Sunday, December 23, 2012

A colorful take on art and nature

There is an alliance between The Center for Cartoon Studies and The Montshire Museum of Science, which is almost as old as the former. I should know, for I was part of the first-ever class at CCS; and so, I was part of many first-evers, including the first-ever CCS field trip to the Montshire. We came equipped with sketchbooks and pencils and brushpens and charcoal; we departed with sketchbooks full of amazing rare things, the preserved moose and the preserved insects being among the most popular subjects to draw. Upon return to base, our task, or “drawing challenge” was to depict a story about a miniature figure among the specimens. I wove a semi-autobiographical narrative around the dead bugs. The result, “Insecticide” is one of my best works from my prolific two years at CCS:

Recently, I revisited my alma mater, and also returned to the halls of the Montshire. Of course, I carried a sketchbook. And a new brush. I'll share a few sketches:

Since my graduation, CCS has moved onward and upward in so many respects—including collaboration with the Montshire. The people of these two institutions have taken it to the next level, with a new exhibit (on display at the Montshire through February 3, 2013): Cartoonists' take on Charley Harper. It provides a unique compliment to the traveling exhibit Beguiled by the Wild: the Art of Charley Harper. Harper was a famed nature artist, best known for his seriagraph (silk-screen) prints of wildlife, in a style he called "minimal realism." He made art for many nature organizations, including the Cincinnati Zoo, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, and the National Park Service. On a trip with the Denison outing club (pre-CCS), I saw a poster by Harper on sale, probably at the visitor center of Bandelier National Monument. I knew that I had to take it home, and adorn the ceiling of my cabin at The Homestead. I didn't yet know Harper by name, but I recognized his remarkable compositions of wild animals, distilled to their essence.

And so,  in the Montshire, with a set of Harper prints at one end of the room, the other is adorned by work by CCS students, taking inspiration from Harper and from nature. (Evidently, I don't have a trademark on “Comics from the Wood.”) The colors are vibrant; and while Harper was a master of telling a story with a single image, the intrepid cartoonists apply minimal realism to a stories composed of multiple images in sequence. The results are charming, and well worth taking home, in the form of the comic book collection of the CCS work, which can be found at the Museum shop.

And I can recall all this positive detail about the exhibits, despite having lost my wallet on the trip back. Subsequently, I have been pressed to replace all my essential cards and Ids. Simultaneously, I have worked to prepare for Christmas with family, in my old home in West Virginia. It is a way of starting afresh, but with the weight of what has been and what's to come. I have much to do, to re-evaluate my life and path, and the pursue new challenges. I hope that I can take a hint from The Center for Cartoon Studies, and rise to new frontiers.

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas!

The two color images are by Charley Harper, the former for the National Park Service, public domain; 
the latter is being used online to promote the traveling "Beguiled" exhibit.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Praise for Frog Stories!

Frog Stories, which I released in May 2012, has received a highly positive review from the comics critic Robert Clough.  Rob has a sharp analytical eye, and a column in the prestigious Comics Journal.  Evidently, I have passed his rubric.  He hopes to see more comics from me, which is good, because I will create more.

Comics legend Stephen Bissette (known for Swamp Thing, Tyrant, and The Unbelievable N-Man, among other works) has also given big cheers to the frogs.  On Twitter and Facebook, Steve wrote:

"Ross Studlar's FROG STORIES is one of my fave comics of the year; ideal Xmas gift for amphibian-fans, too!"

"I love Ross Studlar's comix, and this one is his best yet. Highly recommended, and a lovely package and read all the way around."

Frog Stories features four short narratives of life and death drama, starring frogs, mice, moths, beetles, and other small animals.  The eat-or-be-eaten world of the swamp comes vividly to life, in  black, white, and cross-hatched shades of grey.  Readers of any age can thrill to the feats of the frogs.  Yes, I agree that it makes a fine Christmas gifts, for fans of frogs or comics or nature or dramatic stories.  My etsy store is open, while supplies last.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

My first winter in the Sierra

Lesley and I visited the Sierra mountains near Lake Tahoe, on a December weekend when the great majority of recreationists stayed home. We drove her old reliable station wagon uphill through cold rain, which became wet snow once we reached the elevation of 5,000 feet. And finally, in the dark, we arrived the entrance of Clair Tappan Lodge, and walked the final 100 yards to the heavy wooden front door. The vanilla smell of the Sierras was instantly recognizable, as we trudged ankle-deep in wet snow, schlepping our gear. We gladly stepped inside, where it was dry and warm. In the Lewis and Clark room, we sat by the fire, and met new friends. The rain and snow made conditions for skiing or snowboarding less than ideal. Therefore, only six or so souls, ourselves included, occupied the lodge per night.

The next day, it was hard to pull ourselves away from the fire. There were books to read and tea to drink and sketchbooks to draw in and online courses to complete for the renewal of our EMT certifications. The wind billowed against the windows of the lodge and the rain fell hard. Lesley and I are people who love the woods, regardless of weather. However, she was recovering from a cold, and wished to be cautious. In the afternoon, our opportunity arose, with a moment of clear blue sky, and light rain only. We saddled ourselves up with backpacks and snowshoes and ski poles, and into the woods we went.  We followed a trail called the "main drag."

All about us, the red firs, Abies magnifica, stretched for the sky, their trunks nearly black in color. Upon them, stag-horn lichens glowed yellow-green, like fluorescent lights. And there were lodgepole pines, and hemlocks, and spruces. We sloshed our way through sloshy snow, which was a foot deep in places. Breaking trail through the icy sludge was not easy. I walked in Lesley's footsteps for a spell, then took my turn. (And compared the former to Good King Wencelas.)

Save the moans of the wind, it was quiet. Except for the rhythmic sway of the treetops—back and forth like a pendulum—it was still. I teadily put one foot and one pole in front of the other, in front of the other. I had to keep my thermal engine pumping its pistons. We were two spots of warmth, in a polar landscape.

The forest seemed empty of animals, but they were nearby. Under cover of bark or earth, escaped from the wind and rain. Some animals, on the other hand, were quite unperturbed by the elements. We crossed footprints, a line of them, from a small canid. Perhaps a fox. Squirrels, too, had left their marks in the snow.

