Sketches from Lund

11 08 2012

Summer time brings travel to the coast.  Big trees, white sand, sea creatures big and small.  After the full rush of work, I am content to record simple sketches and let the full wash of a family reunion wash over me.


In the ferry lineup at Horseshoe Bay


Quick sketches from the trail and beach, Savary Island and Lund


Intertidal life from Okeover Inlet, Lund

Cottonwood Flowers

4 05 2012

Living and dying—it’s the necessary beat to all things biological. But one is easier to see than the other.

Late this last winter, in the small cottonwood forest along the lower reaches of Petersen Creek, the dogs and I came across the ruin of a cottonwood.  The shattering was immense.  Pulpy white wood had been torn from its interior and exposed to the elements.  Pieces of bark, broken twigs and last year’s leaves covered the frozen ground.  The dogs sniffed around the broken debris of a life, parsing this destruction through their noses.  I paused, not in horror, but in commemoration, wondering what ended the life of this particular cottonwood tree.

cba_cottonwood_smallThat day, there was little tree left.  I could find pieces that I recognized—a terminal branch tip, scraps of bark still covered in tenacious lichens, and a few browned, but miraculously intact leaves from last year’s growing season.  As startling as it was, this shattering was only the beginning of the cottonwood’s ruin.  At the tail end of winter, the motor of decomposition idled slowly.  But with the arrival of spring, as our oddly canted earth dipped its northern latitudes toward the sun, the chewers and the eaters and the decomposers rose up.  Fungal hyphae spread.  Bacteria proliferate, invertebrates tunnel.  It might take several years, but the ruin of last winter will fuel other growth, other lives, until all evidence is erased.

Spring brings with it not just decomposition but also the frenzied necessity of sex.  Perhaps it was the sight of last year’s ruin, but I have haunted the cottonwoods this spring, impatient for the signs of spring.  And in searching, I have learned more.  I have long known that cottonwoods (Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa) are dioecious (male and female flowers on found on separate plants) but it was not until this spring that I took the time to inspect their flowers carefully. When I did, small packages of glory appeared beneath my hand lens and through the microscope lens.

cottonwood_male_flr_smallMale cottonwood twig with flowers

In the Thompson River Valley, the blood red to fuschia purple male flowers appear before the more sedate, mostly green female flowers. By the time the female trees are in full flower, the male flowers have mostly dropped to the forest floor.

And the smell…all spring I have been trying to name the smell that accompanies the break of cottonwood buds.  The closest I’ve come is  to call it a musty sweetness.  Regardless of its name, the moment when I caught the first ghost of its appearance, I felt such relief, such joy.  It is a sign that the sap is rising, that rebirth has begun–the necessary counterpoint to last winter’s ruin.cottonwood_female flower_small

Female twig, with flowers


With magnification, male and female flowers

Naturalizing springtime

18 04 2012


On Good Friday, we are a gaggle–4 instructors and a crew of students– content to wander up the narrow dirt track alongside Tranquille Creek.  The male cottonwood flowers color the upper branches fushia purple.  This is what makes me happy–wandering with intent.   I become fascinated with the small moments of time that I have missed in previous years.  How many times can I watch cottowood leaves emerge before I notice how the first green pokes out as small green linear protuberances.  In the company of other biologists, the world is fuller.  I probably would have missed the Townsend’s Solitaire and while I have been watching the kestrels in the big cottonwood at the trailhead, I definitely would have missed the moment of their “cloacal kisss.”

This, then, is the beginning of spring:  marked moments of time accumulating with frustrating slowness in late March, and then exploding into a crescendo of overlapping events in mid April.


Art to take home

14 02 2012

Is lived experience borne in the interior (the negative space) or in the exterior (the edges of form)?


This week, mapping the negative space of orchid flowers, orchid flowers +leaf, bamboo, geranium, and asceplias, I found hidden forms/shapes caught within the confines of well-known plants.  The bamboo shoot had vaulted spaces stacked atop one another.  The inferior ovary of the orchid flowers became known to me through the space that its stair-stepped inferior ovary makes with the arching pedicel above.  We are a story-telling species I tell my students, each time I know that I’m about to dive into arcane terminology.  Know the terms so that you can hear the story.  But how easy it is to gloss over the details.  How easy it is for the mind to construct a mass of light and dark shapes into one—“overlapping leaves”—and skip merrily along.  With each new negative space drawing, I found unrealized space.

