Sorting through a box of memorabilia my mom kept is a bittersweet task it's taken me years to face. She was only 47 when diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer that took her life 3 years later. I still miss her- my best friend- every day.
Artistic joy and challenge flowed from her to me- she was an accomplished and enthusiastic painter. I sometimes imagine us sharing a studio, playfully critiquing each other, and most of all, laughing together. An old newspaper clipping she saved caught my attention. The "intent little artist," circled in ballpoint by a proud mother, is me.
Some things never change and some never stop changing. Thanks, Mom. I love you.
You can see more current work available for purchase here.
Our puppy is closing in on the 5 month milestone. We've completed 2 levels of puppy classes, receiving the "Family Dog Extraordinaire Award" which the certificate says signifies "an impressive level of canine cunning and homo sapiens smarts." Enter adolescence. At around 37 lbs., he's officially a sassy teen. Suddenly deaf to our simple requests, even "sit" can become a test of boundaries. It began with the loss of needle-like puppy teeth a couple of weeks ago-- woefully, he's managing to hang onto his sharpest baby canines-- the worst offenders.
He and I were recently exploring the woods, just after dawn, on the Ice Age Trail. As usual, exuberance had his lanky legs tangled in the leash. I was bent over, untangling him, when three yards in front of us a healthy, young red fox leapt out and began to race down the trail away from us, looking back, seemingly cajoling the pup into a game of chase.
Rhombus took the bait, charging after the fox, leash flying, waaaaay faster than I could possibly run. My brain went numb with thoughts of losing him. I resisted the powerful urge to shout and chase after them, knowing that would make the whole game more exciting. I turned away and started to run in the opposite direction, using a musical, happy voice repeating come, come, come, and clapping- just like I had been trained in all those classes.
Miraculously, Rhombus turned to see what fun (and goodies) he might be missing. He made a choice. He came to me, trotting, panting, and smiling. Showering him with praise, I emptied a pocketful of treats, grateful for the human-training I'd received. It is about schooling the homo sapiens.
Five minutes later, in true teen style, he played dumb when asked to sit while I tried to tie my own shoelace. It's never too soon for the next level of human/canine classes!
Exploring wild places with my young companion is a considered part of my daily art practice. It cultivates a rich palette of experience, movement, color, and form ready for my brush. What each piece becomes in the studio emerges from the doing and the paint and the moment. My senses kick in- I paint touch, scent, sound, sight, even taste. I make things up. I remember, and I project.
PS- The writing of this post was interrupted by record-breaking rain and flooding here, bringing another aspect of Climate Change to our own front door. We are "high ground" inhabitants at the top of a tall ridge- at the lowest risk for flooding. Our yard is on the literal watershed divide between the Black Earth Creek and Lake Mendota watersheds. Flooding is the last thing we expected. The sheer quantity of downpour overwhelmed. Like most of our neighbors, we've spent days getting the slop and mess out of our basement. We were lucky. Our basement will dry, we'll replace baseboard and drywall, do some re-grading, and we didn't really need most of what we lost. Not so for many of our neighbors who lost homes, vehicles, businesses, crops, and most heart-breaking, a loved one. Since homeowners insurance doesn't cover flooding, monetary donations are being accepted for devastated Mazomanie Area residents here. Cross Plains Area residents here. The Red Cross in Dane County has three shelters set up with donated supplies and food to help those impacted by the floods. They ask that you donate through their website.
"Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do." -Wendell Berry
You can see more of my available paintings here.
About a year has passed since the death of our canine companion of 14 years, and he has been missed. The thought of replacing him seemed absurd because he was most certainly the Best Dog Ever. Bringing a new family member with a distinctive, unpredictable personality into our home was not an easy decision. We discussed and rationalized. But in the end, the plain, undeniable fact is this-- life is better with a dog. And we've welcomed a puppy into the family. He's a black, fuzzy, mixed-breed wonder, keeping his humans thoroughly occupied and half-crazy. He's got 3 speeds- sleeping, eating, and full-tilt blur of motion.
For the time being, painting has taken a back seat to re-training ourselves in how to care for a baby dog. But I've managed a couple of new pieces that I think capture the topsy-turvy mood around here. Painting time comes in short bursts because tearing apart packing materials in my studio is one of his favorite things. He sweetly believes that all of the world, everywhere, was created specifically for his entertainment.
