The Cabinet of Natural Wonders – Graz & Wien part 4

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I have now visited it twice, the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, and I’m still not done with it. I have seen the most of the first floor twice and on both times it has been equally exiting. Maybe next time I will make it to the exhibitions of the second floor.

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Go in as soon as it opens. Trust me, you’ll need the whole day.

The tour begins with minerals, rocks and fossils and since it is an imperial collection, there are hordes of those. Last time my hubby said he would not be interested in the mineral collection. Yeah, right… We ended up going through every single display. There are the traditional mineral samples, cabinet after a cabinet, room after a room:

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Green stuff. I can tell where it came from (it reads in the labels) but I have no idea what it is.

While they might seem boring and a bit intimidating at first glance, give them a chance and look carefully. They are quite beautiful and intriguing. Like this miniature ice berg:

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A chunk of Aragonite.

But since it is an IMPERIAL collection, it’s not just exhaustive (after a few hours, quite literally), it is also breathtaking size-wise. For a scientific collection it would be enough to have a comprehensive collection of illustrative samples but an imperial collection is a collection of curiosities. It’s not enough to have all the samples – a bit like having all the Pokémons – you need to have the most impressive samples you can get and there is nothing more impressive than something huge:

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A rock crystal. There is a larger one but it’s so huge it doesn’t photograph well.

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A topaz. Merely 117 kg. For a ring, maybe?

Then there are the gold nuggets with one, the goldenklumpen “Welcome”, weighing precisely 68,98 kg. One needs to be exact with these things. It is a natural history museum after all. Which also means that it’s not just all samples and impressiveness. One of the really interesting displays is the one built in old wall cabinets explaining the etymology and the logic of the naming stuff. Why there is rubintyrann, the vermilion flycatcher in English, or zebramarmor and zebrajaspis. The minerals and stones are displayed next to their namesake birds and other critters and it’s easy to get the idea even when you don’t speak a word of German.

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The fossil collection is just as comprehensive and impressive. My favourite one is this large fossil of Scyphocrinites that used to float around oceans all around the wolrd some 410 million years ago. The amount of detail is amazing! You can click on the picture to enlarge it.

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Scyphocrinites in detail.

The museum also has few replicas of fossils of large animals, like this Devonian fish. The head alone was close to 1,5 m long. The real things are too fragile to be put on display, but the replicas are so detailed that it doesn’t matter much. Besides there are real ones too, even a real dinosaur leg bone that you can touch. It’s worn smooth and polished where the visitors have caressed it.

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It took an hour to draw this. School classes kept on getting in the way.

Last time I had time to draw other stuff too:

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A volcanic bomb about 50 cm high and a tiny trilobite.

What is interesting is that the human evolution and prehistoric cultures are placed in this museum. The evolution part I get, but the prehistoric art is slightly out of place. I suppose it’s an old divide dating back to the imperial days and the 19th century sensibilities that did not see it as art proper. After all, many old natural history museums also house anthropological collections which were considered primitive and therefore belonging within the natural historical and not art. And so the Naturlhistorisches Museum is where you go when you want to see the Venus of Willendorf and other famous prehistoric venuses. I decided to draw it from a slightly different angle to make it more interesting. What a bum!

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Earl Grey too had come to see the famous Venus of W.

When you start too feel tired and drained it’s time to head for the museum café. Seriously. Go and have a cuppa. The whole building is – just as its counterpart, the art history museum, is – a sight so see in itself. Don’t forget to look up while touring the exhibits as every room is decorated according to its theme with paintings and sculptures.  Take a look at the dinosaur room’s statues especially. The café is situated under the central dome which is much more modest than its counterpart across the yard:

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It’s difficult to drink your cuppa while staring at the ceiling.

And the food it delicious. Do try the traditional pancake and apple strudel. The price will double once you walk across to the art historical museum…

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Climbing up a Mountain – Graz &Wien part 3

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I returned to Austria last November but this time with my hubby. We first visited our friends in Graz and climbed our very first mountain ever. That was so awesome! First of all, you need to keep in mind this is my home landscape:

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Here in Keski-Pohjanmaa region anything over 2 meters above the sea level is considered a hill. Seriously. When my hubby first moved here I tried to explain where friend of mine was living. “It’s the red house right on the top of the Koutonen-hill,” I said. My hubby gave me a perplexed look. I offered a more detailed description and he replied: “Oh, I hadn’t realised there is a hill there.”

See what I mean?

