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Into the Arms of Dean's Fork

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

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On this June morning, I woke before light, as I usually do, and lay in bed planning my day. I decided that the best thing I could do would be to walk down Dean's Fork with Curtis and celebrate the return of the beavers. Maybe I'd get some photos for this post! I hung the big rig over my shoulder and grabbed my binoculars, harnessed the cur to a belt around my waist, and off we went. 

The feeling I get when I walk down Dean's Fork is much like the one many do when passing through the doors of a church. I feel as though I am delivering myself and all my cares to a greater power. I feel it working on me the entire time I'm there. Discoveries await me, each time, and I can never anticipate what they might be. That's the deliciousness of being attuned to nature. It's subtle stuff. You have to look for it and be open to it. You can't go barging along talking or listening to music. You must let the only input be that of nature. That's when the magic happens.

Northern pearly-eye, my first of the season, June 15

I think of my visits there as "delivering myself into the arms of Dean's Fork." Because that's how it feels. Like I'm being wrapped up in something much bigger than me. Look at this beaver dam, in a sinuous Z, perfectly and powerfully engineered to hold back who knows how many hundreds or thousands of tons of rainwater. The dam itself is easily 20' high. It was made by two rodents only of the materials they could transport in their teeth and arms. Think about that. The intelligence, the design of it all. It takes my breath away. It is as precious to me as any architectural work of man, because what work of man creates habitat for so many other creatures?  Humans transform habitat, but rarely for the benefit of other life forms than humans. Concrete and glass are notoriously unkind to winged ones. Here, in this perfect construction site, the waters teem with life, and they're a magnet for wildlife you'd never find otherwise. 


I didn't see a heron on this joyful trip, but I saw where the shitepoke sat.


And shat.

I smiled so big, picturing a great blue heron, all angles and spikes, delivering the evidence of its visit to the road below. 

That evidence, transient and nourishing, going back into the earth without a hitch. Unlike the evidence of human passage. What LOSER would dump his (losing) lottery tickets and beer cans in this sacred space? A loser, that's who. Only someone insensate to beauty could defile this place. 


In the muddy road just alongside the pond, some opossum tracks...


and the greater prize, some good clear river otter tracks. For now, they might be eating crayfish, but oh, when the fish come in! I thrill to think of fish rising to the surface in the evening.


And the greatest prize of all, my lottery win: a sighting of the engineers! I have to go pretty early in the morning or late in the evening to catch them. They're crepuscular. I was delighted to see the two interacting when I got there. They were grooming each other with tooth and claw. But so gently, no red. 


I have to think that the smaller animal (on shore) is a female, while the enormous dirigible is a male.


He gave me a direct stare, surely unaware that I had advocated on his behalf.


Eased into the water and swam as close as he dared.


And then, with a hugely satisfying kerPLOOOP, he clapped his flat tail against the water and dove deep.
I love that sound! It's like throwing a pumpkin in a pool! 

Though we'd had 3/4" of hard rain the night before, the stream crossings on the road were all absolutely fine. When the dam has been destroyed, they become impassable to foot traffic, unless you either want to wade barefoot or have the water come over your boot tops. But now, the dam holds back the flood, and that makes life easier for those who live on the road. I wonder if anyone else has noticed this but me?


Puddles on the road were another matter. We got through, but only just. Yes, that one is heart shaped. I love it because it's a frog factory, and because it keeps cars and many trucks from getting through. Less traffic is better, always. 


Curtis and I reached the Ironweed Festival grounds and looked back, having walked facing the light the whole way down. 


How beautiful it all is. I know that, now that the cattle are gone, it won't be open for very long. Already, groves of sycamores have started up, and they're taller than me. We must be ready for the change that inexorably comes. We have all had so much change of late. 

Oh, how the sky reflects in the creek. 


I can envision the day when this young sycamore will take my breath away. I hope I'm still here when it's big enough to do that.


I found Moneywort, in the primrose family (Lysimachia nummularia), growing in a wet ditch. I looked at the plant and turned it over in my hand and mind, and decided it was either a loosetrife or a primrose. I was happy to find it was a primrose! Love that plant taxonomy, now practically innate, kicking in as I puzzle. Carroll Williams' Plant Taxonomy course at Harvard was one of the best, most fun, and most useful I ever took. Plus, we drew!!