I realize his learning process is not unlike my painting process- we both explore relationships between order and chaos, complexity and simplicity. We test boundaries. We find patterns and rhythms in the perplexing, take risks to delight in the surprises that appear with each step, and struggle to create a coherent picture of the world around us.
I love him already.
I have no idea where Nature is, though I spout off about it all the time. I cannot define it in terms of place, or objects, or wild creatures found within its boundaries. Is it unaltered by humans? Can I find it on a trail through the woods? Is it a flower I planted in my backyard? Is it a bike ride to the grocery store? Is it a life being saved in a high-tech trauma center by a team of highly trained specialists? Or that aching back? Is it all these things, or none?
We tend to think of Nature as a place less touched by human hands. Less affected. Separate. But Nature is a funny thing that is not a thing, or a place, and certainly not separate from us.
Humans haven't come to terms with our place in Nature. It's just too hard to quantify. We give value to what we can label and understand. A label is what Nature is not- it is what Nature turns into when its process halts.
Where we fail to see ourselves, others, and the world around us as interdependent, suffering follows. Present day secular and religious dogma and practice is mostly anthropocentric, blind to natural process, and thrives on loneliness and fear even while fostering devotion, entrepreneurship, and innovation. To achieve balance, an inclusive view is requisite.
So how do we learn to value ourselves as part of Nature? We'll surely remain sadly out-of-balance until we learn. Being comfortable as part of Nature, as part of natural processes following the laws of physics, means accepting uncertainty and rejecting ego-driven fear. It means we don't know everything, but are open to new experiences and information- we explore, listen, respect, and take action. It means we are curious and want to know and have things, but aren't compelled to consume more things than we need. It means we open our eyes, hearts, and hands, to the experiences of all living beings on this planet.
At least one accessible process in Nature exposes the bigger picture- when truly immersed in the moment, the sense of "Self" vanishes. Thoughts, labels, emotions, cease. Focus is at once intense and diffuse. Finding ways to immerse oneself in the moment is the trick. For children, it happens commonly and often. When I was a new mother, it happened when gazing into my infants' eyes. Now it happens most often while exploring sylvan, wild places. Or when I'm looking up at the stars. And it happens while I'm painting. I recognize my unique interdependence and alliance in calm process with Nature.
How about you? Where do you find Nature? A gentle suggestion- put away that thing and be there.
After a grueling wait it seems the soul-warming pulse of green that that spreads like fire across the landscape has finally begun. It's spring! We are not the only ones who've been waiting. The sight of starving migratory birds has many, including me, scattering raisins, mealworms, suet, and seeds in yards and nearby parks. Whether it makes a difference we'll never know. We do it because we can. We hope and imagine it matters.
The intersection of nature's reality and human imagination is seductive. Our desire to matter, to make a difference, is at once beautiful and egocentric. Our minds believe in possibility, potential, and self-determination. Yet our behaviors, as those in all of nature, seem to follow predictable patterns. Discovering these patterns and how we, as part of nature, affect and interact with them is the life work of artists and musicians and scientists, nature lovers, engineers, and problem solvers of all kinds.
I believe the colors and marks that exit the end of my brush are a way of documenting Nature's complexity- data imbibed with the power of revelation. Is that hubris, or what? When it's going well, paint barely clings to brush. It enters a swirl of color, pattern and form that records experience, maybe even thought, in a way as real as the brush in my hand- someone just needs to untangle the patterns to discover the algorithm. Math and physics, physics and math. One day, who knows?
In the meantime, I'll keep feeding the birds until things green up a bit more. They've worked so hard to get here, it seems the least I can do. Predictable behavior? Yep- at least for me.
I hope you take every opportunity to get outside and enjoy spring. You deserve it!
See the above paintings and more of my available work here.
Bring on Spring!! It's been a long, dark winter in more ways than I care to discuss. Good fortune has me working at an art residency in the tropical light of Costa Rica this month, and the coming equinox, with its 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness, draws my awareness to the importance of balance on earth and in our lives. Balance is transient, even in nature. It's a continuum, a cycle. Finding that calm center point where one feels no pull or push is a gift that with practice and intention can be opened over and over again.
Finding that point matters because actions taken from there build true emotional strength and resiliency. It's never felt more urgent to identify and choose the things we do in our lives that bring us closer to personal and collective equilibrium.
