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.)

Naturalist Notebook: The Life List

This next module is both easy and challenging. On the face of it, it can sound very simple, and perhaps not that interesting. But many people, once they get into it, begin to see it for the fun game that it is. I’m talking about keeping a birding life list. Simply put, a life list is a compilation of all the species of birds you have seen, and the date and place you first saw them. There are many variations on the life list that you can have. Some people keep a “yard list,” that is, all the birds you see over a lifetime in your own yard. Nearly every serious birder has a yard list—it is often how they got interested in birding. And “birding” is different from “bird watching” because it is in large part about participating in the listing game, whereas a bird watcher is mostly just interested in watching birds. But there are birders who are bird watchers, and vice versa. When I started out, I was a birder, in large part because I fell into a group of local naturalists who were very serious about the game. Over time, I let my list slide, and became more of a bird watcher.

It started out as a hunting game—to see how many birds hunters could kill on Christmas day—but over time, as the cost to the population of birds became clear, the killing turned to counting, and in 1900, the Christmas Count was born, the brainchild of ornithologist Frank Chapman. The Christmas Count in turn has spawned all kinds of listing games.

Most birders keep a yard list, but they also keep a city list, county list, state list, North American list, and World list. And there are even variations on these, mostly constrained by time limits. For example, most birders keep a list of how many species they see in a year, called, predictably, a “year list.” Some birders who are very competitive will sometimes go for what is called a “Big Year,” where they are competing to see who can see the most number of species in a geographic region (such as North America or the world) in a single calendar year. There are even competitions for “Big Days.” At the top of the game, the birders are very, very, very good. They know the species they are looking for so well that they can predict the date, time of day, and location they can expect a high probability of seeing a certain species, and they map out their game plans accordingly to maximize the greatest number of species they can see in a time frame. It is not at all unusual in big day competitions for teams to go twenty four hours without sleeping.

The top birders all have North American life lists that are at least over 700 species, and it is usually usually much higher than that. In the North American Big Year competition, the top competitor for 2019, John Weigel, saw 837 species.

In a single year.

A new record.

I will tell you flat out that birders can get crazy nerdy doing this. In fact, there have been books and movies made about about wacko they are with all this listing business, including this one, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson: The Big Year

If you are looking for something to stream to pass the time, you might consider watching this movie on Prime, which is funny as well as a true story of three real people competing to see the most number of species in a single year.

(By the way, the movie is based on a non-fiction book that follows the three competitors over the course of the year, and as is often the case, the ook is better than the movie. If you think you are interested, skip the movie—read the book. It gives much better background and infomration.)

You don’t have to go off the rails with making a life list. But I do encourage you to start one and see if you enjoy it. Playing the listing game is probably the single most important thing that set me on the path to becoming a naturalist. And even though I eventually stopped listing (because I had transferred my list to a software program that crashed and I was too daunted by the task to re-create it), it left me with a knowledge and love of birds I otherwise might never have had.

There are many ways to keep a life list, including special, often pricey software programs (but be sure to back them up!). But you can also just start with making notes alongside the species in your field guide. This is the way I started out, and it worked for a good long while...until the field guide was updated, and I had to transfer my list. This was manageable until I got up into the hundreds of species range. I found that one of the most expedient method for me was a dedicated birders life list/diary, like the one shown in the photo at the top of this post. These not only have a list of the species that occur in North America, they have spaces for notes as well:

But in my heydey, when I was actually starting to travel around with friends just for the express purpose of adding to my life list, I kept a simple check list, like this one at the back of an ABA (American Birding Association) field notebook:

Those were some crazy—and exhausting—trips.

There are many versions of birders’ journals available on Amazon, should you decide to get serious.

For this module, I would like you to start by going through the lists of birds you have already compiled, and come up with an organized way of creating your life list. Then I would like to participate in the listing game by trying to see how many new species you can add to that list by the last day of class. (So this is the module you would turn in during the last week.) Remember to include date, time, and place in your list.

The rules I learned for listing a new species is that it has to be a bird that you can identify yourself, and that you actually see it well enough to identify it. In other words, you can’t just be in a group and hear someone call out a bird they see and then count that. You can also count birds that you identify only by sound. There are ethical reasons for doing this—some birds are very shy, and in order to see them you would have to harass them, and cause them stress. So the American Birding Association allows for counting birds (for examples, owls), even if you have only identified them by sound. And speaking of the ABA, if you really get interested in listing, then you should look into their organization.

That’s all the info you need. If you are still able to get out to some parks, then do so, but even if you can’t, you can use those binoculars to see how many birds come to your backyard. You can even set up a feeder. If you do, look for bird feed that is black oil sunflower seed—it will attract the most species. Feed that is mostly millet will only attract house sparrows and house finches. And all species like some water in the yard, especially if that water is moving. So consider setting up some sort of simple bird bath. If you do this, be sure it is away from shrubs that can hide cats and other predators. When birds’ feathers are wet, they are not able to fly as fast, so they will not come to water where they cannot see if there are predators.

