Moments of joy

It’s chilly outside, but the hint of spring on the horizon is intoxicating. I was pruning raspberry canes this morning – I had no idea how to do it so spent several minutes watching ‘how to’ YouTube videos, and I think I managed to trim back the canes without completely destroying all life. As I worked in our little community garden, the warbling of blackbirds and the chattering of starlings surrounded me. I’d been a bit glum recently (despite the promising trends accompanying the increased distribution of vaccines, general worldwide-meltdown fatigue had wormed its way in), and working outside boosted me in exactly the way I needed.

Here’s a snippet of those blackbirds:

It’s been interesting discovering those islands of safety that we all reach for in times of extreme stress or crisis, a bank of delight if you will to draw upon. Some of my anchoring points have been:

Podcasts: Covering environmental and social issues,  Green Dreamer has been my podcast of choice. I listen to the roughly forty minute recordings when I’m drawing or cleaning the apartment: I find it engaging and relaxing in equal measure. I don’t always agree with everything being said, but it never fails to interest me. I found one of the recent subjects on food waste particularly thought-provoking. I also like Alistair Humphrey’s Living Adventurously podcast, engaging and fun to listen to.

Books: I’m scared I’ll ‘forget’ how to read a book, it’s so easy to default to reading online (the irony as I write this does not escape me). I’ve been ordering books from the library and buying ones I know will be keepers. I recently finished No Place To Lay One’s Head by Francoise Frenkel, a memoir describing the author’s escape from occupied France during the Second World War. Originally written in 1945, it was rediscovered in a flea market in 2010. Couldn’t put it down. I’ve just begun Leviathan Wakes by James S.A Corey. I grabbed the book after binge-watching The Expanse, which is based on six books from a series of what will ultimately be nine books. John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy is sitting on the shelf waiting to be read. I discovered Barry Lopez over the last year, how could I have missed him before? Arctic Dreams, Horizon, and also waiting on the shelf: Of Wolves and Men. His prose is poetry. A lovely tribute to Barry Lopez was published in Outside in January.

Drawing: Inspiration has been eluding me lately, but I finally dragged myself to the table and forced a pencil into my hand. I just finished drawing a leaf I picked up on a walk. Leaves are my nemesis, I’m never satisfied with them, so it seemed a good idea to go back to basics and work with graphite; focussing on the form and shading will hopefully help when I try to render the same leaf in coloured pencil.

leaf drawing

Leaf drawing – graphite

Cooking: I’m attempting a few different things, it’s good to mix it up. Spaghetti squash instead of regular spaghetti, mashed cauliflower instead of mashed potato. Lentils with fried halloumi cheese on top. That kind of thing. Varied results but fun to try.

Walking: Around the neighbourhood, in a park, on the beach. With or without a home-brewed coffee in hand.

And there’s been some more snow on the mountains recently, perhaps a late-season cross country ski or snowshoe day is in the offing.

Cross country ski trails

Cross-country ski trails, Callaghan Valley, BC

Everything seems to take a little more effort to do than usual, but is so worth it.

What are your islands of safety?

Managing expectations

Like everyone, it’s been challenging to be resilient in the face of a global pandemic, climate meltdown, and sixth mass extinction. Writing anything has been hard, drawing has been easier, perhaps because the only thing I think about is ‘which colour should this leaf be?’ ‘Do I have enough coloured pencils?’ (the answer to the last question is always no).

Finally I’m back at work, albeit inevitably with some hours cut. It feels good to have some kind of schedule again after the weird melding of time. Each week rolled by with little to distinguish the days (who cared if it was a Monday or a Saturday?) except for some online exercise and drawing classes and then in June socially distant mountain bike lessons that I’d been hankering after for two years.

Providing the most effective and immediate salve to anxiety however, has been being getting outside; like so many during this time I’ve found I can ground in nature. I recognise and am so grateful to have that privilege here in Western Canada. In late June the Provincial campgrounds finally reopened and a couple of weeks later we headed out to enjoy the luxury of large tent sites and a different view.

Duck Lake Recreation Area

Scott looking out over the Duck Lake Recreation Area, Powell River, Sunshine Coast

A break in mountain biking at Duck Lake

Lunch break at Duck Lake.

