Most days really. And there are no spare minutes to go swanning off after bluebirds.
There are days that are just endless paper jamming — waiting on hold — stuck in traffic — number crunching — brain numbing — is it over yet? — sorts of days.
At these times you need crows. And rust. And weeds growing in cracks in the asphalt.
The beauty of crows is …
Ah well, there are so many things that are beautiful about crows …
OK, let’s just say that one of the great things about crows is that, here in Vancouver at least, there is almost always one handy to distract you for a moment.
Even when you’re stuck in traffic, waiting for that freight train to budge, or the log jam of cars to clear, you can almost always catch a glimpse of a crow or two doing something interesting and/or silly within view. The trick is not to get too interested so you miss when the traffic starts to move.
Sometimes a crow in the right light can be the perfect substitute for a Mountain Bluebird — Vancouver’s very own bluebird of happiness.
No matter how rushed and boring a day, there’s usually at least time for a ten minute walk outside.
And, if you look a little bit sideways, put your eyes out of focus a little, you can find beautiful things almost anywhere.
“There are things you can’t reach. But you can reach out to them, and all day long.
I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around as though with your arms open.”
From — Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End? –by Mary Oliver
Smithrite with awesome graffiti, including (in elegant script) the word “knit.”
Flowering quince in evening light against a the side of peeling set of concrete stairs.
If you can’t get to the woods, sometimes a miniature horsetail forest will do.
Of course, there are days much worse than the paper jam days.
There are days when you’re in pain. Days when you receive very bad news.
Days when you feel as if you are nothing more than a hollow conduit for an endless river of sadness.
I’ve had days like those too, and ordinary, or even extraordinary, beauty alone would not do the trick.
But it’s always been there, part of the healing recipe of family, friends, doctors, medicine, therapy and time.
Crows, rust, weeds, poetry, clouds, trees, the sound of wind, bird calls, snippets of graffiti, lichen, peeling paint, the occasional raven or mountain bluebird — they all seem like the dots and dashes of a distant morse code message.
The meaning is alway just out of reach, but it gives purpose to each day to attempt the translation.
Sometimes, on my walks, I like to play a little game.
I call it Alleyway to Art Gallery.
Something catches my eye — a piece of rust, moss on a worn fence, a shattered windshield, even some crumpled paper floating in the gutter.
At that moment, in that light, it is astonishing.
That’s how the game begins.
Part two is imagining that the little piece of beauty has been magically transported from the gutter to a pristine white gallery.
The lighting and ambience are perfect. The exhibited piece is HUGE. Twenty feet high.
Perhaps sparkling wine is being served …
The colours, the textures! It’s stunning.
In some ways, the game can be a little depressing since the imaginary exhibit is far more gorgeous and spontaneous than anything I’m likely to create.
But, therein lies the fun of it. It’s an inspiration. Something to aspire to.
Plus, before you know it, I’ve been on a little fantasy VAG, MoMA, or Tate Modern trip during the course of a dog walk.
It’s my little secret. Until it wears away, blows away, or the light changes, it’s part of my own private collection.
The pictures in this blog are of a treasure I found in a local alleyway around this time last year.
As you can see in the photo above, the alleyway in question did not seem, at first glance, to hold a lot of promise. I can’t remember how exactly I came to notice it. Perhaps Geordie wanted to pee on it.
It was a large painting, done on some sort of wood veneer with thick, swirling sweeps of paint. Hard to say if was acrylic or oil paint, or what the original subject was.
I’m not sure how long it had been languishing in they alley when I found it, but much of the paint had worn off and the wooden base had started to de-laminate. Moss was beginning to colonize parts of the wood, and windy weather had caused brilliant fall leaves to pile up in front of it.
One or two other leaves had become plastered to the old painting and random, yet somehow perfect, intervals.
It was one of those overcast, damp days where the sky is a dull grey, but all terrestrial colours seem extra bright to compensate. Flecks of blue left in the painting, and the touches of red in the autumn leaves, seemed to add little jolts of electricity to the overall composition.
I visited my little secret art show several times over the next few weeks, until it disappeared under the winter snow.
I considered all the the elements that went into the accidental “installation”.
The painter and their original inspiration.
The decisions and/or circumstances that led to the painting being abandoned in the alley.
The wind, the leaves, the moss, the light.
My decision to walk that way that day.
Geordie’s sudden need to pee.
Somehow this little game brings me much joy.
More and more I’m trying to find ways to steer my mind onto calmer pathways and thinking about beauty and serendipity makes a welcome change from too much news or the never-ending “to-do” list.
I recommend it.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like, The Gift.
