Sunday, November 22, 2020

Shakeout for the Maggie Mee

 Well, what with one thing and another, it was several months after I finished working on the Maggie before I got to take her out on a shakeout cruise. For her first trip, I wanted to go to nearby Caprock Canyon State Park, just a couple of hours up the road. If anything major were to go wrong, I would be close enough to make it back home without too much trouble. However, getting a reservation for a camping spot (at any state park right now) meant booking two months in advance. I dilly-dallied all summer, nervous about traveling during a pandemic. By the time I decided to give it a go, the soonest available time period was the first part of November, which can be dicey, weather-wise. What the heck, I thought, and clicked “send” to book my spot.

As it turned out, the weather was nearly perfect. Moreover, the forecast for night temperatures promised to be cold, but not quite freezing, so I figured that would give me a good opportunity to see how well she performed with a small space heater. I have a good winter sleeping bag, but mummy bags make me claustrophobic, and since the whole reason I decided to embark on the teardrop project was to eliminate as many discomforts associated with camping as possible, I was hoping that a space heater would provide enough heat that I could sleep in my PJs with regular bedding during cold weather.

And the answer to that particular question is that I can.

Other things also worked as well as I had hoped. The stove and galley counter top made cooking and clean up a breeze, even in the dark. Here we are on Taco Night:

The radio did not pick up any nearby stations, but since it is bluetooth capable, I just hooked up my phone and listened to my favorite classical station, KTTZ. I also used the phone as a mobile hotspot and used my iPad for internet access. I’d downloaded some movies onto the iPad as well before leaving and was able to watch them at night (since it was late fall, it got dark at 6:30 in the evening, so I really appreciated having something to do in the confines of the teardrop). My little reading lamp was perfect for reading myself to sleep, too. All the storage space meant everything stayed organized and out of my way. And the first night out there was a fierce windstorm. In a tent, this would have been a problem, but in The Maggie, it was actually soothing to lie there and listen to it. In short, the little camper is nearly perfect for my needs. 

What would make it perfect? Well, an indoor toilet, but that is not going to happen. The park rest rooms were clean and largely unoccupied, though, so it was not too much bother.

The other thing I can’t really fix is having to lie down to get dressed, but I guess I can live with that.

I was feeling a little under the weather for the couple of days I was there, so I didn’t do much more than some light hiking and bird watching. But it was a pleasant, successful trip. 

Cotton notes: Stuff is popping up


The helpful people at Texas A&M Agrilife greenhouse, Leslie Wells, Zane Wyatt, Monica Sheehan, and Jane Dever, let me pick out seeds for three different species of cotton, G. aridum, G. nelsonii, and G. therberi. I picked each on the basis of either some story I could tell about them to accompany a painting (nelsonii and therberi), of for the striking difference in how we perceive cotton should look (aridum).

The cotton needs equal hours of daylight and night, so I plumbed my greenhouse for water and added a grow light (more on these later in a greenhouse report), and a couple days ago seedlings started to appear. Time to first the first seed germinated was about seven days. So far, I have at least one specimen per species, but I would like more; I planted at least eight seeds per species, so if more don’t come up, I will try again. Seeds must be given a hot water treatment of 80 C for 90 seconds before planting.

In other news, the winter wheat in the west plot is sprouting. Time to germination was seven days.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Cotton notes: Preparing the farmlet

 I’ve signed a publishing contract for a book about cotton that will be a mix of essays and my botanical art. It’s a long-term project, and I’ve started on it in earnest this fall. There are many things to report, but I’ll start with this, preparing to grow some of my own cotton in the area of the garden I call “the farmlet.” It is the only part of our property that receives full sun, which cotton needs, and normally I use the area to grow vegetables (read: tomatoes and not much else). Next year, however, I am planning to grow some varieties of heirloom cotton to paint. Much to my surprise, when I went to order the seed, I discovered you need a permit to grow cotton in the state of Texas. This is apparently to control the spread of the boll weevil, as this way they can track where it might be. So, with the help of the kind people at Texas A&M Agrilife, I applied for and was granted a permit. 

