Sometimes it seems like my mind is a kettle brewing stuff while I sleep. I woke up thinking about two very difficult things: communication and mastery. It struck me that they might be related.

Back when I had an art shed and lived in California, I started a blog on blogger about painting. I called it “A Lifetime Apprenticeship” because I couldn’t imagine ever being a master or even imagine what it would mean to BE a master. I also decided that becoming a master would be the end of the exciting part of painting which, at the time and still, seems to be learning more and doing better.

I still think that way, and it’s a good thing because I’m a long way from being a master, but… I wonder what it would be like to approach a project and KNOW it’s going to work out. I wonder if that’s even possible.

I did a drawing yesterday that seemed to be going really well and then, later, when I looked at a photo of it, I realized the river in the drawing was behaving in a manner that is impossible for rivers, all for want of a line.

The thing about this is that I’m OK with that. I’m even OK with, “I’ll never get it,” and that doesn’t discourage me because I don’t even know what “it” is.

As for communication, I can’t begin to figure that out. Like drawing and painting, there’s probably no mastery. Unlike drawing and painting, I can get discouraged, fatigued, disgusted, and hopeless about communication. It’s all Samuel Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Sage Grouse in Luv

“Think about it, Martha.”

In spite of a mildly torqued knee. a pulled groin muscle, and a limp, I decided to take Bear out to the Refuge. I thought I’d use a cane for stability, but I’d forgotten that is Bear’s job. She’d kind of forgotten that, too, at the beginning of our walk, but she remembered before she did any damage.

The moment I arrived, I noticed the welcoming party.

Welcoming committee…

It was very deer of them to be there, waiting for me, and I was grateful. I took it as a benediction on what I feared was a bad idea, walking Bear when I am physically a little fragile. I sent them my thanks through ASL (which all muledeer understand perfectly) and my friend and I took off slowly, me limping, Bear wanting to smell everything. I didn’t blame her. Even I could see the stories left in the snow.

We went along. I had no idea how far I would go before I couldn’t go, but it turned out that I was able to go almost as far as usual. The only reason I didn’t go all the way is because my mom told me not to, I mean because I’m less stupid and stubborn than I was three days ago. Bear studied scents, rolled in the snow, dug down to where maybe some little creature had burrowed for warmth.

On the way I noticed a large bird in one of the cottonwood trees. Then it went “ooo-hooo” and I realized it was “my” great horned owl. Too far away for a good photo, but when has that deterred me?

I should really take a camera…

When Bear and I turned around, Bear did her lean thing which I interpret to mean, “Thank you Martha,” but it might mean, “Aren’t we going to hunt some more?” We walked along together, my hand on my dog’s back, and I thought, “Is this so bad, Martha? Really, what’s wrong with this? Your best friend is here. Your welcoming committee was waiting for you. The snow is one big mantle of diamonds and stories. And look at that! Look, right in front of you!!”

I did. I stood there and looked at the little grouping of mountains I’ve painted so many times that they’re almost a part of my hand, and I started to cry. “We are hardly a consolation prize,” murmured all the features of the landscape, “And we’re yours. You came here for this and we are here for you. Do you have to live according to some idea of yourself or can’t you just do what we do and BE?”

There were no human footprints anywhere. A couple signs of someone on X-country skis maybe three days ago, but otherwise? As it is most of the year, it was just us, Bear and me and sometimes Teddy, too. I like the cold, the wind, the changes, the tracks, the possibilities of seeing other animals besides me and my dogs. I like what I see going slowly.

So, I will be selling my skis.


Top to bottom: Nigel, Fred, Reggie, Vyger. The palm tree was painted by a student in the middle of the night. He didn’t want to go back to Switzerland and THAT was his statement. We’d lived in this house a year when this photo was taken.

I like cats as much as I like dogs. For a few years in San Diego I was a crazy cat lady, known by the local Mexican kids as, ‘La bruja de los gatos.” It wasn’t exactly my choice to have ten+ cats. I wanted TWO cats. Soon after we bought the crack house we fixed up, the Good X and I went to Animal Control and picked out a little Siamese we named Chada and a beautiful Russian blue we named Fred.

We had NO idea what we’d actually done.

