortal words of those hardy souls who have gone before me: “I might be getting too old for this sh*t.” So off to the orthopedic surgeon I went. He discovered that my ankle ligaments were intact but stretched like an overused piece of elastic. An easy fix–he tightened them up. That was eighteen days ago. On Day 9, I went back to the doctor to have the bandages and sutures removed and was fitted with a fiberglass cast. There was a wide choice of colors to choose from. In the end I made a conservative decision to go with good old blue, a color I can live with for four weeks. When I need more color, I can embellish it myself.
Life has slowed waaaaaayyyy down as I recuperate. My needs are simple, and I can walk enough to take care of myself. Friends are kind enough to bundle me in their car to take me on an errand or two. But mostly I am at home, reading, quilting, scooting around the garden on my backside to pick weeds and debris. This past week the spring weather has been so glorious that I can lie on a reclining chair outdoors, drowsing like a cat in the sun, listening to birdsong. My energy level fluctuates as the body goes about its mysterious healing processes.
I hope to be cleared to do trail work in June, but for now I wait. Before I know it the cast will be off and I’ll be able to drive again. Physical therapy will start, and I’ll be able to do more in the garden. I’m surprised to feel patience with all of this. It will get better, and when I hear the mountains calling me, I’ll be able to answer, “Yes, I’m on my way.”
My colleague Jon is fond of repeating: “You know what they say about the weather around here…if you don’t like it now just wait five minutes.” That is the perfect description of March in the Pacific Northwest. It is very early spring here, which means most of the snow has melted out of the yard and occasionally there is a burst of birdsong from the trees. But there can be a white squall of whirling snow or a bone-chilling downpour in an instant. Big billowing cumulus clouds with dark purple-gray bottoms pile up over the ridges, dump some rain, then dissipate in a blast of wind.
But, oh, when the sun shines! The warmth penetrates skin and brightness lifts the spirit. My boon companion, being feline, takes full advantage of sun spots. He stalks in from rain storms with spiky fur, demanding that I turn off the shower. But a bit of sunshine mellows him right out and suddenly all is well in the world.
I’m pretty sure I heard the soft chirp of a bluebird the other day. Snowdrops bloom, and crocus appear where snow flattened their slim leaves. From now on, the rush toward spring accelerates. But just to make sure we don’t take it for granted, just wait five minutes. The weather is bound to change.
We were looking for signs of spring. The big rains have melted much of the snow from the valley bottoms, and the hills in the rainshadow are beginning to show a tinge of green. Sagebrush buttercup buds are held tight in the saturated lithosol, not yet ready to burst out into silky yellow dots. As we made our way up the Taneum Creek road, I looked out into the recently flooded swampy places for emerging skunk cabbage. Nope, still too early. Even though the cottonwood buds swell, and the alder catkins dangle from leafless twigs, it’s still too early for wildflowers and bluebirds.
But we were happily distracted by wondering how the system of beaver dams had been affected by the flooding. Water was still backed up and pooled around the maze of natural and constructed structures in the creek. It seemed like the dams and logjams had spread and slowed the rushing water. The large beaverlodge was plastered with fresh mud and tracks crisscrossed the area around it. The beavers, it appears, are thriving.
Like most of my generation, I grew up watching more television than I am prepared to admit. I got out of the habit in the early 1980s and have never returned to regular viewing. But those years of programs and commercials from the 60s and 70s shaped my world view. I am still surprised by the power of the memories that arise unbidden in my awareness. For example, upon seeing the beaverlodge and dams, the voice of the narrator from Disney nature documentaries intones: “Beavers, nature’s engineers!”
Are they? I wondered. Are they really nature’s engineers? Our culture is a lot more subtle these days about the anthropomorphism we project onto animals. During the heyday of Disney films, it was shameless. Of course we understand animals by giving them human characteristics. Of course beavers are admirable because they are so industrious. Except when their industriousness collides with humans. Beavers used to be routinely trapped and their dams and lodges destroyed because their altering of riparian habitat inconvenienced how humans desired to alter the habitat. (This was never shown on TV.) Over the past twenty years or so, beavers have come to be seen as valuable again because they can restore riparian areas that have been degraded by human activity. A creek with beavers has more suitable places for fish to live and breed. Streamside vegetation flourishes and migratory songbirds have places to nest. Beavers’ work makes the stream more complex and winding. Silt is caught in woody structures, keeping the water clear and cool. Beavers are a keystone species, influencing a particular environment so that it benefits many other species.
Does this make them engineers? For sure they are large for rodents, and have adapted to aquatic life. Like all rodents, their teeth never stop growing so they are compelled to gnaw. Or their teeth keep growing because they gnaw so much. Beavers gnaw wood and feed on the inner bark of small branches. Perhaps in the course of all this gnawing and piling up of woody debris, some long-ago beaver saw the benefit of using that stuff to alter the behavior of water. If an activity provides some benefit, creatures are likely to keep doing it. So beavers found their niche in the world, and are coming back from persecution. You can call them engineers if you like, but I am ready to stop giving human attributes to animals. In a way, it’s a false distinction because humans are also animals. Beavers do what they do. How they make their living is entirely fascinating.
