SketchWalking among Beech Trees

Walking among beech trees cooled by the night’s rain, air moist fresh whipping and sifting through the leaves, dappled light and shadows casting dynamic mosaic patterns on a familiar dirt path, tree trunks painted in rain water drippings glistening in striped shades of umber while body shifting quietly to the rhythm of a poem, a chant, or imitation of a bird tweet while ruminating a problem seeking a solution. Then in an instant to pause when it strikes and capture a moment in watercolor or pen is quite instinctive to me, adding a whole other dimension to the cadence of walking invoking an incorporeal feeling, one that’s hard to attain whilst sketching in the studio. This is my personal space that I’ve carved out over years of sketchwalking as a means to thinking and seeing. Invoking curiosity and keeping that sense of wonder alive and fresh even in well acquainted places. Especially in well acquainted places. The familiarity of a place can be shattered at a stroke through the intimacy of ‘seeing’ again while sketching just at the immediate instant when body and mind are primed to receptivity through the rhythm of walking.

During this lock down, it’s been no different…or perhaps I’d say it’s been immensely relevant that walking and sketching done in tandem can still be a part of my life, a blessing I don’t take lightly. Our local county park has remained open during lockdown and it is but a stone’s throw away, facilitating an easy means for my quotidian sketchwalking. 

2020 March through May was a rather wet-Winter-into-wet-Spring transition. Inundated with relentless downpours, tempestuous thunderstorms and even a vagrant polar vortex that sprung in to play havoc in its wake. The terrain has been in a continuous state of water-log. And the wind, incessant remorseless wind at 20-25 mph incited its gusty role of terror and destruction as well. Watching trees sway like pliant bamboo, creak and groan like a violin out of tune, sing and susurrate in loud whispers then, just as sudden quieten to a gentle murmur, but not for long. Like an impetuous child unable to decide its mood of the day resumed with renewed fever, whipping and howling through night and day. Maple samaras that prevalently ripen to dry feather-vaned wings and propel down clogging gutters, sprouting wherever they land are now being snatched in their prime, fresh, heavy, pliant and red-green, still attached to sprigs, flung and scattered about like yesterday’s urban detritus. I gathered armfuls and stuck them in a vase so their life didn’t seem trifling. 

Despite this forewarning you might call it, my usual walk in the beechwood that day was brought to a instant halt by a tall majestic beech that lay toppled over on the path by what I can only presume was the recent storm. It was snapped at its base like a twig, inconceivable, yet even as I stood looking stupefied impossible to believe, staring down at the jagged edge still attached to the root the smell of fresh green sap wood wafted up my nostrils, the very scent and essence of life itself. This was one of the few tall mature trees I’d walked by often, on occasion stopping to run my hand along its bark, staring into its eyes wishing it to reveal the inner secrets of a long and fruitful life. Ive passed silently under ear refreshed to the flutelike melody of the wood thrush spreading into the forest air from its canopy, I’ve stood under it gazing up at a squirrel or two sampler up its branch, and sketched white-tailed deer graze in its understory. It has stood there for over two hundred years, this and a few other matriarchs of these woods, nurturing other beech saplings, sheltering wildlife, and offering up shade scented breeze on sultry summer afternoons.

How long has it lain here now I wondered as I circled around this giant looking down it length from the top end for the first time, it’s leaves still fresh and springy. Leaves that grew zig-zag on their thin twigs. It’s massive trunk weighted in it’s history, stored but now lost, bark smooth but for the scars of branches that fell and the large eyes that have kept watch in the woods. I picked up a piece of its bark about a foot wide and foot and a half long, that lay splintered beside it as though it had been cracked open from the trunk and flung apart like a walnut shell. It’s inner cambium layer in brilliant burnt orange like a broken terra-cotta tile lay curved and exposed while still attached to the phloem and greyblue outer bark. It took my breath away. What perfect symphony of form and function. I walked around in silent homage to this beauty, sketching it and it’s many branches and leaves, it’s eyes still vigilantly watching me as I did. And as I came around, to sight a young sapling sprouted at it’s root base, a quick gasp, a single consolation. Perhaps the old beech had been nurturing this spritely offspring prescient of its forthcoming fate. This thin spindly sapling, upright and eager will now have the light open up onto it and will flourish and grow in its matriarch’s place for another two hundred years or more. I leave with my little sketch and this thought to mull over proceeding down the path. 

Yet, I was quite unprepared for what lay ahead. Walking on, my mind still in a haze of unrest I came upon four other beeches that too had succumbed to the storm. These trees had been uprooted soil and all and lay strewn blocking the rest of the path. One of them whilst on it way down took its neighbor with it and the two lay in an entanglement of branches, two silent sentinels now at rest together.

