Sunday, October 25, 2009

Visitor in the Wilderness

The day after the great storm, I decided to take a lightly traveled path into the Porcupine Mountains to see if there might be anything of interest to paint there. It was called "Lost Creek Trail", which should have given me some hint of what was to come. Arriving at the path, I saw no other cars in the parking lot, so I knew I would be completely alone on the path. This was nothing new for me, as I relish the opportunity to be alone in nature. I often sing at these times, as I know I won't be disturbing anyone, and I can "let loose" as I do in the concert hall, and the sound in the woods, or over lakes is fantastic.

About a half hour into the walk, I heard water rushing off to my right and decided to leave the path to investigate. It sounded like a waterfall. A little bit of background for those who don't venture off path in virgin woods very often: the ground is not solid, it feels hollow underfoot, because of thousands of years of dead trees falling and decaying one upon another without compaction. As a result, you feel as though you are stepping on a sponge filled with holes, covered by leaves.

I placed my walking stick into the ground carefully at each step until I arrived at the edge of a cliff. Below me stretched a narrow, long sunlit valley with a lively creek running through it. Water cascaded from the hillside and the ground beneath me felt slightly squishy and unsteady, like a soggy bread crust. I stepped back from the edge slightly and felt compelled to remember this moment in song. I looked around carefully to make sure I was alone. No one was there.

I chose a soprano solo from Bach's Magnificate. It sings well in the open air, each note traveling in purest clarity. The forest becomes still when I sing, as if every creature is listening. The sun broke through in the middle of the aria and yellow leaves sparkled like jewels. I finished and felt the silence around me slowly filling again with movement. I turned to head back to the path I had left behind.

The forest was dense and dark compared to the sunlit valley. I felt as though I was being watched, and my flesh began to tingle with a strange electrical current. My dog let out a low growl and the hair on his back stood up. He backed up away from the path, moving back towards the cliff. I looked hard into the darkness in front of me, attempting to readjust my eyes. I saw a solid shape, with red eyes. At first I thought it was "Big Foot"! It looked huge, and my dog had never reacted that way to anything. Without waiting to see exactly what it was, I started moving away from the path and followed instead the line of the cliff. I walked as fast as I could, still being cautious about the unsteady ground. Never once looking back, I soon found a path that I had seen on the map which crossed the stream and the valley leading to a Yurt. This lead to an old logging trail not indicated on the map. I took it, figuring it had to lead to the road eventually. My dog growled again in the general direction of the first sighting and I wasted no time in jogging out.

Safe on the road, I searched my memory of the sighting, and decided that it must have been a black bear.

Later, I decided...if Bach's Magnificate attracted bears, I would have to remember to take it off my list of woodland songs.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Storm in September

Photos taken the day after the two-day storm.

The end of September, I called a small resort in the U.P. to make arrangements to rent cabin on the shore of Lake Superior. I asked the owner what I might be able to expect for weather, as I was a painter and required at least some sunshine to do my work. The owner was a bit put off by my inquiry and told me that he couldn't guarantee the weather conditions. I assured him that I was coming anyway, but was hoping to get the best week up there for color, etc. I also asked for a cabin as close to the water as possible. He said, "all you can see from your window is Lake Superior!" So I reserved the cabin.

The drive up was great, the fall color was beautiful. I had high hopes for the week ahead. I stopped several times to take photos, so I was running a bit later than anticipated. Just as I arrived at my destination, dark clouds rolled in and the winds kicked up. People were running around frantically bringing in lawn chairs and shutting windows. The owner took me the cabin I had rented and true to his word, it was about 10 feet from the shore. "We usually close this cabin before weather like this comes in..." he said, "But that normally doesn't happen until November."

That night, deafening winds and waves crashed against the tiny cabin. The cover flew off my wall heater during the night and blew out the pilot light. I couldn't relight it. That evening, the Houghton airport reported a record low of 27 degrees.