While physics might suggest that a low center of gravity and a broad base promote equilibrium, I find it most often by myself in the woods and in my studio- places where the pendulum stops swinging and the mind quiets. Solitude has been spurned based on the notion that collaboration and teamwork are the major building blocks of innovation. Nope. Overemphasizing teamwork to the detriment of private, distraction-free workspaces creates imbalance, physical illness, and groupthink. It takes healthy individuals to make a healthy collective and one way of assessing our mental health is by the amount of time spent in, and comfort with, solitude- being alone with yourself.
Alone does not mean lonely. And sitting by yourself in front of a screen does not constitute solitude. The ability to disconnect from technology, become completely engaged in something profoundly rewarding in itself, by yourself, is essential. Solitude generates ideas and activates creativity. Collaboration integrates ideas and helps bring them forward. One complements the other. Equilibrium.
When it comes to painting, finding center is not a given for me. It takes work and more work. I am fiercely protective of my studio time and space. For me, solo hours logged beat inspiration and collaboration almost every time. You won't get to see the long hours. You won't get to see most of the failures and do-overs. Those are private, they are mine, and that gives me great freedom. At its best, my mark-making is an act of faith and action that chronicles intuitive experience- the meeting of the internal with the exterior at that exquisite point of equilibrium.
It is not fail safe. Solitude and practice need punctuation with a mix of engaged human interaction and occasional boredom to keep things flowing- not easy with infinite distractions at hand. I have a sense that it's the same for many of us. Being deliberate in everyday choices can be a big pain in the wazoo- yet the equinox returns twice each year to demonstrate the grace of balance. It's an appreciated reminder. Practice may not make perfect, but, well... it genuinely improves things.
I suppose I should apologize for diving into the pedantic, but time and nature insist. So, then, if I may- what do you need to do to find your center?
Happy Spring- time to grow!
"Love is a canvas furnished by Nature and embroidered by imagination.” -Voltaire
Some things about February are worthy of true love.
Between the 1st and 28th of February, we gain about an hour and 15 minutes of daily sunlight- something we can all love. In addition, the sun is moving higher and higher in the sky- about 15 degrees higher here in Madison, WI, USA. I love feeling the light grow more intense, don't you?
Alternately, the clear, crisp night sky is something to love in February. Toward the end of the month, we'll be able to view, without a telescope, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn at various times during the night.
Out in the woods, owls are mating and nesting while squirrels are raising their first litter of the year. Yep. The season of reproductive love has begun. Even migratory birds are beginning to make their way to northern breeding grounds. I saw my first robin just yesterday. It looked too tired and surprised by the snow and cold to be thinking about love.
Valentine's Day brings thoughts of love to our species. I'm given to the idea that Valentine's Day is more about love in the larger sense, rather than the guilt-love fed to us by sellers of chocolate and diamonds. Of course I love my spouse, friends and family. But I'm not stopping there.
I love the excitement of standing before a big blank canvas. Woo-hooo!
I love the process that accompanies abstraction, as opposed to more realistic work, because it most rouses my courage as a painter, and challenges your openness as a viewer.
I love what I do in the studio and while walking in wild places because it keeps me directed toward the sublime unknowable- the place of my heart. My artistic process is a progression of making adjustments and exploring the edges rather than capturing any sort of ideal. I hope you love it. It won't break my heart if you don't.
Enough about me. How do you find heart? Where do you find love? Things to ponder this sparkly, chocolatey, red, pink, and love-ly February 14th.
Happy Valentine's Day!
“A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.” -Carl Reiner
"You can't get too much winter in winter." -Robert Frost
Can you relate to one, or both of these quotes? Together, they pretty well sum up my own conflicted relationship with winter. I love the dance of falling snowflakes, but shoveling, not so much. The puffy birds clustering at the feeder are a delight, as are the neighborhood kids squealing as they sled down a small hill as if it were the Matterhorn. On the other hand, hooking up jumper cables in the still-dark morning and the "burn" of thawing fingers are majorly unpleasant, even dangerous. So, of course, during a recent cold snap when temperatures hovered around -1F (-18C), half-crazed with cabin fever, I bundled in appropriate layers. Finishing the ensemble with a scarf to cover my nose and cheeks, I'd convinced myself that there is no "bad" weather, only inappropriate clothing.