I had never witnessed rootballs this large. As I stood beside one it towered over me three times taller and at its base a concave impression to the converse of its rootball, a pit where once it’s root had filled now filled in its place with rain water that had yet to drain, reflecting in perfect color harmony the sky that had opened up from the drop of the canopy. This isn’t right I thought, it shouldn’t be sky here but effervescent leaf green. And yet in the puddle water seemed already to be sustaining new life, a small wood frog had claimed it as its new home while a butterfly was basking in the nutrients at the puddle’s edge. Perhaps other facultative species might take advantage of this new resource too. And what about the life that was existence in and around the root ball, more questions to speculate.  

These American beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) were over two hundred years or more in age with had many more years left in them. As I stood in awe fighting back tears I thought of all the life that depended on them. Like this wood thrush freshly returned from his wintering grounds on an adjacent tree singing his heart out calling for a mate. And the distant call of the red bellied woodpecker, had he drummed on these tree trunks I pondered. What birds and creatures had made their home in these canopy now lost, butterflies and caterpillars that once feasted on their leaves and eaten their nuts, what understory had thrived in their shade and provided nourishment to the white tailed deer that frequent these woods. So many questions….

What is it about trees that capture our minds so and stay with us long after we no longer are in their presence I wonder. Is it because they’ve preceded us and will still be standing, keeping watch even after we’re gone. I leave you here with this percipient poem by W.S.Merwin

PLACE

On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

what for

not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit

is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands

in the earth for the first time

with the sun already

going down

and the water

touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead

and the clouds passing

one by one

over its leaves

— W.S. Merwin, from ‘The Rain in the Trees’

Of Treespeak

I love trees, always have, I can’t walk by one without looking up its spine, and as a kid couldn’t walk by without climbing up one either, and have the scrapes and scars to how for it.

Biologists, ecologists, foresters, and naturalists increasingly argue that trees speak, and that humans can learn to hear this language. (If only we would listen…) They speak constantly, even if quietly, communicating above and underground using sound, scents, signals, and vibes. They’re naturally networking, connected with everything that exists, including you. There’s a fascinating article on how “Plants use acoustic vibes to find a drink”

Literary and musical history is speckled with references to the songs of trees, and the way they speak: whispering pines, falling branches, crackling leaves, the steady hum buzzing through the forest. Human artists have always known on a fundamental level that trees talk, even if they don’t quite say they have a “language.”

Have you not walked in the woods and head the murmur in the canopy, stood under a tree in early spring and heard the soft crackle of a new leaf bud bursting out, or the whistling and rustling of leaves in the wind, and wondered!

Read more on this in Euphrates Livni’s article here.

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Fall On Campus Way

Fall was in the air when last I went sketchwalking on Campus Way. There were quite a few runners, some skateboarders and some dog walkers. The air was crisp, the grass was still green but the trees on the distant hillside were turning and the colors of fall were peeking through. I managed to capture a few quick sketches on a somewhat sunny day, but got drizzled out by the end.

The first two sketches are of an extended clump or should I say stand of some really tall trees. I’ve yet to determine what species they are, but their presence is unmistakeable as most of the area around them is open grassy farmland, and they stand sentinel at the end of the stretch. I was fascinated by their intertwined branches outstretched high above and over the pathway,

I tried to convey a sense of their height and the atmospheric mood – the first sketch was the reflection of the bright sunshine atop their crown done on my way out, whereas the second one done on my way back was when the rain clouds had set in and turned everything to an almost grey scale. How quickly the weather does change around here!

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From here you get a clear view of Mary’s Peak, granted there aren’t any clouds of Course! Once again the sketches were intended to capture a specific mood and not a photographic representation. It was a clear day but had turned cold and windy by the time I caught the sunset over Marys Peak, and of course the rained out sketch with the rain’s contribution is obvious!



This last sketch here is the distant hillside, and yes the light drizzle by then had turned to rain!

 

A Different Perspective

This is the last posting for #WorldWatercolorMonth -Day 30 &31/31

The meadows have come to life now that we’re into mid summer and with the mega downpours we’ve had, it’s as though each day brings about a drastic change. The brush seems to grow in leaps and bounds and there’s a burst of wildflowers everyday, ever changing the colors and hues of the landscape. The vibrancy on the Meadows is an artist delight. Nature paints a splendid palette be it in the early morning light, mid afternoon glare or at sunset. I love sketching the meadows at all times of day and at all seasons, but the bright hues of summer are especially my favorite. But even summer brings such rapid change, if you blink you miss the nuances. Two days ago the colors were mostly greens with dabs of white. Now as you look across over the undulating landscape you see brush strokes of yellow from the goldenrod and rudbeckia with pops of powderpuff whites of QueenAnne’s lace swaying in the wind.

