Drawing in and on Solitude
Now more than six months into the Covid-19 Pandemic and avoidance of most in-person socializing, I find myself following some of my interests totally alone for hours at a time and finding intense soul satisfaction. What follows are attempts to describe these two distinct pursuits that rely on solitude.
I realize how long it has been since I’ve had the luxury of being by myself, not only for solitary walks or reading, but for extended periods of activities more personally challenging. Putting pen, pencil or brush to paper kindles questions to self. What am I made of? Having processed and admired others’ art for most of my life, what does my own inward eye see? As a child of twelve I remember grabbing the TIME Magazine from the mailbox before anyone else in the household in order to study the weekly art pages. It was in TIME in the late fifties and early sixties that I first learned about the abstract expressionists, and about national and international art exhibitions. My interest in art and the art world has never ceased. So now, what can I create that is truly original artistically? Self-enforced habits of staying busy and, as a “practical” person, earning a living, always working for others, have governed me until retirement last year from managing a nature reserve and crafts store in Costa Rica. But an instinct that making art is fundamental to my sense of self-worth has always been with me. The discipline to DO art, however, came in very irregular waves. Now with my remaining years diminishing, I like the axiom Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.* Solitude for creativity is a gift to self.
Like many with artistic urges, I studied art history and took studio art courses in college. And in my late twenties, I took two painting classes, one in egg tempera at the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, and another class in painting–quite influential to my technical skill–with Franklin Williams at the San Francisco Art Institute. At that time I also wandered city streets taking photographs, eventually selling some photography through the Museum of Modern Art Rental Gallery. I sold or gave away early large painted canvases to friends and family. The drawing below from that period is one that I’ve kept all these years.
Much creative work–like fine art or writing–requires meditative concentration; each decision about what to do next is not always clear and it takes courage before going forward. In writing one can always hit the delete button and rewrite, but making a miscalculation in a drawing can be devastating. I am one who cannot listen to music while thinking with purpose; nor can I listen to anyone speaking. Radio or TV voices are out of the question for my habits. Hours speed by; I can take a break and make lunch with my husband or go for a walk, but then am glad to get back to standing at my drawing table. To conceive an artistic intention, to be motivated intellectually and emotionally, and to act out a plan with persistence–few results in life to me are more rewarding. The nurse of full-grown souls is solitude. **
What a lengthy journey–in my case at least–it has been to prioritize solitude and to plan a daily schedule around it. I like to feel, after my 73rd birthday earlier this month, that I’m really just getting started. Maybe by the time I’m 80 I will have a recognizable style!
The Benefit of Solitude While Photographing Birds
The Randall Davey Audubon Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico–an excellent nature reserve–is just a short drive away, and on occasion I go there alone to get exercise and to bird. A few weeks ago (September, 2020), I went three times in the space of ten days and decided to change my birding strategy from slowly walking along the trails to just sitting still, mostly in a forested area adjacent to the Audubon reserve called Bear Canyon. Even at the end of summer, there are some green grassy areas in the lower section of the canyon’s otherwise dry creek bed indicating water slowly trickling on or near the surface. I sat on a rock near one of these grassy areas with my camera and binoculars and just waited and watched quietly, letting the birds get used to my presence. Indeed, they did gradually come closer and looked at me with curiosity.
This is what the habitat looked like in this small depression in the canyon surrounded by coniferous forest of Two-needle Pinyon, Juniper, Ponderosa, Lodgepole, and Whitebark Pine. To the right and west of my observation seat:
In front of me, the hidden water source beneath the grass that attracted many birds in the hours I observed the site:
To my left and east, more good habitat for warblers, nuthatches, chickadees, wrens:
To my delight, a coyote spotted me from the hillside forest to my left above me about 40 yards away. It barked at me and howled for about five minutes. I spoke to it in a calm voice, “Hello, Coyote. Everything’s OK here. I’m just watching the birds, don’t worry,” and it soon moved on, assured I was not a threat (not prey!).
I love solitary places, where we taste the pleasure of believing what we see is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.***
Many parents, I think, teach young girls to be afraid of venturing out in nature alone. Fortunately, my parents were unusual in trusting that our communities in either rural or exurban areas, were completely safe. I often went exploring for what seemed like hours in nearby woods. So even in Santa Fe, where there are bears and coyotes in the coniferous forests and in the juniper/pinyon pine forests, I am not afraid; I know what to do. Nature never did betray the heart that loved her. ****
But you are probably reading this far to see some birds, right? These are the species I saw on three occasions over a period of three hours all together.