And then a black form swooped past us. The raven finished its concave arc, and alighted atop a dead tree. It croaked and called, and proclaimed itself lord of the realm. Then it flapped and rose from the tree and into the wind. It beat its wings strong, but hovered like a helicopter, against the wind's push. Then the raven broke the stalemate, and soared onward, and out of sight.

We came finally to the Lytton Lake, our destination. Or rather, the rippling snowy field, with boulders and forest beyond. The map assured us of a lake under the snow. We turned around, and commenced our return trip.

We stepped into a copse of trees, and felt the calm. Their trunks kept the wind at bay; we had a safe fortress. From the side of my backpack, I removed a gift. A thermos of hot tea. It warmed our hearts, both figuratively and literally.

In this landscape of rolling hills, rocky and snow-covered, the trees stood strong. The rain began to fall again and the wind grew stronger, and the trees swayed but stood. For many centuries, they had braved every storm, and then the coldest depths of winter and the scorching summer heat. The weathered old giants took the monsoons and droughts, undaunted. As for me, I was glad that we had taken some of their brothers and sisters, and fashioned their strong bodies into a house. With a fire inside, wherein I could warm myself. I thanked the trees, and quickened my pace for the hike home.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thanks be to friends, goats, and the wealth of the soil

Ross and the goats of Wealth Underground Farm

I have much to be thankful for this post-Thanksgiving season. I am thankful for my mom, dad, and brother, and the rest of my extended family spread throughout the country. I am thankful for Lesley and my other great friends. I am thankful to be a Park Ranger at Crater Lake National Park for some of the year. I am thankful for the results of the November 2012 election: given that only two political parties have realistic chances at office, the better of the two has made substantial gains. My heart goes out to the victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York and Haiti and elsewhere. I hope that we can rebuild and restore. And I hope that we work to curb global warming, and prevent worse recurrences.

The Homestead 35th reunion, 2012
I am thankful for my other family—the community of current and former residents of The Homestead. We share a unique bond, like no other place I've known. Once, I was stranded in Austin, Texas, as a “refugee” from Galveston Island after Hurricane Ike. With no place to stay, I sent an email to a Homestead alum named Grant, whom I had never met, but knew lived in Austin from correspondence on our alumni email list-serve. And yes, he took me in for a week. Such is the kinship among Homesteaders.

Several of my Homestead comrades have launched new sustainable business projects, and furnished careers for themselves and earth-friendly goods and services for their communities. Among these pioneers are Colin and Brad of The Seattle Urban Farm Company, and Chris and Nolan of Wealth Underground Farm. (Side note: Colin and Brad published a book this year.  Food Grown Right, In Your Backyard provides wise advice for novice and seasoned gardeners alike.  And it makes a great Christmas gift!)

The new tome of garden wisdom

From time to time, I return to these outposts of Homesteading, for a few hours or a few months. This Thanksgiving, Lesley and I paid a visit to Portland, on that rare and precious thing known as a sunny day. From downtown, we rode bicycles for ten miles, past green houses surrounded by vine maples, past street mosaics and telephone poles full of staples, and across the St John's Bridge. The snow-covered Mount Hood was like a shining cloud in the distance; the river, 200 feet below us, swirled green and grey; we pedaled on a little patch of earth, surrounded by expanses of sky. The icy wind turned our knuckles white. Cars and trucks rumbled by slowly. In Portland, they slow down for cyclists.

After the bridge, between us and our destination, loomed a great hill. We pedaled and breathed hard. We hopped off the bikes and walked them, and breathed harder. I felt my legs become a little stiff, and I walked faster. Eventually, by this combination of walking and pedaling, we reached the top of the hill. We guessed a distance of five miles uphill, although the cold green highway signs indicated we had traveled only one.

After a right turn and a short downhill coast, we reached Wealth Underground Farm. Within the house, Nolan, Chris and his family, and their comrades crowded by warmth of a wood-burning stove, which provides both heat and cooking. While they steamed vegetables and boiled free-range flesh, we talked about life, mutual friends, present and past work and farming (wherein Chris and Lesley discovered that both had worked at Hidden Villa), and The Homestead of our origin.

Nolan, Chris, and Ross at Wealth Underground, 2011

We went out into the farm. I had last seen it in the spring of 2011, and tilled the earth and planted seeds alongside the agrarian duo. Now, in the fall, the garden swelled and gushed with plant-life. Cabbages the size of my head, turnips the size of my fist, and kale leaves wider than the span of my hand. Pumpkins and squash. A greenhouse with still-ripe tomatoes. It was impressive, to put it mildly. And they regularly furnish goods for a 30-member CSA!

The Mind of the Goat

And we met the goats. Their fur was soft, their brains inquisitive. They accepted petting from Lesley and I, and expressed special interest in the Portland map. I only permitted them a little nibble.

Lesley and the goats of New World Farmstead (Eugene, OR)

To roam among goats, to eat of the earth, to build my own shelter, and to gather by the warmth of the fire. I seek all these in life, but wonder if it is too much to ask of the modern world. Fossil fuels can rapidly take one from point A to point B, and can give any room a tropical climate. But the joys of walking the journey or splitting the wood are missed. We celebrate in winter because of the need for companionship against the challenges of weather, wherein there is hard darkness but also joyous light. Life in a climate-controlled box makes for an even, dull grey. However, when the age of cheap oil comes to an end, we may all learn the way of the Homestead, by necessity. If such occurs, we will have losses but also great gains.

On the way back down, the hill was short. It felt like half a mile at most. Thanksgiving with Lesley and her family went well. After dinner, we performed “Dumpster Theater,” our new show of storytelling and shadow puppets. We told ancient stories, and used new materials, acquired in the rubbish. We shared the wisdom of coyote and huckleberries and fire, across the generations.

Top photo by © 2012 Lesley McClintock.  Reunion photo by © 2012 some Homie alum.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Hornet Woman and Scarier Things

With Halloween at the near, I ought to share something spooky.

On a recent hike along the Rogue River beginning near Union Creek, my comrade Lesley—who has the eyes of an owl—chanced upon an abandoned hornet's nest, on the ground, having fallen from a tree, and now withering away. Instantly, I noted that it looked like the face of a monster, or zombie perhaps. And Lesley expressed a desire to see my depiction of said creature. After a few sketchbook attempts at beasts with the layered carapace of the hornet's nest, I came upon “Hornet Woman."