Down toward the end of the Ironweed (or Corn Salad) Festival Grounds, I found at least five pairs of song sparrows. I have a new appreciation for these birds, having raised one up from nothing this summer. I saw some fledglings about 10 days younger than mine, and smiled. I knew what their parents were dealing with. I was amazed how many breeding pairs were packed into that one old field. I envisioned setting up a study to map their territories, then discarded the idea. I study birds all the time, but not in that way. No netting, no banding, no blood samples. 


If song sparrows have a heaven, this is it.


Can you spot the phoebe in his element? 


We got to the end of the line with a creek crossing my boots couldn't handle. This is the face Curtis gave me when I told him we had to turn back.
He'd have happily gone on for miles more.


As it is, it's a four-mile walk, round trip. I do it happily, though it's all downhill on the way down, and uphill going back. What helps is that the light is beautiful on the way back, because the sun is behind me.



It was a good day for large rodents.


Woodchucks, genus Marmota, are in the family Sciuridae, the squirrels. That makes sense. 

They are not so very different. Beavers (Castor canadensis) are in the family Castoridae, the rodent suborder Castorimorpha, along with gophers, kangaroo rats and pocket mice. That is one heck of a mouse.


A mouse with skills. Here's its house, with an underwater entrance and chambers lined with fresh dry grass inside. 


Beavers, and the habitat they create, are miracles. I can't think of another animal that so profoundly impacts the surrounding habitat, in such delightful ways. Water is precious; water is life, and this pond bursts with both. I saw a newly-fledged belted kingfisher trying the waters on my next to last visit. Wood ducks almost always squeal and scurry away, taking a little piece of my anxious heart with them when they do. Into the arms of Dean's I go, and I come home changed for the better.



Solstice Celebration

Saturday, June 27, 2020

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I took a celebratory walk down the entire road, a total of 3 miles down and 3 miles back up, on June 21. I was celebrating the Summer Solstice, and it was going to be a scorcher, so I started well before sunrise in the cool of the night. I wanted to be in the arms of Dean's Fork when the sun came up on the longest day of the year. It had been so hard to come by, this feeling of peace. The boot was always hanging over my head, ready to drop. The thought that the next time I visited, the beavers might have been shot and their dam ripped out again made going on my favorite hike a proposition fraught with anxiety. I never took a whole breath until, peeking through the shrubs and trees, I saw water where it should be.

And now...now I could believe it would all still be there when I came to see it.


The reflections on the water, the sun coming through fresh leaves, the songs of thrushes and catbirds all around. The sweet warm breath of June, wafting across awakening meadows. The insect choir.
The first Rosa carolina smiling from the moist ditches, their scent pure attar of rose, the scent that sends me through the weeds and down to my knees to inhale it.


My boon companion by my side, or more properly pulling me along. Constantly reminding him not to pull, occasionally having to put the lead on the clip on his chest (It's the Walk Right front connect harness, and it's great). He hasn't learned not to pull because I praise him when he pulls me up the hills. The same thing that helps on hills annoys me on a straightaway. Any dog would be confused.

He's on a lead because there are just too many temptations for a ramblin' man on Dean's Fork. 
The chitter of chipmunks, the sudden thumps and windy cries of deer...all would take him down their trails.


The apports kept coming on this auspicious day. My third barred owl feather of the spring, not far from where I found the belly feather on our last trip. This is probably a primary covert--a very stout long shaft on a short strong feather. This feather is rooted in the fused finger bones of the owl. That one pale spot on the vane says barred owl, as does the cool umber-brown color. You can't feel it, but the whole thing is very soft and downy. That's how I knew it was an owl feather--that and the large size. Stoutness of shaft tells you a lot. It tells you how big the bird was, and where on the bird the feather came from.


I had already figured out through concerted Chimping and staring at it that this was a barred owl primary covert, but it was fun to get confirmation from this photo from the Rouge River Bird Observatory blog.

