Monday, December 26, 2016

Brought Beyond Fear - Winter Introspections on a Christmas Eve

Air travel makes me feel that I contain shades of people from eons back in ancestral times and places, who make themselves felt in a kind of glee that we, here and now, aren't confined to ground travel at any speed, least of all walking, and that we're privileged to swoop away over the curvature of earth that only heavenly bodies daily pass across. I feel it in a swell of tears behind my eyes. Holidays are my normal excuse for air travel, so I'd have to admit that sheer wistfulness, excitement at the prospect of rejoining daughter, sister or cousins, precious members of a small far-flung family, causes this feeling. I think too that even for frequent long distance travelers a reluctance is a given, no matter what, at the prospect of leaving home; after all we might never come back. But the exhilaration of the hundred-miles-an-hour take-off  implies a rebellion over any patch of live ground we've stood on, the heritage of ancestors, where soil bacteria, mosses and algae and other tender organisms have continued to support us. We're dismissing it now, at the same time as we might explode in a failure of control at some level of the massive combustion all around us that's propelling this plunge into flight. The sentiments bubble and overflow, yet in the terribleness of what we're riding we might well be prepared to close our consciousness abruptly, succumb to whatever's next. This is how I experience take-off in a jet plane.

I've left the bog lands of the Lake Superior watershed for New York City in a cloud mass that gives the plane a shaky course as the last blue light of day dims blackish. The floor of clouds is characteristically a snowfield with upwellings that fade into night. There is a wilderness aspect to what view is possible out the window away from the travelers around me. They are watching wi-fi movies or are napping; most of them naturally I can't see. It's two hours to New York. Before I begin to notice any degree of tilt into our descent I observe white lights and red way below, a small plane at an altitude to be just skimming the cloud floor. The lights wink, and there's a blue one too. A plane? Or a snow plow? Are the clouds just at the level of some stretch of the Adirondacks that we are flying over, and there's a plow cleaning off a high piece of road engulfed in clouds? I feel as if I'm the only one in the world to be seeing this sight and trying to figure out who that is, doing what.

When you fly in a jet plane there comes at some stage into your descent a relaxation of sound, a sort of prolonged antiphon to the roar that must have been your ascent, and your ears themselves have dimmed with changes in air pressure. You've settled into a glide. In the grey floor out the window rents (gaps) are opening and lit structures pass glowingly near us. We sink into a course that takes in gem-work of night lighting, housing and businesses, all in elegant curves and geometrical arrays. It stretches on and on forward in a patterning that enhances the knowledge that this is Christmas, but that in another part of my mind speaks of infestation. Lights in this case are about triumphs in business and in life; motley colored lights are the emphatic Christmas reminders seen from the air. But America down beneath us is also taken over by ourselves, a most sophisticated life form that like all weeds and pests who have mastered their environment admit little or nothing about their own limits. Through more and more of these exurbs we pretend we can go on encrusting more of the ground and slurping more of the water that mix for our nourishment. And now that superstructure and enterprise is off-gassing into intense weather phenomena that ever oftener come back for us in escalating degrees of danger, but we go on making jet fuel and expanding the airports and hyping the economic growth that boosts ever more of the take-over. We have seen our own heyday by and large and we need to adjust to what comes after, which somehow needn't be our extinction, don't you want to think?.

                        Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY on Christmas Day 2016 - winter imitates spring

Like the skiers of the world and other snow-lovers I'm saying good-bye to winter landscapes, which are not going away but are changing to be muckier and greyer and browner. But tradition remains strong in each of us, tradition that celebrates the unchanging look of places, seasons, faces, whatever we cherish. On a night like this full of a sense of the festive, of a knowledge of precedent and of ways that have worked so long and well, isn't there no end of possibility? That the majority know what will need to stay in place to make way for a livable future, that the same majority will count, will succeed in the midst of all their places worthy of saving, and that all these thinkers and devotees and protectorates will, united, be enough to enable future generations who guard against the deadly temptation into perpetual, impossible growth...?

Looking at my own wall art where I live (including framed photos) I'm inclined to admit that winter was always the peak of the year to me, whether or not I'd dare to say it's my favorite season. Winter spins off spring, after all, and is the culmination of autumn. It's in my nature to discourage people from dismissing winter as a dread time and instead to see it for its glories--get out there, look long and look close even if you have to do it from a car. Two original artworks are these:

                         March: Red-winged Blackbird over Lake Pepin (Mississippi River) Blufflands 
                            original watercolor framed at 14 1/2 x 17 1/2 inches framed 

           original watercolor and gouache 16 x 20" matted

Also on -   Surreal Snow Landscape Boreal Forest Cliff with Gull Collision into Rock Facade....

Friday, October 28, 2016

Hollow Hearts in the Anthropocene Era

It must be every waking hour now that I get back to thinking of the resisters/protectors out to the west at Standing Rock in North Dakota, doing what a group of  local citizens can do to stave off deadly industrial development of their home land. Would I ever go out and join that effort or one closer to me? The thought of being captive, jailed or beaten up, is too much for me. And I'm alone, no partner to take up my projects and responsibilities...

Those tribal  people are our most immediate best hope for slowing, at last stopping the suicidal zig-zagging of pipelines across the United States. I heard the filmmaker Josh Fox yesterday, being interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now saying there are plans to build 300 new power plants to process fracked gas in this country, requiring thousands of miles of new pipeline which will be ill-received to say the least by most of the landowners whose acreage gets picked as a corridor. As weather and climate repercussions advance and convince more and more decision makers that we've got to 'leave it in the ground' then rounds of civil disobedience, not to mention things I don't want to mention, will be visible in more and more places. From climate researchers comes the report that in 2015 the atmospheric carbon load was averaging 400 ppm, as it continues to surpass the much publicized goal of no more than 350. And meanwhile the mid-continent highways still zoom with super-sized gas or diesel pickup trucks driven at 70 to 80 miles an hour, because little cars don't have enough power for those mighty drivers.