Now if I can only get get that narrator’s voice out of my head (his name was Rex Allen). He told the story of Charlie the Lonesome Cougar and many others, in a folksy tone. Even as a kid I knew those stories were made up and simplified. Looking back, I think what a disservice it was to make animals so cute and entertaining. It gives us the wrong idea about their lives and their place in the world. We in the Anthropocene epoch are witnessing an extinction event. It’s not entertainment. The world is diminished when animals and habitats disappear because of human ignorance and greed. This is a hard thing to bear, but I think we are all better off if we allow the world and all living things to be as mysterious and interconnected as they are. We might realize our own place in that interconnectedness and take better care of it.
I am beginning to believe that the words we use to describe the world really matter. Language is inadequate to accurately express everything about our experience, but it’s about all we have besides art and mathematics. This is probably me thinking too much, but I want to use words that are as honest and true as possible. Words that describe things and relationships in a direct clear way, that reveal the actual value of things and relationships to the sustenance of life. Words that avoid filters and screens and projections. Words that are not chosen to lie, manipulate, or devalue.
This is a lot of reflecting brought on by looking for skunk cabbage and finding beaverworks. Perhaps like rodents, I need something to gnaw on so that my mental teeth don’t grow too long. While I am busy thinking too much and chewing on the thicket of life, snow continues to melt, creeks continue to run, spring continues to advance. And it is good.
When snow comes again after a few weeks’ absence, it makes no sound. The low-hanging clouds may darken a little and feel heavier. If you happen to be working in the woods with your head down concentrating on your job, you may miss the exact moment snow begins to fall. It starts as a few tiny flakes, phantoms on the edge of your vision. Did you really see them? The next time you look up there will be more until the air around you is blurred with silent precipitation. It falls relentlessly, pulled to earth by gravity to rest upon the surface of the snowpack. That is when I stop to give it my full attention. Instantly I am a little kid again, looking upward in mute wonder. There is something magical about this white stuff, something I don’t feel with rain or wind or fog. Snow makes the evergreen trees more beautiful, enhancing their tall conical shapes and covers the ground below to hide anything that may distract from the standing trees.
Like all things in this world, snow is transient. As soon as it lands it begins to change. The crystalline structure can bond to the existing surface. If the temperature is warm, snow will stick to itself. If cold, the texture is powdery. Over the course of the winter, snow changes within the layers that have accumulated. Then there comes a time when snow stops piling up and begins to recede.
This snowfall last week was the beginning of the end. We walked on snowshoes out of the woods while snow whirled. By the time we reached the valley, the snow had changed to rain. As the storm front passed, warm air from the tropical Pacific poured over the Cascades. It rained and rained and rained. The snowpack is tinged blue from holding so much water. The streams are over their banks with rain and snowmelt.
The signs are unmistakable. Cottonwood buds swell, alder catkins dangle and release pollen. The air is warmer, days longer.
Late winter or early spring? How do you know the difference?
Slogging through January…to me it feels like the longest month of the entire year. I wake up in the dark, go to work, walk home in the twilight. There’s a monochromatic quality to the days, lit up once in awhile by a shell-colored sunrise or the magic of a snowstorm. When the clouds aren’t too thick, I notice the daylight hours extending a little bit from the darkness of the solstice. And I notice on warm days, the bees come out of the hive for a clearing flight and to kick the dead ones out into the snow.
What a shock to wake up to a clear sky, and see the sun rising above the horizon! Suddenly long blue tree shadows stretch out ahead, and ice falls from the boughs. The sound of dripping is everywhere. To move through the woods on skis or snowshoes is to be shaken from routine when the sun shines. I remember about sunglasses and shirtsleeves. And breaking trail through snow with the consistency of mashed potatoes. And stomping out a spot to sit and have lunch, leaning back on my backpack to sip soup from a thermos. My face turns to the sun without me thinking about it, as if I’m a flower. I hear and see a mixed flock of birds swinging from tree to tree, the first birds besides ravens and jays that I’ve heard in a long time. They perch in the tops of the evergreens, perhaps sipping drops of melted snow from the needles. Then they’re off again.
My sense of wonder has been hibernating with the rest of me as the gray cloudy days slide by on a sheet of ice. But the season is turning, and it’s time to start waking up.
Back to native ground for a family Christmas…southwest Washington where I spent the first sixteen years of my life. For decades I have been returning to this patch in the Willapa Hills that is shaped by the south fork of the Chehalis River. It’s as familiar to me as my own skin; I can recognize a Douglas-fir with my eyes closed. The place is green. The green fountains of sword ferns are one of the first shapes I learned–when I hear the word “fern”, it is the image of sword fern that comes to mind. The damp of rotting alder leaves, the croak of a raven, the raucous scolding of a Steller’s jay, the sound of water running. I know these things from the depths of my cells.
