Scottish hill walker, novelist and poet Nan Shepherd

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Scottish hill walker, novelist and poet Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) believed that we walk not ‘up’ mountains, but ‘into’ them.
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“On the mountain,” she wrote, “I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy… I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. That is the final grace accorded from the mountain.”
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She also believed that we’d be better to abandon the notion of the summit as the goal, and to instead focus on what she called the “total mountain” — the hope just to be in its company, to sleep high, wander, explore, pry into its hidden corners, to, as she put it, become “a peerer into nooks and crannies.”
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Nan taught English literature at Aberdeen College of Education and lived in the same house in Cults for 87 years. In the 1940s Nan wrote the nonfiction book “The Living Mountain” — an 80-page ode to Scotland’s Cairngorms — though it wasn’t published until 1977. It really is a beautiful book, with wonderful observations like, “Light in Scotland has a quality I have not met elsewhere. It is luminous without being fierce, penetrating to immense with an effortless intensity.”
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Nan is finally being recognized for her writing. Since 2016 she’s been the face of the Royal Bank of Scotland £5 note.

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Spring Comes for the Winter Count

What happens to a Winter Count when Spring arrives? I’ve been asking myself this question. The changes started a number of weeks ago….the transition feels total now. The signposts arrived in blazing colors of yellow and red, the colors of the east and spring and sunrise in my medicine wheel.

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Feathers found in the woods belonging to a Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker and a Northern Cardinal, perhaps a female owing to the dusky color.

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The downy (‘plumulaceous’) feathers of a Northern Cardinal. These are body feathers so densely packed in we normally only see their red tips, except when a strong wind blows revealing the grey lower plumes.

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A watercolor of my personal medicine wheel.

Some would call green the color of spring, but here at the very tip of the Island where our leaves are the last to arrive, long after everywhere else, I proclaim yellow the color of spring.  The color of Forsythia…

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Forced branches of forsythia brought inside when these buds were still tightly closed. In two days they had all opened, in just a small jar of water, sitting in a sunny window.

The color of Daffodils. The color of sunshine, following our week of heavy rains, the perfect combination for amphibious egg-layers and new plant growth.  And the brilliant yellow of a female Hooded Warbler…

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Digiscoped female Hooded warbler, Wilsonia citrina, in my backyard.

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In this poor closeup, you can just see the curve of black around her face, which lends the namesake ‘hooded.’ The male’s hood is even more graphically pronounced. So far, no mate yet!

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A slightly better exposure shows the olive-yellow back, the bright yellow face and the heavy black ‘hooded’ brow, reminiscent of a hijab.

She has been in my backyard solidly for the last two days, here to fill up on a copious feast of insects. Flitting. Flitting. Busy. Her tail like a pulse of light. She flicks it repeatedly, spreading her tail feathers just enough to reveal the outer edges of white, over and over, like a camera flash. Spring is all business for birds. Time bears down with the all-important task of procreation. That is a pulsing, too.

Color started to slowly enter at the end of February, with Christine’s ‘Honoring Voice’ workshop in North Haven. Already she too was looking toward spring, invoking a medicine wheel similar to mine, with winter in the north and spring in the east. It was warm enough to walk on the bayside pebbly beach, a tradition when we meet here, where we encountered the daily whelk collection of a fellow walker.

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Christine’s thank-you note to us (to us?!) following her writing workshop that felt like the perfect bookend to her workshop in November which inaugurated our Winter Count. Photo by Christine Morro

I was entranced by the silky, vibrant orange linings of the knobbed whelks. And brought one home to paint.

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The Knobbed Whelk, Busycon carica.

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In this view, you can see the knobs that give it its name, worn down by the erosive forces of the ocean. (The other species commonly found in our parts is the Channeled Whelk, Busycotypus canaliculatus.)

This painting I feel marks the transition between our Winter Count and looking toward the projects of spring…IMG_6368.JPG

The images above my desk, too, called out to be re-arranged. The card with the snowy owl put away. The perfect summer haiku, an old piece of my son’s artwork, brought out to replace it. Emmett's art.jpegMy earth astrology card with my flicker totem joined it. Woodstock, my true-heart totem, in a tizzy of spring yellow at the center.

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My wall of inspiration above my desk.

But the real giveaway that things were drawing to a close was when pink cherry blossoms snuck in to the repertoire.

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Hand-watercolored cherry blossom notecards to say thank you to Emmett’s teachers for our class trip to Washington, D.C. That last snowstorm which missed us on Long Island still caught D.C., wiping out half the blossoms which would normally have bloomed.

On which trip, incidentally, I came across a real Native American Winter Count.

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The Lone Dog Winter Count, belonging to a Lakota tribe, created in the 1800s. Part of the ‘Our Universes’ exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Once the cherry blossoms appeared, I knew, my Winter Count had ended. I viewed ours as a project laid like a bridge across the cold, still, winter days between fall and spring.  I feel my Winter Count is complete.