When will I give up driving a gasoline car--or any car?

At the start of October I circled Lake Superior again in my quirky little old hybrid car, tent-camping on a stack of air mattresses and folded comforter two nights along the way, heading from west to east. Beaches and roadways and dooryards were a-twitch with southbound migrant sparrows (white-crowned, song sparrow and fox sparrow) and the short scooting flights of American pipits, bound as normal from stony open northern Canada to wintering places deep into the United States. I was so glad to watch them and imagine the stages of their traditional year-to-year travel. I had this piece of mixed-media watercolor to finish, with its flying pipit, and so put in a lot of indoor time, window-lit, and shore and clifftop time, ultimately consolidating the piece from a greater width because of damage I had done to the paper. Evidently two coats of masking fluid were to blame, the lower layer when I scraped it away taking the surface and sizing of the paper right off with it. It's a mistake I'd like to remember never to make again. But I'm not sure that the earlier 12-inch wide version of this work would have conveyed any more exact aura of Lake Superior calm and a pipit than this miniature at 6 x 9.25 inches, ready to mat and frame. Small is beautiful all over the universe.

                                      Calm and a Pipit : Lake Superior 

Meanwhile I continue sifting among the layers and particles of my own climate-related depression.  It's not a paralyzing state of mind, but more of a pall over all my emotional resonance with the lands I look out upon. They appear much as always but are emptier, because fewer birds and other vertebrates hang on, their reproduction down and mortality up.  At least in the short term I cross miles of countryside each day; for me it forms a kind of inner landscape. There was a time when open vistas made my heart sing like a meadow of nesting songbirds of every family known to me. Now the song is musical theory for the most part, or chants I make, driving along, to quiet anxieties, the radio in the background. It's like owning the fact that you're old and facing death, though many around you are significantly older; your best memories are largely if not all made in other times, and the whole topic is best avoided to maintain an ideal level of functioning. Joyfully, there are still visions of splendor out in nature, best expressed in visual art.

Those of us who suffer from the melancholy of watching natural systems wither under pressure from all our uses, gaseous and liquid toxins and climate change as a consequence of these things have to console ourselves however we can. Reading on these topics can help, as experts' research findings bring insight. Walter Youngquist is one of the hosted writers with Negative Population Growth or NPG, working to reduce U.S. population growth especially from the standpoint of curbing immigration and births to immigrants, though also by lowering domestic birth rates. His essay 'The Singular Century' deals with energy sustainability given the world's inevitably shrinking output and reliance upon oil. He reminds us that these 300 or so years of increasing automation and affluence (the Industrial Revolution) look to be a moment in time, even as we move toward renewable energies, because no energy source of the past or the future is so dense, or packed with power, as oil and its derivatives like gasoline. Our growth and takeover of nature will be curbed by built-in limits (which techno-optimists still believe we will indefinitely overcome.) Nothing in nature--including ourselves--can extend its dominion forever; we would have to be gods, not mortals in physical bodies with physical needs. We need to take into account that an expanding population and raw resources on this finite earth are at odds with each other.

Older and sadder I have to learn to be a lamp lit from within if I can, by grace of what passes my windows. It's therapeutic to conjure moments in a desert day--the Badlands?- though I have scarcely been through a variety of deserts, since Creation on its own habitually tends toward beauty which the questing soul involuntarily drinks, even if born in another kind of region.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Another Bout of Doomsaying: A Transformative Exercise

Whatever I feel or you feel or think, we're not alone in that and it's probably in accord with the age we have reached. The evidence comes by reading and sometimes remembering, vaguely, conversations with friends or with strangers who at the time felt like friends. And there are risks faced in every age and position in life.

What happens to single people who follow their own inclinations however kindly or unkindly disposed to their fellow human beings, and drift apart from their friends in the recognition that all friendships are makeshift and incomplete, and that we've reached a place in life where we're completely on our own, irreplaceable in few if any others' estimation? We can best please ourselves now, because our beloved have died or all live elsewhere, and whatever we have done for any of them is at best walled up in the private memories of no one we momentarily want the pain of naming to ourselves. So we make our way back to one or more close friends as time allows, and they help to restore us.

And if the world itself, meanwhile, appears on the fringes of collapse and implosion? We hadn't thought our private inspirations would fail us and maybe they haven't, it's just that giving expression to them won't save that part of the world we cherish. We are one of a destructive horde--people--who will pay on a sweeping scale for the burden we don't stop ourselves from increasing, on the earth and seas and atmosphere. We can at best imagine what might be left after the worst has happened to all of us.

I'm again--yep--talking about climate change, about which any science-driven mitigation seems it will be too little, too late because the unaddressed part of the picture is the ill-considered, perpetual growth of us, all of us, it keeps being said but hardly admitted--a civilization that's gotten too big for its resource base, who are crowding out more and more of the wild life forms that have made this earth an inspiring and supportive place to live. A wide variety of human beings find it their right, or believe it a societal duty to multiply till there is little but ourselves and our leavings any more look at, till we've shot way too far beyond the earth's turnover of abundance necessary to maintain the life-nurturing chemistry and temperature of the atmosphere. People recognize at different rates the harm done to the earth by too much waste released through farming, lumber production, minerals processing, energy consumption and the expansion of pavement, and too many prefer to ignore it till it's painfully past ignoring. We can each do what we find we're able to do in the face of it. Most, I would guess, ignore it or pretend it isn't happening.

One friend has said he looks forward to the upheaval, particularly of the comfortable who have gained by their own and others' greed, hoping he lives long enough to take in enough of the grand spectacle. I find I'm wishing I could stay back at a great enough removal from it not to feel sorrow day in and day out or be at personal risk, and could watch the great leveling and transformation culminate in some new era, that I could trace what might have survived from my own heyday. Is it easier to be morbid out loud, with a companion, or alone, or won't we end up doing both...

