black walnut spirits
black walnut dye

A recent call for art from a local distillery got me thinking. They ask for art that suggests harvest and that is what I am into right now, harvest and spirits. Not necessarily alcoholic but, the good kinds; spirits that mingle in your mind and make you remember. I have many memories of gathering black walnuts.

The fruit that ripens and falls in the autumn suggests my families history and special days when they are gathered. I read somewhere that making a dye bath should be a celebration with time and thought donated to the task. I wish I had a photograph of me and Gabriel’s hands the first time we crushed them together for dye. They were stained for days. And, a couple of years later when he found the squirrels cash of walnuts under the tree and we collected them, feeling a little guilty but, knowing that the squirrels would find more. My sweet boy, who is also studying art.

Black walnuts are also about my mother and my recently past uncle - the twins. Our family exhausted every use for these fruits. Traps and cooking- and now dyes plus more spirits. I want to make the ice cream they both enjoyed and maybe a cocktail? I looked it up and yes, there is a black walnut liquor. I am putting this on my list to make.

Smell is the most nostalgic of our senses and to me, black walnuts have the best smell on earth. Today I am adding the sight of two double breasted cormorants drying their wings in the breeze on the lake to my memories of collecting walnuts. It is Friday the 13th and a full moon. It’s an unusual occurrence, the two together and although the cormorants are usually easy to find their ominous shapes seem perfect for the date. The walnuts are plentiful and scattered all over. Some complete perfect green orbs and others are decimated as the squirrels make easy work of the hulls and retrieved the nut inside. I bring my collection home to make dye, some ice cream and spirits and think about how to capture this day.

Emily Donovan
It’s oh so quiet
Photo: Minette Layne

Photo: Minette Layne

Migration is in full swing as the birds leave Minnesota. I noticed it recently when the lake path was suddenly absence of chatter and noise. The red wing black birds have left. These guys seem are the most vocal or noticeable around the lake where they set up for the season and one of the most abundant bird species in the midwest. When they arrive and leave is noticed. Earlier this summer, my mother reported that they diving at her head. Territorial, they protect their nests when we walk too lose. I noticed several posts online that mention blackbirds assertive nature and now, the absence of their call.

This sudden ‘quieting’ reminds me of a Bjork song. I started humming it when I noticed it, as it became oh, so quiet. If you know the song, she sings ”it’s oh so quiet…shh…shh. it’s oh so still…shh…shh…You're all alone…shh shh….And so peaceful until….shh… shh…” Then, she hits you with horns “Bam!…your falling in love!” She whispers softly and then it’s loud brass; a big change.

Although the loud chatter of the blackbirds is gone, new migratory flocks of birds have arrived and replace the tunes. It feels immediate and sudden because summer is coming to an end, and these birds announce a change of season and winter is approaching. But, I am falling in love. There are new sounds and sightings, especially now that I am actively following the miraculous event of migration. I feel more in tune with these creatures, the change in seasons and the special place where I live.

So, onto fall. It is my favorite time of year and something else I love. It’s a return to routine and plants reach the peak- it’s a time of harvest. The mornings are crisp and my husband, who tells me its the best time of year (mainly because his birthday is in October) also reminds me about that great smell of leaves once they begin to gather on the ground. Sight, smell and sound. Fall is all about the senses.

Maybe the sensory delights are evident because it is going to get dark, really dark…and cold. I see the daylight hours creep away and night will take over during the winter for over half of the day.

I love the first and last snow fall. Like the Bjork song, winter is a hard jolt when it arrives But, you have to enjoy the change and admire how well nature and art work together to make a rich and beautiful season.

Here’s a live migration animation that shows the departure and high activity throughout the United States, from dusk till dawn:

The skies are full and so is my heart!

Emily Donovan
coopers hawk

It is my new friend - a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk. I hear it daily, often in the late afternoon as its high pitched cries are heard across the treetops, soaring to the next destination. The coloring is so beautiful, with subtle blue grays and browns with wonderful patterns. I think about the natural dyes I want to use to recreate these beasts in art. Raptors, I realize are out hunting other birds and rodents. The smaller and vulnerable species that are within the hawks vision are susceptible, but do I love to watch them.. Clever, adept and perfectly built to live, eat and survive. They are nature’s engineering at it’s best.