Arbutus tree, Saltery Bay

Arbutus tree: Saltery Bay, Sunshine Coast

Roberts Creek

Roberts Creek, Sunshine Coast

When the smallness of our tiny apartment proved more challenging than anticipated with us both at home so much, four or five days camping in the Okanagan and on the Sunshine Coast were like islands of relief. Like many, we’ve had to manage our expectations: of ourselves, of each other and of each day. It’s a time of emotional adjustment and of building psychological resilience. Never a bad thing.

We’ve learnt how to grow things, well partly. We took over a community vegetable garden and it’s probably been about fifty per cent successful. Which is okay, I’ve had to manage my expectations around that too. Sometimes you lose plants to insects, sometimes the plants thrive. It’s all a learning curve. The dahlias did well.

dahlias

Dahlias

And with autumn arriving in a flurry of fog, rain and wind, we’ve had to adjust to the fact that if we’re going to spend as much time outdoors as we can, we’re just going to have to accept that sometimes we’ll be cold, damp and sitting in fog in the campground. Which happened last weekend on Salt Spring Island. And that was okay too.

foggy campground

Camping on foggy Salt Spring Island.

dew-laden cobweb

Dewy cobweb in the morning fog

 

Tulip botanical illustration

There’s nothing like a deadline to get you motivated, even if it’s just a self-imposed one.

I hadn’t drawn tulips before, and for a few weeks in the early months of the pandemic several local grocery stores were often filled with tulips of all colours. I bought one bunch, then another, and yet another, partly for the joy of flowers during a stressful period of time, but also as inspiration. As I finished drawing one tulip, I chose the next from the latest bunch I had bought (tulips don’t generally last that long I find, plus I draw quite slowly) and ended up with three different colours, which I was quite happy about.

At one point I posted what I thought was the finished creation on my instagram account. Well, I misspoke, I actually hadn’t ‘finally finished’ the three tulips. As pleased as I was with the tulip colours – the purple, pink and red petals were pretty much as I wanted – I knew the leaves weren’t quite right. I took on board some helpful suggestions from an online illustration group I had joined, Draw Botanical, and in fact darkened up the leaves substantially. Suddenly Faber Castell Polychromos Dark Indigo had become one of my favourite pencils, a beautifully rich shade that adds depth to the many greens that inevitably populate botanical art.

Tulip botanical drawing

By adding dark indigo, I darkened the leaves to the point where I was happier with the shading

As the world closed in, and my work temporarily halted (hopefully soon to resume), drawing has unexpectedly come to the fore. As has my voracious appetite for yet more pencils; who knew there was such a glorious variety of colours, brands and quality. Although it takes me a long time to quit distracting myself and settle down to the latest illustration, once I’m there it completely absorbs me. Anxiety and confusion about what’s happening dissipates and I can feel the stress unwind its tendrils from my nervous system.

It’s funny how things you don’t really register at the time as being that significant will come to play a bigger role at a later date. As a gift a couple of years ago Scott had bought me two books on botanical illustration, I can’t even really remember why. Both turned out to be by artists who I constantly refer back to, and who are experts in their field: Ann Swan and Wendy Hollender (who runs the aforementioned Draw Botanical). They also focus on coloured pencils, rather than watercolour techniques – unusual in the world of botanical art. Gradually I’ve added a few more books by other artists to my reference collection, and have something like a hundred or more coloured pencils: Faber Castell, Caran d’Ache, Prismacolor. It never seems like enough.

I’ve become a little more observant of nature, looking into the details more. How many petals a certain flower has for instance, or where exactly the leaves are placed, or what insects might be attracted to that particular plant. It’s been a bit of a revelation to consciously notice the mathematical, ordered nature of nature, so to speak. Although on an abstract level I was somewhat aware of the idea of patterns in nature, I really had no clue about, say, the patterns of spirals in pine cones, which follow the ‘Fibonacci Sequence’. Discovered by Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci during the thirteenth century, the sequence occurs often in nature and in the manmade world. A pine cone will start with one scale, then follow the sequence of 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 etc. I have yet to draw a pine cone, but I think now knowing there is such a pattern can only help. Nature truly is astonishing.

It’s been nurturing to draw, but it’s also slotted in well with the general downturn in busyness (although that seems to be shifting, already the traffic seems to be up to pre-Covid 19 levels in my area of British Columbia). It’s made me slow down, and has been a way to connect to nature when it hasn’t been quite so easy or advisable to go further afield to hike or bike. A sliver of a silver lining.