It's the loss of a cold-weather homeland, the prospect of watching it burn in extreme summer droughts and convert to something else, an over-layering of regions partly imported from lands southward and westward or eastward, as if in dream fantasies of blended places, that haunts me daily now. That National Audubon study of climate and the birds of North America found that of 588 species of birds observed, 314 are likely to find themselves in serious decline by 2080, with change in precipitation, year-round temperatures and vegetative zones so rapid that these species won't be able to adapt and will likely disappear toward extinction. Most of them appear to be our northern U.S and Canadian migratory birds. The report from the study admitted to the further immeasurable risk to present-day bird breeding habitat taken up by future cities--our population expansion that we seem to have to take for granted. I feel as though I and others have been biding our time through all our prior years waiting for this huge combined threat to the wild homeland out of doors to loom, less and less collectively to be ignored. Peril to wild nature connects to our own sense of doom. We each have to take up things that we're suited to do, that may serve to save some piece of nature against the background of a widespread natural collapse.

The grim recognition of our collective future by scientists who are researching and publishing in domains dealing with climate and the biosphere is addressed in a Daily Dose article by Meghan Walsh. Lab researchers who are disciplined to keep emotional reactions out of the documentaries about their study are finding common emotional ground where climate research is concerned. Loss of life around us, even in prospect, can lead anyone to a state of grief, leading to the term 'pre-traumatic stress' in one allusion by Ms. Walsh. (The term looks to have been coined by a forensic psychiatrist, Lise Van Susteren, who co-wrote a report for the National Wildlife Federation titled The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States: And Why the U.S. Mental Health Care System is Not Adequately Prepared.)  Not very many of us wish to confront a world of ongoing rubble and destruction. Meanwhile we live now in a society of doubters and deniers, especially the power-hungry who connive their way into corporate leadership and then seats in government. Moreover everyone speaking on the subject of end times, in religious or other frameworks, risks being lampooned, sanctioned or silenced in some way.

As an artist embedded in the cycles of nature right through my windows I sometimes have to consciously add up the attitudes, coping methods and beliefs that serve me, a middle-aged non-scientist. One favorite I recall from a conversation with an old supervisor outside of the workplace in the late 1980s--we were confronting climate change then, too, calling it the greenhouse effect--was that 'the earth will always be beautiful'--in some ways, in some lights, in some zones where there will have been an outcome that then, at that time, will distinguish the particular place. Another (2) is the assumption of broad kinship with aboriginal peoples from all places who taught themselves how to make like an antelope, a predator, a sapling, etc. in order to achieve: repletion, ecstasy, heroism, favored status or maybe all these things. Make like a tortoise who will outlive this hot rainless eternity of days. (3) Garden with a mixture of native plants, (to preserve what can be kept of their genetic stock and to nourish the local contingent of birds, reptiles and insects especially as they migrate, are hungry and vulnerable) and with your home area's most wondrous cobbles and boulders: the garden border and ornamentation may be here straight through all the rumblings of doom, whatever it shall look like. A beleaguered human descendant may make a home or place of worship there. (4) As bioregions die out around earth, something different will fill in. Atmospheric phenomena we may never have heard of will manifest themselves due to a kind of chemistry found locally or all over; there will still be worlds within the world, however hostile to water-dependent beings of any kind. Fantasize worlds and sub-worlds in times to come. Nobody can prove that there's no romance within an Armageddon, especially depending on who's having the experience. (5) Embrace your mortality; you are born of Earth where everything that lives dies. Carry it off from one stage to the next with the utmost grace, observant of who you are, where you are and who is with you, all creatures. How we live may well carry over to how our essence endures in the dimension we enter after death. (6) Show and tell the sorrow, the awe, the desperation, and also the horror of what's to come and what's already upon us, the best you can figure out how to do, and to better that as your energies allow. Some few others may be taking it in as a part of their own important process of adjustment.

The art piece below, completed in 2015, conveys a spectacle of wildlife--red-throated loons most noticeably-- within the meltdown of subarctic peatlands like those of northern Minnesota way up through Canada. A wolf, camouflaged the color of  bleached tree stumps, stands back watching.

               Freshet from a Ghost-marsh 

             a 15 x 22.5" mixed-media watercolor on Arches heavyweight cotton paper

New 12x16" work in progress - watercolor/mixed media on a mass urbanization theme

Friday, July 8, 2016

Reptilian Flowers and the Low Abodes, past Homes and Driveways

This is a little artwork that relates shunned plants and animals (the poisonous, the wriggly and the ones thought to be symbolic of evil) to those suddenly discovered dainties a person comes across, especially certain flowers that appear pristine, close to perfection in their design by all forces within nature that shape wild species. The flower in this piece is the turtlehead, or in Latin, Chelone glabra, a member of the figwort family and another denizen of the wet meadows and ditches common to the Lake Superior region, but a sun-lover in common with many snakes and turtles. I have written about this flower before, it is so immediately, strikingly, formed like the head of a turtle, with a reptilian mouth slightly open for breathing or other vital purpose. I first saw a pink version of it, almost certainly planted on that ground by a long-ago gardener in northern Ontario. The native northland variety is cream-colored.

When first illustrating it in summer 2015 I exulted in roadside specimens hemmed in, as if through modesty, by thick grasses that mostly hid the blossoms. Just before beginning the project I mislaid my late mom's sunglasses alongside a turtlehead skirted by an improvised path, in hay that was mowed the day following my recovery of the glasses with a blindly reaching hand, after no amount of searching by eye would turn them up. So this painting, built of at least three perspectives--sidelong, top down and upward from sod level--is a little frenzied, by a looker who couldn't be contented with just a few standing-up views of the plant.

The red-bellied snake is an addition I can dedicate to my near neighbor on the west who first showed me  one that she captured by hand right off the sand-and-grass driveway well into autumn. I had seen this kind of snake but considered it some brown local version of a common garter snake. But close intimate looking reveals other markings, particularly on the underside; this snake held high for viewing or rolled over shows a pink or pale red belly. The Latin name is Storeria occipitomaculata--and thank you Deb for making my introduction, you who grew up in the adjoining county.

