Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Moonlit Walk

I opened my eyes to see moonlight, filigreed with ash tree shadows, splashed on our comforter. Sleep vanished (or rather, vain attempts to sleep were forsaken), as I was drawn irresistibly by the silvery light and the promise it held of solitude, silence, and stillness. Donning wool hat, scarf, mittens and a down jacket over my pajamas, I slipped out the back door into the fullness of the night.

My thoughts, jumbled like scattered pick-up sticks while I had lain abed, began to align themselves with each step I took in the moon-dappled darkness. Confusion, anxiety , and insecurity yielded to truth and reality in the free-flowing, uninterrupted meditation and prayer of my predawn walk.

Tension replaced by quiet wonder, I continued to walk, now seeing the bright star (more likely a planet) over the frozen swamp. Through spidery tree limbs and misty atmosphere, it really does twinkle and shine with many points. A few dimmer stars peered through the growing cloud cover. The half moon shone down brightly from the still-clear southwestern sky, illuminating even the faint path of my footsteps in the grass. Surrounded by the unspectacular beauty of a common night, I walked in peace and quiet communion with nature, myself, and my Creator.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


I drove west along the Tamiami Trail, the kernel of anticipation inside me growing with each Egret and Heron that I saw and with each glorious transmutation of the Everglades from bright daylight through sunset to the richness of a deep Thalo blue night sky. It was all so different and new; I could barely contain my eagerness to get out of my car and soak it in.

Then I saw the sign-- "Panther Crossing"...

Panther Crossing??!!

Oh my goodness! Really??!! I pulled over to text a friend about the sign and to say that I hoped I would see a panther. Within minutes she texted back, "Of course you want to see a panther, my dear." My friends know me.

Alas, according to the proprietor of the motel-- a very knowledgeable and helpful outdoorsman, and according to the rangers at the national park visitor center and the woman at the area information center, my chances of seeing a panther were close to zero. There were very few remaining in the wild; they were secretive; their territories were very large, so even if one were in the area, chances were it wouldn't be where I was; you could live in the area for years and never see a panther. Well, I hadn't come here even thinking about panthers, so I would still have a wonderful time birding and adding to my life list. But still... I would keep my eyes open for large cats...

I was staying in Everglades City, a small fishing and crabbing town where the Gulf Coast visitor center to Everglades National Park is located. There was very little traffic, few people, and much wild space-- my kind of place. But, some of the travel guides I'd read had said that one should really go to the other entrances of the National Park rather than this one if time was limited.

I was torn. I wanted to get the most out of my time there, but I loved the area I was in and was loathe to leave it for a busier area. Waffling in indecision, I called a friend to ask for help thinking through my options. She wisely didn't tell me what she thought I would enjoy, but instead asked what I was afraid I would miss. I replied that the guide books said to go to the other places, to which she responded that the guide books are written for standard Americans, and that I am not standard-- that I could find beauty sitting on the curb of a parking lot. As soon as the words were out of her mouth, I knew that I would stay where I was. It felt like the better fit for who I am. I might miss some spectacular birding, but I would enjoy the peace and quiet of the less populated area.

I headed out on dusty Wagon Wheel Road to see what birds I could see in the swamp/sawgrass prairie that extended from both sides of the road. Driving very slowly, stopping often to get out and see birds, I traversed only about 16 miles in four hours. After driving a few miles along the road I looked up to see what appeared to be a person hiking in the distance. As I got a bit closer, I realized it wasn't tall enough to be a person, and I felt a sudden thrill of excitement-- maybe it was a BEAR! I stopped the car and raised my binoculars to my eyes...

Just then the large animal turned and stood sideways in perfect silhouette-- unmistakably a Florida Panther.

I stared in wonder as the panther stood motionless for a minute or two, then watched as he walked off the road and vanished into the trees of the nearby hardwood hammock.

I may have missed some spectacular birding by staying where I was, but I received the gift of a panther sighting, something that will be etched on my mind and soul for the rest of my life.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Experiencing the Everglades

I've always wanted to see the Florida Everglades. Just the name conjured up images of lush jungle, low-hanging vines, large spiders, long snakes, lurking alligators, beautiful birds, and much more. I finally had an opportunity to visit the Everglades, with Nathaniel for the first day, and on my own (with Rowan) for another two days. To my surprise, much of the area I was in more closely resembled prairie than jungle. I know there are a variety of diverse habitats within the confines of Everglades National Park, in fact that amount of diversity is one of the unique features of the Everglades, but I had no idea how much of it consisted of grasslands. Wet grasslands, to be sure, but nonetheless, grasslands extending through miles of sawgrass prairie.