For two days, the storm ripped against the shoreline. The wind was so strong, it could blow you over. Wind gusts reached speeds of over 60 miles an hour. Now and then, I peeked out my front window at the grey spray and amazing waves. My cabin and car was covered with a colored mosaic of shredded leaves and twigs. Even my dog wouldn't leave the cabin for more than what was absolutely necessary.

On the third day, the temperature was still in the 40's, but I ventured out as the wind was bearable. At noon, the sun broke through, and there was a festive spirit in the air. People everywhere were sharing their experiences of the last two days, some had been in tents, or backpacking when it started. Some had trees come down around them. One tree flattened a car at a hotel in Copper Harbor. Fortunately, no one was injured. My host offered to reduce my rate for the last couple of days because I had not been able to paint outside, but I told him I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It was like spending two days at the base of Niagra Falls! I truly feel blessed to have experienced the power and wonder of Lake Superior first hand.

And, then we had sun for the next two days!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mosquitoes in the Woods

The Continuing Memoirs of

My Artist in Residency in the U.P.

I'm sure everyone at one time or another has been bothered by mosquitoes, so I wasn't too concerned when I read about them in the Porcupine Mountains guidebook. But it turns out that in the U.P., common repellents actually attract the little spear carrying devils inviting them to the blood feast ahead.

When I'm painting, I'm a stationary target for mosquitoes. While hiking, I can stay a little ahead of the nasty monsters and it's harder for them to get a good needle pierce in before I detect it. But sitting quietly, distracted by my work, they can land lightly and insert their blood sucking device without notice, and a substantial amount of blood can be let before I discover them.

On my second day in the woods, I had found a great spot to paint next to a creek. I knew the mosquitoes were bad, but I had applied a fair amount of extra strength repellent, so I wasn't too concerned. After about a half hour, I had given so much blood I was in danger of becoming anemic. There were (and I'm not exaggerating) about two hundred mosquitoes on and around me as I painted. The high-pitched whining sound they gave off as a group was deafening. They were bitting through my pants, my shirt and my hat, even through my thick wool socks. I tried to ignore them. I reached back at one point to scratch a bite on my backside and discovered that my entire backside was one big bite! That was it for me. I had to do something or abandon my painting- or, possibly leave the woods for good.

I had purchased a spray from a wilderness supply store before my trip to the U.P. The sales person said was great for spraying on clothing as a repellent. Since they were biting through my clothes, I figured it was time to apply it. I sprayed the stuff all over me, literally soaking my pants, heavy wool socks, hat and shirt with it. As a result, I got a lot of it on my skin as well. After I finished spraying, I noticed that there were no mosquitoes buzzing around me anymore. Good, I thought. Then, I sat down to read the directions. The directions said: "for clothing spray only. Do not allow contact with the skin. If contact with the skin is made, wash the contaminated area well with soap and water for fifteen to twenty minutes, then call poison control immediately." Well, the contact with my skin was pretty much full body...and I didn't have any way to wash even my hands for fifteen or twenty minutes. The creek was only a few inches deep, and ice cold. So, I asked out loud to the forest: how bad could it be? Maybe they just put these warnings on the bottle because they are legally required to. (I had to hope this at least.) What were my options? I decided to ignore the warning and sat down again to paint, in my spray soaked clothing. I watched as the first mosquito landed on my thigh and fell over dead on the spot! Good Lord, what had I done? Poisoned myself in the middle of the forest?

Deciding that I couldn't completely ignore the warning any longer, I stripped off my wet clothing and hung it up to dry, near a warning to the little pests that I was dangerous. Then, I washed off as best I could under the circumstances. But I'm sure it wasn't sufficient as no mosquitoes came near me after that, even in my alternate set of clothes.

The following day, I drove a half an hour into the nearest town to call a friend of mine. Repellent in hand, I read the active ingredients to her while she looked them up on the internet. "Have you had any seizures yet?" she asked. I wasn't sure if I would know if I had had one or not, so I said no. "Well, any trouble breathing?" Not unless I'm going up a hill I thought, but I had trouble with that before the spray, so I said no. "Well, then I guess you'll just have to worry about whether there are any long term effects." What were those, I asked her. "It doesn't say." She said.