So a mountain, even a small one, is a Big Thing in my books.

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Even the relatively gentle slopes around Graz are impressive in my eyes.

The mountain we tackled was the Schöckl. It’s not that high as far as mountains go, but a mountain nevertheless. Our initial plan was to take the cable car up but it happened to be closed for an inspection that day – which we discovered only after we got there. That put a slight strain on our timetable but we still decided to climb up. We took a path that circled around the peak, a route our friends had not taken before even though they are regular visitors. The day was warm and sunny and  the views were quite spectacular. It had rained the day before and there had already been a quite a bit of snow on the Schöckl but the warm Föhn-wind had melted it all away. In fact, the weather felt like springtime!

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The northwards view about 2/3 up to the top.

It’s just mindbogglingly beautiful to look across the landscape from an elevated position. Things in the landscape seem both faraway and oddly within reach. I can understand why they have used the same perspective in classical Chinese landscape paintings. There is something both awe-inspiring and numinous in such a perspective. This is what the Aesthetics’ concept of Sublime was created for.

While perfectly sunny the weather on top was chilling to the bone because of the wind .

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Not quite the highest point but who cares.

We had planned to have a picnic once we reached the peak but it was just too cold and we had to settle for a more shielded spot. Still, the prospect was magnificent, and while the wind certainly made us finish our meal quickly, the sun was also getting closer and closer to the horizon. We decided to get a more direct route down which also meant a more steep descent. We needed to hurry if we were to get past the steepest parts before sunset. It does get dark quite quickly – especially in comparison out lingering sunsets in Finland.

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The southward side and views to the south-east.

Seeing the sun set from a mountain is one of the most spectacular sights. To watch how the blue, cold, and mysterious shadows creep across the landscape below you, and how the green landscape turns into a sea of blue hue with pinkish-orange islands of hills and smaller mountains. That’s when the air, the actual atmosphere itself becomes somehow more tangible. You can see and experience the vastness of the planet, that the space between things-of-the-world is not a void but a substance.

I can hardly wait for the next time.

Summer of Clouds

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It has been a summer of tremendous clouds. There has been rainy days with monotonous greyness, days of sweltering azure (can you use that word like that?) and everything in between. It has been a perfect summer for some cloudspotting.

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From a walk with our dog, Kili. Apparently we fought of a gigantic swarm of flies, and had to overtake a half a metre long adder on the path. It was searingly hot so I sketched like a lightning.

However, form a sketcher’s point of view the summer has been problematic. If it wasn’t raining, it was so hot that watercolours dried far too quickly making it next to impossible to use wet-on-wet properly. So I was usually left with two choices: sketch real quickly or not at all.

The beginning of the August saw a change in the weather as the thunderstorms arrived. Some days were tropical (really, they said that on the TV’s forecast): humid, warm nights were followed by sultry mornings and afternoon thunder showers. The monotonous rain clouds changed into towering thunderclouds.

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A thunder front advancing from the east.

That made sketching clouds a lot easier. Especially as I could see approaching showers well before they hit and look for shelter. Often the clouds rolled past in rows making the landscape seem even vaster and boundless. Pohjanmaa region is clearly the Finnish version of the Big Sky Country. Except for the mountains.

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Then the weather changed again and the clouds with it. The clearly shaped cumuli lost their firmness – a certain sign that the autumn is suddenly just around the corner. Those partly dissolved clouds presented a new sketching challenge, but it was a delight to sit in the open and follow the clouds go by.

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Sometimes they had the feel of gigantic, monumental beasts floating unhurriedly across the landscape, being massive and insubstantial all at once.

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A big sky behemoth.

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The winter is coming – as it always does – and these clouds a the first promise of snow.

Then last Monday I saw clouds that made my summer. We were driving towards the West on our way to the town of Kokkola. It was far too early (for me at least), around 6.30 AM, and there was massif of storm clouds rising above the sea some 15 km from where I took this photo:

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A lenticular cloud above low hanging storm clouds.

The cloud massif was – phenomenal. So many different kinds of formations that I could have spend several hours watching their evolution. But the cherry on top was that lenticular cloud floating almost immobilized above the massif. We don’t often get lenticular clouds over here. I suppose it’s because the landscape is rather flat, i.e. it’s relief is shallow, and to my understanding lenticular clouds usually form above high hills, mountains and such. What a treat!