Gifts are something we start thinking about at this time of year.
We fret about finding perfect gifts for the people in our life.
Free gifts and special offers abound. Things can, and often do, get kind of crazy. By December it’s hard to see the wood for the Christmas trees, vis a vis why we’re doing what we’re doing.
I think of it as being placed, reluctantly, in the luge track (or perhaps the head first Skeleton would be more apt) for the festive season. We’re tucked in and about to head off at breakneck speed. Some days will just go by in a blur, until we end up in a crumpled heap on Boxing Day, wondering how on earth we got here.
In short, there seems to be little time for reflection during the holiday season. I’m about to strap myself in for the festive ride. In fact, I’ve already sent newsletters of my own about special offers and free gifts in my online shop, for people looking to buy gifts for others.
Which got me thinking about the nature of gifts. Gifts that you can’t buy.
Of course there are many of these. Love. Friends. Family. Music. Nature. Health.
But, particularly at this crazy time of year, one of the most precious gifts is stillness.
I am a bit of a “doer” in my personal and creative life. I tend to just keep moving and doing until I’m too tired to do any more. I think I get this from both of my parents, who seemed to be constantly making, fixing, knitting, cooking or cleaning.
In some ways this is great, but it makes it hard to be “in the moment”. I find my mind insistently wanders to tasks ahead when I’m doing yoga or trying to meditate. Or even sleep.
But I finally discovered one way to stop the mind spinning and quiet the “lists”.
In 1999 my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My mother had died unexpectedly two years earlier and I’d hardly got my bearings after that. My dad lived in the UK. I lived in Canada with my husband, and two small children. Thanks to the great kindness of a friend, who gave me three business class trips to the UK, I was able to visit him often during his last year. When the end came, he didn’t want to die in hospital, so my last trip was not just to visit, but to nurse him at home. It was a remarkable time. My brain, I believe, actually melted a bit under the stress of fatigue and worry about him, and about the family I had abruptly left behind in Vancouver.
I slept on the floor by his bed and was awake every hour or so. For one hour a day, a nurse came in to bathe him and to give me a break. The time was not really enough to have a nap and, if I tried, my mind just raced with a competing derby of thoroughbred worries. So, instead, I took to going for walks in the countryside around the house.
On those walks, everything seemed magnified in significance and beauty. I believe that the sheer stress of grief, responsibility, and tiredness forced my eyes open in a new way.
Things that I would not have noticed before seemed truly incredible. The rusted and contorted barbed wire on the farmer’s fence seemed to somehow symbolize the struggle that my dad was going through. Every old stone wall, piece of moss and crumpled leaf seemed full of meaning. I may just have been delirious from lack of sleep, but that experience stayed with me long after he died.
In a way, it was Dad’s last gift.
It permanently changed how I look at the world.
When things are spinning out of control, I’m still an epic failure at traditional meditating. But walking and looking really closely at the things around me (which for me, involves photography) can slow things down to a peaceful pace, or even a momentary full stop.
All the lists and the worries can be briefly put to one side. For a few moments everything is still, and all that is beautiful and wonderful in nature is perfectly encapsulated in that one piece of rust or lichen, the sheen of a bird feather, the visual poetry of shadow or, the hop, skip and jump of a crow. It’s like being in a cathedral, even if it’s, geographically, an urban alley or a forest trail.
This little starling kept me company while I had a coffee at Granville Island.
Walking to pick up my van from the mechanic I came across this incredible landscape of created by a shattered windshield on the sidewalk.
The sun catches the light on lovely new post-molting season crow feathers
Amid the holiday shopping, menu planning, house decorating, travel plans, and social life scheduling, it’s worth taking the time to give yourself a few of these small gifts every day.
Downtown Vancouver – falling leaves trapped and displayed on the glass awning above the sidewalk.
To look deeply at something (not in a shop) and think to yourself “wow”.
And then move back into the slipstream of your day, but carry the “wow” with you.
It started as a normal Monday in East Vancouver. The dawn made it’s spectacular appearance (an hour late due Daylight Savings).
Birds began to reappear in the sky, taking their posts for the coming day.
Eric and his family arrived at their spot — in my garden, waiting for the first peanut handout of the day.
I was thrilled to see the first downy woodpeckers had returned from whichever winter destination they’d chosen.
I noted that the house sparrows were collecting nesting material. And giving the pine siskin some interior design ideas at the same time.
Suddenly, trouble in paradise.
Eric and his family of crows dove into the lilac tree where all the small songbirds like to be.
I thought the crows had suddenly and unexpectedly decided to start dining on full-grown sparrows and chickadees.