I wanted a land-form to offset all the billowy grasses and first thought of stumps since they abound in squat and snaggy forms, but the open country where the turtleheads occur made other suggestions. Ant mounds revealed themselves where I was prowling for ideas and so, in the vicinity of some old landowner's tumbledown carpentry I sat and drew in a mound, symmetrical and shooting out its own grasses.  Ant mounds function as nurseries for the ant colony, and serve to open a piece of ground, allowing for exchanges of gases, water and nutrients via the concentrated activity of the ants. They are an indicator of nature at its busiest, and would likely not be allowed to flourish if very many people were raising kids and running pets nearby.

Old Field Comeback: Turtleheads with Red-bellied Snake, as I have titled it, is a revision of the 2015 work which had two snakes in it, and speaks for places with a possible, forsaken or forgotten human touch on them, with moulds and lichens and the likelihood of something's buried or exposed bones, with smells of a wide variety, and an overtone of sadness mixed with free-spirited delight, since today is today, suffering little enough of yesterday.  A link to it, partway down the page on is here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

An Outcry ahead of Mourning for the Fading Wild

What we have we tend to take for granted; I am of course thinking of remaining lands and waters, and all the animals and plants, especially the kinds a person finds only by going to places of specialized soil minerals and hydrology, far from any town. Places where we can still catch and eat the fish become more precious as we keep adding two to three million people to the U.S. population in a year's time. Precious too is the narrowing, ever-more-encroached-on habitat of many legendary creatures--the big canines and wild cats, many weasels and rodents of peculiar lifestyles, and birds and reptiles and fish--spillover from our enterprises is poorly if at all tolerated by many of these creatures. Individuals who go in search of these living things may find, at least for the while that they're in the dwindling habitats, a closer identity with the resident species than with humankind back in our population centers.

The St. Louis River watershed including Lake Superior is under threat nowadays from irreversible mercury contamination. The ultimate reason connects with humanity bent on occupying more and more of earth and using up minerals, water, soils to sustain, globally, our million human offspring every 4.5 days along with all our money-making enterprises. We pretend that this endless growth is sustainable, and that, in all of its dimensions, economic growth matters more than the processes of earth itself. Our industrial leaders, in their officially sanctioned flights of fantasy, beguile their public into believing that we need all the mineral wealth that can be clawed, pounded or suctioned out of the ground wherever that ground is and whatever pathway to extinction the process may impose on living communities around it.

Water Legacy, the grassroots non-profit organization that formed in Minnesota in 2009 to counter the notion that sulfide mining stands for economic progress and is good for the region, gives us the numeric scale of the travesty that the proposed Polymet Sulfide Mine would wreak on the Lake Superior watershed. Five hundred thirty-three million tons of rock sprinkled with ore would be blasted and dug out of northern Minnesota over an estimated period of 20 years. The mineral deposit is considered low-grade, much more of it sulfur than ore of copper or nickel, so that over 99 per cent of the dug-up material would be waste. The mine pits left behind by the process would linger on as permanent basins leaking pollutants into northern Minnesota's porous, sandy, peat-laden soil. Seepage from the rock pile, estimated to cover 526 acres, would require at least 200 years of water quality treatment, which treatment the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates at having a 93 per cent potential of failure. Since at some point within or beyond the estimated 20-year life span of the mine it would be depleted and abandoned--mining being a boom and bust venture--the failure of water collection and treatment would be assured--it becomes a matter of just how soon.

                                                            The Saint Louis River

Insistence that we have to grow the economy for more people's material needs is a delusion parallel with the notion that we have no choice but to infinitely expand food production to meet ever-growing dietary needs, a kind of noble challenge to feed the hungry, bring on more hungry, the more the better, all God's children, He who said 'Go forth and multiply.' At what point do we admit we're limited in this capacity? Given the scenario forecast by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, cited in the Los Angeles Times, that by 2050 two thirds of the world's population, an estimated 6.3 billion, will struggle or languish in cities, worldwide food production will have to increase by 50 to 60 per cent, even as building to contain all these people, their industry, croplands and transit will take over soils ever more subject to eroding and nutrient impoverishment from overuse. Ramifications include shortages, either localized or widespread, and increased water diversion, meaning the take-over of  lakes, rivers and acreage within small private landholdings used for growing food. Meanwhile we consider letting sulfate and mercury wash downstream from rivers such as the Partridge and Embarrass from the Polymet mining site, and down the still-fishable St. Louis River, which, along with many other streams in the Lake Superior watershed, already has enough methylmercury to warrant fish consumption advisories by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. With food shortages impending due to higher and higher cost of food products, why would we agree to make fish too poisonous to eat?

Even low exposures to methylmercury impair the developing intelligence of children exposed to the toxin through the mother's blood chemistry before their birth, affecting the child's concentration, memory, speech and language and visual-spatial skills. So we are as a species to a stage where the urge to grow our numbers despite all common sense drives us to sow our bodies and our only home, lavish in beauties and in the potential to co-evolve new forms of life, with poison throughout its water system, which all life forms in common rely upon. Water itself, not chemical broths with water as their original base, is our life support, a must for ourselves, and all animal and plant life on earth. We can imagine we're transitioning to a fictitious planet where this is not true, since many who live on the earth today appear to prefer imaginary environments over what gave rise to us, the animals and plants.

                                            Smallmouth bass and perch, food from north of Lake Superior

Water Legacy's recent fact sheet goes on to sum up environmental injustice in the region, its victims the Lake Superior Ojibwe bands of native people and endangered wildlife like the wolf, Canada lynx and moose, with 914 acres of wetlands subject to utter destruction and another 8,608 acres facing severe impairment or destruction if Polymet is permitted. Lastly the effect on the climate is described as 'staggering.'  Fossil fuels to run heavy equipment and the physical plant are the estimated source of a total 707,342 metric tons of potential carbon dioxide emissions per year.  Reduction of and infringement on bog lands and rarely-encountered wildlife are to me the saddest outcome, right alongside the outright poisoning of water, basis for aquatic food, in waterways so far some of the cleanest left in the continental states.

