Plein Air Writing

Last month the Dana Gallery in Missoula held their annual Paintout.  Several local writers were invited to accompany the artists into the field and write in response to the scene.  I was fortunate to join Robert Moore in the Lavelle Creek valley.  The paintings and writings are on display at the gallery through August.





Word Painting 

Begin with an underpainting. Great gravelly shores of a lake tens of thousands of years gone. Dusky grey with thin soils that lie heaped to the horizon line. Begin to sketch in the grasses whose network of roots hold that soil from gathering up into the winds that rake this slope.

Pull the individual stems from the plain brown hillside. Mix words on your palette to give definition to those grasses. Timothy and fescue, tawney and ecru, tufted hairgrass and sedge, raffia and buff. Struggle to give the right shape to your words so feathery seed heads come alive and dance on the page as they are shimmying now in the breeze. Look closer and see the greens that are woven into the tapestry. Sagey lupine heavy with furred pods and dusty verdigris balsam root drying in the searing sun. Try to capture the rustle of leaves and stems as some unseen creature darts among the safe cover of grasses, while overhead a feathered form sails across the clear blue sky.

Upslope, the burnt umber shadow of the single pine pools from its base and crawls uphill. How to render the ponderosa? Not spired like spruce or leggy like lodgepole. Words must spread in great boles and boughs, tufted with long needles. Pull the vanilla scent from the puzzled bark onto the page. Try to find the right values for your words. Suddenly the rock nestled at the foot of the ponderosa resolves itself into the hunched form of a wild turkey, escaping the midday sun.

Let the image of the turkey pull you into your own cool shade. Hunker yourself into the shadow of the serviceberry bush that softens the roadcut where you sit, dabbing letter into word into image.

You read the scene you have painted on the page. You like the way the colors mix and blend, the shading that has given it depth, and pulled you into the picture.

A branch dangles just above your eyes, heavy with small hard berries. Know they will ripen with time into something that will nourish you, the way all this foliage is transforming sunlight into life.

Refuge in Yellowstone

“It is important to attend to the outer world and your responsibilities in it, but sometimes it is just as important to attend to the inner, spiritual world.”  words from a tarot card

These last couple of months have thrown me into the outer world–the daily news, the obsessive tweets by our new leader, everyone talking of their outrage, incredulity, calls to action.  And we must respond and resist.  We cannot let things go unprotested.  

But in the midst of all this, Ted and I found refuge in a place where there were no TVs, no radios, no newspapers, no cell phone or internet.  We silenced the cacophony for 5 days, attending instead to the earth whose heart beat just a few miles below our feet, whose life blood boiled to the surface in hot pools which melted the heavy snow and ice clogging open water and offered forage to hungry bison and elk and refuge to trumpeter swans and geese.  For five glorious days the only thing spouting off were the geysers.  We could take a breath, take in the wonder of the snowy woods where the imagination stirring snow ghosts lurked.  An angel hovering in the pines, or a snow snail crawling upstream against the current of the pewter river reminding me that it is always slow going against the current, but like a snail, we must just keep plugging along.  The forces of nature–snow falling in gale force winds–drifts blocking the trails–steam billowing in the frosted air obscuring the sights, but giving the woods an etherial other-worldly quality were all there to remind us that beyond the walls of civilization were forces far more powerful and fierce than our own greed and self-centeredness.  

Of course, we had to return home to the turmoil of the latest news, but our experience was a strong reminder to take time every day to stop obsessing over the latest outrage, the latest tweet and go to the woods –pay attention to the real tweets and songs of the birds.  To reflect rather than react.  And most importantly, to not get distracted from what we really care about.  Focusing on the reality show going on in Washington means we might take our eye off of the crucial issues here at home.  And so I have limited myself to giving my attention to what’s happening in the state legislature and making sure that our representatives don’t forget that they represent all of us.  And with Montana’s representative Ryan Zinke up for Interior Secretary, it is incredibly important that we let him know how crucial these wild refuges are for all our souls.

Mother Tree

mother treeWhen I was a child, growing up in Colorado, I went on a field trip to the Natural History Museum in Denver.  While most of the other kids were drawn to the dinosaur skeletons, I wondered off, completely entranced by what the others considered a ho-hum diorama.  Behind the glass was a window into what lay beneath the surface of the earth.  There were the rodent tunnels and the centipedes and earth worms but what really caught my attention were the complex network of roots reaching down and branching out all over from  plants and trees.  My father was a geologist and made colorful geologic maps, so I was familiar with the idea that there were layers of different kinds of rocks hidden beneath the soil.  But until then I didn’t realize how much life was going on out of sight beneath my feet.

Fast forward 50 years and we now know a great deal more about what is happening just under the surface of the ground we tread.  Plant biologists have found that not only do roots sense gravity, and will inevitably grow down into the earth, even if the seed is oriented upside down, they also can sense, and respond to chemical signals from other plants, whether of their own species or another.  In fact, in recent years botanists have discovered that plants can signal each other, exchanging nutrients and information through their roots. Suzanne Simard and her colleagues from of the University of British Columbia have mapped out complex networks of roots, connected by mycorrhizal fungi which transmit chemical signals.  They even showed how older, or mother trees used the network to nourish their young and that they can recognize those trees who are their descendants.

