Wednesday, March 6, 2019

In Life and Art

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a new sketch pad and some pencils, sure that with a little practice, I'd be able to steady my hand enough to produce a few somewhat recognizable drawings to go along with some of my writings about nature and outdoor experiences.
I loved drawing in a past life, though I was never really any good. Back then, it was superheroes or comic book characters, something I'd do rather than studying for a history exam, or doing my Algebra homework. I drew some animals and fish, but they were always cartoonish. Sometimes my drawings were good, but I never took it seriously. Same thing with writing. Had I known then, what I want to know now.
My first sketch the other day was of a rainbow trout. It wasn't perfect, but I was satisfied with it. I took my time and paid attention to detail, and found the whole thing both relaxing and invigorating. I was tickled that it actually favored a fish, much less a trout. I spent a while shading in the right colors. I was the proudest first grader ever. I woke my wife to show her, and she was delighted with it. I thought she would hang it on the fridge, but she hasn't yet.

Sunday morning, I took my new art supplies outside, and searched the skies and treeline for something to draw. After a long stretch of sketcher's block, I felt something touch my ankle. My first thought was a fire ant or beetle, but no. When I looked down I saw my subject staring me right in the face. It was a weed.
I reached down and pulled the weed from a crack in the brick and noted the details. I saw the veins in the tiny leaves, the shades of greens and purples and yellows. The subtle white flowers that were starting to bloom. The fine hairs of the remaining root system. I held the thing in my hand and began to sketch. The weed didn't have a name yet, and halfway through the sketch, I was researching the plant, trying to identify it.( Thank goodness for Google) I wanted to know the taxonomy, the natural history of my subject. I was doing the work of a naturalist.
It would take a lifetime for me to identify half of the plant life in my back yard, much less, draw them. But I learned what a Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) is, and I sketched something that somewhat resembles one. Now, every time I notice one in the yard, I can call it by name, and remember how the leaves and stems felt in my hand as I transferred it's image to the page.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Back of Beyond

Daylight begins to filter through the tops of yellow poplar, white oak, and eastern hemlock trees, and soon floods the understory of this mountain cove, deep in the Carolina hills. Mountain Laurel and rhododendron are woven together into an impenetrable sea of tangled boughs of green. Laurel hells-- what they are referred to in this region-- grow up steep walls of rock and bracken fern, giant deadfall trees and green mats of moss, wherever it can hold on. A place like this is hard to find your way through, but it is very easy to get turned around in, and if a man gets himself lost out here, he is truly lost.

Back in this cove, I am miles away from any paved roads. The only modern sound I have heard came from an airplane flying overhead just before nine o'clock this morning. A pileated woodpecker’s cries echo in the canopy of trees just below where I am standing. Far off, a crow caws. My phone doesn't have a signal here, and I don't know whether that is a curse or a blessing, but the fact that I have no way of communicating gives me more of a sense of disconnection from the outside world.

The remoteness of this land is surprising to those who do not associate the upstate region of South Carolina with an Appalachian wilderness, but the views here are absolutely breathtaking. Standing on a high ridge top in northern Greenville County, one can see the wonder of the Blue Ridge escarpment rise from the green and fertile lands of the Piedmont and roll into thousands of miles of ancient mountains and foothills, stretching up the eastern seaboard, well into Canada.

This land was once home to the Cherokee people, and before them, groups of archaic paleo indians that hunted and gathered food on the ridges and valleys of these ancient mountains. Hernando De Soto encountered these native peoples, and years later, so did William Bartram, on his expedition that led him through this once vast and expansive wilderness.

European settlers made their way through these mountain passes in search of a place to call home, where they could raise their families and build small communities. The Scots- Irish and English brought with them the traditional skills of farming and hunting,as well as the age old tradition of whiskey making. This was considered a birthright by many families in this region, referred to historically, as the Dark Corner.  

Descendants of these first European settlers still live in the hills and hollows of the Blue Ridge, and the family traditions that have been passed down through the years are practiced to some extent today. These people have a deep connection to the land and an abiding love for the nature of this place. They know the names of things and places, and they know the peaceful solitude of a mountain cove on a cool Spring morning.

I came here this morning for the solitude of these hills, and the disconnection from the stress and worry of “civilized” life. Also, I came here in search of treasure that is hidden in the cool waters shaded by hemlock and rhododendron: the beautiful Brook trout-- mottled green backs, flecked with red and yellow spots. Tiny, fragile, and to me, the most sacred of all fish.

I make my way down the switchbacks and follow the sound of flowing water to the bottom of a ravine. The vegetation is so thick here that the sound is muffled at times, causing me to stop in my tracks and listen to gain my bearings once more. I have to take care not to tangle my fishing rod in the laurel. It is a homemade rod-- a simple stick and string, my version of what the Japanese call Tenkara. A medicine bottle in my pocket contains a few caddis fly imitations, and an extra leader, in case I were to snag on a limb and break my line.

