I have never watched a group of people become so suddenly silent. The quiet morning was beautiful and clear. A recent controlled burn in the Oak Savannah will provide new growth and nutrients for the land. As we crunched along the pathway in along the woods, our ears strained to hear the calls of birds. This morning walk along the river with a group of birders proved to be educational for me. The naturalist who hosted told us to watch for movement both in the trees and on the ground and listen. Listen for the bird calls that, to me is like learning a new language. A good way to remember these calls- is to create a description with words like brights, chirping, schrill, etc. or a phrase that has meaning to you. We found yellow finches, heard song sparrows and spotted several Cedar Waxwings.
Yesterday, I attended my aunt and uncle’s 50th Wedding Anniversary Party in Osakis, Minnesota. I have many memories of Osakis. The small town with a population of about 1,750 is 2 hours Northwest of Minneapolis. There is a lot of farming in the area and a number of resorts surrounding the large lake with the same name, Lake Osakis. It’s a place where I spent many Sundays with my family on the farm. Me and my cousins would wander in the woods, play with the animals, get dirty, and often get into some kind of trouble.
My uncle is a carpenter and has a great passion for classic Fords, Blatz beer and hunting. My aunt keeps a large garden, cans food and butchers chickens every summer. They are both funny, enthusiastic with wonderful, teasing laughs. There are many bird mounts that decorate the living room. I remember making occasional eye contact with the yellow marbles of the owl hanging on the wall while watching In Search Of on TV. It wasn’t my favorite show but, there was only one tv channel at their house. Me and my cousins would half way watch while playing cards as we waited for Sunday dinner.
The memories I have about the anniversary couple’s house, the stuffed birds, hunting has perfect timing. In my research for my grant, I’ve found that many hunters know the bird byways and also track migration. I decided after the party, that I would go on my own bird hunt.
Luckily the day turned out to be cool, sunny and bright. Originally, the weather forecast had predicted snow (on April 27th!). Looking up Lake Osakis on birding websites, I found that it is considered an Important Bird Area (IBA) and a very popular spot for both the observer and a long list of sought after species. The Red-Necked Grebe for example is often seen on the lake and does a wonderful mating dance with the chest puffed out and wings expanded. https://www.lakeosakismn.com/birding/
Could I be so lucky to find this?
The drive around the lake was beautiful, but I think I was too early to find the Grebes. What I did find instead was something quite amazing – the Northern White Pelican. We drove around the lake and my husband Tom kept watch along the shoreline and then we saw them, floating in the water. The pelicans looked quite majestic, gliding along like a carnival ride with wings tucked under and a large pointed beaks. We stopped with our binoculars to take a closer look and saw them flying overhead with gigantic wings expanded. I was quite giddy! This is what birding is about!
On the drive home, we read aloud from The Birds of Minnesota about the Northern White Pelican. Here is what I learned:
They are a migratory species and 1/5 of their population resides in the lakes of Minnesota during the summer and fall months. They winter in Texas and Mexico. Lake Osakis is a great home for them as the shallow waters are rich with fish that they collectively forage in groups by dipping their giant beaks in unison in the water to drive up their prey. They do not dive for fish like the Brown Pelican. They migrate in early spring and pair up quickly to lay two eggs in their non-insulated nests of mud and sticks. They are graceful flyers despite their size with a wingspan of up to nine feet.
The population of Northern White Pelicans has improved. From the 1960’s through the 80’s they were considered endangered due to changing water levels, human disturbances and environmental contamination. One form of human disturbance is from the game fisherman. Pelicans were believed to threaten the fish that anglers wanted to catch, but now it is acknowledged that they mainly eat “rough” fish. This has helped the Pelicans but, environmental contamination is still an big issue. Scientists have found remnants of the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill in their eggs. https://www.birdwatchingdaily.com/news/conservation/pelican-tracking-oil-spill-minnesota/
Once again, the pelicans are threatened.
I wanted to ask my uncle specifically if he studies byways or migration when he hunts, and what he knew about Northern White Pelicans. Was he a fan? Or what about the Grebes? When should I come back to see them? But the party was too busy- Fred is a popular guy!
I wrote this today for an art call:
You are such a good friend. In fact, I think you are one of my best friends. You always make me smile. You are magical. You are able to grow things and make the seasons change and provide me with wonder and awe.
Remember that one time last spring when we were walking around the lake by the house and you pointed out the view as the sunlight danced over the water? We laughed at the geese splashing one another. They showed off their long necks in various poses. You told me it was a mating dance. I think you were right.
Do you remember when we were camping on that small island two summers ago and that giant storm came up? The wind blew and the thunder was so loud. We huddled in our tent, hoping the trees would stay standing. I was scared. I think you were mad at me. Were you?
I know that one day was really hard when you discovered how all the big trees across from the house were cut down. I felt bad about it, too.
I guess I don’t blame you for being angry and I want to tell you that I’m sorry. I respect you so much and the power you have to give life. I know that you feel taken advantaged of. All of your hard work is slowly getting destroyed and the beauty that you’ve created is disappearing; the animals, the plants, the air, the water.
Earth, I promise to be a better friend and take better care of you, as you do for me. I hope we can talk about this some more.
There’s a great program nearby my home called ‘Sunday Series’. It’s held weekly on Sunday afternoon where you can learn more about the neighborhood, nature and ways to get involved. http://www.district10comopark.org/itching_for_spring.html
I attended the meeting called “Citizen Science” where I learned about two online apps - ‘iNaturalist’ and ‘eBird’ where you can contribute information about animal and bird sightings that scientists will use globally.
iNaturalist records an encounter with an individual organism; when you saw it, where , and what you saw. I’ve found this to be an amazing tool- especially as an amateur bird watcher. I look daily now at the observations in my neighborhood and find myself quickly running outside to see if I too, can see the birds captured online.