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My completed Winter Count series of watercolors….portraits of objects from my nature altar, the sacred form of a cabinet of natural curiosities.

It began in shades of snow-covered landscapes – indigo, storm grey, pale pink – and ended in fire: shades of orange and coral. I finally gained a sense of ritual and routine around my work. My indigo owl mug filled with warm tea, Nina Simone playing on Pandora, little pools of pale color building a palette on a white saucer.

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‘Owl by the Light of a Silvery Moon.’ Custom mug by Ayumi Horie.

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My cherry blossom palette.

I can see our Winter Count work as a small exhibition at the library. Our various approaches – paintings, poems, photographs – pinned to the walls. Narrow, waist-high tables beneath contain objects from our nature altars at home. I am certain we all have them.

I see glimmers of where these pieces might take me. I will continue them, but they will no longer be a Winter Count. I am ready for the next chapter. For the Count of Spring, and all the seasons beyond. These are now prayers at my Nature Altar. Singing praise. Bearing witness. Paying attention.

“Ancient religion and modern science agree: we are here to give praise. Or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention. Without us, the physicists who have espoused the anthropic principle tell us, the universe would be unwitnessed, and in a real sense not there at all. It exists, incredibly, for us. This formulation (knowing what we know of the universe’s ghastly extent) is more incredible, to our sense of things, than the Old Testament hypothesis of a God willing to suffer, coddle, instruct, and even (in the Book of Job) to debate with men, in order to realize the meager benefit of worship, of praise for His Creation. What we beyond doubt do have is our instinctive intellectual curiosity about the universe from the quasars down to the quarks, our wonder at existence itself, and an occasional surge of sheer blind gratitude for being here.”  

– John Updike on The Meaning of Life.

“We are here to witness the creation and abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.”

-Annie Dillard on the Meaning of Life

Winter doldrums have arrived…21, 22, 23.

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The brightly colored scales of a butterfly wing found last fall are good medicine.

It was bound to happen. It’s February. The excitement of a new year has worn off, as grey days settle in. Having a cold doesn’t help. Add to that a disappointment (perhaps more of a misunderstanding) with a friend. And of course the political weather which forms an inescapable background to everything these days (though I’ll guiltily admit to sticking my head under a pillow and avoiding the news lately). And there you have a recipe for winter doldrums. But – everywhere – there are messages to begin again….to persevere.

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After all, there is an entire cabinet of curiosities to paint and explore.

In Yoko Ono’s poem I included in this earlier post :  “winter passes….and one remembers one’s perseverance.”

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Three months after finding the bottom portion of an Eastern Box Turtles’s hinged plastron, I discovered the top portion this past Sunday.

In a friend’s post for the New Moon in Aquarius back on January 27:  “Mother Nature reminds us to start again. No matter how depressed or defeated we feel, each morning brings potential for a new beginning.”

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And last Thursday morning:  how could I have anticipated the blazing red coat, the incomparable efficiency and purposefulness,  the startling bushiness of a tail that nearly trailed along the ground, the moviestar-sharp looks, the black stockings….coming toward me this morning as I settled into my desk?  Who can ever say what surprises lie just up around the next corner?     (click to enlarge)

In my We’Moon calendar, a description of Imbolc, the pagan feast of returning light:  “In the deep winter, we begin again. We say Yes again: yes to returning light, to coming outward time, to living of life again…Imbolc is a time of faith.”

And in the song playing right now as I write, on my favorite Pandora station, the Nina Simone station:  “A Change is Gonna Come.”

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Continuing my sunrise series…trying to capture the bright magenta pink of the sky, the searing yellow-orange of the sun cutting through.

Winter Count 15 – 21

Perhaps it seems silly to take this Count so literally – counting each of the watercolors I paint at my desk this winter. But I promise you, for someone who has struggled her whole life to commit to her own creativity, counting is a very powerful tool. Tangible proof that I keep coming back to my desk:  to look closely and observe, to mix colors on my palette, to experiment with different ways of loading my brush and touching the paper, spending time connecting with the natural world.

And so I offer for your perusal…Winter Count paintings 15 through 21.

The main project has been to paint objects from my Nature Altar, signifiers of absent inhabitants, just these singular, amazing forms isolated on the page. Christine and Catherine Creedon spoke about ‘nature altars’ in the first class I attended of Christine’s, at the temporary John Jermain library space on Water Street. They spoke about how so many of us solitary walkers share this common practice of tending a ‘nature table’ at home. (I prefer the more sacred ‘nature altar,’ and ‘tending’ is a word borrowed from Christine that evokes both the sacred and the domestic.) They spoke of organizing an exhibit like this at the library, paired with student writing. Perhaps our Winter Count work is the perfect occasion? in their new library space?  (yes!)