I am considering making her the subject of a comic book. She has potential.

All autumn at Crater Lake, I guided children on school field trips through a forest of hemlock trees and—yellow jackets. In the warm autumn, the stinging insects were prevalent. On cold days, they slowed to a torpor. For many insects, weather has a direct impact on behavior, including activity and breeding. In our modern era of global warming, we have increased populations of mosquitoes and the diseases they carry. And the whitebark pines featured in my previous post are getting devoured by mountain pine beetles, who are in a population boom, thanks to climate change.

While bees and wasps are rather non-agressive, and not to be feared, they may be an indicator of something truly ominous.

I hope that we come together against global warming, before it's too late. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Through the forest and into the snow

 Clark's nutcracker

Recently, I and my comrade Emily paid a visit to Scoria Cone. On the southern end of Crater Lake National Park, nestled in the old growth forest, Scoria Cone, like the rest of the Cascade mountains, was formed by volcanic heat and violence. Now, it is the land of perpetual snow. No trails or signs lead to Scoria Cone. To get there, one must venture into the conifer forest, with only map and compass as guide. (We didn't bring a GPS.)

We walked for an hour or so on the Pumice Flats trail, and the heat of exercise countered the cool of the fall morning.  We walked until there was a clearing in the pines and firs, enough of an overlook to see the mountain peaks behind. Using the area maps, we determined that the tall one was Scoria Cone. We took a compass bearing and followed it. First we went downhill, surrounded by lodgepole pines, which quickly obscured the broader view of the landscape. We followed our compasses, past a place where the lodgepole pines had bent over under snow, to look more like “arch pines”, or like monks bowing in a prayer circle. We walked on.

Away from highway 62, the forest was quiet, save the occasional croak from a Raven, or the yank-yank-yank of a nuthatch (which sounds like a truck backing up, as I learned from a wise birder.) We kicked up dust as we walked, for the ground was dry. Barely any rain had graced the landscape in months, but the hardy pines and firs stayed evergreen, like their namesake. From time to time, a shy chipmunk ran across our path and disappeared again. I'll admit to a slight nervousness, being away from the safety of the trail. Would I find the way back? Would I be lost in the woods, and have to put some wilderness survival techniques to work? I recalled Survivorman's cool attitude, and tried to imitate.

Our walk took us back upwards, towards the peak which we believed to be Scoria Cone. As the landscape came back into view—including in the distance, familiar landmarks like Llao rock and Mount Scott. This put my mind at ease. Crater Lake National Park has become to me a sort of home to me, and these landmarks give a sense of security, like the arch for residents St Louis, or the space needle for Seattle-ites. We walked past a healthy pile of bear scat, whose author had feasted upon berries and plants. We walked to the top of Scoria Cone. Just below, a bushy Ponderosa Pine stood proud and defiant, growing from out of the dark red rocks. Emily examined the map and determined locale of the crater, and the “snowcone”. We walked around the Ponderosa and down below it. And then we saw the pit, like an inverted cone. In the middle of the pit, snow. 

 Slowly, carefully, we edged down the steep walls. Near the end, I had to slide a bit on the seat of my pants, similar to the maneuver of the first white man to touch the water of Crater Lake. For the final stretch, a log acted as walkway between crater walls and snow, with one problem. The log was occupied by a yellow jacket nest. We edged past the log, and jumped onto the snow. A thick layer of snow. Below our feet the snow went on for tens of feet or more. Emily wondered how much snow must pile in the crater in the winter, for so much snow to remain now. It was chunky, icy snow, the kind that would draw blood if you fell into it at the end of a sled run. A Clark's nutcracker visited us on the snow. The bird pecked at the snow, and flew off. By my best observation and estimation, the bird ate chunks of snow as a source of water. A wise technique in a dry forest. Constantly, in fact, birds flew into and out of the cone. Nutcrackers and nuthatches and gray jays and stellar jays came along. Wasps and yellow jackets buzzed around us, so I made no sudden moves. We took some photos, and climbed out of the crater, free from stings, and with only the slightest of scrapes from the sojourn into the unknown. We followed our compasses back to the trail, where Emily set out for her new destination: Stuart Falls. I stayed along until the next grand view of the landscape, then was ready to turn around, having had a long and vigorous hike, and having met my goal of reaching Scoria Cone.

In her hike to Stuart Falls, Emily encountered a small bear. The beast ran in terror, climbed a tree, and howled and mewled like a dying puppy. I was envious and regretted having missed the bear. But I was prompted to fashion a bear with my oil-pastels. To join the mammal, I included another icon of western national parks—the whitebark pine. This high altitude tree is symbiotic with the Clark's nutcracker, who both eats and distributes their seeds. A nutcracker's thanksgiving would include volumes of whitebark pine nuts, some flavorful insects, and, evidently, a bowl of icy snow.

Clark's nutcracker photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, public domain; Ross descent photo by © Emily Prud'homme

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Mystic Power of Crater Lake or A White Man's Vision Quest

 Ranger Ross atop Garfield Peak

I have never been comfortable in churches. For me, a box with a steeple is not the best place to connect with a higher power. My temples are forests and mountains, valleys and lakes. Here I see the masterworks of the forces that made our universe, be they God or gods or quantum superstrings or the “blind watchmaker” of natural selection.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I am so fascinated by Native American stories and religious traditions. They describe spirit power that is omnipresent in nature, found in people and animals and trees and plants, and even mountains. In my reverential moments, I am of a similar persuasion.
The Native Americans describe certain locales where the spirit-power is especially concentrated, “power points.” To the Klamath tribes, Crater Lake (or Giwas) is a central power point, a most sacred place. It is a place where people connect to the spirit world, and have life-transforming experiences, through the vision quest. Motivations for the vision quest vary, but can include tranformation from boy to man, and recovery from emotional trauma, such as the death of a loved one. Many shamans—healers and spiritual leaders—gained their powers at Crater Lake.

