Drawing Nature

I spent the day in Pepperwood Preserve, a conservation and nature study center in the heart of Sonoma County, as part of the California Naturalist Program certification. I’m taking the course at this location to learn more about this incredible natural setting in order to become more involved as a volunteer.

This first field session was focused on drawing skills—an important part of one of the naturalist’s key tools, a field journal. Now, I am not an artist, but that’s not so much the point. The act of drawing gives us the ability to capture key details of what we see in the field and emphasize key elements that strike us at that particular moment.

TR Charcoal sketch

A quick study across the senic vista. What I most like about this is that I used a piece of burnt log from the nearby fire pit to make the drawing. The 4 smudges in the lower foreground are fog collectors for climate studies.

Of course, being a huge fan of digital photography, I really appreciate my Nikon point & shoot. So ultimately, I find it useful to combine digital pictures with good field journaling, sketches, and detailed notes.

A most outstanding resource on the subject of field journals is The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling. John Muir Laws is just an outstanding and very personable resource with an excellent website. The book is really amazing and in depth. I’m taking it section-by-section.

My naturalist class urges us to use the “Grinnell” Method, developed by Joseph Grinnell (1877–1939), an American field biologist and zoologist. It is, to say the least, precise. Hopefully practice will make…well, not “perfect” but good enough. (To be mindful…)

Our field-records will be perhaps the most valuable of all our results. …any and all (as many as you have time to record) items are liable to be just what will provide the information wanted. You can’t tell in advance which observations will prove valuable. Do record them all!

~Grinnell, 1908


a drawing of the clouds and rain from the journals of Thoreau

I do find that this time-honored technique is an important part of the naturalist experience for the individual while also leaving an important and personal record.  Beyond simply recording data, field journals offer engaging and compelling observations and reflections that provide important context. I was just reading an article that quotes the field journals of Henry David Thoreau (also not necessarily artist), and I was struck by his boundless enthusiasm and curiosity as well as his detailed observations.

Towards the end of the session on Saturday, we stopped under this Bigleaf Maple, native from Alaska to southern California. (Yes, maple trees in California, big bold hardy ones, not those precious palmate maples.) The hills around us are dotted with splashes and zones of deciduous color right now—likely this tree. The patterns that appear indicated specific preferable growing conditions. Given the summer heat, these trees do best with some humidity, like the fog blanketing the area the morning we started, so I’m postulating that the specific and demarcated color splashes in the hills represent growth patterns defined by the effect of the fog rolling over and concentrating on the hills.

Bigleaf maple zone

An example of the color patterns of what I assume are deciduous trees in the hills of Pepperwood Preserve. Sadly, because of the ongoing effects we have had of Sudden Oak Death in the forrests here, some of us were wondering. Closer examinaton may be required.


Garden Omen

Gardens are always a source of delight to me, ever more so when there is serendipitous nexus with nature. Discovering this mantis on the wall near the garden offered what seemed like an omen.

OMEN: An event regarded as a portent of good or evil.

Being this creamy color indicates the insect has just molted, which they might do up to 10 times in their average life span of 1 year.

Given that this year has been one of transition and reorientation, I’m taking it as an homage to change and transition, evoking the literal “molting” of a recent move and the psychic “molting” of reorienting more of my attention towards my avocation of helping organizations build opportunities for people to engage with nature.

How does it inspire you?

More from National Geographic on the praying mantis.

Succulents and Natives–the joys of fall gardening

One of the joys of late summer (Autumn starts again with the equinox on September 22) is planning for a fall garden. I’ll be inspired to plant a fall vegetable garden soon, but I’m waiting until I’ve built a new planting box. Since I’ve been reworking the yards around my house, I’ve been particularly excited by the serendipity of timing for planting California natives (or “native adjacent”—plants that will do well in our local climate) and succulents with a hardiness for our mild winters.


An example of the amazing selection of succulents at Harmony Farm Supply nursery.

