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The Secret Garden

Sunday, September 26, 2021


 Burning season is almost here and I can't wait. Bill would call it the caveman in me. Oh, how he loved to burn. And so do I. I've been cutting brush and brambles and honesuckle vines like a madwoman. The only thing that makes me stop is when the poison ivy leafs out in early spring. I've had to contain the slash-and-burn part of my persona since April, and I can feel her rising up again. Winter is coming, and winter is the time for cutting and burning.

This little story starts with a fire, one my friends Walter, Kevin and Bobby started for me last November. They had cut the big Colorado blue spruce on the east hill at my request. Planted in 1992, right after we moved in, the poor thing had succumbed to spruce blight, a fungal disease that is inexorably killing all the Colorado blues I planted. I'm sad about that, because the mourning doves like to roost in them and the chipping sparrows nest in them, but there's nothing I can do against a blight. There's only one left now, and it's dying slowly. 

So they'd cut this tree, and we'd piled a bunch of other stuff I cut on it and set it ablaze. With the help of a little kerosene, we soon had quite the fire, an impressive tower of flame. 


When the burning and tending were all done (and that took a couple days), there was a nice blackened patch in the meadow, sterilized, for all intents and purposes, of the plants that grow so thickly in the meadow. Sumac and goldenrods, vanquished for a brief moment. I saw an opportunity in that blackened patch.

In November, 2020, I'd gone to a roadside down in Whipple where I'd seen New England aster growing wild. Now, for years I've had exactly one New England aster plant on my 80 acres. It grew along the driveway in the shade of the Virginia pines, and it never did well, but its brilliant purple blossoms with their sunny red-gold centers brought me joy. I wanted more of that.

So when those New England asters down in Whipple went to seed last fall, I headed down there with some Ziplocs and gathered a lot of seed.  I waited for a gentle winter rain and scattered them on the burnt soil. Either it would work or it wouldn't. But at least I'd have tried.

My friend Laurie Johnson from Wisconsin is a prairie queen, and she sent me absolute bags full of mixed seed--swamp aster, showy goldenrod and the like. Then I sent her a bunch of butterflyweed seed in thanks. I spread the seed Laurie sent me on the burned patch, too.

While putting together my new webinar on gardening, I found this amazing photo. Do you see the burned spot, the black blotch on the left side of the meadow? There seems to be something coming up in I wish I had gone to investigate then! But no...I forgot alll about it, and let the overgrowth of the meadow keep me from straying from my well-mown paths. Silly me. But that makes the surprise all the more delicious!

I was mowing the meadow paths a couple weeks ago when out of the corner of my eye I caught a flash of rose-purple, peeping through the thick goldenrod.  Oh. My. God. Could those aster seeds have taken root? Could they already be blooming?? I didn't think they'd get big enough to bloom the first year!! I thrashed my way through head-high goldenrod and sumac, up to what had been the burned spot. What I beheld took my breath away. 

This is a video I made the next day, after I'd spent all morning cutting paths to it. It will give you some idea how I felt when I burst out of the smothering thicket and into this little secret garden, reserved just for beauty.


Here's Curtis, enjoying this little patch of utter surprise.


I decided, upon beholding this small patch of nothing but asters and pure blessed vibrant color, that there was nothing I'd done around the place that had brought me more joy than simply scattering aster seed on a burned patch. I think part of my rush of emotion was the surprise of it all-- having forgotten I'd done it, and then literally stumbling on it as I mowed--catching that flash of rose purple and following it, breathless, through the tangle, and then coming on this hidden, secret garden.

Because I am a creature of the moment, I was engaging in a ridiculous exercise, trying to rank my feeling on beholding this pop-up aster garden, against other wonderful experiences I've had here at home. 

Which include:

1. the orchard dogwoods in full bloom, cleared of vines and strangling rose. 

 2. bobcats hunting squirrels in the yard. 

3. walking beneath blooming dogwoods in the silver light of a full moon of May. 

Anyway. You get the picture. There is so very much joy around, waiting to be found--and made.  My love for this land is deepening with every small thing I do to improve it. I don't just live here--I interact with the land, and it gives so much back for every little gesture.