But no — the crows had spotted a juvenile Sharp Shinned Hawk darting into the lilac.
No doubt the hawk had certain designs on the songbirds, snack-wise.
The hawk fled, pursued by Eric, his family and the neighbourhood watch committee of concerned crows. They flew around the neighbourhood all day.
Hawk soaring, crows cawing.
A crow keeps a wary eye on the hawk from the top of street sign.
So, now we have a new kid on the block, adding to the daily excitement. Another hazard for smaller birds, like the bald eagles and ravens that already cruise the skies. But another thrilling ingredient into the mix of wildlife that calls East Vancouver home.
Occasionally the most ordinary of days is transformed out of all recognition.
It started with a dawn trip downtown for an early morning physiotherapy appointment (tennis elbow: even less fun that it sounds).
Post-appointment I popped into the Vancouver Art Gallery to drop off one of my bracelets, ordered by the gift shop. It was still so early that the gallery wasn’t open yet, but my friend was there so we went out for a quick coffee. Already the day was on the upswing!
After coffee, I decided to go back once again to the gallery with her to take a photo of my work on display in the shop. As we reached the entrance it was hard to miss the massive crow commotion going on in the tree just outside. My friend immediately guessed it was the barred owl that she’d seen several times over the years, usually in the evening. I guess this time the owl had pulled an all-nighter, because there she was, high in the tree, with about two dozen crows flapping around and cawing furiously.
Quite a large owl with big, soulful eyes, she was a breath-taking sight and not at all something you expect to find in downtown Vancouver on a Friday morning. Miraculously having my camera with me, all other plans for the day were put on hold.
The crows came and went … and came back again. The initial twenty or so dwindled to a skeleton crew of two dedicated owl harassers. For about 15 minutes even they left and all was quiet. Then they were back and the furious cawing resumed. Mostly the owl was able to ignore the hullaballoo and, secure in a particularly dense part of the tree, she seemed to nod off for a while. Then a crow would get too close and she’d make a lunge for it. Crows would explode from all sides of the tree. The owl would relocate to another branch and the game resumed.
The owl finally found a spot where the crows couldn’t get too close.
The Barred owl attempts to get some shut-eye in spite of the crow racket.
During the course of this I spoke to many people who were curious about the goings on – a couple who came equipped with binoculars, people who worked in the gallery, tourists, school children going in to see a show, a nice man from Ireland. Opinions were exchanged, stories told.
The Irish gentleman had a particularly memorable corvid tale. Back in Ireland, his aunt lived in a cottage close by a rookery. The rooks were very noisy and she tried to get rid of them by smoking them out – and in so doing, burned her own house down. The ultimate in “why you shouldn’t be mean to crows” stories.
Then a woman came to join the conversation and I noticed she was wearing one of my pendants. I commented on that and it turned out that she has several of my pieces and is a poet. She told me that she loves crows. We exchanged cards. Her name is Daniela Elza and her newest collection, milk tooth bane bone, explores her fascination with crows. I have just read a wonderful review of it here. I am seeking a copy immediately!
I took some time to appreciate the last dawn of 2014 – and such a dawn it was.
After a festive season of heath challenges, it seems even more important that usual to appreciate the small things that are big.
Being with family, good friends, health (it’s all relative), moments of quiet loveliness, every dawn, every sunset. Crows, naturally.
A week or so before Christmas my husband was in a nasty bike accident. When we found him in emergency he couldn’t remember the last five years or so of his life, or how he had come to be in the ER. Thanks to his helmet, he did not have a major brain injury, “just” a concussion. By the next day he remembered everything, except for the ride to work, the accident, the ride in the ambulance and the hours spent in the hospital. These things he may never remember. Concussions, I am learning, are tricky things, taking anything from weeks to months to recover from. Phillip has spent about 90% of the holiday season in bed, in the dark with his new best friends — audio books. Even watching TV or reading is too much for his rattled brain at this point.
He will get better eventually, with rest and quiet, so as frustrating as the process of healing can be, we are grateful every day that things weren’t much, much worse.
So this morning I made a point of spending an hour or so bundled up on the top deck of our house to welcome in the last day of 2014 in all its splendour. This may be the most exciting part of my New Year’s celebrations this year, but that’s just fine with me.
The first of the commuter crows arrive.
As the sun rose, the sky behind the poplars at the end of our street was painted with sugared almond shades of peach, raspberry and lavender. And, as reliable as clockwork, the crows began to arrive from the east and their night time roost at Still Creek. Most were just passing through, heading to their “day jobs” in North Vancouver and points west of here.
