Friday, April 21, 2017

Wolf in an Enriched Setting

Flat countryside full of watery pockets that freeze and relax back into cool swampland spawned this painting. My home region along the Canadian border remains wolf habitat, and for a person a wolf sighting tends to be remarkable and quickly over, since the wolf wants to get away. I wanted to portray one wolf that stood, seemingly sadly I thought, in front of me in a way that so much wildlife art does not pick up on. When I reflect on North American paintings of wolves I think of wolves in glorious poses with heads high, or wolves engaged in chases. My Tuesday morning wolf from the spring of 2016 paused broadside to me, ducking her head and exuding suspicion at being viewed by someone from the road. I had a moment's vision of German shepherds or similar dogs made afraid by a family member's loud impatience, cowering. This wolf cringed with lowering head and ears a bit but then exited tall and trotting, with a sense of her own dignity coming back to her, I felt, as she went. Her path was I think of her own making, from off a piece of ATV trail into a convenient grove of aspens.

This art piece aims to exalt our continent's lingering timber wolves in all their well-warranted shyness, which helps them save their own lives concurrently with all our industrial expansion and superstition about how cruel wolves are and how eager to eat us, not to mention prejudice with regard to wolves slaughtering our livestock. The composition seems overpowered by the flatness of the lands hereabouts. Depth occurs in layers, with rain clouds behind a distant line of forest, and then the grove of 'doghair aspens' all squeezing from the flat meadow behind the wolf, who is assuredly the star of the painting, exposed like a potential victim in front of a human ogler, whether or not the human is armed and dangerous. A land's marshy flatness combined with cold climate or soil infertility may work in favor of its remaining vacant from people's standpoint. But this little wolf landscape was too flat and too inconclusive, to my judgment. It might to someone else evoke a scene out a window, in which a solitary wolf is vanishing at a run. But the open-ended issue for me is how that in-the-flesh wolf would or wouldn't convey fear of whatever had sent it off at a run. That picture, outside my own experience, is still a mystery. An art piece about a fleeing wolf might better be dominated by grass and landforms, the traditional retreat of wild wolves which cover so much countryside ( up to125 miles in a day, according to Barry Lopez in his Of Wolves and Men) in all their questing, long-legged might.

So the first wolf scene as it was lacked context. I still needed to show that the wolf knew how to save itself from the hazard that comes with a human encounter. Through that context comes more of the poetry of little trees whose whole purpose from their tender beginnings is to reclaim open land, making cover for littler and larger lives both plant and animal and sparkling, quivering, delighting us as we cross the country looking out along it. Is it possible that this wolf in art, whose form never underwent any revision except a little more contouring of its fur coat in the meantime, has gained in dignity because a grove of sapling aspens grew up around its route of escape? A bit of added downslope, as well, takes away from the earlier sense that the wolf is on a course into a hole in the ground, or oblivion.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Lonesome Retreat vs. a Frenzy of Adaptation

In winter when soils and bog waters are frozen there is a creek I walk just about due westward, out of hearing range of most anything human except the odd gunshot or a plane, high up. I'm on the ice or on erratic marginal land petering into islets sometimes just big enough to support one of my feet, with little bog plants bearing leathery reddish leaves all between my strides, which are slow and ponderous in case I start to hear a sheet of ice cracking. Also I'm listening, since I want to see the most secretive, other warm-blooded creatures that venture through our spruce bogs. On each side stand the tree citizens of the bog, old black spruces and tamaracks maybe as tall as a store building on the edge of town. They take a long time to grow in the acid-rich watery soil, which in certain spots is a living upholstery that bobs on top of water if stepped on.

A boreal chickadee, more predictably found at one of the feeders in prior winters, would be welcome if I could hear any chickadees at all, but this time hardly a chickadee throughout the afternoon, and no wheezy boreal chickadee voice this whole winter long. They're shyer than the every-day black-capped chickadees, much more selective of their habitat, and--could it be--learning to stay away from ourselves, the bipeds that talk and lift binoculars at them. Yesterday I noted only the chet-chet of white-winged crossbills calling from one to another high up somewhere where there must have been cones on firs or spruces.