Chada was an aloof creature and Fred was gregarious. Once outside the door, he’d roam the neighborhood making friends and bringing them home. So here came Eddy, who looked just like Fred, and Jack Frost who looked just like Fred if Fred had been covered with frost. They all also brought their hunting trophies into the house — Chada was partial to alligator lizards and Fred was a bird hunting cat. Sadly, Chada (known fondly as Chowder Head) was hit by a car which seemed to have opened a cosmic door for Fred to bring home even more friends.

And then…my students, international students, would adopt a cat for the duration of their stay in the US and then guess what? I know, way too easy. That brought Mousch, a yellow tabby. Then a couple of students got kittens on a field trip (a very cute girl was giving them away) and that was Reggie and Nigel. THEN the husband of one of my colleagues left her and her daughter ran away; she held it together pretty good through THAT but when her cat had a litter she fell apart which brought Vyger. “I’ll take one, Suzanne, it will be OK. You’ll find homes for them.” THEN my neighbor’s husband was about to kill a tiny kitten in their garden and the neighbor called, “Martha! Come and help us! Chayo’s going to kill a kitten!” and THAT was an incredibly nice little torty I name Triffid. Not long before my vet’s office called and said they’d rescued a beautiful cat in an abandoned VW so THAT cat came to live with us, too. She was a cross-eyed Himalayan I named Catmandu. THEN another tortie showed up with long “whiskers” in her ears and slanted eyes and of course I had to name her Klingon. Then, a tiny little kitty came in my back door one evening when I was cooking supper. She was crying. I looked down and saw her little black and white being and thought she was a kitten, but no. She was a full-on adult cat of the mini-cat stripe. I named her Holstein (obviously)

I don’t even know if I’ve cataloged them all here. We kept all these cats vaccinated and had them all fixed. We bought cat carriers at the swap meet and when it was time for the vet, we loaded the cats into the back of a station wagon the Good-X had at the time and went to a mobile vet. It was a circus. Cats are fun, though. They are all different from each other, and interesting to watch and live with. Luckily for us it was San Diego, we had a verandah and lived on a quiet street and they could be inside/outside cats. Some were primarily outside and others were primarily inside. The last surviving cat was Triffid who died in his sleep in his favorite spot under the bird of paradise in front of the house.

Cat-mandu, charcoal drawing

Stray Cats

There’s no such thing as a stray cat
‘Cause now they all live in my yard.
I rescued them from the weather,
And a life unbearably hard.

They came the night of the cookout,
When they smelled a barbecue.
That night we had decided
To broil a burger or two

The first one to come was dirty,
He was gray, he was shy, he was wild;
He was hungry enough to approach us
And eat from our plates like a child.

First we tossed him a bit of a burger
Which he ate with incredible zest,
Then we gave him some cat food,
He tucked it away like the best.

Now Eddy is just a glutton
Who eats everything in sight.
The next one was much more fussy
On that beautiful starlit night.

She was fierce-eyed and ragged,
She clearly had seen better days.
She was thin, she was weak, she was tired,
And her fur stuck out every which way.

Nowadays she’s a princess
With beautiful tortoise shell fur,
And every night when she’s eaten,
She sits on my chest and she purrs.

Klingon, Charcoal drawing

The last one to come we call Jack Frost
He’s gray but all covered with snow.
He’s staying, I’ve just come to realize
Because he has no place to go.

Jack Frost, Charcoal drawing

Yes, there is no such thing as a stray cat.
And I’m giving this warning to you;
No matter how you feel tempted,
If you hate cats then don’t barbecue.

Pondering Cranes and the Animal/Human Relationship

The Sandhill cranes are still here. It’s amazing and wonderful. Teddy and I headed out yesterday and, for Teddy, the biggest excitement (except going with me) was flushing two ducks out of a ditch. He didn’t mean to, and I didn’t mean to, but those guys startle easily.

When we were at our turnaround point, the cranes, thousands of them, suddenly took to the air, calling loudly to each other and the world below. It was a spectacular show, but what interested me most was seeing whatever had set them in motion. I did, though not close enough to identify it exactly. A large hawk or eagle was flying low and fast away from the pond, having given up on what he must have thought would be an easy meal.

After watching five hours of nature documentaries (BTW this is NOT a good strategy for relaxation; stick to film versions of Jane Austen novels), I started thinking about the Romantic poets and the so-called “Romantic Era.” Is that where our attitude toward nature changed? There are writers who argue that it is, that until the early 19th century humans regarded the whole big mess of kill-or-be-killed reality as an adversary. I can’t accept that kind of blanket perspective about anything, but it’s probably true that before there were tunnels through mountains, mountains were less appealing, more obstacle than wonder.