Listed at the bottom of the fact sheet are three steps a person can take to defeat the Polymet sulfide mine:
  1. Oppose issuance of any permits for the project; 2. Insist that existing mining pollution be controlled by Minnesota state agencies with emphasis on clean-up; and 3. Support the recycling of copper, which relies upon only 10% of the energy expended on extracting raw ore and is cheaper than mining copper.
Water Legacy has a pair of take-action forms on its web page.

I agree with Karen Shragg, author of Move Upstream: A Call to Solve Overpopulation (Freethought House, ©2015) that non-profit organizations whose purpose is protecting a resource base, wildlife or the climate seldom if ever link the issues they are working on to the phenomenon of our own overpopulation. The Polymet scheme is a symptom of the presumption accompanying population explosion that we can and must continue to grow our numbers, that to do so is the only acceptable condition of our ongoing prosperity. This prevailing belief embodies not only sanctioned greed but circular thinking that legitimizes more jobs, more resources for more people so as to boost more production of more for more people. The victims, instead, will be more and more of those people as well, most poignantly for me, as the animals I mentioned above.

(Karen Shragg's book emphasizes that 'trend need not be destiny' and that overpopulation, both in terms of exponential growth with no end in sight and too many people for earth's natural processes to sustain, is a solvable problem, via a humane plan undertaken globally to limit our fertility, which she outlines in the book.)

When I drew and painted a Minnesotan wolf lately I positioned the creature as I saw it alongside the county highway, abashed at being viewed by a human in a car no matter how silent and motionless, no matter the faint-to-absent sound given off by the electric idling of that car. I wanted this art piece to advertise not the proud resilience of the wolf or its hunting prowess but instead its vulnerability expressed in the body language of canine shyness, with a hint at the wonderful springy gait of a wild canid leaving a scene--because the animal's survival depends on its musculoskeletal excellence, unlike our self-maintenance in our cosseted way of life. By means of art I want to confront and help overthrow societies' belief in our manifest destiny in terms of expansion, which endangers all that's wild in whatever habitat is left to it--unless the dangers we pose to ourselves catch up with us before earth's climate is shot beyond livability for anything with flesh, fur, feathers, etc.

Wolf, A Distant Neighbor is the title of this little mixed-media watercolor measuring 12.5 x 6" or
31.75 x 15.24 cm. unframed. It can be viewed alongside other works or purchased at

Monday, April 25, 2016

From Miami-Dade back North Again - Relics and Micro-Wildernesses

As a passenger instead of a driver I cruised for two days last week in and out of the Everglades via two different entry points. Two old girls, utterly different in personality yet with a certain overlap in sentiment toward the world around us, almost, not quite, of successive generations, we had teamed up to split costs and share divergent skills. Our separate purposes in coming all the way from Duluth, Minnesota to Florida had merged; we were after April's birds to be found in Florida, and the novelties of the south Florida interior and shorelines including local cookery and the visual effect of hammocks, pine flats and wet prairies, some of which formed a bond in my mind's eye with stretches of Minnesota's north-central region. I could feel--and I hope it was mutual--our friendship strengthening, my own shortcomings as a big-city driver counter-balanced by my friend's serenity and acceptance of fast traffic along routes never known to either of us.

Before making for the Everglades we wandered on a tour of Villa Vizcaya, the preserved estate and winter home of James Deering, whose fortune derived from McCormick-International Harvester, pillar of the vast U.S. grain-growing industry. It seemed to me that if I had been in Mr. Deering's very same position and time period I might too have been enthralled by the artifacts of both the Caribbean and classical western European peoples. I might have purchased at least one of the same musical instruments--the harpsichord--and installed the native coral and fossil-bearing limestone pavements and commissioned a few of the same works of sculpture installed here by Mr. Deering, a bachelor captivated by visionary heritages other than his own and bent on showing off their harmonies. Here are favorite images I shot in that couple of hours on the Vizcaya grounds.

                                       Seabed fossils where a person steps

               Breakwater called 'the Barge' in front of Biscayne Bay, representing Caribbean mythic beings

A day later, having left Miami, stepping along the boardwalk making up the Anhinga Trail within the Everglades, I was impressed by the French and German being spoken by the families who followed or led the way between various observation points into the marsh. The trail felt a bit crowded, with maybe half the visitors Europeans come to tour this showpiece of the remaining American wild. Were they, I wondered, on average somewhat more curious as to all that might live here than many of the locals and semi-locals who most hoped to be able to show each other any alligators, since they have the charisma of people-eaters? In any case, the Everglades National Park is a heavily used attraction, a specimen of the old Florida, with a total 1,077,427 visitors last year, a bit down from the figure for 2014.

If I were walking this acre as a beginning birder, back around 1972, would it have been so bird-quiet as I  found it today, I also wondered. A strange winter just past, devoid of the normal dry conditions characterizing the Everglades from December through April, was, we heard, diminishing the presence of herons and other breeding birds due to high water. Climate change is upon us and in many recorded ways changing the Everglades. But voices of songbirds are fewer everywhere I go in these times than in the springtimes I remember from the 1970s, the 80s and later. The glee of a bird sighting is delayed, but--what was that great graceful raptor tipping side to side, flapping, coasting, on black pinions, white underwings, with long black scissor-blades for a tail? A kite--the Everglades kite--no, the swallow-tailed kite! we both saw it at successive moments, non-birder to the rear, birder up ahead with the benefit of binoculars. A first of species, life bird, for me! This can still happen.

