Night Heron

Green-backed Night Heron

Green-Backed Night Heron

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When I was a young girl, my family moved often for my dad’s career.  This meant that we lived in lots of interesting places and I got a taste of several different kinds of habitats, all of which imprinted themselves upon me.  Finally we landed here, in northern Illinois.  It is a land of water.  Rivers and streams criss-cross the area, and there is a liberal sprinkling of lakes, bogs, marshes, swamps, fens… all gifts from the last glaciers.  Paradise to a barefoot kid who found she quite liked mud and frogs and turtles and sunfish.  So when this beautiful heron let me get close and look at him I knew I wanted to paint him.  I don’t go plunging into muddy water anymore, sadly, but he does.  Just watching him brought back that feeling of wonder~ what amazing creatures are lurking under that floating duckweed?

I’ve been reading about the benefits of wordlessness.  As an intellectual endeavor I find it difficult to achieve but sometimes I find myself sinking into it without trying and then I remember I spent much of my youth in that state.  I would head out the door in the morning, meet up with a favorite tree, say, or pond, and just lose all my words. It happens when I am painting, too.  In fact I found it impossible to teach because whenever I tried to demonstrate a technique my words would sort of tra ..i .. l .. o f  f … I’d “come to” to find my students studying me with concern, waiting for me to finish a sentence! Ha!  Not so good for teaching.  But great for sorting problems or simply being.  I’ve read that our wordless mind can process considerably more bits of information than the part that is busy narrating our story to us.  All those words get in the way of truly knowing.  When the words fall away I’m left with a sense of energy connected and flowing between me and, well, everything.  Have you experienced this?  Give it a try~it’s pretty fabulous :)

Bogs and Other Murky Things

Pitcher Plant Revised

Pitcher Plant, Volo Bog

My daughter and I went to prowl around the Volo Bog again the other day.  It was a lovely day, cool enough for us to really slow down and look at stuff.  The Pitcher Plants were getting ready to bloom, along with starflowers and a few others.  I’m happy to have this real bog right near my home.

I’ve been pondering things like fantasy, science fiction, sports… I hear people say, with all seriousness, that the human race will need to colonize Mars because this planet will prove unable to support us.  I see people get lost in the worlds of vampires and zombies and identification with their local sports team.  Finally I asked myself why this bothers me so much and this is what I’ve decided: it seems to me that people sense that they are disconnected from their true selves, but aren’t sure what that really is or where to find it.  And so they move, switch jobs, distract themselves with alternate worlds.  In “The Power of Now” Eckhart Tolle writes, “If you saw an angel but mistook it for a stone statue, all you would have to do is adjust your vision and look more closely at the “stone statue,” not start looking somewhere else. You would then find that there never was a stone statue.”   I think that is how it is with everything.  We won’t need to buy more stuff or build bigger houses or consume more substances if we can learn to look deeply within our own selves to find our eternal connection to what is real.  And when we are there, we won’t need to trash this beautiful generous and life -generating planet because we will discover that we already have enough.  We won’t need wars or frightening regimes to control us or tell us what to believe.  We won’t need a new world order because we’ll see that the one we have is well worth taking care of.  I don’t fault entertainments like fantasy or sports, I just feel nervous when I see society go unconscious in the pursuit of it.

By the way, I’m not saying angels are real…although they might be :)

Unfinished Transformation


I tried to paint an abstract…I really did.  It was fun, too, for awhile, until I couldn’t stand it anymore and had to start putting in form.  It looks to me like this painting really wants to be a landscape.  The bird was a real joy for me~I spotted him as I was walking the trail last summer. It was very hot and he was poised there, still for long enough for my lowly point-and-shoot to focus on him.  Yay!  At home I pored over my field guides and my best guess is that he is a Dickcissel.  I will be giving more substance to the compass plant he sits on, while endeavoring to keep the overall feel light and free.

