Dear Goldilocks, About that Bear Thing…

Bears have been on my mind for the past couple of years, which may be a bit surprising since I grew up on a small farm in Central Ohio, a state in which bears of all types were eradicated long before I came along. As a child I had very little first hand knowledge of genus Ursus. Oh yes, there were a few raggedy polar bears swaying their bodies to and fro in the summer heat at our local zoo, and the foggy memory of my four year old self directed to look out the car window during a family trip to The Great Smoky Mountain National Park to see the bears. Despite the paucity of actual experience with bears, I must admit to a niggling anxiety when it comes to the idea of meeting one face to face in the wilderness.

Detail of Ghost Bear quiltI first noticed this when I was being considered for a position as Artist in Residence at Becharof National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Voices in the Wilderness is a residency program unlike others in that it embeds artists in the wilds of Alaska, hiking and camping along with  National Park Service, Forestry or Fishery staff. No sissy log cabins here. In preparation, I read that Brown Bears were numerous in the area and often frequented the same trails as people do for the same reason, ease of travel. Brown Bears sounded pretty cute and cuddly, but a quick Google search revealed that aside from their coloration, they are essentially genetically identical to Grizzly Bears. Ooops.

A quick consultation with my wilderness guru brother and this was confirmed. He suggested the purchase of a bear keg to carry in my pack as a way to prevent bears from smelling food and toiletries, thereby hopefully thwarting an attack in one’s tent or on the trail. A phone conversation with the Becherof Coordinator assured me I had little to worry about. I would be embedded with a rifle toting volunteer who would have my back and I would be equipped with electric fencing to surround my tent at night or myself during the day should I decide to do any drawing or painting along the trail. I would also have access to at least three types of phones in case of emergency. Shit. Now I was worried.

Lack of funding and a change in personnel prevented that experience from getting off the ground and I cannot say that I was terribly disappointed. The cancellation however, did not end my bear anxiety. Just a few months later I flew to Washington State for a residency in a place where bears were so numerous they frequently played in the backyard of the Bed and Breakfast where I was lodged. The owners pretty much downplayed any fears I had, but the “bear experts” set up next to me at The Salmon Festival venue told me a different story. Apparently the bear bells I had purchased and planned to wear on my hike in the Wenatchee National Forest were next to useless. The only thing I scared when I attached them to my shoelaces were the other hikers who anxiously asked me if there were bears in the area. “Hell, yes,” I wanted to respond but didn’t, wondering how people can be so oblivious to their surroundings?

More confused than ever, when I got home I decided to do some reading about bear behavior. Allegedly one is to stand and fight if attacked by a Black Bear and curl up into a ball if attacked by a Grizz. Would a person really remember that rule in such a dire situation? The one thing I did learn from my research is that much like people, bear behavior is unpredictable (Well, that clears things up nicely). Some Native Americans believe strongly in the spirit of bears. Allegedly this is because that once skinned, a bear corpse very closely resembles that of a human. Well that could explained the erratic behavior part.

Fast forward to last summer. Upon checking in at the Bighorn Canyon NRA Residency I was handed a can of bear spray and a holster as standard equipment. You bet I asked about the presence of bears (Black, OMG stand and fight?) and wore that spray religiously, attached to the front of my backpack straps. I also sang Show Tunes (Ooooklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the Plain) and Sunday School songs (Yes, Jesus Loves Me), whistled, and yelled “Hey Bear” until I was pretty much hoarse. I never did see a bear so I reckon my strategy was effective. The last night of my stay I did one last hike with a ranger to a beautiful waterfall along the “predator highway.” My alarm system was heightened as we drove past the Bear Trap kept hidden out of view of the casual visitor and baited by park staff with stale doughnuts when needed. It was a real stunner of a hike, but as we descended the ranger pointed to some odd looking material under a bush that was apparently “full of berries.” “What is that?” I asked. “Bear scat” was the reply. I can now definitively say that bears do shit in the woods, and after all my concern about meeting a bear in the wild, this particular one was more frightened of me than I was of him.

So where did all that latent anxiety about bears originate? Must have been all those Fairy Tales I read as a child. Yea, you Goldilocks.