But the locals stopped on the very tops of the poplars as if to take in the breath-taking views. I’ve often noticed them hanging around there on mornings with particularly gorgeous sunrises, as if they are as susceptible to the beauty as I am. Of course, it could be that they sit there every morning and I only notice them when I happen to be out taking in the view myself, but I prefer to go with my “crows as dawn worshippers” theory.
You can see the neighbourhood waking up from the vantage point of our roof, the sky changing and a positive rush hour of birds – flickers, gulls, geese, sparrows, juncos, were spotted this morning, as well as Eric and the gang.
The northern flicker scooped the weeping birch perch this morning.
As I watched Eric and his little group huddling together on the wires, I was also reminded of how grateful we’ve been for all the friends who’ve rallied around since the accident. It’s the crow equivalent of volunteers leaving the little crow family group to head over and scare away the eagle. I’m sure our friends would scare eagles away for us too, but, in the absence of winged predators, we are very grateful for all of the soup, cookies, help and concern that we’ve received.
And, of course, I’m very grateful to Eric and his corvid kin, because watching them lifts me away from my worries and cares for a while as I realize there are so many lives being lived in parallel to our human ones, even here in the middle of East Vancouver.
The colours of the sunrise glow on Eric’s feathers
If you’re anything like me, the list goes along these lines:
Why is my computer displaying that “fatal error” message?
Where the heck did those extra cell phone charges come from?
What should I pick up for tonight’s dinner?
How soon, exactly, will the world arrive at hell in a hand basket?
These are all very worthy concerns. I am an expert worrier. Just ask my children. However, each time I board a plane I am reminded that, in the event of an emergency, I need to put my oxygen mask on first. In other words, I can’t help anyone else if I’m not functional. I discovered this a few years ago during a time of major stress and sadness.
Taking a small “wonder break” can be the most instantly relaxing and restorative thing you can do for yourself in five minutes or less.
Just some of the many things I like to wonder about:
What do birds think about?
Where do they go at night?
Does the rain bother the crows?
How come moss grows everywhere?
What, exactly, is lichen?
Why is rust so beautiful sometimes?
I think we all followed such thought paths as children, but somewhere along the way, musing-time gets left behind. Mental meandering is frequently written off as daydreaming, a waste of time. But those tiny moments can be the start of bigger things.
Once you start, the wondering can take off in a couple of directions.
Path one: I wonder … (lower case ‘w’) Once you start noticing birds, moss, plants, animals or old rusty signs, you may find yourself driven to find out more. You can talk to people who know more than you, read books or magazine articles, watch documentaries, do some online research. There might be just one question you’d like to find the answer to, or you can end up with a lifelong passion on your hands.
Path Two: Wonder (with a capital ‘W’)
This world is not perfect. Let’s face it, it’s far, far from perfect and we shouldn’t ever forget that or stop working to make it better.
But, there are those moments when you step outside of the door and notice some little, inconsequential thing and everything seems to stop just for a moment. Sometimes you say to yourself (or even out loud) “wow”.
Just for a moment we can live in pure wonder. It’s just a moment, but that feeling rides along with us as we rejoin the daily battle — whether it’s sorting out the cell phone bill, or saving the world.
May that blue bird of happiness sit on your shoulder as it sat on mine when (at last!) a member of the tricky and elusive Stellar’s Jay tribe took pity on me and posed for a portrait.
I can’t really complain about the birds I’ve been able to photograph this summer. From the lovely little white crowned sparrows in my garden to the ravens that seem to have followed me around in recent months, it’s been a splendid season of bird viewing.
But there was one that seemed to delight in teasing me. Hiking in the woods and on mountains I was constantly on the lookout for the vivid blue flash of a Stellar’s Jay. And that’s exactly what I would see – a streak of electric blue disappearing between the shadows. Far too fast and distant for any hope of a photograph, it seemed that the Stellar’s Jay was mocking me. Quite likely from what I know of their corvid personality!
Worse, people would tell me they had these birds visiting them regularly in their gardens. One friend had one expire in his after being attacked by a cat (keep your cats indoors people!). I did have one in my garden once, about three years ago. Unfortunately it was in the deep shadow of the curly hazel tree (collecting nuts) where it was too dark to get a good shot. I only ever use natural light and a hand-held camera, so I am always at the mercy of the light.
Summer was pretty much done when we went for our holidays on Vancouver Island, and I was almost resigned to yet another season without a good Stellar’s Jay photograph.
The first stop on our trip was a visit with old friends who live in the village of Cumberland. Walking with my friend in the woods around their house I could hear the enticing call of the jay and occasionally saw that oh so tantalizing streak of blue.