See the feathers the bander's thumb is on? Those are the primary coverts.  Thanks, Rouge River Bird Observatory! And thanks to whomever tossed that feather down in my path. Dean's Fork is rich in spirit. It's always leaving messages for me to find. And today, I was ringing like a struck bell, open to the joy, because I finally felt I'd been able to accomplish something here.


I walked on farther and found a clump of fur in the road. Now that was interesting. 


I feel I have a few choices here: fox, coyote or bobcat. The hair is wavy, but not crimped, which makes me lean away from canid and toward bobcat. There are no obvious guard hairs, which also makes me lean felid. The gentle tawny color sure works for bobcat too. I rubbed it between my fingers and was reminded of the one and only time I'd ever touched a bobcat--the kitten I took in for a brief time. Its fur had a dense, wooly hand--without the filmy silkiness of domestic cat fur-- that surprised me. 

I found this clump of hair in a stretch where, in favorable conditions, I almost always find bobcat tracks. I've tucked it in my little deerskin pouch with its bit of wool from Miracle, the white bison in Jamestown, ND. It has power I can feel, the kind of power I need. 


My Solstice beaverdam celebratory shirt: I BELIEVE. Empowered. Badass bunny hugger.


As it always does when I turn around on a sunny morning, Dean's knocked me flat. Oh what will I do when that black barn falls down? Photograph its ruins, I suppose. I hope it stands forever, or at least outlives me. Slate roof, swaybacked but still solid. Big brown bats within: poopin' up a pile. 

The yarrow is out today, and the yellow sweet clover. 


But the sweetest surprise of this solstice day was running into Brad and Becky and their three youngun's, who flew and drove great distances to be with their dad on Father's Day. Brad and Becky are well-known naturalists in Marietta. And here they were, come to see the beaver pond on Dean's Fork. This was a first for me. I've never run into another naturalist here unless it was pre-arranged, usually by me. 



I was so amazed I asked if I could take their photo. And it made a pretty nice family Father's Day portrait!


I had to ask how this wonderful family knew to come here. Well, they'd found out about it via my blog! That made me so happy. Dean's Fork needs love from people who care, who won't toss beer cans, dump their gutted deer carcasses (yeah, I see what you do), poach, or rip up the road "muddin'." Ugh. To that end, I talk to everyone I see here, if they'll talk to me. That's how you build community, how you let them know you're watching.

When I got home, I saw the first chicory opening by my mailbox.
Stop, June! It's all too beautiful.


The Most Beautiful Book I Own

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

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 One of my favorite gigs is writing nature book reviews for the Wall Street Journal. There is little I love better than getting a package in the mail from the editors there. It takes me absolutely FOREVER to read them, since I can't sit down during the day and only read at night, before I fall asleep, but I somehow manage to get it done. Then I get to say what I love about them. If I don't love a book, I won't review it, because to me, the point of a book review is to bring what's wonderful to more readers. And I have found something wonderful. It's called Finding Sanctuary. I asked Barry Van Dusen to prepare a guest blogpost about the first book he's both written and illustrated. Barry is a career natural history illustrator, and those of us who know his work have been literally slobbering, waiting for him to haul off and write his own book, illuminated by some of his gazillion field sketches and paintings he curates so meticulously in his western Massachusetts home. 

Skunknett River painting set-up 


This man sketches, draws and paints from LIFE. From moving, living birds and animals, plants, insects. Outside, plein air, making landscapes appear on paper. I look at this forest scene and shrink into a fetal position, thinking about what it would take to make a watercolor of it. But Barry's like Nike. He just DOES it. And his book is an absolute masterwork, given the most lavish and sensitive treatment possible by Mass Audubon and Puritan Press in Hollis, NH. You simply MUST have it. 



 I have great empathy for other authors who are launching books in these upside-down days. I had the grandest book tour planned for New England (see left sidebar), and none of those events are happening now. The months Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's wonderful publicist, Maria Mann and I spent logisticizing and putting it together, the dozens of emails confirming every detail with the organizers...all for naught in 2020, and I stayed home to love my kids, feed bluebirds and raise a song sparrow instead, and that is all FINE and as it should be. But oh, I would have loved to have the chance to stump for Saving Jemima.

