Some kind of a red bird from the Field Museum in Chicago

Something is currently happening to me, apparently much later than it does to normal human beings: I’m suddenly fascinated by birds.

It’s not that I ever held birds in contempt like I did watercolor painting, it’s just that they were part of the background, flitting about in the sky and leaving turds on the windshield. I knew there were a lot of birds in the world and that they were somehow an integral part of the ecosystem, though I could never be bothered to put up a bird feeder, say, or pause for a long, contemplative look at a bluejay.

But recently I’ve been really noticing birds and totally staring at them.

They are tiny dinosaurs. They are quite beautiful. And they can fly. How do they do that?

Do they have internal compasses? Where do they go during thunderstorms? How do they produce so many different sounds?

And what’s up with woodpeckers?

Mind, I still think birds are disease-riddled and the other day when my kids found an interesting feather in the backyard, I made them wear surgical gloves to pick it up. On the other hand, I’m currently reading the memoir of a woman who sets about training a goshawk and I sense the inevitability of a future in which I’m at a bird sanctuary wearing khaki shorts and binoculars and toting a watercolor sketchbook.

Which brings me to the other thing I’m mysteriously drawn to here in middle age: watercolor painting. I used to think it was a wimpy sort of medium. It brought to mind ladies in straw hats, wicker furniture, glasses of iced tea, and grade school. It was timid and flavorless. It was oil painting’s spineless and feeble-minded cousin.

But something about the grace and fluidity of watercolor painting is becoming increasingly attractive. I guess I appreciate subtlety and nuance more than I did in my younger years. And ever since taking a watercolor class while on vacation last week, I see that though it is quite approachable, watercolor is also a difficult and unforgiving medium.

Naturally, I am now impelled to wed my newfound love of birds with my newfound love of watercolor. So far I haven’t had much success, which is okay because according to Malcolm Gladwell, it’s going to take about 10,000 hours to master. In the meantime, I got myself a bird feeder and a second-hand ornithology lab notebook.


A page from my ornithology notebook
Fossil from the Field Museum in Chicago
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Ancient Japanese Secret

In the days before smart phones or even pocket cameras, Japanese fishermen used to keep paper and ink on their boats so they could document trophy catches by making rubbings of them. After washing the ink off, they could eat the fish and prove that it had existed.

Eventually the practice evolved into an art form called gyotaku (gyo “fish” + taku “rubbing”) and the fish prints were embellished with other media, or made from molds instead of the actual fish.

As soon as I learned about gyotaku I was desperate to try it. The only problem was that I couldn’t quite bring myself to look at, let alone touch, a dead fish.

But my husband is an avid fisherman and lover of Japanese printmaking. He graciously offered to bring home a fish so we could make a fish rubbing together (romantic!). And by “together,” I mean that I supplied the paper and ink and watched with one eye open as the P-Dawg did the rubbing. The process we used is very simple:

  1. Pat the fish thoroughly dry with a rag or paper towel.
  2. Rub a thin layer of ink over it (the P-Dawg used his bare hands but you could also probably use a brush).
  3. Put a piece of paper over the inked fish and press it down around the fish so that the whole surface of the fish comes into contact with the paper.

I would advise you not to rub too vigorously because when the P-Dawg was making this gyotaku, a very small amount of fish guts leaked out and got stuck to the paper. I had to Photoshop them out.

For our first gyotaku, I think it turned out pretty well. Next time, perhaps a slightly thinner layer of ink would bring out some more detail.

the fish print_edited-1

(The P-Dawg wants you to know that his fish rubbing is not yet complete, as he plans to embellish it with a golden eyeball. He also wants you to know that he doesn’t consider this fish a “trophy” catch.)

Here’s what we used:

  • One small perch from LaDue Reservoir in Geauga, Ohio
  • Sumi ink
  • Japanese kozo paper (because it’s lightweight but very durable, so it molds easily to the fish
The Fish
the ink_edited-1
The Ink
inking the fish_edited-1
The Inking
gyotaku with guts
The Print (Unedited)

I didn’t get a good photo of the rubbing process, but basically you place a piece of paper over the fish and . . . rub it.

(This post was cross-posted on my other blog, here.)

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They’re Ba-ack!


In Lithuania the stork has its own holiday – March 25th. This is the occasion, give or take a day or two,when storks the world over return to the homeland to roost. It used to be a really big deal back when people relied on ritual and superstition to get them through the year. Blessed was the farmer whose homestead was chosen by a stork. Because this farmer, if he played his cards right by abstaining from bacon and performing certain rituals such as killing a snake and burying it under his doorstep, was destined to prosper in the coming months.

But even in the twentieth century, the stork featured prominently in Lithuanian folklore and storybooks. Growing up, one of the best songs we used to sing in our Lithuanian playgroup was about a stork. It went like this:

I have seen the stork walking through the mayflowers two times already.

Prance, prance, run, run, run,

Prance, prance, run, run, run,

Goes the stork through the high mayflower leaves.

It was a great song because as you went around in a circle you imitated the stork’s movements.

But I was still shocked, the first time I visited Lithuania in March of 1995, to discover that Lithuanians weren’t kidding about storks. They were everywhere! My great-aunt Veronika’s farm had a resident stork, and he actually returned home to roost while my mother and I were having tea there. I am telling you it was amazeballs.

The last time I visited Lithuania was in August, right before the storks left. They had been busy procreating all spring and early summer, and pretty much every other telephone pole in my Aunt Vida’s village had a giant stork’s nest with stork babies in it.

My husband the P-Dawg and I just couldn’t get enough of those storks. I took so many stork photos that after awhile it became necessary to mix things up with meta-stork photos.

Here is a picture I took of the P-Dawg taking a picture of some storks.


So happy (belated) Stork Day! And may your kitchen garden and/or local Community Supported Agriculture co-op’s crop be abundant this year.

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Who’s That Girl

IMG_4344Recently in the mirror I started noticing something about my face. Mainly that it wasn’t what it used to be, beauty-wise, and specifically that it looked tired.

At first I thought it was simply a matter of staying up too late binge watching Scandal on Netflix, even though it’s turning into musical beds just like my mom always said Falcon Crest did in 1983.

I started making an effort to go to bed earlier and eat more salmon, but still my face looked the same. Eventually it dawned on me that what I was dealing with was less an issue of fatigue and more an issue of this is what I look like now that I’m almost forty-two.

In the next instant I realized that I was just going to keep on looking more and more tired until eventually one day I would die.

The fact of mortality didn’t alarm me nearly as much as the idea of a permanent double chin. It’s one thing to know that you’re going to get older, another entirely to see it manifest on your face.

I don’t really want to look young forever – that would be weird. One day I would like my appearance to belie the wisdom I hope to have gained within, or at least give me free license to shush people loudly.

Still, the realization that time truly marches on is daunting. Not only because we are vain, but because every new wrinkle removes us farther from the age at which we believed that we could do or be anything we wanted.

Despite having written a blog post about it, I’m not actually that depressed about looking older. I mean, I wish I looked better than I do first thing in the morning, around noon, at dinnertime and also right before bed, but I count myself lucky that I don’t have more pressing concerns.

I guess I’m just sort of surprised that it really happens – that one day you literally wake up and the person you see in the mirror does not match up with the person you percieve yourself to be.

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