I'm happy to report that I'm still OK. But, to any of you who want to try the clothing spray, I would reccommend following the application directions. I would have to say that one long-term effect was that not a single mosquito touched my arms, legs or neck for the next two weeks, but they did still bite my ankles if they were exposed.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Ticks in the Tent

The Continuing Memoirs
of My Artist in Residency in the U.P.

When I arrived at the Porcupine Wilderness Visitors Center, I was presented with a book about surviving in the forest. The book described, in detail, a long list of parasites and pests, including the effects of their bites, what they look like and how to get them off you once they "latch on." However, in most cases, the book described what little you could do for relief once you are bitten. I'm not sure if the book was intended as a helpful guide, or as a deterrent to those considering the U.P. as a possible retirement location. One U.P. born resident of Ontonagon told me he thanks God every day for the black fly, because it alone keeps 95% of the people away who might have made their home there.

If you want to read about the black fly, there are many descriptions of it in books and on the web. I'll just tell you that it strikes terror into the hearts of even those brave souls who live there. One native told me that she was bitten once at the corner of her eye and it caused her entire eye to swell and turn purple. The same woman had another bite inside her can imagine the pain in that! You can't see the black fly, you only know that it's visited you after it's bitten you. I got my first bite, and thank God, my only bite on the first day--behind my ear. The lingering effects of that bite remained with me until after my return two weeks later. There's no way to describe a Black Fly bite, you just have to experience one. So, I'll save you the gruesome details and hope you never have the displeasure.

What I found most amusing during my stay was the descriptions by U.P. natives of the clothing they wear during black fly season to avoid getting bitten. These oddly garbed creatures must be somewhat frightening to visitors, possibly even laughable, until they themselves are bitten. Residents described their protective gear as ranging from full body netted suits, three layers of clothing with netted head gear, helmets with nets and flip-down glass face-plates, elbow high gloves, high boots (the black flies like to bite ankles), and netted hats (flies also like bitting behind the ears). One resident said she is basically blind and deaf after doning all her gear to work in her garden in the spring.

Fortunately, the black flies depart the end of spring, but they are followed by a whole slew of other flying and crawling creatures who move in for the summer. My personal favorite is the tick. Wood ticks are the most common kind in the U.P. and although they don't carry the dreaded lyme disease, they are still pretty disgusting. The only thing satisfying about a wood tick is hearing them pop while squishing them. My third night in the tent, I turned on a flashlight to check the time and found the first tick on my arm. It hadn't "hooked on" yet, so I brushed it off with a shiver and decided I better check my dog next to me for more. To my dismay, there were three on him. But, fortunately none had hooked on, so I picked each one off carefully and killed them as the book had described. I swear the little creatures know you are coming to get them because they try frantically to dig in just as you are picking them off. Their little legs flail about wildly before death by squishing. I know this sounds cold, cruel, and disgusting but once you're in the same situation, you'll find yourself squishing them too. In all, there were eight ticks in my tent that night. I won't go into details on where I found the other four. One of my U.P. friends had told me that they crawl around sometimes for a few days looking for just the right spot to hook on, so you usually have plenty of time to find them before they do any damage. Fortunately, she was right.

The next morning, I looked around my tent to find the spot where the ticks had "dropped in" to visit. I discovered a tiny hole between the top seams in the dome. During the rainstorm it had popped open to let in anything that happened to walk by. In the morning light, I could see the undersides of several ticks walking over the lighted dome of my shelter. I quickly took a piece of paper toweling and blocked the hole. No more univited guests dropped in after that.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

One Woman's Adventures in the U.P.

Mid-winter last year, I received an email that I had been choosen as one of the Artist's in Residence for the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan's Upper Pennisula. The award came as a surprise. Although I had applied for it, I never really expected to be chosen. So getting it put me a little off balance. Two weeks all alone in 40,000 acres of wilderness...I wasn't too sure I was ready for it.