The wind gnawed hard at the tiny bit of exposed skin around my eyes as I squinted my way across the prairie toward the woods. Once in the protective shelter of trees, the immediate stillness turned my attention to the snow squeaking obnoxiously underfoot. Squeaking snow is a phenomena that occurs when it's below 14F (-11C). So today's thin blanket of snow, at a frigid -1, squawked raucously with my every step. I made repeated, fruitless efforts to walk soundlessly. Oh well. Stealthiness will not be part of today's mission.
I spied a deer path cutting through understory saplings. It was crossed by a multitude of racoon tracks leading to a gnarly tree. Following an imaginary path upward with my eyes, I spotted a hollow 20 feet up and knew who was inside. Over the next hill, an untrampled ground burrow, its dark outline barely discernible through the snow, brought visions of snuggled bunnies, cozy and warm in their grassy, fur-lined warren. Just steps away, I noticed coyote tracks, felt an involuntary shiver, and hoped the bunny rabbits stayed put.
The stories the earth reveals are enchanting- even in the cold of winter. Walking in wild places as part of my daily art practice piques my curiosity, and builds a palette of musings, colors, and motion. It also helps keep me fit and, especially in the winter, it tests my mettle.
As lovely as this particular set of encounters was, you will not see me intentionally paint about it. My artwork is not about re-creation of a specific landscape or memory. I have a camera for that. A painting, for me, is a a synergetic, non-objective bundle of individual moments. Since each moment is built upon prior moments, perceived differently by each of us, it leaves room for interpretation and subconscious banter. So in this sense, you are the one who finishes my painting when you view it. Just like you get to imagine the fate of the aforementioned invisible bunnies. Unless I learn otherwise on my next walk in their woods.
You can see more of my available work here, and Seeing Time 364 (Galloping Horse), here.
Have you noticed how long your shadow is these days, even at noon? As the Earth's Northern Hemisphere tilts methodically away from the sun, we slide toward the heart of winter. This "tilt" affects the angle of the sunlight reaching the earth and is responsible for seasonal change.
December 21st, the official start of winter, marks this season's maximum "away" tilt. In Wisconsin, we'll take in around 6 hours and 22 minutes less daylight than the longest day in June. I don't know about you, but for me, that's way too short a day. But not to fret- from here, the amount of daily sunlight we receive grows as we edge toward spring.
Noting the Winter Solstice as both the night of deepest darkness and the return of light is more than an act of faith. For me, celebrating the celestial cycle honors ancestral longings- and abilities- to figure out the workings of the world around us, and our drive to continue doing so.
The usual pace of holiday celebrations dictates high energy - shopping, eating, drinking, and entertaining, This is the antithesis of nature's truest winter energy, which fosters stillness and introspection. It's worthwhile to observe winter rhythm by drawing inward and reflecting, even if briefly. Give your solo self the necessary and rejuvenating gift of peace and quiet- walk in the woods, curl up by a fireplace, or snuggle in with a good book. Just sitting and doing nothing for awhile is A-ok.
The above painting, Solstice (Earth Tilt), (30"x 24" acrylic on canvas) is one of my Series 2 pieces. Unlike the more abstract expressionist work in Series 1 and Series 3, these pieces are harder-edged and a balancing nod to the "other side" of Mid-20th Century Art, as well as my Nordic roots.
Though not apparent, Series 2 paintings are also "free" in the sense that they are done in the moment, without a preconceived idea, theme, or detailed drawing, usually with no tape or masking. The act of painting propels me toward an unseen destination. I started work on this piece with an open mind, red & gray paint, a canvas, and began by painting a few scattered shapes. They led me to Solstice (Earth Tilt).
You can see more of my Series 2 work here and here.
Happy Solstice & Joyous Holidays to you!
Chronesthesia is mental time travel. I'm not talking science fiction or magical thinking. It's the idea that mental time travel, both forward and backward- allows us to be aware of our place in linear time. Chronesthesia, theorizes psychologist Dr. Endel Tulving, gives humans the exclusive ability to recollect past events and plan for the future. He claims, "The kind of culture that Homo sapiens have created over the past 40,000 years or so can be produced only by individuals whose intelligence includes conscious awareness of the future in which they and their progeny will continue to live and survive."
Things happen while I'm painting that tickle my inquisitive brain. I find these things irresistible - the centering I feel in front of a canvas, the transcendent moment when surface and paint and motion begin to meld into something that pushes me farther than I thought I wanted to go, the unconventional documentation of real experience in nature, and, the notion of "escaping" time. I look up, three hours have passed, and it felt like three minutes. Not exactly what Tulving was talking about, but it got me thinking...
