These two lines from Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby (Counting Crows) keep ringing in my head, in these days of self isolation…
"We drove out to the desert just to lie down beneath this bowl of stars [...] Well, you can see a million miles tonight, but you can't get very far."
I can’t help but wonder
About life beyond this coronavirus
One thing I know for sure
Below Scorpion and Sagittarius
Saturn, Jupiter and Mars will still align
Some day, soon, just another headline
Promising, joyful, mysterious
Proclaiming “We found a cure!”
Will we choose then to be oblivious or curious?
I can’t help but wonder
These are difficult times for all of mankind, at the local scale and the global scale, and all points in between. By our collective actions, we are defining a new “normal.” Life will go on, eventually. We will continue to be the human race… Let’s make it better.
The dark clouds will clear, eventually
And when they do, you will see
That the brightest moments
Were those when we all learned…
To be kind.
The Coachella Valley has seen its share of rainfall since the beginning of the year. Yet, for all these gray rain clouds shrouding the desert, there is a sliver lining. Bright blue skies returned and the warm midday sunshine woke up millions of sleeping wildflowers, creating a breathtaking display of colors and perfumes. Hikers along the many trails in this usually hot and dusty area, busy taking in the spectacle, soon forget the effort required to navigate steep inclines and rocky paths, awed by the impressive heartiness of nature. Photographers can’t get enough; thanks to digital photography and endless storage, they can let loose their shutter-happy fingers. Not so for the painter working with a single canvas, looking attentively at the scene in front of him, carefully mixing oil colors, and patiently capturing the landscape’s details and feelings, one stroke of the brush at a time.
On a recent hike at the Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve, on top of the hill a little past Simone Pond at McCallum Grove, from a distance, I spotted someone facing what looked like an easel, standing under a silvery umbrella. We approached the artist almost on tiptoes (that’s what it felt like), trying not to disturb the moment, watching as he observed the scenery, twirled his brush on the palette in a little patch of coloured oil, applied the paint to the canvas with a few deliberate strokes, and stared in the distance, comparing the image developing on the canvas and in his mind’s eye with reality. He would repeat this creative cycle hundreds, maybe even thousands of times, over the next couple of hours.
I felt a little shy, almost guilty, for stealing a glance at someone’s personal work. That feeling quickly gave way to curiosity, and I peeked at the canvas where a snowcapped Mt. San Gorgonio (Old Greyback) already dominated the developing image of surrounding canyons and crests, green creosote bushes, yellow wildflowers, and sandy ribbons. Daring to disrupt the artist, I introduced myself and asked if I could photograph him in action, which he agreed to.
His name is Henry Buerckholtz, a New York City painter with an impressive portfolio of landscapes, still lifes and figures (I checked his website). We discussed his art, his techniques, his work. Henry explained that the first part of this project was to position the scenery’s main features. Next would come the application of colors and details.
Discovering a mutual appreciation for nature’s beauty, and the gift of seeing when we truly take time to look around us, are what I enjoyed most of our brief conversation. These are not unique to painters or photographers.
Conscious that we had invited ourselves in Henry’s creative space, we bid him farewell and resumed our hike on Moon Country Trail up the canyon, surrounded by this silence and never-ending natural beauty.
On our way back, from way down in the wash, we could see Henry at the top of the hill, still in the shadow of his umbrella, applying the finishing touches to his painting. Although I have never painted, I have spent long contemplative moments simply letting the vastness and beauty of the surrounding nature wrap around me. I can appreciate the special enchanting bond that develops between artist and nature. It’s good for the soul.
Brush canvas and oils
Capture nature’s bright colors
Brought by winter’s storms
Snowcapped mountains and blue skies
Let your soul wander
On desert silence
Echoes of footsteps and breaths
Canyon’s only sounds
(This is the last post in a series about a recent train trip across the Canadian prairies. The first in the series is here.)
Sleep eluded me throughout the night. Despite the gentle rocking of the train and the rhythmic lullaby sung by its wheels on the rail (ticatoc-ticatoc—ticatoc-ticatoc), I dozed off for what seemed only minutes at a time. All is quiet in our coach car, and all is dark out, save for the millions of stars dotting the inky black sky. I grab my camera and make my way back to the dome-car, careful not to wake my fellow passengers along the way, curious to see.
