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:

VP_lounasKiinassa

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.

VP_LuomusLinnut

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.

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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:

KieppiA

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.

KieppiB

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.’

KieppiC

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!

VP_lohkare1

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.

Spring Arrived Last Tuesday Around 3 pm

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I intended to write about commonplace books on my next post – as discussed on Quinn’s blog – but ach, well. I guess I’ll do it on the next one because spring arrived last Tuesday while I was out of town. Really. I kid you not. This is what the landscape looked like on the previous Sunday:

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The photo is a bit too dark as I took on my mobile phone which doesn’t have the best of cameras, but is was a dull day: clouds hanging low and it was raining for the first time this year. There was snow all around which is a bit unusual for this time of the year. The thermal spring – you can see the definition for Finland here in English – was late this year as the temperatures during the night stayed wall below freezing until last weekend. That’s why the snow lasted for so long and why the migratory birds where nowhere to be seen.

Last Tuesday I drove the 250 km to Jyväskylä for the day. I left in the morning and returned to home around 10 pm. It was a warm and sunny day in Jyväskylä but I didn’t think much of it as the town lies in the Central Finland where the seasons follow a slightly different rhythm than here closer to the coast. And it was dark as I arrived back home so I didn’t pay much attention to the snow situation though, as an afterthought, that it was dark should have meant something.

It hit me the next morning when I went out to get the morning paper: where the heck has all the snow gone? It was practically all gone over night. Tuesday morning – late winter, Wednesday morning – spring. The same scene from our daily walk with the dog now looked like this:

Image

(It’s composite panorama. That’s why the perspective is a bit wonky.)

The only snow left are the wet patches left in the shaded ditches and by woods and buildings; The ditch on the right, eastern side of the road gets much more direct sun than the left, western side one. Everywhere else, gone.

And the wind is warm, even the gale that has been blowing since last night. And the birds are here: the swans, cranes, skylarks and the Northern Lapwings. It’s officially spring now.

Silent Winter

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talvi2011

You know Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring? The one published in 1962 about what pesticides do to the environment and especially to birds? Thankfully the silent spring never came but so far it’s been a silent winter in our backyard. For the last three years there has been even hundreds of birds a day feeding on the grain we have provided, but not so this year. Last winter I filled the feeder even three times a day, now one filling can last for almost a week. What is going on?

There are still quite a few yellowhammers, Emberiza citrinella, around but almost no sparrows at all. That’s strange. Usually there are hundreds in our neighbourhood chirping madly in the hedges but now – nothing. What’s going on? What has happened? My friend living some 50km away says that all she gets in her yard are sparrows but not single yellowhammers. Strange. Where have the sparrows gone? Their numbers have been dwindling, but this is not just a drop in numbers: they have simply disappeared.

The trouble is, yellowhammers don’t like to sit up on the feeder but eat from the ground. Usually the sparrows, which are really, really messy eaters, throw most of the seeds down to the ground where the yellowhammers then feast on them. Now that cycle has been interrupted and yellowhammer that come by find only a little to eat and soon move on. I could put the grain on the ground but it gets quickly covered up if it snows or the wind blows snow over. But I guess that’s what I have to do.

The picture is from last winter and it was much snowier then. We got to do some shoveling almost everyday. This winter has been really easy on our backs.

I just miss the traffic. Hope they will be back next year.

My Heroes: Geninne Zlatkis

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(c) Kaisa Mäki-Petäjä

I can’t remember where I first saw Gennine’s birds but they took my breath right away. I love the colours she uses, particularly the bright blues and especially the turquoise. I love the figure of her birds, the clarity of the form that balances the riot of colours giving her art room to breathe. I wish I could have that too. And surprise, surprise, I love her use of maps and old postcards. Her creativity is not limited to only drawings and paint. It spills over to hand carved rubber stamps, painted stones, fabrics (you really should take a look at her blog if you want to discover the full spectrum of her creativity). It’s always inspirational to go over her blogging history to see how her craft has evolved over time – it always makes me proud to see how someone grows into one’s true self.

What admire most in her art is her honesty in creating happy things. There certainly is a need for hard subjects in art but we still need beauty in our life. While there is much suffering and injustice in the world it doesn’t help in the long run if we focus solely on suffering and forget what beauty awaits us. Isn’t it precisely the beauty and mystery of the world that should motivate our cause, the fact that everyone should be able to experience it in happiness? Contemporary art world tends to regard art of the beautiful as something trivial, mundane, as of lower class or not even art proper simply because it is not cynical, disillusioned or disheartened even. Sometimes it feels like one should be sardonic to qualify as an artist. But I think art’s fundamental task is to move us, to show us things we might not otherwise notice and to show things in new light, from new perspectives. This does not exclude any subject matter but includes everything.

I am grateful to Gennine for sharing her life, craft and art with me, even if I’m only one of her followers online. It makes me happy to see how another amateur natural historian assembles her collection of natural wonders.

I made the bird cards in the photo for the Christmas 2011. I discovered the papers in the local paper crafts shop and bought them simply because they went so well together (except for the white which I found later on). I had no idea what to do with them. It was Gennine’s blog that inspired me. I searched for a picture of a blue jay and styled it into sections I could easily cut from the papers. I’ve been thinking about making a red cardinal and a raven but haven’t got around it yet. I do already have the papers for the raven so maybe some day soon.

P.s. Incidentally, the word amateur originates from Latin amator, ‘lover’ and amare, ‘to love’ so an amateur actually means the lover of the pursuit she engages in passionately. An amateur is not someone of lesser or poor skills, someone unprofessional, but someone with love for that pursuit.

Second Wave

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The main force of the common redpolls stayed for two days. Then they were gone, as quickly as they appeared. Some stayed behind for a few days. There is one in the picture left from centre.

Two days of quiet followed. Then the second wave of northward migratory birds entered the are, and this time is was the bramblings, Fringilla montifringilla (järripeippo). Their flocks formed one bigger ‘super flock’; a friend of mine living about 40 km west from me told that a flock of bramblings appeared to her garden that same day. Apparently during the winter they can form flocks that may have even millions of birds. I’m not sure if I have ever seen bramblings before though I think a may have seen one 15 years ago, but this was something else. That’s odd though, they are one of the most common species  here in Finland. By the way, their Finnish name, järripeippo, comes from the calling sound they make, ‘järr, järr’. You can listen to their calls here.

Few bullfinches, Pyrrhula pyrrhula, (punatulkku) visited also while the bramblings were here. They are so beautifull, regal somehow. While the bramblings were very nervous, jumping around nervously taking flight if anything even seemed to happen, the bullfinches had more nerve. It is rare to see them in the part of town where we live. Bullfinches usually stick to those feeders that are closer to forests and woodlands, and it is really rare to see them after the snow is gone. What a treat!

Now there are only common pigeons visiting us. They often land first on our roof and what a noise that makes! You would not think that landing birds could cause such a rumble as they walk around before they deem it safe to actually land.

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