Solitude for Art and Birding

 

“Greenlining” by Gail Hewson Hull, 9/2020; colored pencil, 5.5″ x 11″. The ZIA sun symbol is sacred to the Zia Pueblo Native American. It is found on New Mexico license plates and is used by artists, non-profit organizations, government entities, and merchants of NM. In August, SITE Santa Fe, a local contemporary museum, held an art contest; this was my entry in answer to the theme: what does resilience mean to you? My term greenlining (suggesting life, health, growth, inclusion) is to me the opposite of redlining (suggesting discrimination, intolerance, injustice, exclusion).

 

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.

 

“The Sweet Smell of Leather”, High School Softball Mitt. Colored pencil and charcoal, Gail Hewson Hull, 1979. The glove was a gift from the Hamilton-Wenham, Massachusetts Regional High School Athletic Department upon my receipt of the Sportsmanship Award at the final senior assembly. The coach knew I was very attached to my mitt after three years on the softball team. The mitt traveled to Paris, France for my junior year in college abroad. I was the first female to play in the International Softball League on spring weekends in the Bois de Boulogne in 1968. Even stranger is that with this glove I was the winning pitcher (in relief) for the American Businessmen’s Team in its first bout that season against the Marines Guarding the U.S. Embassy Team. 

 

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. **

 

“TV Series #3: The Pope’s Coronation with Electical Interference”, egg tempera, ink and colored pencil, GH Hull, 1981. At that time televisions had CRT tubes that were sensitive to static. I took a photograph of the colorful result of interference and used it as an inspiration for the painting.

 

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! 

 

 

Golden Toad (Incilius periglenes) is an extinct species of true toad, once endemic to elfin cloud forest in Costa Rica. Ink and colored pencil, “Golden Toad” [Detail], GH Hull, 2007. I was lucky enough to see live Golden Toads at the Monteverde Cloud Forest ranger station in 1987, before the wild population of toads died off due to chytrid fungus. The last Golden Toad was seen in 1989. Its disappearance was the first extinction attributed to human-caused global warming. 

 

“Ratatouille to Be”, colored pencil, GH Hull, 2007. Harry and I took a course together in Biological Illustration with Colored Pencils at the California Academy of Sciences and this is one of my results.

 

 

“Red-capped Manakin”, Mixed Media: hand-carved stamps, acrylic and bird in colored pencil, G.H. Hull, 2014. This was one of a series of eleven works that I created to sell in my indigenous crafts store in San Vito, Costa Rica. 

 

“Ode to New Mexico with Cottonwood and Aspen Leaves”, colored pencil, G.H. Hull, 9/2020. I am in a green phase. In this drawing there are fifteen shades of green.

 

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:

Scraggly brush, pine cones, bushes and grass. This will become a stream from snow melt in winter.

In front of me, the hidden water source beneath the grass that attracted many birds in the hours I observed the site:

Water is scarce, but it is keeping the grass green and attracting birds and probably mammals, too.

To my left and east, more good habitat for warblers, nuthatches, chickadees, wrens:  

Mixed habitat, good cover, water, insects associated with water: birds are active here

 

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!).

Coyote observing me through the trees.

 

Howling coyote. I think it wanted to be acknowledged, so I finally spoke calmly to it.

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.

Cordilleran Flycatcher

 

MacGillivray’s Warbler

 

Red-breasted Nuthatch

 

Wilson’s Warbler (female)

 

Wilson’s Warbler (male)

 

Mountain Chickadee

 

House Wren

 

And overhead, a curious Clark’s Nutcracker

 

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.

 

Young boy’s perch while watching the Harvest Day Festival and Parade, San Francisco City Hall. G.H. Hull, 1979

 

* 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.

 

PHOTOGRAPHY BEARING WITNESS

Late April snow on our back yard Buddha, a parting gift from dear friends who moved to Montana.

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.

The Falling Soldier, by Robert Capa, 1936

Kent State shooting, May 4, 1970, photo by John Paul Filo

The Terror of War, photo by Nick Ut, 1972

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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Sometimes I work out my joys and fears in poetry, my own, or others’.

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

GH 4/18/20

 

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Photography as Solace

 

In our neighborhood a bridge over an arroyo in early morning light

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!

March 12 snow in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest

 

Spring flush of leaves and unknown stream at roadside stop in Arizona, March 12, 2020.

 

Cactus Wren, Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ

 

Mountain Lion, Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ

 

Diablo Canyon, a favorite hiking area just a half hour from our home in Santa Fe

 

Cedar Waxwing flock seen on early AM walk in my neighborhood

 

Desert Cottontail in our back yard

 

Claret Cup Cactus adhered to rock in Diablo Canyon

 

Spotted Towhee in our neighborhood

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.

 

DESERT BIRDS OF ARIZONA

 

Chihuahuan Raven, Petrified Forest National Park, AZ

 

Chihuahuan Raven. Note rictal (nasal) bristles. Range: Sw. U.S. to central Mexico

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.

Spring in the Arizona Sonora Desert with Cholla, Prickly Pear and Saguaro cacti visible

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!

Gila Woodpecker starting a nest cavity on Saguaro cactus, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

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.

Gila Woodpecker cavity nest on Saguaro Cactus, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden. Resident sw U.S. to central Mexico

 

Cactus Wren with nesting material on Cholla Cactus, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

 

Male Cactus Wren in full mating display, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden. Sw. U.S. to cen. Mexico

 

Cactus Wren emerging from nest in Cholla Cactus, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

 

Curve-billed Thrasher nesting in Cholla Cactus. Range sw U.S. to s Mexico

 

European Starling and chick on top of Saguaro Cactus, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

 

White-winged Dove nesting on Saguaro Cactus, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden. Range sw U.S. to n Chile

 

Barrel Cactus, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

 

Inca Dove, Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, Gilbert, AZ (just southeast of Phoenix). Range sw U.S. to nw Costa Rica 

 

 

Gambel’s Quail, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden. Resident sw U.S. to nw Mexico

 

Saguaro Cactus habitat, Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

 

Female Great-tailed Grackle. Ranges from Sw. U.S. to Peru

 

 

Prickly Pear Cactus habitat amidst California Poppies, March 16, 2020 on Highway 191 near Buena Vista, AZ

 

 

 

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