Emily Donovan
DSC_0386 3.jpg

Plants are in full bloom right now and now is the time to harvest! This weekend I made 6 different dyes from materials I harvested near my house and in Redwing, Minnesota. Stephanie, the director of The Anderson Center invited me to collect plant material from the land they own that surrounds their facility. 320 acres runs in between highway 61 and the Canon River. The low land is abundant with sumac, goldenrod and stinging nettles like I have never seen before. These nettles are over six feet tall. I didn’t even recognize them enough to watch out and as I climbed through dry creek beds they encroached on all of the clear paths.

My arms and legs are still aching from the stings and not to mention that 8,000 mosquito bites that chewed through my layered clothing and the massive amount of deet I reapplied multiple times. Foraging is hard work.

Was it worth it? Definitely. Once I arrived home, I went straight to work. Here are colors from:

goldenrod- a delicious yellow

goldenrod- a delicious yellow

sumac berries - soft, rosy pink

sumac berries - soft, rosy pink

boneset- subtle beige

boneset- subtle beige

sumac leaves + iron and cochineal + tansy

sumac leaves + iron and cochineal + tansy

dye baths at the studio

dye baths at the studio

Emily Donovan
on green, part two

So far, the only plant material that I’ve found to consistently make a good green is chill’ka. Chill’ka is a sticky plant that grows all over the mountain side in the Sacred Valley of Peru. By adding different minerals you can change its hue. In Peru, the mineral is called Colpe. Each one has a different result. So far, I have not found a source that is similar here- or a plant that I can order to grow in my house in Minnesota. I searched extensively after my return. Luckily- I have good friends sending me some. I eagerly await a box from Peru with two dried kilos of the material. I am curious to see how it hold up when dry and how I will use it. Like many dye materials, it feel so precious as I only have so much. Below is chill’ka results:

Another way to make green is by overdyeing. It is basic color theory, blue + yellow make green. So, to create green, I need to make two different dye baths. Tansy is just starting to bloom which makes a terrific yellow. It is an evasive plant that I usually harvest from the train tracks near my house. The smell of tansy like many dye materials is distinct. It’s slightly citric and earthy at the same time. Here are my results with over dyeing tansy and indigo to create green:

Emily Donovan
in the thicket

I am learning new terms in bird identification and ornithology, the words are many of my favorites as in a thicket you can find both an alder tree and also, a giant variety of birds. A thicket is probably the best place to experience nature as its often impassable and those how thrive and live there are left to their own, without trouble or intervention.

I also like the word gregarious as a description of behavior, plant growth and of course, to describe our personality.

To books that I have recently started, The Genius of Birds and Migratory Patterns and several interesting articles have supplied me with a plethora of words that share this fun natural associations that animals, plants and humans share in the realms of personality.

We are all living things- which in the whole picture means, we are all involved in the earths growth and development. Biologist, Jane Goodall put it best as she spoke about her studies. “We’re not, after all separate from the animal kingdom, we are part of it.” Thanks, lady! This is something to remember.

Emily Donovan
On green, part one
Paris Green: The Trendy Color That Killed Many in Victorian Society - Town and Country - March 3, 2018

Paris Green: The Trendy Color That Killed Many in Victorian Society - Town and Country - March 3, 2018

The color green has been a tough one. If you look around during the bloom of spring and summer seasons, EVERYTHING is green; the ground cover and moss, grass, leaves, plants, and algae. It is everywere. In my pursuits of natural colors, green has been the hardest color for me to achieve.

Recently my sister sent me an article about Paris Green.

The article describes the colors popularity as is was introduced into textiles, fashion and home decor once chemists were able to achieve it. The toxic makeup of Paris Green was known to cause much discomfort and even death to those who enjoyed it, due to the arsenic used to make the color.

