Birding with a two-year-old in San Francisco

I scan the ochre-colored sandy path closely as Paul and I walk beside the canal, he sometimes riding, sometimes pushing his tricycle. I’m intrigued by the houseboats lining the canal. Who lives in them? What are their lives like? I’ve been fascinated with houseboats ever since having a childhood friend who had lived for a time on a houseboat. The path is lined with pines and other trees I can’t identify– the flora here in California is so different from that of the Northeast. There are birds, many species new to me, in these trees, and I have binoculars in my pocket.

The binoculars remain in my pocket, though, and I barely glance at the birds, much as I am drawn to them. I continue to closely watch the path ahead, making sure my active grandson doesn’t step in the wrong place anywhere along the path. There’s actually surprisingly little dog waste given the tremendous number and fascinating variety of dogs to be seen anywhere one goes around here– from tiny Chihuahuas to towering Great Danes, from a diminutive nine-week-old Shiba Inu that looks like a bright-eyed teddy bear to two lumbering Newfoundlands who look like real bears. The vast majority of dogs here are social and well-behaved, and I’m guessing that the vast majority of dog owners are considerate and responsible about cleaning up.

Apparently not everyone takes advantage of the conveniently placed poop clean-up bag dispensers and attached garbage cans, though. What I’m most concerned about Paul stepping in is human waste. I know from an earlier walk with Paul that there is some along this path, thankfully covered with a little paper, but obviously something to keep my quicksilver grandson from inadvertently running in. I also want to be sure Paul doesn’t jump on the navy blue sleeping bag, unzipped and spread out right beside the path, that I’m pretty sure is sheltering a sleeping person. That would be an unwelcome surprise and rude awakening for the sleeper.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I see a movement above me and I look up and see a very small, fairly nondescript, drab-colored bird fly from the pine branches above me as another alights in the same low branches, then immediately disappears! I glance ahead along the path, then tell Paul there’s a bird in the tree even though I can’t see it. I’ve been teaching him some basic bird species and he’s been quite interested, though he’s generally ready to move on pretty quickly. The branches are low and not particularly dense. Where could the bird have gone?

The binoculars still heavy in my pocket, I glance back and forth from Paul to the branches overhead. And then I see it: a beautifully fashioned, perfectly camouflaged, narrow tube-shaped nest with a small opening near the top, hanging from one of the branches, partially obscured by the needles of another branch. It appears to be made of moss, the same color as the surrounding pine needles. I never would have noticed it if I hadn’t been alerted by the quick movement of the parent birds.

At that moment Paul spots a rock on the path a little way ahead– round and white with small black speckles, about the size of his fist. Running to it in delight, he picks up the rock, looks at it closely, then adds it to the treasures he’s already collected in the compartment on the back of his tricycle, and we continue on our way.

The next day, my last before returning home, I once again take Paul out on his tricycle for a walk along the canal, hoping to look more closely at the hanging moss nest and the birds whose home it is. We don’t get any farther than the sleeping bag that’s still beside the path, however, because just at that spot, without any warning, Paul’s tricycle suddenly collapses and falls apart into three separate pieces! Thankfully he’s been walking, not riding the tricycle, so though startled, he’s not hurt.

As quickly as I can, which isn’t very quick due to my lack of tricycle assembly experience, I reassemble the tricycle, only to have it immediately collapse once more in a heap in the sandy path. All the while Paul is providing shrill two-year-old commentary, and soon the sleeping bag stirs, revealing a sleepy older woman’s face. I apologize for disturbing her rest and tell her we’ll be on our way as soon as possible. After a short time that seems long, probably to all three of us, I finally get the tricycle precariously assembled and we head home where Nathaniel will do what dads do– repair broken toys.

I never do get back to see the hanging moss nest, but I have a clear enough memory of it and the birds to look them up and identify them as Bushtits– a new species to add to my life list of birds I’ve identified! I also have memories of a delighted boy holding a round white rock with small black speckles, a tricycle collapsing into pieces on a sandy path beside house boats, and a sleepy older woman patiently watching a baffled young boy trying loudly to grasp what had just happened to his hitherto unquestionably reliable tricycle.

Birding in a city neighborhood with a curious two-year old is nothing like strolling quietly, binoculars in hand, through the dense woods and open fields I’m accustomed to, but it, too, is rich with moments of delight and wonder.

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Paul delighting in life and the outdoors
Collapsed tricycle!