The weather has been particularly moderate in recent weeks (yes, I missed seeing the eclipse because of the fog), and yet this area is well-known for very warm, often hot, early fall days, balanced by longer and, on average, cooler nights.  In short, ideal conditions for planting some of these very interesting plants.

Both of these broad categories offer interesting variety, allowing for a fine selection of plants that will do quite well in our local gardens.

Our Sonoma County Master Gardeners offers a nice, succinct summary article, Top Succulents for Sonoma County.

I’m particularly drawn to the look that can be achieve using Sempervivum and Dudleya as a foundation planting for color and structure.  I’m sure to include Graptopetalum as I have a pot of them making quite a vigorous display on the deck. (I often start with deck pots or single plantings to see how they’ll generally do.) Coincidentally, one of our fantastic local nurseries, Harmony Farm Supply, just announced a major offering of some spectacular succulents.

I’ve long planted natives and plants particularly suited to our Mediterranean climate, resulting in many a lovely, meandering stroll around the grounds of California Flora Nursery, a local small-business treasure dedicated to “natives and habitat gardening with an exceptional diversity of offerings.”the flowers

In addition to my typical favorites (the many varieties of both Ceanothus, our “California lilac,” and yarrows always being high on that list), I’m looking forward to a combo planting, along a semi-shady fence line, of Rhododendron occidentale (the western azalea) and Calycanthus occidentalis (western spice bush). We’re taking care to plant them in just the right area with just the right irrigation to bridge into the fall rains (assuming a year of precipitation more like last year). Their flowers should be very complimentary with overlapping bloom times.


It’s a delight to see the occasional spice bush tucked away around this part of the county—their flowers are small but amazing with a lovely deep fragrance. A nonprofit fundraiser a few years ago for the AIDS Memorial Grove auctioned off paintings of native plants, and I was (and still am) very drawn to a captivating one of a spice bush bloom.

The western azalea should do reasonably well in the area I’m choosing and bring a nice balance to the garden. It’s always very enchanting to see a plant, especially a native, that is rather demure in general, make bursts of small but showy flowers. We’d do well to take this as a life lesson.

Overall, it’s been really very nice to be thinking more about the garden. Recent months have been spent on the myriad of details related to relocating and concluding a business venture…and a host of desk and paperwork.  As I look to reinvigorate my naturalist work, I’ve appreciated the opportunity to reorient my thinking.

Now, off to place some succulents around some boulders in the garden.

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Succulents readied for planting…

Nature’s Classroom

Hands-on learning in nature offers exceptional benefits to childhood (& adult!) development. This video from the PBS News Hour features the nonprofit Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, Michigan. There is a bit more handling of nature than I might allow in my sessions with kids (not every creature does equally well when handled), but I endorse the goals and approach overall.

Screen Shot 2017-08-17 at 11.13.39 PM

In the age of standardized testing, screen time and what some see as a generation of excessively coddled children, a new movement of preschools is pushing kids outdoors, come rain or shine, heat or cold, to connect with nature and learn to take measured risks, in addition to math and the ABCs. Jeffrey Brown reports from Midland, Michigan.

Great Minds Think Alike: Thoreau Embraces Darwin

I just read an absorbing and detailed excerpt adapted from The Book That Changed America, by Randall Fuller, which details the impact of Darwin’s then just published Origin of Species on American intellectual life, specifically in this section at the deep draw it had for Henry David Thoreau.


Photo of Darwin & First edition of The Origin of the Species

Initially fascinating as an examination of how one great mind was influenced by another, the chapter expands on how Thoreau not only embraced the writing of Darwin, but also allowed the theoretical framework to redefine his intellectual understanding of the world.


First edition of Walden by Thoreau

Some compelling quotes from the chapter:

Darwin’s portrait of a teeming, pulsating natural world deeply resonated with Thoreau. The Origin of Species revealed nature as process, as continual becoming. It directed one’s attention away from fixed concepts and hierarchies, toward movement instead. It valued moments of evanescent change above all others. If it endowed each organism with a history, it also pointed to a future that was impossible to predict.