Poinsett Ponderings: An Artist’s Life in The High Hills of The Santee Or There’s Snakes Up There

I was both honored and blessed to have served as Artist in Residence at Poinsett State Park in South Carolina last week. I just love this state and their parks are amazing. If you haven’t been you should. I had the privilege of staying in one of the newly renovated cabins built by the CCC during the depression. Blocks of Coquina, a conglomerate of sea shells proving South Carolina was once submerged under a great sea, were used as a building material for foundations, fireplaces and picnic shelters, making the architecture something special.

In exchange for staying in such beautiful accommodations, artists are required to provide the park with a piece of artwork within 3 months of their stay. These pieces are featured throughout the park in various cabins and the park office making it a very artistic place to make art. I had the notion before leaving Ohio that my textile piece would feature a Revolutionary War era figure of some sort, perhaps a certain Levi who apparently ran a mill on what now is Poinsett State Park.

Let’s face it, if like me you attended public school north of the Mason Dixon Line, you had no idea that the South was even involved in the Revolutionary War. All that business took place in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Lexington or Concord, right? That is all we learned about in school. You probably never heard of Ninety-Six, Cowpens, The Battle of Charleston or King’s Mountain. Another reason to get out and enjoy our public lands and learn the real history of our nation. The South is just dripping with history including the prominent role South Carolina played in the birth of our country.

Earlier in the week I learned from one of the rangers that my information about Levi was inaccurate. He did run the mill, but not until the 1800’s. It was Mr. Matthew Singleton, lately of The Isle of Wight, in 1754 that is, who built and ran the mill, the ruins of which can still be seen today at one end of the lake. The lake and spillway were originally built by Matthew to flood the rice fields located between where the current park is situated and his plantation, Melrose,  just a few miles away.

Although the plantation has since burned to the ground, I was informed there was a historical marker and family cemetery containing the earthly remains of Matthew Singleton and his family at the site. I hope you never have the bad luck to be driving behind me when I spot a historical marker. Undoubtedly you will be cursing as I unexpectedly and rapidly veer off the roadway without advanced warning. So I just had to go.

I googled the directions to the Melrose site and headed out. I should mention two things here: get a block off the highway in this neck of the woods and you are on dirt roads, well red sand roads actually, and it had been raining for two days and two nights at this point in time. I headed out and proceeded down the road indicated on the map, it turned out to be red dirt with a few houses on the right. About a mile down the road the houses petered out and the road got narrower and wetter. Now growing up in the 50’s darn near every movie featured someone who had disappeared in quicksand leaving only a hat floating on the surface. I was pretty certain the scientific recipe for quicksand was one part sand, two parts water, which fairly accurately described current weather conditions. Prudently, I decided not to continue on in this particular adventure and drove in reverse a mile back down the road I came in on rather than become the star of my own movie.

Now all week-long everyone kept telling me I needed to meet Zabo McCants the head ranger. The next day I finally did and what a pleasure. I told him about my attempt at exploration and he confirmed my decision to change course as a wise one. He advised me that “they never mow the grass in the cemetery and there are snakes up there, (see my previous blog about snakes)” South Carolina boasts 6 varieties of venomous snakes: three different kinds of rattlers,  Copperheads, Coral Snakes and the notorious Cottonmouth. Point taken.

Zabo is quite a visionary and driven to excellence in everything he does. He takes great pride in his plans to  remodel the park’s cabins, even down to matching the color of the dish soap to the coffee mugs. He is a local boy done good and an authority on local history. Well he should be, he is a direct descendent of Brigadier General Richard Richardson, a Revolutionary War hero and patriot who hung around with the likes of The Swamp Fox, married into the Singleton family and had a run in with British villain Banestre Tarleton (check out the movie The Patriot with Mel Gibson for the gory details). He additionally informed me that whenever he goes up to the Melrose site he kits himself up in full state park uniform, “So that everyone knows who I am and why I am there.” Well if that is necessary for him, considering who his people are, what chance would I have had if the locals had found out that my “people” included a teenaged German private from Ohio named John Ruhl, who tagged along with one William Tecumseh Sherman as he marched to the sea? Another crisis averted and more fodder obtained for the piece I create for the park. What more could one ask for?