Next on the agenda was to prepare some space for the plants. In addition to some existing beds in the farmlet, I also decided to add some in the alley, and experiment a bit. I’ve been tagging along with a local farm family as they’ve been harvesting this fall (more on that in another post), and they practice dryland, no-till farming. I thought the alley plots might be a good place  to try these things. So with the help of a young man who often helps me in the garden, we got one bed tilled, and another scraped, and then sowed some winter wheat on the surface to create a cover crop.


Which a flock of White Winged Doves promptly devoured. 

I read up a bit on winter wheat and discovered that a 1.5” planting depth is recommended (rather than just scattering it. That seemed like it would keep the birds from feasting on my nascent wheat, so I created some furrows in one bed, scattered the seed, and covered it. I started to do the same to the other bed (the east one), but discovered that is was chock full of lava rocks. You may remember that some years ago, lava rock was a popular landscape mulch. I had forgotten that a long while ago, a friend wanted to get rid of hers and I told her I would take it. Her husband came over with a load of it in the back of his truck and dumped about a cubic yard that spot in the alley. And over the years, I forgot it was there. 

So the past three days I have been digging it out, using a combination of small tiller, various rakes and shovels, and a sieve made from an old garden gate. 

And digging it out. 

And digging it out.

To give you a feel for the scope of this labor, picture if you will a buried swimming pool filled with this:

I figure I have maybe one or two more days of doing this before I can get back to re-planting the winter wheat in this plot. However, while I was distracted by the lava rock dilemma, the doves once again discovered the western plot had new seed—only now it was conveniently lined up in some furrows. 

I came out the morning after I had re-planted and found neat little furrows, as empty as could be. They all looked like this:

It was sort of like an Automat for birds.

So I re-re-planted the winter wheat, covered it again, and then covered the whole thing with bird nettting. And that seems to have done the trick.

Further notes: the seed comes from a local seed company, and Kamron, my farmlet hand, had to buy an entire bag. So there is plenty to do all the re-planting I need.


Saturday, October 24, 2020


So much has happened since I left off and I have no idea where to begin. I will just start with something.

Back in the spring covid shut everything down, it looked as if I would not be able to travel to the TransPecos with the Maggie Mee to work on the devils claw project. Parks were closed, travel was scary, and it seemed prudent to hunker down. But all was not lost. Botanist Michael Eason—author of Wildflowers of Texas and with whom I have consulted on this project—sent me some seedpods for two species of Proboscidea, louisianica ssp. ‘fragrans’ and altheaifolia. I spent an evening with a couple pairs of pliers wrestling the seeds from their grasp and planted them. This was difficult, as the seedpods did not want to give them up. Nevertheless, I persisted, with a little cursing, and eventually got more than enough to plant. (Fragrans is shown here with some seeds from a Native American cultivar of parviflora, to illustrate the difference in seed color.)

As it turned out, it as a good thing I had so many seeds, because, as was the case last year, I had a dickens of a time getting them to germinate. I did, however, get one specimen of each. I’m going to talk about them in separate posts, however, otherwise This will get to be too long. Suffice it to say that it took some effort to get both these plants to survive, bloom, and set fruit.

Altheaifolia is unusual in that, unlike the other species of Proboscidea, it is a perennial. This was going to present a problem with our winters here in the panhandle, since its natural habitat is much further south. So I planted it in a lightweight pot with the intention of moving it into the small greenhouse I have to overwinter. Here it is as an infant, looking alarmingly (to my eyes) fragile, spindly, and ready to succumb to all that life can throw at it: 

It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that I held my breath the entire summer hoping this plant would survive.

But survive it did, and grew, though it was somewhat leggy compared to one grown in the wild. Michael Eason suggested this might be because it did not get enough sun, and that seems likely, since I had grown it in part shade in order to hook it up to some automatic drip I already had there.

