March 27, 2013
It is time for a confession: I am a bad birder. I don’t mean “bad” as it equals good, because I don’t even aspire to be a good birder with a life list long enough to encircle the globe. This may come as a surprise to friends and students who know my complete devotion to our avian kin, but even Roger Tory Peterson shared my distress over the “good” birders who trample nests of common species to get a glimpse of a rare one. I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Peterson a year before his death, and he rued the day he was first called the Father of Birding. He told me his goal was get people to slow down and look at birds, even the most familiar, rather than frantically making checkmarks in the field guides he had written.
To me, the gift of watching birds is presence, both the ineffable, intense being of the bird itself, and what happens inside me. I am quiet, focused, as alive as the glorious feathered creature breathing the same air. It makes no difference if the bird is common. One time when I was taking a bird biology class, I spent a cold afternoon hypnotized by a Black-capped Chickadee prying apart a pine cone. Everyone else rushed to check an earlier reported sighting of a Tufted Puffin on the water, and later expressed bitter disappointment at having braved a blustery winter walk to the beach for nothing. My experience with a common bird kept me warm the rest of the season.
But I must admit that less usual observations can be a special reward, and owls in particular have sent me searching. In some cultures, owl sightings are considered auspicious, and in others, they foretell disaster. Being in close proximity of efficient predators who fly silently through the liminal space between dusk and dawn, between life and death, I understand both interpretations. It is equally eerie and thrilling to come upon a nearly hidden owl, watching the world with eyes as large and luminous as planets. I have felt my heart suddenly stop, and then restart with pounding recognition as I adjusted to the owl’s gaze just a few feet away.
When you share that moment with another human being, it is a powerful bonding experience. A few years ago, my partner and I were fortunate to witness Barred Owl parents teach their young to fly. The first night we saw them, the still night was broken only by our occasional whispers, and the owls’ highly pitched, metallic-sounding calls to each other. A few nights later, we stood under the watchful eyes of the parents who allowed us within a few yards of their fledglings, until other people arrived with flashlights and loud voices. The owls disappeared back into the darkness, and we were caught in a disorienting beam of light. We wondered if the folks who spotted us recorded “2 old witch birds” on their life lists.
One of my fondest memories of an owl sighting is from childhood. My mother, terrified of birds since her own childhood, woke me late one winter night to look outside. The nearly full moon lit the back fence where a Snowy Owl perched. For once, she was unafraid, and the wordless hour we spent together was one of the best we ever shared. The bird returned the following night, and it was my turn to wake my mother to come watch again. Shortly before her death, we spoke of the experience as clearly as we had years before.
During the last 2 winters, there have been irruptions of Snowy Owls who venture into Seattle to find food. My feelings about this remain divided. It is a rare treat to know that they are close to us, but many of them are young birds who arrive in poor shape and face the real possibility of starving during their first winter. Their visitation is poignant.
Late last year, I received a commission to do a collage of a Snowy Owl. My hope was to see one before I started to layer bits of paper into distinctive feather patterns. All season, I dutifully checked every time I heard our resident crows join in mobs, but the disturbance always involved other birds of prey, and a raven or two, an equally unlikely sighting in our suburban city. And while I kept vigil, I looked at pictures of a Snowy standing on a nearby beach, and yet another perched on the roof of a neighborhood less than 6 miles away. Even a trip to the Skagit Valley, where a friend reported seeing 2 owls just a few days before, yielded countless swans and geese, harriers and eagles, but no Snowies.
When the time came, I retreated into my imagination to start the collage. Somehow, in the hustle of the last month, I found a quiet and necessary place in my studio for the owl to roost. It was a young owl, with lots of barring, and in good health. This bird stood still and posed in my mind’s eye so I could capture the gaze that makes hearts stop, and then race. I needed an avian sense of suspended time – of presence – even more than I realized. I finished the collage on a rare day off, and was thrilled to see a vibrant young Snowy Owl look back at me from the drafting table. At that moment, I thanked my mother for waking me on a frosty night long ago. I may not be a good birder, but I do know how to be present to life around me.
March 1, 2013
March 1: a little spring in the air, and some extra kick in my step. I’ve been thinking for months about embarking on a Kickstarter Campaign. I’ve been thinking for nearly two decades about the 13 Cats Project. What better year to bring this project to life than in 2013?
In this auspicious year, I will create artwork for a book featuring 13 lucky felines, all rescued by Purrfect Pals, who find new, loving homes. I will sew a quilt for each cat, create a portrait in paper collage, and compile the stories of 13 cats whose lives are changed by the care and generosity of people who open their hearts to them.
My devotion to fabric started long before I got a degree in art, and although I made quilts for shows, I didn’t make one for a cat until much later. The first recipient was a wildman manx named Bono, pictured in paper collage above. He loved to nest in boxes of fabric, and was the ultimate sewing machine supervisor. Once, when he was feeling poorly, I decided to make him a special quilt. He immediately took to it, started feeling better, and soon after, all my cats got their own quilts. Interestingly, they all knew which one was theirs, and rarely transgressed onto other quilted territory.
By the time I started working at a companion animal shelter, I’d made piles of quilts for felines of friends, family, and paying clients. And then I started making them for special cats adopted from the shelter, too. Almost two decades after leaving that job, I can’t remember how many dozens I made in reality, and how many I created in my mind. Often, the only way I could deal with euthanasia was to imagine wrapping each cat in a quilt before she passed. Needless to say, I dried many of my own tears on the corners of those imaginary quilts.
I imagined a book about rescued cats and quilts not long after leaving my shelter job. But, there were still some tears to cry and to healing to be done before I could envision the artwork. I also had a lot to learn about making cats out of paper. I’d already published 2 books for young readers, each filled with illustrations of wild animals. My first cat illustrations were for small books published by the Wright Group. They were a start, but I still had a long way to go.
In the last few years, I’ve finally gotten there. I can make paper cats! I still make quilts, and last fall, I realized it was time to think about the book again. It was also time to connect with Purrfect Pals and have a different kind of experience with a shelter. I see this book as a collaboration, and every person who supports the project is part of it. This is an exciting step, and I will be honored to have friends, family, and other cat lovers take it together.
The Kickstarter Campaign goes through the month. Please take a look here. Thanks for embarking on this adventure with me!
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” ANATOLE FRANCE