Thoreau latched onto this particular moment in the Origin for several reasons. For one, it implied that the history of an environment was recoverable. If one accepted the premise that perpetual struggle between species led to the creation of place, then one could uncover its history and thereby determine why “precisely these objects which we behold make a world,” as he had written in Walden.

In Darwin’s vision of nature, species and individuals honed themselves in strife. They came into being through continual friction with one another. “Many cases are on record showing how complex and unexpected are the checks and relations between organic beings,” Darwin wrote, “which have to struggle together in the same country.” Thoreau didn’t express it in quite the same way, but he seems to have begun envisioning a natural world that resembled a democracy more than a kingdom, its citizens connected and yet perennially jostling for advantage.



Eclipse much?

On Monday, August 21, 2017, all of North America will be treated to an eclipse of the sun. The lunar shadow first hits the U.S. on the west coast (at the Oregon coast) just about 9AM (PDT).  NASA published a *great* map showing the track and the percent of the sun’s area covered by the moon from the perspective at various geographies.nasaaugust1totalsolareclipse

For awesome resources, check the NASA Eclipse 2017 resource site.

Remember: The only safe way to look directly at the uneclipsed or partially eclipsed sun is through special-purpose solar filters, such as “eclipse glasses,” so be careful. Here are some excellent resources on how to safely look at an eclipse.

What then of idle blogs?

If idle hands are the devil’s workshop; idle lips are his mouthpiece. (Proverbs 16:27)

grading garden path

Grading a garden path in our backyard for landscaping.

Voltaire in Candide muses that “tending one’s own garden” keeps us focused on matters at hand. What a joyous thought—having a garden to prioritize—a civilized and productive activity. Of course, being a French Enlightenment philosopher, he meant something well beyond the literal. Essentially, at its core the quote references the value of minding one’s own business, but I’m using it here to emphasize the importance of tending to what is personal and relevant without being distracted by the ever-growing flood of diversions and inferences that inundate us.Candide

The specific quote that inspires Candide’s reflection is uttered by “the good old man” who speaks:

I have no more than twenty acres of ground, the whole of which I cultivate myself with the help of my children; and our labor keeps off from us three great evils—idleness, vice, and want.

Again, what a delightful image. And, after my misspent youth, on the cusp of the beginning of my 56th year, I think it wise to circumvent idleness, vice, and want.

I believe birthdays are a great time to make milestones, make transitions and start new initiatives and adventures, so, after a period of very practical but more mundane undertakings related to relocating, I’ve been able to plan for an re-invigoration—perhaps a gentle tilling—of my naturalist activities.

Harvest the Best of the Worst?


Cultivate the tree which you have found to bear fruit in your soil.

~Henry David Thoreau

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.

~Robert Louis Stevenson

harvest-moon-sidney-australia-e1474044536249Look for the full Harvest Moon on September 16 (including a subtle penumbral eclipse on the night of September 16-17, visible from visible from half of Earth, but unfortunately not North America).


A bad tree does not yield good apples. (English proverb)

This has been a great year for apples. The trees at RMH have been generous with their fruit, and the flavors have been delicious, consistently great. I didn’t find myself having to choose the “best of the worst,” unlike with politics these days. Imagine how sad you would be if, during harvest, you picked two apples, checked them over, and handed them to a friend, saying, “they’re both mealy, not the best examples of apples, but this one is the least bad of the two.”

Mmm. Tasty. Of course, an apple doesn’t have to be perfect to be part of a great applesauce or apple butter

“The sweeter the apple, the blacker the core. Scratch a lover and find a foe!”    ~Dorothy Parker

Would you apologize for the garden? The growing conditions this year? Your ability to pick fruit? Luckily, even bad fruit can be used to make good compost, especially if mixed with a bit of manure.

Let’s just say, one does reap what one sows, and, especially, what one cultivates. I believe this metaphor applies to socio/political gardening.