Good listing! Don’t forget to look up!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Naturalist Notebook: In Plain Air

Landscape painting done outside (as opposed to in the studio) is said to be done en plein air, which is French for "outdoors." In its native language it is pronounced like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wVm9ECfaiI

Nearly every American I've ever heard talk about it, though, just calls it "plain air." Now, I can be a snobbish as the next person, but the truth is, this is one time I prefer the bastardized version. There is something about the words "plain air" that sounds refreshing.

Artists have always painted outside, but the real heydey of plein air painting got going in the nineteenth century, probably as the result of having paints and canvases that were more portable. It was also the time that the so-called "French easel" was invented--a box and easel that could fold up into a single, cartable package. That is a French easel in the photo above, with a box of pastels in front. And below is the small pastel painting that came from that little field trip:

You don’t have to have a fancy easel or pastels, though, to paint or draw landscapes in the plain air. You can use just your journal and a pencil or pen if you like. If you want to branch out, you could take along watercolor pencils or even a small water color set.

I like using watercolor pencils when I take my journal on trips. They don’t take up a lot of room, and they add just a dash of color that livens things up. All you need to do is add a little bit of color with the pencil, then use an inexpensive brush and a dab of water to turn the pencil drawing into a painting. You can see that they look like ordinary colored pencils:

And you can use them that way, but if you add just a dab of water, they become watercolors. Here are some little sketches I did on a canoe trip using watercolor pencils: 

Sometimes I like to sketch inside a small box, called a "thumbnail" sketch. Something about keeping it confined to a small space makes it less intimidating. You might try dong some thumbnails to see if you enjoy it:

I also like to keep my journal landscapes simple. One trick I use is "tree doodles." I know we have spent some time drawing trees properly, but sometimes to sketch a landscape, it is good to step back from the details, and to keep the forms simple. Tree doodles help with that. Below is a sketch I made of a place you might recognize, Urbanovsky Park. I was sitting at a bench by the architecture building, looking across the street. You can see from the photo that the scene is actually quite busy looking. But what I focused on were the simple shapes of the hill (did you know it is the highest point in Lubbock? I'm not making that up) and the evergreens across the top. I drew this simple landscape using my tree doodles:

Finally, at some point you may want to experiment with the most traditional medium for plain air, oil paint. Here is a small painting I did at Lubbock Lake Landmark one winter day. Sandhill cranes were flying overhead and so I put them in the painting as well:

Notice that in all my plein air work, I strive to keep it simple. This is not like the "Where’s Waldo.” pen and ink drawing in the module about sketching what you see out your window, though I simplified things a bit there, too.

Looking at a landscape and figuring out what should stay and what should go so that you can show the essence is the key to good landscape painting, and a good metaphor for life. In my mind, nobody does this better than artist Marc Bohne. With his permission, I have reprinted a couple of his small oil on paper "sketches." Notice the extreme simplicity of the paintings, and yet, they are evocative. They have the power to move the viewer, and you get the feeling that the artist and the landscape had a connection. Marc Bohne does not paint plein air. Instead, he goes to a place and spends time looking at it, sometimes over a period of days. Then he paints it in his studio. In this way, it becomes more of a painting of a memory of a landscape--a very clear memory, but a memory nonetheless. What better way to distill something down to its essence?

This small painting below by Marc Bohne is one I actually own. I am not a wealthy person, but some time ago, I decided I wanted to spend some of my discretionary money collecting art that I love. This is one of those pieces, and it hangs on my living room wall. It reminds me of landscapes I saw in my New Mexico childhood. The blue ridge in the background is very like a view of the mountains I saw every morning. I can actually see myself out walking in it, exploring the world, skinned knees, cattywampus hair and all:

You could try sketching a landscape from memory, too. Go out for a walk, and if you find a place that speaks to you, stop and study it as long as you need to. Look for the shapes and colors that make it that particular landscape. Distill it in your mind to its essence. As I said above, a good metaphor for life.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Naturalist Notebook: Nature though the window (Where's Waldo?)

My painting studio is upstairs, at eye level with the leaf canopy of a couple of pecan trees.I always keep a pair of binoculars close by, because it is a great opportunity to see birds at eye-level, too. Yesterday, I saw a male Yellow Bellied Woodpecker working one of the trees. I'm hoping he will come back today. 

This morning, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a Cooper's Hawk gliding down the alley. As he did, startled doves flew out of the trees. Even though he flew by so fast I didn't have time to grab my bins, I knew it was probably a Cooper's because of its size and shape, and because that is one of our "regular" backyard hawks, especially at our feeders (not for the seeds that are there, but for the seed-eaters). 

We can see a lot of nature right from our windows, and we don't even have to be in the "country" to do so. Because the Cooper's flew by so fast and out of the corner of my eye, as well as through a thicket of urban images, I thought I'd try drawing that moment as a "where's Waldo" landscape. As you can see, there are plenty of images to distract from nature, in this particular landscape.