Does the state we humans now find ourselves in prove Tulving is mistaken? How do we really use our intelligence, and how do we evaluate human versus animal intelligence? Without a long lens, it's too soon to know. My own mental time travels are just optimistic projections. But new research is demonstrating that dogs and other animals possess the same type of intelligence Tulving called "uniquely human." Perhaps we need to think more about learning from other animals rather than about how superior we are to them.
What I do know is that the days have become excruciatingly short. Trees are laid bare to the bones, and the harvest is complete. Like other animals, it's time for us to gather together. Not necessarily to migrate or hibernate, but to create an attentive "now" - to be active and grateful, to celebrate family and friends and food, and the abundant Earth that sustains us. Happy Thanksgiving!
The paintings on this page are a selection from my recent Seeing Time sequence. You can see more here.
A couple of miles into my morning wander and I'd been jolted from solitude several times to practice what used to be considered common courtesy - “Hello.” Hikers are a generally a friendly lot, so "hello" can morph into an actual conversation- what's blooming, the sorry state of public lands under current political leaders, or an extra moment to scratch a furry companion behind the ear. I've chatted with folks whose ancestors used to live on the lands I was walking, hunters out scouting game trails, and kids whose curiosity was infectious. I've never left these encounters without a genuine good feeling.
So when did it become okay to pass by another human without a greeting, essentially pretending they're not there? I'm not talking about bustling streets where greeting every passerby is impossible. I've noticed people starting to take on big city behavior out in the woods. I don't like it and here is my rule- you don't get to pass by me on the trail without a greeting. Don't even get me going on people wearing earbuds or talking on their phone. You're still going to get my attention, like it or not. (And by the way, you're missing an incredible symphony of soul-soothing wild sounds and interactions.)
Paying attention to others in small ways, like saying "hello," matters. It's an affirmation. It signals respect. It takes time, and sometimes, courage. Paying attention requires a willingness to be open and to learn something new. It is non-judgmental. Paying attention to ourselves, our surroundings, and each other, is a foundation of healthy being, and indeed, a healthy society.
So please don't think walking by your fellow humans without a greeting is normal. For most of us, in many circumstances, it's not. It's a symptom of “dis-ease," disconnection, and distraction.
Civility, courtesy, grace, even “good-breeding,” call it what you will. Please pay attention to others along your path. Kindly acknowledge them. A simple “hello”
For more of the paintings I've been working on, click here.
The Sun. No wonder our ancestors revered it. Earth's weather, seasons, climate, and ocean currents are all driven by solar power. This yellow dwarf star, a near perfect sphere of blazing hot gases, holds our solar system together.
On August 21st, the moon passed in front of the sun bringing daytime "night"- a total eclipse- to those in the path of totality. We made the 7-hour journey to Missouri and were not disappointed. The experience inspired the above painting, "Totality (Eclipse)," 43" x 63" on canvas. I could go on about truly mind-altering moments, but one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, says it best in her 1982 read-worthy essay, "Total Eclipse."
On Friday, September 22nd, the plane of the Earth's equator passes through the center of the Sun's orb, marking the time when day and night are closest to equal all around the world. The word "equinox " comes from the Latin "equi" meaning "equal," and "nox" meaning "night." And so begins the slippery slope to winter in the Northern Hemisphere. The below painting, "Toward Equinox," 30"x 40" on canvas, was influenced by these languishing days of summer when light gets long and green gives way to red and yellow.
Hey Sun. Thank you!
Did you know that blue is an anomaly in nature? While banding a bluebird many years ago, I learned that most critters we think of as "blue" only appear blue. It's optical tomfoolery- birds' blue feathers, insects' blue wings, even blue eyes only seem blue. They contain no blue pigment. Their blue is purely a function of specialized frameworks and the scattering of light. If you pulverize a blue feather, it will no longer appear blue because its tiny reflective structures have been damaged. It will look gray or brownish. Contrast that with beets- they remain red when crushed because their color comes from pigment.
Nature produces only a wee handful of blue pigments. A few minerals, such as lapis lazuli, azurite, and cobalt, can be ground to create blue pigment. True blue dyes can be conjured from a minute number of plants like woad (Isatis tinctoria) and true indigo (Indigofera tinctoria). Historically, painters know blue as the rarest and most expensive of colors. Most of the blue dyes and pigments we use today are synthesized.