Often I take paper in different sizes with me to sketch in the field. This forces me to sketch a subject matter within it’s constraints,  makes me look at it from a different perspective. Painting landscapes typically is done in landscape form to capture the vastness across a broad sheet of paper, but what if we took a vertical perspective of the same landscape and potrayed the vastness in another way. It’s quite refreshing to paint this way.

Here I’ve done the same scene both in landscape and vertical perspective. What are your thoughts, Id love to know.

 

 

Catching Butterflies

Well figuratively…

Day 27& 28/31 #WorldWatercolorMonthThe meadows are filled with life, birds, bees, butterflies, and rabbits of course! They’re everywhere, enjoying the fruits and flowers and seeds of the land around them. 

I’m spending more time these days seeing, really seeing not just looking, so I can learn the nuances of the subjects before I begin to sketch. For me the best way to see something has always been to sketch it, with whatever tool at hand. I started with the wildflowers, I now know more about the native plants around me here than I ever did before. This year I’ve just managed the few that are currently in bloom, and more are on the way. But then I’ve gotten distracted by the butterflies. It started with the Tiger Swallowtails in mid-June early July and now the Sulfurs, and soon there’ll be Monarchs, dozens and dozens of them fluttering about among the wildflowers. 

The Tiger Swallowtails and the yellow Sulfurs sketches below are from the meadows. The Black Swallowtails have been fluttering about in my garden. Last summer there were four in my backyard and I had hoped they’d be back again. I’ve already spotted five this year! That’s a good sign. 

 

Gardening day

Day 25/31- #WorldWatercolorMonth

Yesterday was gardening day. It was the perfect day, cool (by summer standards), slightly breezy and partly cloudy, and the day after a summer shower! So perfect! Lots of pruning, dead heading, and light weeding.

‘Gardens are not made by sitting in the shade’ said Rudyard Kipling and he was right! But in between the work I did take time out in the Shade – to sketch. I’m rarely in my garden without my sketchbook or pad so I’m never caught off guard when something catches my fancy.

I had some hostas I planted years ago. Interestingly the deer don’t seem to want to eat them and the hummingbirds love them. They have large pale purple flowers and the hummers are always at them, dawn to dusk. So, today was the day for sketching hostas. It was a lovely time, the birds were singing and some were busy scratching for food, the day was cool and sketching was peaceful. ‘How lovely is the silence of growing things’ – unknown.

I spent quite some time studying the dark shadows between the leaves and flowers. Heres one sketch thats all about shadows, while the other two sketches are more about the flowers. The photo doesn’t due justice to the depth of the shadows, but I thought I’d post it anyway.

Giant Pots!

End of my Walk  – Day 24/31 – #WorldWatercolorMonth 

Here’s just one of a multitude of these giant pots lining the walkway to the garden path at Longwood. The lovely bluish-green cupric oxide patina like color is just one aspect of its beauty. The size, the vibrant color hues and shadows on them in sun and shade, and the ever changing contents of the pots keep me coming back for more sketching. While sketchwalking, as I walk toward these they also signal the end of my walk!

 

Dalias, Dalias and more Dalias

Day 21/31 – # WorldWatercolorMonth

As the days roll deeper into summer the dalias are blooming at Longwood, and oh so many colors, shades, shapes and species. Here are just a few…

Wildflowers on the Meadows

Im still awaiting the arrival of the Monarchs, the Swallowtails, the Orange Sulfurs, Cabbage Whites, and the list goes on and on… Each year we see more species of butterflies on the Meadows Gardens at Longwood. As the meadow matures and the wildflowers multiply and spread, the wildlife here has abundantly exploded! And along with the butterflies and bees, so have the birds and other wildlife. You are more likely to spot several species of bird without even looking for them. Or hear the bull frog in the pond below, and occasionally if it’s  real quiet you’ll spot the Great Blue motionless on the Hour Glass lake patiently awaiting his supper to arrive. The songbirds serenade you as you walk along on the winding pathways and quite oblivious to your presence. A walk in the meadows is no longer just a walk, it’s a passage through time. Although it might appear to the novice that these meadows just magically stay alive there’s a silent crew of gardeners and specialists that tend to it to keep it healthy and going strong! A big shout out to these great people hard at work who make our lives just a little bit richer. 

Tropical Patterns 

Day 8/31 – #WorldWatercolorMonth

Today’s post is about Patterns. At the US Botanic Gardens the tropical plants all around were luscious and very green. Only a few had blooms on them, but that didn’t really matter because the leaves were large, some of them even a 2-3 feet long and a foot wide and heavily patterned. Meandering through the pathways you didn’t really distinguish each leaf individually because the stripes and the colors just seemed to merge and flow into one another forming intricate patterns of yellows and greens in all shades. This is just one pattern that stood out and it happened to have a calyx adding an extra pop of color.