I don't have to draw every single stick and house, though. I can pick and choose--just enough to show how "busy" it looks, but not enough to make a mess. I'm going to show it to you in steps so that you will see it doesn't have to be intimidating. Maybe you will be inspired to try something similar. 
Here is the base drawing. You can see that I have edited out a number of things, including most of the houses on the other side of my alley. I have kept my greenhouse, hoop house, planter hoops, garden chair, the two trees, telephone pole with wires, and made sure I include the edge of the first floor roof to show where I am. I have also sketched in the hawk flying down the alley:

Here I have penciled in the fence pickets:

Here I have added tiny scribbles at the top of the page to represent the doves flying up and away, and inked in the hoops so that they don't disappear when I ink in the individual fence pickets:

Here you can see why it was important to ink the hoops in first. I will confess that I thought about taking a break after inking in all these fence pickets:

And here is the finished landscape:

For inking, I used an inexpensive pen called a “Micron,” which comes with different sized tips. You can find them in almost any art store.

Take a look out your windows. What do you see there? You can try drawing it like this--as a "where's Waldo," or draw some other things that you can see from your indoor perch.

Naturalist Notebook: The other side of which lies salvation (using poetry as a self-prompt)

There is a poem by Mary Oliver called "In Blackwater Woods." Please access the full poem in the link below and read it through one time before continuing. I'll wait.

In Blackwater Woods

In the poem Oliver is describing a fire in a nearby wood that she loves. It is not immediately apparent to the reader, however, that this is what she is talking about. Instead, she gives us clues:

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,

So we might ask, the first time we read this, What is this about? How can trees turn their bodies into light? And why a pillar? We know that a pillar is a tall, slender structure, used for support, or as a monument of some kind, so why this word?

In the next stanza, there is another clue that this is a fire as she writes:

long tapers the
of cattails
are bursting and floating away

Many of us are too young to have needed candles for much of anything except decoration, so we can be forgiven if we do not know that a "taper" is a kind of long candle. She has used an old word, then, to describe cattails as candles, bursting and floating away. There is value in reaching back to old words; it can remind us that these things have happened before. This idea also becomes part of the poem:

Every year
I have ever learned

And though she overtly names this as a fire in the very next stanza, and we can now see how clever she was with her word play, it is not the real meaning of the poem. The lines above, coupled with the lines below tell us what she is really thinking about:

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side 

is salvation

Go back now and read the poem again before continuing. I'll wait.

If you have read poem again, then by now you should realize why I have chosen this poem for this time. I discovered it several years ago, and like to come back to it for the reminder that there is also salvation on the other side of loss. In this challenging time in which we are living, perhaps that salvation can be an awakened compassion, a bravery, a chance to show leadership through calm.

Here is how I sometimes like to use poetry for writing prompts about nature, using this poem as an example:

1) Metaphor. In this case, we can look at the example of trees turning their own bodies into pillars of light. When you go out into nature, what can you see that can be used as a metaphor?

2) Word play. Again, using the example of this poem and the idea of cattails, which are shaped like candles, and actually calling them a kind of candle. Make a list of the things you can see: birds, kinds of trees, flowers, the land itself. Are there other words that can describe them? Remember also the poem we read about "Birds of Prayer" and the way that is a play on the words "Birds of Prey"? Don't expect this to come easily, but then, if it were easy, anyone could do it (who first said that? Hint: Not Billie Jean King, but someone related to her.)

3) Use the idea of a poem itself. In this case, the idea is that there is salvation on the other side of loss (there are other ideas in this poem as well, including the instructions for life which Oliver gives at the end). What examples can you think of from your own life?

Poems are great ways to look at the world in a different way, and isn't that what this course has always been about? I encourage you to learn to read poetry. Stop trying to see the meaning of the poem in the first pass. Look for the clues the poet gives us. Great poems are like unwrapping a gift, one layer at a time, and often, the more layers to the poem, the greater the gift.

Try either writing a poem about something in nature in the context of what you are experience now. Or, find a poem that speaks to this moment in time and analyze it the way I have done with Mary Oliver’s poem. The best poetry reveals itself in layers—unfold those layers one by one.

Finally, I have a treat! Here is an excerpt from a poem by a former student in this very class, Dr. Clara Vadala, who is now a practicing veterinarian and a many-times published poet. Clara wrote this about this course on my Facebook page recently: “I would take the (Naturalist Notebook) class a thousand times! That is where I learned to actually journal and the tools I learned are what led to my first book! And I am not exaggerating!”

Here is an excerpt from a poem in her most recent book, Beast Invites Me In:

“Lulu turns to leaves in the sun”

There is an old energy
that curves things
the shape of sleep.
The old dogs know it best.
Near the end, their whole old 
bodies bend in dirty circles,
knobbled bones croaking,
the keen cold creeping. Despite
ache, age, they yip, spin, fling dust,
make ceremony of themselves.

These are extraordinary times

This will not be a long post, because at the moment I have nothing to add to the world conversation regarding the coved-19 outbreak. But I do want to announce that beginning April 1, through April 22, this blog will be given over to posting modules for my Honors College nature journaling course, "How to Keep a Naturalist's Notebook" as I move the course online.

Stay well. Wash your hands. Social distancing. Peace.

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