Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Here or There, a Vagabond

Since being back from New York City I have in some way I can't yet describe added to a few of my own perspectives.

Not too many weeks ago in early fall many of this country's birders, by and large National Audubon members, were given a set of sober new perspectives, adding up to heartache, by the Audubon Report, a huge new study sponsored by the National Audubon Society on the best-case plight of many resident and migrant birds within North America as climate change proceeds. The study, extrapolating from a variety of statistics dealing with historic bird occurrence influenced by climate variables such as rainfall and temperature range, driven by trends drawn from climate modeling, looked at 588 species of birds, finding that 314 are due to be endangered or threatened by 2080. Habitats are expected to shift northward while they shrink at the same time, at a pace that's likely to leave a lot of bird species unable to adapt in time to go on furthering their kind in some place where they're fitted to hide, forage and nest.

If the world has abundant space in it for people who find birds and their habitat dispensable (if they can't adapt, tough luck--everything's always had to adapt...) I hope that soon that's proven the attitude of a social outcast and a renegade in the world of business. Because of the twofold trend in which climate change accompanies no-end-in-sight human population explosion, I wonder sometimes what instances will turn up in which hard-pressed creatures increase their populations because of catastrophes we couldn't help but bring on ourselves. An example I am remembering was, I think, cited in Audubon magazine some years ago, about an increase in European brown bears, red deer and wolves in the wake of the Bosnian War.

In Duluth the morning before I left for New York there was a rare visitor from the U.S./Canadian Pacific slopes, a golden-crowned sparrow, oftenest found in spruce groves, willow and alder scrub similar to that in our central region. After lots of pacing around the end of the city block where the sparrow had been seen I was finally able to view it courtesy of fellow birders who stood on the sidewalk and located it on the ground below a different feeder than the original one where the ID had first been made. For me this made the fourth life species of 2014. Compared to prior years and whole seasons of my life, 2014 did seem a year sparse with birds; they weren't absent, just few.

Today as I walked out in punishing bright breezes, layered as I was with all the due and necessary kinds of pants and coat, I saw no birds and heard almost none, but that is the way of the boreal forest in a typical cold snap. At length I did hear one of my favorites from this kind of habitat: pine grosbeak, high in distant trees. Anthropomorphic though it is, my hearing of that soft song brings a sense of instant kinship between human and finch, across our own generations and ethnicities; it is the sound of exuberant yet controlled, moderated, mellifluous conversation, dimmed by wide surroundings, that's probably varied little wherever heard, with the message of we've come from a long ways, but if you want my take on all of it it's this...

Near that place I took these pictures of an abandoned sort of store front or rustic tavern only vaguely accounted for in spoken history. In the remotest, least hospitable places people have left behind pitiful shells of their own ambitions, bearing evidence of commerce, warfare, food storage, garbage, summer fun, etc.

I had never walked the neighborhoods of Brooklyn or Queens, and only a little of Manhattan before, and in the chill of Thanksgiving week-end found myself spellbound in Brooklyn where my daughter Lea lives and walks all her errands for lack of a car. In New York every foot of space is built on or paved over, yet at certain points in its 250 years or so someone has remembered to install hedges or leave room for sprouting trees.  Hardy shade trees cling, die and are replaced in the narrow ground along the boulevards. There are so many beings, most prominently people, living on top of each other, traveling over each others' heads or below street and floor level in New York that it looks to be its own ecosystem, a prototype for some of what society might do to fit its teeming masses into other places. The subway tunnels exhibit a society of rats. Parks like Prospect Park in Brooklyn in late autumn host hermit thrushes, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and, in breeding season, a whole suite of insect-eating songbirds. Elsewhere, rooftop gardens are gaining popularity for people's food and respite, not to mention being relief stations for birds, butterflies or bats; there are bound to be record keepers on this topic. Monk parakeets, escaped from pet bird cages, have multiplied and gained citizenship in at least two of five boroughs via colonial nesting. Coyotes and feral cats are legendary.

We walked, walked and walked, leaping sometimes to keep abreast of each other in the midst of other walking pairs and clusters of folks. Walking and feathered flight are the way of most creatures in New York and this is a mercy; there's more to see, hear and sense this way, even for all the automated roar. Once when I lived in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metroplex and felt an over-long tension borne of participating in the high speed traffic jams set loose on those freeways, I dreamed at night of I-35W bare of any cars or trucks. Something had happened but the dream didn't tell what. I walked in the right lane mostly alone, with leafy branches pawing my hair and ears as I passed under them; no tall person or truck had come swiping through to rip away those low limbs. In some of the countless back streets of New York a little bit of this thicket-like atmosphere gets a hold of a person.

So the jungle of stone and steel, synthetics and glass amid coils of traditional ground, as far as we've kept control of it, might be enhanced many times over by keepers of memory who ask and attempt to answer the questions of what was--what was a prairie, what was a vernal pond, what mulberries were native to the American wild, etc. I like to think of country and city people equally preserving patches of what the landscape once hosted, because it functioned so well, in a greater breadth than we can well imagine, and deserves to be tended or hoarded till something can be done to even out the numbers of people with the numbers of all else that we're out-competing unto our own impoverishment and confinement. Brooklyn, NY offered me a way to see quaintness and charm in the stacked-up, heel-to-toe juxtaposition of ourselves with at least some variety of trees and their animal tenants whose nearness has made us a home.

Somebody, wherever else, will still be recording in words, song and image whatever has made that place the way it is traditionally remembered. I myself want to give New York and world-class cities like it credit for their natural diversity, but continue to bear witness to the northern phenomena of peat bogs and rapid rivers, cliffs and the grasslands that shifted ever northward into tundra, because those are still here, and I'm here by the grace of one and the same car and its mechanic, and the next thing to do about that car's tailpipe emissions is to overhaul the exhaust system, before embarking on a conversion to re-chargeable-electric...

                                    Haunted bogscape, newly-begun mixed media work as of October 2014

See the video below for a demo of an Australian firm, Enginer's plug-in hybrid conversion kit used in a generation 1 Toyota Prius.  Credit for finding this goes to Bill Hane of Blue Moon Auto in St. Paul, MN, good for answers and interpretation, at:

Monday, October 20, 2014

Relief from Botanical Painting -- Why Not Just Take a Picture?

