Monday, November 30, 2009

If you have never been to the Grand Teton Mountains and Yellowstone National Park, put it on you bucket list. I had the great fortune to go in the summer of 2007. Lisa's boss had accumulated airline miles he couldn't use so he gave them to us. Alaska didn't qualify, so the next best thing was Yellowstone.

There is something about the West that thrills me. Perhaps it's the idea that it's still the last frontier, the last wild place in America. It's a romanticized notion, I know, yet it clings to me. Images of snow-capped mountains, verdant valleys, pines and spruce and rocky streams make me giddy. If I believed in past lives I'd think I was Blackfeet or Cheyenne Indian, or an early pioneer. Perhaps it's my Swiss roots, yearning for Alpine peaks and meadows. Whatever the case, it was a thrilling vacation and I can't wait to go back.

We landed at the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, airport on a grey, rainy afternoon. We were hoping for spectacular views of the mountains from the plane but they were obscured in clouds. After picking up our rental car (a Subaru Outback Sport) we drove out to--where else?--the National Museum of Wildlife Art.

The drive along Highway 89 north out of Jackson Hole follows the Flat Creek for a time, seen here as a dark ribbon in the green field. This is National Elk Refuge territory, and in the winter this valley is filled with elk scraping their way through the harsh Teton winters, but in the middle of July the valley was empty.

The museum itself is a beautifully designed building, made with Arizona sandstone and built to match the topography. This sprawling complex houses a cafe and gift shop along with some of the most amazing wildlife art I have ever seen. The photo below is from their website.

Photos were not allowed inside the museum, but there were several sculptures outside so I snapped a few pics. Remember, this was pre-blogging days, and I was not so good at recording every little thing, so I didn't look to see who had done these pieces.

I love the placement of this deer, looking over its shoulder before it heads off into the woods.

Works by Remington, Bateman, O'Keefe and others grace the museums walls, and I spent several hours wiping drool off my chin. I was awed by Robert Bateman's huge oil painting of a bull bison, titled "Chief". I don't know the exact size but it must be five long, very nearly life-sized. Bateman has been an inspiration of mine since high school, and to be in the presence of his original works was breathtaking.

(This image was downloaded from a website selling prints.)

We were staying two nights in the Tetons before heading to Yellowstone. We couldn't afford anything anywhere near Jackson Hole so we stayed at a Super 8 in Driggs, Idaho. This meant a hair-raising drive across the backbone of the Teton range on wet, unfamiliar roads being tailed by people who drove the route every day and were extremely impatient. I was white-knuckled all the way to the hotel.
We stopped at a grocery in Driggs to get "supplies" for our hike the next day, up into the Teton range along the Cascade Canyon trail. I could hardly sleep for the excitement!
Next: pronghorns, Jenny Lake and the Teton Mountains.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving Thanks

On this the eve of our day of Thanksgiving, I wanted to share with you a small list of the things I'm grateful for.

I am grateful for woods,

and meadows,

and miles of swamps to explore.

For cold mountain streams,

and high rocky cliffs,

and endless horizons.

For birds that soar overhead,

and bison that roam free upon the plains.

For elk in the morning sun,

and deer in my own backyard.

For the little ones who will brave our presence for a peanut,

and the snakes in the grass.

I am grateful for glorious sunsets,

and the softness of the moon rising over water,

and especially for spectacular birthday sunrises.

But mostly I am grateful for mothers,

for beautiful, barefooted friends on the beach,

and for those who hold hearts in their hands.

Thank you for making this world a most wondrous and beautiful place.

"In wilderness people can find the silence and the solitude and the non-cilivized surroundings that can connect them once again to their evolutionary heritage, and through an experience of the eternal mystery, can give them a sense of the sacredness of all creation."

Sigurd Olson

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Book Review: Red Tails in Love

As I mentioned yesterday, I've been doing a lot of reading. I am not a library book sort of reader, however. I like to OWN my books. I like to take my time reading a book, and I often have two or three going at once. Books with a time limit just don't work. Also, I tend to write in my books, mark passages that resonate, make notes and so on. Librarians frown on their books being treated in this way.

For a starving artist to be able to afford a book habit, library books sales, used book stores and "buy it used" on Amazon must be utilized. The "nature" section at most book sales tends to be overlooked, and one can walk out with a generously packed bag-o-books for $5 bucks. That is where I picked up Red-tails in Love: Pale Male's Story--A True Wildlife Drama in Central Park.

This was a rather light read compared to some, a good one to start my "book review" with since it didn't require a great deal of note-taking or soul searching. It is not in the least philosophical. It is a simple story of nature--and the people who watch it--in New York City's Central Park.

The book is laid out much like a theatrical production, with acts and scenes rather than chapters. The author, Marie Winn, starts out explaining how she came to be a part of a group of regular birdwatchers in Central Park, and she introduces the main players, a few of them biologists from the American Museum of Natural History. But most of "The Regulars," as they're known, are just ordinary people seeking nature and knowledge in the middle of one of the world's biggest cities.

