Artist and naturalist Michelle Louis has a vigorous curiosity about the natural world. Her abstract landscape paintings document life, well-spent, in wild places.
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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.
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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.
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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?
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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.
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How remarkable- to leave love-shaped tracks with every step. Happy Valentine's Day!
"Keep close to nature's heart..." -John Muir
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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.
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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
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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.
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Interconnectivity and interdependence guide life through time. Who lives where, who eats what, who mates with whom are all exercises in interconnectivity and interdependence. How is interdependence experienced? How does digital interconnectivity affect our relationship to the natural world? How does the American narrative of independence rather than interdependence affect our relationship to the world community and each other? How can we advance conscientious interconnectivity and respectful interdependence between ourselves and all living things? As the darkness of winter closes in, and along with it an urge to curl up and turn inward, this season, being attentive, united, creative, and agile is imperative.
"We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands,
but also for our relationship to the world. We need to restore honor to the way we live,
so that when we walk through the world we don’t have to avert our eyes with shame,
so that we can hold our heads up high and receive the respectful acknowledgment
of the rest of the earth’s beings." -Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose book,
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge,
and the Teachings of Plants, I highly recommend.
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In summer, the combination of sky blue with the luminous greens of a healthy forest is a calm alliance. Fall brings drama. Chlorophyll stops converting light to sugars as green disappears, revealing more cautionary yellows, oranges, and reds. Leaves boldly glitter, then flutter to the ground. Winds shift. Winter can no longer be denied. Falling Leaves (below) reflects my perception of this season.
Recreational development is a job not of building roads into the lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind. -Aldo Leopold
Learn more about the chemistry of fall colors here.
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I'm honored to be one of 100 artists selected from across the country to participate in an exhibition celebrating the National Parks 100th Anniversary. I walk in nature on public lands more than 1,200 miles/year as part of my art practice- most of it on the the several Ice Age National Scenic Trail Segments located near my home. This cultivates a living palette of form, movement, and color ready for my brush. The jury-selected painting, "Morning Rain/Ice Age National Scenic Trail," was inspired by an early morning walk in the rain on the Table Bluff Segment of the IAT. It emerged from paint and moment to suggest a remembered experience that I worked to reinforce.
The exhibition, National Parks, Personal Narratives, October 21-November 27, takes place at the Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson, WI, just east of the Twin Cities.
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How many pounds of nuts and seeds do you think a squirrel caches? While the definitive answer is fuzzy (pardon the pun), gray and fox squirrels, the most commonly seen squirrels in our area, probably cache between 50-100 pounds each per year. That's a lot of nuts! They do this by "scatter hoarding" - burying individual nuts all over their territory. Red squirrels are "larder hoarders," burying or covering small collections of nuts in shallow depressions. Some believe squirrels remember where they cache their food, while others believe they sniff out their stores. In fact, they do both, unwittingly providing an important eco-service- uneaten nuts and seeds sprout and grow into future generations of valuable food and habitat for squirrels and others.
September Earth Offerings- hickory nut hulls discarded by busy squirrels re-arranged into patterns. Maybe you'll spot one, or create one, while hiking on the Ice Age Trail.
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7:30 am in late September, Cross Plains State Park Segment, Ice Age Trail- The prairie path is narrow and difficult to discern through early fall tangle of native forbs & grasses. Sky-scraping Big Bluestem and Silphium sparkle overhead. I feel small here. A hundred steps into a five-mile hike, I'm soaked- hair hanging in ropes, toes squishing in boots. Baptism by dew. Five miles to go...
Science investigates, visualizes, and arranges via formal taxonomies and methodologies. I work to document less quantitative facets of the natural world as interpreted by human eye, mind, and hand.
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Facing a big, blank canvas I don't usually begin with a clear picture in my mind or sketchbook of a future painting. Walking in nature as part of my daily art practice cultivates a rich palette of movement, color, and form ready for my brush... I start painting. What it becomes emerges from the work and the paint and the moment. As the work progresses, the canvas suggests a place or experience that I clearly recognize and reinforce.
