Week 40: Wild Geese

Every Autumn I hear the musical honking of the wild geese, as they pass through Virginia on their way south for the winter. The sound always stirs something in me, like the changing golden light of shorter days and the burnt orange and red of falling leaves in October. The call of the geese weaves itself seamlessly into the fabric of Fall, my favorite time of year. The sound brings back memories from my childhood, when my father taught me to observe and listen to the natural world. We teased apart the honks and warbles of waterfowl and shore birds, and looked for the identifying white patch on the face of the Canada Goose. Our family liked to visit a nature preserve on the eastern shore of Maryland, Blackwater Refuge, where we climbed the observation tower to look out over the ochre landscape of cattails and marsh grasses, the wild geese calling to each other, flying in their characteristic “V” formation. My young mind thrilled at this sight. “How do they choose the leader? How do they know which direction to fly? How far is their journey?”

Thirty something years later, I hear the sound of the geese flying overhead, and remember that feeling of wonder and curiosity. Our neighborhood sits up high on a ridge, a small network of quiet tree-lined streets, cul-de-sacs, and well-tended lawns.  There is a spot where the entry road climbs the steep hill to our houses, cutting open a clearing that reveals a long view to a wilder place. There are layers of open field, farm, and woodland, the Rivanna River winding its way in between. As the leaves fall, we can see a widening band of the distant Blue Ridge Mountains. The Canada Geese congregate in the field at the bottom of our hill. Sometimes I see their tiny black shapes rising up in a graceful “V” through the clearing, other times they fly directly over our rooftops, calling loudly. I think of my son, who is inside playing on his iPad, and I remind myself, “Teach him to listen for the wild geese. Don’t forget.”

Wild Geese, acrylic collage 12 x 12

Detail, Wild Geese

Detail, Wild Geese

Detail, Wild Geese

Detail, Wild Geese

Detail, Wild Geese

Week 39: Fishing

Fishing with my Dad, circa 1980

Fishing is a tradition in my family. I grew up fishing with my father on the Chesapeake Bay and the Little Choptank River. I liked to sit on the bow of our boat, watching the sun’s quivering reflections on the waves, as we sped out across the water to where the river meets the bay. The open bay was so vast and beautiful, like the boundless presence of my father’s love. We spent many happy hours together on the water, side by side in our own world, casting for bluefish.

Another favorite fishing spot was in Georgia, where we would often spend a few weeks in the summer visiting my father’s relatives. The best part of the trip, for me, was fishing for catfish around a big pond with my Dad on his family’s farm. I loved to hear stories about his fishing adventures in the creeks and ponds of his own childhood. I was proud that I could absorb everything he taught me about fishing and I was never squeamish about holding up my little fish for the camera!

My boy on a fishing trip with his Grandfather

I loved mastering the flick of the wrist that sent the line flying out over the water. I loved the anticipation of patiently watching the bobber for any signs of a bite. I loved the thrill of reeling in a good catch, even if we tossed it back. Most of all, I loved being outdoors and spending time with my Dad. Now my father takes my son, Max, fishing, and I think Max loves it for all the same reasons.

This collage is a tribute to fishing, but it is not only about the catching of fish. It is about the special experience of being quietly absorbed in the rhythms of the natural world, and the connection to the loved ones with whom you share that experience. I included a treehouse in the final piece, which has been a recurring motif in my work, symbolizing childhood, sanctuary, and the possibilities of the imagination. In the quiet hours spent around a pond, love grows, ideas are born, and you just might reel in the big one.

