Saturday, September 12, 2009

Sitka Center and a Cloud of Chickadees

Several months ago I jumped at the chance to sign up for two heavenly days working in the Boyden Studio at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology over Labor Day weekend. The studio is housed in a weathered cedar building nestled in the Sitka Spruce forest above the Salmon River estuary. The studio is blessed with a view of distant waves breaking on the sandy spit, where river meets ocean. Warmed by a wood stove, the studio begs you to break out your art materials and create.

Last Friday, I received a phone call that I would have this spectacular studio all to myself, as everyone else had cancelled. I was also asked to pick up one of Sitka’s instructors, Wuon Gean Ho, who had just flown in from London. She is both a veterinarian and a talented wood block print artist and we shared a rainy ride to the coast together, discussing life and art on both sides of the ocean. Since her class would not begin until the following week, we had the opportunity toenjoy two days of shared art, nature, food, conversation and laughter.

The grounds of Sitka Center are filled with unique art in odd nooks and crannies and each time I visit, I seem to find one or two more hidden treasures.

On Saturday afternoon, we hiked down to and along the estuary. We watched the boaters on the river and looked at the detritus of life along the shores – tiny crabs and jellies, as well as feathers and seaweed covered the shore where the tide had receded. Oregon law allows for anyone to hike along the shore up to the high water line, even if edged by private property. But soon we could see the path blocked by an incoming creek, so we attempted to cross 9 feet of dead grass on private property to get to the road. As we tried, we heard a voice from the adjacent property yelling that we were trespassing and, chastised, we returned to the high water line and forded the creek. Well, attempted to ford the creek, as I slid into the cold, muddy water….But we successfully made it up the hill and I was soon in front of the wood stove trying to dry out and recover my composure because we laughed about the notion of trespassing on a short strip of dead grass all the way back.

On Sunday afternoon, after a morning filled with art and conversation, we decided to brave the intermittent rain and hike the Cascade Head trail to view the ocean. The trail begins in coastal rain forest, dark with moss and filled with the calls of frogs and crows. Clown millipedes crossed the path, as well as small brown snails and Banana slugs. Songbirds mill about in the tree crowns and a Douglas squirrel was busy eating a cache of pinecones freshly harvested from nearby trees. The trail was slippery and I lost my footing several times along the steep upward path. The forest is so thick that most raindrops do not make it to the ground, but there was enough accumulation to make the soil almost liquid, in spots.
Suddenly, after what seems like a long upward climb, you leave the tree line and enter the native grasslands of the Head. The sky, which has been hidden from view, suddenly jumps out at you and your breath is taken away by the view of the ocean and river, 500 feet below.

Still above is the top of Cascade Head, another 500 feet beyond, with an even more spectacular view, but at this moment, the sky opens and the rain begins to fall.
I had lagged behind to enjoy the view and now had to hurry back to the shelter of the trees. After I entered the treeline, I stopped to listen to the sound of raindrops on the forest canopy. In the tree above me, I saw a hawk land and perch under a branch to get out of the rain and a squirrel scurry away, not wanting to become dinner. I closed my eyes and breathed deep of the smells and sounds of rain and forest, trying to preserve this moment in the memory of all five senses. Suddenly, I became aware of whispered twitters and the movement of air all about me. I slowly opened my eyes to find myself within a cloud of chickadees, calling out to all that would hear that danger lurked nearby. They passed so close that I could see the detail of the feathers on their breast. I was enchanted by the moment - a moment that filled my heart with the wild wonder of nature.
I stayed with the birds until they flew away and then scurried on to join Wuon Gean, and the warmth of the waiting studio. And all too soon, said my goodbyes and headed back to the city. Wuon Gean and I agreed to work on a small collaboration to celebrate our fateful walk around the high water line. The day was over, but I will hold the memory of this weekend close to my heart and remember it well in the coming grey days of winter.

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