I am in Tucson now for a bit, and the other day I decided to try to do a watercolor of the mountains at sunset. With their vast swaths of deep blue shadows it seemed, visually, like a simple image to capture. I retrieved my travel watercolor kit, 3 x 5 watercolor block, HB pencil, and squishy eraser and walked to the park where there was a view of mountains beyond the highway and power lines. I balanced my cup of water on the rough and not terribly flat surface of the wall, poised pencil over paper, stared at the mountains hard and tried to look artistic, rather than suspicious to any passersby.
When I opened up the watercolor set to begin painting, I noticed that the popular colors—and the colors I would need—were mere scraps of paint clinging to the sides of the pan. Oh well, I thought, it’s only a 3 x 5, surely I’ll have enough paint for that. I unsheathed the tiny travel brush and dipped and dribbled water into each cake of dry paint. But when I started painting, I quickly realized that brush was way past its sell-by date as my husband is fond of saying. It had lost its spring and now resembled, more than anything, a tiny dispirited scrub brush. I plodded onward, painterly speaking, but the deep dark blues of the mountain shadows looked anemic on my paper. I let the painting dry before folding everything back up, because sometimes a painting that I think is awful doesn’t look so bad, given some time and space. (This one didn’t, so you’re not going to see it.) I had began my disappointed trudge back to the house when a flash of hot-coal caught my eye. I stared. What kind of bird was that? Much too red to be a cardinal. Disappointment forgotten, I followed the bird from tree to tree, weaving from one sidewalk to the other. I certainly looked suspicious now, but I needed to see that bird. Back at the house I went on the internet and learned that it was a vermillion flycatcher.
Vermillion–now that’s not a word you hear too often outside of painting. It’s a pigment, made from ground cinnabar and it’s a brilliant, nuanced red. The saturated color of the vermillion flycatcher contrasted, in my mind, with the anemic colors of my watercolor attempt to capture the rich beauty of the mountains–and my dissatisfaction about it.
And then I got it. There is transcription, and there is the thing itself. And that firebird had just reminded me not to forget to rejoice in the thing itself.
Not much daylight these days. Not only that, but the unsettled weather of December keeps things pretty cloudy. The natural world is hibernating—going inward, conserving strength, assimilating experiences.
So much less stimulation outdoors allows me to notice the over-looked parts. On my walk, I saw the shocking green of the moss, and the equally bright red of the fire berries. I become absorbed in the world of the bird feeder. Just yesterday, I identified the American Tree Sparrow, a bird so common I wouldn’t have given it a second glance at another time. But perched on the feeder amongst the chickadees, tufted titmice and goldfinches, it became a rare and precious sighting. Splitting wood is a pleasure; the frozen wood lets go with a satisfying kunk. The slightly insane call of the Pileated woodpecker makes me shake my head, then smile.
Indoors, by the cheery woodstove, I plan out my winter projects. All those things that demand close indoors attention—weaving, writing, revising, computer work, (I will learn some Photoshop this winter) are anticipated with pleasure. My mind will be stimulated and I will garner a sense of accomplishment.
Winter, by its sensory deprivation, is the perfect time to let the imagination expand, creating worlds and dreams.
To everything there is a season.
This morning I woke up to an insistent bird song, over and over, clear and repeated. In my subconscious brain I said “oriole” but when my conscious brain took over, something wasn’t quite right for an oriole. Eventually the call came in the tree right outside. That was enough to make me get out of bed and crouch by the window. The bird was right there, but leaves obscured him and I only got a glimpse of his head, beak open in song. But because the light was behind him, his head was in silhouette and I couldn’t identify him.
I was awake now, so I got dressed and went to the pond grate to clean it out—it was heavily blocked from the night’s beaver activity—pulling the pond muck into the wheelbarrow to use as mulch for my garden. As I was mucking, the darn birdcall came again. And once again, I could only see a silhouette against a far tree. I finished the mucking and went inside to get the binoculars. I stood outside in the middle of the yard. But of course, there was no birdcall. I swatted at mosquitoes. Nothing. I went inside to have coffee.
Then, sitting at my computer, sipping coffee, a clear, LOUD birdcall came through my open window. I jumped up. There, not ten feet from me, was a brilliant orange and black bird. Baltimore Oriole. Showing himself off. Tired of the game, maybe. Or maybe taking pity on me.
I’ve been sending out query letters all this week and as much as I want an instant response, it hasn’t happened. But Mr. Baltimore Oriole reminded me that sometimes if you can just wait, what you want will come to you.
The pond is blustery this morning, skittishly turning from blue to brown as the wind gusts across it. I couldn’t stay inside. So I put on my rubber boots (the easiest things to grab) with no socks (takes too much time to put on socks) and tightened the belt of my baby blue velour bathrobe with the soot stains on the sleeves from building a fire in the woodstove chilly mornings. I tucked my raggedy sweatpants into the boots, arranged my Lanz of Salzburg flannel nightgown over them, remembered to take the binoculars and stepped out. It was quite the look, I’m sure. Especially when I remembered that I had slept in my blue topaz earrings, so they were dangling coquettishly.
As I tromped over to the pond grate to clean it—a daily activity—a new birdcall gave me pause and I stopped to locate it. I keep a bird journal and each year I get excited when the migrants show up. I know this because when I look back on earlier years to see when, for instance, the fox sparrow has arrived, it has the same exclamation point next to it that I put on this year. I located the singing bird with the binoculars, trying to keep it in my sights as it danced along the spruce branches—no mean feat, especially since I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet.
I looked for markers to identify it, but it was unremarkable—a buff colored little thing with a wing bar (but not a goldfinch.) Then I saw the glimmer of deep red—just a dot, really—on the top of its head. Ah ha! A ruby-crowned kinglet! I made my way back to the house, wrote ruby crowned kinglet (!) in my bird journal and then sat down next to the cheery wood stove and took a first sip of hot coffee.