Call me obsessed. I probably deserve it. I have spent nearly every evening this week painting nothing but mushrooms, buying field guides, making spore prints, and staying up late trying to identify my finds. In my defense, a treasure trove is growing before me– new species emerging each day under the grove of oaks that line our driveway. And I know that the intense humidity and rain that brings them out, all too quickly turns them to mush. In the end, my obsession stems from being astonished: I have recorded an impressive 26 different species in a single week: classic gilled mushrooms, large and colorful boletes, tiny coral fungi, and ringed polypores.
Consider this: several thousand species of mushrooms are found in the Northeast and upwards of 30,000 in North America. That’s more than all of the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and plants combined. I found identifying them challenging, even maddening, but I learned to look more keenly at key features in the process. It’s likely that I misidentified some and I didn’t gather enough information to even begin to identify others. If you spot one you know from this collection, drop me a note so I can look it up.
Were it not for relentless deer flies and record-breaking heat, it might not have taken me four days to complete this page. But it is hard to sketch on the roadside under such circumstances, no matter how determined, and so, one flower at a time, the page grew. Still, sometimes it’s good not to rush a painting. It lets things evolve; insights emerge. What started as a simple painting of flowers grew into a recognition of how much of the world is at our very doorstep.
I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921): “The most precious things in life are near at hand, without money and without price. Each of you has the whole wealth of the universe at your very door. All that I ever had, and still have, may be yours by stretching forth your hand and taking it.”
Note: I will be taking a break from posting for the next week or two as I head to Maine to facilitate and teach the Arts & Birding workshop at the Hog Island Audubon Camp. It’s a fully immersive experience for me, and life on an island is better without phones, computers or social media.
I found this nest in the collection of the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, NY, where I spent the better part of a day sketching nests that have outlived their builders by more than a century. Somewhere in the weave of stems lies the faint echoes of a grassy wetland, the calls of birds and frogs, the mix of cool air and warm sunshine, of another springtime. I’ve never seen a sedge wren (also called the short-billed marsh wren), and this is as close as I may come. Can you imagine how such a small bird weaves a ball of a nest with nothing more than a beak?
Tips & Techniques– Include field notes in your journal to make it a good reference for what you discover and learn. When I first saw the label on this nest I didn’t know that there were two distinct marsh wren species: a short-billed and a long-billed. I had seen marsh wren nests that didn’t look quite like this, and a quick Google search explained why—the ones I’d seen were made by the long-billed marsh wren. These two species have different colored eggs, too: white versus mottled purplish brown. Art, discovery, and learning fit together beautifully for me in the pages of my journal. I hope you have opportunities to do the same!
Seasons unfold, pages evolve. That’s what happened here as I sketched a variety of fall fruits and seeds from the trees in our yard over the last few weeks. It’s all part of learning what’s here on the rural property we moved to in July. There are nice old sugar maples, red and white oaks, black walnuts, cottonwoods, birches, and white pines, with well-placed dogwood, pin cherry, and apple trees. There are many year’s worth of sketches in the trees alone…and you’ll see more in the future, I’m sure.
Tips & Techniques– Just as seasons evolve, your pages can too. While it can be nice to finish a page all at once, sometimes that just doesn’t work. Be patient. Do a little at a time, leave it, come back, and do more. Your most important decision is probably where to place the first object. Avoid the middle of the page, which tends to lead to a dull design and leaves only tight spaces around the center to fill. If you know you have a larger item (e.g., black walnuts vs. acorns), place it sooner than later. You can always find room for small things after the big ones are in place.
Within the last few weeks, more than ten species of mushrooms have emerged in a grove of oaks in our yard and I’m only familiar with one of them. Mushroom identification is complicated and depends on a number of factors that I tend to forget from year to year: whether or not there are gills and how they are attached, the shape of the cap, the color of the spore print, color, habitat, season, and more. For now, looking more carefully and making sketches and field notes before these ephemeral species disappear is more valuable than knowing the names. But soon, it will be good to have a guide to fungi on my shelf.
