Black and White


One of my favorite events of the summer is the Black Sheep Gathering, a three-day show featuring many breeds of sheep in all their natural colors. For people who work in the ancient handcrafts involving wool—spinning, weaving, knitting, felting, rug-hooking, and so on—it’s fiber-geek heaven!

Sheep are a diverse lot, with hundreds of breeds. For years I have kept Shetland sheep, a primitive breed that dates back to the Bronze Age. Their colors range from creamy white to black, with many shades of gray and brown in between. Their wool is often “inconsistent,” meaning it varies from soft to coarse from the front to the rear of the animal. The neck wool is very fine, perfect for the very softest clothing. In bygone days the long coarse wool on the breech was used for things such as sailcloth (that is, cloth for the sails of ships). There were uses for all of it, and all of the colors, so it was highly desirable in ancient times, and still is a joy for spinners.

With industrialization, however, breeders began selecting for more consistent fleeces and for white only, to meet the demands of wool millers.

The thing is, whenever you select for one thing, you select against another, and you usually don’t know what it will be. Primitive sheep are very different from their “improved” counterparts—the primitives are notably more intelligent. Sheep are famous for being stupid, but primitive sheep still have their smarts because it hasn’t been bred out of them.

Selecting for white-only resulted in stupid. That’s one to contemplate, isn’t it.

Birds without borders


We have a family of barn swallows in our garage again this summer. It’s a mess, but they are so fascinating to watch that we accommodate them. The parents arrived April 11th, investigated the top of our garage door opener and decided it was a good place again, and began the demanding task of gathering mud, grass and feathers to reconstruct the nest. On May 22nd the female began laying and incubating the eggs. On June 6th the eggs began hatching, and the parents went into high gear feeding their babies.

Now the babies are 18 days old, getting ready to fly any moment. The parents swoop in and out and in and out with insects to feed them. Once the mother glided in with a moth, lost hold of it, dove to snag it again, returned to the nest to pop it into a baby’s mouth, whereupon the baby dropped it, and the mother plunged to retrieve it once more and then crammed it into the baby’s gaping mouth; off again she soared to catch another insect, while her mate wheeled in with a mouthful. From dawn until dark they fly and hunt and feed their young, then spend the night resting at the nest.

Barn swallows live their lives on two continents. In July they will begin gathering into migratory groups, and by September they will all be on their way to wherever it is they go in South America. The youngsters will migrate with their parents along the 48-degree isotherm, feeding as they go on winged insects. Their annual cycle of migration staggers me! I think of these barn swallows as “mine,” yet they spend almost half of the year flying thousands (and thousands) of miles to or from someplace in South America. Winter home, summer home, fly fly fly feed feed feed work work work. “Borders” are non-existent to them.


Out on a ledge


Hash Rock is 5755’ high, part of the core of an ancient volcano. I eased myself out to the edge of the next cliff over to paint it. I’m not one for heights, but I’ve got a son and a cousin who climb these things, so I figured the least I could do was to step…oh…so…carefully…to the edge…well, near the edge…to live with it for an hour. A falcon swooped through the air below me, calling its insistent “kee kee kee kee kee.” I would love to look through its eyes just once, to see the way it sees. I would love to know its experience of precipice and high-in-mid-air that never includes fear. What an amazing kind of normal.



I was in the right place with my sketchbook when this turkey hen and her six chicks came feeding their way below our apple trees. I stood very still, Very Still, and drew with as little movement as possible. While they pecked and poked their way past me, I pivoted as quietly as I could to follow their progression…until the hen noticed, began issuing a quivery warning sound, then a firm “Putt!”; whereupon the poults stunned me by bursting into flight to hide themselves high in the nearby oaks! It hadn’t occurred to me they could fly!

(It often seems not to occur to turkeys either—more often they’ll take off running willy nilly and be confused by a fence, panicking back-and-forth-back-and-forth, until the idea(!) of flight recurs.)



Helderland 1

It was like a fairy tale. Through a remarkable string of coincidences I found this place, my ancestral farm in Norway. It felt unreasonably familiar—a piece of myself that I hadn’t even realized was missing. These mighty “helder,” giants of stone, inhabit the fearsome landscape of the norse legends. Cows, sheep, goats have for millennia grazed the meadows between the giants; trees grow right out of them. Every mountain, hill, peninsula and cove, river and rivulet has a name given eons ago. Were the names given by people or did the land name itself? Yes.

It was life changing for me to draw in this place, to be welcomed by both the land and the people. Something awakened in my soul, in my very bones. The flame of it has burned within me ever since.

A force of nature


Levity is a force in the natural world.

I am only beginning to comprehend it. We are aware of gravity’s draw down, and accept it as law—yet spring’s levity draws up and out, defying gravity. The very name “spring” counters “fall.” Sap rises in the trees (think about that), buds unfurl into leaves and blossoms. In places where the ground has frozen in the winter, the frost goes out in the spring, heaving the earth’s surface, loosening the soil, even lifting rocks and boulders.

It’s enough to lift anyone’s mood!


The Lily.JPG

The word Easter comes from the Middle English word ester, from the Old English eastre, from the Indo-European aus: “to shine.” The celebrations might predate humans. Here in the northern hemisphere the days are lengthening rapidly as the hours of sunlight increase. And even though I have experienced this phenomenon every year of my life, I am yet again as amazed as if it had never happened before—”Look! It’s still light!”