I find myself in the same boat. The hue is magical and I am not really putting myself in danger in my pursuit of the perfect natural green, but I will say that I am somewhat obsessed with the color. And then - I found the green heron and also painted my bathroom green. It’s bright- my bathroom, like the color of Kermit the frog. Non-toxic now- but pales in comparison to the emerald tones of the green heron.

Green Heron - image from Cornell Lab of Ornithology - Simon Best

Green Heron - image from Cornell Lab of Ornithology - Simon Best

I’ve always loved the archaic shape and coloring of the Great Blue Heron. I discovered the Green Heron from various birding social media sites, the bird continually popping up with sightings throughout the Twin Cities. On the Cornell Lab of Ornithology - Birds of North America’s website there is "scarcely a stream, swamp, or shoreline where it may not be found, whether fresh or salt". I have not had such luck, yet. Here’s what I love about this bird:

Color- The green heron’s feathers are a wonderful display of rich browns, yellows, oranges and deep green.

Stance- This guy is a stought and stocky bird that has an thick and powerful neck that is quite surprising when extended. The heron will lurk along shorelines and also perches on trees.

It’s smarts- The Green Heron is unusual because it uses tools to capture its food. It drops sticks or lures to catch fish and small prey like frogs or lizards.

I watch for sightings online on ebird and often rush to the areas where people have found them. But, the times in the woods, swamps and in nature have been inspirational and in the meantime, I work on making green.

Emily Donovan
Eloise butler flower garden

My research into Minnesota bird migration has introduced me to many new species. As I watch postings of area birders, I am amazed and enamored by several. The beauty of the internet- I am able to see and watch certain sightings and the environment that surrounds it. These lovely little creatures are captured in pictures and described online with their songs and precise locations.

Eloise Butler Flower Garden and Bird Sanctuary is on my list of places to visit and observe. The last time I was there when I was young- maybe 10 or so, biking with my mom and brother on the Theodore Wirth trail. I remembered it differently for some reason, expecting an orderly rows of flowers. I think I confused it with the Harriet Rose Gardens in my mind….its funny how you can do that.

Instead, its a wild and undisturbed section of the Twin Cities with winding paths, hills, benches, trees, plants and flowers- wild and native to the area. Its a perfect sanctuary and place for all living things to thrive, myself included.

An early morning walk in the woods is a perfect way to start the day. Listening. watching, absorbing.

Here is what I found:

Wild Turkeys- so prehistoric and strange. I’ve noticed them everywhere these days- they are gigantic, calm and fairly confident although I did not get too close.

Downy Woodpecker- alert, bouncing and happy little guy.

So many bird calls! My language learning in bird calls is still developing and I refuse to have my phone out to try and identify. It doesn’t seem quite right in this place.

Female Red Wing Black Birds. Several, I think. So loud and demanding. I think their young or nests are nearby. They look so different from their male counterparts.

Dappled sunlight through beautiful green leaves.

Buoys across the lake that I hoped where herons or cranes:)

Here is what I learned:

There are no dogs allowed- luckily I did not bring my beast as birding and dogs do not seem to mix well.

A great place to learn more about plant identification. Native plants - wild bee balm or bergamot- and the clover- I am going to try this as a dye.

Patience is necessary and so is timing. 10 am seems to be too late for good birding as many retire from feeding and find a quiet place to rest.

Emily Donovan
loons on fish lake

Friends of ours have a family cabin near Mora, Minnesota. It is situated on Fish Lake and the cabin, built in the 1920’s is full of laughter, good conversations, music and singing. The lake is always inviting for a swim or a boat ride with clean water because the Ann River feeds it. I like to think this cabin is a magical place.

This year because of all the rain, the water is unusually high. The dock is covered in water and to reach the pontoon, a ramp is constructed. On an evening boat ride, there are many birds but, what I like to watch are the the loons. There is only a pair that I can find and as we get close to them, they dive deep underwater. I like to watch to see where they resurface and the distance they can make underwater.

Recently, I saw a video on facebook that showed how they swim.

We never got this close- but its fun to see how this water bird can achieve such distance. Much like frog legs, or the oars of a boat their webbed feet catch the water vertically and propel themselves forward with agility and speed.

Emily Donovan