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Bokeh Bird

Tuesday, September 18, 2018


This female ruby-throated hummingbird is sitting on one of the little shish kebab skewers that I provide for my clients. My clients being the gazillion birds who frequent my yard, who I'm trying constantly to please in creative ways. I've stuck the bamboo skewers, which are exactly the right gauge for tiny hummingbird feet, into the links of the chain holding up one of my hanging baskets. The skewers are almost never without a perching client, because they're close to the feeders and just right for fussy hummer feet.

I haven't known the term "bokeh" for too long. It sounds a bit like a Chet Baker word, doesn't it? It's Japanese, and it refers to the gorgeous thing that happens when the background of a shot goes all blurry and nice. What's behind this bird is my barn-red house siding with a blooming Achimenes "Pink Nighty" in a hanging basket. Wooo. That is some off-the charts nice bokeh. Especially the little dark patch framing the bird.

As soon as I saw her there on the skewer, with the flowers behind her, I knew I had a killer photo op. She was scratching away at her neck and head.

 You'd think a hummingbird's scratching foot would be lightning fast, but it isn't at all. She's got to bring that tiny leg up and over her big long wing, and that's really awkward. So she scratches very slowly.

Then she looks at her foot as if wondering how it got there, up over her wing, and how she's going to get it back where it belongs.

At length, she does, and she rests for a few moments.

Then it's time to scratch the other side of her face. You really must click on this one to embiggen it. Then you can see them all larger.

Because she is a hummingbird, there is always an argument in the offing. She cusses at an incoming bird

and sizes up her opponent. A second later, she shot straight up into the air in pursuit, and my precious moments with her were over.

I'm ridiculously attached to the few remaining hummingbirds in my gardens. I want them to stay forever. They won't, of course, but until they go, they'll get their portraits made. September is the month when the hummingbirds leave. Seems everyone leaves in September. But that also means everyone is passing through in September, and I get to photograph the parade!

A Day in the Life

Friday, September 14, 2018


 I'll be honest: I'm coming down off the I have the whole house to myself! cloud and tiptoeing along the ditch of Is that all there is? I knew the shine would wear off it pretty quickly.

Make no mistake: there's plenty to keep me busy here, with a book deadline looming and me working at capacity. It feels really good to have my watercolor painting chops honed and oiled. But when you've been used to other living souls around to feed, clothe and care for, to share with and laugh with, it can feel weird to go all day without talking to anyone in person. So you keep yourself busy.

I decided I'd better get my sneakers back on the road. I ran down to check on the neighbors' place.
 On the way, there was the most beautiful mackerel sky. I wish I knew how the clouds form and line up like that. I'm just glad they do. I feel like a bug under a lace doily. It's all so huge and beautiful and incomprehensible.

I turned off the road and down a dirt path. I stopped and rested in the shade of a bulldozer. The smell of oil and diesel is comforting, because it reminds me of my dad. He was always messing around with things that used oil and diesel. I figure if he's going to accompany me, it'd pay me to hang around machinery that he's interested in inspecting. DOD was all about machinery.

I walked to the rise, where I could see the neighbors' castle taking its final form. I've been walking in and watching it, with their blessing, for about three years.  Phoebe and I even walked around inside it not long ago, and it's really, really cool. It's so amazing to see it turn from big skids and piles of block into a real castle. And it's interesting to live near people who have a dream, however unusual, and are willing to put all that money and work into it.

It occurred to me that there aren't all that many people in this part of Appalachia who could or would follow a dream like that.  So that's something special, to watch their dream take shape. I like people with dreams.

Also special to me: The morning glories are finally opening. I didn't have to wait quite as long this year as two years ago, when they were still in tight, tiny bud on October 12! Still, it feels like forever. I planted the durn things in the greenhouse in April! Fenced and barricaded them against rabbits and chipmunks. Only two of the six made it even so. The chipmunks climbed up and into the 2' cylinders of chicken wire to bite them off. The rabbits nipped off any stems that dared grow outside the cylinders. It's been a thing.

But being able to drown in that heavenly blue makes the battle worthwhile. Last year I grew "Flying Saucers," these ridiculous tie-dyed white and blue things that on the seed packet sound great. This was as good as it got. And it's pretty good, but they weren't all that nice by any means.

 The vast majority of their blossoms were this sickly bluish-white, and though they were nice against a pearly sky, I hopped off the Flying Saucer train.

 Nothing beats this plant. I'll be faithful from here on out, Clark's Heavenly Blue.