Nathaniel and I went on a boat tour of the Ten Thousand Islands area. The scenery was beautiful and the birds plentiful. From the boat we had several glimpses of manatees. We only saw their noses as they came up for air, but as I had never seen a manatee, I was pretty excited. Then some bottle-nosed dolphins joined us and started leaping and playing in the wake of the boat, an amazing sight.

After Nathaniel left, Rowan and I continued on our own, first exploring along the boardwalk at Big Cypress Bend in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, where I lingered long, loving the feeling of being enclosed and hidden in depths of the swamp.

Royal Palm


Strangler Fig

Southeastern Lubber Grasshopper

After extricating myself from the mystery of the swamp, we drove a few miles along the Janes Memorial Scenic Drive, where I saw many alligators, Egrets, and Herons and a great deal more swampland.

I headed to another swamp area to walk along the Kirby Storter boardwalk, where I saw an American Bittern, as well as several other birds and more swampland.

Queen butterfly seen at another small boardwalk beside the Tamiami Trail


Epiphytes growing in the trees

On my next day I explored along Wagon Wheel Rd and Turner River Rd, taking four hours to traverse about 15 miles, due to frequent stops (every few yards) to look at birds, alligators, and turtles.

Sawgrass Prairie

Swamp Lily

Tricolored Heron

Little Blue Heron

Great Egret

Great Egret

After a late lunch and a brief nap, I head to the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge Marsh Trail. What a beautiful place!

Great Blue Heron

After nightfall I returned to the Wagon Wheel Rd/ Turner River Rd drive to see what night creatures might be about. I saw a snake and a couple of frogs, but otherwise not much was stirring within my field of view. I did stop my car a few times, turn off the engine and headlights and step out to enjoy the absence of man-made noise and lights. The darkness was broken only by the moon and stars and numerous fireflies, and the only sounds were those of nature. I stood a while in silence, drinking in the peace and fullness of the night, then reluctantly got back in my car and returned to the bright lights and loud noises and incessant chatter of civilization.

On day three I too the tram tour at the Shark Valley Visitor Center, a very informative and enjoyable ride through the sawgrass prairie.

Baby alligators sunning on mom's back

Great Blue Heron

Adorable baby alligators

Great Egret

Great Egret courtship dance


Great Blue Heron

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Week of Sadness; a Week of Reminders

I don’t normally write about dark subjects. In fact, during difficult times, my journal tends to sit gathering dust, then when things are looking up, I start writing again. I’m not sure why that is, but that has been my habit for as long as I can remember. It’s not that I don’t think about the sad or dark things that come my way, but for some reason I have little interest in writing about them. But last week was a sad week for many people I care about, and I am mulling on it now.

My sister lost a very close friend who died unexpectedly. To add to her grief, they had had some misunderstanding and hadn’t spoken for a few weeks. The funeral was yesterday and was devastatingly sad for my sister. My heart aches for her.

A close friend’s cousin, with whom she’s very close, received a very grim diagnosis last week, and their whole family is reeling. My heart aches for my friend and for her family as I pray for comfort for them in this very hard time.

Another good friend lost her sister on Sunday, after a two year, very brave battle with cancer. They are thankful her pain has ended, but these sisters were very close, and the loss is great. My heart aches for this friend and her loss, and she is very much on my mind.

Yet another friend lost a friend of hers Sunday after a long and painful illness. She is relieved that he is no longer suffering, but her heart aches deeply. She is unable to attend the funeral, because of estranged relationships in their circle of mutual friends. My heart aches for this friend, too, with her double grief at losing her friend and being unable to honor him at his funeral service.

My father called a few days ago to tell me that my uncle, his younger brother, died. He had a massive stroke and died a few days later. My father had been planning on seeing him a couple of weeks from now at my uncle’s granddaughter’s wedding. I didn’t know my uncle well, but my heart aches for my father, and I am sobered at the reminder that a death in the family brings.

Then a few days ago, Steve and I were driving along and I had to suddenly pull completely off the road to avoid a head-on collision with someone who seemed to be aiming right at my car and who continued to head straight for us, despite me blowing my horn at them. It felt like a very close brush with serious injury or death, and I was shaking but very thankful to be safe.

Life is precious, as are the people in our lives. This past week has been a reminder to me to cherish the people I love and to celebrate the gifts they are in my life.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Filled with Wonder

Fall colors, brilliant sunsets, perky Chickadees, serendipitous snowflakes... I've had many moments of surprise and delight in the past week.