Although I am no shaman, I do have a special connection to Crater Lake and its surrounding environs. And I have had some experiences which seem nearly mystical. Oregon is a wild state, and Crater Lake National Park is nestled amidst thousands of acres of national forests. It is a blessing to be here, if only for a short while, and to have the opportunity to romp through the forests where the Klamath chiefs tread before. And it is a blessing to have friends to accompany me. My friend Lesley has been at my side for multiple adventures, and other comrades, including Lauren, Grimes, Emily, and Mike have been along for some.

Ross and Lesley about to canoe in Klamath marsh

Lesley dreams of rivers every night. And she is drawn to rivers by day, especially if a canoe is involved. On one of our first adventures, we paddled the Wood River, upriver to Kimball State Park and then downriver back to Fort Klamath. As we paddled through the serpentine river, surrounded by fields and pastures, with osprey in the trees at riverside, and the sillouhetted forms of the rim of Crater Lake in the distance, I imagined life for the Native Americans on that fateful day 7,700 years ago, when a tall mountain stood where Crater Lake is now. And a great tower of volcanic ash—the ominous form of the spirit Llao—arose from the mountain and unleashed his fury upon the landscape.  Probably, many people were vaporized by the volcano's glowing avalanches of ash and rock (Llao's fiery breath, in the Klamath interpretation).  Someday in the future, Llao will awaken, and the volcano will erupt again.  I hope not to be here when that happens.

The Wood River is crystal clear and very cold. At its beginning in Kimball State Park, there is a shiny green pool, inhabited by frogs and insect larvae and a menagerie of fascinating creatures. Drawn to the aquatic alien world, Lesley set to work on an underwater film in the emerald water.

 Lesley explores underwater at Kimball.

As we paddled with the current to our destination, the winding river was fraught with dead logs and branches. We had to steer the boat with skill and focus, as the current brought us from one strainer and around one sharp bend and on to the next strainer and bend. Lesley, who is a former whitewater canoe guide, had the helm for this stretch.

We reached Fort Klamath, pulled the boat out of the water, and waited outside the country store, for our ride back. We lay on the grass and watched red-tailed hawks circle overhead. The sun was warm and the grass smelled sweet. It is rare for me to simply relax, for I normally keep a heavy and constant list of things to do. It is good that I could forget about my list for a little while. Perhaps benevolent spirits from the river helped me to feel a sense of peace.

On their vision quests, the Klamath people face fear and conquer it. I have always feared cold water. I haven't exactly conquered my fear, but perhaps I have made progress towards pushing it back. Our comrade Lauren accompanied Lesley and I on a trip to the Modoc Lava Beds. In the orange light of a setting sun, we swam in Medicine Lake. Entering the cold water was a great challenge for me; it always is. I stand in water up to my knees, then waist for long periods before I immerse myself. Sometimes I resort to a chanted count to ten in Japanese—which I associate with drills from karate—to psych myself for the plunge. This time, I got in quietly, if slowly. Tiny frogs swam over the water's surface and below; they frog-kicked with as much authority as their half-inch legs could muster. They clung to reeds between swims. I imitated the frogs, and swam with the breast stroke, out to a thicket of reeds and back. Between swims, my submerged feet sank ankle-deep in the sandy mud.

After the swim, I welcomed the campfire. I read aloud Native American stories about the Pleiades, the big dipper, and Mount Shasta. Sleep was nourishing, but short—I had work the next day. I awoke at 4:30 AM to make the drive back to Crater Lake. As I drove, the red sunrise cast the desert in shades of orange. Jackrabbits bounded across the rode in front of my car.

Lauren, Lesley, and Ross camped at Lava Beds, near Medicine Lake

I returned to face the cold water again—at Rocky Point Resort, at the Williamson River, and at Union Creek. At the Williamson, we paddled right over Ska’mdi, the eddy where monsters dwell (according to Klamath legend). We stayed in the boat for that part, and luckily the “big animals” did not disturb us. We passed a dead beaver, and a living muskrat swam alongside us for as stretch. Repeatedly, we paddled over rocks which jutted from the river's bottom to a few inches below us. We limited our hang-ups on rock as best we could. Near the end of this venture, past Chemult and just before highway 97, Lesley and I shot through rapids. Our boat rocked and jostled and spun from side to side; we paddled with gusto in an effort to keep it stable. We struck the next rock and Lesley, who was in back, lost her paddle. From the front, I was still able to steer the boat through the white water to shore. I hastily pulled the boat onto the bank, a little too close to a fisherman, who gave me a look of disgust. Lesley and I ran through the water and on the bank, barefooted, after the paddle. The river's rocky bottom was unforgiving to the feet, and the water felt cold as snow. We ran through several few hundred yards of territory and back again, and feared the paddle was lost. (And being tired, hungry, and cold, even my outdoor optimism was challenged.) Then Lesley spotted the paddle in a cove. When we returned to our boat, the fisherman had left us a present, consisting of dead earthworms in the boat's bottom. If any devotees of canoeing or kayaking read this blog, they may remind me that one should always carry a spare paddle, in which case this whole obstacle course could have been avoided.

At Union Creek, the water was even colder. Lesley submerged herself completely and lay down. Hesitantly, I followed suit. She said that the cold felt good, that is it was invigorating, empowering. I mainly felt relieved when I had the opportunity to warm myself by the campfire. The next day we, alongside our comrade Lauren, had a rollicking raft ride on the Rogue River. The inflatable raft's bumpers cushioned the impacts from rocks; what was an earthquake to the canoe was the rocking of a baby-cradle to the raft. We took some of the rapids lying on our bellies on the boat, and took in the refreshing blasts of fresh water face-first. And we had splash fights with other rafts. During a break on shore, we watched a pileated woodpecker explore the trees. 

Woodpecker photo by © Lesley McClintock
 From Dutton Ridge, in the night, I gained new understanding of the mysticism of Crater Lake. Vision quests happen in high places, where the spirits of earth and sky meet. Atop the ridge, in the fading gray and purple light of dusk, we had a view of broad expanses of the Cascade mountains, Mount McLaughlin and Union Peak and the Klamath Basin, and (almost), Mount Shasta, 100 miles distant. Our feet sunk into the layers of volcanic ash and pumice as we walked. At this high altitude, no trees could survive, save the hardy whitebark pine. A stand of the whitebark pines (which look more like shrubs) grew along the ridge, all bent to one side, sculpted by the merciless wind and the snow which engulfs them, all winter long.