It also did not bloom all summer. But since it is a perennial, I wasn’t too worried, thinking it might be more likely to next summer.

And now here it is Fall. I moved the altheaifolia into the greenhouse about a month ago, and lo and behold, the extra sun and warmth there coaxed a bloom! And then another! And there are four additional buds growing on the stems. 

The flower is a striking color—sort of Indian Yellow, with shades of purple. It will be nice to paint it. I learned from the fragrans this summer that though the Proboscidea are self-pollinating, I did not seem to have the right pollinator for the plant to bear fruit. So I helped it along with the paint brush, with good success. I worried about the same being true with the altheaifolia, so I did the same: 

I’ll post updates on the plant as it progresses.

Tomorrow is predicted to be our first freeze, but the greenhouse heater is working, and everything is buttoned down, so hopefully the plant will be happy and continue blooming and produce some fruit.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Naturalist Notebook: Putting things in perspective

Ok, here's the thing: Perspective is simple...and it's not. Like many things, once you understand the principles, it is easy to sketch something without using all the "rules." Or conversely, once you understand those principles--and a  few more--you can make a perspective drawing as complicated as your heart's desire.

But to get you started, I'm going to break it down as simply as I can.

First, if we look at a person standing at the end of a street, a block away, that person appears smaller than if he is standing right beside us. We know this to be true. It is also true of an object, like, say, a box. If we are very close to the box, then we might not see that the far end appears slightly smaller than the near end, but it does. If we were to draw the box with all sides equal, it would look funny to us. This is called "orthographic projection":

It almost looks as if the box is trying to fall forward, off the page--an optical illusion. But if we draw the box so that the measurements on the far side are smaller--in perspective--the box looks less odd, and more like it is sitting on the ground. Here are the two ways of drawing the box, side by side:

This is a classic example of the tension between drawing what we know to be true (all sides equal) and what we see (things in the distance appear smaller).

To learn to draw things in perspective, it helps to go through some exercises to see how to draw a box from different angles. First, you must imagine that there is a horizon in the distance, and that if something is actually on this horizon, it is so far away and small that you cannot see it anymore. This is called the "vanishing point" (abbreviated in these diagrams as "V.P."). If you place a box in front of you, looking at it straight on, and you could imagine that you could scoot it back toward that horizon line, it would grow smaller and smaller, until finally it "vanished." It would look something like this, which is called "single point perspective":

You will notice that I have drawn guidelines from the front of the box (shaded) all the way back to a single point on the horizon--the vanishing point--and then drawn a horizontal line across those guidelines to represent the back of the box. After that, it is easy to connect the top front of the box to the top of the back of the box with two solid lines, et voila', I have drawn a box in perspective.

But we don't always look at boxes (or buildings, or sidewalks, or fence lines...) straight on. Usually, in fact, we are looking at them from one side. When we do this, we have effectively turned the box so that we now have two vanishing points--one for one side of the box that we can see, and another for the other side that we can see. It looks like this:

How extreme the perspective is depends on how far apart we place the vanishing points:

If we want our sketches to look "normal" we probably won't have room on our pages to place the vanishing points, so we have to imagine where they are, off the page.

I have drawn all these images from the viewpoint of looking down on the box. I've drawn them this way for clarity in illustrating how to use the guidelines to draw the boxes. But we seldom see things from this viewpoint (unless we are high in a neighboring building, or standing on top of a hill). More often the horizon line is "eye level." And we also draw other things besides buildings in perspective. Suppose, for example, we were to plant one tree at each corner of a box, and then look at the placement of these trees in perspective? Here is what that "box of trees" looks like, looking at them from both eye level, and from above:

This has real life applications, as shown by this sketch by a former student in this class, Jay Daniel, of the trees in the English/Philosophy courtyard:

