Finding My Inner Plant-self in a Field-Journaling Workshop

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

On Saturday morning, I propelled myself out of the house much sooner than I usually do (I get up at six, but I normally practice yoga and write before I venture out into the rest of the world). I did yoga, but then dressed, gobbled my breakfast, made my cocoa in a to-go cup, gathered my fieldwork knapsack, a sketch pad, pencil and other stuff, and hit the road in Red.

My destination: Buffalo Peaks Ranch, the summer home of the Rocky Mountain Land Library, where I had signed up for a Field Journaling Workshop with award-winning artist Sherrie York. (Full disclosure: Sherrie is a fellow Salidan, and I've known her for oh, about 15 years. Her art regularly tours with national shows, so my praise isnt just personal bias.)

Wait! you say. You're a writer. What are you doing going to an art workshop? 

Good question. I signed up for Sherrie's workshop on drawing from nature on impulse. It just felt like something I needed to do to stretch myself. On the hour-plus drive to the ranch in South Park, I second-guessed my decision: I'm not an artist, and I haven't done any drawing in a long time. I'll make a fool of myself...  

Once upone a time I enjoyed drawing illustrations of plants. In fact, for a short while, I illustrated my own weekly newspaper column for the Cody (Wyo.) Enterprise. (I drew the illustrations by hand with a rapidiograph fountain pen, which I think may qualify me as an antique.)

One such illustration... 

Then I met Richard and Molly, fell in love, and left a half-hearted pursuit of a graduate degree for life as a wife, step-mom and freelance writer. (Not necessarily in that order.) I kept up with illustration for a while, but honestly, I am better with words, and the love of my life was a true artist, so I let his art fulfill that part of me. 

Which was fine. Until he died too young of brain cancer, and life as I thought I knew it ended. When I emerged from three years of scrambling to pay the bills, and get my financial and literal houses in order, I promised myself I would take advantage of the wrenching change in my life to take new paths and try new things. 

Even if I made a fool of myself. 

So on Saturday morning I found myself sitting in a semi-circle of other workshop participants (most of whom, I noted, had brought real drawing tools) gathered in the shade off the front porch of the historic ranch house as Jeff Lee and Ann Martin, the co-founders of Rocky Mountain Land Library, introduced Sherrie. 

After we participants introduced ourselves, Sherrie reminded us that what she was teaching was not so much drawing, though there would be plenty of that, but observation. Slowing down to really "see" the world around us so that we could sketch without the cliches our minds like to use: stick figures, for instance, or a square with a triangle on top to represent a house. Symbols instead of the real, detailed reality. 

To practice observing with hand and eye, she had us do some drawing exercises, beginning with blind contour drawing, which Sherrie is fearlessly demonstrating in the photo above. You look at what you want to draw until you can feel your eyes trace its contours, the edges and also its three-dimensional shape. And then when you are ready, you draw a continuous line without looking at the paper, feeling your way. 

The end result may not be a literal representation of what you're focused on, but I can tell you, it feels like what you're observing. And the exercise snaps your mind out of short-cutting to a symbol; it's great practice in seeing detail and shape. 

After a few more drawing exercises (my favorite was gesture drawing, where you quickly sketch in the basic shape of the subject, using flowing lines), Sherrie handed out two "prompt cards" to each of us, each bearing a word or phrase, choosing the cards at random from the stack in her hand, and sent us out to sit quietly, observe, and then sketch what we saw in our journals. 

I took my prompt cards and wandered off to the sun-warmed prairie hillside above the ranch house, where a flash of scarlet caught my eye: a lone indian paintbrush flower in bloom, dwarfed by the harsh high-country climate to about four inches high. I clambered up and sat on a chunk of lichen-crusted sandstone next to that flower, and read my prompt cards: 

"Retrace your steps." and "Go back." 

Really? What the heck did those have to do with field journalling? I sat quietly, absorbing the sun on my skin, the sound of a Say's phoebe whistling from the buildings below and nearer, a Vesper sparrow calling, and looked at the indian paintbrush that had called me over. 

Retrace your steps. Go back. 

Right. I started to laugh out loud as I got it. I call myself a writer first and a plant biologist second because writing is how I've earned my living for decades. But the truth is, plants were my first love and they are still the beings I find endlessly fascinating out of the whole web of life that makes this planet home. 

On famly hikes when I was a kid, while Mom, Dad, and my brother kept their ears tuned for birdsong, and their eyes scanning for wing-beats, my gaze was turned to the green and growing universe around me. Once when I was about six, I was so engrossed in spotting new cacti on a hike in the desert, that I sat right down on one. A fishhook cactus, aptly named for its spines, which are not fun to remove from one's hind end. 

Plants, as I've often said, are my people. Their lives and their relationships with every other creature around them never fail to amaze and intrigue me. They are our breathing buddies, exhaling the oxygen we need to survive, and inhaling the carbon dioxide we and our industrial processes exhale (in overabundance). They are a beautiful, extraordinary, and bewilderingly diverse assortment of forms and flowers and cones and leaves and spines and limbs and trunks and tubers and twigs and bulbs and roots. They are the fragrance of existence, the original solar-powered life, the lunch-meat that feeds the rest of the world. Once I thought I'd make a career of studying them as a field scientist.

A much younger me, pre-Richard and Molly, working as a plant biologist for the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming.

Sitting on that hillside above the ranch house on Saturday, sketching the indian paintbrush, I realized that I have done that, not perhaps in the formal researcher way I imagined. I've gardened my way across the West as we followed Richard's career; I've drawn on plants as the pioneers in my volunteer projects restoring degraded streams and blighted land; I've planted and gathered seed and photographed and admired plants wherever my travels have taken me. 

And now, I could in fact, retrace my steps and re-focus my life and my work on honoring the leafy beings who first sparked my imagination and sense of wonder. So, for the rest of Sherrie's workshop, I drew plants. Not terribly well--my drawing skills, unpracticed for decades, are pretty rusty. 

The most lively and engaging sketches on this page of my field journal from the workshop, starting with the wild iris seed capsules on the top left, are... plants, of course. 

In the doing, I remembered a key part of me I had not exactly forgotten, but set aside. I'm not just woman alone, the widow still figuring out what the rest of her life will be. I'm plant-woman, she who takes joy, inspiration (literally, breathing in the oxygen these photosythesizing beings off-gas), and purpose from working with plants. 

I had already decided my next book would be about plants. But I hadn't realized it would be about me, too. Plant-woman, finding her roots (pun intended).

Somewhere, Richard's spirit is chuckling and grinning: he's the one who carefully saved those old pen-and-ink plant drawings. Perhaps he was just waiting for me to remember.