The windswept rim

As we trudged through the ash towards the top of the ridge, it grew darker and colder still. Our forms turned to silhouettes, against a sunset backdrop of crimson red. And, betwixt us and the sun, the expansive Crater Lake. In grey and black and purple shades, the caldera looked like a lunar landscape. I half-expected to see the towering form of Llao rise from the water. We each snapped away with our cameras, with the hope of immortalizing this holy moment at Giwas. We walked back amidst the twisted silhouettes of whitebark pines—the survivors.  Like Hephaestus, the trees were deformed, overburdened—but persistent to the end.

The sun sets behind Crater Lake, with Lauren in the foreground.

I have faced trauma in the past year. I faced a man who typecast me as a basket case, who downplayed my accomplishments as farce, and we who wove false narratives to soil my reputation. And he took a great deal away from me. I would not call myself recovered, yet. I am still scarred by his insults, and paranoid of forces that lurk in shadow, waiting to strike again, to burn the bridge out from under me when my next goal is in sight.

However, after my sequence of mystical experiences, I am closer to recovery. The Buddhists call it the path to enlightenment; the Christians call it coming to know God; and some Native Americans call it finding one's manitou. I call it developing heightened appreciation of Earth's beauty and magic, and connecting with a purpose higher than oneself. The touch of the Earth Mother can heal. She mends some of the wounds in my soul.

For more information on the Klamath vision quests, I reccomend In the Footprints of Gmukamps by Douglas Deur. For Klamath legends of Crater Lake, consult Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest by Ella Clark.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Reflections on the Visions

I am at work on a post about my adventures and mystical experiences at Crater Lake and its surrounding environs.  In the meantime, I'll share a bit more from the 2012 staff art show.

All toll, we showcased work from 12 park employees from three divisions.  In two days, 300 or so park visitors came to the Rim Community House see our show.  For most of the two days, I was on the front lines, staffing the show.  All the setup and take down and organizing left me in a bit of state of exhaustion, even though  I received great help from my comrades Lesley and Lauren.  On the afternoon of the second day, my comrade Brian came an offered to staff the show voluntarily, and give me few hours of respite.  It was an act of kindness.  I went to sleep on the bare wooden floor in the back of the Community House.

In the end, it was great to see the various creative interpretations of Crater Lake by my comrades, and an honor that we could share our visions with the visitors.  I composed the following statement to introduce the show, and posted it at the front table:

"The Vision behind Visions from the Blue

By living and working in National Parks, Park Rangers develop unique depths of knowledge and emotional connections to America’s great places.  Therefore, it should not be surprising that many Park Rangers are also artists.  With camera, pen, brush, utility knife, knitting needle, or keyboard, we express our knowledge and feelings about these landscapes.  At Crater Lake, different rangers respond artistically to different aspects of the mountaintop caldera.  Some are drawn to the power and violence of the volcanic eruptions which created Crater Lake; some interpret the beauty and tranquility of the lake at present day; some are enamored with the plants and animals which inhabit the lake and forest; some retell or reinvent the Native American stories; and some create abstract works to express the mystery and mysticism found in this environment.  Visions from the Blue showcases artistic approaches as diverse as the Rangers who created them.  We hope that you enjoy this show, and leave it with some education about the wonders of Crater Lake National Park, as viewed through the eyes of those who live them daily.

~ Ross Wood Studlar
Park Ranger-Interpreter (and artist!)"

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Visions from the Blue

A lot has happened since I arrived at Crater Lake.  I have gathered much to fuel my blog in the future.  In the present, it has been difficult to make time to update this bloody site.  I am here now.

Now that I have returned to Crater Lake, the Crater Lake staff art show has been reborn.  I led the organizing of the first-ever staff art show in 2010; I am back for the second-ever in 2012.  Our title for this one is Visions from the Blue: Park Rangers Interpret Crater Lake.  The show will feature photos, paintings, drawings, weavings, and sculptures by at least seven members of the park staff, including yours truly.

In my four years of seasonal work at Crater Lake, I have interpreted this unique landscape from many angles.  I take special inspiration from the stories that Native Americans tell about Crater Lake.  My latest artwork along these lines is below.

This one is a collaboration with my friend and fellow ranger-naturalist-artist Lesley McClintock.  She created the environment; I created the figures.  ( © to respective creators).  It is an illustration to "Coyote in Love with a Star", a story told by the Klamath Tribe wherein Coyote has a tragic love affair with a mischievous star, and the events lead to the formation of Crater Lake.  (For the full story, you can consult Coyote Was Going There by Jarold Ramsey.)

At Visions from the Blue, I will display illustrations to other Native American stories, along with drawings of our amazing landscape and its wildlife.  And I'll showcase my comic books The Raven and the Crayfish and Avian Tales from Crater Lake.  As for my fellow rangers--Lesley has drawings and prints of rare animals at Crater Lake, such as the Mazama Newt and spotted owl; Stephanie has an impressive set of photos of Crater Lake and other national parks; Lauren has an image of Crater Lake knitted from wool (and I had not known it was possible to knit with such detail); and Maria has a glass sculpture of a volcano, which I am yet eager to see.  Tomorrow, I will hustle and bustle to get all this set up and situated in the Rim Community House.

And so, if you happen to be able, I recommend that you come see us for the art show.  For more information, the flyer which we have posted across the park is also posted below:


Friday, July 13, 2012

Silhouettes and Night Encounters

Cartoonists have long known about the power of silhouettes. They have a way of striking to the heart, and burning into the brain. From Frank Miller's Batman to Chester Gould's Dick Tracy to Walt Kelly's Pogo, many of the most unforgettable images in comics are silhouettes. And all who see the film The Night of the Hunter remember the silhouette of the evil preacher Harry Powell, as he rides a horse across the night meadows, and sings an ode to Jesus.

There seems to be a primal force in these images; they appeal to us at an elemental, instinctual level. I suspect that it is related to our night vision. By the soft light of the Moon, silhouettes may be all a person sees, as he peers into the forest. The solid black shapes of hemlocks and firs and .... something moving? The ebony form of a big cat?