Making art is the venting of feelings that have bundled themselves in sensory/emotional knots, with more or less labor devoted. When I began to draw and paint native plants I had walked up against in the Indiana pastures or along the Lake Superior shores, I was so smitten with exact form, color and circumstance that I knew only to illustrate the plant on the scene. The process entailed surrender to the conditions of that place, with the flower's ephemeral stage of development creating a sense of obligation which crowded aside everything else I needed to do. At first I'd feel a bit crazed by a sense of insurmountable disorder. At the work's completion days or weeks later I was at peace, gratified by the translation of vision to materials, but each painting ended up as a documentary, a throwback to times when cameras were inadequate to record color, leaf texture and the subtler features of a flower. The more that I felt impelled to bring the weather and the background in with the botanical detail, the more the work became a documentary of a place and a day occupied by a plant. Meanwhile the botanical cards I sold the most to customers as likely as not bore the simplest illustrations on a white background.

Fantasy tends to prevail over the purely documentary impulse in painting and drawing today since we have the camera for the utmost capture of what meets the eye as it makes its distinctions. Wanting to see what my own fantasy assisted by photo images would lead me to do in botanical art, especially since the days and weeks of the brisk northern flowering season get ahead of me--much as I'd like to do all botanical painting out of doors in a sweet and lonely place--I made most of my floral paintings this year supported by photos I had taken in the field from assorted angles around a plant at the peak of its blooming cycle. We sped from June to mid-August before I could start on the wild blue flag, Iris versicolor, that I had wanted to conjure on paper since the late 1990s. In the season's lateness I'd have to rely solely on photos, my own and infinite others, for my examples. I decided to give form to a somewhat grotesque notion of purple iris. The result, after a great deal of indoor hand labor, leaves me a bit disenchanted. Despite my careful attention to assorted close-up details gleaned from at least four photos, the piece fails to acclaim the essence of June in the bogs and peatlands, where wild blue flag upholds its perfection, saying scion, rebirth in its hallmark pattern of immaculate blue, purple, gold and white.

Here is the new mixed-media painting of the iris, or wild blue flag:

<a href="" style="font: 10pt arial; text-decoration: underline;">nature watercolor paintings</a>

Distortion and simplification in this work suggest that it would call out to a somewhat different set of tastes than the pieces done in solemn homage to the plant waving in the wild. Surely there's a lot of middle ground between botanical illustration and jubilantly decorative floral art.

Pride, brought about through learned skill and certain inclinations to work deliberately by hand and eye, urges the belief in me that hand illustration is more profoundly artistic than any genre that begins with a photograph, with however many techniques applied to heighten certain effects in the ultimate photo image. And yet there are some photos, I think, that override all of an artist's instinct to lavish effort on a painting. On occasion these photos happen in our hands and cameras by accident, a moment's inspiration out of which the camera does all the labor.

As an example, while visiting my mom who lives in Hingham, not far south of Boston, Massachusetts, I went walking on a couple of days that proved lead-ups to soaking rain in the wake of a drought. Just past a pile of cement rubble on the trail skirting the boundaries of her retirement community I came upon the pokeweed, a robust plant with a huge tradition in the pioneer United States and no doubt over the eons before there was a U.S. Immediately the plant's bulk and flashy green and pink, familiar as it was to me from near a rusty tin barn and a fence in Indiana long ago, whispered: heirloom.

If I had nowhere else I had to be I would pull together the materials and paint the wonderful subject over the few weeks it would require, source of salad greens and pie filling and writing ink to many of our American forebears, but why bother? Look at the misty springtime aspect, even in late September, that the camera drew in around the leaves with their beads of rainwater. Far be it from me to deny photography its place as an art genre. But back in the Upper Midwest, looking out at yellowed meadows, marshes and aspen groves I am remembering May and June and the reappearance of evolved perfection. Through the winter I will be drawing and painting a lot of stumps and black spruce, its frizzy few branches bedecking a wand that might almost be dead wood. But next spring, barring any misfortune, I had better get back to those poolsides where Iris versicolor emerges and do careful justice to the precision of tender buds as they unfold, to the re-patterned functioning of countless iris genes as I lean out of a folding chair whose legs nestle into the mud.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Huge Tree Pressing into the Atmosphere

I've been having another nostalgia trip these weeks while painting and drawing the details of sycamore bark; the project is the illustrated family tree for the clan of La Montagnes of the south-central U.S. with roots in Mexico. The American sycamore, Platanus occidentalis, remains dear to me because much of my first dozen years was spent beneath a sycamore at the edge of Marion County, Indiana, where a twisted, seemingly-mile-high sycamore shaded our pretend games out by the swings, and down along the White River grew hollow sycamores on a floodplain that now hosts a strip of stores. I wonder if the tree that I imagined housing a pay telephone still stands back there beyond a blacktop alleyway.

A favorite writer I remember on the topic of American trees was Rutherford Platt, whose A Pocket Guide to Trees : How to Identify and Enjoy Them I keep in the original paperback copy with pages warped and rippling from falling out from under my arm into Sugar Creek in southern Indiana when I walked there with the family as a young teen. Of the sycamore Mr. Platt wrote:
     "You know it at a glance by the white, purple, and gray patchwork of its bark. Upper trunk and lower  part of limbs may be smooth, bright white all over. This dramatic bark has unforgettable splendor. On a clear winter day, when lighted by brightness from snow, it is like nothing else in treedom. ... Sycamore grows only the inner layer of its bark every year. This living bark becomes white on exposure to the sun, and the bark of previous years, not growing, and therefore not expanding to fit around the bigger trunk, is forced off the tree in patches. In effect, the tree is bursting its breeches. Varied tints are due to the number of years' exposure of the older layers before they fall off. Sunlight turns bark chemicals gold, brown and blue-gray."
According to Rutherford Platt the state of Indiana is the headquarters of the American sycamore.

Many years ago, before and after I came to live in Minnesota I used to visit Owen County, Indiana where my friend the librarian Gisela Hersch (Gisela Schluter Terrell) lived on several acres of deep hardwoods not far from the town of Spencer. As we swept along the local gravel roadways in one small car or other I became filled with imagery of riverbanks sewn in place by coiling sycamore and wrote the following poem, titled Entering a Midwestern Capital:

Indiana! Indiana! One remembers knits of twiggage,
redness drained away in sky that vanished
uphill as the road was lowering, unfocusing the eye from
how the mud broke off in gulches or exulted up in trees that grasped the sudden uplands.
Indiana curved forever supple, around
its rivers that kept beveling the knolls that stood compelling them.
The outswept seats of weed thickened into
that wickerwork of pillars and their racks of leaf
but billowed with a roar beyond, off to the evening’s droop of shade
caught in a forest resurging, flaunting
the hard holds of the beech and ironwood, tautly hefting their limbs,
and sycamore, coiling in patchwork—oak, reaching elbows rustic in fractured silver.

A landscape painting in watercolor followed, sold in Wilmar, Minnesota some years ago but reproduced on the card available here at
The original painting had the poem inscribed on it; the card image does not.