Now let's talk indigo. While ordinary blue occupies the range of 450-495 nanometers on the visible spectrum, indigo blue's eye-catching allure dwells between 440 and 450 nanometers. It varies in color from deep blue to blue-violet and has been significant in human culture for at least 5,000 years. The mantle of the Virgin Mary, Egyptian mummy linens, and the Hindu God Krishna's clothing, have often been depicted as indigo blue. In several Eastern religions, indigo is the color of the 6th chakra, the "third-eye." It is said to be the color of wisdom, intuitive knowledge, and transformation. Indigo is considered a bridge between heaven and earth.
Indigo conveys integrity. It makes us feel calm, yet vibrantly strong. If you're affected by a prevalence of negativism and fear-mongering, it may be time to roll out the indigo. Or maybe scarlet, turquoise, and chartreuse. Whatever colors suit you. Choosing to be surrounded by color, grace, and dynamism in discordant times is empowering. It invigorates our senses and emboldens our creativity. It makes the muses frisky. And that's where real magic happens.
After an unusually stormy spring and early summer, the downpours continue into July. And gardens grow with spirited abandon. Multicolored foliage and flowers explode into masses of edible goodness and beauty. The weeds, as always, outpace every effort to keep them in check. It's a bountiful and intoxicating time of year. Mercifully, the mosquitoes, a little behind schedule, are just beginning to figure that out.
"How the Garden Grows" is a recently completed 36"x 48" painting, acrylic on canvas. How are things growing where you live?
While walking on woods' edge under an ever-changing cloudscape, skirting prairie blooming with purple spiderwort (Tradescantia sp.) and false white indigo (Baptisia lactea), an iridescent shot of blue swept across my field of vision. It was quickly followed by a sweet, familiar song not 10 feet away... I see you perched, tiny slice of sky set free.... How can you be so delicate and magnificent all at once? The sight and song of the Indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea) seemed an auspicious welcome to summer.
The Indigo bunting, member of the cardinal family, is a seasonal visitor to Wisconsin. When migrating to and from Central America, primarily at night, this blue-feathered jewel uses the stars to navigate. Here in its northern home, it inhabits the ecotone between woods and prairie. You can listen to its song here.
A large, 48"x 67" minimalist painting I recently finished reminds me of this song of summer as performed by our avian friends under rolling white clouds. It's called Birdsong through Partly Cloudy Skies. Can you "see" it?
Over his lifetime, we walked between 10,000-15,000 miles, just the two of us, in wild places, unfettered by leashes or rules. That's a lot of miles. On these wanders, he taught me that living in the moment is all that matters and doing that is as simple as enlivening and following our senses. He helped raise our boys, made us laugh, and filled spaces in our lives we didn't know existed. He loved us every single day without a thought. The feeling was mutual. I miss him.
Our son, Alex Bauch, wrote an apt tribute. With his permission-
Some millennia before the end of the last Ice Age, humans forged an unlikely partnership with a species strikingly similar to modern wolves. This interspecies alliance was the first of its kind, the very first domestication. As the bonds between early dogs and humans grew stronger, we sculpted their genome to reflect our vision of a perfect companion. It is plausible to speculate that dogs modified the evolution of our species in return, and it is beyond question that they continue to shape us as individuals.
I don’t have words to describe how privileged I am to have participated in one of nature’s most venerated traditions for 14 terrific years with this dog. A simple tribute seems fitting, and there really is no better praise for man’s best friend. Good boy, Merl.
According to acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, quiet is not the absence of sound but the absence of noise. He defines quiet as presence. So what is noise? Because noise is usually a signal of danger, distress, energy inefficiency, or incivility, our primal selves are highly reactive to it. Noise is constant in most human population centers. We cannot flee in terror from every honking horn, rumbling lawnmower, or ear-splitting siren without risk of exhaustion. Noise, then, is the sound we learn to tune out at no small cost to our emotional health.
When we go into the quiet of nature, which is not silent, a deep ability to hear returns. Our listening horizon broadens exquisitely. We hear nearer and farther. Myriad layers of sound flow together, then become distinct - squirrels foraging in leaf litter, wind in gentle concert with leaves and grasses, rain pattering in a swell of tones. Insects hum and chirp from plant to plant. Birds communicate tree to tree in shrill warning and melodic chatter. Frogs call from one pond to the next. A pack of coyotes yip and whine across the miles. We tune in and we hear.
