On Being Stuck

Sandhill Cranes

In a way, I am stuck right now. I moved to Oregon in mid-October, broke my leg a week later, and now almost four months later am beginning to limp around and be able to function. But the room that was to be my studio is still piled high with boxes from the move, and I don't yet have the stamina nor flexibility to be able to lift, sort, and organize my art materials or set up my easels. I can sit at my computer and write.  

I've been thinking about another time I was stuck.  I was taking an advanced watercolor class, where students brought whatever painting each was working on, and our teacher made the rounds giving us individual advice. My painting was an attempt to recapture a scene I had witnessed in Yellowstone National Park of Sandhill Cranes stretching their wings and resting in a wetlands.  The painting took up a full watercolor sheet.  Three cranes were spread along a sandbar surrounded by a vast marshy area.  I liked how my cranes were turning out, but hated the background.  It was too distracting and too dark. I had failed to capture the essence of the scene I remembered, and could not see any way to salvage the painting. 

My watercolor teacher suggested that I take water and a stiff brush and scrub out the background, then repaint it after it dried.  I got as far as scrubbing out the background.  My cranes were still there, and I still liked them.  But I was never able to decide what to do next with the background.  I just saved it for years - I did like the cranes - as I worked on new pieces.  Several years later I was participating in a show where I could include some bin work.  I looked at my cranes again, and realized that, by cropping the image, with the focus on just two of the cranes, I no longer needed to do anything more.  The scrubbed out background behind the cranes had a luminosity that perfectly complemented the birds.  I matted it for the show and it sold!  

Sometimes all it takes to become unstuck is time and a new perspective. I am trying to be patient and make good use of my time, knowing that each day my leg improves a bit.  I keep reminding myself that by spring, I should be strong enough to take my easel outside for a plein air painting.  

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Kiss the Flowers

Wire-crested Thorntail

I have not had much time to paint in the last year and a half when we lived in Virginia.  We moved to Oregon in October, and a week later I fell, breaking my femur.  I returned from the hospital to my new home at 6:30 PM on Halloween, with my new hospital bed set up in the living room, just in time for the parade of costumed neighborhood children.  They poked their heads in the doorway, wished me well, and departed with candy.  Some eight weeks later, I'm healing well, but still have limited activity.  What a good time to resume my blog posts, while I recuperate.  


My new house has a lovely upstairs room with views of playing fields and walking paths between tall trees.  This will be a studio, designed to be converted to a guest bedroom when visitors arrive.  Right now it is a jumble.  This was the one room not yet unpacked when I fell.  So there are piles of canvases, boxes of files, three disassembled easels, and everything we hadn't yet found a place for.  


After my most recent trips to the Amazonian rainforest,  many ideas have swirled through my head, and I have begun work on one, only to drop it and start another.   I must have half a dozen studies or larger paintings, started and abandoned.   I would love to paint the view from the canopy of a tall rainforest tree.  So much of the forest life takes place 300 feet above the forest floor where the trees flower and fruit in the sunlight.  Another icon of the Amazon is the oxbow lake - formed when an Amazon tributary shifts course and leaves behind a deeper section that remains as a lake.  Giant otters and tiny caiman ply the waters. The oddball hoatzin builds her nest overhanging the waters.  Macaws and parrots are among the most colorful and long-lived rainforest inhabitants.  The spectacle of hundreds or thousands gathered at a mineral lick is unforgettable.  Yet another engaging event is watching a mixed flock of tanagers mingle in a fruiting tree as they pass through the forest. One favorite tree reminded me of an ocean, with billowing waves of green leaves, delicate sprigs of berries like ocean spray, and the tanagers as colorfully-clad tiny surfers balanced atop the crest of each wave.  And at each cloud forest lodge, profusions of tropical flowers and vines attracted fleets of iridescent hummingbirds and clouds of brilliant butterflies.  Where to begin?  


 I have been reading David Attenborough's book The Life of Plants.  He writes about how hummingbirds are found only in the Americas and seem to have evolved in tandem with the American nectar-producing plants. Nowhere are hummingbirds more abundant than the tropics, where plants bloom year-round.  What intrigued me most about Attenborough's book was that he told the story from the plant's point of view.  As hummingbirds developed the rapid wingbeat that allows them to hover in place, the plants adapted to offer them elongated bell flowers that other birds and insects could not easily access.  The plant's goal is pollination, so it helps if one bird species prefers them and seeks out their plant species rather than wasting their pollen by spreading it to unrelated plants.  Each flower provides only a small amount of nectar, encouraging the hummingbird to flit from one plant to the next and then the next, again promoting pollination. Thus, over time, these affinities become reinforced.      


One of the Brazilian Samba Schools that competes each Carnival in the Sambadrome in Rio De Janeiro is called Beija Flor, which is the Brazilian term for hummingbird.  It literally translates as Kiss the Flowers.  Everywhere in Peru and Ecuador we saw hummingbirds and butterflies "kissing" the flowers.