The latest in the ‘Nature Altar’ series include this intact bivalve shell of the Blue Mussel, Mytilis edulis… (edulis is Latin for edible)…a container for secrets:IMG_5316.jpg

And my third attempt at reproducing the battered wing of an American Lady butterfly, Vanessa virginiensis – only the dorsal side has been completed here, the ventral underside is still awaiting completion.IMG_5314.JPG

But because of the close attention, slow pace and detailed brushwork required for my Nature Altar series, I feel myself ‘tightening up,’ contracting rather than expanding, growing fearful of touching the page. So to counter this, I have invited in other practices. Is it the same with writing? Somehow the fear of losing something irrevocably with writing seems less of a danger. But I wonder about similar limbering-up exercises with writing…

One approach has been to simply keep a sketchbook journal of more off-the-cuff, in-the-moment studies. This candle burning after dinner was finished…I was happy with its simplicity, its pared-down attempt at accuracy:    (click, then click again, to enlarge)img_5350

…Or trying to capture the fleeting sensation of a scene or landscape from my day. This series of sunsets, remembered and noted, rather than painted on the spot. Sunrise this time of year coincides with getting my son off to school, so I usually can’t sit down to paint at this fleeting time of shifting light & color.   (click, then click again, to enlarge)IMG_5320.jpg

And then I tried returning to an old practice from my former oil painting days: the free-form, let’s-just-push-some-paint-around-and-see-what-happens approach. The first one pleased me with its surprises: a forest echoing the forest outside my desk window, a suggestion of faery dust blowing through the trunks, of mossy elves’ hillocks around their bases. IMG_5312.jpg

But the next one reminded me of why I stopped oil painting entirely — IMG_5349.jpg

I was painting mostly without external reference – and I realize now, I simply don’t find imaginary/imagined spaces as interesting as attempting to represent real space in the world. If only I’d stuck it out long enough to discover this when I was painting earlier in my life….instead, I just gave up. But I’m back now!

 

And finally I have an experimental project:  painting a ‘personal medicine wheel’ I created for myself. I researched traditional Native American medicine wheels, but they didn’t always correlate with my own experiences. I also drew on the pagan Wheel of Life, and the wheel that pairs up menstrual cycles with the moon phases. Each quadrant, or ‘direction,’ has personal significance for an area of my life, a stage of development. Associated with each direction, is a color and an animal totem and an element, a time of day and time of year, corresponding too with a time in my life. Gazing at this made-up medicine wheel, I feel centered and confident in my path. My life history has wholistic sense and sacred meaning – rather than feeling like a random series of half-finished projects and failures. It has power. And so I feel empowered. I feel it is a shamanic practice, where arranging physical objects in the outer world, affects the state of things in the inner world, and vice-versa. One day, I would like to teach a workshop about this, so that others might learn to do this for themselves, too. It reminds me of our Winter Count workshop, in fact, where at the end of the day, we composed ‘road maps’ for ourselves, of the project which lay ahead.

So here are the colored directions in my journal, where I have been tweaking and rearranging meaningsIMG_5323.jpg

And here are my studies for the animal totems associated with each direction…Yellow-Shafted Northern Flicker in the East, of Fire, daybreak and the renewed energy of springtime, associated with Glowing Yellow, and Physical Vitality…IMG_5317.jpg

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit in the South of midday and the fullness of summertime, associated with Loamy Green, and the Earth element, and Nature…IMG_5318.jpg

Great Blue Heron in the West, associated with the Water element, with Autumn, and the Indigo Blue hue of crepuscular hours, the solitary ‘Wild Woman’ of Creativity…IMG_5319.jpg

Missing still is the ghost of Snowy Owl in the adamantine Air element of the North, of nighttime lit by a full moon and of deep Winter, associated with white and pale violet, the Wise Woman of Spirit.

The presence of so many birds in my Wheel has brought me to Terry Tempest Williams’ book When Women Were Birds, but I have not yet delved in….so much more exploration and work to look forward to!

 

 

A talismanic touchstone right now…

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Photo:  Snowy Owl in Flight by Carrie Ann Grippo-Pike, taken on December 11, 2013 at the Summerville Pier in Irondequoit, NY.   Poem by Christine Irving.  Marriage of image & text by me.