  On one hand, maybe more people are interested and have time to read books--I'm hearing from lots of friends who are only just reading their copies of Saving Jemima, which came out in fall 2019. On the other, it's really hard to sell books when you can't give book talks. So in that spirit, I asked Barry to write a guest post about Finding Sanctuary, in the hope that you, my good readers, would consider adding a copy to your library, and maybe gifting a couple more. Here's Barry!

My work as a nature artist takes me in many directions—book illustration, lectures and teaching, studio painting and exhibitions—but the most engaging part of my job, and certainly the most fun, is outdoor drawing and painting. So when Amy Montague, director of Mass Audubon’s Museum of American Bird Art, approached me in 2014 with the idea of a Massachusetts statewide residency, I didn’t need much convincing.  I would visit, paint and draw at each one of Mass Audubon’s 61 wildlife sanctuaries around the state. In previous years, I had taken part in several residency projects around New England, but this would be the most ambitious one yet. I wanted to give each Mass Audubon sanctuary the attention it deserved, and insisted on a two-year working period. In the end, the residency work spanned more than four and a half years!
In our preliminary discussions, Amy and I decided that I should not feel the need to work toward any predetermined list of species or sanctuary “specialties”, though many of the subjects I painted would fit that description. Instead, my aim would be to seize on artistic opportunities as I encountered them. This approach granted me the expressive freedom to pursue whatever piqued my curiosity, admiration, or imagination. 
Incubating Piping Plover, Allens Pond, p.67
I live in central Massachusetts, and most of the sanctuaries are within reasonable driving distance, so I typically spent a full day at each location and returned home by nightfall.  Overnight trips to locations farther from home afforded me the opportunity to visit sites more than once, and to be afield at dawn and dusk—propitious times for wildlife.
Smaller Purple Fringed Orchid, West Mountain p.158
In some instances, I timed my visits to work with very specific subjects, like the yellow lady’s slippers at High Ledges or the purple-fringed orchids at West Mountain. For places like Marblehead Neck or Sampson’s Island, I made sure to visit at the most productive times of year (when birds were passing through in the first instance, and settled onto their nests in the second).  I took seasonal and weather-related factors into consideration for every visit, and studied the sanctuary maps ahead of time, hoping to maximize my time at each location.
American Redstart, Marblehead Neck p. 58


When I first started the project, I thought I might do all of the watercolor paintings on location. I fancied I would arrive at a new sanctuary, perhaps do some drawings, paint a watercolor, and then move on to the next location. What I hadn’t anticipated was the variety and abundance of subject matter that I wanted to depict. I am not the speediest field artist (nor the slowest), but the best I can hope for in a day’s work is three finished watercolors, and more often only one or two. I realized that to do justice to the diversity I encountered in the time available, I couldn’t limit myself exclusively to fieldwork. Moreover, I realized that some of my best ideas for pictures came to me after a visit, when I’d had the leisure to mull over my experiences and ponder on the imagery. Consequently, the work you see in the book is a result of both field and studio efforts.
The Horse Barn in a Spring Snowsquall, Wachusett Meadow pp. 138-139
            I painted many BIRDS for the residency, but also worked with landscapes (some featuring Mass Audubon buildings), flowers and plants, butterflies, dragonflies and other insects, mammals, salamanders, turtles, frogs and fish.  Looking at the entire body of work, I see an obvious bias toward certain subjects, and for this I make no apologies.  I tell my students:  Draw what you LOVE, and it will reflect in your work!
            Much of what I’ve learned about the specialized craft of field painting comes from my exposure to European artists. Painting nature subjects outdoors from life is not commonly practiced here in the United States, but it’s a popular pursuit among many artists in Europe. During projects sponsored by the Artists for Nature Foundation (Netherlands), I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside some of the world’s most talented field artists. They have shown me how to select, organize and carry materials and equipment, which types of optics are most effective, and methods for working in a variety of situations. Ultimately, every field artist formulates an approach best suited to their own unique aims and temperament, but my exposure to these other artists has greatly accelerated the process of finding what works best for me. 

