“Some are born in their place, some find it, some realize after long searching that the place they left is the one they have been searching for. But whatever their relation to it, it is made a place only by slow accrual, like a coral reef.” —Wallace Stegner
You were floating by fast when I caught you, Gave you a place to anchor and watched you Begin to call your home into being. All you needed for it you brought with you, So I left you to it, and before I knew it, We were cemented together here, Securely as the roots of the mountains.
I wonder where you came from and Where you might have gone without me. I wonder what great ships you could Have beached somewhere else, though who knows What our children’s children might see Come to pass right here, in this place Where we’ve been set, accreting life.
A little carbon and calcium Is all it takes to move heaven and earth Around ourselves and find a niche that works, Amid vast, acidifying oceans. But of all the polyps in all the reefs In all the world, just this spot was prepared For your unmapped geography of hope.
Image: Crystalline Iceplant, Santa Barbara County, Calif., June 2019.
I’ve always enjoyed drawing. As a kid it was a way to recreate the machined elegance of Spitfires, Mustangs, and other warplanes. I never quite mastered landscapes; people were right out.
Later, I took up photography with my dad’s Minolta XD 5, and haven’t let up on that hobby, though it loses some charm when we all have a fine lens in our pockets.
More recently though, my wife (who has always enjoyed painting and all things crafty) has become quite the watercolor aficionado. She’s really quite good, and she’s gotten the rest of the family into it, too.
The impetus for this turn has been the co-op school our older two girls attend (and where Rachel tutors part-time) which draws on Charlotte Mason’s educational ideas, including observational learning from nature. As such, each student is encouraged to keep a nature journal where they can paint or draw the things they spot in the world around them. We’ve adopted this habit as a family, and I’ve been amazed at what I’ve found in taking up the brush.
It starts off simply enough, it’s just drawing with paint, right? Except that’s not it at all. Learning to work in a medium to its strengths takes practice.
The milky paint acts like the water it is, seeking its level, finding the crevices in the paper like micro-arroyos, absorbing in to fade and spread colors. If you mix it thick enough to stay put, all of its liveliness shuts down, leaving you with flat, smeared lines.
To represent what you see, you have to paint what you don’t, laying down layers of color, slowly fading from light to dark to get things just right. The brush has to be held like a scalpel, the pressure, angle, and part of the tip with which you first touch the paper is going to set your course for good or ill. And once you’ve done something you don’t like, trying to fix it will only make it worse.
Watercolor has been a humbling learning curve for all of us, but perhaps for me—self-assured and overconfident as ever—most of all. You have to come prepared to shift along with it. The art takes you where it wants to go, and if you resist, it pushes you out of the picture.
During this time of pandemic and shutdown and quarantine, we’ve found some bursts of creativity. For me, that’s taken its usual poetic turn, but the watercolor has brought life, too. Because we’re stuck at home, we’ve looked closer at the world close at hand, watching and waiting as the magic of spring and the circles of life unfold in our 1/4 acre yard. We’ve been forced to slow down and open our eyes.
The past several weeks have been more of the old normal for me—working too hard on projects for my job and writing papers and studying to wrap up another semester at seminary. But I’m ready to stick a pin in all that and start to paint again.
Is it coping? Perhaps, but it is also exploring. Learning to know a place deeply enough to see it as it is. Pain, beauty, joy, anxiety, and anger swirl about in every breath these days, and we wait, brush in hand for what may happen next.
A week of rain swells the runoff creek, Its muffled roar suffusing the woods As the blank-blue sky of Northern air Sidles down the plateau to cradle Our valley in momentary chill Fixing in time every splashed droplet.
Winter in Tennessee is a pendulum.
Ice grasps rocks and branches, layer by Layer accreting into crowds of Overnight stalagmites and a lone Ephemeral agate at the end Of a string dangling from a footbridge That sways with each splash, marking the time Till warmth rushes back, which the ground knows Well, watching an Iris bloom too soon.
Winter in Tennessee is a pendulum
Yellow light bursts from a stem, calling January’s bluff for a moment, But it dies—a raisin in the frost, Hoping for a slice of spring before The long flat note of summer goads it To try for glory again next year.
Life in Tennessee is a pendulum.
Image: Ice pendulum, Glen Falls, Hamilton County, Tenn., January 2020