My gratitude will go with me to the end of my days for the outdoor privileges I had in youth, spent in open spaces both in Indiana and in Ontario's Algoma District, a little bit of it virginal forest, most of it regenerating from agricultural frenzies that included grazing and lumbering. Seeing the loss of these places or their puncturing by new houses or other installations in support of an ever-larger network of human beings, and learning of the atrocities the American industrial mode of life in its insistence on spreading itself till water depletion and climate catastrophe impose their own limits, I have turned into a cynical middle-ager. I think that  all manner of modern societies are a curse to themselves, each other and the earth in how they assert that their control of land, resources and other people deserve only to grow lest they be treated as of no account, no matter the psychological and physical damage and deprivation to countless creatures, not just human. It ought to be so obvious that having large families and no limits on fertility bring shortage and warfare, for example, or that sulfide mining will spill over into a whole watershed, or that meanness begets meanness and retaliation, or that orgies of fossil-fuel burning do nothing but uphold the legitimacy and glory of that fossil-fuel technology (aircraft, trucks, heavyweight cars, etc.) and guarantee that people will go on in their dependence on it till the supporting economy for enough of it fails. What can we dispense with and what can't we, you would think everybody would be asking themselves by now. I sit back in my trust that what we won't resolve will sooner or later overwhelm us with our own excesses issuing from too many people taking too much out of a finite earth and infesting it with our own structures, even so that for an unfortunate many the world seems to offer no place to be oneself; all they detect near at hand is a wasteland.

It was breathtaking a few months ago to draw some conclusions from 'Whatever Happened to "The Good Old Days"?', an NPG (Negative Population Growth) Forum Paper by Chris Clugston. This essay is about the diminishing supply of 'NNRs' or nonrenewable natural resources, the "finite and non-replenishing fossil fuels, metals and nonmetallic minerals" that make up the raw materials of all our products, the stuff of all our urban and industrial structures and the main energy sources for our industrialized way of life. The NNRs are all in some way extracted from the earth, and Clugston goes on to show that despite recycling and reuse, conservation, materials substitution, efficiency measures and all manner of invention and innovation, annual rates at which NNRs are drawn upon rise without let-up as urban civilization keeps expanding. The essay is loaded with charts, figures, graphs and statistics with two pages of bibliography for anyone wanting to do an investigation on one's own.

Comparing historical prosperity with trends ever since 1960 Clugston makes his case that we are, amid the entirety of NNRs which he lists alphabetically, from bauxite to zinc, moving from an era of  'robustly increasing' to 'faltering' prosperity. Moreover in recent decades the diminishing quality of the NNRs we are able to access prevails over the ingenuity called for so the supply can meet the demand in terms of price. Global demand for NNRs, of course, knows no limit. In terms of material living standards he projects four scenarios through the decades up to 2050: a decline following a temporary improvement in which 'human ingenuity prevails over continuously decreasing NNR quality', versus a temporary reprieve, his likeliest scenario, in which 'decreasing NNR quality and human ingenuity remains at a standoff.' Otherwise we face either a continued decline in which 'geopolitical and geological barriers to currently accessible NNRs...are not overcome' or accelerated decline which is mostly a matter of the same outcome happening sooner.

Could it be possible for more and more people to see past the gloom and inevitably-compounding tragedy in any of these scenarios to welcome the changing of regimes back to what worked better for longer? It may be that a person has to dwell in a situation removed from the rising risk of, as my friend Dave Heinz calls it, the four horsemen, plague, famine, war and disease, to take any kind of welcoming attitude. Again and again I recoil from any prospect of horrors because I can imagine what is so far beyond my experience. But proceeding to what might await beyond mass societal and economic collapse, utopias come to mind. I can also imagine that forgotten societies of long ago may have paralleled forms of social organization that will arise in a future when the earth and surviving peoples are freed of control by mega-industry and its delusions about the viability of perpetual growth, if not that specific venture's growth, that of a specific industry. We can at best think large, of cycles of boom and collapse, and that everything has its heyday, decline and sometimes a rebirth...

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Mutterings and Tributes: What Must Have Been and Next Had Better Be

In 'Jutland,' the first part of Alice Munro's story The Love of a Good Woman, a reader can re-enter the era of the North American small town as it was in the farming heartland some sixty years ago. Walking across town or out of town was more commonplace, and so were kitchen gardens, home-canned food and formal meals around a table. Town folk walked home to noon dinners that some woman who tended the kitchen had cooked and dished out. I think I still catch whiffs of a few of those cook pots.

What I love about Alice Munro's characters is that they all, almost always, speak or act out of a sequence of memory and feeling, bold or subtle, clearly put and essential to the narrative, sometimes drawn from an anecdote tying back to earlier times. If a character acts on impulse, the story up to that moment has laid forth the preconditions so the impulse comes across as natural. The narrative begins to seem as interwoven as a normal person's thought process, even so that other stories unknown to the author seem to beg to be revealed with a like degree of detail, weighing of risk, surmise and defensive posturing leading to the considered outcome that we either already know or don't know.

In 'Jutland' three school-aged boys are walking into town from near the river where they've discovered a drowned body in a sunken car, belonging to the local optometrist. Alice Munro has already explained the boys in relation to each other: "...yet they hardly thought of each other as friends. They would never have designated someone as a best friend or a next-best friend, or joggled people around in these positions, the way girls did. Any one of at least a dozen boys could have been substituted for any one of these three, and accepted by the others in exactly the same way."

On the way downtown to the police they meet the victim's wife in her yard tending the forsythia bush.
     "Here you are," she said. "Take these home to your mothers. It's always good to see the forsythia,       it's the very first thing in the spring." She was dividing the branches among them. "Like all Gaul," she
      said. "All Gaul is divided into three parts. You must know about that if you take Latin."

     "We aren't in high school yet," said Jimmy whose life at home had readied him, better than the others,
     for talking to ladies.

     "Aren't you?" she said. "Well, you've got all sorts of things to look forward to. Tell your mothers to
     put them in lukewarm water.  Oh, I'm sure they already know that. I've given you branches that aren't
     all the way out yet, so they so they should last and last." ...

     The forsythia gave them something to think about. The embarrassment of carrying it, the problem of
     getting rid of it. Otherwise, they would have to think about Mr. Willens and Mrs. Willens. How she
     could be busy in her yard and he could be drowned in his car. Did she know where he was or did she
     not? It seemed that she couldn't. Did she even know that he was gone? She had acted as if there was
     nothing wrong, nothing at all, and when they were standing in front of her this had seemed to be the
     truth. What they knew, what they had seen, seemed actually to be pushed back, to be defeated, by her
     not knowing it."