Let's face it. I'm a color junkie. Always have been, always will be. It's just getting moreso. Here are my impatiens stairs. You can't really walk up them any more. I don't care. I like the cascade of color flowing like spilled paint down the old sandstone blocks. From the time we were first laying the stones, I knew they would be no more than a backdrop for flowers. I used to grow sun-loving succulents like portulaca, purslane and ice plant here, but the Japanese maple that stands guard nearby had other ideas. Slowly its canopy overspread the steps, and I was emboldened to try shade-loving annual impatiens. It turned out to be just the thing. And the rabbits didn't touch them, go figure! I'll do it again! And they've seeded themselves nicely. Doubt the seeds will make it through the winter, so I'll start fresh in spring.

 As I work away in the studio, painting top-secret blue jays and wishing I could share them with you, my phone chirps and bloops, telling me when a message from the kids is coming through. I am still in a state of suspended disbelief that I can SEE them. Get photos from them. Sometimes talk to them, and SEE them talking. It's a Jetson's world. I'll never get blase about that. I think of my weekly telephone call to my parents when I was in college and just shake my head.

It's one thing to see Liam in his dorm room three hours away in Morgantown, but quite another to see Phoebe, sweatin' to the oldies on La Gomera in the Canary Islands! How can this be?

She's on a Fulbright fellowship, and she'll be a teaching assistant in an elementary school, where her Spanish is going to reach full fluency. I can hardly believe it, and I can't wait to see pictures of her school, her co-workers and students.

La pinche calima is a Saharan dust storm! Ack!
Meanwhile, Liam shares his wry observations from WVU, where he's taking four art courses at once. He's drawing from life! I just keep shaking my head. They were both here all summer, and now they're off and doing amazing things, and I get to watch.

Both my fledglings have a good command of the language. Liam in particular has a really interesting vocabulary, and an always unexpected choice of words. I love to read their writing. 

As part of the Fulbright fellowship, awardees are encouraged to keep a blog. As a result, Phoebe is blogging, and I can't imagine anything that could delight this old Blogosaurus Rex any more than to see my girl spread her writing and photography wings for all to take in. Maybe it's seeing Liam's art on Instagram ( @lht_artwork). That delights me, too.

Phoebe's already got several posts up at 

 and preliminary results indicate that the child can tell a story. I knew that already, but it ought to be a pleasant surprise to those of you who have been reading this blog for years. Check her out. I'd recommend reading from the first post!

I find it all pretty incredible. And it's happened so fast. One minute I'm asking them what they'd like for breakfast, and the next he's in a dorm three hours away and she's halfway around the world. And I'm reading her blog. 

Today I got buried in my work, preparing for a talk tomorrow. I ripped my talk apart and hammered it back together again with a bunch of new parts. I loaded the car with all my merchandise. And only when that was all done did I turn back to composing painting number 11 of 19 for Saving Jemima. 

And when I couldn't work any longer I got up to look out the south window of the studio. I could see just a bit of the sky, and I could see there was something serious going on out there.

Maximilian sunflower in the prairie patch

Better, I think, with goldenrod. It lets the clouds be their magnificent selves.

While I'd been working and thinking and absorbed, this incredible cloud parade had been filing silently past, unannounced and unbidden.

I walked out to the meadow and literally fell to my knees, looking for the right angle from which to record it. They were so huge and beautiful and growing, growing, growing, ever upward, their cauliflowery heads expanding, reaching higher and higher into the stratosphere.

It all reminded me of what has happened with my kids. While I was busy, they blew up into these magnificent proto-adults. And then they marched off to the south, like these clouds are doing. I can't stop them; I wouldn't even try. I just have to watch them go. 

On My Own Two Feet

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

I'm home from Wisconsin and happily painting blue jays and eating leftovers in the quietest of quiet houses, deliriously glad not to be huddled in a corner of some gray airport. Written while on the road:

I like travel. Even though I'm writing this as I'm finishing a 7-hour airline stranding in Detroit, and it's pushing 10 pm, and I have another four hours to go before I collapse in my own bed, it's usually good. There are a few things about travel, besides airport strandings, that I'm not crazy about. One of them is being stuck so I can't go wherever I want. As in: being deposited in a hotel without a car. In those cases, I look around for places with trees and meadows and head out on foot to find them.

Early Sunday morning, I had three hours before I had to be back at the hotel to catch the airport shuttle. My room was beautiful--huge, modern, well appointed. But I wanted OUT of this glass and granite box, so clean and sterile that a spider in the shower elicited an exclamation of wonder from me. How in the world did it get there? How could it survive? I peered out my second floor window and eyed a long low ridge that in Wisconsin is referred to as a "mountain." Well, OK, thought this Midwesterner-turned-Appalachian-hillbilly. They can call it whatever they want. It's a rise. It'll do. The ridge was covered in forest, except for some ski runs cut down its flank. Got a rise? Put a ski resort on it. I figured I'd walk to it. There should be access or maintenance trails that run under the ski lifts.  Then I'd walk up the trails and get a view from the top.