These are the most basic rules of perspective drawing, and once you grasp them, it suddenly becomes easier to see the objects you are drawing in perspective. After you have practiced using guidelines a few times, you will find you seldom need the anymore. However, there are occasions when it helps to use them to draw things that are more complex than simple boxes. For example, you can use guideline to draw evenly spaced fenceposts or trees:

To draw the shadows falling from trees:

And so on. It turns out that artists have been playing with ways to draw very complex scenes in perspective for centuries. But it wasn't until 15th Century that Italian artist and engineer Fillipo Brunelleschi codified the laws for all the rest of us. Leonardo da Vinci, another artist/engineer. was also famous for his complex perspective drawings:

If you are a person who likes puzzles, or making order out of complexity, I urge you to find a book on perspective and start playing around with this ancient art. Or, if you just want to be able to sketch a street scene and not have it look like it is falling off the page, practice until you get a feel for the basics, and then throw out the guidelines. Either way, have some fun.

Look around. Everything you see is follows the principles of perspective. Sidewalk lines. Houses lining a street. Mailboxes in the front yard. People sitting at a dining room table. Life itself.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Naturalist Notebook: Thought exercises

I think sometimes that people are afraid to write in their journals because they don’t know what to write. Or perhaps they think that what they write has to be fully formed, or grand, or flowery—something special. That can be really intimidating, and it is one of the reasons I have placed so much emphasis on simply recording our observations. But the observations are really just the foundation for our experiences in nature. It is a wasted opportunity if we don’t use them to shape our understanding of the world.

One way to get past the intimidation factor is to set up simple thought exercises for ourselves. For example, in my garden, I sometimes find fox scat (poop), and it is almost always on some elevated structure, like a garden stone. So I could just record the presence of the scat and that would be that. But I could also ask myself some questions about it. Why, for example, is it often on an elevated structure? This is different from what I have observed about coyote scat, which I tend to find in the middle of a trail. I would write these observations and questions down in my journal. I don’t have to know the answer—it is enough to have the questions. I can speculate on answers, though. For example, I have often hypothesized that the coyote leaves his scat in the middle of the trail to mark it as his territory. Perhaps it is the same for the fox in my garden. If it is in the middle of the trail or on top of a rock, it is certainly noticeable, after all. I would write these speculations down, too. Later on, when I have access to the internet or a library, I might try to find the answer. Surely somebody has studied this.

You can take this even farther though, as poet Pattiann Rogers does in what she calls a “poem of supposition.” Rogers rescued a baby cardinal one day and returned it to his father. Afterward, she began to wonder how her view of the world might have been shaped if she had been a baby cardinal, and the bright red color of his father was the color of safety, shelter, food, and life itself. If red is so important to the baby cardinal’s life, would it then influence how he sees all the red in the world?

So Rogers wrote a poem about this, “Suppose your Father was a Redbird” (“Redbird” is a colloquial name for cardinals). Below is a link to Roger’s poem in its entirety. Please read it and come back here for a discussion. I’ll wait. 

She begins the poem with a close, detailed observation of the father bird, as seen by the baby, and describes watching the father fly off. At first, in the stanza below, she describes the miracle of watching the father’s wings unfurl from his body, transforming him into something else—something that can fly. Then as he flies away, you watch him eagerly, hopefully—because, remember, your whole life depends on the red color of his body returning:

Suppose, before you could speak, you watched
The slow spread of his wing over and over,
The appearance of that invisible appendage, 
The unfolding transformation of his body to the airborne.
And you followed his departure again and again,
Learning to distinguish the red microbe of his being
Far into the line of the horizon.

How then, would this desperate searching for the red microbe--this red miracle--shape how you see everything else? Rogers speculates:

Then today you might be the only one able to see
The breast of a single red bloom
Five miles away across an open field.

In other words, because you have been studying the color of red since birth, because it is important to your survival, you are so finely tuned to the color of red that you can see a single bloom of a red flower five miles away.