In Part IV, titled 'Lies' the scene has long since shifted to a farm where Enid, a trained nurse for a dying young mother, sits up for a whole night in the breathless realization of what almost certainly had happened to Mr. Willens: "She could not lie down in Mrs. Quinn's room. She sat in the kitchen for hours. It was an effort for her to move, even to make a cup of tea or go to the bathroom. Moving her body shook up the information that she was trying to arrange in her head and get used to. She had not undressed, or unrolled her hair, and when she brushed her teeth she seemed to be doing something laborious and unfamiliar...

     'She got up stiffly and unlocked the door and sat on the porch in the beginning light. Even that move
     jammed her thoughts together. She had to sort through them again and set them on two sides...

     'The cows hadn't cropped all the weeds. Sopping wet, they brushed against her stockings. The path
     was clear, though, under the riverbank trees, those willows with the wild grape hanging on to them like
     monkeys' shaggy arms. Mist was rising so that you could hardly see the river. You had to fix your
     eyes, concentrate, and then a spot of water would show through, quiet as water in a pot. There must
     be a moving current, but she could not find it.

     'Then she saw a movement, and it wasn't in the water. There was a boat moving. Tied to a branch, a
     plain old rowboat was being lifted very slightly, lifted and let fall. Now that she had found it, she kept
     watching it, as if it could say something to her. And it did. It said something gentle and final.

     'You know. You know."

This week-end I was crossing the meadow south of home when I saw and remembered a plant I had drawn and painted in my late teens, the fringed loosestrife. The name 'loosestrife' is full of the suggestion of peace, tensions ended, strife loosened, either by the powers of the herb or the setting it belongs to. An old source cites loosestrife as having powers to quiet oxen at their ploughing by driving away gnats and flies, with the same properties availing to houses if the plant is burnt within them. The notion came to rest in my mind when I saw the face-down corollas in the grass, as golden as many an evening cloud, and considered the process of Enid, the protagonist in The Love of a Good Woman, in her decision-making as to her role in the wake of a probable murder. What she has heard is all talk, just the way we often learn of things, and then we're sitting off to one side, privately or not assigning probable cause. But she is the only one given the insight, via her patient drifting at the edge of death, and though she feels intensely that so grave a crime deserves punishment she also sees around her what else goes begging, even before the onset of her patient's sickness.

There seem such obvious, large-scale solutions to huge issues that challenge us at large, but mostly impeded by politics, religious difference and a lack of cooperation. Why, I wonder as Israel and Palestine accuse each other and attack with bombs and rockets, do we hear of nobody in charge talking about the need to agree NOT TO EXPAND? This doesn't just mean territorial expansion. If immigration and birth rates were stabilized especially within Israel but outside its borders too, real security could be sought in terms of adequate land area, water, etc. But all factions blindly seem to go on in the assumption that safety lies in numbers adding up so collectively their own sides are ever bigger beasts. But as they grow, so will the number and complexity of their problems.

As well-told stories illustrate, a problem is a situation rather than just a condition due an if-this, then-that response. The process of breaking down troubles deserves as broad as possible a scope, even with one person like Enid sitting up through a night seeing what she in partnership with one other person can best do, or else with a family or committees and task forces. Often there are visual  schemes that emerge before our eyes, between which answers suggest themselves. Of course we have memory.

Family memory comes to hand; when we think of what to do we first, often, turn to what a parent or elder relative would have done, say, or another, even a younger legendary relative. Family virtue and pathology determine the course of so many events, though if we're of basic good will we'll look for the most community-minded ways in which people coped unless, of course, the straits we're in preclude that. People are most often proud of their family, no matter the member who had to be kept out of sight or the suspected misdoings.

Here is where I introduce the illustrated family tree, homage in visual, decorative form to the folk we came from. There are their names and a flow of limbs and branches a little like a waterway, indicating who was most or least prolific, who bore a nickname and who was nearest whom. Extra details characterizing that clan may go between or beyond the branchwork. Choice of a type of tree symbolic of the family is encouraged. Why not give them something to look at that spins off a whole flock of different conversations, even beyond this generation?

Kearney Family Tree from 2013

Friday, June 27, 2014

Speeding Summer Days, Bound in Tradition, and Noted, Illustrated, and Sung

I ask myself every day if I will ever enjoy regular sales of my paintings, prints, cards and stationery sets through the kind of full-time promotion that art marketing advocates urge for success in the business of art. But especially in the flowering and bird nesting season I'm spread too unevenly around the countryside to be self-supporting with my sales. I'm coming and going from a call center, seeing what's out the windows on the weekdays as I stick to a schedule that more and more often exhausts me. Maybe I fish too much, though I love fishing. But my priorities have taken shape based on the full package of zest and insecurities, day-to-day caution and a German sort of compulsion to meet my own standards of thoroughness; I figure I can at best do what I am doing till, bit by bit or all at once, my body and/or the surrounding world fails me.

This humid and uproariously green May-become-June have brought more subjects to my attention than I can currently cope with, but there continue to be tomorrow, next week-end, the days left out within the current week and all the times ahead. An adventure I had intended on and followed through was to find a Connecticut warbler in the Sax Zim Bog, a designated important bird area just a few miles northeast of where I live. Locating the song that resounded from a territorial adult bird out the open windows of the car was none too hard as I rolled along where these uncommon warblers had nested in the most recent years. The song led me briskly out of the car, into rubber boots and over a flooded ditch into a forest completely upholstered with mosses, all beset with pores of rain and snow-melt probably safe for a person to drink, and in little armadas along my way, more lady's slippers than I had ever seen before. All proved to be the variety known as stemless, occurring in cream tones more or less pink-tinged like cheeks or noses, or else uniformly pink as what hangs down from a man.

Back from where the lady's slippers flourished one Connecticut warbler held to a branch about twenty-five feet up in a tamarack--not skipping incessantly from perch to perch as the warblers do on their migration, when most people see them--and in due time I sorted him out by the long yellow taper of his body, almost to the tip of his tail feathers, after minutes of peering straight up with the binoculars. He would peer at me sometimes, strange invader that I surely was. Our friends the birds, both the common kinds and the hard-to-find, watch us at least as often as we watch them. All manner of people-pressure is believed or proven to stress birds. But the Connecticut warbler was, I trust, largely unworried since his nest was elsewhere, probably lower and further back in the bog judging by his hourly disappearances that way, and I was either pacing, stumbling or standing just below his singing-tree or prowling back in the other direction nearer the road where I'd first heard his song in its three parts, emphatic with avian certitude. It struck me what an object of fascination I may have seemed because of the whirl of mosquitoes that beset me as I stood below him; I saw him crane his head, grey all the way to chest level which was black-infused, the eye neatly ringed in white, to gather in all possible meaning. Mosquitoes where available are a likely part of every warbler's diet.

