Category Archives: Plein Air

Viewfinderless at Duke Creek Falls

The summer between my seventh and eighth grade years my father taught a landscape painting workshop as part of Appalachian Summer. I am sure there was a classroom part of the class but my memories are of the time we spent painting outside. I have incredibly clear recollections of a day by the duck pond, an afternoon sitting on the rocks at Howard’s Knob and another at an old farm out in the county somewhere. After a hot water heater leak a few years ago I went through and piles of old art work and found several examples of the paintings I did that summer. Most of them were obviously done by a child. The lines and shapes seem a bit choppy, but some the compositions were actually quite good. This I think is due to the fact that one of the first things Dad had us all do was take a piece of mat board and cut a rectangular window in it. These were our viewfinders and we took them with us on each excursion. Before we ever sketched a single line on our paper we would slowly move our rectangles around the landscape trying to find the perfect slice of the scene from among the limitless possibilities. It made a huge difference. It helped find the right image to start with, but also made sketching the initial lines simpler, and as the painting progressed it could be held up again and again to verify details of the scene.

The first, focal-pointless drawing

I do not often think of the long ago course (could it really have been 30 years ago?) or the lessons I learned in it, but this past Saturday sitting drawing at Duke Creek Falls I realized I should still be trying to apply them. As I set on the steps leading down to observation decks I was overwhelmed by the view in front of me. Duke Creek Falls is not just one waterfall, it really is falls, plural. My eye did not know where to rest, and my first drawing reflects that. There is no focal point, no organization of the composition. It is confusing and lacks a sense of depth. If I had brought a viewfinder with me I think I would have done a much better job. My second drawing I tried to limit myself more, to focus in on one part of the falls. I even used my hands to make a little rectangle to try and plan what I would include. It is a more successful drawing compositionally. I am going to make myself a viewfinder this week and keep it in my hiking backpack. Hopefully next weekend’s drawings will be markedly improved.

Walking this trail was incredibly pleasant

But even though this past Saturday’s drawings were not among my best the walk itself was. Where Panther Creek and Raven Cliffs were true hikes, each several miles in with narrow and steep portions, Duke Creek has a wide and smooth walking path that is just a little over a mile long. There are stairs in the steep places and observation decks around the falls. There was only one other car in the parking lot when Max and I arrived. We made the whole walk down without seeing another soul. Until this week I had never heard of Forest Bathing, but I am in agreement with the adherents and researchers that “if a person simply visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way there are calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to be achieved.”

Falls – plural

When we arrived at the falls there was a couple there with their little dog, who was not fond of Max, so we explored around the observation decks a while. A large portion is blocked off because of storm damage.  The spot where the tree came through the deck would have been the perfect place to sit and draw the dramatic view of the water finding many ways to come down the side of the mountain. If I had not had Max with me I might have sat there anyway. But even though I may be brave enough to climb over barriers and check out the damage I would not want to risk Max getting too close to the edge and falling off, and I wasn’t eager to get fussed at by a ranger either. I do not know if they enforce the $500 fine for getting off the trail, but I do not wish to find out. We took some pictures and then went back to the “safe” areas. The benches on the lower observation decks did not offer the views I wanted to draw. We ended up sitting on the stairs leading down to them which was very comfortable until other folks started arriving. Then we may have been in their way, but I just held Max close to me as they passed and no one complained. There were far fewer people than at either Raven Cliff or Panther Creek. I do not know if it was because the site is not as popular or because it is after Labor Day. I drew for about an hour and twenty minutes then we walked back up at a nice relaxing pace.

Full Moon Hike

It is no secret that Habersham County is not my forever home. I am thankful that the kids attend a school they love and that is preparing them well, but when they finish I do not plan to stick around.  However there are a few things I really will miss. The best thing about living here is our wonderful little church, (I think I love it more every week) and the next best is being so close to Tallulah Gorge.  After my last post, where I mentioned being too late to sign up for their Full Moon Suspension Bridge Hike several months in a row, I made it a point to get myself signed up for the August one. It turns out that the maximum group size they allow is 50, which they hit in July, but for August they only had nine people sign up, myself included. These days I am not much of a fan of calling things “meant to be” but not being able to get signed up for the July hike in time may not have been simply fortuitous. Though the experience would have been neat no matter what I cannot imagine it would have felt quite as magical if there had been five times the people there.

The hike itself is simple. It is really more of a walk than a hike, but darkness made the often traveled paths seem unfamiliar and more dramatic. We all had glow bracelets on so the ranger wouldn’t lose us, and a few people had flashlights, but it really was dark. I like walking in the dark. I like the sense of heightened awareness. The air feels different, the sounds are louder, and each step must be intentional.