On Wednesday I sat on my deck with a friend and painted the fall colors and then did a page of quick watercolor sketches of the Chickadees as they came flying in to pick up seeds. I love the freedom and curiosity of these little birds.

Thursday and Friday Stephen and I went hiking in the mountains above Riga Farm. Thursday afternoon and evening we took a three mile hike up the mountain road above the farm, returning in time to watch the sunset as we came back down the mountain.

Friday morning I was awake very early and enjoyed a few hours of quiet reading, painting, and walking while Steve slept. I painted the stream out back through the kitchen window, since it was too cold to paint outside.

We expected it to be a bit chilly on Friday, but we did not expect snow! It snowed off and on most of the day Friday, not accumulating on the ground, but sticking long enough to speckle the dogs' backs with white. Many of the snowflakes were perfectly formed six-pointed stars.

After a pleasant six mile ramble on woods roads through hilly areas and around beautiful mountain lakes, we hiked up Round Hill-- a shorter but much steeper hike. I got scared and stopped a bit below the peak to paint the view, while Stephen explored farther up to the top. While I was painting it started to snow again, and the snowflakes landing on my slightly damp paper made wonderful watermarks-- another of the magical effects of working in watercolors. I will never grow tired of this medium and the surprises it provides.

Yesterday I painted on my deck with another friend and tried to capture the kaleidoscope of color surrounding my house. The tall stump in my painting is a relic from a tornado-type storm years ago-- the children were young, and we watched with awe as the majority of the tree fell in slow motion, landing across the stream with a mighty crash. The stump that remains is still living, and each year the branches grow a bit longer and fuller and drop a pretty tapestry on the grass in the fall.

Today I sat on my deck yet again, enjoying the warmth, despite a bit of drizzling rain, and the Chickadees joined me almost immediately, with one even landing on the handle of my paintbrush as I was painting with it! Another Chickadee hovered a couple of inches in front of my face, as if studying me. It is an amazing feeling to be trusted by a tiny wild bird!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Things that are beautiful....

Things that were beautiful today:

Fall colors lit by late-afternoon sun...

Chickadees boldly singing inches from me...

Titmice timidly gathering seeds nearby...

Smiles both seen and felt...

The soft sheen of Bituminous's fur against my arm

Things that are beautiful tonight:

Trees silhouetted against the bright orb of the moon...

Late-season crickets singing before the frost silences them...

The stone walkway, softly lighted by moonlight...

Petra's eyes, shining up at me as we walk...

The warm glow of lights shining from the windows

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Les Artistes

photo by Alexis Thompson

On Tuesday I gave a power point presentation on my life as an artist for the "Les Artistes" lecture series in the Center for Lifetime Study. What a delightful group of people! This was my first experience giving a lecture and presentation of this sort, and I had a great time. Of course it's always thought-provoking and enjoyable for me to look back over my growth as an artist, and I was hoping that by talking about my relatively slow start in the arts, I would be able to encourage the members of the audience to give painting a try, if they hadn't already or if they were struggling with artists' block. To that end, I focused especially on the process of art more than the product.

I find that many people, perhaps professional artists even more than most, often end up being so goal or product oriented that we lose the joy of the process. That seems a real shame, since painting or drawing can be so meditative and calming, so I spoke about sketching, about doing "parking lot art," and about being playful with color. I illustrated my points with examples from my sketchbooks and my finished paintings.

People had fabulous questions and comments that, in some cases, clarified for me why I compose my paintings or choose my subjects as I do or got me thinking along new lines. It's always wonderful when feedback after an event contributes to the ongoing growth process. It was a privilege to be asked to present my work and a delight to do so! Thank you to the class organizers and to the Center for Lifetime Study!

Here are a few pieces that I included in my presentation:

My first elephant painting, when I was sure I couldn't paint an elephant

A more colorful elephant piece after I relaxed and became playful with color

Horse Chestnuts (Conkers) painted just for fun with an online watercolor group

Some examples of "parking lot art" painted in local parking lots or highway rest areas

And two older paintings of mine that have a story:

Pen & ink with watercolor Barn Swallow for Stephen, who hates mosquitoes and loves swallows. He used to always watch and tell me about the swallows swooping in the fields across from work, so I painted this for him.

Veedor the Andean Condor, a wedding gift for my brother and his wife, who were excited to see one of these birds flying in the mountains of Venezuela on their honeymoon. Andean Condors live about 60 years and mate for life, so I thought this was an appropriate wedding gift. I met and photographed and sketched Veedor, who flew around, then crash landed against my legs and tore my jeans. I don't normally like having torn jeans, but having jeans that had been torn by a free-flying Andean Condor was pretty special!
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