This and another thing came together in my mind as a meditation.  I cam across the movie, “The Nun’s Story”, with Audrey Hepburn.  It looked like a heavy movie but I’m a big fan of her’s so I watched it anyway the other day.  I was struck by what seemed to be a central teaching for the nuns~ the Grand Silence.  They learned to silence their thoughts so they could hear God.  I liked this idea, and I wondered to what extent any of us could reach for that within our lives without entering a convent or monastery. Not that I think there is anything wrong with them~not at all.  I find the idea of them quite beautiful.  What I mean is, I wonder what positive change can a person bring from within a worldly life if they focus on transforming themselves rather than others. I suspect there is great fullness to be found in that inner stillness.  And light.  And freedom.  I suspect that things like road rage and red light cameras and materialism dissolve. I feel lighter already :)


Jim and Katie on Dune Trail

This morning I thought I’d share this painting I did a few years ago of my children.  They are sitting on the Dune Trail, gently enjoying a small snake that has come across their path.  We are lucky to live in a place where one  needn’t  fear the snakes.

I feel almost a mystical tie to Illinois Beach State Park.  When my family first moved to Illinois in the 70’s, my parents took me there to see it.  I remember seeing a young lady in a park uniform putting out flags and something like a bell went off inside me.  “That will be me one day”, I found myself thinking.  Then I forgot all about it until my life had taken me down several other roads.  Life zipped along, to the day someone suggested that I might want to monitor butterflies for the Nature Conservancy.  OH!  magic.  It became my life~nets, workshops, days on the trail counting butterflies.  My children grew up, it now seems, on this and other trails.  Now when we walk the trail we find layers of memories all along the way.  One day I remember that young lady and am startled to think, yes, that did become me one day.

Now my children are grown-ups (wonderful and awful all at the same time!)  and my knees tell me they are done chasing butterflies.  It is a difficult decision to pull away from something that meant so much to me for so many years, but it has been time to for awhile.  There is a new monitor at Illinois Beach, I am told.  I feel like the old racehorse that runs the fence when he hears the bugle, but I know it is time for me to turn my focus.

Yesterday I had a reception jointly with another artist at a gallery I joined this spring.  I feel like I’ve come home all over again~all these years I thought nature people were my tribe but I started to notice how isolated I felt.  I don’t really belong in that world.  But at this gallery the artists come and hang out together.  Hours fly by as we discuss media and method.  I found my peeps!!! Funny how that can happen almost by accident, isn’t it?

Leading a Volunteer Workday

The Botanists 4:2015The Botanists

Yesterday I had the good fortune to help lead a volunteer workday at a nearby nature preserve.  Almond Marsh is blessed with a large natural marsh and a nice quality upland savanna.  It is also blessed with a wet area accidentally created when a road was constructed. A low area filled with water, creating snags that attracted herons who nest there every year now.  When I arrived I saw a large bird fly right over the parking lot….a Bald Eagle!  That was an auspicious start to the day.

In a short while my charges for the day arrived~3 Brownies and their mothers.  My job was to take them out into the woods and teach them a little about what they were seeing and then have them pull garlic mustard.  I’ve done this before, but this was the first time I felt like an elder passing along knowledge.  It was really moving to see these little girls bend over, studying the Toothwort and Trillium I was showing them, and then learn to pull the garlic mustard.  Once they learned how to get the whole root they were all over it, triumphantly holding each one up for me to admire.  They were too young to be given detailed natural history lessons, of course.  I hope they loved the day as much as I did, and that they left with questions forming in their minds and wonder in their hearts.  I hope they come back.  They and their mothers were a delight.