As an artist, I'm often asked, "Do you prefer music or quiet to inspire you while you're working?" Thinking about Hempton's definition of quiet, I imagine they are not exclusive. But I'll let you guess which I prefer.
Here come the trees. The energy is palpable. Sky will be interrupted, even blocked, by masses of green that will last until fall. Every time I walk outside, birds sing it, insects hum it, flowers dance it. Last weekend, our senior dog was somewhat terrorized by the near deafening trill and croaking of neighborhood frogs. I actually had to cover my ears when passing through a particularly loud spot. From mighty oak to graceful maple, something exciting is going on and everybody knows it. Sap is rising. Buds are getting ready to break. Some have already burst.
Do you know what's even more astonishing? Tree sap is not pushed up from below by root pressure as was once believed. It is pulled from above. Let me say that again-- it is pulled from above. The process is still being researched and it appears to require little to no energy input from the tree to lift sap as high as 100 meters. It's all about physics and the power of the sun. Wondrous. Can you feel it? Get out there and hug a tree.
Thinking optimistically, this long string of gray, rainy days will end. Meanwhile, the permeating and powerful scent of rain is hard to miss. This time of year it is a promise of things to come. Spring is here, even if it's coursing mostly underground and our bodies are still desperately craving a boost of vitamin D.
So what about the scent of rain? A little background - in the 1960's, Dr. Isabel Joy Bear and Dr. Richard Thomas of Australia's national science agency named the unique smell that accompanies rain after discovering what forms it. Their paper, The Nature of Argillaceous Odour, was the first to define petrichor as the earthy scent that occurs when rain falls on dry earth. It comes from the Greek "petra," meaning stone, and “ichor,” meaning the ethereal blood of the gods.
So how is petrichor created? To greatly simplify, during extended dry periods, plants and soil bacteria release various compounds. When rain drops collide with the earth, the compounds combine and aerosolize to become the unique scent we now call petrichor. Petrichor is most pungent after a dry spell, in the moments when rain first begins to fall.
Human noses are highly sensitive to the scent of rain. Researchers believe recognizing petrichor on the breeze is important to animal survival because it allows us to anticipate and locate coming precipitation. Some people find the scent disagreeable. I like it. How about you?
Leaving the cold, gray North for proximity to the equator in late winter is a shock to the system. What a gift to be able to work at the artist residence here. The tropics are abundant and ephemeral and hot. The light is clear and dazzling. Mix abundant, ephemeral, hot, clear, and dazzling to get forms and colors that sing. It's an inspiring place to paint.
Orange with Seedpod (left)- Curved into a protective globe, its seeds, wispy like tissue paper, flew when I lifted it to the wind. The orange gives a frame of reference for size. Seedpod (right)- I found this astonishing tangle near my doorstep in anticipation of International Women's Day- an apropos form. If you can identify either of the plants these seedpods came from, please let me know. The red one came from a tree that looks like it's from the Cojoba family. It would take me lifetimes to identify the profusion of plants in the tropics. Nature never ceases to amaze.
How remarkable- to leave love-shaped tracks with every step. Happy Valentine's Day!
"Keep close to nature's heart..." -John Muir
I've been assessing the concept of resistance and what we might learn about it from nature and Dr. Who.
Think water. Think stone. Water can abruptly rip the side from a mountain or, given time, erode even the hardest stone. Its freeze/thaw cycle can turn concrete or stone to rubble. Stone may divert or slow water, but, unless tediously tended, water always wins. Stone can resist all it wants, but in the end, well, think Grand Canyon.
According to psychoanalyst Carl Jung, "What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size." In other words, spending all our time fighting against the things we don't want is crazy. Okay, maybe "crazy" is a bit hyperbolic. But making time to focus on and plan for what we do want is critical, because resistance, alone, moves nothing. It obstructs, deters, or impedes. The need to maintain a permanent state of resistance keeps us captive, occupied, and distracted. Momentum and flow, on the other hand, are strengths or forces gained by gathering motion that drive toward critical mass- where real change occurs.
Does that mean resistance is not a necessary part of the process? It feels imperative in this moment.
How we think about our actions, whether to resist, or create momentum and flow- to become water- is consequential.
Water always wins. Who will be the water? We get to choose by our actions. Water for greed or water for good? Something to ponder...