Brook trout live in secluded pockets in the backcountry, in places where you'd never suspect fish would be. No trout fisher worth his waders would ever disclose where they found these fish thriving, nor would they leave any clues that would lead someone to their spot. Not everyone respects the beauty and fragility of these wild natives, and that lack of concern can lead to a depletion of the trout and loss of their habitat.

Knelt beneath a hemlock branch, I dapple my fly on the surface of the water. A small shadow darts through the deeper water at the head of the pool. My fly drifts down, under an overhanging rhododendron. Two shadows appear, one of which, rising to take my fly from the surface of the water. With my heart quaking in my chest, I wait for the trout to turn back toward the depths, and I raise the rod tip and feel the tingle and the shaking of the tiny brook trout in my wrist.

Keeping the fish under the surface of the water, I admire the colorful markings on the sides and belly of this holdover from the last Ice Age. I am humbled to have had this experience, knowing full well that it's habitat is quickly disappearing. With a word of gratitude, I release the fish, and watch it vanish into the dark water.

I sit for a while, listening to the water running over the rocks, feeling the breeze on my skin as it flows through the trees. In the back of beyond, I find clarity, and a sense of connection to the earth and all living things.

First Published in NatureWriting, July 2018

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Evening in the swamp...

Light begins to fade, and darkness creeps in
Just as water crept into this timber
After the beaver dams backed up the flow
Of what was a small stream, clear and flowing
Pines go first, rotting until the tops break,
Falling into a tangle of thick vines
The poplars, waterlogged and leaning
Soon they will be hollow, providing homes
For screech owls and wood ducks, and the raccoon
That left the seedy droppings on this log
I am standing on to get a better view
Of all that is happening in these woods
Order from chaos, from death comes life
The circle is eternal, everything changes
From woodland to wetland, the cycle goes
One dies off and another one is born
Abundant waterfowl now calls this home
Where the squirrels once buried acorns,
The water is two feet deep and rising
I would have to wade to my deer stand now
My beloved holly, she's a leaning
Before long, she too will fall over
The timber is dying off in a swath
The once thick canopy, now open sky
Only the skeletons of big trees remain
I hear the mallards calling, flying in
Their number, I'm sure, in the hundreds,
Most ducks I've seen at one time
There's no waterfowl hunting aloud here,
And these ducks must know they are safe
Soon the frog songs will begin in this swamp
And I will paddle through the obstacles
That I once had to weave through on foot
When the bream move into old stump holes
That I used to step in, up to my hip
To fish among the tree trunks where I would sit,
Many a days on dry logs, pondering life,
Now I can float and contemplate my place
In the universe, the earth, and this swamp
Darkness is as thick as the mud that mires,
Sucking at my feet as I take steps home
I'll return here at daylight, to explore
My new habitat, and home in the swamp.



Monday, January 7, 2019

This Is Not Another Fishing Story

You got home from work that morning at three AM. The house was quiet and empty. Your wife and daughter were out of town, and he had been staying at your mom's for three days, and you couldn't wait to see him. Getting to sleep by four, you set the alarm for eight, giving you time to get the gear together and make lunch for you both. Baloney sandwiches, and juice boxes. You hurried to his school and signed him out. It was going to be a good day.

You gave your boss some lame excuse why you wouldn't be in the next evening, but you broke down and told him that you were laying out to take your boy fishing, that you haven't seen him in almost a week, and he just smiled and patted you on the back. "See you Monday," he said. You wanted everything to be just right, so you went down the list of things to remember, all that night as you did your job.

He came running down the hallway when they called his name on the intercom, and hopped up in the truck. He had so much to talk about, and you smiled and laughed at the expressions on his face as he told you about his day. He asked if you'd heard from mom, and you told him she'd be home before midnight. Even though you said you wouldn't, you stopped at that store and grabbed a couple of Ugly Cakes and chocolate milks, and by the time you reached the river, he was so jacked on sugar that he couldn't sit still.

Trout were stacked up in every bend of the river that day, and they wouldn't hit a thing. You tried worms and salmon eggs and dough and roostertails, but they could care less. He was getting restless, and discouraged with the fishless day, so you got him back in the truck and drove five miles to a bait shop and bought three dozen minnows.

Back on the river, you hooked one of the baitfish by the lip and handed the rod to him. He flipped the minnow in a shadowy hole and WHAM! The ten- inch fish stripped his drag like a dump truck. He was elated, to say the least.

On up the river, you both spotted a huge brown trout, laying beside a sunken log. It was the biggest trout you had ever seen in your life, and it was ten yards from you, fanning in the current. You flipped your minnow in front of him, and watched the horrendous eat when the trout exploded on that bait. You were so excited that you held the line tight against the spinning rod when the fish turned to run, and the last thing you heard was the twang of the line when it popped. Both of you stood there with mouths wide open, watching the pig of a trout swim off and disappear. You felt like crying.