It's become significant to me how much oftener, if it happens at all, I see my wild four-legged kin from the road where I'm driving than I do anywhere I happen to be walking. Or if I meet a big mammal from a trail I'm walking or skiing it goes by in a flash, like the cougar silhouetted off to my right in post-sunset forest by a river, or some low brown animal or other deep in grass ahead of me on a fishing afternoon. Cars quietly coursing a county road or driveway seem to be more trusted since the other creatures know them not to swivel around suddenly or leave the road but to keep their bearings, though risk is intensified if a car stops at any point. What wild animals make of ATVs probably fits parameters of its own including the particulars of terrain.

In any case rare creature-sightings come as surprises in places to any degree wild or worked through our own industry, like bird rarities dropping in on suburban lakes or farmers' mud flats. In the Anthropocene Era, the geological time period that mass human activity is said to have launched beginning with the atomic bomb in the mid 20th century, every shy outnumbered animal a person sees can be thought of as having some human influence brought upon what it breathes or circulates through its tissues, or where its travels have taken it. But if it lives, rejuvenates itself, bears offspring and shows itself off to respectful gawkers that it halfway accepts, it's made some adaptation to our ever-growing takeover of earth, so far. For those of us excited by novelty and resilience in the animal kingdom, hope endures.

                            Mixed-media pencil-watercolor: Pecking Order in the Collapse of Seasons

Right about now, worldwide, leading people are crazed by the opposition of one imaginary vision--impossible endless growth and monetary enrichment--to the need of limits so that diverse peoples and other creatures that we know and don't know can hold on, in their life cycles replenishing what humans in their mega-dreaming have continued to sap--all kinds of natural resources. We're in the gravest of danger from wars that beget other wars that successively undercut what we all need to sustain us. The struggle seems inexorable, since too many business-immersed people making up corporations know nothing but the mandate of growth; there can only be a crescendo and a collapse. All kinds of living things, meantime, are moving to where fear or new atmospheric conditions sweep them. We have exotic plants and animals, and we have extinctions where these things were stranded in the only homes they knew.

Only a cancer grows until it kills its hosting organism, in this example the mother Earth.

The mixed-media art piece shown above, Pecking Order in the Collapse of Seasons, was drawn from an initial scene in grittiest downtown Duluth, Minnesota where imported, naturalized bird species like the English sparrows and the Eurasian tree sparrow shown on the wall commingle in the breezes, in the wake of confused, abbreviated seasonal phenomena, with stray plants that will grow in the poor soil at the footings of a parking lot, or out of cracks, plants whose seeds were borne from nearby beaches or abandoned farms or gardens way inland. Sorrow yet wonderment at all kinds of transitions out across the natural world amid the chill of this past winter attended this work in a corner of my new home, which I think I get to keep for a while. Dried clippings of last year's weedy fruit and flowers served as my models. The piece is 12 x 9 inches or 30.2 x 22.7 cm. unmatted, and is painted in watercolor and pencil on cold-press 140 lb.watercolor paper. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

In which the Wind-borne Find themselves Impelled

This winter, for two full days on separate week-ends I've been one of the birders heading over northwest to try and see a rare bird visitor, the curve-billed thrasher who should normally be found in warm arid places mainly in the far southwestern U.S. My work priorities during the last three episodes of rare birds have made me postpone the drive over to wherever the sighting was happening by at least a day while I ran errands or took care of some first thing first. Then by the time I got there the bird would be out of sight, maybe or maybe not gone for good where less attention would be on it. Storms, or gales, have a lot to do with odd bird arrivals or departures. Yet why a thrasher from hot lands of chaparral, sage and cacti would opt to roost in spruces, both ornamental and native, in Itasca County, Minnesota all beset by frozen peat bogs in January's deep freeze no one has explained so far as I know, but it's interesting to think about animals no matter what kind they are, and what some sports among them may do partly by choice. For reasons of our own, too, birders are compelled to zoom across miles of highway to see a new kind of bird for its unique evolutionary splendor, never mind that it might be immature and in drab plumage.

If this bird continues to be seen in the same neighborhood I figure on making time again to go and try finding it along with the others who will be trying, most having come a lot many more miles than the 36 I've been traveling to get there.