The painting I wanted to share with you today is a celebration of the many citizen scientists it has been my pleasure to know over the years.  As I understand it, sometime in the early 80’s folks around here started to adopt parcels of land.  In some cases these were already forest preserves, but had not been managed.  In others they were parcels of land that people just wanted to save.  Organizations were formed, funds were raised, and land was purchased.  People began to study their field guides and historical records to discover what plants and creatures should be present.  Techniques were developed to restore the ecological health of prairie, wetland savanna and woodland.  Really, it has been a human blossoming as well as a natural one.  Every now and then I step back and marvel at these people from different walks of life teaching themselves botany, entomology, birdology :) you name it, and then dedicating thousand of hours every year  to help restore natural processes in the land.  When I sit in stewardship meetings, I notice that all of us are growing old.  Will this have been a fluke, a passing thing that will die with us?  I hope not.  I hope it continues, and I hope it spreads to every region.  Spending a day with 3 sweet little Brownies and their wonderful moms gave me hope for the future.

To read more about this movement and hopefully be inspired to start it in your area, I recommend the book, “Miracle Under the Oaks”, by William Stevens.

May eagles soar above you, and flowers bloom at your feet.

Turk’s Cap Lily

Turk's Cap Lily final

Turk’s Cap Lily is a wonderful plant that is a great find when you stumble upon it in the field.  I usually see it growing at the edge of savanna and wet prairie.  I seldom see it bloom twice in the same spot, which adds to the delight in finding it.

The traditional way to portray flowers in botanical painting is to set them against a neutral white or grey background but this is way too restrained for me.  I wanted to suggest the time of year and a bit of the habitat where I find the plant yet still make sure the lily was the star of the show.


Arrowhead with damselfly

Yesterday I went to walk the boardwalk at Volo Bog, the last open-water bog in Illinois.  It is a very cool place, and has inspired a number of my paintings such as this one.  I love to gaze into the black pools of water that wends its way between mats of plant growth.  It looks so deep and mysterious.

Recently I’ve been reading, “33 Artists in 3 Acts” by Sarah Thornton.  It makes me uncomfortable, which is why I’m making myself read it.  I’m a little disappointed by the author.  She wants to know what artists are like, so she has chosen a handful from the ART WORLD.  Like the guy who bought a shark, stuck it in a tank, called it art and sold it for millions.  humph.  These are people who went to art school with the intention of making the connections that would vault them to fame and fortune.  They consider themselves to be art, and anything they create is incidental.  In fact they mostly don’t create anything, but delegate their ideas to craftsmen.  They are openly contemptuous of those of us out in the trenches, making our own art, striving to create beauty and perhaps share a message of hope and love.

I mention all of this because it takes me so by surprise and I don’t really know how to process it.  While I didn’t attend college for art (I have a BS in biology), I did look into it.  I had the impression that the point of attending art school was to learn how to make art. It never occurred to me that they were, in fact, grooming the next artist personalities, not the next artists.  So now we have a population of super-stars whose idea of art is dreaming up the obscene and making other people construct it.  Odd.  And the sad thing is, as you read what they have to say for themselves, you get the sense that they are lost.  They have been taught that they must participate in the conversation where it was when they came on the scene.  They must not paint, because painting is dead.  Had they all been born a few decades sooner, they would have been able to join the conversation at an earlier point. Say, before painting had been declared dead.  According to this line of thought, all painting that happens today is derivative.  Hmmm.

This isn’t the only area where I come across this.  Back in the early 80’s when I got involved with nature restoration, the field was wide open.  People were excited and hopeful and creative ideas were sought after, not squashed.  Nowadays, just try to suggest that another method of restraining exotics like buckthorn might work better than an escalation of herbicides and watch people blow their tops.

What do you think of this?  Is it valid to say that in any given endeavor, say art, or nature conservation, that there is such a thing as an ongoing conversation?  Are there a small group of “leaders” who get to decide what is right?  It seems rampant, to me. In so many areas of human thought and endeavor things gallop along into a blind alley.  Then, instead of pausing for reflection, the ones pushing for this line of thought harden it into dogma that must not be questioned.

Or is it necessary for the conversation to be interrupted from time to time…  I hope next time Sarah Thornton wants to know what an artist is she goes out and talks to painters and ceramicists and photographers and all of the other creative souls who call themselves artists.