All alone up there, I marvel at the spectacle on display, just for me, I think. Venus dominates the eastern horizon, almost directly behind the train. And then, something happens: a faint glow lightens the darkness, a glow that would continue into daylight. An oncoming freighter reflects this light, like glowing embers, a dim orangey hue zooming by. Two young Chinese women join me, camera in hand, to capture some of this ephemeral beauty.
The land around us slowly emerges from the darkness, revealing lakes, tractors, buildings. The brightening morning luminescence slowly reveals roofs and fingers of smoke trailing skyward from their chimneys. The scene is magical, whimsical, surreal. Not a word is said.
High above us, an airplane races eastward, like an arrow to its target, leaving the twin laces of its contrail to stretch across the sky, lit in orange light. Those passengers, up at 41,000 feet, have probably witnessed the sun rise above the horizon already, unless they are asleep. Meanwhile, colours change subtly, lightening the dark: amber, bronze, copper, orange, yellow, melting into cobalt, indigo, violet, blue, gray, and green.
The long train contorts itself through a switch, like a snake weaving through short grass. I can see the last car for the first time! In the sky, what seemed to take forever quickly comes to its natural conclusion. The sun breaks the horizon; its light floods the eastern sky and paints the western countryside. One minute, the sky is a bright yellow, the next a familiar azure blue. Beautiful. The Canadian rolls on down the track towards Edmonton, my final destination on this journey.
(This is the fifth post in a series about a recent train trip across the Canadian prairies. The first in the series is here.)
For a while, I shield my eyes from the blinding sun peeking directly in the dome-car’s front windows. The dazzle subsides when we eventually turn northwest and follow the meandering Assiniboine River, which at times consists of little more than a lazy creek in this area—after drought-like conditions through the summer—and a collection of orphaned oxbows.
We race the sun toward the horizon as the shadows stretch onto the plain, and the sun’s golden light turns the train’s metallic skin into liquid bronze. The passengers seated in the dome-car cheer, gasp, point their cameras, and smile at the spectacle. While the sky takes on a hundred different pastel hues, a dreamy palette to paint an unforgettable scene, the trees turn to black, backlit by the setting sun. I feel dwarfed by this grandeur and privileged to witness such beauty.
The terrain changes abruptly at St. Lazare, where the two deep scars carved into the prairie by the Qu’Appelle and Assiniboine rivers meet, accentuated by the deep shadows cast by the fading sunlight. The sun soon disappears below the horizon.
Preoccupied—fixated may be a better word—with losing the sun for another night, I failed to notice the latest celestial contender. Bends in the river flash at irregular intervals, reflecting the half-moon’s light, revealing Selena’s presence in the southern sky: a new beacon to lighten our journey into Saskatchewan. The silver rails thread through green, yellow, and red signal lights, pointing the way forward.
The cadence of the wheels on the metal track continues, ticatoc-ticatoc—ticatoc-ticatoc, like a well-rehearsed drum track to this rocking and rolling ballad. However, the sound of the whistle has softened, blanketed by the falling night. The train’s passengers curl into their reclined seats, or slip into freshly-turned beds, summoning sleep. Good night.
Grey clouds gave an early, ghostly glow
Sun and moon peeked brightly, briefly, though
What if the moon got stuck, forever casting shadows
Stopping todays from becoming tomorrows
Fear not such a lasting concealment
Eclipses last but a moment
Gentle waves lap at the beach
Then retreat out to sea slowly
Eager diners, plovers and sandpipers
Scurry about for a quick bite
All at once, it seems, the sun disappears
Drawing a straight dark line on the horizon
Separating midnight blue water
From an ever-darkening liquid copper sky
No wonder our planet was once flat
Or so our forefathers thought
Because way out there lies that boundary
Between what we see and what we must believe
The verge of consciousness, present and future
Between today and tomorrow, now and infinity
Stretched out further than our eyes can see
The last discernible word on the page
Where sailboats must surely end their voyage
Bow rising on the final whitecap, the instant
Before floating downward into the unknown
Having reached the edge of the earth…