Go back now and re-read the poem with this understanding. I’ll wait.

Rogers ends the poem with the point of it all, the prize for taking a supposition to its conclusion, the thing you can take to your heart and from which you can learn:

If your father was a redbird,
Then you would be obligated to try to understand
What it is you recognized in the sun
As you study it again this evening
Pulling itself and the sky in dark red
Over the edge of the earth.

Maybe it seems a little unclear why this is the prize, but here, too, we can speculate. Why, for example, are we humans drawn to sunsets? Is there something in it that we are obligated to understand that we have forgotten?

I like these supposition exercises. They don’t have to be written as poetry, though I think it is fun to try that. The purpose of them, though, is to make us look more deeply at what we have observed. Why don’t you try something like this? Go to your backyard or a park and make some observations. Then start asking yourself a series of questions. The questions should lead you toward looking at the world through a different lens—one that is not your usual way of seeing. And then, the ultimate question: with this new way of seeing, how are you obligated to understand the world?

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Naturalist Notebook: Drawing birds

It is hard to sketch birds in the field if you have not first studied them. Birds are not like plants, which very graciously stay in one spot for us, and allow us to take all the time the world to draw them. As you have learned from trying to identify birds, they can move around quite a bit. They also come in all shapes and sizes. But there are some commonalities we can count on that help us to take "short cuts" in sketching them while they move. There is a general shape to their heads, bodies, and wings, and how a species looks is primarily a function of variations on that shape. Here is a "stick figure" bird showing the basic shapes and placement of eyes, bill, wings, tail, and feet:

Note that I have drawn the head as a circle, divided latitudinally in half (an equator) and longitudinally into four sections. Note also that the bill sits slightly below the equator, and in this bird, the eyes are just above the equator, and just behind the first line. If the bird is a predator, the eye placement might move slightly forward (for binocular vision--we talked about this in class). You can give this bird "attitude” simply by tilting the angle of the equator and longitudinal sections:

It is still just a circle, and still divided longitudinally and latitudinally, but these lines are tilted. Try drawing a few circles, then the equator and longitudinal lines at different angles, and then place the bill and eyes accordingly and see what happens.

Now that you have a sense of the basic bird shape, it is useful to study how different species are variations on these shapes. I find it useful to use photographs for this. There are countless available on the internet that you can use, but this is a photo of a yellow house finch that was coming to my feeder one winter (same as a red house finch, but an anomalous color--it happens sometime):

I decided to focus just on the head to try to capture the pose:

I drew a circle, drew the equator and longitudinal lines, and then made some adjustments to the shape of the head:

This is the infused product:

You can do the same with the whole bird. In fact, you can even add a grid to a photograph to help you get the proportions right. You should recognize this bird--a white winged dove that came to my backyard one snowy day. Here is the whole sequence for drawing it, start to finish:

Find a photo of a bird and try this grid method. Once you have practiced this a few times, you begin to get a feel for how to draw different species. You form a "template" which you can use to draw birds quickly and accurately. 

If you know you are going to see particular birds in the field, find different photos of them in different poses and practice drawing those until you can do some quick sketches of them. Here are some practice sketches I did of the Lesser Prairie Chicken shortly before going out the field to watch their courtship display. I knew from experience that I would need to have a template of the chicken in my head that I could draw quickly in order capture their behavior. The first two pages are the practice, and the second two are actual field sketches of their behavior:

If you are able to get out and go to a park, or even if you are stuck in quarantine and can only look out your window, make a note of the common birds and study them with your binoculars. Then find some photos and practice drawing those species. When you feel like you have a good template, try drawing the birds from life. Here are some sketches I have done of birds in the field using this method of study:

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Naturalist Notebook: The quarantine diary

