In the midst of last Sunday’s snowstorm, Snowflake the barred owl lived up to his name. He napped all day, letting the snow pile up on his head.
A Barred Owl has decided to hang out in our backyard red cedar. He comes in every morning around 6, and leaves on his evening rounds every afternoon as dusk is falling. He perches in the same place, a branch only about 10 feet off the ground. When we approach, he is usually snoozing, but he opens his eyes and looks down, hardly ruffling a feather. Then he shuts them again and proceeds with his nap. He’s certainly been patient with me and my camera lens. The only thing that seems to rattle him is the pack of crows that comes barking through the yard, stopping in the cedar to harass him. He’ll sometimes fly away, but then we’ll discover him back on his branch as we cross the yard. At first we were stunned by his calm presence, but its been more than a month since he arrived. Our grandsons met him at Christmas, and it was a delight to witness their wonder at being so close to this wild creature. They named him Snowflake, because he comes in winter. Every now and then Snowflake misses a day, but we figure he’s had a particularly filling meal (or he’s giving the crows something to think about). We will appreciate him as long as he is willing to put up with us.
Cold sun sets
on darkest day.
Full moon rises
to light our way.
The ceiling and walls are newly painted. The floor is scrubbed and waxed. The windows are clean inside and out. My plants have moved back under the windows, and the new honeycomb shades are installed. And, most important, the printer is back in its spot and recalibrated. I am officially back in my studio after the ceiling repair, and it feels like an entirely new space. Nothing on the walls yet, but for now I’m sitting at the table in the morning enjoying the glow of warm sunlight through the shades, sipping hot green tea, and relishing the sense of possibility. I’ll be back to work soon.
On a rare sunny day, I tackled garden clean-up, discouraged by the vines that had overtaken plants and hedges. It doesn’t take much neglect before the garden becomes a jungle! At least the growing season is over, I told myself as I yanked a particularly hardy length of vine snaking through the privet. It turned out to be a rogue bean plant that had worked its way into our neighbor’s yard. I was able to retrieve all the seed pods still dangling there, a generous contribution to next year’s garden and a nice reward for my efforts.
My parents are buried in Arlington National Cemetery, just a few miles from my home. My father was a small town lawyer in Ohio in the 1930s, but he had earned his J.D. at Ohio State through the Army Reserve, so he was called up early and served as a staff officer in England and France throughout World War II. He met my French mother after the liberation of Paris, and when they were posted back to the Pentagon, he decided to make the army his career. When he died, he was buried in the National Cemetery, and when my mother died a decade later, she was buried with him. It’s very convenient for me to visit their grave, and I make a point of going on their birthdays, and St. Patrick’s Day (my father’s favorite celebration!), and in the week before Veterans Day. Their spot is on a slope with views of the Potomac River and the monuments beyond, and the fields of uniform white grave markers encourage awe and contemplation. All these men served their country, and so many of them gave their lives in that service. It struck me during this year’s visit that few people realize their wives are buried here, too. On the back of many stones are their names and the words, “His Wife.” The wives also served, “holding down the fort” when their husbands were away, often raising their families alone. Just being an army wife requires a willingness to move often, to help the kids adjust to new schools, to host gatherings, to find new friends, and to do everything they can to ease the responsibility that rests on the shoulders of their military spouse. Of course now there are women buried here who served as soldiers and officers in their own right. But this year I made the point of walking around to view the back of the gravestones to honor those other veterans, the wives: Sarah, Evangelina, Janice, Martha, Lottie, Noel, Lillian, Mildred, Carmen, Gisela, Roberta, Ruth, Dorsey, Irene, Anna, my mother, Aliki, and so many others.
Whatever outcome you’re hoping for in today’s elections, it’s good to remember we’ve survived other bizarre chapters in our political history. This eggplant at the market brought to mind another president popular with cartoonists and comedians.
Walking in the woods as the sun sinks behind the horizon, I stop and listen. It's late October, and the crickets are singing their goodbye songs. I stand on the path absorbing the call and response, the variations of pitch created by rubbing back legs together. The music is so hopeful yet so sad. Once we've had a hard frost, the crickets will disappear. The evening woods will be silent, punctuated only by the tapping of the piliated woodpeckers and the occasional barking of crows.
The work had been planned for months. The original flat roof for my studio needed to be replaced, and we were pleased when the contractors showed up to begin during a sunny week. They had to strip the roof down to the rafters to replace rotting boards, but one of the workers lost his balance and punched his leg through the studio ceiling, knocking out a huge chunk of plaster board. He wasn’t hurt, but I was suddenly faced with an unplanned project—the deconstruction of my studio. I scurried to get my printer out of harm’s way, and since the repair was going to require quite a bit of putty and sanding, I had to remove everything from the surfaces. Decades worth of careful piles had to be moved, art proofs taken down from the walls, plants relocated, and the space emptied of everything but the cabinets. I felt like a mother bird whose nest had been removed—I just kept circling around the empty room squawking. We wrapped the remaining cabinets in plastic, and my husband and I started making plans to repaint. I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and remember my window taping skills. Now three weeks later, I have a freshly painted studio and new blinds on the way. A clean space ready for new energy. Unplanned perhaps, but now gratefully appreciated.