I have two enorrrmous brushpiles to burn this fall.  I cannot wait. You can be sure I will be gathering more aster seed by the roadside for the clean black burn patches they leave. Which do I love more? The blue-purple

or the rose-purple?

Total tossup. And lest you think the Secret Garden is a perfect Brigadoon, I found THIS
growing in the middle of the garden

Luckily it was just coming into bloom, and had yet to set seed (I think...) This is Japanese stiltgrass and it has EATEN the prairie meadow, where I had the soil disced to prepare it. Japanese stiltgrass is the entire reason I cannot disc to prepare the soil for planting--it multiplies ferociously when the soil is turned.  I carefully pulled out as much of the single clump as I could. Then I came stomping back and dug up the rootball and carried it to the fire circle and immolated the damn thing. If there is anything I hate it's Japanese stiltgrass. That one plant alone could have completely obliterated the Secret Garden by next spring. Praying I caught it in time. Die badly, you scourge.

There is always, always trouble just around the corner in Paradise, but for now, I'm going out to waller in the glowing success of these brand New England asters, gleaming in the September sunlight

Blue and rose-pink, with happy yellow centers and crawling with happy bees and butterflies

and I'm going to be thankful for beauty like this, and thankful that I get to live in its midst. 

Meet the Mint Humbug

Tuesday, August 31, 2021


Pssst. Fall migration is in full swing. While you're asleep, warblers by the hundreds and thousands are slipping through the treetops, silently making their way toward Central America. Getting out before the frost comes, giving themselves plenty of time to travel in night skies, dropping down to forage in insect-laden leaves at daybreak. It's Fat City out there, the best time to travel, when caterpillars and crickets and spiders and aphids are everywhere. 

When there are redstarts on the roof, the move is on. You hear their lisping calls in the sky each morning. Watch the trees, see them cartwheeling through.

This little immature female black and white warbler has eaten her share of spiders, I am certain. She's clinging to the trunk of a golden Chamaecyparis right outside my studio window. If she recalls a nuthatch in her stance, that's no accident. This is the warbler who lives like a nuthatch.

She sticks close to the trunk of the tree, peering at the bark and limbs for anything crawling there. Her Latin name: Mniotilta varia, means "varied (striped) moss-plucker." Mniotilta is a monotypic genus, meaning there's only one species in it--this one. Though this bird mostly specializes on bark, it will often glean foliage. All birds are opportunists.

In this way, warblers carve up the habitat, each taking its niche within the same forest. If I remember anything from my ecology courses in college, I remember being taught to see forest birds, especially warblers, as a guild, with each one specializing in combing different parts of the tree. This is how Nature packs the forest with so many birds. If they all foraged the same way, there wouldn't be room for them all. So some take the crowns, some the shrubbery; some forage on the tops of the leaves, and some the bottoms. 

Black and white warblers spend a lot of time hanging head-down and hitching around on the bark and limbs. As such, they have strong legs and large feet.

The hallux, or hind toe, is particularly long and robust, with a large hooked claw from which the bird can hang. Much like a nuthatch's foot. Isn't that cool? From Birds of the World account by John Kricher: 

Mniotilta is treated as monotypic because of morphological adaptations for vertical (tree trunk) foraging (Parkes 1978), adaptations that include an elongated hallux, roughly as long as the tarsus (Ridgway 1902). 

Translated, that means that the hind toe of this bird is nearly as long as its leg! Check out that feature on this white-breasted nuthatch, also shot from my studio window:

Isn't it neat to see the congruencies of behavior, coloration and structure in these two unrelated species, based on the similarity in how they make their living? Convergent evolution, y'all. It makes the world go around.

Disruptive coloration, black and white striations resembling tree bark, help break up the bird's form as it works the bark. Even the undertail coverts are spotted. I noticed that this young female's nails are a fetching golden color. Now I want to check every black and white warbler to see if that color stays into adulthood. Look at those golden grappling hooks! 

From my friend John Kricher's account in Birds of the World (formerly Birds of North America), I learned that the "distal toepads (are) usually notched, a possible adaptation for bark foraging (Clark 1973b)" Blowing up my photo, I see a teeny weeny notch just anterior to the fattest part of the big toe pad. Do you?

Nice to have a black-and-white warbler so close that you can grab a photo of the notches in its distal toepads!