I forgot to mention that I saw my first Snowy Owl on Christmas Eve. Along with friends spending the holiday with us, we had gone to Lazy Point that afternoon to walk after the rain. As we rounded the boat ramp across from Hicks Island, I noticed a car pull up and a familiar profile behind the wheel –  Joe Giunta, local birding expert and leader of birding walks through SoFo. In fact, just two weeks prior, he had called in my first owl glimpsed in the wild, an Eastern Screech Owl, on a moonlit walk through Barcelona Neck, sponsored by SoFo. I wished him a Merry Christmas, and as he pulled his scope out of the back of his car, said jokingly, ‘c’mon, Joe, get me a Snowy Owl for Christmas.’ As we chatted and looked through the scope at ducks in Napeague Harbor, he motioned to the scope casually, and looking through it, I beheld my first Snowy Owl. The sun had started to break through the clouds in a magnificent display, which also had the fortuitous effect of positively lighting up the Snowy in a blaze of blinding white. Once you knew he (or she) was there, it was possible to see his white form with the naked eye across the Harbor, sitting at the leading edge of a dune. He had some dark barring, indicating he was a juvenile, but it was not possible to tell whether it was male or female. The entire experience was unbelievable to me – the series of coincidences and synchronicities to bring me this very best of Christmas gifts:  two owls – my first in the wild – this month of December.

Recent wintercount watercolors…5-14.

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My desk space where I paint. Out beyond the leafless trees, the sunrise over the ocean is visible in wintertime.

spring passes
and one remembers one’s innocence
summer passes
and one remembers one’s exuberance
autumn passes
and one remembers one’s reverence
winter passes

and one remembers one’s perseverance.

– Yoko Ono

‘. . . there will be a hundred meals without mustard.’

– Mary Oliver, ‘Of Power & Time’

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A rabbit hopped up to the large glass door on New Year’s morning and peered inside at me making my morning tea. I’ve decided Moon Rabbit is my totem for 2017.

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Another try at Crassotrea virginica, Eastern oyster.

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Wing fragment of American Lady, Vanessa virginiensis. I realize now that I neglected to add a final dot of white paint in one of the outer orange segments, the field mark distinguishing this species from Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui.

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Sunrise, January 8.

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Sunrise, January 10.

 

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It was only afterward, putting her workshop materials into my writing binder, that I realized that Christine’s title for the Winter Count was ‘Exploring Wholeness,  Absence and Presence.‘ Suddenly, I could see clearly what my subject matter has been all about. All these fragments of the natural world that I carry home are signifiers of an absence – of the creatures that once resided within them, gone, absent, deceased. My painting them is a kind of monument, an attempt to (re)constitute a presence.

Even the landscapes concern absences…To paint a snow scene, one must leave that part of the paper blank – an absence to signify a presence. I found myself thinking of Melville’s chapter, ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’ and re-read it. How does one paint ice? A snowflake? Or the blazing-white sun ball of sunrise? The ever-changing positions of a foraging squirrel? How does one capture and conjure a particular moment in time, attempting to represent it visually? Elusive absences, one and all….

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Drawn using one of Wilson ‘Snowflake’ Bentley’s micrographs for reference.

 

 

 

 

My Wintercount Project…1-4.

I think I’ve honed in on what my project shall be for the ‘winter count.’  While on the Delaware coast for Thanksgiving, I found myself collecting oyster shells on the beach to paint….their gnarled shells looked as if the Great Creator had already done a bit of watercoloring herself upon them. Back at home, I finally got around to painting a Blue Crab claw that had sat on my desk since September. From another walk, a fragment of a purple-lined mussel shell. And yesterday morning, an alluring two-toned feather in dove-grey and white, beckoning to me from the driveway…

Fragments of my WANDERING.IMG_4860.jpgThese objects whisper to me about the lives they once contained…I find myself researching them for far longer lengths of time than I spend painting them. This research often stretches beyond what is necessary, as I strain to find definitive answers:  which feather? from which part of the bird’s body? is this a body contour feather, with its downy, plumulaceous lower half? or could it be a wing covert the way it so neatly and symmetrically curves? are covert feathers symmetrical like this? – and this is where my other guiding quote comes in, about knowing when something leaves me feeling drained, depleted, atrophied. The painting, however, leaves me feeling powerful, excited, electric.

 

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img_4853I had thought that I would inscribe each painting, identifying the objects by species, relating their natural histories. But now I am not so sure. I’d nearly convinced myself this feather belonged to a Junco, that natty-clothed, flittery, social bird of winter, but just as I set to penning the words on the paper, it occurred to me that the feather was much too big to be a body contour feather of any Junco. And that called the entire ‘naming process’ into question. Still, there is something in this process of inquiry, a kind of forensics or mystery-solving, that I am compelled by. Only, rather than a death, I feel I am discovering a life, other life forms I never knew about, right beneath my nose….

So the project is to be these fragments I discover on my unplanned, aimless wanderings à la Keri Smith….bringing them home, painting them, learning about them (without obsessing), creating a winter catalog. Already I see a relationship developing among their colors…cool violets and sky-blues, smoke-grey and buffy pink….winter hues. I’ve already dug to the white pan-bottom of my ultramarine in my watercolors.

Somehow, too, I want to bring my journaling in to play….creating small, open-ended histories for these objects…

…but for now, count me in to the Wander Society!