In my sojourns into the forest by night, at Crater Lake National Park, I experience the heightened senses which our ancestors knew. The drop of an icicle, the snap of a tree branch, a smell of musk, all become warnings of danger. They command rapt attention.

Primal fears reawaken. We harken back to a time when bears and big cats ruled the world, and humans were but soft-fleshed cave-dwellers, with unusually large brains.

On a night of full moon, my comrade Lesley and a dog named Whittaker joined me for a venture into the night forest, along the east rim drive (which was closed to automobiles). We passed the sewage ponds, where pacific chorus frogs sang. Munson Valley stretched below us, like the lower jaw of a yawning giant.

A few miles from park headquarters, the artificial lights could no longer reach us, not even dimly through the tree cover. Against the gray of the sky, the silhouetted forms of mountain hemlocks looked ominous. Like twisted beasts, whose multiple deformed limbs reached to grab us. Yet we passed below them, unharmed.

We continued along the east rim drive, amidst the shapes of black and grey. And then, through the cover of trees, light blasted in laser-bars. And as we watched, the moon rose higher, above the black mass of treetops, into the sky. It shown upon us like a celestial lighthouse. Now the grey was not so grey, the night less spooky. One could have read a book in the moonlight.

On our return trip, we passed again into the dark forest, where little light from the moon showed. A pebble bounced across the road, dislodged by my footsteps. We moved on, cautiously. Whitaker ran excitedly from one side of the road to the other, at the end of his leash. So much to smell, so much to explore....

And then Whittaker sprang into action. There was something in the valley, a steep downhill from the road on which we walked. He ran beyond the road's edge, and tried to charge downslope. With feet planted on pavement, Lesley strained on the leash to hold him back. He mewled and wailed; I am unsure what he sought to communicate to the intruder. He howled and pulled and yanked on the leash; it stretched tight as a guy-wire. And then, from below a log a hundred feet ahead of us, a yellow blob of fur emerged. Not fur, quills. A porcupine ran away from us, as fast as a porcupine can run, which is equivalent to a slow mosey. Whitaker pulled harder, and howled like an infant, but Lesley held him tight. The porky per-ambled along down the hill, and found a new log to hide under.

Further down the road, Whittaker became excited again. He darted back and forth and sniffed the ground. Tracks. In the snow on either side of the road. A larger hindfoot, shorter forefoot, claws. The tracks of a moderate-sized black bear, and rather fresh. It tramped across the road quite recently.

We continued our walk. A raven soared from one tree to the next. The forest was full of life. I began to wonder how many creatures watched us, smelled us, heard us, felt our footfalls as we passed. How few of them did we ever detect. Truly, we become the vulnerable ones at night. They are watching.

And these were not my most dramatic encounters with the beasts in the night. Five years ago, during my first summer at Crater Lake, I had a direct nocturnal encounter with a predator on the prowl. That story shall be the subject of a future blog post.

Tread happily but cautiously in the night, dear readers....

Batman artwork by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley, copyrighted to DC comics.  Low-resolution reproduction used here for archival and educational purposes only.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Back in Blue; War with the Newts and Crayfish

 The above photo is from my 2009 return to Crater Lake, but the experience is similar today.

Quite unexpectedly, I am “back in blue.” At the last minute, the management at Crater Lake National Park invited me back, for the summer season at least. I will wear the flat-hat again.

This park, this awe-inspiring lake, this old-growth forest with its great depths of snow, has been a powerful inspiration to me. I am here with the charge of providing information, guidance, and inspiration to the visitors. I live in the park as well as working here. Right now, a stream runs through the snowy evergreen forest, just out my window. It is a temporary flow, fed by snow, which melts at a healthy rate on a sunny day like today. Even in June, several feet of snow cover the ground. Earlier, I debated whether it was safe to walk in the woods without snowshoes. I concluded that it was. I am told that last year, there was still eight feet of snow at this time, and snowshoes were necessary.

When I return from my regimen of boat tours and trolley tours and guided hikes and campfire presentations, my “interpretive” work is still not finished. The landscape and its plants, animals, and people have a way of getting deep into my brain, becoming a sort of obsession. They populate my sketchbook and my word-processor. From time to time, I produce something that needs to be shared. And I am not the only park ranger who makes such artistic endeavors. There are many of us, as I discovered when I organized the first-ever (to my knowledge) Crater Lake staff art show in 2010. And yes, my collaborators and I have already begun plans for a second staff art show, to take place sometime in late July or early August. Details to be announced.

Back at the park, the first order of business is training, which includes a reintroduction to the science. New and returning seasonal staff must listen to many power point presentations from researchers, concerning many aspects of our park's life and earth science, and its management. I have learned much that is new, much that has changed since last time. Our landscape and its life forms face many dangers. Global warming may be the greatest danger of all. It has already done considerable damage to some of our parks, and if left unchecked, it will do much more. My comrade Ranger Brian Ettling has devoted himself to communicating about climate change and its solutions. I commend his efforts. The mitigation of global warming requires a cooperative effort from all of us.  And today is the best time to start.

Meanwhile, beneath the placid surface of the lake, a war takes place. The combatants do not know that they are in a war; each merely spends their day on a quest to fulfill their own needs. But, collectively, one species pits itself against another. I speak of the war between the brown crayfish and the Mazama newt. In recent years, park researchers have gathered substantial evidence to support the thesis that the crayfish are an invasive species, introduced by people. Slowly but surely, they colonize suitable habitats in the lake. And where they go, the newts disappear. These are the results of recent surveys of crayfish and other aquatic life. And a (very tiny) bit of the data was collected by yours truly!

And so I will share my story from my day on the lake research boat in August 2009. Originally, I sent the below narrative by email to some family, friends, and coworkers....