Space in relation to space.   I was lost in negative space territory until I made midlines across the view finder and the space on the page.  Then I feel myself settling into the known terrain of spatial orientation—this blob goes above that, that blob of space goes off in this direction relative to that.  Finding space.  I know there are structural ligaments—microscopic lines of cells with thickened walls and other cells ballooning with turgor pressure—that support the architectural expanse of each bamboo leaf, but drawing space somehow convinced me that it is the shape of negative space that supports the leaf.  If I can trace the correct shape below, beside, above each leaf, the structure will come.  It feels like a parable for my life.

There is another story here.  I think that negative space is to plant form as the process of art is to finished work.  The fold in the geranium leaf is much easier to find when I focus on the space it encompasses than when my eye seeks the stability of the edge.  In drawing the edge, I am seduced by the sharp contrast and gloss over the lighter leaf underside—the exposed belly.  But when I squint my eyes to see the supporting shape, the fold of negative space is actually pointing in the opposite direction as the edge of the folded leaf.  When I redraw that tiny piece in the sketchbook, the leaf fold becomes real.

leaf_neg space_small

So much of what I respond to aesthetically envelopes authenticity.  I’ve been casting about for a favorite piece of art and find I can name no finished piece.  I don’t know that I have the language, visual or verbal, to elevate a particular work to favorite status (except of course any of Dale Livezey’s oil paintings of Montana and that’s because they so strongly evoke my childhood landscapes  Instead, what comes to mind, what I love to linger over are the sketches of any work in progress.  Any of da Vinci’s sketches of course, but even in Picturing Plants, by Gill Saunders, the plate that stopped my breath was Jenny Braiser’s Cyclamen intaminatum page which includes both pencil diagrams, painted leaves and a complete colour chart for the cyclamen. It may well be that I am a slave of science—always pining for the elusive process that underlies the observed pattern—but I think it’s more.

The tracks of process—in a diagram or in the sketch that comes before a larger work—tell a tale about the lived experience.  Art teaches me about the multiplicity about perception.  My view of reality changes if I draw a geranium leaf from the front, from the side—and that’s with the same set of eyes.  How does my student, my friend, a stranger see a geranium leaf?  I know enough about plants to reject any Platonic ideal.  There are lives captured in the gnawed edges of a leaf.   What seduces me, what brings me to my knees, is the art that encapsulates the experience of both the painter and the painted.   Art that can give me the little moments, the missed moments, is art I want to take home.


Tracing lines

6 02 2012

Many years ago, I traded Calculus tutoring sessions for lessons in Sumi-e brush painting. David, a good friend, had spent many years in Japan, but was hopeless at math. He was small and compact, typically clad in much nattier apparel than my faded Levis and t-shirts. But each Sunday morning for a semester, in a small airless room in the Science Building at Bennington College, David would exhort me in his precise British accent, “Feel the bamboo, Lyn, feel the bamboo moving in the wind as you make the mark.” At that time in my life, I was better at calculating a second derivative than I was at sensing the intrinsic movement of a plant I had not seen. My sumi-e brushes have been long misplaced, but this week, the crow quill pen has its own lesson to teach.


Over this last week of drawing, I have sensed how the movement of a reflexed petal or leaf might transfer to a downward pressure in the pen, thickening the line, embracing the curve.  But these pens and nibs have a discipline, an intent, all their own.  Toward and away, my hand understands with this pen, but horizontals require not just a shift in muscle but a clear intent to alter the pen orientation or shift the paper, or there is a terrible scratching sound that I think will break the nib.  But within this discipline, there’s also this sensuous sweep and swoop that is far beyond anything I’ve felt with the Sigma Micron pens or even the Rotring Artists pen.


I draw like I garden.  I rarely have the whole plan in mind, but instead putter with this shape and then that and then get tempted by something new, something unrealized.  In many ways, pencil suits this muttering back and forth, but I often end up disappointed with the remnants of the mutterings erased over and over again.  It seemed fitting however, to use one form of carbon, graphite, to trace the contours of the faded leaves, built of another form of carbon.  Pile on the carbon, press hard on the page and the line jumps forward.  The entire time I drew the leaves, I heard Francis Halle’s words from In Praise of Plants, “Plants are fantastic animals, their insides turned out, bearing their entrails like feathers.”  Plant feathers, indeed.  The work of this week has caught these “plant feathers” in mid-cycle, from living to decomposed, from coloured to not, from carbon-fixing to carbon-releasing.  At this time of the year in the South Thompson Valley, when so much is grey and drab, it’s helpful to be reminded of the commonality between the organic and inorganic worlds.


Illustrating with Contours

30 01 2012

Draw the line.  Investigate form.  Preferably without looking at pencil or paper, but with eyes steadily trained on the object you are

Claire Walker Leslie describes the blind-contour drawing, “Imagine your eye is an ant crawling slowly over the whole shape.  Either go from right to left or left to right.  Using a continuous and careful line, draw the wanderings of the ant over the contours of the object, in and out of each part your eye follows.”