But how long can you be away from a place before you don’t belong to it any more? As much as a hundred year old cedar stump in a thicket of third growth fir is a reality that I know and understand, it is not one I confront on a daily basis. I know myself as a visitor to a place I used to be from. I belong somewhere else now.
So it is with relief that I cross back over the Cascades after Christmas in a stream of traffic to land oh so gently under a frozen gray sky and ponderosa pines. Light from snow reflects into my house. Winter here is more black and white, and any colors glimpsed are more of a whisper than the green shout of the west side. Ravens fly over the house and speak in a slightly different dialect than their coastal kin.
I suppose this is how life unfolds–the natal place is a deep memory, but most of us move on. I speak the same language that I have always spoken, but with a different turn of phrase now. In a way it is a kind of expansion, the adoption of a larger territorial range. It fits.
Pigment and ink stain my fingers most days. Interesting things are happening in the studio because after a long dry spell, I am painting again. A small part of me fears that creativity will abandon me, leaving behind a bereft husk of the artist I used to be. But it never really goes away. The art submerges when life gets too busy or I am preoccupied by thinking too much. My life in general is creative, whether I am cooking or gardening or solving problems out on the trail. I write every morning, and I write when I don’t feel enough space around me to paint and draw. I am usually stitching on some quilt or knitting some little doodad.
But when painting calls, that’s big magic. Paint has been part of my life since childhood, starting with those watercolor sets in the metal box that everybody had in elementary school. When I showed aptitude, I was given beginner watercolor and oil color sets. I painted on paper. I painted on cardboard. I painted in junior high, high school, and in my room at home. While I was a forestry student in the early 80s, I took an art class every quarter as an elective. At 25, I took a huge leap and majored in art at the University of Idaho. When I finished that degree, I went to work for the Forest Service and painted at home. Within two years, I was back in college pursuing a master’s degree in painting. After that, I spent 10 years as an exhibiting artist and teacher. I taught others to paint with watercolors, to push beyond their fears, practice technique, and play with color and shape. Years of my life have been spent in the company of paint.
Then there wasn’t much painting at all. My attention was pulled away by other things. I began to wonder if painting is a luxury, something you do when you are assured of a roof over your head and three meals a day. When you have good health and are not depressed or ill. When you don’t have to be a wage slave and spend your days working for the man. Those are excuses. Turns out I was simply living. Painting was always there, but I wasn’t always showing up. After I built a studio, the question was how to re-enter the visual world.
A book crossed my path–The Trickster’s Hat: a Mischievous Apprenticeship in Creativity by Nick Bantock. I own several of his other books, which are filled with imaginative illustrations and stories and a hint of mystery. The Trickster’s Hat contains 49 exercises designed to instigate creativity. I looked through the book and chose one to start with. Digging through the bottom drawer of my flat file, I came up with scraps of illustration board and cut them into six inch squares. The instructions were to paint a layer of acrylic paint, then scribble with a pastel, then cut a letter or number from a magazine and paste it on with acrylic medium. That was enough to get me going. The idea is to begin to build up a surface in layers. And this is where the Trickster comes in. I’m only playing–I have no preconceived notions, no imagery or message in mind. I can destroy the six inch pieces of board, waste little bits of paint. I have absolutely nothing to lose. There is incredible freedom in that knowledge. So when my Trickster began to suggest images or dig deeper into drawers for a piece of marbled paper or old drawing to create another layer, surprising things began to happen. I responded only to what was in front of me and the disparate elements began to become compositions. The six-inchers sit on my work table where I can see them. Sometimes they rest idly for days, weeks, months. Sometimes I take one up and focus on it. Sometimes I don’t like the last thing I did so I scribble over it or put down another layer of paint and let it rest again. I find myself rooting around in all my unfinished projects, no longer feeling attached to something I started years ago. It’s all fair game for getting cut up and recycled and worked over. The Trickster is breathing new life into stale old attempts by pulling the unexpected out of the Hat.
None of these are finished yet. I am using everything–watercolor, gouache, pastel, ink, acrylic medium, tissue paper, old tracings, all sorts of papers collected over years, cardboard scraps from the trash can, maps, charcoal pencil, dry metallic pigment, whatever I have. In a way, I’m cleaning up. What I like about the six-inchers is the small size, the freedom to mess things up, pull images out of chaos. If one of them doesn’t work out, I can throw it away without feeling a sense of loss. When I do finish a six-incher, I have a little jewel, a glowing icon that is an example of trusting the creative process. My only intention is to show up and see what happens. My only agenda is to paint and feel free from self-imposed constraint. The more I paint, the more I realize what an act of courage it is to start from nothing and not know where I am going to end up. How I paint is also how I live. I want to be interested and engaged and using what is available here and now. I want to wallow in color and relate one shape to another. I want to pay attention to the space between shapes, and draw fluid lines with a brush.
There is a whole bright world when I stay home to paint. Even in the dark depth of winter. Especially in the dark depth of winter. It’s a really good place to be.