I spent a day with the lake research crew.  By pure chance, I caught them at a good time.  Time for the annual snorkel-survey.  We donned the 'body armor' necessary to survive an extended exploration of Crater Lake: a “woolly” fleece suit as underlayer.  Atop it, a dry suit.  Also drysuit gloves, boots, balaclava.  Finally, goggles and a snorkel.  We drove a little boat around the lake, and surveyed from the Pallisades to Skell Channell.  At each survey point, three of us would jump from the boat.  We swam or crawled along, or floated as the drysuit traps air.  We visually scanned the lake-bottom, and overturned rocks as we went.  Even through the armor, it was cold.  We recorded the steepness of each site, the general size of the rocks, and any living things seen.  We found many snails, caddis-fly larvae, aquatic beetles, and some rainbow trout and kokanee salmon.  We found moss at one stop (most of the moss grows much deeper).  We found crayfish, some quite large.  They jetted away when we disturbed their rock shelters.  They spread their claws, ready to defend when they felt cornered.  We found newts.  The young newts looked like brown worms, the adults like newts, brown with light spots.  We found a high concentration of crayfish around Cleetwood trail (the path to the lakeshore), and their range extended a good few miles east to the Pallisades.  West of Cleetwood from Llao rock to Skell Channell, the crayfish weren't found, but the newts were.  We never found crayfish and newts in the same place.  Generally, our survey had similar results to the previous.  Dense populations of crayfish around Cleetwood Cove, and their range is slowly expanding.  A density of crayfish has also been found around Wizard Island.  All this supports the theory that crayfish are an introduced species, especially considering that the entire perimeter of the lake provides suitable habitat.  And where crayfish go, newts disappear: maybe the crustaceans eat the amphibians, or maybe they outcompete.  I asked a research technician what would happen if the crayfish are conclusively demonstrated to be foreign invaders.  He said “Absolutley nothing.  There's millions of them.”  Like the nonnative fish, there is no practical way to remove them, and so the crayfish study, like much of science, is purely for knowledge.”

.... As for the last part of my narrative, I may have jumped to conclusions too quickly. The lake researchers are developing plans for how to control the crayfish invasion, at least in some parts of the lake.

We still do not know exactly why the crayfish obliterate the newts. Experiments to find out are under way.

I became inspired to give artistic interpretation to the crayfish domination. I opened my sketchbook, took out my pencils and brushes and ink, and produced an image.....

Good fortune to the newts. I hope that you find a way to survive.

In other news, my Crater Lake-inspired comics The Raven and the Crayfish and Avian Tales are now available on Etsy!


Saturday, June 2, 2012

Castles of Earth and Sky: A Narrative of The Homestead's 35th Anniversary Reunion

There is something magical about a reunion with old friends. The years or decades spent apart fade into the distance. We pick up right where we left off, albeit with a few scars and reminders from interim events. The phenomenon is stronger when the reunion takes place in the setting we shared; better yet when that setting is a beloved one. And so it was on my Memorial Day weekend, wherein I partook in the 35th anniversary reunion of The Homestead!

The Homestead at Denison University is a student-run intentional community with a focus on ecological sustainability, and an ever-evolving experiment in learning through living. For my latter three years at Denison, I was one of 12 students who comprised its membership. I have shared this distinction with over 300 others over the span of 35 years.

To make it feel yet more like old times, I departed for The Homestead from my other old home, my parents' house in Morgantown, West Virginia. From my suburban neighborhood; to become part of the rush of vehicles on I-70; to Granville, Ohio (a small New England town oddly placed in the midwest); past the main campus of Denison University, and finally to the parking lot of The Homestead—where I follow tradition and leave the vehicle behind, and walk the remaining half mile to my Walden. I encountered Christine, a former classmate, in the parking lot, whom I was glad to see (and hug.) I was also glad to have help in shouldering my many bulging bags of stuff on the walk back (I've never been good at traveling light). On the way, I learned of Christine's geologic research in National Parks. Not long thereafter I met up with Matty, who had returned from Kenya, where he did logistics for Doctors Without Borders. Matty gave me a hand in setup of my tent, in the tent city which had formed beside the entrance. After a walk back to the parking lot to retrieve my flashlight (wherein my former classmate Cassi met me half way and accompanied me for the rest), a car pulled in from Michigan. Out burst Ana, and her husband Joel followed. Ana is now a elementary school teacher, and co-manager with Joel of an urban homestead in Detroit. I had not seen her since the 2007 reunion, and was relieved to see that she had lost none of her trademark ebullience. And she carried an album of photographs from our Homie days in one hand, and a bag of electic clothing items in the other—to complement the Homie costume closet. Suddenly, we had an incomplete reunion of the class of 2004, there in the parking lot, not far from the red recycling barn (DURP).

We made the walk back, through the forest, through the field where fireflies flashed like Christmas lights, past the towering 'mama tree' sycamore. Once back, I entered Cabin Bob, the strawbale building which contains our kitchen and community center—a place to meet, socialize, play music, or read (the upper floor is a library.) Cabin Bob has a way of staying cool on a hot summer day, and comparatively warm in the depth of winter. We can attribute some of this to the power of strawbale insulation, some to the wood stove, and some to the hospitable spirit that permeates The Homestead. On this night, Terry, one of the founding Homesteaders in 1977, shared stories from the genesis of this marvelous experiment. Multiple generations of Homies listened with rapt attention. She told of her work alongside Robert Alrutz, the biology professor who was the original visionary behind The Homestead (Cabin Bob is named in his honor.) She carried a copy of their formal proposal which had won the hearts and minds of the university's board of directors. I never met Dr. Alrutz; he passed away in 1997, before I attended Denison. But he has done immeasurable good in my life, and the lives of my friends.

At The Homestead in May, the demands of schedule and academic calendar loosen their grip. One lives by the rhythms of nature and community, going to sleep and rising when it feels right, resting or socializing when such seems like the thing to do, cooking and eating as needed; and working to improve the grounds and buildings and gardens, following where one's muse directs. Even in the heat and humidity of this past weekend, work beckons at The Homestead. It's a natural part of country life.

I tend to awaken early, with the warmth of the sun and the chorus of songbirds. Roosters crow at all times of day (and sometimes at night); they act more as part of the background music than they do as an alarm clock. On the first morning of the reunion, I found myself in the garden, alongside a small crew of past and present Homesteaders. We planted a plenitude of tomato plants, which had been donated by Jameson, an alum. And we cleared and tilled garden beds for forthcoming plantings. I welcomed the bit of shade which the forest surrounding the garden provided while we worked.