                                The 'River of Grass,' per Marjory Stoneman Douglas, major advocate for creating 
                                 the Everglades National Park

                                 From the Long Pine Key Trail

                               Man-in-the-ground (Ipomoea microdactyla) at Long Pine Key

National park visitation in the U.S. goes up and up as this country booms in human numbers, its citizens and others increasingly living on top of each other and squeezed in traffic corridors wherever they go. They are looking for respite and, I think, continuity with the America that was. Though our land retains many vistas, rivers, lakes, bays and marshes yet again greening up with spring, this heightened usage of the parks bears a relation to the narrowing forests and skimpy remnants of meadow, built-over shores and widened lanes of highway, all of which connect with dwindled bird voices at the prime time of spring arrival, courtship and nesting. More and more of us in consequence head out eager to see fewer avian feats of soaring, swooping and foraging in flight. We can still see them, but we also face--in an attitude of desolation--or most often ignore, a future when our take-over has pushed most or all of those wild spectacles into a past good mainly for imagining. Meanwhile, most of the land conservation organizations and wildlife preservation societies refuse, out of various fears that they will be judged for unspeakable crassness (and thereby starved of funding,) to inform the public about ever-growing human numbers as the preeminent driver, most urgently worth addressing, of the manifold degradation in nature around us.

Where land is publicly held for safekeeping or privately kept, with something of a balance in place between herbivores and predators, the plant kingdom persists in its cycles, brandishing flowers and other wondrous structures semi-hidden in a slow-paced theater of reproduction and nutrient-gathering. The reddish morning-glory above, called man-in-the-ground, is a specialist of burned-over pine lands, the habitat where I found it, at Long Pine Key in the Everglades, about as far north as the species occurs. In its aloneness at the margin of the walking path I felt I had to veer back on my return course and shoot the photo. Back at home in the Canadian border region I've been spellbound in the sight of still odder assemblies of leaf and corolla, and painted them in mixed media with watercolor as my usual mainstay, in small format, 12 x 9" or less, to serve as card fronts and wall art. Turtlehead, a member of the figwort family, for example, on first recognition really suggests a reptilian head or even a fish on a floral stem. Butterwort has leaves that are appallingly yellow-green and greasy, as if buttered, their purpose to trap the feet of insects which the plant can then digest. And the northern pitcher plant, another insectivore, has the red veins of a medical specimen on an anatomy chart and the overseeing stem of a gooseneck lamp as if poised for examining what spreads out below. Small artworks doing homage to these natural treasures are shown below:

 Turtleheads (with red-bellied snake) is 11 x 8 1/2", available at             An original work in watercolor/pencil, wood-framed with birds-eye maple

 Butterwort and Lichens - Lake Superior at your Elbow available at
Original watercolor is 12 x 9" unframed. 
Pitcher Plant Lurks with Cup and Standard - framed and matted, about 14x11" - inquire at

Monday, April 18, 2016

At Last One Day : Venturing to a Tropical Beacon Far out at Sea

This was my second day ever to set foot in Florida. As a person who had never been south of the Smokies in Tennessee I spent hours this afternoon in the Key West Botanical Garden, stepping slower and slower, stopping, quiet, another exotic against the background full of fighter planes, sirens and faint cries of Floridian birds I've been just getting to know. South Florida, maybe all of Florida since I've landed in it all the way at the tip which is the Miami area, is like another country to a person raised in the middle of our continent. In today's haven were shrubs labeled as natives of Cuba or Barbados or the West Indies, which are closer land masses by far than anywhere I ever hailed from. According to habit and a kind of compulsion I've begun, barely, learning the names of a few trees, shrubs and herbs that appear to grow wild.

Walking in Florida, listening to signs of whomever shares the woods, a person soon recognizes lizards, a wildlife form that we lack in the Upper Midwestern states or north, in Canada--as yet, or for the most part, at least. Lizards of a wide, unfamiliar variety rustle and plop onto dry leaves or into living vegetation. As I'd train my listening to tell bird stirrings apart from other movement, like the scuffings of lizards in sizes up to (maybe) the length of my arm in one instance, and I feel the sweat on my upper lip and the bath of summer-like day-glare all around me I'm pulled into an awareness that my perpetual quarry, the birds, are evolutionary descendants of the lizards, and this is a place where a natural historian can feel immersed in that old connection, feeling it the way we feel and smell the chemistry of the sea when we arrive at a seashore.

                            Freshwater Pond at Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden

A likely question as I stroll and peer, stop and listen, jerk short in response, at first, to the wheeling forms of magnificent frigate birds, bat-like but huge and wickedly avian with their long pointed black wings, tails like a pair of prongs that divide or come together, beaks like a spike with hooked tip--is: could I ever like living here if I had to come and stay? It is nice, in my transport of fascination and recognition from things I've read somewhere or seen pictured, to suspend thought on this question (so many aging northerners, after all, have chosen to move to this climate) to say that I don't know and won't bother to consider it. I'm swept away by all that's utterly new or else new in real-life form. I missed the ferry to the Dry Tortugas this morning so I get to walk this piece of land instead, and see what I'd either glimpsed from the moving car or city sidewalk or not ever seen before: Muscovy duck:

white-crowned pigeon--erect where it hurled itself on a dead treetop--and black-whiskered vireo, which is Florida's edition of the red-eyed vireo typical of my home forests in summertime.

                          Magnificent Frigate Bird - seen swirling in squadrons above the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas

When I'm not poised to identify a moving creature, I can think on the lifetime task I believe it would be to familiarize oneself with every leafy thing that grows here; Florida, with so far over 2,800 species of native plants described, and numerous introduced species, has the most kinds of wild plants of any state in the U.S. Since the botanical garden has, fortunately, labels on little signposts for some of their shrubs and trees, I was able to view and photograph these two:


               Wild Coffee (above) and the flammable Blacktorch, cut when dry, then split lengthwise                  to make hunting torches by Caribbean native people

Next day at predawn, starting from downtown Key West's streets dense with houses, tight backyards all crowing with roosters from one yard to the next within blocks of the ferry launch, I'm able to make it aboard the Yankee Freedom III which heads out daily to the Dry Tortugas. This is a fabulous archipelago of shipwrecks, coral sea bottom, and lonely, ill-documented human toil followed by malingering deaths. Around the time of his arrival in 1513 the islands were named  by Ponce de Leon of Spain after the sea turtles that frequent those shallows and shores, laying eggs on the brilliant white beaches. These are hot desert islets, seven in all, composing a U.S. national park totaling about 100 square miles, most of that area the pale blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Fort Jefferson was built on the islet known as Garden Key, starting in the 1840s, as a defense against naval raids from the south seas but was never completed, and served most famously as a Union Army prison for Confederates captured during the Civil War. Drinking water had to be collected out of cisterns on top of the fort, and was scarce or absent enough of the time to impose deadly dehydration or related anguish among untold numbers of men. The architecture features enough ornamentation, including a spectacular six-sided symmetry,  to hint of the starkly mixed purposes held all in all by designers, brick masons and occupants of that lonely place surrounded in the rookeries of terns, boobies, shearwaters and other sea birds. 

