Nature preaches peace

But it’s a jungle out there.

Apple blossom time, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, available.

My friend Jonathan Becker took a lovely photo of spring outside his back door in Samaria. There are poppies to the left and something that looks like flax to the right—and beyond that a chain-link fence and the desert.

Overshadowed by the cataclysm in Ukraine, Israel has sustained deadly attacks in recent weeks. They have people talking about another Intifada. My knowledge of Israeli geography is hazy, but I believe that Samaria is part of the West Bank. Jonathan is hardly sitting pretty.

Spring in Samaria, photo courtesy of Jonathan Becker.

And yet spring blooms, as it has always done so far. “Nature preaches peace,” I said to Jonathan.

“But it’s a jungle out there,” he replied. Well, he’s the one sitting on the tinderbox, not me.

I recently wrote about purpose, that indefinable goal that drives all artists. “I’d be hard-pressed to put my mission statement into words,” I said, and that remains true. But relative to landscape painting—and let’s face it, it’s primarily what I do these days—my conversation with Jonathan hit me like a bullet on the N-train in Sunset Park.

Nature preaches peace.

Blueberry barrens at Clary Hill, watercolor on Yupo, 24X36, available.

Jonathan may wake up every morning of this Pesach season wondering what fresh hell will be visited on his little community, but the flax and poppies know no such fears. They bloom as they’ve always bloomed.

I’m reading the news these days from under my security blanket, with one eye on my phone, the other screwed firmly shut. I haven’t known such a fraught period in my lifetime. There will be no blossoms in Mariupol, which has sustained scorched-earth bombings. There are reports of chemical weapons being used there, which hasn’t happened in Europe since WW2. The term Mutually Assured Destruction is back in my mind for the first time since 1980. The economic news is worrisome, and I’m sick about the shootings in Brooklyn.

But my Israeli friends? They’ve been living in such uncertainty since 1948, and they’re generally cheerful about it. I could learn a lot from their attitude. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” says the gospel of Matthew, and it’s a good thing to remember.

Every morning on Beech Hill, the scene changes infinitesimally. Each branch is covered with tiny buds of green or pink, waiting expectantly for warmer air. The blueberry barrens are turning green in stripes, looking like a cockeyed Christmas sweater. Woodpeckers are back, as are the ticks (who aren’t really evil, merely looking for a free lunch).

Sometimes it rains, oil on archival canvasboard, 9X12, available.

Nature preaches peace.

Yes, I’m aware that under the verdancy of spring, hawks are still killing voles and fishers are stalking porcupines. Nature is red in tooth and claw. But nature doesn’t seek the wholesale extirpation of its enemies, as some of mankind seems to be doing right now.

Nature continues in its preordained courses. The Northern Hemisphere awakens from winter, its seasonal death forgotten. Life is gradually restored.

We landscape painters, in copying nature, can preach peace secondhand. That’s a mission I can wholeheartedly embrace.

Go outdoors and enjoy the weather

“’The trick,’ said I, turning on my stool with coffee cup in hand, ‘is not to adopt a siege mentality.’”

All flesh is as Grass, 30X40, oil on linen

The above quote is from novelist Van Reid. He was musing on the winter. I copied his essay here and I hope you will read it over your morning coffee.

The other day, I posted a night photo on Facebook. “An evening walk to church through a snowy wood? Norman Rockwell merely painted such idyllic moments; you live them,” commented my friend Roger.

The great irony is that such moments are easily accessible to us all. They surround us all the time. But if we’re inside, or inside our cars, or on Facebook, or watching television, they pass by unnoticed.

Lonely Cabin, 8X10, oil on archival canvasboard.

I’m a habitual rambler, as the British call people who walk for fun. Walking is one of the most popular outdoor recreational activities in the United Kingdom, but it has no traction here. Part of that is because we’re too spread out. Part is that we don’t have the network of rights of way and footpaths that give access to the countryside.