So the lesson here is, if you want to become an object of curiosity for nature’s creatures, just sit still, preferably near water, and you may be rewarded with their company.
Searching for Answers
And finally, so much has happened in my country–and the world–since my previous post in May. People have died needlessly of the novel corona virus because our president does not believe in science or in leadership that would support our formerly prestigious CDC’s medical professionals’ counsel. George Floyd was murdered before our very eyes. And we have had our eyes opened even wider about injustice to immigrants legal and illegal as well as to black and brown people in the daily course of their lives, while driving, while shopping, while sleeping, even while birding in New York’s Central Park. I defer to others more eloquent than I to speak words of wisdom:
There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustices, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. –Elie Wiesel, 1986. Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor.
Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are. –Benjamin Franklin, president of the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society, 1787.
* Michel de Montaigne [1533-1592]
**James Russell Lowell [1819-1891]
***Percy Bysshe Shelley [1792-1822]
****William Wordsworth [1770-1850]
I thank Harry, my cheerful managing editor and tech supporter.
Today we find ourselves in a world overwhelmed with visual images. Our eyes make sense of our planet and the news of our complex societies by ordering and classifying visually the photos and videos that bombard our senses. And now during this pandemic, the worst health crisis in over 100 years, it occurs to me, as it has certainly occurred to others, that we who have not experienced the coronavirus firsthand, are not truly seeing the patients’ suffering. We see stunning images of the care givers and emergency teams, the long front-line of others who serve behind the scene in hospitals, or serve the public in their myriad important ways (and many of these people are dying), but for valid privacy reasons we never see the faces of the very ill, terrified patients themselves. As we read about the symptoms of Covid-19, each of us can only “see” in our mind’s eye a vague but nightmarish image of what it must look like to be feverish, coughing, short of breath and sick enough to require intensive care.
In March when some of the first Covid-19 patients were being treated at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, CA, a non-treating doctor visiting the hospital and observing the patients from behind glass, later told his cousin, my friend, “You would not believe what I saw.” Upon arriving home that evening he tore off his scrubs, threw them in the washer and immediately showered. My friend said she had never seen him so upset, so frightened.
Ever since photography became indispensable to journalism, outstanding photographs have focused attention and informed popular memory on defining moments during wars, conflicts or humanitarian disasters. Remember The Falling Soldier photo by Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War in 1936; or the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by John Filo taken 50 years ago today, on May 4, 1970, of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffery Miller, both students at Kent State University among 1000 students protesting the war in Vietnam? Four students were gunned down and killed that day by the Ohio National Guard.
Remember the June 8, 1972 Pulitzer Prize photo by AP photographer Nick Ut of children running from the effects of a napalm bomb dropped on their South Vietnam village? A naked female child, Phan Thi Kim Phúc (in center) is facing the camera, burned by napalm and her younger brother, Phan Thanh Tam (left foreground) is screaming in pain. In my memory, the photograph is burned, a defining image of the Vietnam War. Even so, it took three more years for the war to end in 1975.
When the medical field understood cigarette smoking caused cancer, they used photographs of cancerous lungs to convince nicotine addicts to quit smoking. To convince drivers to adopt safe speeds, safety officials showed photographs of appalling auto wrecks.
If we could actually see photos of people who say they feel like they are “drowning”, gasping for breath, neck muscles and sinews stretched, we might not see other photos of people swarming together on beaches or storming city halls, some with assault weapons, demanding freedom from restrictions, and sending death threats to governors and mayors. Calvin Munerlyn, 43, a security guard at a Family Dollar store in Flint, Michigan and father of eight children, might not have been shot dead on May 1, 2020 for having instructed a customer to put a face mask on her child.
Eventually, I suppose there will be more than one photograph etched in our minds of this terrible time. I expect at least one will be an individual who fell ill from coronavirus, in extremis, one who gave permission to be fully seen. Though there are many victims, we must not look away from the very saddest face of this historical pandemic. Fear of the worst case scenario might alter behavior. Photographs can cause change, or hasten the speed of society more fully understanding and moving forward from catastrophe.
This one is mine.