We are meeting here online because of COVID-19. This course is ostensibly about keeping a naturalist’s notebook, but our experience with nature does not exist in a vacuum, and it would be an incomplete picture if our journals did not reflect this in some way. I found this article in the New York Times and thought it was worth adding it as an optional assignment (find the link below). Consider doing a “quarantine” entry to document this moment in your lives. This is NOT a required assignment, so if you don’t feel comfortable doing it, you don’t have to. But you can certainly consider this as one of your options for a journal entry. And the “expedition” journal entry is still one of your requirements. Some of you had an opportunity to go on your expedition before we went into lockdown, and if you want to write about that. Or maybe you have an idea for an “expedition” that is workable in whatever situation you are in at the moment. But keeping a quarantine diary—a diary of this very unqiue experience is certainly big enough to count as its own kind of expeditionary tale.

The Quarantine Diaries

Naturalist Notebook: Drawing the flowers in your garden

It occurred to me that by now some of you may be in cities and towns that are requiring you to shelter in place, and it may be hard for you to get out and about to find some nature. But there are probably things right in your own backyards that you can be recording and drawing. For example, there is a shrub in our backyard, Mahonia aquifolium, also called Oregon Grape.

This hardy plant puts on tiny yellow flowers in the spring that always brings a smile to my face, but when I thought about it, I realized I didn’t actually know very much about the plant besides its name. So a couple of years ago I decided to do a study of it. At the time, there were some native bees working the blooms, and I also decided to include them, as well as some natural history notes about the plant that I found.

The mahonia is blooming now, as is another perennial, called Iphieon uniflorum, or Spring Star Flower. This plant shows up every spring, too, and is related to onions—it smells that way, too, when you brush up against it. It grows in the middle of our lawn, and provides a cheerful burst of blue. I love seeing it so much, I make my husband mow around it until it stops blooming. This, too, would make a wonderful study. Here it growing in front of my compost bin. 

But the flowers that caught my eye today were some I have growing in a bed in a part of the garden I call “the farm,” where I grow vegetables in the summer. I had planted these tulips a couple of years ago and forgotten all about them.

And I saw tulips again when I went for a walk on campus:

It would be nice if we could get outside and find some wildflowers to draw, but in the absence of that opportunity, here is another. Flowers are busting out all over in gardens right now, and there may be some in yours, too. Pick one you like and do a simple study of it for your journal. Include the leaves, as well, because leaves also help identify flowers. As an example, I chose some Carolina jessamine that grows on the side of our house. I snipped off a piece and brought it inside to my studio (by the way, the same rules about washing your hands after handling flowers you are not familiar with pertains to your garden flowers, too—Carolina jessamine is toxic if ingested. Remember, when in doubt, wash your hands!). I am including a step by step drawing, so that you can see the process for drawing a tubular flower. At the end, I’ve also included on the left side of the page steps showing how to draw a leaf that curves. It is sort of an optical illusion—try it out and see what happens. As I have said before, drawing things is mostly knowing how to do the magic tricks.

Give this a try. Be sure to look up some info about your plant, and include it as notes in your journal page, as I did above with the mahonia. For a really stunning example of how beautiful a sketchbook study of a plant can be, check out this, from artofnorka. It is a work of art all by itself:

For inspiration, I am including a real treat—you are so lucky! There is probably nobody better in the world at painting tulips than Scottish artist Fiona Strickland. She has graciously sent me photos of 
her step by step process for painting one of these. (Click on the image to embiggen.) This is a very special bag of magic tricks that she is sharing. It is as if Johannes Vermeer were to say, “Sure, I’d be happy to show your students how I paint that light streaming through the window.” (If you don’t know who Vermeer is, you should look him up. If you are looking for a good movie to stream, here is one about Vermeer and one of his most famous paintings: Girl with a Pearl Earring. You should look up up Fiona Strickland, too; she is a Vermeer for our time, though there is no movie about her. Yet.)

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Why is this blog called "The Voyage of The Margaret Mee?"

A couple of months ago I got it into my head that I needed a teardrop camper to do some botanical art field work. I have a big project I am ...