Once we got to the outlook the ranger told us about how the Cherokee call the August full moon the Sturgeon Moon because that was the best time to fish for them, and how the Chinese called the August full moon the Ghost Moon because it is the time of the year when ghosts are on the move. As we gazed way down at Hawthorne Pool she she told us about Reverend Hawthorne who would lead people down the steep slopes to baptize people there in the 1800’s before he disappeared into it. (I found his story pretty fascinating so I tried some googling it when I got home to see if I could learn more about him but found this instead which was a bummer.)

The group was chatty in a  subdued way up to this point, only 2 of us had come alone, but once we started down the 310 steps to the suspension bridge it got much quieter. Descending those metal steps in full daylight requires one to pay attention, but in the dark it took my total focus. I had to keep putting my hand with the glowing bracelet behind my back because it messed with my night vision. The evening was neither hot nor cold making the descent comfortable. And our timing was perfect. Right as we reached the suspension bridge the moon was clearing the horizon. There were some scattered clouds but we could see it clear and orange between the steep walls of the gorge. Eighty feet below the water thundered across the rocks, a light contrast to all the dark rocks and trees around us. Again, I am so pleased that I was with a small group. There was plenty of room for us all to spread out across the bridge and have our moment with the moon.

I just stood and took it all in for several minutes. Sometimes creation is so beautiful, so perfect in color and composition, that is seems almost sacrilegious to try and capture it with a human hand. I had no illusion that I was going to be able to create any great piece of art standing in the dark on a swaying bridge. I got out my sketch book because in the act of drawing something I feel like I am able to perceive it in a deeper way. The experience of drawing something or someone from life is an intimate one requiring focus and attention to detail. it is very different from doodling where the hand is more free to wander and mark as it will. Even though with sketches like the ones I drew Sunday night the finished product is not not important, the intention of trying to capture both the view and the essence of what was in front of me seemed critical. Though my mind wandered plenty on the trek down and then back up those 310 stairs, while I was drawing I was 100% present in the moment I was experiencing. 

Unfortunately the clouds that had parted to allow us such a lovely view decided to come back. As the moon rose the clouds descended until we could only see it glowing faintly behind them. We shifted our attention for a while to the spiders spinning large webs between the cables of the bridge, (spiders are artists as well as engineers) and then we started the climb back up. The youngest in the group appeared to sprint up the stairs, while the rest of us took our time. Everyone’s pace was so different that for the majority of the time I could not see or hear anyone else in our group. I liked that. I stopped at several of the landings to rest and take in the feeling of the night, but still was sweaty and thirsty by the time I reached the top. I had about 10 minutes to sit by the outlook, drink my water and relax while waiting for the rest of the group. I tried to take a few pictures with my phone, but it is not made for night photography.  The walk back to the parking lot was quick and we all went our own ways without fanfare. I kept the windows down the whole way home, and about halfway there the moon cleared the top of the clouds and hung huge beside me as I drove. It was a lovely night.  If I am not in NC for the September full moon I very well may try and go again.

“You cannot start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one.”     – Michael McMillan

 

 

My Time

As my kids get older and more independent I am discovering I have these blocks of time that are mine to spend as I please. After 17 years of being mainly focused on meeting their needs and wants I am discovering more and more opportunities to be a bit selfish. However I must admit that once I have caught up on my sleep, (and maybe a few shows on Netflix) it can be hard to know what it is I really want to do.  This summer I have tried to be intentional in thinking about what sounds fun, interesting, or otherwise pleasurable and then trying to actually follow through and do it. I have had varying amounts of success with this. Sometimes I am not brave enough to follow through. I have put the Contra Dancing at SNAC on my calendar several times now but when it comes time to go, well, I don’t. Sometimes I do not plan well. For example I keep forgetting to call to sign up for the Gorge’s Full Moon Suspension Bridge Hike until after it is full.

Clarkesville can be hard on a restaurant

And sometimes it is just not meant to be, like this past Friday night when I tried to take myself out to hear some live music. I have been trying to pay attention to local events that seem promising. When I saw that a restaurant/bar in downtown Clarkesville that I had visited before and didn’t find intimidating was going to have a guy with his guitar playing I decided to go. My kids both had plans so I figured I could get a Reuben and a couple of beers and hopefully enjoy the music. I packed some sketching stuff and even put on some lipstick, halfway hoping to be sociable and halfway just wanting to observe. I take myself out to eat often, that is not a big deal, but since this place was a bit more of a bar and there was music I felt like I was pushing myself out of my comfort zone a bit. It could almost have been described as exhilarating. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but I was totally shocked to arrive and the place and find it completely shut down, like out if business, never coming back shut down. No new adventure for me that evening, but I think I am likely to try again.