I figured right. It took me about an hour to get to Rib Mountain Ski Area, but by gum I got there. And there was a wonderful trail that went right up the mountain. I met two women who were walking two doodle-crosses and a friend's Boston terrier named Willie. He was beee-utiful. They said Willie was on his third home. And he was so well-behaved and sweet that all they could think was that he was surrendered because he farts so much and so badly. Well. I know all about THAT. I told them to put his food dish on a paint can, so he wouldn't gulp so much air as he eats. And to put a couple tablespoons of canned pumpkin in his food every day. They were so excited to learn all this, and promised to pass it along to Willie's owner. It made me feel good to offer help, but not as good as it felt to run my hands over a Boston terrier again. Willie was only the second Boston I'd encountered since Chet had to leave me on August 30, 2017. He seemed puzzled that I wanted to touch him so badly, but being a perfect gentleman, he suffered my attentions. And I hope my advice changed a few  lives for the better. Being a good Boston, he'll still fart, but maybe it won't be as potent.

Farther up the trail, a woodchuck flowed out of the weeds and stopped to look at me. I took it as a very auspicious sign. I love woodchucks and always try to pass them mind-pictures when we meet. He's the dark loaf on the right of the path.

 There were harebells on the way up, and tall bellflower on the top.

At the top, I was a bit more than 2.5 miles from my hotel, much of it in a climb. In this photo, my hotel is the long black rectangular building on the far right, below the lake.

It felt pretty amazing to have gotten myself that far away, with only the power of my two feet.
To be up among the migrating indigo buntings, Swainson's thrushes and yellow-rumped warblers, and out of earshot of the damned freeway.
To have exactly an hour and a half to get myself back to get on a bus, then a plane. It was time to turn around, as much as I wanted to explore the next thing I discovered: Rib Mountain State Park! Trails everywhere! None of which I had time to take!

In this photo my hotel is the black rectangle. I'm gloating that I'm in a high meadow and not in it.

I thought to myself that more people should try and see where their own two feet can take them. Big granite and glass boxes are fine for a little while, but they aren't my habitat. On a beautiful day with three good hours to spend, I'll go outside every time.

It's not just for exercise and health. It's for my mental health. I figured a lot of things out on that hike. I saw my path forward just as clearly as I saw the dirt trail under my feet. I saw where I should and shouldn't be spending time and energy. I met myself on the trail. And you know, that happens pretty much every time I put a few miles behind me. 

As I descended into the subdivision, I could hear the freeway roaring again. A small, lithe whitetail doe burst out of a backyard and crossed the wide quiet street in front of me. I could hear her hooves tickering on the hard surface.

She stopped in the scant cover of tree shadows between two houses and hesitated. Her ears were swiveling and her tail was switching. I stopped still to give her as much room as I could. She thought for a little while then wheeled and galloped right back the way she'd come, crossing right in front of me, headed back to Rib Mountain.

Oh how I longed to follow her! I had to go back and start my 15-hour journey home. I didn't know it was going to take that long, but we aren't given to know much in the wonderful world of commercial aviation.

Back to the big glass and metal box. Collect your stuff and go.

 I wouldn't soon forget that hike. I closed out the day with 18,000 steps on my Fitbit, about 12,000 of them happy hiking steps in pellucid September air.

As I rotted in Detroit, writing blogposts to pass the time, I was so thankful that I'd chosen an adventure for those three Sunday morning hours.

If I ever find myself in that hotel again, I'm going to head straight out and climb Rib Mountain again.

Art and Love in Wisconsin

Sunday, September 9, 2018

 Displaying two perfect, squeaky squidgy Wisconsin cheese curds. From left, Master Artists Robert Bateman, Cindy House, and Not-Master Artist me.

The center of art in Wisconsin: Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, with a fabulous crane installation called "The Dance" by Donna Dodson and Andy Moerlein.

What a sculpture garden this museum has! 

It's not at all like me to blog something so current, but I'm stuck for 7 hours in Detroit's airport, just trying to get home on a dreary gray day, victim of a malfunctioning emergency aisle light on a plane, that had to be fixed before it would be cleared for takeoff. That little burned out light meant I missed my connection in Detroit, and the next plane going to Akron doesn't leave Detroit until 10  tonight. That gets me in at Indigo Hill at approximately 1:30 AM, after I drive the two hours home in blinding rain. Yay. First world problems. I have a car, I have a home to go to, right? Still, it is a bit of a bummer to be so tired and not be able to get home in a remotely timely way.

Reflecting on the great time I had while in the care of Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum's wonderful staff seems a good way to feel thankful while sitting in a corner on my enforced staycation. Cindy House, fabulous pastel artist and dear friend, asked me to introduce her at two functions during the Birds in Art show at which she received the Master Artist medal. I got to hang it around her neck!!  I also wrote a long article for the show catalogue, in which I attempted to say enlightened things about the importance of her glorious art. Better than that was getting to tell a lot of other artists and art appreciators how much Cindy means to me personally. I really loved getting to do that.