Rowan’s tree– My Mountain Ash

Rowan’s registered name was My Mountain Ash, and last fall after we lost him I ordered a mountain ash tree, also called a rowan tree, to plant in his memory. I had given Rowan his name both because his coloring was red like the berries of the mountain ash and because in Celtic legend the rowan tree is supposed to ward off evil spirits and protect the home. I expected that Rowan would be somewhat protective, being an Australian Shepherd. As it turned out, my social, friendly dog who loved pretty much everyone did, on a couple of occasions, warn people away from me, and I always trusted his judgment about people.

What I hadn’t expected was the way Rowan was so tuned in to me that he helped me recognize and face the inner demons that threatened me in more ways than anyone else could have. As is so often the case, I was blind to many of the obstacles that bound my soul and hindered my way forward in life. In various ways, Rowan helped me see where I was hurt and didn’t know it. And since my hurt so obviously stressed my sweet dog, I was all the more motivated to work through that which was difficult to face. And then he was always there with me, lovingly walking with me, snuffling me gently with his whiskers, bouncing with joy when he saw me, all the way through the darkness.

I’ve been missing Rowan so, so much, and a big part of the grief for me has been the horrible emptiness that I’ve felt whenever I think of his name, that name that for over thirteen years signified so much presence and strength for me but that since he left has reminded me more of absence and emptiness. I was hoping that planting this tree in Rowan’s memory would help bring me some degree of closure and comfort, and it seems to have. My sadness is of course still with me and I’m sure will remain for a long time, but now when I think of his name, I also think of his tree, a living, growing tree that bears his name.

Yesterday I finally was able to complete a portrait of Rowan that I started months ago but wasn’t able to keep working on. In the end I found it soothing to work on, almost as if I were spending time with Rowan, though when I painted the eyes I burst into tears, because it felt like he was looking at me again.

Rowan- My Mountain Ash

Here’s my first sketch of Rowan’s tree; I’m sure I’ll be sketching it many more times.

Rowan’s mountain ash tree three days after we planted it- buds just starting to open
Rowan’s tree with the flowerpot he would have loved to play with

 

More Memory Project Portraits

My father and I have continued to make portraits for children through The Memory Project since first doing portraits of Ukrainian children in February (click here to see those portraits). In March we did portraits of children from Bolivia who live in an impoverished area on the outskirts of a city. My father did a caricature of a thirteen-year-old boy named Jose and I did a watercolor of thirteen-year-old Laura. My sister, Jennifer Thompson, also did a watercolor of fourteen-year-old Isidro, and my brother Thaddeus Thompson did an acrylic portrait of a Bolivian boy, Jose Michael. It was fun to do these as a family!

Laura
Jose
Isidro
Jose Michael

After doing the portraits of Bolivian children, my father and I wanted to do more, so in April we did portraits of children from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I did a watercolor of nine-year-old Abati and my father did a caricature of eight-year-old Baraka. These children have very likely suffered from war, violence, displacement, and malnutrition.

Abati
Baraka

I’ve never considered myself a portrait artist, but it is a privilege to be able to do a portrait that will help a child in these circumstances realize that he or she is special and valued as an individual. While painting the portraits, I often pray for the child I’m painting, that somehow he or she would experience God’s love and care and that my portrait would in some way convey that love to the child. If you’re interested in participating in The Memory Project, you can find out more information at https://memoryproject.org/.

Unhurried

Acadia purrs on my lap, Milo snores softly at my feet, steam drifts from the spout of my teapot, and birdsong fills the house (thanks to Stephen installing microphones by the feeders). I sit in my rocking chair wrapped in warm wool, watching as dawn slowly yields to day. It’s my weekly Quiet Day, when Stephen goes to the office and I have an unscheduled day of silence and solitude. Not complete silence, as I hear a woodpecker drumming his morning beat over and over, a Crow cawing as he sweeps across the clouds, and myriad other birds raising their voices in their spring chorus, but the silence that comes with no speech and more or less inner quiet.

I sit. I sip my tea, stroke my sweet cat, still my soul. In a while I’ll open my Bible to read and ponder this morning’s passage. I’ll spend time in prayer for family, friends, and others. I’ll prepare and eat breakfast. I’ll walk with Petra and Milo. But for now, for these quiet early morning moments, I sit and watch. There is no need to hurry on my Quiet Day, no to-do list governing my time, no schedule to fit myself into.

This is my day to be and to be refreshed. A day to connect with my own soul,and, in the process, renew my connection with the One who is always here, waiting for me to sit quietly with Him over a cup of tea or a page in my sketchbook or to walk with Him as I enjoy His creatures and His creation.