The black-and-white warbler is famous as a vagrant, showing up somewhat regularly in fall in Britain and Ireland. You can imagine how that thrills European birders, who are accustomed to waxing poetic about the drabbest of their hopelessly drab warblers. When you've been rhapsodizing about birds that look like this...

Great Reed Warbler, Wikipedia Commons. A lovely bird, but no Mint Humbug.

...imagine THIS striped beauty showing up, knocking everyone's damp woolen socks off.

Ah, Facebook. Beneath one photo I posted there, I got this comment from Megan Crewe, a bird tour leader for Field Guides, Inc: 

"Did you know that the British birders' nickname for these little sprites is "Mint Humbug"? That's a black-and-white peppermint candy here."

                                      Naturally, I had to check and see why...Waah hahaha!!!

Leave it to the British to come up with such a perfectly droll name for our gorgeous warbler. Mint Humbug. I can see them, whispering in code, so the rarity-seeking throng can't hear. "Psst. Mint Humbug, working a large beech, corner of Gloucester and Wembly, still there as of 1400 hours Tuesday." Thank you for that smile, Megan!!

I am delighted to say that these little darlings breed in my southeast Ohio forest. In the spring of 2020, rainy, cold and wet as it was, I watched a pair constructing a nest in the newly-cleared farthest reach, among the black maples. They were tucking wads of bark-fluff and moss at the base of tree trunk. What a weird place for a warbler nest, but then black-and-white warblers are among the weirdest of warblers. Ground nesters--with all these chipmunks and snakes and raccoons...arrrgh. Yet somehow they persist.  I never knew if the 2020 nest was successful; I was not about to walk up to it and lead predators there. Plus, I was too busy feeding starving migrants and bluebirds that awful, freezing cold, rainy May. The black-and-whites were back in 2021, voicing their squeaky-wheel song in the tulip grove just off the lower path in the orchard,  and though I rarely caught so much as a glimpse of them, that squeaky song made me smile so big. Knowing they were there was everything.

I'd love to think this little gal was hatched here, but in the fall, one never knows. The black-and-whites and all the other warblers are streaming through now. Go out, willya, and catch the show. 

Recommended Citation

 Kricher, J. C. (2020). Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.


Finishing Up: The Marietta Mural

Thursday, August 26, 2021



I was very excited to paint my last creature in the tunnel, and to have that creature be a BIRD. It makes me smile to think of how I managed to work two birds and two mammals into an underwater mural that could reasonably be expected to consist entirely of fish and turtles, but hey. Biodiversity is the spice of life, and birds fly underwater, too!

I found some absolutely amazing photos online, taken by Alan Murphy in Texas. They are surpassingly beautiful, with crazy water swirls and bubbles and distortion. I would have loved to play more with those motifs, but I just didn't have time--we drew and painted the whole durn tunnel in four huge days, from the first projection to the final brushstroke (laid down, of course, by Perfectionist Me). 

But this photo was my inspiration.

Photo by Alan Murphy

I changed the head and gave it a tail...I'm not sure where the tail is on the reference photo. Lost in a swirl of bubbles! Throughout, I wanted to bring some action into the mural, and the sudden arrowing splash of a belted kingfisher seemed like the perfect vehicle.

Laying down base coats.

By end of day Thursday, August 12, I thought I was done with this bird. It looked pretty fly, I thought.

I asked Beth Nash to come over and give it some swirly bubbles, because I was too much of a perfectionist to just have fun with it. I was still fussing over feathers.


It's kind of a big deal for someone like me to turn over their painting to someone else and say, "Have at it!" but that was one of the big lessons of this project for me. More is better. Community is vital. There are much better painters out there than me. Like Beth Nash! Let go, give someone else a whack at it.

Here's organizer/visionary Bobby Rosenstock's Instapost about it. He's @justajar on IG.

We were elated that Thursday afternoon to have finished the tunnel in only four days. Liam and I just wandered around, taking photos and marveling that we had done it!

Liam says you have to rub the otter's belly for good luck. Which would be a bad idea if everybody did it.

One of the most frequently asked questions from the good people of Marietta who peeked in on us as we worked was, "How you gonna keep people from ruining it? Gonna put some kind of a coating on it?"