The Day of the Birds

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Few weeks ago I spent a weekend in Helsinki while my partner had his annual weekend get-together with his old army buddies. I didn’t realise until just a few days before the trip that is was the Halloween weekend and I wouldn’t be able to go shopping for art supplies on Saturday like I had planned. No matter, instead of shopping I just spent more time eating and drawing in the Natural History Museum.

The day started with a lunch with my friend in an excellent Chinese restaurant called China (yes, really, even in Finnish). Except we were there a full hour too early and the place was still closed. No matter, we decided to have the dessert first which is always a good solution in situations like this. We had rather bad tea and delicious pastries in what supposedly is one of the best cafes in town. It usually is a really good choice but for some reason the tea was just water this time. Incidentally, one time the then president of Finland Tarja Halonen was there too when we went in for a cuppa. *Enter appropriate amount of awe here* Anyway, an hour later we were in the restaurant looking at menus and trying to figure out what to order.

We decided to avoid all the usual choices and went for this as the starter:

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Steamed chicken legs in black bean sauce. Sounds disgusting but actually really, really tasty. Not much in them to eat, though. It’s basically just skin, tendons and cartilage with lots of small bones to spit out. I have eaten some really horrible ones but these were delicious. I can highly recommend them – in this restaurant at least.

As the main course we had steamed Chinese vegetables and Cantonese pork:

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Tasty! And here the jasmine tea was good too. And, of course, we had the second dessert too like any decent Hobbit should. I had almond milk tofu with fruits and that too was, you guessed it, delicious.

From the restaurant I went to the Finnish Museum of Natural History. I had intended to draw some beetles and such but the collection they had on display was so small that there was nothing really interesting to draw. I guess most visitors are more interested in dinosaurs and large mammals than in insects. How weird is that! There aren’t many things more beautiful than beetle’s pelvis and legs.

A new plan was in order and so I decided to draw some birds. I picked the most colourful birds of the Finnish fauna, the common king fisher and the Eurasian golden oriole. The page still had space left for one more and I decided to draw the head of the great black cormorant with its piercing glare. I drew the head of the king fisher too small, which means I learnt something and next time I will know what to do.

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The museum was packed with families, of course, but to my surprise there were quite a few tourists considering it was so late in the autumn. Even more surprising was the number of young adults and even teenagers present. And they, these fairly typical city inhabitants, were really enthusiastic about the birds. They eagerly shared anecdotes about birds they had seen and wondering about the size, shape and colours of our feathered friends. It was a really nice surprise! Most of the times I have been there practically all of the other visitors have been families, but clearly on a national holiday – when everything else is closed – a natural history museum is a valid option for leisure.

Maybe there still is hope for the planet.

PS. I did realise birds were the theme of the day until I typed the title. It also was a day of changing plans.

Edinburgh 2014 And Not a Drop of Rain

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Haven’t been to Scotland since 2010 and I have been missing it a lot. What can I say, I’m a Scotland junkie. I managed to talk my scout troop (Boys and girls belong to same groups here in Finland.) into selecting Scotland as this year’s group trip destination and so, after a year of fundraising, we spent four nights in Edinburgh. And you know what: it didn’t rain at all the whole time we were there. That has never happened to me before. All that rain gear – for nothing! I even carried my raincoat in my backpack the whole time. Not that I’m complaining…

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My first plane sketch ever. We left home at 5.30 in the morning and boarded the plane to Stockholm, Sweden, around 13.30. We changed planes and eventually landed in Edinburgh around 20.00. A long, long day. Usually I sleep in cars, trains and planes, I love to sleep in them, but not this time for some reason. So instead I drew these guys fast a sleep on the plane to Edinburgh.

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Monday was Tour of the Town -day and I didn’t have time to sketch anything from my tour guide duties. But Tuesday was day trip day. The famous Rosslyn Chapel was our first stop. It’s a pretty awesome place and the Da Vinci Code doesn’t do it justice. Go see it if you ever have the chance and take your time with the decorations. And listen the guide as s/he takes you through its history. You’d be amazed!

Tantallon Castle by the sea and close to the beautiful coastal town of North Berwick  was our second stop. It is a stunning place to visit. Just look at the pictures:

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The curtain wall of the Tantallon Castle. Notice the sky: not a single cloud to be seen!

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The eastward view from the castle. Only the curtain wall remains. The other three have (mostly) fallen to the sea.