“I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
 I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.”
Psalm 130:5-6

“This is the day the Lord has made,
let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Psalm 118:24

“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,
the world and all who live in it…”
Psalm 24:1

Today’s sketching

The Memory Project

My father and I just participated in the Memory Project, which connects artists with youth around the world who have faced poverty, abuse, neglect, violence, loss of parents, or other serious challenges. The Memory Project sends the artist a photo of a child, and the artist then creates a portrait of the child and sends it back to the Memory Project. The portrait is then delivered to the child along with a photo of the artist, with the goal of helping the child feel valued, important, and cared about as an individual.

We were sent photos of two young Ukrainian orphans, Ilya and Ivanna. Artists can make the portrait in any style or medium on paper or canvas, so I did my portrait in watercolor, and my father did his as a caricature (he has done many thousands of caricatures of children around the world). He drew the boy playing soccer, since it is such a popular sport in the Ukraine. I really enjoyed working together with my father on this project., and we’re planning to sign up again, along with my sister and one of my brothers. I’d really would encourage any artists who do portraits to consider doing this very rewarding project.

Working together in my parents’ dining room
My father sketching out his portrait, adapting a head-on view for a caricature
Ilya playing soccer
Ivanna

Musings on Loss and Longing

A couple of weeks ago I had a dream about Rowan in which I felt the strongest longing I’ve ever felt. It wasn’t just missing him; I’m not sure it would be possible to miss Rowan more than I have so much of the time since he passed from this life three months ago. In my dream I had left him with someone because she needed some help or company, but after I got home, I realized I couldn’t bear to be apart from him, and I was determined to go back and bring him home as soon as possible. It was an overwhelming feeling that was different from the abject grief I’ve been feeling, in that it was intense missing combined with an urgent drive to go to Rowan.

The intense longing of that dream has stayed with me. I have lost many dogs and cats and some people dear to me, and have deeply grieved, often for a long time. My grief for Rowan has been even more overwhelming than most of those other losses, but the longing that dream awakened was on a whole new level for me. Then a few days ago I started reading Psalm 42 and got as far as the third verse, when I suddenly recognized that I was reading a description of the longing from my dream.

  As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night…

To be sure, the psalmist was speaking of longing for God, not for a dog, but I realized that the intensity of the psalmist’s longing was the same intensity that I had experienced for the first time in my dream.

It’s been somewhat comforting all along to remind myself that Rowan was a gift from God to teach me more about God. Actually, not so much to teach me as to help me experience more of God’s love than I had previously been able to experience, through the ways God worked through Rowan in my life. But now I’m wondering if perhaps Rowan wasn’t here just so I could know God better only through Rowan’s presence, but perhaps also, through his absence, to open me to a greater longing, as in my dream, and then realize that in some way, that longing is actually my soul’s deep, and previously unacknowledged, longing for God. A longing that will keep me actively seeking God with all my heart throughout this life.

My longing for Rowan remains and makes my heart ache and my tears flow day and night, but I pray that it will always keep me open to longing for God, the ultimate source of all that Rowan was for me.

Photo by Arielle Fischer Wellons

Happy 13th Birthday, Milo!

Thirteen years ago today a little Beagle boy was born in a kennel where Laboratory Beagles were bred. The eldest of eight puppies in his litter, puppy CVBAJJ, went a few weeks later to be a part of a dog food trial, testing the use of DHA as a food supplement for puppies to determine its effect on trainability and bonding. From what I’ve heard, Milo excelled and was at the top of his class, which certainly seems likely to me, given his problem-solving ability and his fabulous bond to me and love for everyone he meets.

Whenever I tell people Milo started life as a laboratory dog, they express great sympathy for him and outrage at the cruelty he must have endured, but Milo tells a different story. To be sure, he was under-exposed to the world when Sarah Wilson, my dog training mentor, first got him from rescue. He didn’t know what the green stuff coming out of the ground was, nor what the incredibly high, blue ceiling was, and he found new places overwhelming. But, he was healthy and clearly had been well-treated, looking to people for affection and security, and through Sarah’s skillful guidance became confident and happy to be out in the world (that story will be the subject of another post soon). And, though I often underestimate him because he is so silly and funny, he is an incredibly intelligent dog and a great problem-solver.