The book moves along at a pretty good clip. We meet Pale Male early on, the unusually light colored red-tailed hawk who appears in Central Park in November of 1991. From his first failed attempts at nest-building and mating to his later fecundity, the tale is interspersed with the stories of other birds' trials and tribulations resulting from a life lived in such close proximity to humans. From the oriole's nest tree being chopped down (with nest and nestlings still in it), to the killdeer family facing down bulldozers, to the loons that appeared, briefly, on the Reservoir, we live the drama of everyday life of a bird in New York City.

There are successes and failures, drama and comedy. Building a nest on a high rise in the ritzy neighborhood of Fifth Avenue and 74th Street will bring out human adversaries. Then there are people who do nasty things just because they can. But throughout, the dedicated birdwatchers--naturalists if there ever were any--manage to protect these magnificent animals while sharing the wonders of Central Park's wildlife with tourists and city dwellers alike.

I enjoyed this book because it was an easy read, and I could relate to the thrill these birdwatchers got observing nature carrying on around them. Central Park, it turns out, is a prime location for birdwatching, especially during the spring and fall migrations. It lies along a major migration route and is a "wilderness" in the middle of ever-increasing urban sprawl. So if you're looking to take in an off-Broadway show and do a little wildlife viewing in one trip, New York City is your destination.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Religious Naturalist

I have been reading A LOT of books lately about nature; ecology, philosophy, journals, social issues, spiritual issues. For a long, long time I just couldn't get interested in non-fiction. I think that I was unhappy and needed the escape that a good work of fiction provided. Also, I realize now, I was not doing what I wanted to do--work that involved art, the environment and wildlife. Perhaps I was shielding myself from what I knew deep inside I wanted to do but thought I could never.

Anyway, all that changed when I picked up a copy of Sigurd Olson's Reflections From the North Country nearly two years ago. I had been compiling quotes on nature, and his name came up several times. I was curious about this fellow and so looked him up online. What a book that was! His words resonated with me right out of the gate, and it started me on a path of voracious reading. I read another one of his books, then Aldo Leopold, Annie Dillard, E.O. Wilson and Paul Hawkin to name a few.

One of the things that many of these authors shared was a healthy spiritual connection to nature, and in some cases a complete rejection of the idea of a personal God. However, that lack of faith did not leave them wallowing in a spiritual void--they looked at the natural world and saw everything they needed to sustain their souls.

I was fascinated by this. I have never been a religious person in the traditional sense. I could never get behind the notion of a personal God or even the idea that there is some sort of "consciousness" that created the universe. It just never made any sense to me. What resonated with me was (and is) the life that exists all around me--the Creation, if you will. It is tactile, it is obvious, and it excites me and fills me with wonder and reverence.

Being without God in a God-fearing world can leave one feeling...isolated. What was wrong with me? How could I not believe when so many did? Was I missing something? I tried, I did, to get on board. Read some of the Bible (what a beautiful man Jesus was!), went to this church, then that church, but try as I might I could not buy into God ("God" with a capital G being the Christian version). But what stayed with me, had been with me since I was a child, was nature. My awe and amazement and delight in everything living outside my door. I worshipped it, in my own quiet way.

So the turn of events that lead me to try my hand at making a living as an artist also started me on a spiritual journey. I wanted to learn. I wanted to know about the subjects that I was drawing, to learn about their habits and habitats, their lives. So I began researching, and the more I learned the more I wanted to know. At the same time I was trying to create a product, and I was using quotes about nature that resonated with me on some notecards. I wanted to know about the people who had uttered or written such sage words, so I began to research them too. What a world I found! Emerson and Thoreau to be sure, but also Henry Beston and Chet Raymo and Bernd Heinrich...the list goes on and on.

It wasn't until I picked up a copy of Chet Raymo's When God is Gone, Everything is Holy that I finally had a name for what I was--a religious naturalist. A religious naturalist is essentially one who rejects the supernatural, embracing instead the natural world for their spiritual identity. There is the belief that all life is interconnected, and science is called upon to reinforce these spiritual beliefs. In a sense, the religious naturalist relies on science, while the followers of other faiths, if you will, rely on myth.

How happy I was to see that I wasn't an outcast after all! I generally eschew labels, but in reality we all need to not only define ourselves in some way but also feel like we fit in--community is one of the basic needs of human beings. To find there were like-minded people--and a lot of them--was an epiphany for me. So in addition to reading about habitats, species, living for a year in the desert or in the woods or on a beach, I have been reading about religion, primarily religion and science, ever seeking a firmer grip on what it means to be human, and what it means to be me.

On those slow blog days I will do a "book review", a summery of something I've read, some quotes and thoughts. I hope to have some lively feedback as a result! (The photos, BTW, are from the Porcupine Mountains, a trip I took last year with Lisa and Lori, who had won an Artist in Residence there. I wanted to give you a little visual stimulation as well! I will probably blog about that trip this winter.)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Artwork--Blue Heron con't

Day...five? I've lost track already. Anyway, here she is. After a slight freak out yesterday (not liking something I did) all is well.

See ya Monday.

Along the Boardman

We didn't have much time for exploring on Sunday as we had to head home that afternoon, so we stayed closer to Karin's than on Saturday. After some debate, we decided to walk along the Boardman River. There were benches for Lori (still recovering from foot surgery) and a nice path down the river bank.