He put his little hand on your back and consoled you. He said it was OK that you lost that huge fish. Also, he reminded you how big the trout was, and that you'd probably never get to see a trout that big again. Ever in your life. The two of you sat on a rock and ate your baloney sandwiches, then used up the rest of those minnows. A few caught trout, the rest died slow and painful deaths from the heat. You were both filthy, wet, and very tired when you left the river that day.

When your wife got home at midnight, he was waiting up to tell her all about your adventure. He said it was a fun day. Looking back now, you remember how fun it was, too. And you wonder if he thinks about that day as often as you still do.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Last Day

Two hours before sundown, I found a place to sit among the trees, one last time to hunt for deer. I made myself a rock or stump, and soon I was forgotten. The woods slowly resumed business once more, and I'm only part of a tree, a protrusion of the leafy forest floor. That was until two sharp- eyed squirrels saw me wipe my nose, then they made a point of alerting everyone else of my presence. The pair cried and scolded me until they were certain I wasn't a threat, which took a half hour for them to determine.

Moments later, a nosy finch landed on the tip of my arrow, and watched for my reaction. His beady eyes pried my every feature, trying to figure out if I was alive, or dead, but I remained stone still. To shew him away would've been a sin, so I allowed him to remain there, keeping me honest. The loud rustle of leaves on the hillside quickened my pulse, and the tiny bird flitted away. I watched patiently but couldn't see anything from where I was. Probably those same noisy squirrels, I figured. With only thirty minutes of daylight left, the realization that it was over for this year sank in.

My days will soon be filled with other activities, and I'll start counting the days until next autumn. I shouldn't complain, there are many who would love to just sit in the woods and watch the sun go down through the trees, but their health wouldn't let them. In that moment, I whispered a word of thanks.

Light fades fast in this valley, so I gathered my things. I slid my arrow back into its quiver, and stood in the darkness, peering into the canopy at the tops of trees stretching toward the evening sky, content.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

In the Forest

A gray shadow emerges from the mist of early morning. The figure moves fluidly through dense foliage and trees on the forest floor. Working it's way to the valley below, the shadow pauses to look and to listen. To be still is to be invisible, and there is no distinction between the trees and what is standing there among them. The forest is dark and deep and without sound except for water droplets falling through broad leaves. This ghost moves on, scanning the woodland, searching out its quarry. Into big timber, over the ridge and down to the valley lush with green ivy and thick brush. The shadow walks toward a clearing in the massive white oaks, but stops abruptly when there is movement in the opening in the trees. A great stag feeds on fallen acorns, it's head down, unaware. The gray figure becomes the shadow of an oak tree. The buck feeds up into plain view, it's wide set of tines raking the grasses and weeds as it grazes.

The shadow raises his bow, and draws back the string. The deer paws at the earth, trying to uncover acorns hidden in the grass. The bowman looses his arrow, and it finds its mark behind the shoulder of the stag, and it lunges forward to escape the unseen danger beyond the trees that caused the wind to crack before it. The animal falls to the earth and doesn't move again.

Nicholas removes his hood and nudges the stag on the shoulder with his bow. He lay his bow and quiver on the ground and kneels beside the beast and places his hand on the deer’s head between the antlers. He runs his hand down the thick neck and down to the shoulder to the place the arrow entered it. The blood was warm on his fingers, and he wipes them across the stag’s side. Nicholas pulls the knife from his belt and begins his work, taking from the animal all he can carry.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Bowman

In the stillness of early morning, the bowman steps into the woods. It is still quite dark, so he eases along with what little moonlight is left shining through the open hardwoods. The morning is cold, and deathly silent. Rainfall from the day before has dampened the forest floor, which made for quiet going, as long as he doesn't make a misstep and break a dead branch, or crumble a rotting log under foot.

There is no need to hurry, just take a few steps, then wait a few minutes. Watching the dimly lit woods, listening for any sound that would mean something stirring in the dark brush beyond his sight.

As the first hint of daybreak outlined the ridge above him, the bowman hears the slight shuffling on the far side of the spring- fed branch to his left. He scans the trees, trying to get his eyes somewhat adjusted, looking for any horizontal line that would indicate the back of a whitetail deer, standing motionless in the thicket.

The bowman stands like a statue for what seems like an hour, and as the light floods through the forest floor, it occurs to him that he's seeing shadows, or a fallen tree, not a deer, or any other living thing.

As he takes a step in the other direction, chaos erupts from the thick timber beyond the branch, and the bowman watches a large buck crashing through the tangle of vines and thick saplings, up the hillside toward the ridge, white tail raised like a flag. The buck blows and grunts as he climbed the steep slope.
He watched the buck flee with a cheerful heart, as it did his soul good to witness the speed and agility of the fine animal.

All was quiet again, all except the purling of the branch, the songbirds' waking voices, and the fast beating of the bowman's heart.