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Leading a Volunteer Workday

The Botanists 4:2015The Botanists

Yesterday I had the good fortune to help lead a volunteer workday at a nearby nature preserve.  Almond Marsh is blessed with a large natural marsh and a nice quality upland savanna.  It is also blessed with a wet area accidentally created when a road was constructed. A low area filled with water, creating snags that attracted herons who nest there every year now.  When I arrived I saw a large bird fly right over the parking lot….a Bald Eagle!  That was an auspicious start to the day.

In a short while my charges for the day arrived~3 Brownies and their mothers.  My job was to take them out into the woods and teach them a little about what they were seeing and then have them pull garlic mustard.  I’ve done this before, but this was the first time I felt like an elder passing along knowledge.  It was really moving to see these little girls bend over, studying the Toothwort and Trillium I was showing them, and then learn to pull the garlic mustard.  Once they learned how to get the whole root they were all over it, triumphantly holding each one up for me to admire.  They were too young to be given detailed natural history lessons, of course.  I hope they loved the day as much as I did, and that they left with questions forming in their minds and wonder in their hearts.  I hope they come back.  They and their mothers were a delight.

The painting I wanted to share with you today is a celebration of the many citizen scientists it has been my pleasure to know over the years.  As I understand it, sometime in the early 80’s folks around here started to adopt parcels of land.  In some cases these were already forest preserves, but had not been managed.  In others they were parcels of land that people just wanted to save.  Organizations were formed, funds were raised, and land was purchased.  People began to study their field guides and historical records to discover what plants and creatures should be present.  Techniques were developed to restore the ecological health of prairie, wetland savanna and woodland.  Really, it has been a human blossoming as well as a natural one.  Every now and then I step back and marvel at these people from different walks of life teaching themselves botany, entomology, birdology 🙂 you name it, and then dedicating thousand of hours every year  to help restore natural processes in the land.  When I sit in stewardship meetings, I notice that all of us are growing old.  Will this have been a fluke, a passing thing that will die with us?  I hope not.  I hope it continues, and I hope it spreads to every region.  Spending a day with 3 sweet little Brownies and their wonderful moms gave me hope for the future.

To read more about this movement and hopefully be inspired to start it in your area, I recommend the book, “Miracle Under the Oaks”, by William Stevens.

May eagles soar above you, and flowers bloom at your feet.

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Turk’s Cap Lily

Turk's Cap Lily final

Turk’s Cap Lily is a wonderful plant that is a great find when you stumble upon it in the field.  I usually see it growing at the edge of savanna and wet prairie.  I seldom see it bloom twice in the same spot, which adds to the delight in finding it.

The traditional way to portray flowers in botanical painting is to set them against a neutral white or grey background but this is way too restrained for me.  I wanted to suggest the time of year and a bit of the habitat where I find the plant yet still make sure the lily was the star of the show.

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Arrowhead with damselfly

Yesterday I went to walk the boardwalk at Volo Bog, the last open-water bog in Illinois.  It is a very cool place, and has inspired a number of my paintings such as this one.  I love to gaze into the black pools of water that wends its way between mats of plant growth.  It looks so deep and mysterious.

Recently I’ve been reading, “33 Artists in 3 Acts” by Sarah Thornton.  It makes me uncomfortable, which is why I’m making myself read it.  I’m a little disappointed by the author.  She wants to know what artists are like, so she has chosen a handful from the ART WORLD.  Like the guy who bought a shark, stuck it in a tank, called it art and sold it for millions.  humph.  These are people who went to art school with the intention of making the connections that would vault them to fame and fortune.  They consider themselves to be art, and anything they create is incidental.  In fact they mostly don’t create anything, but delegate their ideas to craftsmen.  They are openly contemptuous of those of us out in the trenches, making our own art, striving to create beauty and perhaps share a message of hope and love.

I mention all of this because it takes me so by surprise and I don’t really know how to process it.  While I didn’t attend college for art (I have a BS in biology), I did look into it.  I had the impression that the point of attending art school was to learn how to make art. It never occurred to me that they were, in fact, grooming the next artist personalities, not the next artists.  So now we have a population of super-stars whose idea of art is dreaming up the obscene and making other people construct it.  Odd.  And the sad thing is, as you read what they have to say for themselves, you get the sense that they are lost.  They have been taught that they must participate in the conversation where it was when they came on the scene.  They must not paint, because painting is dead.  Had they all been born a few decades sooner, they would have been able to join the conversation at an earlier point. Say, before painting had been declared dead.  According to this line of thought, all painting that happens today is derivative.  Hmmm.

This isn’t the only area where I come across this.  Back in the early 80’s when I got involved with nature restoration, the field was wide open.  People were excited and hopeful and creative ideas were sought after, not squashed.  Nowadays, just try to suggest that another method of restraining exotics like buckthorn might work better than an escalation of herbicides and watch people blow their tops.

What do you think of this?  Is it valid to say that in any given endeavor, say art, or nature conservation, that there is such a thing as an ongoing conversation?  Are there a small group of “leaders” who get to decide what is right?  It seems rampant, to me. In so many areas of human thought and endeavor things gallop along into a blind alley.  Then, instead of pausing for reflection, the ones pushing for this line of thought harden it into dogma that must not be questioned.

Or is it necessary for the conversation to be interrupted from time to time…  I hope next time Sarah Thornton wants to know what an artist is she goes out and talks to painters and ceramicists and photographers and all of the other creative souls who call themselves artists.