One thing I wanted everyone to know was how funny Cindy is, something that doesn't come through in her majestic pastels at all. My intro turned out well, because Cindy's talk immediately after my little speech was cripplingly funny. Here, she's describing being on enormous Antarctic seas in a hurricane, and saying, "You know you're in trouble when the maid puts a seatbelt on your bed..."

The talent packed into this wee person is inestimable. Go to her website and look at her pastels. This is one of my favorites. You can see through the waves way down into the water.

We had no trouble at all with PDA's. That's how we roll.

It was such a delight to be among friends and fellow bird artists. I got to see Elwin Van der Kolk, with his gorgeous miniature of shelducks on a mudflat.

Such a simple concept, but so, so beautifully realized.  His website: for more of Elwin's incredible work click here.

I've no idea how it came up, but somehow Elwin and I discovered that we had both contributed art to the cover of two different editions of Vernon Head's wonderful book, The Rarest Bird in the World: The Search for the Nechisar Nightjar. Elwin did the cover of the Dutch language edition:

and my painting was used for the cover of the English language paperback edition:

The bird is known only from one dried wing from a roadkill, which is why our paintings have a certain similarity.

More beauty--John Pitcher's breathtaking nesting parasitic jaeger.  Holy wow.

Irish artist Julian Friers' incredible northern fulmar painting. He's a barrel of monkeys--plays guitar and pennywhistle; paints portraits of rock stars, extinct animals and other awesome things. His website is here.


I gloried in a huge auxiliary exhibit of Master Artist Anne Senechal Faust's serigraphs. Oh My Gosh. 

It was such a privilege to be here among such gifted people. Utterly humbling. 

Speaking of soul-feeding... I got to spend some incredible quality time with the wildly talented Debby Kaspari. We made music together, yakked, talked art and life, and soaked each other in. Oh my heart.

The artists all had to stand by their paintings in the Birds in Art show, which left me orbiting rather aimlessly, and wanting to get out into the warm September sunshine. There's no way you can put out enough cheese and crackers for several thousand people, so I got really hungry at the cheeseless Saturday morning public opening.  I decided to go foraging. I only walked about five blocks before I lucked out and found some wild plums dropping their fruit with abandon along a driveway in Wausau. 

 I gobbled about a dozen of them, and wish I'd taken more.

Saturday afternoon is given over to a trip to Hazelhurst, the private estate of the Woodson family which so graciously hosts Birds in Art. There are ravishing gardens which looked fabulous, even in September.  Glorious tall Japanese anemones blew me away.

 Morning glories were just starting to bloom, and already closed for the day. Mine in Ohio are only thinking about making buds. It is ever thus.

 I was delighted to find a new bee for me: Tri-colored or Orange-belted Bumblebee, Bombus ternarius. It's on Sedum "Autumn Joy."

They're zippy little bees, tolerant but fast. 

I found a Grail--a plant I've grown but once and then lost touch with. This is Salvia patens, Gentian Sage, so called because the only flower that comes close to its jaw-dropping pure royal blue would be bottle gentian. I have to say that this salvia beats even gentian for a true blue. It's bluer than almost any delphinium I've seen. Not a hint of lavender. BLUE. blue blue electric blue. Nothing like it.  Not that I'm hung up on blue or anything.

Debby Kaspari, a fellow plant freak and awesome gardener, caught me massaging Salvia seedpods until I found some fat brown ripe seeds. Eureka!

I would imagine you know what will happen to those. It's gonna take about a year, but expect to see this plant in my garden in 2019. Garden goals!

Debby and I were taken on a deluxe two-person sunset pontoon boat cruise around the lake, during which we ogled a young common loon, three hooded mergansers, a bald eagle and about ten billion whirligig beetles. I fell asleep with the sun on my cheek.  I dreamt I was in a Cindy House painting.  And that is a beautiful dream indeed.

Thank you, Kathy Foley and the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum staff, for having me up to honor one of my dearest friends. It was a trip I'll never forget. 
Thank you my dear dear friends for all the love. I'm going to try and store it up for awhile. 
A badly-lit goodbye clench at the hotel last night. I had soul-feeding conversations with (from left) Amy Montague, Larry Barth, Cindy House, Barry (and Lisa, far left!) Van Dusen and Eric Derleth, and I'm much the better for it. Gosh I love these people. I feel so lucky to call them friends. Shoutout to my beloved James Coe who was yakkin' elsewhere when this shot was taken.

Now to walk .6 miles in search of dinner. DTW Terminal A, here I come.
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