And there is a magnificent view of the Bass Rock with its tens of thousands of sea birds from the castle too. You can see the Rock all the way from the Edinburgh Castle or the Arthur’s Seat on a clear day, but from the Tantallon you can see that it is white because of the birds, the largest colony of gannets in the world in fact. The bird droppings may have something to do with it too. The island is actually about 300 million years old volcanic plug, just like the rock on which the Edinburgh Castle is built. How cool can one tiny island get?

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Yes, that’s a lot of birds.

That Tuesday was A Great Day. I just wish I had had more time at the castle. There were so many things to draw there.

On Wednesday everyone roamed the city on their own. Some went shopping. Some went to the Edinburgh Zoo which they said was really good, especially because the animals had ample enclosures. I went to visit the National Museum of Scotland. In 2010 the older, originally Victorian part of the building was still under renovations so I went to see how it had turned out. Boy, was I in for a treat! I had a cuppa and a delicious sandwich first (I had taken three persons to the Edinburgh Castle first. I’m a life member of Historic Scotland and can take two adult guests with me for free.) before I begun to roam the place. The trouble was I had a sore throat and probably some temperature too, and I simply did not have the energy to see as much as I would have liked to. So I concentrated my energies on the natural world.

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I learned that there is a reason why the tip of the tail of the stoat is black: it actually confuses birds of pray that try to catch a stoat and deceives the attacker into aiming at the tail instead of the stoats head giving stoat time to flee. Never knew that. What a neat trick!

The main attraction for me, however, was the temporary exhibition of Ming Dynasty, my favourite Chinese dynasty. It wasn’t particularly big exhibition but they had some absolutely masterful objects of art on display. Sadly my flu-infected mind forgot instantly all the names of the artists I liked. One particularly brilliant ink painting was a huge picture of a stormy sea. I almost could feel the gale tearing the sails and feel the waves heaving and taste the salt of the sea. All that using only white paper and black ink. Stunning. I could have spend hours staring at the paintings alone. There was so much to learn.

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He looks a bit too cocky to be the Buddha.

I wanted to draw something just to remorise the exhibition. Of course there was no seating, not even those folding chairs you can often find in museums, and I was getting really tired quickly. What would I have given for a seat! Luckily there was only one other person in the exhibition at that time so I could drop my backpack on the floor and scatter my drawing stuff around it without bothering anyone. I just wish I had had the energy to draw more.

I new I had to take off soon. My energies were just about spent. However, I braved the Animal World -exhibition first. There was so many interesting things there but all I could manage was this quick sketch of the African elephant and the jaw bones of a blue whale. I knew blue whales are huge, enormous. So big, in fact, that you can drive a Volkswagen Beetle in its aorta (David Attenborough said so on the telly, so it must be true), but to think that its tongue weighs as much as an African elephant! Oh boy, that’s big for you.

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That’s all from Scotland for now. Next trip me and my partner make might be a week in London and just the British Museum. That would be so sweet…

Blog Hopping Around the World

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Quinn from QuinnCreative asked if I wanted to participate in blog hopping and of course I said yes! But first of all, I must apologise if you, dear reader, followed the link on Quinn’s blog and found nothing new here. I meant to write and post this earlier today but the archeological hike with a local archeology enthusiasts we had this morning lasted much longer than I anticipated. We had a great day! Warm, really warm for May – close to +30 C/+86 F – but that didn’t stop us from spending five and half hours roaming around the rocky forest ridges hunting for prehistoric burial mounds and stuff. Maybe I should post about that too sometime.

Enough of that for now. There are some questions I’m supposed to answer.

What are you working on? Have you heard of the Sketchbook Skool by Danny Gregory and Koosje Koene? I enrolled on their first ever semester, ‘The Beginnings,’ and that is what I have been working on lately. My Ph.D. theses has been under the scrutiny of the pre-examiners so I have had more free time to spend drawing etc. One assignment we have had was to go to a natural history museum to draw, and Friday last week I visited the local natural history museum Kieppi with my friend and we spend few hours there drawing what ever we found interesting. Here is some stuff that I drew there:

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The first drawing on the left is also a partial answer to the second question: How does your word differ from others of its genre? I don’t know if the end products of my creative process are that different from others but the way I observe things is not, I think, that common. When I draw or paint I don’t transform three dimensional objects into outlines and contours onto the two dimensional surface of paper. I have a pretty strong sense of space, spatial relations and mass and I sort of carve out the object on the paper. It’s difficult to explain but I kind of feel out in my mind the 3D-shape of the thing I’m drawing, its textures and its form (all sides, mind you, not just the front). Drawing contours is really hard for me but that’s what I wanted to practice on during my museum visit. So I first drew the seed of the cannonball mangrove, Xylocarpus granatum, on the left to get that need to carve things out of my system. After that it was easier to perceive things, like the seagulls on the right, as contours.