                                        Fort Jefferson from within, the long-ago parade grounds

Receding out from the fort, in its vast reach-around of arches and angles the epitome of all the superseded projects whose hulks endure over a century through hurricanes and disregard, a shrine in staunch brickwork, an arm of scrubby beach served as breeding grounds for a swirl of terns almost entirely of two species. Their cries scratched at the ears concurrently with vocalizations from the frigate birds circling perpetually overhead, a few of the males exhibiting a hanging throat-sac of bright orange, crying out  a pin-sharp note that purely complements the over-all jagged profile of this hunter species. They also have their nesting grounds on other of the islets, called keys, among the Tortugas.

I was luckily able to borrow a spotting scope from the park management and then stand not far from a young man, Christian Hagenlocher, who was here in the course of a Big Year.  He describes himself as an ambassador for birding within the public, seeking to better his own skills in knowing birds and to meet other birders, recording their stories and insights, including the question of how technology has enriched any aspect of birding as they experience it. His developing website for sharing his mission and discoveries includes a map of his route so far, various intimate shots of splendid wild birds like the Lapland longspur, pictures of habitat, and the hands of sundry interviewees holding their binoculars. Heat-shimmer and some myopia added to my difficulties zooming in on the sooty terns, common enough in the boil of airborne terns but all distant, outnumbered by the brown noddies, so Christian helped me distinguish between the field marks of sooty and bridled terns, a species not present in the nesting colony to our knowledge so far. Later, broiling in hot-weather fabrics, sore in the hips from hours of standing but not to be daunted in the ultra-specialness of this place, I circled the fort on the cement-and-brick walkway that bounds the moat encircling the whole fort. Families of folks visiting from up or down the rest of the world snorkeled in sea shallows underlain by white sand and corals, hovered over by the odd angelfish, as I plodded, carrying the lightweight scope and glancing up for seabirds and enjoying all the enjoyment around me.

                               Moat surrounding Fort Jefferson, built into one side of Garden Key

                                          Desert vegetation along part of Garden Key

                                         Coral nodules, bird nesting debris, coconut etc. along a beach of                                                                      mixed sand and ground-up shell

Inside on the one-time parade grounds were copses of trees surrounded in grass, where cattle egrets foraged and, in the trees, warblers en route to breeding grounds in the North American heartland leapt, gleaned food and sang their diminutive songs of spring and northern nesting places. We are back and forth, traversing seas that feel for lengths of time, according to our pace, boundless yet that we know have shores and limits. We consider the same distant interior places our ultimate destinations. And I know that in minutes it will be time to turn back on my own next several stops to the mainland on the north.

                      Inner grounds of the fort are a refuge to migratory warblers and other passerine birds.
                       To visit the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson follow link to the National Park Service site.

A hemisphere: heartland, sea and black tern in watercolor/gouache    --   unframed original art piece shown near bottom, painted on 300 lb. cold-press paper, 22x30" - $495 + tax and shipping


Monday, April 4, 2016

Even Nowadays, the Revised Impact of Wilderness Art

Creating rural art that gets intimate with earthly things a long ways out of cities or suburbs is a challenge in terms of connecting with the viewing audience. We are an urbanizing society--at least till we run up against limits to the basic resources we need for new infrastructure, like sources of fresh water and a variety of raw minerals--or till the climate that sustains us is overthrown. The specialized wild plants known to trail hikers or wild gardeners as trademarks of a place are, to most everyone else, aliens, for which roses, tulips, irises, daisies, pansies and other cultivated flowers good for symbolizing an occasion or classic environment are comfortable substitutes. If I'm painting puccoons on a swath of prairie or the fringed polygala on a clifftop behind Lake Superior I'm in some other emotional territory ill-synchronized with the urban masses at their typical motorized pace.

The same is true for paintings that include birds, native small reptiles or burrowing mammals--a person familiar with these must habitually venture off roads and trails, looking down, listening, eyes trained to detect slight movement.

And what about landscape? It is one of the best-selling genres of art, but in order to sell, I suspect, it has to beckon the beholder out of the world of the body and into the picture with inviting aspects all its own. For cityscapes no doubt the same is true. Of all the top-selling landscape art there are popular categories, domestic scenery or places--coasts and mountains chief among them--where people trapped in their responsibilities long to go and maybe lose themselves. But just as the earth has places that repel entry by the bulk of our own kind, the mind has analogous realms; compare earth's coldest or sultriest, entangled places with hardly a safe foothold or channel for much other passage and the mind's regions of poorly-illumined or outright horrifying thought. What is the appeal of landscape art (or seascape) that touches on these states of mind for many viewers?

Since abstract art depicting nightmare visions has a following and a market, I wonder how that market compares with any for lifelike landscapes, true to a real region, that reveal an interplay of loneliness or desolation between artist, subject and public.