My Mexican sunflowers (titonias) have been the stars of the autumn garden, blooming generously and providing plenty of golden food for the pollinators. The bumble bees have been particularly drawn to them. I swear they’ve taken up residence! On rainy days, I find them taking shelter under the petals, and now that the mornings are getting colder, I find them asleep in the centers of the blossoms.
I never know where my inspiration is going to come from, but I’m often surprised. In a month of frustrations, where nothing I attempted creatively seemed to lead anywhere, I started noticing the parchment paper I pulled off the bread I bake each week. I thought the browning looked like the footprint of the bread, each one different. Instead of tossing them into the trash, I tacked them in a pile on my studio wall and jokingly referred to them as my pan-o-grams. The bread was trying to tell me something, and I’d wait to see if I got the message. While cleaning out some drawers in the studio this summer, I rediscovered a box of oil pastels and made a connection. These would work on the parchment! So I started a drawing exercise where I take down one of my pan-o-grams and see what I can discover in it. The process is relaxing and fun, and it sometimes yields surprising images. Just what I need to get myself out of the creative doldrums.
A handful of mixed zinnia seeds tossed into a sunny corner of the garden has given me a fascinating laboratory for observing color. The zinnias blossom into bold, saturated hues— cheerful pinks, sunny yellows, and deep orange reds. Very satisfying. But as they begin to fade, pigments in the petals alter. The magentas adopt an orange blush, the yellows deepen to ochre, the reds darken, and the pale pinks transform into a range of violets, from lavender to deep purple. Twice as much beauty!
A hawk has left its calling card in my garden. I wondered what had become of the mating pair that nested in the cedar last spring. The rain (or was it the crows?) drove them out of their nest. The migrating starlings will start showing up in the bamboo soon. This hawk seems to be one step ahead.
We humans aren't supposed to be able to see UV rays, after all they are harmful to our eyes. But when the sun hits my purple morning glories, I fancy that I'm getting a glimpse of the impossible
While searching for sharks with my grandsons at the Norwalk Aquarium, I was struck by the artful camouflage of this exotic rock fish. Its unusual pattern looked like the work of a whimsical designer, and the turquoise eyes were stunning.
Drawing with my six-year-old grandson helps me reconnect with the excitement of the creative process. For one thing, judgment is suspended, and anything goes. And for another, he learns fast! I was introducing him to pastel pencils, and we started looking at the colors out the window. The grass isn’t really green, I pointed out, and clouds aren’t really white. He looked more closely at a cloud floating by, naming all the colors he saw. Then he started drawing. This diagram was the result, with all the layers carefully catalogued: white, green, dark green, yellow, purple (with a hint of red), black, and golden. A masterpiece of observation.
Twilight on the summer solstice and light dances across the Vermont hillsides.
I thought I knew Cezanne’s work—I’ve been to several retrospectives of his paintings over the years (in the US and in France), and I’ve hiked and photographed the landscapes he loved around Aix-en-Provence. So I was genuinely surprised by the exhibit of his portraits at the National Gallery in Washington—60 paintings spanning his entire career and collected from many museums throughout the world. It doesn’t take long to realize that, just as his mountain landscapes aren’t about Mont-Ste-Victoire, his portraits aren’t about his sitters. The people in his paintings are subjects for his roving eye. He’s working out form and color relationships, and noting how each brushstroke relates to every other as he develops his pictorial vocabulary. And he’s certainly not interested in making his subjects look good! He usually painted only people he knew (including himself). I found his many portraits of his wife, Hortense Fiquet, especially moving. She always sits calmly in a chair (her dresses and the chairs seem to be the real subjects of the paintings) and glances away from her husband, her lips held in a determined line. But it is her hands that reveal her feelings—they are clasped together as if holding back all the energy she can’t release. She grudgingly accepts the long hours of sitting in front of her intense husband and tries not to show the disappointment she feels at the plainness of the face he paints. Her hands wait patiently.
Cézanne Portraits, National Gallery of Art, March 25 – July 8, 201
Sudden spring eruption
first perennial pops.
It’s been more than a decade since I haunted the U.S. Botanic Garden in DC, photographing for my book, “A Botanic Garden for the Nation.” There were always plenty of amazing plants to capture my eye (and there still are!), but I found myself returning to the orchids with every visit. How could I resist? Orchids have such extravagant form and color, their sensual beauty draws photographers as easily as pollinators! So it was a treat to wander through the spectacular orchid show at the New York Botanic Garden while visiting my family last week. Orchids, like this tropical Lady Slipper (Paphiopedilum), seemed like old friends. I had to elbow other photographers out of the way, but I had the help of my six-year-old grandson, who buzzed around the orchids like a curious bee.