Meanwhile I'm most of the way through the homespun travel memoir From Blueberries to Blue Seas by friend and neighbor Curt Bush, published just last year by the Savage Press of Superior, Wisconsin. In 2013 Curt followed where his heart and fascinations were leading him, taking a 28-foot sailboat he had bought and re-outfitted for a long solo journey out of Duluth and down the other Great Lakes, out the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Coast of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, ominous with winds and seasick rollers, crags and sunken rocks and three-day fogs. Having trained himself on earlier, less-well-adapted boats on the perilous near-shore waters of Lake Superior he had gained the skills it took for him to survive storms, mysterious tidewaters, shoals and other deceptions of nature besetting the long route from the Upper Midwest to the sea. The story is as lighthearted as the teller's own typical manner, but  recounts his stresses and moments of rage along with his delight in places, landmarks and friends met, cherished and left behind. In the part I read today he is nudging his way along the coast of Nova Scotia in a fog and a headwind, with reefs and boulders to either side, making only 30 miles in a day, using charts, an instrument called a chart plotter and his anxiously squinting eyes in order to keep from wrecking against a surface he might not have seen. He puts up for the night in a bay on an island wrapped in fog, the only sheltered bit of water the maps reveal, demonstrating how, even in the technological age, a person can still painstakingly venture with something of the attitude of fear, daring and triumph known in the Age of the Explorers over lands they crossed, at a pace truer to that period before mechanized transit. No human may have been there before him, he'd have supposed for at least a moment. This reader would love to have had the know-how to make this trip herself, or a different trip lots like it.

The thought came to my mind as I was reading, and not for the first time: what if an ancient overland traveler, a North American of 200-300 years ago, could be reincarnated and sent walking the familiar country, with at least a vague idea of how much time had elapsed. What would the person see that still evoked the place in those bygone centuries; at what rediscoveries, besides the stark changes, would the person exclaim to some modern-day companion, like me? Could it be that as long as there is humankind there will still be be a few trekkers on foot or by sail or by hand-powered boat, seeing what there is up close and intimate, ending up spellbound by the hand of nature?

In our time when the urban hordes and the businesses supposed to serve us all threaten to use up or wash away soils, acidify waters and ruin the climate for anything out in the sun, it seems to me a kind of learned adaptation to detach in happy-go-lucky style and move within the moment, eternalizing it inside the self. Whatever the weather we'll weather the weather (if the means persist) as some old song said. It's easiest if the present weather is a kind you savor--bright if you adore the sun, dim if that fits your temperament..

Remembering back to last fall when week after week of August-balmy sun prevailed and unusual people like me, not particularly a sun lover, fretted that we might have crossed into a new winterless era marked most of all by long dark nights with the interspersion of a little frost, if nothing else, I've been drawing and painting a different, recent bird visitor. Day after day back then we had had southwesterly winds. Those must have been the impetus for the sudden, startling Eurasian tree sparrow seen on a weekday morning from within my car where I slouched in the driver's seat looking over a call list I had marked up. This was in an alley-side parking lot in downtown Duluth where English sparrows whirl and forage, pigeons peck and gulls swoop for morsels dropped or kicked out of cars. I had seen my first Eurasian tree sparrow not quite two years previous, a visitor to Hastings in southern Minnesota during that January. But now as I looked at the specimen just an arm's length the other side of my windshield, on top of an embankment, I was stirred with a memory of rushing from the car in weeks recently past and glimpsing what may have been an earlier Eurasian tree sparrow but dismissing it through inattention. Some days later a local authority on birds up the Lake Superior shore saw another Eurasian tree sparrow in the town of Two Harbors. I connect these strays with the southwesterly winds that must have swept them from Missouri or neighboring Illinois where their species, by some whim introduced from Germany in the 1870s, can be most reliably sought among the much commoner, more raucous, grubbier-looking English sparrows.

Work-in-progress with English sparrows and sole Eurasian tree (or German) sparrow on top of a cracking, very American retaining wall

As the days lengthen and thaws allow me the chance, I will keep at this little 12 x 9" piece of work that shows both species (not true sparrows) side by side but mostly minding their own affairs each befitting their  kind, with a background that suggests crumbling, dispersion, residues and traceries of what once made up the area environment. The mood should suggest the whimsical and fleeting, the weather-borne, soon gone, restless and unstable, given over to wandering for maximal stimulation if no other gain.