Cape Romain or Cape Fear?


As a textile artist I take a lot of photographs for reference purposes and sometimes even use them printed on fabric in my work. I really enjoy taking pictures and even bought a new digital camera last year which I am still learning how to use, however, I don’t really consider myself to be a photographer. That being said, I think this photo is one of the best I have ever taken, but I almost missed the opportunity. Here is the story.

107I love South Carolina, Charleston especially, and the last time I was there  I purchased a note card for a friend.  The front featured a stunning photograph of a tree rising from the ocean! I was so taken with the image that I asked the sales clerk where it was taken, then promptly forgot all about it. When I got home the cat managed to leave a few teeth marks on the edge of the card so it never got sent. The end. Or so I thought.

Fast forward to last week when I was serving as Artist in Residence at Poinsett State Park about 90 minutes from Charleston. I was having a great time, but it was so rainy that I spent at least two full days in my “studio” on the screened in porch attached to my cabin. Huge windows on three sides opened the space up to the woods in their full spring glory, but after two days inside I needed a change.

Deciding that a boat excursion into the Low Country might just be the ticket, I started a google search and low and behold, images very like the one on the card appeared on the Bulls Island Ferry site. I quickly checked the weather forecast and Saturday was predicted to be the only sunny day of the week with a high of 86 degrees. Perfect. I booked it.

The next day the forecast was changed to partially sunny and 80 degrees. It rained again all night Friday and I awoke to more rain at 6 AM Saturday morning. I was too afraid to look at the forecast again as I packed my lunch and gathered rain gear into my day pack. I really didn’t want to go but forced myself to get into the car. I did not want to lose my $40 deposit by not showing up, but I thought if I was extra pathetic and begged once I arrived, perhaps they would let me cancel due to the poor weather. Then I would treat myself to a smashing lunch in trendy Charleston instead.

It rained for two hours straight as I drove from my cabin to Awendaw, a little north of Charleston. I am always advocating for finding the courage to overcome fear, persevere, accept challenges and learn, but I tell you my courage was wavering as much as my windshield wipers during that rainy drive. Bulls Island is a barrier island and part of the Cape Romain Federal Nature Preserve, once a safe harbor for pirates. It is uninhabited, loaded with alligators, snakes, bobcat and a myriad of birds including Eagles and Osprey. At one time Red Wolves were re-introduced there, did they actually get all of them when they were moved to a sanctuary on the mainland? At the north end of the island lies Boneyard Beach where I was hoping to see trees “growing” in the sea.

Oh, how our minds always envision the worst possible outcome and play tricks on us, keeping us frozen in our same old way of being. All during that rainy journey I pictured myself all alone and lost on the windy, rainy, 5,000 acre island with no way back until the boat captain returned hours later to pick me up. Sounded dismal and scary in my imagination.

But miraculously, within 10 minutes of arrival at the dock it stopped raining, and although I was the first one to arrive, shortly thereafter about 35 other people showed up. In short, it was an amazing day and one I will never forget. Although I never saw another soul once we arrived, I took comfort in the fact that they were there. And most importantly, I captured the beauty of the place in this amazing image. Upon reflection, the photograph would have been much inferior with the bright sunlight originally forecast. So take courage me hardies and be amazing.

2014 The Year of the Snake

Contrary to the Chinese Zodiac, for me, 2014 was more like the Year of the Snake than the Year of the Horse. I should have had a hint of what was to come when in 2013 I just missed a close encounter with a rattlesnake while serving as Artist in Residence at Mesa Verde National Park. Chatting with fellow backcountry trekkers,  I learned that one of their party nearly stepped on one the day before. I had considered going on this adventure, but decided that my body needed some time to adjust to the altitude and dry heat of the American Southwest, so I had spent the morning safely ensconced at the park’s museum instead.