Field Kit  p. 8
     Painting outdoors with watercolors comes with its own set of challenges, and you’ll encounter most of them in the pages of this book. On sunny days, light conditions change rapidly as the sun moves across the sky, especially in the morning and evening hours. While light conditions can be challenging, they can also become the driving force in a painting (e.g. Wings of Winter, below). 
     I could usually avoid rain through careful scrutiny of the forecasts, but New England weather doesn’t always play by the book. I’ve learned to carry a few sheets of plastic in my pack to quickly cover up paper and materials, and a rain jacket if the weather looks iffy. Despite these precautions, I had some frustrating sessions with rainy weather.
Osprey in the Rain, North Hill Marsh p. 74
    Cold could be mitigated by layering up properly, using warm gloves and neck gaiters, and carrying a few of those chemical hand- and foot-warmer packs. Wind joined the cold and added to the challenges at some locations. But winter conditions could also offer up rewards, like the ice storm just before my visit to Habitat, which allowed access to colorful, interesting twigs sheared from the treetops. 
     Humidity, both high and low, can be a serious issue for the watercolor painter. Too much moisture in the air (the more common condition in New England) slows the drying of washes and can bring progress to a standstill. Very dry conditions have the opposite effect, causing the paint to dry so quickly that there is no time to manipulate wet passages. 
     And then, there are the miscellaneous annoyances: biting insects and ticks, wet feet, and poisonous plants, to name a few. These are often the first memories that come to mind when I recall a particular day in the field!
Swallows Over Barnstable Great Marsh  p. 87
Some subjects lend themselves easily to location painting. It’s no accident that landscapes are the most popular subjects for outdoor painters: they stay in one place (thank you!), and offer endless variations of design and mood. All of the landscapes in this book were at least begun in the field, and many were completed on location. 
Botanical subjects offer the same luxury of working time as landscapes, and could be approached in a similar manner. One obvious difference is the shift in scalethe difference between macro and micro. With plants, I usually slow down and pay more attention to morphology and details. Glancing through these pages, you’ll notice that I enjoy the details of nature. I often feel that these are too important and interesting to generalize or suggest, and am driven to record them accurately.

Cinnamon Fern Fiddleheads, Nashoba Brook  p. 126


  
            In my opinion, studio work offers even greater opportunities for an artist’s creative side to take command. Removing myself from the fact of the subject can be liberating, allowing my imagination to take a freer hand. Studio work can also be more conceptual and carefully planned: I can combine and rearrange elements, manipulate scale, and fine-tune the balance of a composition in myriad ways.  
     In the studio, I can borrow freely from a variety of sources. I can refer to sketches made an hour ago or years ago. I can repaint unsuccessful field paintings, building on their strengths while avoiding faults made on the spot. I can use specimens of plants, rocks, and other natural materials, even weave in memories and associations from the past. Where field painting is intuitive, spontaneous, and improvisational, studio painting can be conceptual, cerebral, and imaginative.

Wings of Winter (snow buntings), Kettle Island  p. 57

            As an artist who wishes to portray natural subjects with fidelity, my aim is to celebrate and admire the complex beauty of nature. At the same time, I want to express my wonder and awe, and retain the excitement and emotions that accompany my field encounters. To that end, I may choose to exaggerate, embellish, invent, and even distort to achieve my expressive ends. As Picasso famously said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.”  And so, I am forever seeking a balance—between field and studio, fact and expression, truth and feeling.  

Here ends Barry's guest post. Zick, back with you. 
 Heads up: It's not cheap, but ohhh, the quality in every page. Hardcover. The paper is like satin. The design was overseen by the artist himself, every single page. The color reproduction is impeccable (same deal--Barry was on press at Puritan in Hollis, NH with it). It's an art book, a visual and sensual delight. You will be delighted you treated yourself!  To order your copy of  Finding Sanctuay, click https://tinyurl.com/vandusenbook 
Times being what they are, Barry's going to have a virtual book launch. He and I have pre-recorded a half-hour interview on Zoom, where you can see us each sitting in our respective studios: me asking questions and Barry answering them. It's a lot of fun. David Sibley will also check in, and (late breaking news) so will Lars Jonsson! If you love bird art, this is a don't miss event.  Go to  https://tinyurl.com/zickbarry to register for this FREE event on June 24 at 7 pm. You can ask questions in real time! See you then! 



   




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