I learned from my late daddy's old bird book, the Audubon Bird Guide to Eastern Land Birds by Richard H. Pough, published by Doubleday and Company in 1946, that here in the U.S.-Canadian border region and some ways northward the Connecticut warbler favors the black spruce/tamarack bogs for nesting but that further to the northwest where this warbler is most numerous it gravitates to uplands full of poplar. Though 1946 was a long time ago now I believe many of the habitat preferences given in this handbook special to me for its descriptive text hold true today. Despite its name, bestowed on one or more specimens found during migration, the Connecticut is primarily a nesting bird of Canada.

Follow-up from finding the lady's slippers led me away toward home, through damp meadows overgrown with alder and willow, back through more of that subarctic type of bog that lay open to sun. Here was a profusion of kalmia polifolia or bog laurel along the edges of overflowing ditches, everywhere in pink blossom. The petals being joined at the base, the corolla or blossom has an especially unified look with scalloped rim and long white stamens and pistil. The budding flowers are nut-shaped and fluted like a trademark moulded candy or ornate button.

Another spring arrival nearer the house was our local wild iris versicolor, the blue flag, and subsequently in dryer meadow open to view from a passing car, the orange upthrusts of Indian paintbrush all in a swath over maybe an acre. Because I first saw this uncommon plant, which like the lady's slipper is a parasite on certain neighboring plants or soil bacteria, near the Great Divide in Wyoming, I think of it as a westerner in our country and am right away reminded of our scattered magpies, western relatives of the crow and raven. In our part of Minnesota the magpie claims its easternmost home ground, the individuals that we see much more isolated than they are in the mountain states to the west.

From certain life forms where the eye is led its gaze widens to places way, way beyond, where we felt or expect we would feel freer; we were and could again be visitors there. The mountain west is that kind of a place to me. My most recent enjoyments have included the short stories of Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, further popularized in movies. Music, silenced but faintly recalled for its harmonizing of the desolate, the ruined and the sweet, is the undertone of her story 'Them Old Cowboy Songs' whose foreword reads: "There is a belief that pioneers came into the country, homesteaded, lived tough, raised a shoeless brood and founded ranch dynasties. Some did. But many more had short runs and were quickly forgotten."

This story is about newlyweds still in their teens, gone alone onto the Wyoming prairies to begin family life in echoing poverty, out of range of their elder relatives' and acquaintances' superciliousness and judgmental bearing. Archie is an orphan born in Ireland and adopted out, Rose the daughter of a drunken teamster who carries freight from the railroad stops and a mother who is 'grey with some wasting disease.' Archie learned old lilts and lyrics in his earliest years and carries all of them in memory wherever he goes, given to sharing and hoarding songs new to him. Harsh fate separates this couple forever through his need of finding faraway paying work, Rose's pregnancy which must be kept a secret, and the waterless range where she is abandoned as Archie tames horses, then rounds up cattle through a winter's blizzards.

What I make and sell comes to me, absorbed all in a rush from days spent among these lingering star bursts of evolution, with the knowledge in mind that so many forebears in this country were similarly bedazzled, depicting as they could the subjects I find there, or bundling them into song, and I will never know them but by the heritage we drew upon and sang. Many of them faded and died in the economic hardship that goes with valuing most what we feel could never have a price. But all the assorted, clashing types of people who've co-developed the industrialized world are ones to whom I owe my small living.

A Spruce Grouse Comes Promenading

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

From North-Central North America - A Bird and a Rugged Flower, Given from Year to Year

Just a week or two ago spring hadn't come so nearly nose to nose with summer. We needed our jackets and the grass was greening only where it had absorbed the most water. Green had not overtaken the height of the woods apart from the somber evergreens but could be seen below on all kinds of shoots. My memory of those couple weeks or so of early to mid-May seems to have knit like a tapestry of a spring countryside that I'd lately felt I might miss ever witnessing like this, phase by phase, because a new regime of climate would have dried and baked these border-region lands the way we saw happen two years ago, or I'd have been situated too far into a city or suburb.

For three weeks or so this rainy May we were visited by an assortment of sparrows, some kinds come to stay and nest in meadow margins or woods, and some on their way as far as the 'land of little sticks' verging on the tundra. White-crowned sparrows are subarctic-nesting songbirds known to North Americans who pay attention to migratory sparrows from coast to coast. I recall them as ground-gleaners under our bird feeders in central Indiana through the freezing months of the 1970s, on snow or bald ground, and knew their short song, with melodious notes withering into husky ones higher on the scale, like the shredding tops of herbage tattered in the frost. But in Minnesota we are central enough on the continent to also see the Harris' sparrow in spring or fall, a temporary regular coming and going from breeding territory on the tundras, through the prairies to their south. Where I grew up, between Indiana and Ontario at Lake Superior's eastern end, we were too far east for the Harris'.

They foraged all around the house on the soggy lawn last week and the week before, a big sparrow with grey cheeks and pink bill, the face, throat and top of the head splotched black as if someone has thrown a bottleful of black ink head-on at the bird, yet it just goes about its seed-plucking at ground level in the knowledge that for now nothing else matters. I would hear the song, which will always seem like the first line of a song without a finish, from low in the shade of spruces that form a northern wind-break.

To the south in a patch of mixed woods, second-growth like so much woods, low with pooling rain and meltwater beneath the aspens and firs, I found a stubby few specimens of a flower like an aster or fleabane, just getting started with a tuft of drab florets having a greenish eye hidden in whitish. Stiff little leaves angled out from the stem like leather, each cured on top with a lustre of green. I thought: I've seen this plant in a photo in one of the handbooks. Five minutes later the name surfaced out of some botanical photo or other I had seen in years of paging back and forth among similar wild plants: coltsfoot. There are four kinds of coltsfoot, or Petasites, included in Britton and Brown's three-volume An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States and Canada, so that I'd have to wait for large basal leaves to emerge alongside the wands after they had gotten taller and mostly finished their flowering. Yesterday was the day to wander back over there in rubber boots, since the snowmelt and ooze from the saturated soils lingers in the open and under the trees, nurturing a whirl of mosquitoes not to mention a busy crop of ticks. What we have is what I'd suspected: Arrowleaf Sweet Coltsfoot or Petasites sagittatus.

Open country today is so often overrun by introduced weeds including things at one time seen as useful in the garden or for livestock forage, yet our native specialist plants still hold out in their traditional ranges, not always on public land but on private land like that down the road, in far-flung rural tracts over-browsed by the deer whose numbers once were checked by wolves or pumas or grizzlies in an era of greater plant and animal diversity. The multitudinous flowering plants have been losing out to a degree little known as a result of so much grazing.