Seven Summits Trail revisited

A little over a year ago, an essay I wrote for a competition hosted by Women On Writing made it through to final judging. It didn’t place in the finals, but I’m still proud of the piece. I based it on a blog post I wrote about the trip we made to Rossland a few years ago and the epic ride we undertook, which you can read about in full here.

Reading the essay again made me yearn to get out on mountain bike trails which have inevitably been closed down for the last couple of weeks. But this too will pass, and hopefully soon, and when it’s safe to do so we can drag the mountain bikes out from the cupboard again. For now, like most mountain bikers, we’ll just have to be satisfied with whetting our appetites from our armchairs. I hope I can help with that a little, and that you enjoy my essay ‘Siren Song of the Wild’ below.

Seven Summits, Rossland

Glorious vista

Siren Song of the Wild

The world around me had shrunk to a bubble of trees and dusty trail crisscrossed by bulbous roots; raised veins on a weathered hand. My harsh breath disturbed the still air; leg muscles throbbed as they contracted with each painful turn of the cranks. My head hung over my handlebars as I fought an unspoken battle with myself – give up now before I was too far in or reach deep for some spark of internal grit. I leaned into the upward slope of the trail.

We had arrived the previous day in the Canadian town of Rossland high in the Monashee Mountains, a narrow band of ancient snowcapped peaks in British Columbia that inch over the border into Washington. I had spotted a moose – a hint of the wilderness that we were headed into – slate grey in the descending twilight, nosing through dense undergrowth in a shallow ditch beside the deserted road.
The gold rush in the 1800’s had made Rossland a city but in the intervening decades its population size had shrunk to that of a small town; the people who lived there now worked and played in the abundant snow during winter and negotiated space in their gardens with the wildlife that wandered through in the summer. We planned to ride the Seven Summits trail, 35km traversing seven mountain peaks with a gain of over 1100m in elevation. Rugged and remote, it promised an intensely physical challenge coupled with the chance to immerse myself in an elemental environment, a world bigger than the one I usually inhabited.

The night before our ride, sleep evaded me. Anxiety rose like bile as the darkness inside the tent surrendered to murky dawn. Would I be strong enough? What if I had a bad fall? What if my husband crashed? Only three exit points existed along the trail, the second was in such rough shape it was advised to avoid it altogether.
Unexpectedly dense morning fog slowly dissipated and bright sun emerged, elevating our spirits. Parking the car at the far end of the trail on Hwy 22, we were then picked up by a shuttle van, transferring us with our bikes to the beginning of the trailhead. I reread the warnings posted nearby: carry water and food, no cell coverage, remote wilderness, changeable weather. Kneepads, helmet and gloves on, water and food double-checked, I hopped from foot to foot. My teeth chattered; a mix of nervous adrenalin and early morning chill. I mounted the bike and started to pedal.

Starting gently enough, the undulating trail was in places thick with dew-dampened leaves and branches that gently slapped my legs as we rode past ferns and berry bushes before giving way to stands of cedar and fir trees, oxide green in the sunlight and backlit by a cerulean sky. Cold muscles, stiff from a night tossing on a tent pad, started to warm. Intermittent birdsong accompanied us as we easily pedaled along. Not so bad.

But after an alluring beginning, the trail revealed its true nature. Suddenly angling up, we ascended relentlessly for a pitiless two and a half hours. A couple of turns of the pedals were followed by an exhausted slump as our sea-level lungs heaved in the unaccustomed altitude. Relief and jubilation converged when we crested the first, and as it transpired, most demanding peak of the day. The West Kootenay mountain range hove into view – hazy in the early morning air, home to moose, bears, mountain goats and caribou alike – a wilderness of rock and forest that pulled me onward.

The trail thereafter bisected meadows liberally endowed with alpine wildflowers: lupines, Indian paintbrush, alpine daisies – blotches of purples, reds, whites, and yellows – before plunging into dark, dense woods, then shooting out suddenly to grassy sunlit slopes. A gentle breeze whispered as buff trail segued into a large, stubborn patch of snow we skittered and crunched across on foot as we shouldered our bikes, then into slate and sharp rock we rattled across, stones bouncing off wheel rims with a sharp clink. Sporadic clouds chased the sun, forcing us to stop and put on jackets in the sudden chill, before grinding to a halt to rip them off again as we started to overheat. We devoured sandwiches, trail mix, chocolate, shot blocks, water and energy drinks on frequent breaks. I rode as much as I could and when I was too scared of the precipitous drops to the side of the trail to pedal, I walked.