My very first herpetological contact occurred while growing up on a farm in Central Ohio. Ohio has three species of venomous snakes, the Eastern Diamondback or Timber Rattler, the Copperhead and the Pygmy Rattlesnake, but none live in the central part of the state. Early 18th century settlers noted the strong smell of snakes, something like cucumbers, along the limestone banks of the Ohio River, present day site of Columbus, Ohio, my home town. They were long gone by the time I came along. Instead, our farm was populated by the ubiquitous Garter Snake, who rummaged around the leaf mold in the lilac bushes and sun bathed in close proximity to the farm’s outbuildings.

Although they are harmless, I was always somewhat anxious about their presence as my brother and his friends loved to chase me around the yard in attempt to put one down the back of my shirt while I screamed bloody murder. Now while many a farmer and his wife utilized the blade of a hoe to rid their farm of these critters, that was not the case at our place. My Dad was an environmentalist before there was even a name for it. We were taught to protect and respect all God’s creatures. With his dry wit and country sensibility, he advised my brother and I that “without snakes we’d all be up to our asses in rats and mice.”

Now fast forward to 2014. I like to spend my Sundays hiking in the local nature preserves. It is both peaceful and invigorating and places me in close proximity to our Creator. This year on the very first hike of the season,  I noticed a tiny garter snake warming himself in the sun while lounging on some greenery about chest high and a foot away. While innocous, he gave me a start. The next week at different preserve, I nearly stepped on a “stick.” See below.

imageThis little cutie, a Black Rat snake I believe, had just shed his skin and would not budge. He kindly allowed me to take his photo and go along my way. The following week at the same preserve I was fascinated by a long black “lightening strike” on the side of a very tall tree. Closer inspection however, revealed another Black Rat snake about 10 to 12 feet long who was working his way up the tree, mostly likely for a tasty meal of bird’s eggs.

The saga continued later in the summer when I traveled west for an artist residency at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska. Upon arrival, the first thing I noticed was the presence of signs advising visitors to use caution while hiking, as this was the habitat of the Prairie Rattlesnake. In an apparent attempt to soften the message, the signs included very cute and non-threatening images of the critters. This Disney-esque image was severely challenged upon entering the Visitor Center, where a stuffed rattler, forever frozen in a strike pose, rested on the counter in a glass case. Attached was a warning to use extreme caution while on the trails. You can imagine I did, to the point that I was reluctant to walk in the grass…. anywhere, as similar warnings were posted darn near everywhere I went whether in Nebraska, South Dakota, or Wyoming. Apparently this part of America is snake heaven. On one of my last days in the park I met this little guy.

imageRemembering my Dad’s warning about rats and mice, which I might add are carriers of both the plague and Hanta Virus, I gave him a wide berth, took his photo and moved on. At the time I posted this on Facebook, the “ick factor” was pretty high among my readers. Several suggested I obtain a good pair of cowboy boots as this was why they were invented in the first place. I can take good advice when given. Who knew style and safety could be rolled into a pair of foot gear? 2014, Year of the Snake has come to a close. Bring it on 2015, the Year of the Sheep, I could use a rest!


Mesa Verde – These Boots

These boots have carried me a long way from home and have been a godsend here in Colorado. My Merrells and Thurlo hiking socks have taken me up ladders and ledges, up cliffs and down canyons. Through Cliff Palace, Balcony House, Oak Tree House and many others. I was very thankful for them today when a woman about 8 or 9 years older than me tried to maneuver our backcountry hike to Oak Tree House in her Keds, carrying a large handbag instead of a back pack. I watched her fall right on her can and totter along the entire trail. I tried not to walk right behind her in case she fell off a ladder and took me down with her. She did the ultimate back country no, no and asked the ranger if she could sit on one of the fragile 700 year walls. The response: “if  you think you are going to have a medical emergency it would be alright.” I interpret that to mean,” I would rather you sat on a wall than pass out and fall off a cliff costing the government $20,000,00 to save your sorry butt.”

As I consider the value of good pair of hiking boots today, I think back to another pair of boots that impacted my life. I should preface this by mentioning how I always used to dread getting gifts from my Dad, and with good cause I might add. Basically, he was complete crap when it came to buying gifts. If he made something for you, that was alright because he was a fantastic craftsmean and the furniture he made was truly a work of art. You were probably OK if he bought you a book, since he usually bought nature books; so chances were at least 50/50, and worst case scenario, you could take it back to the book store. Other than that, Oh Lord!