I found this information that I think could have come from the trials Milo was a part of:

…it is becoming increasingly evident that nutrition can also significantly impact the achievement of genetic potential in the puppy in ways not previously appreciated. Such is the case with increased puppy trainability with appropriate dietary concentrations of DHA. The benefits of improved trainability can have long-lasting effects by strengthening the owner-companion animal bond and thus increasing the likelihood of a puppy’s successful integration of the puppy into various environments, work or households. (from http://www.breedingbetterdogs.com/article/nutrition-and-dha)

I think it’s really cool that my little Milo has contributed to strengthening the owner-companion bond and increased the likelihood of puppies being successfully integrated into homes!

And now, though Milo is thirteen and his face and whole body are getting whiter all the time, he is wonderfully healthy and active, and in many ways still acts like a puppy, flipping his head and ears around and tossing toys high in the air. Outside he gets the zoomies and flies around the yard, never getting out of breath. He’s still an awesome tracking companion, and now we’re learning to do Nosework together, which we especially enjoy when the weather isn’t conducive to tracking. At home Milo is my constant companion, sleeping near me wherever I am in the house, moving with me if I go to a different room, and snuggling on my lap whenever he can.

Happy Birthday, Milo Bean! You truly are a delight!

Some photos from the past year

Beagle lap warmer
Joy with a favorite toy– chipmunks in a log
Joie de Vivre
Solar powered Beagle loves the summer sun
Soulful eyes
Playtime with Paul

Red Wolf

The red wolf (Canis rufus) is one of the most endangered canid species in the world, with only 45 red wolves remaining in the wild. Native to southeastern United States, their population was decimated by habitat loss and intensive predator control in the 1960’s, and in 1980 the red wolf was declared extinct in the wild. Since then, through captive breeding programs directed by the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (SSP), red wolves have been reintroduced into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina, including one red wolf male from the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, NY. (For more information see the Wolf Conservation Center’s page on red wolves)

Red Wolf

Red Wolf
10″ x 9″ watercolor
$300
I will donate 30% of the proceeds from the sale of this painting to the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, NY to support their work of research, education, and breeding of red wolves and other endangered wolves.

(Thank you very much to the Wolf Conservation Center for the use of their photo and for the opportunity to sketch wolves there.)

Red Wolf Field Sketches

Wildlife Painting and Website Update

I’ve been in a slump since losing Rowan and haven’t done much painting at all. I have been filling sketchbooks, one with nearly daily sketching of birds, people, and life in general; and the other with stories and sketches from Rowan’s life, but I just couldn’t manage to do a full painting. However, I did finally get my brushes wet last week, and a tiger came to life on my easel. I’ve often found that when I’m feeling stuck as far as art goes, painting wildlife gets me going again, and this was no exception.

I wonder if one reason wildlife inspire me is that they struggle for survival every day, all on an individual level and some on the species level, and they don’t give up; they just keep on doing what they were made to do. That’s what I am ready to do again, and I’m especially hoping to do a number of paintings of endangered, threatened, or vulnerable wildlife and then donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of those paintings to an appropriate wildlife conservation organization, sometimes a local group (for example our local bird club or the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, where I sketch wolves) or to a larger organization, such as the Wildlife Conservation Society. I figure that allows the purchaser and me to be partners in supporting the cause of species needing help.

I’ve also just updated my website. A number of people have asked whether I’m listing new paintings in my ETSY shop, and for now I am not planning to. It’s a bit of a hassle to list them there, and I didn’t get much traffic, so at this time I’m planning to focus on my website (including this blog) and on facebook. So, if interested in something you see on my facebook page or this site, please email me (naturepainter@hotmail.com) or contact me on facebook. Most pieces are for sale, even if details aren’t listed with the image.

Tiger! Watercolor & Ink 8″ x 8″ $250 Tigers are the largest members of the cat family and are generally solitary for much of their lives. Several species of tigers have become extinct in the last century, and the remaining six species are endangered due to habitat destruction and poaching.

 

Art Exhibit and Holiday Sale

I just finished hanging twenty-two pieces, mostly watercolors, plus a few ink drawings, at the East Fishkill Community Library. I’ll have quite a few more paintings, some framed and some just matted, there just for the opening reception tomorrow evening, but the pieces that are hanging will be there until the 26th.

A number of my paintings are wildlife, some of them endangered species, and I will be donating a portion of the proceeds from the sale of any of those to an appropriate wildlife conservation organization– the Wolf Conservation Center and the Wildlife Conservation Society are two I have in mind. I’m open to suggestions of other worthy organizations.

Opening reception– Friday, December 2–   6:00 to 7:30PM