I like to watch the Mallards around the lake and how they pair off. They are a consistent member of the lake community and always present in the spring. Why? INaturalist will tell you that the mallard population is considered to be of ‘least concern’ and are considered invasive in some areas. They thrive because they are adaptable in city environments. Migration to the Northern United States begins in early Spring, arriving from destinations in Mexico and Central America. Interesting to note: Some Mallards do not migrate and those who stay behind, interbreed with wild ducks and genetically pollute other species.
As they pair off- I can watch for the eggs to hatch. Incubation of eggs is 27-28 days.
Colors to note are mainly from the male with his glossy green head, orange beak and bright purple-blue speculum feathers, the underside of their wings. Even though they might be considered a problem bird, their arrival marks the change in season and I am happy when they return.
Last spring I found myself painting a lot of birds. In March, me and my son took a road trip from Houston, Texas to Minneapolis. We took a round about way- through Arkansas, Tennessee and then Missouri, which I really enjoyed. Although the country highway, we saw hundreds of birds. Massive flocks, headed North.
When I arrived home, some had arrived. Geese mostly. I was inspired watching them near the lake by my home. They stood along the shore line, swam in the icy waters and I heard the familiar calls telling me that the weather will soon turn warm. In Minnesota, this change in season is a happy event. It marks the end of winter. Days grow longer and for me, I start thinking about my garden, plants and natural color. I made Wall Flowers about this, I quickly decided I wanted to expand my study of natural dye and include a body of work about bird migration as another layer of seasonal change.
I am honored and happy to report that I have been awarded a 2019 Minnesota State Arts Board - Artist Initiative Grant for this body of work called Migration and Motion. I will continue my exploration of natural pigments and color but, the work will also visually represent migration patterns and challenges the bird populations that visit Minnesota may face because of environmental issues and how we help or hinder this natural process.
Beginning the research, I have already found many resources and communities that are interested in the same thing. I am hoping to learn more from these folks and am excited to start this project!
This March marks the anniversary of a year-long pursuit of creating art with natural colors made from plant materials in collaboration with local gardeners. It's been an honor to be a recipient of a 2015 Minnesota State Arts Board Artists Initiative Grant. As I look through my journal, notes and collections of photographs, I see how my knowledge of plants, color and natural dyes has grown. I've also learned a little more about myself and my practice as an artist.
The year flew by so quickly! I found that from September on, I was running around the Twin Cities gathering material from many generous growers. I boiled dye material like mad and as time was of the essence- I filled my freezer with frozen dye to use during winter.
Here's an ongoing recap of my year and the results of Ornaments of a Minnesota Growing Season:
It's officially the dark days of winter - but a great time to experiment more with mordants and the excessive amounts of amaranth I acquired early this fall. I was and am determined that this plant in all its abundance will produce a red. I try and try and try again.
I've changed my route in search of gardeners and go in the opposite direction and find gardens still blooming and wild masses of plants. My neighbor, Sheri is a scientist at the U of M - her expertise in agronomy and plant genetics. You can tell by simply looking at her yard. She calls is messy. I find it wonderful. Sheri cultivates plants that interests her for her work and for her family, making sweet wines from her fruit trees and harvesting vegetables.
Sheri asks me about my art and I tell her about my interests in working with natural materials and what plants have been successful so far, and challenges, like the maggot infestation that occurred on my porch from donated acorns. Her tip- put the acorns in the freezer for a day to kill the larvae- this is what she does in her lab. She has a lot of valuable information to share! She points out many things, what I can take and what I cannot- as some plants she is using in her work. Rose hips are up for grabs- as she doesn't like the jelly you can make. Sheri introduces me to hibiscus. From the malvaceae family it is native to warm climates, and her plant is from a coworker that she planted in her front yard. With bright showy white flowers, the stalks and buds are a great contrast with dark shades of plums and purples. Hibiscus is also related to hollyhocks- which is on my list. The initial results are the most vibrant colors yet.
Like hollyhocks, some hibiscus has multiple pigments within the same plant and each plant can produce many different colors. Its difficult to pinpoint exactly which pigment will form a bond with the fibers in the paper- there is a chemical reaction or bond that needs to be further investigated- hopefully next summer as it seems i am running out of time as winter approaches.
The article in the Park Bugle has reached a fabulous group in St Paul, the St Anthony Park Gardener's Club and i have been invited to give a talk about natural dyes. Excited and a little anxious (here I get to meet the experts) I immediately set up a time to speak with Cynthia who is in charge of setting up guest speakers. I find out quickly that the talk will be scheduled for Fall 2016. In the meantime, I am connected with a group who loves to learn and create beautiful gardens in this historic neighborhood.
Cynthia invites me to her home that is located on the North end of St Paul next to the U of M campus and also sends me over to her friend and neighbor, Helen. This is a new neighborhood for me, that is a mix of mid-century homes many of which belong to professors at the U of M.
Cynthia's garden as at the end of the season, but I gather her salvia and Joe Pye Weed and Cynthia tells me about her yard, her home and what she likes about gardening. I am so excited to learn more from her next year. Helen's home is kitty corner across the street and this too, is at the end of it's season but I learn that Helen and her late husband Fred, were Art History faculty at my alma mater. And to make the world even a little smaller, Helen's area of expertise includes the history of dress, in early america's south- a time period when handmade dyes were used exclusively.
Helen told me that she was so happy that I was taking on this project. This day was incredibly rich and rewarding!