Light on the river

Lately, I've only managed to get out for short walks in the strip of woods between the Conrail tracks and the big bend in the Susquehanna, usually to get Ellie, our dog, out for some exercise. The days, although longer as we advance towards next month's equinox and the summer beyond, have mostly been cheerless and gray. Still, the river beckons me.

Mid morning today, a break in the clouds let the sun shine through. Ellie sat in front of the old Stickley library table I was writing at, looking at me expectantly. She needed a little more fresh air and stretching than her early morning few minutes in the side yard.  I sighed, got up and walked out to the coat hall, snapped her leash and harness on, pulled on hiking boots and donned a coat and hat. Slung my sketch bag over a shoulder before shuffling out the door.

A few aggravating minutes of admonishing the always overenthused Ellie not to pull on the leash and we were topping the railroad berm. The wooded bluff across the river was dark and brooding, backlit by diffuse sunlight, weakening as the holes in the cloud cover closed. A long, dark reflection dominated the stretch of water I could see through the trees, but shifting dapples of brilliance sparkled here and there.

The Susquehanna is ranked third among the ten rivers most endangered by pollution in the United States. Inadequately regulated fracking and poorly managed agricultural and sewage runoff have prompted the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to warn against swimming and fishing the river, whose poisoned flow empties into the Chesapeake. With the Trump administration's attack on the EPA, which appears to have majority support from the Republican controlled Congress, calls to activism are gathering momentum from those of us who see and feel the seriousness of such threats.

These disturbing thoughts were on my mind as I paused in the quiet, dark woods to dash off a quick sketch. After a few minutes, I realized that I'd lost track of the dog. I called her and packed up while I waited for her to emerge from the tangle. Clipped her leash back on and followed the trail back out and across the tracks.

Back inside the house, I doffed my coat. I had to get to work, but I decided that a few more minutes to write a letter to a congressman would be time well spent. Some of my friends are putting pen to paper and sending their concerns out daily. I should join them. Every voice counts.


Comfort drawing

The daily overdose of horrifying news; nonstop blasts of proclamations and destructive actions from Donald Trump's insane first week in the White House, and the outraged responses from across the world, have me feeling weary. I'm getting my work done somehow, but under a thickening cloud of worried distraction.

Today, Sunday, I turned to doing mundane things to relieve my anxiety. I gave one of the bathrooms an unusually thorough cleaning, even though it was already pretty tidy. I took Ellie out to run in a big open field. Went to a local Asian market looking for Japanese groceries.

Sitting in the living room this afternoon, I opened my sketchbook and took out some colored pencils. I was still feeling pretty agitated and needed to settle my mind. Like eating comfort food, drawing sometimes calms me.

Not today.


Indomitable spirits

All over the world today, throngs of passionate women (and more than a few men) surged together to raise their voices in support of human rights and a world they see imperiled by the newly inaugurated President of the United States. Some of my closest friends joined the many thousands who showed up to be heard and counted in Washington, DC. Were it not for mitigating personal circumstances, I'd have been among them.

Instead, I kept in touch via text messaging, and on the internet watched a sea of brilliant pink knitted hats light up the greyness of the capitol. Frustrated that I couldn't be there, I spent the day between working and looking at updates, then took a late afternoon walk.

The woods were somber and quiet this afternoon, and the river's surface obscured by a dense layer of fog, but I kept thinking of those indomitable spirits, refusing to be intimidated and abused into meek acquiescence, and also refusing to resort to violence. When I started drawing the densely tangled trees and vines in the grey scene where I crouched with my sketchbook, my mind's eye kept seeing pink and red. Colors associated with femininity, anger, strength, love and life. I had to use them.

This small tribute then, this cryptic little sketch. To all the women who won't back down from defending what you know is good and right, I salute you. You are my heroes.


Rain in the trees

Back from a trip to the supermarket, I walk in bag laden from the outer entry hall to find Ellie sitting on the old braided rug in front of the door, looking up hopefully at me. She's already been out to do her morning business, but she's a young dog with too much energy, and needs more exercise than she's getting most of these unpleasantly dank winter days. I brush past her and quickly put away the groceries without removing my coat, then sigh and take her harness off the peg where it hangs with the various keychains in the entry hallway.  I have work to do but I'll compensate by working late. Thinking it would be a good time to take her down to the woods for a romp, since it's mid morning and most normal folks are at their normal jobs instead of walking their dogs on the trail, I figure I'll let her off leash to chase rabbits and chipmunks while I do a sketch - another thing there's been too little of since early November.

Raindrops spatter my face as we walk out. For a moment, I consider leaving my sketch bag behind, but it's not raining hard, and a little sprinkle seems a lame excuse. So we cross the street and head down the alley towards the woods, Ellie pulling on the leash (she still doesn't pay attention to the finer points of proper dog behavior) with me yanking her back every few steps. Across the berm and Conrail tracks and down into the woods, I command her to wait while I unclip the leash from her harness, then she runs off madly seeking the prey she never apprehends.

Plodding through the wet leaves, I turn and look back up the trail, at the barren trees leaning over on both sides, sentinels framing a path, the faintly tunnel-like gap fading off into the woods. I recall January days in previous years when I've drawn this scene, filled with hope for the months ahead. I think of the hard challenges that 2016 brought, heartache and headaches and so many blows to my optimism. Then the title of a favorite book of poems, W.S. Merwin's 'Rain in the Trees', pops into my head, and suddenly I see from a different vantage point. My focus shifts to the good things. Standing there in the middle of the trail, I pull out a couple of my colored pencils, open a fresh page, and do a quick sketch. Raindrops hit the paper and melt the water soluble pigment. I work fast and deliberately to get the essence of what I need for a legible image and to feed my outlook, then tuck the book and pencils back in my bag and call Ellie.

Amazingly, she trots obediently out of the woods, I praise her and promise a treat when we get home.


rain in the woods along the river trail


Chaotic order

Drab and unappealing outside, a damp chill in the grey air of a mid January day without even a trace of tired snow to brighten the dull countryside. But I've been spending too much time indoors of late. I tack east across the county to an obscure nature preserve hidden on a broken road, twisting through an unremarkable patch of southeast Pennsylvania farmland. Walking a seldom traveled path past a lone barn down to the woods, I notice a storm felled tree, trunk ripped with a fallen crown of limbs and snarled branches obscuring the dark pine boughs and barren woods beyond. An incomprehensible and unlovely thicket. For a moment, I'm tempted to stop and take out my sketchbook, but I press on into the woods. It isn't a picture begging to be painted.

The trail loop is unexpectedly short. Back where we entered the woods, I stop and look at that tangle again. It's been six weeks since I last opened a sketchbook other than to take design notes, so with a grim sigh, I pull my folding stool out of my shoulder bag, settle it into the half frozen mud, and sit down to draw. I really don't want to. What's in front of me is so damned unappealing and disorderly. What I really want is lunch - my stomach is growling at me.

After a few minutes, though, my eye starts to sort the chaos. I follow what begins to emerge as a thatch of loosely repetitive pattern, and I start to comprehend a scene whose language emerges to captivate me. Distantly I hear the rapid clip-clop and rattle of a horse drawn Amish buggy up on the road, and somehow that informs the rhythmic movement of the pencils in my hand.

Not for the first time, I wonder what else I've missed simply because its beauty wasn't instantly obvious.