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the journey

Walkshop 2: Sites of Significance

The journey today begins a little different. I am in my boyfriend’s car, watching the highway go by in a blur as we leave campus. He asks me where I want to go, what the destination should be for this Walkshop. I tell him that we are following the teachings of Sister Corita Kent, a Catholic Nun who taught at at the Immaculate Heart College between 1938 and 1968. By using the viewfinder- a piece of paper from my sketchbook I had cut into a square- we would be able to isolate little details and see something new. He decided to take me to Raleigh’s Lake Lynn, which is bordered by a walking path. Though I don’t know it yet, the site is significant to him, a catch-and-release fishing destination for brotherly bonding. (You can hear a bit about that at minute 13 & 15 below). I open my fitness app, Strava, and with Professor Marzan’s podcast playing through my earbuds, press begin on the record of my journey.

I would later, after the podcast ended, record some audio of the sounds from the rest of my walk. It’s a lot of cicadas, footsteps on various surfaces, out-of-context conversation, and birds. Listen while you read on, and become immersed in the environment where my descriptions fall short.You might want to keep the volume low, as any experienced adventurer cursed by foul tinnitus can tell you the pitch of cicadas can be grating on the soul. Let it drift into the background, a living ambiance to help you imagine yourself walking beside me.

The lake is surrounded by neighborhoods on all sides, but has a thin border of trees that the walking path wanders between. The trees are a mixture: the dark, rough-barked trunks of pines scattered between various deciduous trees, the broad flat leaves providing ample cover from the heat. Underneath the trees, saplings, bushes, vines, and mushrooms make a messy underbrush. There are a number of wooden boardwalks too, offering a view of the lake unencumbered by the foliage.

As I walk down this first boardwalk, immersed in the podcast, I am intimidated by the Sister’s teachings. The idea of doing 100 drawings in a single day seems wild to me, but her insomnia-induced reading sprees seems more familiar, and the Sister becomes a kindred spirit. As I walk, I take pictures, some with the finder and some without. I imagine drawing them, and realize paint would likely serve better than color pencil, if I wanted to do deep study instead of bright sketch.

Our first “instruction” comes about 8 minutes in, with the podcast prompting me to find the nearest building, and isolate ten details to draw. I panic slightly, spinning in a circle as I take in the environment. In front of me winds the path, a dark river of black asphalt. To the right is the lake, with a pine straw blanketed and mushroom-dotted slope from the path to the shore. But to the left, through the trees, I spot a house- barely.

I climb up to a barbed-wire fence, peering over it with my finder in one hand, camera in the other. When I go to draw what I’ve captured, I am frustrated. I need ten details, but the photo barely captures six. So I draw what I think I see, counting as I go:

  1. the house is made of wood painted a muted blue-green
  2. there is a window to the left that looks open
  3. there is a window center stage with four panes
  4. next to that window is a white painted balcony
  5. behind that balcony is a door
  6. to the right the house continues up in a chimney
  7. the roof is black, likely shingled

But then my frustration takes over, and I can’t help but doodle what is obscuring my vision, the tangled mess of leafy branches and the trunks of dark trees. The whole drawing is like that, messy and hard to understand visually. The yellow-tinged glow of sunlight doesn’t come across that way with my pencils. So I keep walking, keep listening.

The Professor spoke of growing up just as I was crossing another boardwalk. He ruminated on the dangers that media presented, the ways the television set has shaped our culture. I spotted a pair of boys on a kayak, and captured the image immediately. Growing up, I always heard adults claim that the youth were being corrupted by TV, that they were spending too much inside and weren’t able to appreciate nature. That’s not what Marzan is saying of course, but it reminds me of the sentiment all the same, so seeing two kids enjoying the outdoors was a nice contrast. After all, he is speaking about fine-tuning the art of seeing, and the surreal colors in this photo certainly speak to fine-tuning.

“It is very dangerous to draw from memory. We remember inaccurately, and rarely can retain any details.” These are the words of Professor Marzan, directly quoted from his podcast.  Something about the quote rings true, this idea that our minds can betray us. I am reminded of the eyewitness in a criminal case, of how unreliable eyewitnesses have been responsible for 75% of false convictions, simply because memory itself is incredibly fallible. It makes me wonder about the life of the sketch artist, whose sole purpose is to draw a suspect based off the description of an eyewitness. I am still wondering about this when I take a few photos of a fairy ring, wondering if the descriptions of the so-called fae can be attributed to low lighting, deep shadows, and the witness’s own memory betraying them.

Suddenly, our next instruction comes: find the nearest parked car, take a picture through the finder, and draw it. Once again, I have a flash of panic, and it takes a moment before I spot one. The trees are thinned out on this section of the walk, and there is no fence, just a large No Trespassing sign that I take care to stay behind.