Gradually, mentally and physically drained, a kind of dogged determination took over. After 18km, an innocuous junction marked the final chance to leave the trail or carry on. We paused for a moment. I was numb with tiredness but automatically remounted, the rejected exit route tempting me back for the first few pedal strokes before I got my anxious thoughts under control. Pedal, rest, pedal, eat something, pedal, stop to look across vast treed mountainsides, pedal.

At last we crossed over a local forestry road, the sign we were nearing the end of our ride. A deep rumble of thunder sounded from the right. Panicked, we quickened our pace, the air heavy with the scent of ozone before the first drops of rain fell. Descending a steep cut, tense with fear, I hit a rock and flew over my handlebars. I stared up at a sky cleaved by fingers of lightning before heaving myself up, shaken but unharmed.

We picked our way down what was now a muddy mess of tight and narrow switchbacks, our aching hands barely able to hold onto the handlebars. The inevitable screeching of wet bike brakes heralded our arrival as we were abruptly spat out onto asphalt, steaming now in a warming shaft of sun. Eight hours of exhaustion and euphoria, glorious views and generous dollops of fear and it was over; the taste of wilderness like fresh spring water, the thrill of achievement thrumming through my body for hours, days, and months afterwards.

Keeping busy

Moutain biking

Mountain biking deserted trails

It’s a fuzzy, out of focus shot, Scott wanted to be quick; there were only one or two walkers behind us on the otherwise deserted trails, but we wanted to keep moving, to stay well out of their personal space for their sake, and ours.

A few days prior we had driven to the trailhead in the hope we could squeeze in a bike ride. Like everyone else we were desperate to be out in the sun and fresh air, but there were too many people and the trailhead was far too packed, it would be impossible to keep the prescribed six feet of distance between us and the next person. So we turned around and opted instead to set the alarm early on a day that was forecast to be rainy and cold. Our gamble paid off, the area was virtually deserted and the occasional walker we met either pulled way off the trail for us or vice versa. We rode well within our abilities, taking no unnecessary risks, and kept the ride shorter than usual. But that hour or so of puffing up steep inclines, negotiating veiny roots on the forest floor and breathing in the misty, oxygen-laden air is something I am so grateful for, particularly as we live in a tiny bachelor with no balcony to speak of and certainly no garden to hang out in. We’ll try to go once a week, as long as it’s safe for us and others to do so.

In the meantime as – along with thousands upon thousands of others – I was laid off last week for goodness knows how long, I’ll continue to use the extra time to draw, practice yoga online and join in with streamed circuit classes.

Keep well, keep safe.

drawing of trumpet flowers

Trumpet flowers

 

Winter medley

Pausing for breath

Pausing for breath

A photographic winter medley of cross country skiing at Callaghan Valley just outside of Whistler. A couple of fantastic days of fresh air, piles of snow and exercise to the point of exhaustion. We skied as much as we could, ate a sandwich by a warming fire pit next to a red double-decker bus that will (hopefully) soon become a hip cafe, then skied some more. An apres-ski combo of a hot bath, good food and wine never felt, or tasted, better!

Gorgeous snow

Great trail conditions, and no one around!

Snow bridge

Snow bridge

BC ski trails

Slightly sketchier (read icier!) ski trails lower down.

fire pit

Warming fire pit, a good place to stop and devour a sandwich and hot tea

Red bus at Alexander Falls Touring Centre

An unexpected place for a red double-decker bus! It’ll be a cafe at some point soon. At Alexander Falls Touring Centre, Callaghan Valley

Thistle sketch

Thistle sketch

Line drawing of a thistle

I’ve been awol recently; work, holidays and life in general has got in the way of writing a post or two. And I’ve been waiting to get up into the local mountains to either cross country ski or snowshoe, but it’s been either a blizzard or raining, and on the odd amazing day of fresh powder and blue skies I’ve been at work. Never mind, it’ll come around.

In the meantime I’ve started a ‘back to basics’ art class, just to get the momentum going again. Good to be restricted to graphite pencil and line drawings, I’m so used to coloured pencils and blending endlessly that I’d pretty much forgotten how to wield a good ‘ol regular pencil. For two hours I got lost in drawing, and it felt really good.