Fishing, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Fishing

Detail, Fishing

Detail, Fishing

Detail, Fishing

Week 35: Small Wonders

The Amazing Spider Web

We have been observing some interesting happenings in the neighborhood. Spider webs the size of tractor tires are strung up between trees and lamp posts, with threads that sometimes stretch all the way across the driveway. In the morning, tiny beads of dew cling and shimmer on their silky nets. Large white-capped mushrooms spring up in the lawn overnight. The flower beds continually re-seed themselves, and not always where you might expect. Weeds sprout after every rain, as the damp late summer slips into cooler evenings and shorter days. Reinvention and change is all around us, every day. This collage is about nature’s big and little surprises, reminding me that anything can happen. Yes, I know there are scientific explanations, but let’s allow a little wonder in our lives.

The process for this piece was very loose and intuitive. I wasn’t even sure what it was about until half way through. This was a departure since I normally verbalize a clear theme to myself before beginning. I was pressed for time, and I had a kind of brain-freeze of ideas. First there was panic, then I just started making something. I let go of words, and allowed the images to pop up like mushrooms on the page. Then I remembered the actual mushrooms in the lawn, then the spider webs, and soon the seeds of creativity became unstuck, growing like weeds. I’m interested in how words can limit or expand the creative process. Do words pre-empt the unconscious mind that deals best with images? Are words best used after the artwork is finished or underway? But what about illustration, where words are needed to define the purpose of the image? Does the image have the power to take us beyond the words, to deeper understanding? What do you think?

Small Wonders

Detail, Small Wonders

Detail, Small Wonders

Detail, Small Wonders

Detail, Small Wonders

Detail, Small Wonders

Birds

Neighborhood resident perched in a tree

There are layers of secret sub-cultures in our neighborhood that will reveal themselves to the patient observer. Deer roam the forests behind our houses and sneak up into our yards at night to nibble the shrubs and flowers. A red fox flashes across the ravine at the edge of the woods. Squirrels chatter away, chasing each other through the tree tops and then disappear into a small round hole in an old birch tree. Worms and slugs do what they do in the low-down unseen realms of grasses, mulch and mud. Whole societies coexist side by side on every block, as we come and go, largely oblivious.

Hatched Robin’s egg found on the ground.

And then there are the birds! They are harder to miss. If only I could know all their secrets. I have been listening to their songs and observing them closely this Spring. I found a tiny blue egg-shell on the ground, discarded by its inhabitant, hopefully in birth and not death. (My cat, Olivia, slinks under the rose bush, avoiding my eye.) After I found the egg, I began noticing that robins are building lots of small nests in the cherry trees along the sidewalks. One day I was lucky enough to have my camera with me when I saw a Mother Robin sitting in her nest. I snapped a quick picture before startling her into flight.  Guiltily, I stood on tiptoe, raised my camera above my head, leaned into the branches and took a blind shot of the nest from above. The photo revealed one perfect blue egg.

Mother Robin in her nest

Robin’s nest in the cherry tree, moments after Mother flew away.

“Chuh” surveys his kingdom from a rooftop.

We have a favorite grey bird that we often see around our yard, one of whom entertained us once by swooping down from the pear tree and dive bombing our menacing cat.  My son nicknamed the bird “Chuh.” Not the most charming moniker, but this is the sound that it makes, “Chuh! Chuh! Chuh!” as if furiously admonishing someone. Then, in sudden forgiveness, it breaks into more varied and lyrical cries, as if it had so much more to say. One early morning I saw Chuh perched in my neighbor’s birch tree. I crept in very close, til I was only a few feet away. He didn’t move, but began to sing. I was astounded by the variety of beautiful sounds that he could make. What does it mean? I stood very still, watching and listening for a long time, until he finished his soliloquy and flew away.

I decided I had to identify Chuh. After some online research, I discovered the fantastic website, WhatBird.com.  It has a search database that allows you to plug in different characteristics to identify your bird. It turns out that Chuh is a Northern Mockingbird. I had to laugh when the description said, “The Northern Mockingbird voraciously defends its territory, attacking intruders including house pets and even people.” So homeownership in suburbia does not preclude other creatures from making their own claims.  Look out, Olivia!

Olivia and the Mockingbird

Mockingbird Sketches