Here’s the photo I took. The car only stands out in being white, as it is barely even in the midground

I encounter a different problem from the house: instead of trees blocking my vision, it’s the distance that obscures things. Zooming in on the image can only do so much, but I do what I can to capture what details I can see. I think of the car as negative space, and build the scene around it. I mess with proportions a little, and don’t capture every detail in the back or foreground. I pour saturation into the objects directly bordering the car, hoping to deepen the contrast between the scene and the subject.

pinning down the precise shades of the various leaves proved a fun task

Some time passes before the next task. We are told that we should look at shadows for ten minutes through the finder. My immediate thought, looking up between the dense trees at the cloudy sky, is: what shadow? The weather has turned grey, and the path we walk has the additional cover from the foliage. Its all shadow, the light is equally muted. But I look. I try to find a good example of shadow, something I can draw. The professor says we just have to keep looking, keep concentrating, until the shadows begin to come into focus. After a while, he’s right. The shadow I finally find is on Chase’s legs, him seemingly backlit as he stops to look at me on the path. It feels like a revelation, the fact that the shadow was hiding on his legs when I was busy searching the ground, trying to find the difference between water stain and shadow on the discolored asphalt. I make him stand still for a moment while I snap a picture and start a sketch, then we move on, continuing the journey.

In that time, I pass by a strange shape and do a double-take, realizing I’ve spotted a tree that has fallen, ripped from the ground. If I was in Wilmington, I would say this was the mark of a hurricane. But we aren’t in Wilmington yet, so I wonder what happened, if something other that the rage of the hurricane could rip something so large from the ground. I cross another boardwalk, and notice the storm clouds rolling in. They aren’t supposed to open near me, but I increase my pace anyway.  I am a little anxious,  knowing we have to get on the highway again when we leave. But the duck seems unruffled, so I try to focus.

As we walk, Marzan speaks of trees, of the patterns they make, the way the light changes the colors of the leaves. I think back to the car scene, the foliage a scribbly mess of every green I own as I attempt to capture the shades of light and shadow. But the tree I stop at when the professor asks isn’t quite the same. I can’t get close enough to appreciate its leaves, as the tree is in a yard and another blocks my view. Instead, I stare at its trunk, the bare shape of the limbs as they, well, branch off from the base, stretching upwards to the sky. It’s a perfect template when asked to list things related in structure to a tree.

My first thought is human veins, specifically the ones in our hands. There’s something to be said about life, I think, the flow of blood spreading though the hand like branches spreading from the tree. The word flow, of course, speaks to the tributaries of a river, which split from the headwaters to bring life to the land, just like the blood to the hand, just like the flow up the branches of water and down the branches of energy. The roots of a tree, swollen with water, burst through concrete, and the cracks in that concrete earn a place on that list. the sharpness of the cracks reminds me of lightning, the way it is described as branching, the crack of pure energy very on-theme with the water and the blood.

I keep walking, keep listening, trying to feel and understand the differences between looking and seeing. When we are asked to find a plant, the first thing that stands out to me isn’t a plant at all really. Its a small patch of mushrooms, pale and beautiful, nearly translucent. I look at the underbrush, the trees, the tangled greens and browns, and find it hard to separate one single plant for my finder, for my camera, without having to crouch before it. There’s something alluring about the fungi though, and even without it being a real plant, I can’t help but be drawn to them as much subject. I am asked to describe them, so I get in a little closer.

They are white, at first glance. But the more I stare, the more I am unsure. They are thinner than paper, more like a membrane of skin, looking yellow-tinged from one angle and more bluish from the next. You can see the stronger bolts of color, more opacity, where the gills run along the underside of the cap, like the veins of a leaf. In the center is a white ring, like the bullseye of a target, showing where the stem meets the underside of the cap. The cap is turned upwards, seemings to curl in on itself, and at least one of the mushrooms are torn, with the torn portion already curling. I very gently touch one, and yes, it does feel a little like skin, a bit rubbery too. They aren’t a flower (though they look like one). I can’t detect a proper fragrance, and my nose isn’t really the greatest, a childhood incident involving a concrete pole and a broken nose messing with my senses. But I can smell the detritus, the damp wood and the old leaves and the wet dirt, the smell of rain and rot.

There is no wind to shake them, but I suspect they wouldn’t move much, snug in the litter of a forest floor. A little google digging tells me they are ink-caps, probably hare’s foot. If so, their existence is fleeting, springing up for a few ethereal hours before curling in on themselves and disappearing. They are temporary, living a life in moments too small to fathom for a creature with a life expectancy of at least half a dozen decades. I only do a quick sketch, and add in a doodle of how they look when “young” and “old”. Then we move on.

We reach my site of significance. I look through my finder, rotating in a circle. I am told to think about life. This spot is on that walking path, of course, which means the natural and the man made are all around me. The lake to my right, filled with fish, with fowl, with frogs and insects. The trees bordering the path, home to birds and squirrels, vines climbing up them and fungi nestled at their roots.  An apartment building up the hill to my left, where families live and children play with their pets.

There is a connection, the inherent cycle that binds us all together. The people and animals needing the trees producing oxygen in order to breathe, the trees needing our exhaling carbon dioxide to live. The animals live off each-other in both land and lake, off the plants growing on the shore and dancing in the water. The lake itself is a home to plant and animal, recreation for man, subsistence for the trees with their deep-reaching roots. The land animals drink from the lake, and when they fall, the fungi grow from their bones just as well as any rotten log. Thus is life.

One reply on “Walkshop 2: Sites of Significance”

How insightful and mysterious a journal! I can’t wait to see where else these travels lead, and what else you unearth. I can definitely feel the spirit of adventure in your recollections. Will be following!