Though I set out to paint these, I quickly decided to simplify and just use a mechanical pencil. It made it easier to move from one cluster to another and maximize limited sketching time.
I found a ring of impressive mushrooms in the lawn outside my son’s apartment in Lexington, Virginia last weekend. It had been raining for several days, which brought on the fall bloom. Curious, I picked these samples, drew them, and then did some research to identify them and learn more. How fun to discover something so beautifully poisonous!
I’ve done many pages like this over the years. I love finding something that I don’t know much about, sketching it, taking notes, reading and researching, and combining it all on the page. The result not only records my experience, it also advances my awareness and understanding as a naturalist. If you are interested in art and nature, I highly recommend creating your own field sketches and notes. Pick up something of interest and see where it takes you!
Sharp spines, thick shells, noxious odors — the lengths a tree will go to protect its seed! I found these while exploring a local cemetery in my new hometown.
Alive among the dead, the American chestnut really caught my attention. Once the predominant tree of Eastern forests, they are a rare find today. A fungus nearly killed off the entire species by 1940. In contrast, the ginkgo is an ancient survivor. Native to China, but planted widely in cities, ginkgoes have been on Earth since the days of the dinosaurs. I had never seen the nut before and, as it turns out, for good reason. The female, seed-bearing trees are not planted frequently because of the noxious odor given off when the nut drops to the ground and is crushed. Hickories are widespread in the mid-west and eastern U.S., so they are not hard to come by. The thick husk and hard nut protect an edible seed inside.
This page was done a piece at a time, starting with the chestnuts. I drew them directly in pen on location because the spines were so sharp I could not carry them home. I collected the ginkgo and hickory nuts and sketched them at home. Much of the watercolor was done with a very dry brush to get the detail. I added the text last with a micron 02 pen. (Stillman & Birn Zeta journal)
For many years now, I’ve clamored over granite ledges, slippery seaweeds, and sharp barnacle-laden rocks to explore the watery realm of Maine’s tide pools. When the sea retreats at low tide, a world of strange and tenacious creatures is revealed. I go in search of spiny urchins, orange and green sea stars, feathery anemone, scampering hermit crabs and slow moving snails, tunicates, blue muscles, dog whelks, sponges, lurking crabs and, always, the unexpected. I bring my sketchbook and a pen and draw until the tide turns.
After this year’s adventure, I went back through my sketchbooks over the last 10 years to compare the drawings and the treasures found. Enjoy!
I went out with a friend one evening this week to sketch at a beaver pond. The water was dark and still, trees were lay crossways in heaps where beaver had felled them, and a large mud lodge rose on the far shore. But what struck me most about the place was not the pond itself, but the beauty and intensity of bird song in the surrounding woods. Other than a pair of catbirds and the flash of the rose-breasted grosbeak as it darted into the trees, I saw no birds. But I’m good enough at birding by ear to identify the singers. I decided to try to capture the ethereal experience of hearing these birds in the darkening woods.
Seen, but silent were birds of Connecticut on display at Yale’s Peabody museum, where I enjoyed a brief visit on Friday. I had time to do a pencil sketch of these two vireos, which are commonly heard, but seldom seen.
OK, I admit it…I’m a dragonfly geek. While most people enjoy a boat ride or swim at my mother’s summer cottage, I’m often out rowing around in the hot, mucky backwater shallows in search of dragonflies. Sketching them is a highlight of my summer.
Dragonflies are exceptional flyers, which makes it particularly challenging to identify and sketch them in the field. But, like birds, dragonflies perch for short periods, often returning to the same spot between patrols. Some species perch longer than others and the position in which they perch– horizontal, at an angle, teed up, or straight down—is distinctive for each species…which helps with identification.
I got lucky last weekend when I rowed out in the late day sun in search of dragonflies. A number of Spotted Spreadwings—a new sighting for me– were perched at the water’s edge, hanging from willow leaves or small twigs. Spreadwings are more delicate than other types of dragonflies, and finding one feels like discovering a small jewel in the weedy margins of an August pond.
I also was treated to a fast flyby of a remarkably bright green and black female Eastern Pondhawk. A beauty!