I've been exploring some of these ideas on some small canvases.  And so far, the only one I like is this small portrait of a Wire-Crested Thorn-tail.  It is based on a photo by my birding trip colleague Judy Adams, and a few of my own reference photos.  I love the silhouette of this hummingbird and wanted to include a butterfly without detracting from the focus on the bird.  I have far grander images in mind, but need to patiently work step by step toward achieving them.  While I get frustrated at my progress, I have faith that I will eventually pull together a representation of the visions dancing through my mind.




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The Land of the Orang-Utan and the Bird of Paradise

A young orangutan in Borneo

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace at age 90. In celebration of his contributions to our knowledge of the natural world, I have just read "The Malay Archipelago", a 531 page narrative of his travels from Borneo to Papua-New Guinea, first published in 1869.  It is still a riveting travel-adventure book.   Sir David Attenborough has called Wallace the "most admirable character in the history of science."

Wallace, through his study of the variations in species, formulated a theory of evolution at about the same time as Charles Darwin.  The two men could not have been more different.  Darwin was well-educated and a member of the upper-class.  He was never much of a field naturalist--most of his work was painstakingly conducted in his study at home.  Wallace left school at fourteen and financed his natural history trips through collecting specimens which he sent back to Europe. Today, Darwin is universally known, Wallace barely acknowledged.  

On one of his voyages, while recovering from a bout of malaria, Wallace wrote a manuscript "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type" and sent it to Darwin for his opinion.  Without that impetus, Darwin might have continued to dither over his evidence and perhaps may never have dared to publish his treatise on natural selection.

Wallace also originated the field of bio-geography.  The Wallace line, which meanders through the Indonesian island chain,  documents a geographic split between the fauna of Asia and that of Australia.  

As an aside, it astounds me that in the space of 100 years since Wallace's death, we have gone from a human population of less than 2 billion to over 7 billion. In Wallace's time world travel was the province of a few hardy adventurers.  Today the wild places that Wallace documented are rapidly disappearing and the natural resources that sustain us all are under increasing stress!

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New studio, new muses

I've just moved from Colorado to Virginia.  My old studio was in a basement.  My new studio is on an upper floor with dappled sunlight filtered through leafy trees.  In our backyard woods, the regular visitors are a young inquisitive deer who stops to graze, a fox who frequently passes through, a white-pawed squirrel who is always alert for the fox, blue-tailed skinks who skitter across the window sills, and a pair of Carolina wrens who enchant me with the posturing of turned-up tails, rusty bodies, long downward curved beaks, and white lines above their eyes.  Nearby are marshes teeming with shorebirds and ospreys, punctuated by the calls of the bull frogs.  And here was a bull frog who posed for my camera.    

After a gap of many months, look for new works on my website in a few weeks time.  

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Each year I make a calendar and each year I make a resolution.   

Last year, my New Year's Resolution was to paint every day.  That certainly did not happen.  I have switched recently from mostly watercolors to mostly oil paintings.  Considering that we often travel up to six months a year, I can only bring along my painting gear on road trips, not airplanes.  And often there is hardly time to sketch.  In Peru for a month, we took long birding treks during daylight with only candle light and flashlights after dark.  So my resolution never stood a chance.  Another flaw was that "every day" clause.  Once you miss one day, you're done!

I began creating the calendars after a wondrous three week safari to Kenya.  With Photoshop, I added children and grandchildren to the wildlife photos--Mike with his arm around a lion's mane, Charlotte riding a giraffe, Kenna and Sedge on their tricycles next to a rhinocerous.  In years that followed I made photo calendars of Yellowstone (bison, wolves, marmots), of Vietnam and Thailand (water monitors, elephant artists), of Borneo (orangutans and hornbills), and of Polynesia (stingrays and seaturtles).  For 2013, I selected the best of my photos from remote Amazonian and cloudforest regions of Peru (hummingbirds, macaws, toucans and tapirs). 

So it is time again for a new resolution.  After last year's failure, I tried to compose a more acheivable goal for 2013.  And it it took me all this week for an idea to hatch that seemed just right.

In 2013 I resolve to complete 12 paintings that are worthy of publication in my 2014 calendar.  There are always a handful of paintings I might use, but never enough.  I fall back on my photos instead, year after year.  As the year goes by I can measure whether I am on track, as I need to complete an average of one per month.  Yet if I fall behind, all is not lost.  Wish me luck!

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Shrinking Savanna

Lions crossing the Mara

I took this snapshot of Lions in the Masai Mara in Kenya in 2006.  What a magnificent variety of wildlife we saw on that visit!  What inspired me to dredge up that photo over six years later?

According to today's New York Times Green blog, Africa's savanna habitat is shrinking even faster than the world's rainforests.  Dr. Stuart Pimm of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University has issued a study showing that only 25% of Africa's savanna remains.  He also looked at what that means for the lion population.  There are less than 35,000 lions today, down from 100,000 in 1960.  Their fate is even more precarious, since he found only ten areas that support large stable lion populations.  