It was a fair question, and it was the first thing I wondered when I contemplated giving heart and time to such a big project. And I have to say, having nearly everyone who came by to look ask us the same question was disheartening. Especially after our first morning of drawing. After it was power-washed and spanking clean, Bobby and the Marietta Noon Rotary painted the tunnel an even aqua blue inside. And on the very first night the blue went on, the night before we all came in to start drawing on the walls, someone came through the tunnel with a brick, hurling it against the freshly painted walls, scarring and denting them. How's that for a kick-off on your first morning of mural painting ever? It made us sick, but we all gritted our teeth and pressed forward, hoping that the quality of our work would give even the brick-hurler pause before they destroyed it.

But just to be sure, there's VandlGuard on it. 

The mural survived the week between being painted and being protected, thank goodness! And during that week I looked at photos I'd taken of my work, thinking about what might still need to be done. Something about the kingfisher was buggin' me.  Finally it hit me: I'd forgotten to paint bars on its underwings, and upperwings, too! and it was too white! Aack!

So I went and got three jars of mural paint from Bobby (black, white, and background aqua); grabbed some brushes and supplies; and headed down there on a Friday afternoon to set things aright. Ahhh! All better. Now it looks right to me.

Finally, on this last painting, I had gotten the hang of working with acrylics on cement. I figured out how to thin the paint down and layer washes, sort of like I do in watercolor. I made a million little adjustments, tickled in all those intricate markings on the underwings and secondaries and tail, and brought a blue-gray wash down the near wing and over the flank. Yes, the eye looks weird. That's because when a kingfisher dives, it blinks back a translucent nictitating membrane over its eyes for protection. Sure, I could have made the eye shiny black, but it wouldn't have been right. I like the demonic look.

When I was finally done with the kingfisher, I did a little touch-up on the diving merganser.

Unless I pointed it out, you might not notice the person with upraised arms that I painted over, legacy of the old mural. 

And there's another one next to it. Looks like they were having trouble with the paint, and kept glopping it on. The result was some impasto people that made me think of the Pompeiian volcano, those haunting casts in the hot ash that caught people in their beds. You think about a lot of things while painting large birds.

You can see the Pompeiians, but barely. Most people won't even notice. It didn't bother me one bit. That was then, this is now.

Artist Bonie Bolen added a nice crayfish near my kingfisher. It was great to see her again--we knew each other years ago, since her legendary dad Cobbler John headed up the Blues, Jazz and Folk Music Society in Marietta. Those were the days!  And Leah Seaman painted those rocks in nothing flat. I definitely could not have done that. Follow her @artabella on Instagram. She just finished painting a Porto-Let and it is awesome!!

Though I wouldn't have wanted to paint the whole thing with the public walking right through, it was fine while I was finishing up the kingfisher. I got asked a ton of questions, but mostly people were just so happy to see the mural and tell me how much they liked it. That was Really Nice.

Watching people make a point of bringing their kids to see the mural was my favorite thing of all. Just knowing that it would be a destination for little kids warmed our hearts. And I got to paint with my kid. Nothing beats that.

His eel, my kingfisher, together forever. :) Or until the next flood, I suppose. That's OK. I'd paint it all over again in a heartbeat.

The Putnam Street Tunnel gone from a pedestrian and bicyclists' passage to a destination, and we are so proud to have made it fun and beautiful.

Thanks to Bobby Rosenstock for coming up with the idea, swinging the grant, and pushing it all through. And for bringing the music and Sara's baked goodies that kept us going. Whatta guy!!

Here, Bobby starts off by describing the art he made in school--always wanting to surround the viewer with art. I love this little impromptu video--it captures his unique way of looking at the world, his out-of the box thinking. And the fun of painting and dreaming together.

On Friday, September 3,  2021, there will be a little ceremony, a ribbon-cutting for the mural from 5-6 pm. Come on down and meet the artists, then enjoy Marietta's First Friday, strolling up and down our lovely downtown streets. 

I hope there will be huge puffy clouds like there were on this evening. The play of water light on the bridge's underside is breathtaking on such a day. 

Doesn't that bass tail just draw you in? That glimpse of color and life and something unusual!

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