Finally, I was standing alone, admiring my friend’s garden, when the bird shown here flew close to me at the edge of the woods. Instead of flitting away as usual, this one just sat there — in sufficient light for a decent photograph — and looking magnificent. He even considerately posed on a gorgeous moss-covered branch in a shade of lime green that perfectly complemented his feathers.
This is the original photograph of the Stellar’s Jay taken in the woods outside Cumberland, BC.
It was as if he was saying, “Here, you’ve suffered enough. I’m posing for a perfect photo for you. Don’t muck it up.”
The final Stellar’s Jay portrait is composed using my usual layered approach. There is the Cumberland jay in starring role, with a supporting cast of cracked concrete, a fennel plant, the shadows of maple leaves left in a wet fall sidewalk, a tiny crow feather, grey blue sky and a Canadian postmark.
Some of the other images used in the composition of the Stellar’s Jay portrait.
This little blue bird of happiness is available in my online shop as a signed print, tile and as jewellery. You may have him with you to cheer up on any day, no matter how grey.
Just a small selection of the 1,500 or so rust, peeling paint, graffiti, old china, wallpaper etc photos I’ve collected.
It’s a rainy day here in Vancouver. The first of many, I suspect. But, to quote one of my mother’s many handy sayings, “every cloud has a silver lining.” These grey, wet days are perfect for heading out and adding to my “texture” photo collection.
I think it started with the battleship linoleum on out bathroom floor when I was little. I used to stare at it and could see several distinct scenes of action. The one I remember most clearly was a lion swimming in a strong current of green swirling water. In those distant pre-internet (even pre-TV) days, I used to make up stories about the world within the lino. More recently, I was sure that this intersection of green and blue looked, if you squint a bit, like a tropical oasis.
So began a lifelong fascination with patterns and pictures in the most unlikely places – rust, lichen, water, grating, reflections, lace, wallpaper, ice, fibreglass, peeling paint. Often to the exasperation of my long-suffering family. A few years ago I was in London with my son, then eighteen. As I crouched over a rusty grating to take the hundredth photo of the day, he said, “do you hear that”. I said “what?” and he replied, “it’s the sound of my eyes rolling”. I smile every time I hunker down to take yet another picture in the gutter or on a fence. I find it best to go solo on these expeditions these days!
I just checked the “textures” folder on my computer. It contains 1488 images. I’ve taken many more times that number of this type photos, but these are the ones I’ve chosen to save. What do I do with them all? Some of them end up as images in their own right, large canvases or prints. I love the fact that some of my favourite and most striking images come from extremely humble origins.
This slightly Gustav Klimt-inspired piece is actually a section of a burned out and rusted car I found deep in the woods in northern British Columbia.
This rather spectacular study of blue and orange was created by the wear pattern of a chain on a dumpster in the far corner of the parking lot of my local Costco.
Spectacular Rust on a Dumpster in our Local Costco Parking Lot
Some of the images are just fun – taken often around the house, like this one looking into a green plastic glass. I haven’t quite figured out a purpose for this one yet.
Most of the texture team play a supporting role in other images, layered to add depth (both in terms of meaning and visual interest). Every time I go back to the North East of England where I grew up, one of the things on my “must do” list is to climb up the 325 narrow winding steps of the tower at Durham Cathedral. From the top is a breath-taking panoramic view of the town and surrounding countryside. But the journey up the tower is fascinating too, as the stone walls have been embellished with graffiti – ancient and modern.
Layer upon layer of human efforts to leave a mark.
I’ve used images of the tower walls layered in some of my images of contemporary Vancouver crows. In combining the images I’m trying to keep memories of my UK background current in my daily crow-filled Vancouver life. I’m thinking about how crows are both ancient and modern and, like people, prone to mischief. I’m sure they’d be prolific graffiti artists, if only they had opposable thumbs. And maybe, if we don’t get our human act together — crows and the ruins of Durham Cathedral may perhaps outlast us all …
Some textures are used to make jewellery. One of my most popular designs is “Ribbon”. This abstract striped pattern comes from a photograph of prismatic tape I found hanging in a physics lab. It’s silvery surface is designed to reflect different light waves, creating and ever-changing combination of colour and pattern and it moves in the breeze.
Many of the images I take don’t even make it to the “textures” vault on the computer. Often they’re taken with my phone and see the light of day on my Instagram account. Lots of others flit across my Facebook page.
Still nice and cloudy out there. Better grab the camera and head out in search of some lovely rust or mouldering plywood!