Looking at this mother tree surrounded by her offspring, I could almost feel the vibrations in the earth, and as I imagined the web of connection beneath the soil, that wonder I first felt at the Natural History Museum was rekindled.

Mosquito Hawks

dragonflyThe Montana Natural History Center offers an array of Master Naturalist classes.  Once you have completed the intial Master Naturalist series, you can continue your education through a yearly offering  of specialized topics.  Last week I went on a day long field trip to study dragonflies and damselflies.  Of course, every time I’m around water in the summer I can’t help but notice these large insects whizzing by and flitting from plant to plant, but I never realized the diversity of what I was seeing.  Two or three different colors, the difference in size between a dragonfly and a damsel fly, maybe.  But I was astonished to learn that in Montana alone there are 91 different species, 57 dragonflies and 34 damselflies.

Our guides for the trip,  Bob Martinka and Nate Kohler are men obsessed with the order, Odonata, which means ones with teeth.   This is because these insects are carnivorous, consuming the insects they catch in mid-light by chewing them to mush in their   It is one thing to learn the facts about dragonflies, that their eyes have plus or minus 7,000 lenses, or that they have been around for more than 250 million years, predating the dinosaurs,  or that their wings, because they are attached to their bodies by separate muscles, can move independently, which means that they can fly backwards as well as forward, upside down, dive, hover, pivot in a circle and fly up to 30 miles per hour.

But information like that is available to anyone with the click of a mouse.  What I took away from the field experience was the infectious enthusiasm for Odonatas that our guides demonstrated.  They shared how the desire to find and identify different species can send the naturalist out into far-flung wildernesses and hidden potholes and tarns.  No book or web page can give you the experience of being in the field with someone who opens up a world of wonder.  Reading cannot give you the sense of slogging through a bog, the feel of walking on sponges suspended in water with the possibility of breaking through at any moment.  A list of facts cannot substitute for what it’s like to search the insect filled air for a dragonfly or damselfly and the skill to get just the right swipe, with a twist of the wrist to secure them in you net.

I would never have thought it possible to hold a dragonfly in my hand until Bob showed me how to gently grasp their wings between my thumb and forefinger and peer into their multi-faceted eyes.  They taught me how to look for all the identifying markings that will tell you what species you are holding.

And then, having caught their infectious curiosity and enthusiasm, I am off on my own, discovering the place in the tall grasses where the tiny sedge sprites are perching,  or seeing,  as I track  them with my net, how the Dancers bounce around, a little spastically, in flight and flick their wings when they perch, giving me that aha moment as I connect their name to their flight pattern.  As I spent the day immersed in the Odonata world, I I began to catch a glimpse into the world Leslie Marmon Silko conveys  in Ceremony:

“Dragonflies came and hovered over the pool.  They were all colors of blue–powdery sky blue, dark night blue, shimmering with almost black iridescent light, and mountain blue.  There were stories babout the dragonflies too.  He turned.  Everywhere he looked, he saw a world made of stories, the long ago, time immemorial stories, as old Grandma called them.  It was world alive, always changing and moving, and if you knew where to look, you could see it, sometimes almost imperceptible, like the motion of the stars across the sky.”



Landscape of the Soul

crabWalking along the beach one morning I found this poor fellow stranded on the sand, far from the tideline ,still on it’s way out.  I feel a bit like him, 500 miles from the familiar mountains of home.

For days now I have wandered Port Townsend’s long empty beach, fascinated by the salt rimed grasses with their lance sharp leaves cutting through the sand, the calligraphy of seal prints that tell the story of late night forages for food, and the twisted, sea bleached driftwood that has traveled, maybe as far as I have, from where it grew.

Everything is new to me here.  I don’t know the names of the shells that lie wave broken on the beach or the lifecycles of the creatures that called them home.  Every walk is an adventure and my pockets bulge with bits of sea glass, the occasional half shell still in one piece and iridescent with pale green and blue luster, and whatever bits of floatsum and jetsum that catches my eye.  I will make a little arrangement on my desk so that I can appreciate them as I work.  It is part of the nesting process I suppose, this urge to create a home, however temporary, in the place you find yourself.

But like the crab, who waves a dispirited claw at me, I am still very conscious of the fact that this is not my home ground.  I will always feel “out of place” by the sea.  For ten years I lived in Tacoma, happy enough with my family and friends and job, but deep down inside there was a longing, a longing made more intense by the endless grey months of rain, to get back to the mountains where I grew up.  To get back to the snow.  To get back to brown hills that were not clogged with undergrowth so thick it felt threatening sometimes.

I think everyone has a landscape where they feel as if they have come home.  Sometimes it is the place where they grew up, but sometimes they must search until they find that place that sings to their soul.  My friend Natasha grew up in London, but inexplicably feels bound to the mountains of Montana.  She came, as John Denver said in a song, “home to place I’d never been before.”