"My paintings are titled after they are finished. I paint from remembered landscapes
that I carry with me - and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed.
I could certainly never mirror nature. I would more like to paint what it leaves with me."
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Halfway Prairie Wildlife Area is located across from the Indian Lake County Park segment of the Ice Age National Trail. For many decades, the abandoned structures were home to grazing cows. When driving by, I imagine its farming days and the calloused hands of early settlers placing foundation stones gathered from newly-opened prairie soil. Today this deserted farmstead is a recent addition to our public lands and a worthwhile visit. The old stone buildings were somewhat thoughtlessly cleared of the trees that wove in and around, supporting the cracked and leaning ruins. I suspect they will not last long. Already, several sections have collapsed- a reminder that all things return to the earth. It's a beautiful and haunting landscape when the sun is low in the sky.
Paul Klee once said, "Art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see." My interest lies in seeing and revealing simultaneous moment and eon, thought and action, order and entropy. I draw inspiration from nature, but also from artists such as Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, and Grace Hartigan. I love Abstract Expressionism because it's big and physical. The materials speak- drip, dribble, scribble, scratch, slosh, dab, slash. On either side- creating it or viewing it- one must step outside of self to a place of fearlessness.
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Queen Anne's Lace is so common a roadside flower in Wisconsin few people know it's a non-native, invasive species. Native to Europe, I was once told that its name refers to Queen Anne of England, an expert lacemaker who was said to have pricked her finger, leaving a small stain in the middle of her work. If you look carefully, you'll find many Daucus carota flowers have a small purplish spot at their center that looks more like a little insect than a bloodstain. The spot may serve to attract pollinators.
Also known as 'wild carrot," its roots are edible and sweet in the first season and smell just like carrot. If you are not greeted by a carrot-y smell, don't even think about trying this wild edible. Another plant, Conium maculatum, or poison hemlock, looks similar and is deadly. Probably best to just leave both plants alone and enjoy their beauty!
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Did you know many baby birds learn to fly from the ground up? After a brave leap from the nest, they spend a few days hopping around onto low tree branches, into shrubs, toward an encouraging parent who entices baby to fly with a tasty bug or berry. It's a dance, more than an airshow. The parents feed and encourage the young for several days until their fledglings are ready to be independent. So if you see a baby bird hopping around, leave it be. If the youngster is so tiny it can't hop, return it to its nest if possible. It's a myth that your scent will cause its parent to reject it.
The above painting was inspired by late-fledging robins I observed at the Table Bluff Segment of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail- Flying Lessons, 42" x 42" on canvas.
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The Ice Age National Scenic Trail is a work-in-progress spanning about 1,200 miles across Wisconsin. It marks the boundary of the most recent glacier that retreated more than 10,000 years ago. Its forces created a phenomenal series of land forms and sculpted familiar vistas across the state.
It's a delight living within 15 minutes of about half a dozen segments of the Ice Age Trail (IAT), part of the National Park System. It's been a privilege discovering these gems throughout the years. The Ice Age Trail has been a major inspiration for my work- through rain, sleet, snow, and subtle seasonal changes. The art that that is inspired and sometimes created here is my celebration of the IAT, the 100th birthday of our National Parks, and the lands that belong to us all.
My artwork is generally abstract, movement, and process-oriented. It's a reaction to place and moment, influenced by intentional walking in nature. "Intentional walking" means being fully present in the moment- just breathing the wholeness of nature. When my mind starts to wander, which it often does, I bring it back with breath. In this way, I experience things I wouldn't normally notice. Animal interactions are common and I observe plants, colors, and day-to-day changes I mightn't otherwise. I sometimes mark my path with little offerings made from objects I find along the way, taking care never to harm protected and delicate lands.
I look forward to sharing the work this trail inspires. A place to observe awaits...
The "Cross Plains National Scientific Reserve" segment of the Ice Age Trail,
home to future interpretive center, offers tremendous views to Blue Mounds.