I have spent some time in a tent, so it wasn't the logistics that were concerning me. It was leaving the comforts of home and all things familiar and putting my clients and work on hold that worried me the most. In retrospect, it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I began my journey with the intent of interpreting nature and putting it into a visual context. I ended with nature's quiet observance giving me a reflection of myself...a reflection that I wasn't too sure I liked.

I'm sure you've seen a film or two where the action is going at full speed and then suddenly it's slowed down to very slow motion and you can see every detail. That's what happened to me after driving the eleven hours that it takes to arrive at the Porcupine Mountains. I called it decompression at the time, but it's more like being slowed down from the daily pace you are accustomed to experiencing at every moment in the "civilized world" to a painfully reduced speed. A pace that feels almost like you aren't moving forward at all until you adjust to it. Then, it feels right; like something that you've known all your life, but had forgotten. At regular speed, you can't see this. You can't see the dizzying, crazy, car wreck speed that we all travel just to keep pace. You can't see that we're all hurrying, all rushing about in a panic. It just seems normal to us, this frantic speed. Talk is excellerated, thoughts race forward, voice levels are elevated. We can't take the time to really listen to one another, because there is no time. Everyone and everything is moving too fast, we might miss something--like the beginning of a movie, dinner reservations, our place in line, our leading position on the highway. We want no one in front of us holding us back, slowing us down.

In the first few days of "slow motion," I thought, well this is temporary, I'll go back to my regular pace once I return home. But, soon I found myself driving 35 in a 55 zone, where just two days earlier I had been traveling 65. Then, to my surprise, I started taking detours from my scheduled route and often ended my day at a competely different destination than I had planned. I missed meals, because I wasn't hungry. I went to bed somedays at 5:30 at night because I was tired. Other days, I was up at 5:30 in the morning, because I was done sleeping. I turned off the car radio upon arriving at the mountains, and I never turned it on again. Well, that's not exactly true, I turned it on for about 15 seconds during my drive home, and it sounded strange to me- like someone talking into a tin can- so I turned it off again.

Although you don't feel the frantic pace we live in everyday, you definitely feel the slow-down when it starts loosening you. It's both painful and welcome, like muscles relaxing after a long period of tension. There's an ache with the loosening, but there is also relief.

I'm not really sure what causes this slow-down. Maybe, it's reducing your standard of living to what you can carry on your back. Maybe it's being made aware of everything we do to alter nature like heating and pumping water; artificially lighting the dark; preserving food with ice; making fires to keep warm and prepare food; making shelters in order to sleep and spraying on toxic mixes of chemicals to ward off insects and parisites. Maybe the slow-down is a result of finally being forced to live within nature's pace. To rise and set with the sun; to walk through the forest with one's own true stride; to accept and adapt to whatever weather presents itself; to know that you are amongst other creatures...wild creatures who aren't on leashes or in cages; and to finally release the fantasy that you are in control.

Spending time in the wilderness by yourself is a singular experience. There is nothing to compare with it. There isn't another person to give back a familiar reflection. To say to you, yes you are are still who you were yesterday. I recognize you, I know who you are.

You are a stranger to the woods. And you soon become a stranger to yourself. Muscles are challenged, the body transforms and adapts to the loss of comforts. Temperatures can fluctuate up to 50 degrees in the course of a day. This is normal for the forest, but I was never aware of it in my temperature controlled home and car. Hunger or thirst can come upon you at anytime. The body pays no heed to your scheduled lunch hour, or dinner time, or the fact that you only brought one liter of water on your hike. You learn to listen to your really listen. It becomes your number one ally upon which you rely for travel as well as survival. And it helps you find what you need to revive yourself--thimble berries, wild raspberries or a natural spring.

Your mind also transforms and adapts to the loss of distractions and negative resources available to it in regular life. With no one around to blame for a difficult circumstance in which you may find yourself, you have two choices: 1. put up with the self-incriminating, negative voice in your head, or 2. put your brain to work finding a way out of your circumstances. Fortunately, it didn't take long for me to see the futility in pursuing the negative talk. And, it was as if the brain rewired itself instantaneously into my new "positive assistant" and has remained in this role ever since.