In a landscape that some call wilderness, depopulated a generation or so ago, there will be a non-human community trying via each species' own life cycle to find its way into an inclusive balance. Walking and wheeling my way through this part of St. Louis County I've been surprised both by what I do and don't find. Probably I haven't covered enough acres yet. But in commemoration of this majestic spring amid the swamps I decided I would put two hallmark finds, a visitor or bird of passage and a wild native lurker from the plant world, into one design in my usual mixed-media, primarily watercolor. This will be on stationery soon, nameless to the sender and recipient unless they care to look it up, but storied if they'd like to ask for a story or two.


Unfinished hand-illustration of Harris' sparrow and the arrowleaf coltsfoot. To see related work please go to

Monday, May 5, 2014

A Newest Questing Bird - Finding the Garganey, a Stray from Asia

In my art it's been the longest-sought birds, special to a kind of habitat, that I've wanted to paint--because I went all that distance on all those forays to try and find the bird, and on finding it had to linger indefinitely to see its most obvious, its subtle and tucked-away markings, all that I could see in the time I had. Sometimes too I did birds I had never expected to see even if the habitat where I found them was theirs. The drawing and detailing of that bird was the thrill of discovery, through eyes and ears, all pulled out on paper, in wet and dry media in a blended effect that seemed best for bringing back that bird in a setting as true as I could conjure. But what I'd make of the garganey, seen on April 27th at the first corner off the main route leading north from the Crex Meadows Visitor Center outside Grantsburg, Wisconsin is less likely to be a painting, though I wouldn't say absolutely it won't be.

The garganey is a Eurasian teal like our blue-winged, green-winged and cinnamon teal in North America. The teal are small ducks of creeks, puddles and shallow lakes. The garganey in North America is a repeated vagrant that courts and shares feeding ground, as this one did in Wisconsin, with native teal like the blue-winged.

When I drove southward from Minnesota last wet and blustery Sunday to find this garganey, a species entirely new to me, I knew I would encounter a lot of other birders. As I drove, the little car entered ever more rain and slued about in the winds of mid-continent and of neighboring, much bigger vehicles. I was impatient with excitement. At Crex Meadows conditions were of the harshest kind found in spring, with the exception of spring snowstorms, for viewing birds; we all stayed in our cars unless a certain bird ID could only be made by stepping out. I rolled to and fro over the same stretches of hardpan road gone to muck, wondering at a clunk-clunk-clunk sounding from the right rear tire. The wipers churned, raindrops rolled on the glass, and as I kept turning around in pull-outs or U turns I grew increasingly dizzy. I blamed a coffee and an American-style frosted cinnamon roll for that discomfort, like a kind of motion sickness.

A man I had met once before was staked out in his little car just a few steps above what's termed the Erickson Flowage, one of the diked canals that the state of Wisconsin maintains for aquatic wildlife; there, he said, was where the garganey had been earlier this morning, foraging with a couple of blue-winged teal. In an hour or so the garganey flew in with two or more blue-winged teal companions and afforded intimate looks, while it drifted seemingly unbothered by the nearness of stopped cars with drivers discreetly sheltered and enclosed. I stole out and around to the trunk of my car to bring out my spotting scope and beamed it on the bird. Because the vertigo by then was attempting a take-over I may have looked a little drunken to the other drivers, even as the shivers were getting hold of me. I wished I had worn something with a hood and was glad of a pair of knit gloves that live year-round in the car.

Not much later I vomited out the door of the car onto the road, a first vomit in twenty or so years. I found it rather rich to be throwing up at the scene of a life bird species still calmly about its business in the waterway below. Having seen the exquisite body markings of the garganey through the scope I craved a look at its open wings but dared not spoil the scene for others including the ducks by any approach on foot. When the ducks eventually rose to fly on their own they were facing all of us, so I got a glimpse of pale grey wing surface high up on the outer side. By now I was so dizzy I could hardly bear to sit up in the driver's seat. Grantsburg, I thought, had an urgent care but I wasn't precise on how to find it. For lack of any better idea, not in my sharpest state of mind, I called 911 for assistance rather than trouble any of the other parked birders. On two calls to 911 I asked for an escort if possible rather than an actual ambulance, though in the next few minutes accepted my first-ever ambulance ride, since an escort seemed unheard-of when I asked the first responder for one. I might if allowed have flopped fish-like on my own onto the gurney but was helped aboard by my rescuers. All kinds of recent events have taught me to be in awe of emergency responders, who are a varied lot of individuals just as artists are and no doubt include some artists. Trained rescuers have their protocols. I've yet to receive the bill for the deductible but expect it will include a sum for my little ride of two to three miles.

I was checked out that night as a healthy adult female with norovirus. I got sick again, much more dramatically, inside the van of the emergency-care nurse who drove me the couple of blocks to the Wood River Motel for the night. But that night's sleep, Zofran gels and a delicious can of 7-Up quelled the symptoms for the time being and I was by next morning back out to the T of two roads where the old Prius had stayed parked for the night. I was kindly given a ride there by the motel proprietor. The same poor visibility reigned in that ongoing tempest of a winter that does not want to let go its hold on this north central region; it lambasted the few cars of Monday morning birders hoping for a sighting to start the week. Few to no ducks dabbled within seeing range and I thought better than to step forth into that wet cold again.

There had been little to no poetry to this particular quest, but rather determination, surmise and restraint rewarded by luck. So I do not feel a painting being born of the two-day escapade, but look at it with a half-and-half mixture of satisfaction plus regret that I could not sit up and await an opportunity to see my quarry lift off in the opposite direction and show me his beautiful silver and green wings. That would have made the experience whole. But as other birders worthy of the utmost respect have said, that's birding, which at its best includes common courtesy. Maybe the garganey will do a spring sojourn at Crex and I will get by there again en route to the big city.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Living / Working at the Pace of Metabolism

All the coming week is supposed to be chilly with a lot of clouds. So much snow melted last week that the footing while I walked into normally damp woods was most uncertain, my knee-high boots almost filling while I wavered and reeled across from spot to spot of ground uplifted over the flood-pools.  I was headed for a patch of spruce bog that must have been left there, an intact patch of old growth, when logging took out other hardwoods or conifers that surrounded it. Not only were there slush, flooding and an indeterminate depth to each, but fallen trees lurked below ground where only my feet could find them. Every step or so was a save from plunging at least one arm underwater. I was carrying that same unfinished watercolor I keep talking about, the spruce grouse, and the water would have been numbing.

People in general--except I guess for a rare, not very sociable set of us--seem depressed by this kind of day, the leftover snow exuding its raw breath, saplings and treetops restless with wind-shiver--never mind the woodcock whirring pale orange out of hiding on old leaves, first baby leaves of wild strawberry, buds fattening on most branches. It has been a serious old-fashioned winter. Still I felt more alive than on any other day of the whole past week, which would be true to my own character.