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When will I learn to always bring my camera?

About one p.m., before preparing our one-course holiday meal of Oysters Rockefeller, we took our daily walk around nearby Lake Mac.  We often take a pair of binoculars and occasionally a camera with us, to better see and record the seasonal variety of birds and other feral visitors to the lake.   Today we had binoculars but no camera.  

Thanksgiving is about the latest date that the local White Pelicans leave for their warmer wintering grounds.  Last week we counted one hundred on the lake--yesterday there were seven and today only one laggard remained.  Gulls gathered along the shore while grebes and a lone Bufflehead glided atop and then dove under the lake's surface.  

As we walked the path along a fence separating us from pastoral open space fields, we suddenly noticed a coyote, walking along with us just on the opposite side of the fence.  He was no more than ten yards away.  In the seven years that I have routinely circled this lake, I have seen a coyote only twice before--and at a great distance.  Once again, I reminded myself--always bring a camera!  

His fur was glistening and healthy looking, his gaze alert, and his body muscular and well-fed.  He was busy examining mounds of earth near some drainage ditches.  We watched him, he watched us, and we walked along together for several minutes.  As the wind picked up, we quickened our pace.  We turned back every few minutes to see where he was.  He had lagged behind, and the binoculars came in handy.  He had caught something and was dragging it through the grass.  He would pause, bend his head down to take a few bites, then look around to see who was watching.  As a few dog-walkers approached his spot, he lifted his prey and marched further into the field away from the fence.  Now we could see what his Thanksgiving dinner was--he had caught a muskrat.  

No doubt he had been nearby many times before.  In the middle of the field, we would never have spotted him.  His fur blends like perfect camouflage into the sepia tones of the November grasses.

By the way, Happy Thanksgiving!      

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Autumn in the Rockies

Sparring Elk

This past weekend we saw a field full of elk grazing near Mary's Lake in Estes Park, Colorado.  At the center was a twelve point bull elk surrounded by a harem of about 60 females.  Every now and then he lifted his head to emit a triumphant bugle.  

These two sparring males were at the edge of the herd.  An over the hill male was practice fighting with a young male, preparing him for a challenge to take over a harem in future years.  

This is one of the glorious sights of October, and the eerie elk bugle one of the glorious sounds that reverberates through the crisp air! 

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The Peregrine

About two years ago, we unplugged our television and found entertainment and intellectual stimulation in reading more books.  Today I want to share with you one of the best nature books I have ever read.  I have just finished reading it, and will read it many times more.

The Peregrine by J.A. Baker is a deceptively simple book about a winter spent obsessively observing peregrines.  When I first took up birding, peregrines were a favorite--they are rare, powerful raptors, with distinctive markings easy for a beginner to identify.  Baker, about whom little is known, wrote this, his first book, at age 41.  He had recently been diagnosed with a serious illness and threw all his energy into studying the peregrine.  He no doubt felt a bond with this bird since it was the late 1960's and many raptors, including peregrines, were threatened with extinction as their egg-shells were weakened by excessive concentrations of DDT.

Written in the form of a diary, Baker draws the reader into his obsession.  Each day he sets out to seek the local peregrines where he lives in Essex, England, and to watch them bathe, rest, hunt, soar, stoop, kill.  He becomes one with his prey.  "I scanned the sky constantly to see if a hawk was soaring, scrutinized every tree and bush, searched the apparently empty sky through every arc.  That is how the hawk finds his prey and eludes his enemies, and that is the only way one can hope to find him and share his hunting."

Not only is this a delightful book for birders, Baker has an artist's eye.  He captures the play of light on the bird and the sky in poetry.  He fills the pages with rich detail, evocative imagery, painting a portrait in an ever-changing landscape. 

On December 1st, after sighting a distant peregrine, he writes: "Crisp and golden in the sunlight, he swam up through the warm air with muscular undulations of his wings, like the waving flicker of a fish's fins.  He drifted on the surface, a tiny silver flake on the blue burnish of the sky.  His wings tightened and bent back, and he slid away to the east, a dark blade cutting slowly through blue ice.  Moving down through the sunlight, he changed colour like an autumn leaf, passing from shining gold to pallid yellow, turning from tawny to brown, suddenly flicking out black against the skyline."

Baker's diary stretches from October to April .  "Autumn begins my season of hawk-hunting, spring ends it, and winter glitters between like the arch of Orion."  Despite the routine, he sees anew each day.  This book contains riches to be savored many times over.      

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Primate News

For only the second time in the last 28 years, a new species of monkey has been discovered in Africa.  The Lesula (Cercopithecus lomamiensis) is reputedly a shy creature, similar to the owl-faced monkey but with a mane of blond hair.  It lives in a fairly small territory within a remote region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  After genetic and morphological studies confirmed it as a new species, it is being provisionally categorized as vulnerable under the IUCN red list of threatened species.  I hope that this exposure bodes well rather than ill for the monkey's survival.    

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