One time he bought a teenaged cousin of mine a size 6 sweatshirt, because that was how big he was the last time my Dad saw him. Another time I came home from work and found a cement Indian painted in garish colors sitting on my front porch, a birthday gift from my Dad. But the all time doozy of a gift was one Chiristmas when he bought my mother the most beautiful coral colored wool cocktail dress. It was a real stunner, but also, I believe a size 6. My mother had never been a size 6 in her life, she was pretty much a solid 12 or 14 despite the fact that she was only about 5 feet tall.

Well, she was highly insulted that the dress was about 3 sizes too small and made my Dad take it back to the store. I don’t think she spoke to him for a whole week. So you can imagine my brother’s and my trepidation, when the next Christmas she opened a box containing boys high top work boots from Sears. These were hiking boots my Dad quickly explained, so that she would be more comfortable when we went hiking and camping. I could not have  been more surprized when my Mom smiled, put them right on and declared that she loved them. She wore them for many years after that momentous Chritsmas Day when my Dad actually purchased a great gift. Here’s to you Mom. Happy Trails.

Mesa Verde and Black and White Thinking

The  Ancient Puebloan People of Mesa Verde are known for their unique Black on White pottery. Much of it was raided and sold by pot hunters, a practice that. unfortunately, is still occurring today, do you hear me eBay? There are still fine examples to be seen in the museums here and I am struck by how many of these ancient designs have been used by quilters and artists for centuries. It seem even Hitler stole the swastika from the ancient ones. However, being a therapist by trade I am reminded of a type of cognitive distortion referred to as “back and white thinking.” I fear, and notice the verb I use here, that I have my own black and white thinking process going on.

Mine is the staunch, and heretofore, unshakable belief that I am an acrophobic (fear of heights) person. I have been afraid of heights ever since about the age of three, when my Dad put me on his back piggy back style and climbed up a rock face in The Hocking Hills. Ever since then I have not been able to climb up a 3 foot step ladder without my knees knocking together. Flashback to the 1960’s, the last time I visited Mesa Verde with my family. They were either very ignorant about the conditions of the hike or were being very cagey in not telling me that you had to climb three ladders up the face of the cliff to get out of the place. I suspect the latter. Although I did ask why I just couldn’t go back the way we came in, I was told that due to “federal regulations,” this was not possible (so they said). So, with my Dad pushing from behind, I made it up to the top. My knees, however, kept locking in place making my progress so slow, that I can still remember other visitors shouting up to the top, “What’s going on up there, is something the matter?
This all leads me to the point that it is fear that often  keeps our thinking and actions locked into place, just like my knees. Knowing that I was deathly afraid of heights I applied for this artist residency anyway, a sort of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Policy,” that has worked out pretty well for me. I must say I have been put to the test both yesterday and today. During the hike yesterday to Petroglyph Point I came to a part of the trail where I had to get my leg up on a rock ledge to get to the next level and I was just too short to do it, I contemplated going back the way I came, but fearing Federal Regulations finally found a hidden hand hold and went on up. Not one minute later, the trail turned to a near vertical angle and I was literally hanging on to trees (shrubs?) to keep from pitching backwards into the canyon. Brought me right back to those childhood cartoons where the tree breaks. I was expecting to see The “Road Runner and TNT next.

Today I went on the most vertically challenging ranger lead hike there is, to Balcony House. This gem required climbing a 32 foot ladder up the cliff face, that’s three stories folks, then at the end climbing up the cliff using hand  and foot holds carved in the rock, luckily there was heavy duty iron chain to hold onto. You can bet your life that I never looked down not even one peep.

One last fear-based challenge takes place first thing Friday morning when I take my first back county hike out to Long House. To get there I will have to drive about 45 minutes down a road that is officially closed and locked for the season, then hike out to the dwelling alone, Incidentally there was a siting of a mountain lion in the dwelling this spring… I will have a radio with me, but of all things, I am worried I won’t be able to work the radio properly. Is there a name for that? 