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Northern fulmar, Fulmarus glacialis & Hoopoe, Upupa epops

Why do you write/create what you do? Because it deepens my contact with the world. Drawing is a way to touch things, to know them and not just to know about them. Drawing is special way of being-in-the-world. It’s so much more than just looking at and seeing things. It is the ultimate form of observation in my mind – for me at least. And I want to show folks what an incredible world spreads about them. For example, while I was writing that previous sentence a large beetle crawled in from our backyard. I captured it in a jar, memorised its overall appearance and returned it outside. There are myriad things to see out there (and in here) and I wish to share them with you.

BTW, the Finnish word for fulmars is rather romantic: myrskylintu, ‘storm bird.’

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Rough-legged buzzard, Buteo lagopus & European honey buzzard, Pernis apivorus

How does your writing/creative process work? At first I always fiddle about too much. It’s the same with my philosophical writings (I don’t do science, I’m a philosopher!) and drawing or any other creative activity. I get caught up in the details. I want to draw everything and write and read about everything. It takes a while to figure out what details are necessary, which ones lead to discoveries and which ones are just white noise. I can’t bypass that part of the process, in fact it is elemental for my thinking. I can, however, speed it up a bit by accepting and allowing it like I did with the cannonball mangrove: I do what I have to and get on with it. It can sometimes get really muddy and confused in my mind but I don’t mind as I know it will clear up soon and I will discover something unexpected. I never know what waits me at the end of a path I’m following but I know it’s worth it.

Eurasian three-toed woodpecer, Picoides tridactylus

Eurasian three-toed woodpecer, Picoides tridactylus

That’s my four questions answered. I didn’t have time to find the next link for the blog hop but I will do that during the next week. In the mean time you can check out this great BBC documentary series, What Do Artists Do All Day on YouTube. A varied bunch of interesting British artists doing they thing and talking out loud about it.

Recurring Themes: Boulders

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, I signed up for the first ever semester of the Sketchbook Skool earlier this spring. Our fourth teacher is Jane LaFazio and in her fourth lesson she asked if we had any recurring themes in our sketchbooks, things we like to draw again and again. I have drawn horses all my life and I draw quite a lot of clouds but I suddenly realised there is another recurring theme in my journals: stones, rocks and boulders of all kind. I have always been interested in stones, and me and mom used to collect stones as souvenirs whereever we went and I still do that too. Here is some boulders I have draw over the last year or so. My daily walks with our dog often take me through a really rocky area where the ice age left behind heaps of stones and boulders of all sizes in a haphazard mix of rock types. There is a lot to discover and draw there!

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I must have walked past this boulder countless times before it caught my eye. It’s pretty big, about 2,5 metres across but not that special in itself except for the bluish lichen that grows on it. It was a cold day when I drew this. I have written that my fingers froze and that it took forever for the ink to dry.

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This boulder is about the same size with the first one but this one has clear layers and quartz pebbles in it. The rock surrounding the pebbles is much softer and erosion has eaten it leaving the quartz pebbles protruding from it like pearls or rough diamonds so that the top of the boulders looks like it has pimples! I first noticed this one but afterwards I have found a number of smaller stones with the same characteristics around it.

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This is a proper glacial erratic that I noticed this spring. It might seem odd that I hadn’t noticed a glacial erratic before but there are quite a few of them scattered around in that area. It is large, about 2 to 2,5 metres high and twice as long. It has split in two years and years ago but there is a new rupture in it and a wedge had almost fallen off. The sides of the fracture are still clean and brown as weather, moss and lichen had not had time to invade the newly exposed surfaces. It was pretty warm day when I drew this one and it was the first time this spring that I heard the Common Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs, sing. According to a Finnish saying it’s a half a month to summer when you hear a chaffinch sing. You can listen to it here. You’ll find the play button below the photo. You can also hear the Common Cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, in the background.

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Evan Thompson

Professor of Philosophy, University of British Columbia

Quinn Creative

No one succeeds without excellent communication skills. Good writing is compelling. Good communication is convincing. Good training is rare. Welcome to QuinnCreative.

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No one succeeds without excellent communication skills. Good writing is compelling. Good communication is convincing. Good training is rare. Welcome to QuinnCreative.