It took me years to learn the true seduction of this exercise.  It took me years to stop cheating.  To cast myself upon the whimsy of process rather than standing on the known terrain of product.  But today, process opens the door.  I am delightfully beset with questions.

What happens with the 8B pencil in comparison with the 2H pencil; the PILOT GTEC C4 pen versus the purple PILOT HI TECPOINT pen?  Each tool alters the alchemy of eye-mind-hand.  As I play, trying one after the other, I imagine different species of “ant-toolpoint” wandering the contours of the hollyhock skeleton I gathered this morning from my snow garden.  Each species develops its own intimacy with the contours, the hills and valleys, of the golden brown carcass.  Each ant-toolpoint has its own way of knowing.  I fall in love with the friction-imposed slowness of the 8B pencil.  It is a way of knowing that is in stark contrast to the racehorse speed of the slick pens—their muscles bunching and leaping, gathering up ground.


12 01 2012

Aspen_road003_smallWith the full fall of autumn turning into winter, work in my journal progresses with less completion. Instead trapped inside, I return to images collected from field days and work with them in larger format. For once, I can relish the relative sedentary of the cold season. Freed from the incessant need to see what is happening outside, I can play with colour and line, form and shadow. Aspen shadows results.

Sampling cottonwoods

28 10 2011

This last Saturday, the second-year Ecology class (Biol 2170) ventured into the convoluted geometry of one of the few remaining cottonwood stands along the South Thompson River.   Working with Tod Haughton from BC Parks, our purpose was to document cottonwood regeneration (the number of seedlings and saplings) in relation to the abundance of reed canarygrass both within the cottonwood stands and immediately adjacent to the stands.  All day as we maneuvered our way through tangled shrubs and tall grasses, I couldn’t help but think, “This is why I do what I do.”  University students working their way through percent cover estimates, forced to physically encounter the living, breathing, tangled embrace of a riparian system.  The fact that the data they collected might help establish a baseline for cottonwood restoration made the day rich in possibilities.

At the end of the day, we meandered out of the riparian zone, long shadows falling on the contours of a landscape shaped over time by the waters of the South Thompson River.  The profile of valley hills peaked above a line of shrubs in the far distance.  This is my home, my life, in October and I am glad. cottonwoods_wma_small

Wells Gray Explorations

3 10 2011

Traditons grow easy in the rhythmic cycle of an academic year.  This year marks my 7th autumn teaching at  TRU and my 7th field trip with botany students into the unique environment of Placid Lake, just north of the border of Wells Gray Park.  There is an immediacy, a compelling drive, that I feel anytime I immerse myself within the activity of a botany field trip.  Names ring through the wet forest on our way into the fen.  This year, so many students want to make the trip that we need more help both from other faculty and family.  My second year botany class remains one of my favorite classes to teach, and the embedded field trip is an important part of its charm.

Shared experiences–whether it be the bright sun and mounding Sphagnum in the fen or the pounding water coming off of Moul Falls–binds the members of Biol 2280 in a way that no classroom time ever could.  I feel like all I need to do is point the crowd in the right direction and this shared spirit evolves as a natural consequence of the 36 hours we spend together, as a group, intent on exploring the natural history of the park.  Each year, I drive south, away from our education and research center, with a deep sense of regret that I have to return to the larger confines of my life.  At home, before I begin the marking, I take the time to finish the journal pages that I began admist this year’s cohort of botany students.


Bird nests and the bright colour of bog birch occupy me on the way out of Placid Lake.


Yellowstone Excerpts

3 10 2011

In late August, I drive south from BC across the Columbia River basalts, up and over the Continental Divide and into the high wilderness of Yellowstone National Park for the annual gathering of the field journalers.  A late summer interlude in the expansiveness of Yellowstone National Park amidst a group of women who share my passion for documenting the natural world is a luxury I don’t often experience.


For three days, I alternate between the open views of the Hayden Valley (complete with sightings of the Canyon Wolf pack and the grizzly mom with her two cubs) and the architectural complexity of the Yellowstone River’s Grand Canyon.


This time of year in Yellowstone is dominated by the extravagances of large mammals in rut.  The slow excesses of bison never fail to startle me out of complacency.   Here, the bison are living and large, not the relict remnants of an extinct ecosystem.  I can’t imagine Yellowstone without them.  Peg says, “They finish the landscape.”

I wonder what has been lost from landscapes where their hooves no longer tread.