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

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. 

Field Trip: Desert Wildflower “Super-bloom”

Saturday morning, I packed my gear in Red, my pickup, and hit the road for a marathon field trip to the shale mesas of far western Colorado to see a once-in-a-lifetime spectacular display of spring wildflowers. I left town at a few minutes after nine in the morning, and backed Red into the garage at just after seven-thirty that night; in between I drove 458 miles and spent several hours wandering back roads ogling so many thousands upon thousands of wildflowers that I was almost jaded by the time I headed home.

Oh, another several hundred orange globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea) flowers, backed by a waving expanse of needle-and-thread grass (Heterostipa comata) with perky sue (Tetraneuris ivesiana) coloring the distant hillsides bright gold. Yawn…

(That's what's blooming in the photo at the top of the post.)

I hadn't intended to do the whole trip in one day, but when I got the alert from Colorado Native Plant Society (thank you, Jan Turner and Jen McGuire Bousselot for the heads up!) that the desert blooms on the mesas above the Grand Valley were spectacular, I looked at my calendar and realized that the only day I could reasonably play hooky was Saturday, and the coming heat wave would soon end the display. 

Was my 450-mile drive and the dregs of exhaustion I can still feel worth it?  

Definitely: I am still cruising on the high of seeing what normally appear to be barren shale slopes lit up with millions of wildflowers, blooms that only occur en masse like this after an unusually wet winter and spring, on plants that manage to compress a whole life cycle–sprouting from the clay soil while it is still wet with spring snow, and growing, blooming, attracting pollinators and setting seeds–before the soil bakes to concrete-hardness with the late spring heat. 

Here are some of my hundred-plus photos so you can see for yourself:

Scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea) and Cutleaf blanketflower (Gaillardia pinnatifida), the gold flowers with maroon centers. (The burgundy grass is cheatgrass, an invasive annual from Eurasia that is incredibly flammable, leading to frequent fires and larger cheatgrass invasions.)


Yellow perky sue, orange globemallow, pink and white sego lily (Calochortus nutallii)


The sego lilies came in rose too, and you can see ants sipping nectar from the base of one cup-shaped blossom in this clump.


The Indian paintbrush was blooming like crimson flames. 


Oval-leafed buckwheat (Eriogenum ovalifolium) with pom-pom balls in white touched with pink.


Short-stemmed lupine (Lupinus brevicaulis), the whole plant no bigger than my thumb


Jones desert-star (Amsonia jonesii) filled dry washes on north slopes with its fragrant, starry flowers.


The cactus were blooming too, including this prickly-pear (Opuntia polyacantha), in the less-usual magenta-flowered form. That's I-70 in the background, and the Book Cliffs in the far distance. 


And this mini-barrel-shaped cactus, Colorado hookless cactus (Schlerocactus glaucus), a species only known from the shale mesas of western Colorado. (I think the white daisy-like flower is sand aster, Chaetopappa ericoides, but didn't key it out.)

Every time I came around a ridge or over a mesa, there were masses of wildflowers as far as I could see, like this vista:

Those are the usuals, pink and white sego lilies, scarlet globemallow in orange, and yellow perky sue. Plus you can't see the charming fuzzy seedheads of desert parsley, already done blooming, or the rattlesnake grass with its rattle-like flower-heads, the tiny white easter daisies, or the charming little blue annual flowers on thread-like stems with yellow centers that I should know but can't remember… 


Just another view of wildflowers everywhere, and Book Cliffs hazy in the far distance…

By three-thirty, it was 87 degrees and the wind was gusting up to 50 mph. I decided to ignore the wildflower display and just head for the paved road and the long trek home. Except I kept seeing new species.


Like this spiny sagebrush (Picrothamnus desertorum or Artemisia spinescens) with the ghostly white branches from last year and its yellow flowers, blooming a clay pan where the soil was already dried into cracks deep enough for me to insert my middle finger in all the way–these are tough plants!

One more photo–this time of Red, my trusty companion whenever I get the urge to play hooky and make a ridiculously long trip to see more wildflowers than anyone could ever imagine…

My smile of delight carried me all the long way home that night. In fact, I'm still grinning two days later. It was definitely worth the trip.