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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