But probably the greatest transformation has been the loss of fear. The first few days, I felt as though the forest was watching me, studying me and my feeble attempts to appear "at home." It knew I was petrified of the dark. And, you have never experienced dark until you've been in an old-growth forest. The first night, I awoke in the middle of the night and felt the urge to go, but I just told myself it could wait until it was light. I laid there in pain for four hours waiting for daylight. I had a tremedous fear of something coming upon me that I couldn't see. But, after my second night in the tent, that all changed.

The light and sound show started about 10pm and lasted most of the night. The tent was buffeted about by wind and a torrent of rain. Lightening split the sky with frightening brilliance, followed closely behind by deafening thunder that actually shook the earth below me. As my father had taught me as a child, I counted the seconds between the flash and thunder. thousand one, one thousand two, bang. Flash...One thousand--Bang! Crrraaash! The earth shook below me in the tent. I knew a tree had been hit close to where I was. I held my breath, waiting for the next flash. It came, but was followed several seconds later with a quieter rumble. The downpour slowed down to a light rain a few minutes later. Then there was just the sound of drops falling from the tree tops. It was pitch black outside, except for an occasional flash of lightening, but I put on my rain slicker and went fearlessly out into the night. For me, fear of darkness was simply a matter of degrees. The frighteningly close lightening strike had lowered the "darkness" fear factor by several degrees. Since that night, I no longer fear the dark.

The forest has changed the way I look at, appreciate and understand things. I am in awe of running water from a faucet. I don't think I'll ever be able to take a truly hot shower again, because I've come to love the way cold water is actually warmed by my own body's heat as it pours over me. I'll never be able to listen to the radio, the television, my cell phone or a recording without hearing the "fake" tinny, mechanical sound that they all make. The buzz of a refrigerator, computer, or any other home appliance is unbelievably loud, (and I never heard them at all before). It's hard for me to drive above 55 now. I don't like watches, clocks or air-conditioning. I think batteries are a miracle. I can see under a moon rise, now as easily as a sunrise. I know exactly how long it takes a block of ice to melt in a cooler. And, I think that chocolate is highly under-rated as a food group.

I'll add more to this subject in the coming weeks and post some of the paintings I did while in the U.P.


In Pursuit of Beauty is more about beauty finding me than the other way around. Or rather, more accurately, opening my eyes to finally see that which has always been around me.

Recently, I took up pleinair painting which is the art of sitting in the open air and painting that which is around you during which you experience changing light, changing weather conditions, and exposure to all elements, including other beings who may be in the area with you. Impressionists may have been most responsible for promoting this art to the respected pursuit that it is today, and most pleinair painters paint in some form of Impressionism or another. However, I am still struggling not with the style but rather more with the conditions.

Since living here in Michigan, I have taken up with a group who call themselves the "Pleinair Painters of Michigan." They meet every Saturday morning at 8:00 at the Nature Center in Kensington Metro Park off of I-96, and from there they journey together to a place of their choosing to paint in the open air for a few hours. They meet every Saturday, even if it's -12 degrees, as long as it's sunny. If it rains, no one shows. Now, when I say I've taken up with them, that doesn't mean I've managed to paint with them more than two or three times since January (my first outing). Either it's rained on the Saturday that I'm available, I'm not available, or I've overslept (it's Saturday...give me a break). Or even sadder yet, it rains until about 10am and then it's today. Then, I have to decide, do I have the moxie to get up and go out on my own on this beautiful day and paint, or skip it because the group isn't going to be there with me and it's chilly and damp. Well, you know my choice. I'm here writing a blog about it.

And that my friends, is what it's all about. That's why beauty sometimes has to come in pursuit of me; its golden light spilling over the window sills into my office and astonishing me.

Painter and Classical Singer in Michigan

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