The argument kind of hinges on how many early cultures ultimately began raising food on farms rather than gathering random seeds and chasing the woolly mammoth. Thinking about that, I began to see a small domestic farm as a refrigerator. “Grog, honey? Next time you go out, maybe you could bring back a live prairie rooster and hen? You were saying that there are hardly any prairie hens out there any more! I think we could just build a little enclosure and feed them and have the hens we want and their eggs, too!”

WHAT??? Are you impugning my hunting skills?”

“No no nothing like that, but you said it was getting harder and harder to find them.”

I’m sure it happened EXACTLY like that. Word for word.

In any case, no one has domesticated the Sandhill crane. They are hunted in various parts of the United States, but apparently are not easy prey. Ask any eagle.

“Though not quite as prehistoric as dinosaurs, sandhill cranes are thought to be the oldest living species on Earth, with fossilized specimens dating to 2.5 million years ago. Over those roughly 250,000 generations, the birds have gotten pretty wary. That’s why successful crane hunters have big spreads of hyperrealistic decoys, spend more time patterning birds than they do actually hunting them, and take care not to overhunt specific areas.Outdoor Life “Stealth and Decoy Tips”

Thinking about this led me to think about how many early people regarded their prey animals as gods. The plains’ Indians believed that a buffalo they were able to kill was giving itself to them.

That makes me think that we have always seen the beauty in the wild creatures around us, maybe even mores in the days when we lived together with them. And Sandhill cranes are VERY wary, though, on my last couple of forays out into their world, they have flown directly over me as if they finally got the message that I’m not going to kill them. I believe they are every bit as observant of me — more even — as I am of them.

My Parade

Though I usually take a dog out at a particular time of day, sometimes I get an inexplicable urge to take one out RIGHT NOW. This happened today around 11:30 am. As I neared the Refuge, there were thousands of cranes rising, circling up, higher and higher. I parked Bella and got out. This is what I heard and saw:

I think the dumpster really brings it down to earth 😀

I’m still a little “migrainy” and it all seemed somewhat dreamlike. I was enveloped in the wild racket of thousands of cranes for the first 1/4 mile.

We took Bear’s favorite loop and I was enchanted by the pastel November colors and reminded why I always want to paint them.

Bear’s favorite loop and the beauty of the day…notice the tree in the distance…

As we rounded the loop’s first curve, the cranes became silent. I wondered what set them off — a predator — but WHAT predator? A cool morning. Snow falling on the mountains to the west. No way for me to know. Then, we rounded the third curve on this 1/3 mile loop and I saw…

We always think of owls as night hunters, but the Great Horned Owl hunts in daytime, too. Was it him?

My eyes filled with tears AGAIN. Oh man… And then I realized, “This is my parade! I painted this. Naturally THIS is playing the band and sending out ‘floats,’ the whole thing!” Birds being floats, of course.

I loved the thought and it seemed right. My big painting depicts one of the quietest moments in this silent (except for animals, wind, and the occasional “Hello!”) place. It’s the kind of scene revealed by hours in a wild place. It doesn’t take your breath away or stimulate awe. It’s just a quiet crane moment on a dull day. It’s a love letter from me to the Refuge. My parade couldn’t have been any better, I thought, and then…

I noticed something land on the top of one of the cottonwood trees…

Seems to be a Cooper’s hawk

Soon after I took his photo, this lovely being launched himself from the tree. You can see that moment in the featured photo if you look really really hard, then swooped down in front of Bear and me, then up and began circling the group of cranes and other water birds now hanging around the pond. “Like a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow bend.” (Hopkins, “The Windhover”)

“What a beautiful float!” I said to Bear who wondered why we weren’t moving and smelling stuff. I also realized that I was thirsty and a little hungry, so we turned back. Just as I arrived at the parking lot I saw a pair of Harris Hawks. These guys are noisy compared to other raptors. Their adaptation to environments where prey is scarcer has also “taught” them to hunt in groups. They’re darker hawks, reddish brown and reddish black. I’ve seen this couple a few other times. They like to hunt by the paved road that runs past the Refuge.