But you can always find places to wander: the Erie Canal towpath in New York, or rail-to-trail access in other places, or land trust and park trails, to cite some examples. My friend Mary and I spent many happy hours rambling through the suburbs, speculating on the people behind those facades.

Rambling shows you the world through a macro lens. I see all kinds of things that are hidden from the person who zips by in a car—the fat, lazy porcupine looking for his winter billet, a hare coursing through the barrens, red winterberries after the shrub has shed its leaves.

Nighttime at Clam Cove, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard.

It’s taken me six years to understand the weather here, and that understanding came from being outdoors in all kinds of weather. If I walk over Ben Paul Lane and through the old farm road into Erickson Fields, I can avoid the prevailing westerlies in the bitterest weather. But in a Nor’easter, that’s inverted. It will, paradoxically, be warmest on the exposed path to the summit of Beech Hill—that is, until you make the final turn, at which point, the wind will blast the blood cells clear out of your body.

In summer, my usual treks here are filled with the noise of too many people. Americans are very gregarious people, so they share their thoughts with strangers. Petty irritations are inevitable. In winter, the same trails are empty. If we run across anyone at all, it’s likely to be someone we know.

The Late Bus, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard.

I observed the winter solstice in part by discussing with my intrepid daughter Mary (with whom I’ve been north of the Arctic Circle) how we might get to Svalbard. That’s the northernmost inhabited island in the world. There are times, I speculated, that the sea ice might be solid enough for us to drive. “Yeah, but it’s dark then,” she pointed out.

My family are all bred-in-the-bone northerners, going back now several generations. “It does not mean that we have more character than anyone else, only that winter is an integral part of our character,” Van wrote.

If every plant has a toxic relative, why wouldn’t that be true for people as well?

I’ve painted the Erie Canal all over the place (this one time in Gasport, NY). How much more can it teach me, right?

The plein airinstructor has a lot more to do than simply show up and coax brilliance out of her students. She must first reconnoiter: is there a way to get equipment from a staging area to the painting site? Are there bathrooms? Even better, can you get a cup of coffee anywhere nearby?
I aim to know where every
Porta-Potty in the Northeast
is before I’m through.
It also behooves the plein air teacher to have a comprehensive knowledge of plants and trees. Not only does it help figure out when a painting site will be at its best, but it can also help avoid a disastrous encounter with, say, poison ivy.
My friend Mary has been urging me to explore the canal between Schoen Place and the Great Embankment in Pittsford. I’ve painted frequently in both places and many others on the canal besides. What could this little strip of land have that I haven’t already seen?
I found a lovely red barn against which was growing one of my favorite springtime plants, Greater Celandine (chelidonium), which is remarkable both for its lovely yellow flowers and for its many pharmacological and herbal uses. The Celandine will survive a week of rain and be there next week. But what is that lurking next to it? Not a Queen Anne’s Lace, but its toxic and invasive Giant Hogweedcousin, which causes nasty contact dermatitis.
A Giant Hogweed unfurling its leaves in the middle of a view I admire. (Photo courtesy of Mary Brzustowicz)
And just a little further down the path sits another noxious member of the carrot family: water hemlock. It has to be ingested to kill you, but it’s the most toxic plant growing in America and nearly a dead ringer for benign Queen Anne’s Lace.
And another Queen Anne’s Lace ringer, water hemlock. (Photo courtesy of Mary Brzustowicz)
It happens so frequently in nature: deadly wolfsbane is in the same family as harmless little buttercups. Sumacs include poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, and a whole host of benign and lovely relatives.
In a lifetime of talking people through their problems, I’ve recently concluded that having a toxic person or two in a family isn’t the exception; it’s the rule. But it wasn’t until I was walking in the woods today that I realized that this is the way we’re designed. That isn’t a solution to the problems caused by toxic relatives, but I suppose it makes them easier to bear.
A thousand greens, our canal. (Photo courtesy of Mary Brzustowicz)
(And I must admit that the site Mary found, just east of Schoen Place, meets all my criteria and provides a unique view of the canal. Now to find a time to paint it, since it’s going to rain for the next three days.)
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