Reap & Sowbee-rose

Thankfully, gardening is much harder work than reading the news online or my inane social media feed, and, thus, is remarkably more rewarding. More so, given my current state of being, as I’ve become one of those Tylenol or Advil commercials of a person of a certain age who “over did it today” and needs a bit of “gentle safe relief” from my exertion.

As I’ve said many times, I love every season, and especially the transition between two. Summer into Autumn is a delight because while still harvesting the summer garden, one is planting cooler-weather crops. In fact, around here we typically have a nearly constant harvest of fruits & especially vegetables throughout the year. (Providing, of course, one appreciates the lovely flavors and healthfulness of leafy greens, a staple of the cool weather garden.)

Crushing fall

It’s always funny how the angle of the light in the sky and the crispness of the air give a classic statement of Autumn. Of course, it doesn’t officially begin until September 22 (at 7:21am, PDT, to be precise), and yet the human urge to rush seasonality is almost inescapable.


From right outside my office at RMH–a percussive addition to the sounds of fall

It doesn’t help that around here wineries in the area have been deep into the grape crush for weeks—something I refer to as the “hum of crush.” As I’ve blogged before, one notices different traffic patterns and energy as people rush to vineyards for picking—a specific urgency as workers hurry from one location to another, as their workplace is in a different location every day. Also, just to make sure we know it’s harvest, the nighttime horizon of a given vineyard is often dominated by the remarkably bright and oddly intimating glow of harvest lights.  (It’s easy to imagine some alien landing or government conspiracy event that might take place in a field; in fact, I often think of the dessert landing scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when I first discover them.)

Crush is an odd reality unto its own.  A dimensional time shift in which the leisurely pace of grape growing during the idyllic “dog days” of summer is suddenly sped up to an urgency of harvesting, crushing and pressing to extract the elixir of the Vitis vinifera to speed it on its way fermenting.

Growers and winemakers suddenly become driven to urgency seemingly out of context for something as simple as wine. But, then again, it is wine, fine wine around here.

Squash, that gourdcindarella-smaller

I think the pumpkins have a lot to do with it also.  We’ve got a lot growing here at RMH, and their flame-colored delineation becomes more and more pronounced as their developing width and increasing mass catch the growing golden tinge of the sunlight as their now-spent fan-like leaves begin to fade.  In the case of the classic Cinderella pumpkin, an heirloom from France (a cultivar of Cucurbita maxima, also known as the Rouge Vif d’Etampes), their crimson carriages do indeed take on a magical feel.

And yet, ours will be used for the delicious but less enchanted categories of decoration & food. Especially since these “winter squashes” are edible for such a prolonged period after their harvest. Which points to their value as an “old world” food so essential to human habitation on this continent.

Reflected Light in the Night

As I stated up top, this weekend is the full Harvest Moon. Curious how much lunar lore dominates human culture, especially given that “moon light” is all reflected light.

A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.

Oscar Wilde

snow-moon-risingI’m moved by the moonlight, as was evidenced by my distraction last night as I noticed the glow of the rising moon, incongruous, as the moon was not yet visible in my part of the night sky.  When I think about it, I become mesmerized by the effect of the beautiful luminosity of our star (the sun), not visible, as it shines its burning light over 90 million miles, past the earth (while illuminating the Eastern Hemisphere), to the moon. Then, the reflected light of a practically full moon bounces back nearly a quarter-million miles to the night sky.

It was a nice moment, capping a day during which I was able to both garden and take some pictures of the later summer flowers around here.

I’ve been distracted from spending as much time working on projects connected to nature, which is not my nature.  Office work of running a business has been “eclipsing” time I might spend on these projects, while at the same time, in some cases, issues at various organizations have deflected my engagement.

So, the metaphor, of course, is that sometimes reflected light is more illuminating than we realize.  The phenomena of nature are all around us, holding us, shaping us, the stuff of us. So, though one might be in an absence of direct enlightenment, inspiration is still available.