It's natural to wish setbacks on any part of the business world and government that works to deny these nooks of wilderness the right to survive and propagate the plants that sew them together and the creatures at home there. Some of us keep account of the trends that threaten the well-being of wild territory we'd like to help conserve, and many of those trends are wrapped up in the knot of technologies that speed up all artificial, commercial processes as if their perpetual growth were everybody's dream. What happens when we run out of growing space? How universally will we know we've used it up? I have to trust the earth will know and will react, lapsing into its own episodes of dormancy and spurts of violence to re-balance moisture, temperature, or soil compactness. But that people at large will ever moderate what they flush away, cover up and use up, and how briskly they reproduce in accordance with the life cycles of everything else in our world, the way it seems only a few aboriginal people ever approached doing, seems utopian. What gives me hope is any evidence, even if theoretical, that conserving wild lands proves obligatory for us and our descendents to survive on earth. Commercial operations and our own proclivities could mess up our own support system so completely that all we'll have left is the wild, which, with any amount of vision, we'll learn to work with and blend into in all of our designing.

However, as one of those allies of swamp thickets hidden from sight of all but wild animals I say I will be one of them and carry my load over my own shoulders--motorized means bring only filth, expense and fatness--and will keep up my comfort through the heat of my own body when I go practicing my choice vocation. It was here, chilly-fingered but clad in layered clothing that included snow pants normal to the skiing season, sitting on a parka against the damp, that I attempted a little detail work, all about dead wood. I wanted the dead wood of spruce, especially to celebrate the adaptation to bitter cold through miniaturization of all plants including the wet-loving black spruce in a spruce bog. The season was early and conditions too cold and damp for working much with watercolor; it would dry too slowly, but I'd craved getting out there on a trial visit. A friend's husband long ago called this pneumonia weather. In any case I could see, a little better than before, what I still needed to do when the sun's been at work for us for a while longer.

No birds or beasts made themselves apparent as I crouched. I'm normally poised for surprise by warm-blooded kin while I'm in those secret places. While at the laundromat earlier I had read about prehistoric times especially to our west, in Roger A. Caras' Source of the Thunder: the Biography of a California Condor, ©1970 Little, Brown of Boston. I encountered this passage about the bird which is a survivor from times before the last ice ages and has been, to the extent possible, safeguarded in patches of California, Arizona and adjoining desertlands, a little fringe of the American expanse it once occupied, against extinction. The condor was long ago widespread in North America and was, Mr. Caras says, the thunderbird of native Indian legend. The Indians of our region depicted the thunderbird in their art.

     Several times she lifted her wings, spread her tail, and felt for a hopeful, even encouraging current of air. There was no such encouragement to be had. Finally she could take the strain no longer. The demands of her parenthood were too great. She lifted her wings straight up, reaching with them nearly five feet above her back. She extended the feathers of her tail, elevated it as well, straightened her legs, and pushed down hard against the perch. Then, in one coordinated movement, she brought her tail and both wings down sharply, shoving with all her might at the same time. Her full twenty-two pounds were instantly airborne and as she started to lose precious altitude she raised her wings again.
      ...After the initial twelve beats though, she was able to glide for a thousand yards, then she beat twelve more strokes to gain altitude. By this time she had passed over the ridge to where a rising thermal from the steep wall beyond surged beneath her. She rocked slightly and then lifted. She banked a few degrees to the left to adjust her direction, caught the thermal again, and curved off in the most magnificent soaring flight to be seen in the world of birds today. 

     When she flapped, the whooshing sound her wings made could be heard fully a half-mile away. Now, in soaring flight, at ever increasing altitude, the sound was less and was heard by no one but her. It was like a soft wind in a pine tree. Forty percent of each wing was open slot area, finely adjustable to her minutest flight requirements. Her extraordinarily long primary feathers, each an elastic and flexible wing in its own right, turned on their axes and were thrust automatically forward at a slight angle. She was moving at a speed of thirty-five miles an hour and still accelerating. It would be half an hour at least before she would move her wings from the horizontal again.

The whole day served to remind me that movement paced at the speed of a searching hand or a foreleg striding, or a raptor soaring home, may be ultimately the most justified--that slow and steady like the tortoise may win the race, because whatever burns the hottest at the mid-levels where we live tends to burn itself out, and so the tremulous water will be left alone attracting whatever grotesque or camouflaged creature comes to drink it or enters it to get across. The meek will probably inherit the earth.

                                                Labrador tea holds its freeze-dried leaves into the spring.Subarctic travelers, carrying as few provisions as possible, have for centuries steeped the leaves for hot tea.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Holding Out in the Background - Can we Divorce from Fetishes tied with Crude Oil?

In isolation (momentary) someone says : am I the only person in this whole room/station/store, etc. who cares what's happening? though it seems of no consequence to care.

Yet it can only be changing--awareness of the unstable climate that's challenging all our prospects. In the seasons, what are we about to start seeing? (Could the forecasts of climate catastrophe still end up mistaken?) If I could declare seasonal patterns I've most noticed, they would be the long autumns that linger into what would have been winter months, in particular 2011/2012, the winter that barely took hold at all. January near Ely, Minnesota, whose winters are traditionally of the frigid sub-polar kind that build up a snowpack, exhibited the merest bare ground with cold glitter on it as I worked in or out of the parked car, laying in the multi-toned canopy of spruce that would shelter my favorite so far, the strutting spruce cock, whose illustration is still in stages of finishing two years later; it awaits the reappearance of bare forest floor these weeks with our ever-enduring fields of drifts. In April 2012 a visit to the Canadian shores of Lake Superior further evidenced the winter that had never been, with forest duff as dry as the lining of a scarecrow's pocket in a sun-withered corn patch, last year's ferns standing brown like the cornstalks under the firs and cedars. Lake Superior itself reveals boulders and rock ledges year after year that were always covered in water; this is attributed to faster evaporation following from markedly shorter seasons of ice cover. Last fall the water was a bit higher.

The winter of 2012/2013 was closer to the old norms, with recurrent snows and a generous snow pack, sub-freezing weeks and snowfalls showing up even into May, so that teens and young adults exclaimed at what a cold winter this was but the older ones said no, this was actually typical of what once was; it wasn't particularly brutal.