And I have had some successes. I have been learning a new art form that has been both challenging and rewarding (more about that soon). But I think the best days I have had this summer have been the hikes I have gone on with drawing materials. My visits to Panther Creek Falls and Raven Cliff Falls were both amazing. I had wanted to plan another waterfall hike for this weekend but I let the weather forecast stop me. Yesterday I spent a lazy morning thinking it was going to rain all day, but by mid afternoon when I realized the sun was still out it was too late for a long hike.

View from the end of the North Rim Trail

I decided to just take Max up to the Gorge instead. We usually just walk the Short Line Trail but since I had brought my oil crayons we did the North Rim instead.

It was incredibly humid as we walked in. The storm that hadn’t shown up yet making the air heavy. We walked briskly to the last outlook you can go to without a permit. By the time we got there I was sweaty and had to drink about half my water to get comfortable enough to feel like I could draw. But the outlook was empty, I got to sit on my favorite bench, and after just a few minutes a breeze came up and the quality of the air changed. I have no problem using the word exhilarating for the feeling of being perched on the side of such grandeur as the light shifted and the cool air swept through. I watched a large bird (I need to learn how to identify them) glide past on the current, and imagined myself along side him. I have been to the gorge so many times but my awe at its breathtaking beauty has not decreased at all.

I think that each time I have visited my eyes have been especially drawn to the red-roofed house visible above the the trees on the other side. When you drive past it on 441 it does not draw much attention, but from the outlook it calls to me. The juxtaposition of the man made structure sitting so close yet somehow seemingly oblivious to nature’s dramatic carving of the earth is captivating. Every time I visit I think about drawing the scene. I have photographed it countless times; I think in every season. Yesterday I was finally prepared, there with paper and oil crayons and no one rushing me to the next view. Max found a shady spot to lay down and for an hour I just sat and drew. I draw all the time, and in all sorts of settings, but there is really something special about drawing in nature. The picture itself turned out okay. It doesn’t quite capture what I wanted to convey, and I rushed a little towards the end when it seemed like the promised storm was finally going to arrive, but the experience was delightful. I am almost glad it is not great because it means I can start planning on when I can go back and try again.

Comparing the view with my interpretation

Walking to Waterfalls

The day between finishing at MOC and starting at FCB I had to drop my son off at school because his car was in the shop. On the way back home I made the spur the moment decision to pull off the highway at the sign for Panther Creek Falls. I had passed it a million times but never turned. I parked at the trail head and despite the fact that I had nothing with me besides my keys and phone and was wearing slip on shoes and clothes that just barely passed as not-pajamas I started walking. It was early and the trail was basically deserted except for a few tents I gave a wide berth. It was a temperate morning, neither hot nor cold and it was an incredibly peaceful walk. I think I walked about a mile along the river, thinking about work, family, life, what I was leaving behind, and what I hoped I was heading towards.

I also thought a fair amount about the fact that no one had any idea where I was or had any reason to miss me for the next 8 or 9 hours. I let my mind run through different disaster scenarios but did not feel scared at all. Thinking about the chance of something bad happening was actually a little exhilarating. I probably should not admit it, but I think I may have enjoyed myself more because of that awareness. If I had brought water, or was wearing proper footwear, I might have walked further, but I didn’t. I turned around and went home and tried to figure out how to write about the experience and failed.

Over a month later I finally returned with a full water bottle, walking shoes, and a sketch book. I did not get as early of a start as I should have because I did not realize my desire until a little before 9. I had been sitting on my screened porch, reading my Bible and drinking my coffee, when it hit me that what I really wanted was to be walking in nature. The kids were both still sound asleep so I sent them a text and left. It took me about an 2 hours to hike in the 3.5 miles to the falls. The part of the trail I had done the first day was easy walking, but as I got closer to the falls the trail got more treacherous in places. The muddy spots made me especially nervous. As slip in the mud, even one that did not lead to a fall, could give me back pain for weeks. I had been brave about the idea of a catastrophic fall, but a minor one that ended in a sore back, a twisted ankle, or God forbid another broken elbow was frightening. I did try to be cautious. I do not want to live in fear but I do not want to be reckless either.

I only saw a couple of other hikers on my way in, but when I got to the falls I must admit I was dismayed to find 30 to 40 people already there, wading, climbing the rocks, and just sitting around. I had expected there would be a few people there, but not that many. I had not walked that far to hang out with a bunch of strangers. I walked around and took at couple of pictures to register the fact i had made it all the way in then climbed back to the top of the falls.

I found a nice spot to sit on the rocks that was both comfortable and beautiful. The sound of the water drowned out all the sounds of the people below and I was able to spend over an hour drawing and writing. It felt so good. I only did one drawing, in ink, and it was not an excellent one. It lacks a focal point and tried to capture too much of my surroundings at once. But I guess that seems apt for the distracted way I find myself throwing myself through life right now. I know I need to focus. I just cannot seem to make a decision about on what. Until I figure it out walking to North Georgia’s waterfalls and trying to draw them seems like as good of a pass time as any.