My husband, on the other hand grew up by the sea, and after we moved to Montana, he must have felt the same longing I had, but instead it was for rhythm of tides and the smell of briny air and the endless expanse of water where he could roam free in his boat .  I am amazed in the generosity of his spirit that he was able to leave the seascape he loves so much, and to be satisfied with no more than regular visits back.  Perhaps when we first meet someone we should ask, not what their sign is, but what their landscape is.  What is your landscape?





bitterootIt is the Bitterroot blooming time in Missoula. Their appearance signals the end of the harvesting season for these roots that were one of the main staples in the Native American diet in the region. The fleshy green shoots of rosettes began appearing on the rocky hillsides around town soon after the snow began to melt, beating out even the earliest flowers. The Native Americans traditionally dug the root in May, before the rosette withers away and the flower blooms, because afterwards the woody brown skin on the root is difficult to remove. Among the Flathead and Kutenai Indians of western Montana, a special ceremony honored the Bitterroot and opened the root and berry picking season. Early settlers reported great gatherings of Flathead, Kalispell, Pend d’Oreille, Spokane and Nez Perce tribes camped in the Missoula valley to collect the roots.

Lewis and Clark encountered the plant in the Big Hole Valley in 1805. Captain Lewis tried the boiled roots, finding them quite soft, but complained that they had a bitter, nauseating taste. The first time I tried the Bitterroot I too found them bitter, but I rather liked their astringent taste. Bitters have long been used as a way to stimulate the digestive juices and given the Native American’s meat heavy diet, I imagine that the roots were very beneficial.

Jeff Hart, in his priceless book Montana—Native Plants and Early Peoples recounts one of the origin stories of the plant: “Long ago, as the story goes, in what we now call the Bitterroot Valley, Flathead Indians were experiencing a famine. One old woman had to meat or fish to feed her sons. All they had to eat were shoots of balsamroot, and even these were old and woody. Believing that her sons were slowly starving to death, she went down to the river early one morning to weep alone and sing a death song. The sun, rising above the eastern mountains, heard the woman singing. Taking pity on the old woman, the sun sent a guardian spirit in the form of a red bird to comfort her with food and beauty. The bird flew to the old, gray-haired woman and spoke softly. ‘A new plant will be formed,’ said the bird, ‘from you sorrowful tears which have fallen into the soil. Its flower will have the rose of my wing feathers and the white of your hair. It will have leaves close to the ground. Your people will eat the roots of this plant. Though it will be bitter from your sorrow, it will be good for them. When they see these flowers they will say, here is the silver of mother’s hair upon the ground and rose from the wings of the spirit bird. Our mother’s tears of bitterness have given us food…’”

Even as a twenty first century white woman, when I see the blossoms of the Bitterroot, I feel a deep emotional connection to this mother’s story.  But more than that, I am struck by the world view this story illuminates.  The idea that the natural world is responsive to us in such an nurturing way is so different from our western view of nature being at best indifferent to us, or, at worst, if it does respond it is always in a violent, revengeful way (you shouldn’t fool with mother nature!)  What if nature really is both responsive and benevolent and interconnected to us in such an intimate way?  It certainly is worth further exploration and reflection.

Picking Memories


I am eight years old, hiking through the meadow, slogging along behind my mother’s long strides.  We stop at a clump of columbine, their sky blue petals offset the crisp white centers folded into elaborate origami shapes. It is the flower that means home to me—the Colorado mountains and their secrets enfolded its form like the magic phrases of the cooty catchers we make in school. I reach out to pick one, a columbine of my own to place in a rusty tin can and set in my room, a way to bring the mountains home with me. But my mother’s hand stays my own.

“Don’t pick the flowers,” she says. “We have to leave them for others to enjoy.”

I look across the acres of meadow around me. We have not seen another soul since we camped here a week ago. The meadow is blue speckled with clumps of columbine as far as the eye can see. I don’t understand. Why can’t I take just one? Why can’t I hold onto this symbol of the perfect week for awhile anyway?

I don’t want to go home, back to the city and my friends and school and all the little dramas that play out among a group of preteen girls. I want to hold on to this week of sleeping in the silent woods, listening for the stirrings of a world beyond the human one. I want to run across the meadow and feel the freedom of it, not go back to the playground where I never run for freedom, but in competition against the others, trying to prove myself. I want to stay here where I do adult tasks, where I saw logs and chop wood and build fires. I want to live in clothes saturated in woodsmoke and let my long hair tangle and mat, my tennis shoes get crusted in fine red dust. I don’t want to go home where I have to wash the earth from my body and put on stiff clean clothes and skirts that restrict what I can do and try to make my flyaway hair conform to some style from a teen magazine.

I defy my mother’s prohibition. I pick the flower, soak a kleenex in the cold little creek and wrap it around the stem. My mother says nothing. When we get back to camp she gives me a water bottle to prop it up in.

But by the time we home, the columbine has wilted, tucking all the mountain’s secrets into its crushed petals.