Now we have this long defiant snow season, when the influence of the North Pole is skewed way down over North America, and temperatures this far north in late March demand a parka hood or knitted 'tuque' for a person's head if you're walking a road some mornings or evenings. This was my first winter I've ever ached deep inside my back for several days running; suggestion was that it came from lung-burn borne of heavy breathing along the road and ski trail when the days never neared 0 Fahrenheit and northwesterly winds skated over field after field. Eastern Europeans and Alaskans meanwhile utterly lacked any of the protracted freezing required to maintain Olympic ski runs or sled trekking. Here in northern Minnesota between the snow-shrouded meadows as we peel off our coats we're asking each other what June this year might look like or whether there might not be much growing season, though we're not really worrying since we've never needed to before.

Since recent popular advisories, best-known among which may be the Rolling Stone piece titled "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math" have had their chance to be shared and digested, it was most of all fascinating to me to attend the hearing in Duluth on March 20th for a proposed expansion of an oil pipeline, Enbridge Energy's Alberta Clipper which would cross this state's northern third. The line is taking heavy crude oil down from what once was pristine taiga forest in northern Alberta, into the Upper Midwestern states where Superior, Wisconsin will be a hub for distribution to refineries eastward and south. At the same time the scientists studying the dilemma with regard to carbon release point to the requirement for our own survival that we leave all possible petroleum reserves in the ground or else push earth's climate into a regime of tumult and extremes that will take down civilization.

It was later reported that opinions at the hearing were about half for, half against the plan to increase the existing pipeline's shipping capacity from 570,000 to 800,000 barrels of oil a day. While I sat in the hotel ballroom among the 300 or so who were there to listen or testify I heard four or five testimonies opposing the project on the basis either of hazard to water due to leaks or spills or to the climate. Most emphatic were the president and CEO of a local solar energy company who called the Alberta tar sands project 'a lethal carbon bomb' and the young lady who spoke after him who, in her thin high voice, avowed that 'a barrel shipped is a barrel burned.' Each of these testifiers asked the company in separate wording: how do you react to knowing that?

For any veterans of civil disobedience, all that I witnessed at this hearing probably seemed unremarkable. But as if I were listening to a radio play, I was struck by the heard drama of those two testimonies, each offset by a numbed silence on the part of Enbridge's panel of engineers and attorneys. The gap must have sparked the question all over among those seated: what are they gonna say to that?? What do job production and sports and music sponsorship which are credited to Enbridge matter against a carbon outflow that, sector by sector, causes the huge linked economy to fold and come undone? And helps drive whole regions into mega-drought and food insecurity or outright famine? Then, just as we many of us were beginning to formulate our versions of the answer, the attorney in tones of pained patience, reading or not reading from a prepared rejoinder, said that the people of America have said that they want oil and gasoline in an increasing domestic supply to assure the supply of...whatever, name anything, etc. And so that determination for all these business-as-usual minds settles it; of course pipeline expansion is what we will do.

Petroleum pipelines and new mines, high-rises and new sports arenas, water diversion schemes and highway interconnections will continue burying and polluting soils that have given root to ourselves and more than ourselves as long as resources remain to do these things because none of us know how to quit at our investments, whatever we've made on our own or in partnerships. Our prehistoric ancestral societies' expansion schemes appear to have brought on die-offs and dispersals in so many cases where limits to growth were reached, in food terms especially. Weather that stunts and kills food crops is a direct threat to those of us living now. The Bible of my Christian forebears tells of the Tower of Babel, a legend borne out of Hebrew and Mesopotamian traditions in which people built a temple or ziggurat aimed into the heavens, based upon the assurance of a common language. But God somehow, exerting divine will through the nature of the peoples, decreed that the attainment of heaven was not to be. In The Greater Trumps, first published in 1932, the British theological novelist Charles Williams revealed through a character's vision a conception of the Tower of Babel as a linkage of hands:

"Somewhere, very vaguely, he would think that he saw in front of him, fashioned of the mist...the great Tower which reached almost out of sight, so loftily it grew up and then always--just as his dimmed eyes strained to see the rising walls--tottered and swayed and began in a horrible silence to fall apart, but never quite apart. It was raised by hands which, from within the rising walls, came climbing over, building themselves into a tower, thrusting those below them into place, fists hammering them down, so that the whole Tower was made up of layers of hands. But as it grew upward they changed; masonry below, thinner levels of masonry above, and, still above, masonry changing into hands, a few levels of moving hands, and (topmost of all) the busy working fists and fingers. And then a sudden spark of sunlight would fall on it from above and the fists would fall back out of sight, and the hands would disjoin, swiftly but reluctantly, holding on to each other till the ruin tore them apart, and the apparent masonry, as it was rent by some invisible force, would again change back into clutching and separating hands. They clung together fantastically; they shivered and writhed to avoid some principle of destruction that lurked within them,..."

Pricing for food, shelter and transport may start the undoing of the tower in our near future. If excess of sun, precipitation and ever-less petroleum-powered means to grow the gigantic grain crops a humanity of billions needs to cohere as a society become inevitable, why are we still building everyday cars so they will go above 80 miles per hour, and why are we still making and selling gasoline toys most of all bought and used by thrill riders? Because desperation was the only condition that ever broke people of their most wasteful joys. And even though the industry-based drive for conformity, ease and efficiency has herded the peoples of the earth into a tower of babble or a culture of interconnected mega-cities, many, many cherished differences and aching disparities have seen to it that we keep scattering, as well. Desperation due to an overburden of people will thin the ranks.

A thing I wonder each day is whether earth's loneliest, remotest, least-peopled places will in these times of difficulty retain their status as middle of nowhere. Will the most built-over lands on earth keep on being chosen places, hospitable to survivors of the future, because of amenities that linger there, or will just as many of them as not turn into wastelands? I wonder this because I live in a depopulated region, a farming area that still supports wolves, pine martens and fishers, my choice directly connected with the art I do. It's not urban art, nor hardly about what people cultivate, but about the living things that always took care of themselves, that I regret in so many cases are being crowded out of a homeland. Climate catastrophe threatens these plants and animals with losses or extinction, yet a collapse of our affairs may also mean salvation for some of the birds, beasts and wild herbs. I love the North with its icy breath as a consequence of my own history, but also because of the body efficiency it promotes for a robust type like myself--I burn up what I eat better than ever before--and the austerity shown by the plants and animals best adapted to these rocks and sands and peat bogs. The plant and animal trait I mean is the delicate set of adaptations to cold, poor soil, gales, mainly, including the capacity to grow slowly, like a 50-year old black spruce that looks little bigger than a long-handled mop upside down.

Austerity is found among plants and creatures of hot deserts as well, and they have their champions as they should. A citizen of cold deserts might, on immersion in southerly deserts of cacti and sage, learn to feel his or her inner kit fox and make a home there, but so far I want to speak for the little half-forsaken things that stand and quiver before a northerly wind a thousand or two miles closer to the Arctic. What will be our fate?

Boreal and Black-capped Chickadees of Canadian/U.S. Border Region and Northward