On the way back from the garden, I saw Matty in a tree, while present-day Homesteader Juan Pablo stood on the ground, rope in hand. They discussed their new mission: to clear offending branches from the tree, so that the solar panel below could receive proper sunlight to feed The Homestead's off-the-grid electrical system. (Workers from the university physical plant are to be credited for putting a solar panel right under a tree in the first place.) These homies knew that the stakes were high. They must not only trim the heavy branches, but direct their fall. As Matty put it, “If the branches smash the solar panel, people will be making fun of us for the next 35 years.” Various homies chimed in with their own visions for what will happen, where to cut, and the direction to pull. They settled upon a plan. The roar of a chainsaw echoed across the Homestead. Juan Pablo and his crew pulled tight on the rope, as the chainsaw's rumble combined with the crack of a tottering limb. And then CRASH! The limb was on the ground. The solar panel stood intact; the limb had cleared it by less than a foot. A shout went up, a round of applause, and exclamations of “that was close.” The Homies removed more of the tree, piece by piece. The solar panel stayed intact.

The clanging of the cow bell is always a joyous sound. It invites all to gather for a mealtime, and homies appear from nearby and from far corners. We join hands in a circle and the cooks of the day proclaim their creations, we make announcements about upcoming events, or share literary quotations. Eighty persons attended the circle on the Saturday of this reunion.

We partook in the vegetarian repast, and told stories—many stories, spanning 35 years of Homestead history. Stories that make you laugh, stories that can make you cry, stories that make you shiver with fear, stories that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. Stories about the cast of characters, human and animal, who has left their mark on this land; stories about the evolution of the landscape, and the about the fun we had along the way.

Quite luckily, Homestead alum Chris Jacob (know to us as Chris J) has taken it upon himself to record some of these 35 years of verbal traditions. He is at work on a documentary film about The Homestead. At the reunion, he made sure to interview many Homies, including yours truly, and solicit their stories. I eagerly await the release of this film.

The stories continued around the campfire at night, until they were replaced by the beating of bongo and Djembe drums. On a hot summer night, the campfire felt like a sweat lodge, but that didn't stop the eager band of Homies in reunion. We even donned costumes, from the costume closet and from Ana's wares. We drummed and danced long into the night. I played my standard spoon-on-mug.

The next morning began slow. Homies lounged in the flesh-cooking sun, or chilled in Cabin Bob, and drank coffee. After a while, Cassi accurately deduced that the sluggishness was related to empty bellies. She recruited me for a mission: to make breakfast. And she showed me the grand stock of vegetables, which was hidden in the corner. I recognized the wisdom of her plan, and took command of the kitchen. I knew that the large number of persons present required great volumes of food. Rapidly, I recruited multiple volunteers to chop vegetables and gather herbs. Mushrooms, onions, garlic, carrots, tomatoes, and especially—potatoes. We filled bowls with potatoes and their complements. We soon had potato dishes a-sizzle in olive oil all over the stovetop, and more inside the oven. We scrambled some home-grown eggs as well. For this breakfast, I deliberately tried to make way-over-the-top too much food, and then make more. But after we rang the bell, circled, and unleashed the Homies upon the meal like a band of hungry bears, I discovered—that portions would be small. Cooking for twelve is a challenge, while cooking for over fifty is a stunt from a higher plane. Nonetheless, our potato smorgasbord fueled some impressive labor in the sun.

After breakfast, present-day Homie Kyle led an effort to apply stucco to Cabin Phoenix. I was present (as an alum) when the construction of Phoenix began, wherein a backhoe dug the foundation, and Homies with sledgehammers pounded earth into tires to create blocks. And so I am honored to have partaken in this final stage of the Phoenix project as well, applying the last water-resistant coat to the walls. We mixed cement and sand and color. We worked the paste (stucco), which behaved much like cookie-dough, onto the walls. Afterwards, Christine, Cassi, and Juan Pablo gave Phoenix a window-washing.

Later on, I did a bit more gardening alongside Ana, Joel, Chris J, and others. We exchanged stories about beekeeping while we weeded and tilled the new beds. Then a comrade summoned me to assist in re-raising the windmill. My height was advantageous for this task. With the combination of ropes, ladders, and human muscle, we raised the propeller-tower almost as skillfully as the old inhabitants of Easter Island raised their statues. And we returned a longtime Homestead icon to its rightful place of standing. The windmill's background story is for another day.

No Homestead reunion is complete without a talent show. Ours featured stories of The Homestead, real and fantastical; martial arts movie parodies; juggling; disc golf feats; an inimitable display of rapid bread-eating by Juan Pablo; and a reading an excerpt from The Raven and the Crayfish by yours truly—with an accompanying improvised interpretive dance by Matty and Chris J!

 Eventually, I had to see Matty, Christine, Cassi, Ana, Joel, Chris J, and all my other friends off to their respective homes. And I too had to go back. Arrivals and departures of various friends happened at all times throughout the reunion. The joy of seeing old friends combined with the pleasure of meeting new ones, who have borne or will bear the Homestead torch. In the span of four days, I gave and received so many hugs; I completely lost count. Several of my classmates brought young children to the reunion—their children, conceived sometime in the years since we graduated. I am happy to see a new generation emerging, who I hope will live in the spirit of The Homestead, and exceed even their remarkable parents.

A bond exists among all Homesteaders, even those who did not share the space concurrently. We all shared in the good life—meaningful work, meaningful play, a sense of purpose, and an eye towards the future. At our last circle, before most of us prepared to depart back to our various other lives and livelihoods, I read a passage from the last chapter of Walden. The part where Thoreau shares that he left the woods, but took its lessons with him. From this passage, I recall the line “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Homestead alumni carry a 'castle in the air'—the vision for a better world, a world more like The Homestead. Now our mission is to take steps (however small) to bring that vision to life. With a little faith and a lot of sweat, we can work wonders. Vegetables, beans, and the bonds of friendship provide essential fuel for the quest.

A heartfelt thank you to my fellow Homesteaders to shot the photos with me in them!  
"Stove top" pic by Cassi Leneski; "Stucco" pic by Mike Becher, and I don't remember who shot 
the Cabin Bob kitchen overview.  © to respective photographers.