Best parade of my life. ❤

Rhyming Time

Yesterday I wasn’t too enthusiastic about going to teach art to the kids. I felt like they were losing their focus, and I’m not the goddess of construction, paper, glue and cute crafts. I’m an artist, dammit! But I went. The kids were waiting in the alley,. The little boy was on his bike. Regular readers of my blog know that a period of my life was spent with a group of boys and their BMX bikes. It was a strange time (but really, how would I know?) and our little group of a lady with a truck and boys on bikes was the best part. And there I was yesterday, looking at C, a little boy who was eager to show me how fast he could ride and the great stop he’d learned.

My heart went back to those Boys on Bikes, now in their 40s, some dead already. The one to whom I was closest is raising his own kids now and is teaching his little boy — who’s about the age of C — to ride BMX.

Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Personal history too, it seems.

C’s parents are more protective of him than the Boys on Bikes’ parents were of their boys. He’s only allowed to ride in the alley when I’m out there, otherwise he has to ride in his yard and driveway. Knowing this, I walked down the alley very, very slowly. He showed me how fast he can ride and he showed me his skidding stop. He fell, took it “like a man,” and I said, “Good for you. The only way to learn is to fall.”

The Boys on Bikes — until they met me — rode their bikes ten miles from our neighborhood up to the BMX jumps. My Ford Ranger and I, and the fact that almost daily I drove up to where the jumps were, were a big boon to their lives.

It’s just a different world today in so many ways, but I liked our old world. I admired the reckless courage of those boys so long ago and the way they took shovels up there to perfect, adjust and repair the dirt jumps. They were amazing.

Little boys are an interesting species. Much derring-do and showing off of prowess; they are all medieval knights.

Yesterday I ran the art “class” a little differently. I had two activities planned and made them go run around the yard for 5 minutes in between. They’d also done their homework. The little girl, M, had drawn me pictures of animals and C had three nice pictures of trucks. He showed me one and asked if I could read the writing on it. “It’s Morse Code,” he said. “Can you read Morse Code?”

I said no and he told me it said, “Hi Miss Martha.”

He used the charcoal pencil I gave him for the road beneath the truck and the tires.

When they came in from “recess” we made tissue paper sun catchers. They loved the project, which was incredibly messy, and Mom even joined it.

“Isolation…exposed the deep sense of connection I took for granted within my relationships with friends and family. Don’t forget to express gratitude for those connections.” From today’s Washington Post newsletter on coping with COVID-19

The Easel

Yesterday I drove along the 18 miles of Road T in Saguache County Colorado. That was after some 20 miles on the US Highway 285 and before another 15 miles on paved Saguache County Road T. Saguache County is the first county north of my own, Rio Grande County. I was heading to the old mining town of Crestone — now arty-farty spiritual center — to buy my easel.

Nothing notable about the deal — except getting a $500 easel for $100 — but driving toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains takes my breath away. They resemble the Alps in the way they rise from the valley floor, rugged and young.

The easel is large and it was a struggle to get it into the house, but I did it. But then — as happens — I realized I had to move stuff out of my studio and THAT led to moving stuff out of my living room. It’s interesting how when you get a small piece of new furniture you might end up re-arranging everything and cleaning.

I don’t know yet if in this picture the gray will turn to blue…

I haven’t figured out everything about it yet — the main thing I still have to work out is adjusting the up/down of the tray on which the painting rests. I see how to do it, I just haven’t been able to do it! I’ll make it work for this big painting, but it won’t work for a smaller one but if I never manages that, a cool thing about this easel is it can go flat, like a table.

Now my little studio has three work “surfaces.” A dedicated drawing table, the table of all work, and an easel. Pretty up town, I’d say.

OK, this isn’t much of a video, but I thought, since I have this fancy new upgrade I should try it…

No Way, Dad!

One of the amazing things about color is that it doesn’t even really exist. What we see is the way light is reflected from a surface. Light is the thing.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by color and when some science fair (fifth grade?) came around, my dad decided it was time for me to learn the difference between color in light and color in pigment.

Back when I was a kid my dad loved a particular catalog. It wasn’t very interesting for a kid to look through. It was mostly words and black and white drawings. I think it was the Edmunds Scientific Catalog.

He ordered red, green and blue transparent colored gelatin slides like those used in theaters, and we set about making a project with them. I was HIGHLY skeptical that three colors could equal NO color (how I viewed white at the time) but my dad said it would. He also said red and green would make yellow. Huh? I’d already learned THAT made brown!!!

“There is no brown in light, MAK.”

Right dad. Whether he was telling me the truth or not remained to be seen (ha ha).