How I Want to Go
Not subdued, intubated, opiated
Not manipulated by ravaged, fearful
Caregivers costumed for war of the worlds
Not meeting eyes with them at the end
Instead of loved human beings
Not hearing familiar voices via device
Lungs reduced to ground-glass opacities
Not gasping for my last painful
Breath in the ICU
Let me be walking by a quiet lake
On a spring or summer afternoon
Let there be palmate birds
Teal, Grebe, or Gadwall,
Goose, Shoveler, or Loon
Let their webbed toes move them
Silently, gracefully forward
Let them be accustomed to me
Eyes on their mates and young
Storm clouds will appear, darkness
Positive and negative particles struggling for supremacy
Drops will caress the water
The air will change to ozone, petrichor
The leaves by the trail will moisten and drip
Lightning will strike, and all I will see is light
Life and laughter crisped together
Out with a bang
Would be electrifying
I am becoming more aware that, when I carry my camera while traveling near or far, my eye is more alert to the photographic potential of the natural world. I think I observe more than I would if I didn’t have the camera. After a decision to take a shot is made, and an image is taken, I can later reflect back on what I saw, how I felt upon seeing it, and how the image relates to others that stimulated me to snap the shutter. It’s a delicate balance between being fully present in my surroundings and being absorbed in the creative decisions of recording an image of those surroundings. I like to think the camera becomes a mindfulness tool rather than a distraction.
Here are some recent photos for those of you with the tenacity to read this far!
I thank my managing editor, my husband, for his invaluable suggestions and technical skills.
Be well. It would be nice to hear from you, if you feel like responding to my post. Here’s how to get in touch.
For someone who has passed much of the last three decades in the humid, rainy tropics of Costa Rica, I have adapted quickly over the past year to New Mexico, where average annual rainfall is only 13.85 inches as opposed to 180 inches in San Vito. Wherever I have lived in my life, I have learned the joy of participating in the natural world, rather than treating it simply as an object of scrutiny. Gardening in desert sand became a passion last spring and summer, and among the perennials I put into the ground were six small cacti, all of which survived the winter.
In mid-March, before the need for complete self-quarantining due to Covid-19 became clear to this part of the country, my husband Harry and I went forward with a long-planned short trip to Arizona. Over seven days in what is early spring here, we drove on scenic highways and visited national parks, monuments and forests, all the while practicing social distancing and mostly eating our own food. In Phoenix, we visited the Desert Botanical Garden, and in Tucson, we returned to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which we had enjoyed seventeen years ago when it was a less developed natural history attraction. We looked forward to observing spring in the desert, and I planned my target list of bird species to see and, with luck, to photograph: the Elegant Trogon, the Elf Owl, and, just one, please, any Bunting. HA! There is an old expression, “Men plan, God laughs”. I’ll change that to “Women plan, the universe yawns”.
My affinity for lush tropical forests will be with me for life, but I find the desert plants to be extremely attractive and fascinating in their own right. I saw that cacti such as Cholla, Saguaro or Prickly pear dominate the landscapes in many areas we passed. Barrel cactus are not so common, but they command attention. Technically, only about half of Arizona is desert, but some research tells me that state has 83 species of cacti, second to Texas’ high count in the U.S. of 91 species; but still, coming in second in cacti is impressive. New Mexico, by comparison, boasts 56 species.
I saw many birds using cacti for nests. A male Cactus Wren did a spectacular mating dance atop a Saguaro. Birds, bats and insects use former peck holes in Saguaro cacti for lodgings. Woodpeckers drill and peck the original nesting cavities in the stems and trunks; then after nesting, they abandon these cavities. Owls, European Starlings, insect-eating bats, mice or insects often take possession. In species of the cactus genus Cholla birds were coming and going, hoisting nesting material, or were already established in well protected nests. I saw starlings and doves nesting on the top of cacti or using small crevices and hollows between branches/arms. They don’t seem to know about Prairie Falcons!
When we returned home March 17, it was time to nest and quarantine ourselves. The current news of suffering and death is shocking and frightening, and I hope the birds, cacti and landscapes you see here will provide you with a pleasing respite from grim reality.
Anécdotas de un Naturalista en Costa Rica
Exploring Nature's Connections
A refuge for natural and cultural history with fine native crafts store
Or why the world is going to hell
Photography, Animals, Flowers, Nature, Sky
Photography & Musings about Nature & People
Lessons learned from Cooking School and other Culinary Adventures