Autumn/winter drawing

Acorns

Acorns

From an autumnal drawing of acorns to an overnight ferry ride to see our good friend in Victoria – on the most perfect of days, the light low, sun skipping off the water back up to the sky …..

ferry ride

Ferry ride back from Victoria

…to a drawing of rosehips intended for a winter greeting card. It’s been quite a busy couple of months. And all whilst contending with a back that has nerves jumping and skipping (possibly a bulging disc/sciatica issue, probably from pushing too much on the bike) until I can’t sit still anymore and have to go for a walk.

open ocean

View from the headland, Portmeirion, Wales

Amidst scaling back temporarily on activity (which has me looking with frustrated yearning at my mountain bike), I managed to fit in a trip to the UK to see my mum with my sister. Work was mad before and after the trip and it was, as always, too short a visit; but lots of walks in Welsh woods and along a sublime coastline with family fed my soul. Sometimes you just have to slow down, a little bit.

rosehips

Rosehip drawing

Under the walnut tree

Walnut tree

The walnut tree

The dusk descended quite quickly, it was after all already Labour Day when we booted it out to the Okanagan for two nights camping. As the sun dipped low, the trees became silhouetted on the ridges of the nearby hills. We stood up from our chairs under the expansive walnut tree, where the sun had only a short time before filtered through the canopy of leaves overhead, to watch the darkening sky.

Setting sun

Setting sun

The sound of intermittent honks drifted across to us and we spotted long V formations of Sandhill Cranes emerge from the valley below. The migrating birds rose higher into the sky, headed south for the winter along their usual route over the White Lake area. As we watched, a murmuration of starlings, their chattering almost drowning out the honks and bugles of the cranes, flew as one from the nearby electricity pylons, to the riparian marsh down the hill and up again to a single tree, turning it’s spikey outline into a fluttering mass of wings, like so many waving handkerchiefs.

It’s amazing how much wildlife can thrive when given some space to do so. And how nourishing it is to just sit under a tree and listen and watch events unfold. We had a tent set up in a nearby campground but were visiting our friend who lived on a slight rise overlooking a small valley, and we sipped beer and wine as we caught up on news whilst a slight breeze rustled around us.

Hot during the day (a last blast of summer!) and still warm at night, we drove back after the sun had set to our campground. The chorus of crickets didn’t diminish until the early hours and sometime during the night I heard some howling and yipping – coyotes? – and what I think was probably a screech owl, and the nighthawks calling. It was the clear night I’d been looking for; out of the corner of my eye I saw two meteors and gazed at the hazy light of the Milky Way. Full of stars we finally crawled into the cosiness of our tiny tent, burrowing deep into the sleeping bags.

We woke to the curious ‘Chi-ca-go’ early morning call of the California Quail that bobbed and weaved through the campground, occasionally plumping down for a quick dust bath, and noted some small dusty footprints on the car windshield. Apparently some racoons had been playing around during the night. We sipped coffee and wandered over to the river behind our site and watched the whirl and eddies of water along the riverbank.

Okanagan River

River alongside the campground

Mount Kobau

Mount Kobau, and the remnants of wildfires.

It was too hot to ride, so we wandered off on a slow-paced exploration of Mount Kobau, part of the South Okanagan Grasslands Protected area, scoping it out for future mountain bike rides. We startled a large, glossy black bear that disappeared abruptly down a steep treed embankment with barely a rustle of leaves. Later, we swam in Skaha Lake, picking up a few odd pieces of garbage that we deposited in the garbage can, and from the campground in the afternoon watched as ominous clouds gathered over the hills. The promise of a change in the weather was fulfilled that night as great cracks of thunder sounded above us and flashes of lightning pierced the thin fabric of the tent, so bright that it seemed as if a torch was pointed straight at our eyes. Rain pounded down, and still the crickets chirped on.

We emerged from the tent the next morning to a freshly rinsed sky and tangy air, shafts of sunlight playing across the river where clouds of winged insects hovered just above the surface. Sipping on the last of our camp coffee (the best kind of java), we lingered as long as possible before packing up and heading home, stopping briefly by Mahoney Lake to walk in the woods and breathe in the pine-scented air, completing a short but full break from the city; a couple of days where nothing and everything happened.

Mahoney Lake

Mahoney Lake Ecological Reserve

Colour study

Drawing echinacea flowers

Echinacea flowers

Instead of embarking on a drawing that I’m already planning to turn into a greeting card or postcard, I wanted to take some pressure off and just play with colour and shading. It was a good reminder to keep the drawing light-hearted and less stressful. It’s a looser feel, and always easier to draw when relaxed. And it’s so important to keep practicing and learning.