We made a black box out of some boxes (the cardboard box is the foundation of much childhood architecture) set up the slide projector so there was a bright light we could shine through the colored slides. When I saw it with my own eyes, I was amazed.

“This is the science of optics, MAK.”

He’d also ordered some prisms so I could see that the angle at which light hit the prism made rainbows. My display was going to show all these mutations of color including a demonstration of mixing paint. It had a big sign that said, “Optics.” Well, it was my new word…

As you might expect the display we put together wasn’t very fancy. “It’s what it DOES that matters!” was my dad’s philosophy all the time about everything. It was also very technical. It wasn’t something you could just stop and look and go, “Wow, that’s cool. That kid is smart.” It involved demonstrating things. There was only ONE demonstration time in the fair and I had WAY too much to demonstrate.

Dad and I were also ahead of ourselves all the time. Enthusiasm pushed us to want to say EVERYTHING. Thinking about it now, I think the project probably needed an hour of class time, not a ten minute demonstration by a kid. A cardboard box, masking taped together, and painted black with tempera paint is not very inviting even with a couple of slabs of glass sitting in front of it.

No one even stopped to see except the judges who just wrote their checkmarks on the mimeographed papers on their clipboards, veni, vedi, vinci or something. It was disappointing, but as you might expect at this moment in my story, the important thing was doing the project with my dad — and what he taught me.

“Is it Ever Going to Be OK Again?”

This morning I went out to clean up after the dogs and found that the plumbing was again backing up into my backyard. Twice this has been investigated and nary a sign of any problem in my house’ plumbing has been discovered. Both times there was a block at the place where my plumbing goes into the city sewer line. And, indeed, today I saw that it was coming back from that direction. Still, it’s not right.

My neighbors recently had to redo all the plumbing from their house to the main line. I anticipate doing the same, but I’d rather not do it now. BUT the guy has been out here twice in six months and that’s a LOT.

I called my neighbor to get the number of the company that did her work. Somewhere in one of our conversations she said, “Is it ever going to be OK again?” She’s going through harder stuff than I am right now (for the moment, knock on wood, etc.) We agreed that we had to believe that it will all be “OK” again.

You see, we don’t want much. The big deal about doing this work in my yard for me is that they have to tear out my fence and they won’t put it back up. I will have to board the dogs for the duration and then have a fence built. I’m having a hard time putting a good face on that, in fact, I just feel daunted.

And just in the trough of dauntedness this afternoon I went outside to photograph the mural with the horses on it and saw a guy in my OTHER neighbor’s yard cutting down elm trees. I said “Hi” and he let me know he was cutting down the tree that hangs over my house and that was ripe to fall on my roof in the next heavy snow.

A person bought a painting for twice what I charged for it and said it was worth it to her.

All of this has left me with the sense that nothing makes sense and maybe things are always OK in some strange paradoxical way that we don’t understand.

Beans and Friendship

It’s pretty woodsy in my backyard at the moment. I went out yesterday with my trusty branch saw to reconnoiter and decided it was way too dangerous for me to approach. How do I know but what one little handsawable branch isn’t holding up the universe? I don’t. I said, “Teddy get out from under there,” and came back inside.

Today I’m taking the day off. Yesterday, I spent hours cleaning the remnants of the snowpocalypse from the garden part of my yard. I had a long chat with the beans, explaining that I was sorry a bunch of their leaves were hanging there near death from being weighted down by a wet and frozen bed sheet. I then told them the story of Faith, the Indomitable Aussie Pumpkin who came into the world this time last year and STILL grew to be almost 10 inches in diameter. “Buck up, Poets,” I said. “It was just a snowpocalypse. Not the end of the world.”

The tomatoes are just going, “Well THAT was different.”

Meanwhile, everything that’s not broken looks like nothing happened, like summer was never interrupted, and now it’s business as usual.

Today my Facebook memories brought a photo of me with a woman who was one of my dearest friends for thirty years. She was my boss at the first teaching job I had in San Diego, and our relationship evolved from a not especially great boss/employee relationship to real friendship. She was an extraordinarily talented painter, and some of her paints are in my “studio”. I don’t use them. I do use her palette knife and some of her brushes. In the paint box, in the colors she used, and even in the way the brushes are “worn,” I see Sally, her way of painting and, well, her. It’s very lovely. The featured photo is us together at her house, Thanksgiving 1997.