Here is the Michigan DNR's description of the Boardman:

The Boardman River is located in Grand Traverse and Kalkaska counties in northwest lower Michigan. It rises in the Mahan swamp in north central Kalkaska County and flows in a southwesterly direction for 40 miles. Turning north for nine miles, it empties into Grand Traverse Bay at Traverse City. The Boardman River system drains a surface area of approximately 186,000 acres and includes about 130 linear miles of stream.

The end of the river, passing near Traverse City, is an urbanized--there are several dams for hydroelectric power, and the trails are well-used and well-warn. But the Department of Environmental Quality has determined that the river is better off without the dams and has begun removing them. The ponds that were created by the backwaters are still there, but much smaller now. Karin took us to see one of these ponds, and show us how folks who once had "lake front" property were now high and dry.

We stopped at an old boat launch to take a look. I, however, was much less interested in the homes than in the little waterfowl skittering around on the pond. I jumped out of the car and grabbed my camera, and to my delight, saw that they were buffleheads!

I am an amateur birder, and only recently started keeping track of the birds I've seen. It's hardly enough to call it a life list yet, but it's always exciting to find a bird I've never seen before. I have never paid waterfowl much attention--to me all duck-like birds were mallards--but I've learned a lot in the past few years and now look much more closely at who's swimming around on a pond or lake.

The photo below shows two males on the right, two females on the left.

The lowering of the pond level revealed some interesting things, including long abandoned boats.

We drove farther upstream to the trail along the river where we could deposit Lori at an overlook and the rest of us could walk a little. Next to the path to the river there were fields of sumac. I like the goldenrod in the background, I think it looks like snow.

The Boardman is a much larger, faster river than the Crystal, faster too now that the dams are coming out. And while the area is much more heavily used, there were still plenty of pretty scenes.

I was genuinely surprised to see recent beaver activity here. We found several beaver-chewed sticks in the water, small branches stripped of their bark, and this tree which had been gnawed on not all that long ago. Perhaps the beavers up along the Crystal had been trapped out, while the population here was somewhat protected by development? Hard to say for sure. There are certainly species--raccoons for one--who have adapted to living closely with us and benefit from living in an urban area where there's no hunting or trapping.

Popular with kayakers, the Boardman has several spots with class I or II rapids. This was the gnarliest part of the river that we saw, and keeping in mind it's mid-November, pretty impressive. I'd like to go back in the spring and see it filled with run-off.

As the river nears the dams downstream it slows down a bit, but it's much faster now than it was pre-dam removal. The Boardman is actually a pretty good trout stream, better if you go farther upstream than here, but still fishable in the lower areas. Removal of the rest of the dams should improve its quality further.

You can see here how high the water was before restoration. It's not so pretty now, but given time nature will reclaim this area. The regenerative abilities of nature never cease to amaze me. Usually, we just need to get out of the way.

We are looking forward to a winter trip to TC to visit Karin and do a little skiing or showshoeing. Yeehaw!

Correction: no dams have as yet been removed. Water levels have been lowered in anticipation of dam removal. Thanks, Karin.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Karin's Request

Well, Miss Fish, here ya go. Remember, we weren't really there all that long! I'll let the images "speak" for themselves. Enjoy!

The Crystal River Part 2

We dawdled awhile by the river, enjoying the late afternoon sunlight and the grassy marshes that the river passed through, then piled back in the car to head back to Karin's. But less than a mile down the road we crossed over a bridge and Karin mentioned that there was a canoe portage there where the river passed through three large drain pipes under the bridge. I turned the car around and we all tumbled out again.

Here is a look upstream at this beautiful, placid river.

Karin noticed a trail along the east side of the river so off we went, exploring the riverbank. One of the first things I noticed was all of the beaver activity. Lots and lots of trees had been felled in the woods along the river. It all looked pretty old, nothing recent that I could see, but it was neat to see all the stumps with chew marks in them, rather than the clean, straight cut of a lumberman's saw.

Here's a close-up of the stump, clearly showing the tooth marks in the wood. This was one of the bigger trees that was felled. Most were only about 3 to 4 inches in diameter. This tree would have been stripped of its upper branches once it was down.

Here's another that didn't quite get finished, but enough damage was done that the tree died, and it's now full of holes and excavations, providing homes for many birds.

I loved the feeling of this place, the quality of the light, the softness of the earth, thick with duff, below my feet--had it been warmer I would have taken my shoes off.

The base of this long-dead tree was strewn about with wood chips, most likely from a pileated woodpecker looking for bugs.

I didn't want to leave this place. The calm of the waters, the gentle sunlight through hazy clouds, a feeling like I was in some kind of fairy forest. I could almost believe that I was somewhere untrammeled by man, that I was alone with the beavers and the birds. Along this river I experienced one of those moments when I feel at one with a place. It's such a fleeting feeling, because as soon as you recognize it, it's gone. It's that moment when there are no thoughts, no conscious "me" but rather a worldly "all", when I am no longer projecting myself onto my surroundings but rather letting my surroundings wash over and within me. It is these moments that I long for, that instant when I am one with the world.