Preparing for Backcountry Hiking or How to Build a Cat Hole

  Hiking on The Petroglyph Trail
One of the truly exceptional aspects of this once in a life time experience of serving as Artist in Residence at Mesa Verde National Park is the opportunity to apply for a backcountry permit to hike and visit the areas of the park without the distraction of other visitors. This is a fairly rigorous process, as well it should be, to both protect the integrity of the park’s antiquities, natural resources and the safety of the the people applying for this privilege. Before I left Ohio I had to watch a video about backcountry safety (no mention here of how to handle animal attacks of assorted kinds, see previous post, Thank You brother Bruce) as well as read a manual on back country etiquette. Now I have to fill out a permit for each visit, have it signed by two people and carry a radio advising the rangers of my arrival and departure time, in order to save the government the expense of costly search and rescue missions involving helicopters, which I am told get charged to your Visa account at $15,000.00 a pop. Now more about the etiquette part.
 Petroglyph Wall
For those of you who were wondering, no this is not about being polite while you are hiking, it is about being a steward of the fragile environment that is Mesa Verde. Two primary concepts are: take only photos, and carry it in, carry it out. The manual gives sage advice on what to do if you, shall we say, need to use the facilities while you are in the back o’ beyond. I am not kidding, if you need to go Number One you are supposed to pee on a rock or pine needles as urine attracts animals who might decide to burrow into fragile archaological sites. If you need to go Number Two, and believe me when I say that this has not happened to me since I was about nine years old, you are supposed to dig a hole just like a cat a little ways off the trail. Having had cats all of my life, I think I can just about manage this should it become necessary.
The Great Smoky Mountains  circa 1956 or so

This process has not really been that hard for me. I visited my first National Park, The Great Smoky Mountains, when I was just 4 years old. After that our family started camping and hiking on a regular basis and I learned how to act in the wilderness. Here are a few things my Dad taught me that still come in handy: 1. take the time to learn the difference between Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy, you’ll be glad you did  2.When you camp, don’t do dumb stuff like cutting down green trees for a fire, then try to set them alight with a can of gasoline 3. Be quiet after 10 PM  4.  Music makes a joyful life, sing around the campfire 5. Take time for a vacation, see the USA in your Chevrolet even if it means limping home on your spare tire with only $1.25 and a box of stale soda crackers left to your name 6.Lastly, If you want to get close to the hand of God, go fishing, take a hike in the woods or paddle a canoe. You’ll find him in even the tiniest leaf stirring in the wind, the call of a bird or in the rosy glow of a sunset.

Siren’s Call

I have to admit that Spring is my absolute favorite time of the year. I love the organic smell in the air, the return of birdsong and the lush abundance of nature’s color as she awakes from a long winter’s sleep. But… it sure does make it hard to stay in the studio to work.

Next to working with fabric, I love gardening and being out in nature best. As I gaze out of my studio window I am called to get outside and get my hands dirty. I started creating a Japanese – style garden outside my studio and I can’t wait to get out there and add to it. Last year it was a blank canvas and this year it is calling me to get outside and add the next layer of plants. My yard has several other garden rooms: a Tuscan arbor, an herb garden, a shade garden and an English perrenial garden. Let’s just say after a weekend of gardening, it’s hard to stand up straight and camoflage the dirt under my nails.

During the winter months I collect fabric for my stash, visiting every quilt shop I know and some I don’t, whenever the opportunity arises. In the spring and summer it’s the same with plants. Garden stores become my obsession, I swear I can’t drive past one without the steering wheel turning in of it’s own accord. I feel like Ulysses answering the Siren’s Call.

I also am also tempted to go outside and ride my bike or go for a walk. Last weekend our entire family went camping and canoeing, and we just had a blast enjoying nature and each other’s company. We made s’mores and popcorn on the fire and laughed until we cried. So what’s this got to do with quilts? I have found that to live a creative life and keep inspired I need the balance of outdoors, being with family and having fun. This balance allows me to embrace my studio life instead of resenting the time I need to spend indoors to finish a project. I also take a camera along on my outdoor adventures and often find fodder for a new art project along the way. It’s supposed to be cold this weekend, so perhaps I’ll finish up that commission I’m working on, unless of course the sun is out and the sirens call.