Does landscape art that seems as if it has little allowance in it for human comforts, however sunlit and balmy-seeming, dissuade most buyers? Maybe or maybe not. But some part of it has to be familiar; I think of the heavily-photographed wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico Provincial Park or the lands along the Trans-Canada Highway. Below are two mixed-media watercolor landscapes that speak of U.S./Canadian peat bogs or similar wetlands, areas of little economic use and forbidding mud, cold and mosquitoes, that never-the-less address a yearning for places empty of human conflict, where nothing stops the wind or interferes with nature's regenerative cycles, where wild animal sightings tempt those who would be tempted. Both are on display this two-week run at Vine Arts Center in Minneapolis.

                               Freshet from a Ghost-marsh - watercolor, pencil, 15 x 22.5"


                              God All Shape & Conduct: Shoreless - watercolor and gouache, 22 x 30"

The above work is recent, the bottom one dates to the 1990s and bears, embedded within the art in small black hand-print, a lyrical chant about discerning good or cosmic creative force apart from evil, the destructive. Both pieces speak to a type of soul, I think, that embraces the whole earth with special affection for those mid-continent places that have been called wastelands, barrens or 'Great American Desert.' Not much changes on a vast scale in those places and so they have an epic quality with soothing overtones.

Here where I'm sitting, the sun just burst out of the gloomy grandeur of horizon-to-horizon clouds and I feel pulled outside for a brisk walk along the roads which have become mud and little else.

I'm at work lately on the mixed-media watercolor, shown below, in which a city wraps around the back of a boggy foreground true to my home area, eerie in all the browns, reds and bone coloration of the off season, traced with the ghosts of little-recorded goings-on over eons past. In the process of composing it I've considered the grip of landscape on ourselves and how to define differences, all told, between three types: the urban-rustic, the bucolic semi-rural, and places still reminiscent of wilderness, which reveal little to no human impact. A day outdoors in any of these settings can offer all the same degree of engrossment and serenity.What the most open of lands offer, especially those that call up visions of the original wilderness and still harbor big carnivores like wolves and cougars, is the illusion of being singular, a favored part of nature, a lordling at the top of the whole obvious food chain. A person savoring all the privacy the intensely rural region allows may often weigh personal loneliness against a sense of enchantment by all the inhuman things that fill the senses. Evidence of the electronic surveillance that pervades our culture is out of sight, out of mind to a degree not true in built-up places. Since the remnant of other mammals we have decimated have, in their considerable intelligence, learned to avoid our awareness the person in the country is left seeking out evidence of them, and their stories cut off amid the detritus of trees and the suggestiveness of empty nests, burrows, tangles and rock piles. We begin to understand a preoccupation with ghosts as a network that shaped and still characterizes this place we live in.

But experienced in the city, these completed works of art may just send a two-fold message: of anachronism, but also of living, transferrable potential for what lives among us, if balances between live things, human and non-human, are ultimately to be achieved.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Faced with the Unruly Cosmos

'Summer'--think of summer, and then 'summers', and you find yourself reaching back in memory to all-time-favorite summers from a prime time, long ago as likely as not. I'm given to recalling summers within my first thirty to forty years, not torrid, classical in their degree of comfort for us people and other creatures who historically found ourselves flourishing there. Days were long and balmy, humidity readily drained off in rain somewhere, influential in sky-bursts of luminous clouds as in this poem, Lamp-shades--the Clouds of Dusk, that I wrote in 1996:

              Loud—limp—the wind…
              huge cold shoals of cloud left dark
              to park themselves above us…
              Linger and see what rueful governing’s
              due from their last low glowing.

Summers to come, by contrast, threaten us with a degree and longevity of heat we are unprepared for and loth to imagine.

In my 2-week exhibit coming up in later March this large work, God All Shape and Conduct: Shoreless, (watercolor & gouache, 22 x 30" unframed) is a picture not only of midsummer in Crex Meadows, a piece of western Wisconsin near Grantsburg, Burnett County, mid-continent in North America with a black tern streaking over a linkage of marshy lakes, but of youth venturing unconstrained, as much in body as in fantasy. A painting hand-lettered inconspicuously in neat black characters over the watery foreground, this work was the visualization of my 1988 poem of the same title: 
               I must remember that
               wherever we assemble, overflow,
               and with our wistful whiskers, blow alone
               into canals that disappear under
               the overpasses where today's roads veer
               with pulsing whoops, we mix--a hazy current
               full of crowding islets, blurring the flowage
               with our thoughts' corrosion. Notably--
               should this islet, floating, heave that other, 
               cleaving it, it would impair our gliding 
               clarity, that islet's death damming our stream, 
               granules in confusion teeming to
               take refuge as a platform spanning a
               scattered trickling to our river's panorama.

The panoramic painting incorporating earth's curvature is invariably a throwback to the summers of my teen-aged years and young womanhood, when I could get away to places like  Crex Meadows, wander and sit out looking as the weather formed over vast marshscapes that could be re-conceived as the make-up of the whole land mass as far as the Rocky Mountains.

Though poverty and a  scarcely-limited range of personal hardships are the proverbial bane of a solitaire who never trained into meeting the demands of a lucrative public service--probably at the expense of long hours in a tightly controlled setting--it was then and now my privilege to pass days in a wild setting undertaking artwork in response to visual compulsions I'd experienced in some way or other since childhood.

Much the way summer symbolizes youth blending into prime or heyday, the solo trek in the poem describes a young individual setting forth to distinguish evil where it's challenging to sort it out of dynamic unpeopled space adhering to its own biological laws. Nature "red in tooth and claw" in its everyday functions shows an observer paradoxes like predation suffered by conscious prey and terrors including volcanism, fires and floods. Since these are restorative phenomena that frame eternity, any judgment of them trails off.  So the young idealist is left to describe evils out of controllable personal experience, or second- or third-hand encounters which in societal terms and religious terms have demonstrated punishable evil. And then, in some way that art forms may be best at revealing, evil cited as a facet of the natural order may be compared with evils dealt out and experienced by our own kind, having repercussions within the law and in political systems.

Couldn't a whole art career including the literary arts base itself upon finding the distinctions and common ground between human evil and the forces beyond our public as our whole earth evolves, devolves and transforms however it must?