"Water is patient, Adelaide. Water just waits. It wears down the clifftops, the mountains,the whole world. Water always wins." -Dr. Who, Waters of Mars trailer, from BBC One.
Cuba has long been a popular place for travelers from other parts of the world. Since 2015, Americans haven't needed a specific license to legally visit Cuba, but the travel purpose must fall under a category licensed by the U.S. government. For our family trip, that meant "Educational/People-to-People." But until last month, most Americans were only able to conveniently visit with a group on a charter tour. As of December 2016, direct commercial flights to Cuba became available from the U.S., making travel for U.S. citizens much easier and more economical. Our family jumped at the opportunity in early January. We decided to skip Havana and instead flew into much smaller Cienfuegos airport to get to know Trinidad, and its surrounding area.
We wanted to get to know Cuban people during our visit. We opted for staying in casas particulares with Cuban families - a common practice. Over our visit we stayed with 2 generous and considerate families. We ate breakfast and sometimes dinner in our casa. Conversation was lively, informative, and included politics. Our first family lived outside of the town center, up the hill, in a real neighborhood in the city of Trinidad in Sancti Spíritus province. Our second family lived in a little fishing village near the coast.
Founded in 1514, Trinidad, one of the best-preserved colonial cities in the Caribbean, was our base. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site. During our stay, we explored nearly every street in town. The farther we got from the center, the more interesting it became.
While Cuba is famous for its classic cars, I found the light and the street sounds most compelling. Music pulses from every crevice. Bread and fruit sellers in clopping horse carts make their way down cobblestone streets at dawn. Each object, motion, and being becomes art in light that I can only describe as possessed by El Duende. Federico García Lorca once described the fiery spark behind what makes art that stirs the soul - “The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ”The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation….”
In Cuba, El Duende is inescapable.
Within an hour or so from Trinidad, dozens of waterfalls, verdant mountains, and shade grown coffee plantations await exploration. We spent a day aboard an old Russian military transport vehicle visiting Topes de Collantes National Park and a shade-grown coffee plantation. The topography and mountaintop ocean views were stunning.
While you can get by in Cuba with just a little Spanish, if you'd like to get off the beaten track, you'll have lots more fun and interaction if you speak Spanish. Don't worry about asking Cubans to slow down- they speak fast, fast, fast - and they laugh about it. Our Spanish improved tremendously with practice. Interestingly, just a few years ago, Russian was taught to Cuban schoolchildren. These days, most schools are teaching English.
As our kids (now adults) scatter to do their own thing, we've been grateful to have this time together. While waiting in the airport on the way home, we talked about all the Latin American countries we've traveled and how, in each, the people we met were noticeably kinder and more generous than we're used to in the U.S. The Cuban people top our "kind and generous" list. And while they certainly hope to improve their circumstances after decades of struggle and hardship, they appreciate what they have gained in healthcare and education. They are fervent in their desire to keep the positive outcomes of La Revolución while opening to new ideas that imply greater freedoms. Thoughts of self-improvement on the backs of others or by exploiting the environment seem to be nonexistent. Greed just isn't a thing. At least not among those we met. Imagine that. ¡Gracias, Cuba!
Text and photos ©2017 Michelle Louis
It's the season of freezing. Whether the landscape is covered in a pristine blanket of soft white, gray slushy slop, or just exposed frozen ground, plants and animals living in areas where cold is the seasonal norm adapt to survive. Animals have a broad set of adaptive mechanisms. They insulate, hibernate, store food, synthesize anti-freeze in their circulatory systems, and gather together for warmth. They store fat to burn during leanest times. They die, expecting their eggs or larvae to carry on the following spring. They prey on those weakened by winter's harshness. As for my own ability to adapt, a long hike in new-fallen snow is glorious-- especially knowing a cozy chair in front of a blazing fire and mug of hot tea await. Is that cheating? Wishing you a healthy, inspired, and fearless New Year!
Winter is the king of showmen,
Turning tree stumps into snowmen
And houses into birthday cakes
And spreading sugar over lakes.
Smooth and clean and frosty white,
The world looks good enough to bite.
That’s the season to be young,
Catching snowflakes on your tongue.
Snow is snowy when it’s snowing,
I’m sorry it’s slushy when it’s going.
Artist and naturalist Michelle Louis has a vigorous curiosity about the natural world. She walks with intention in wild places at least 1,200 miles yearly, much of it on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. She makes art documenting her experience along the way and in her studio.