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Illuminating the Hidden Forest, Chapter 10: An incandescence of mushrooms

Within minutes, I saw a bright orange flash in my left eye. There, maybe 20 feet away, deep in the ferns, the wavy scalloped shelves of chicken of the woods blazed in the morning sun.

This is the tenth installment in a series. To read the previous installments, click here.

Aug. 29, 2019

It’s been while since I’ve painted in the forest with Lily, but this morning I was up bright and early and Lily was hot to go, so I pulled on my woodlands gear, my watercolor fanny pack, my foldable stool and my hiking pole and set off with an ecstatic dog, resplendent in her coyote vest, of course.

Just three days ago I had returned to the woods for the first time since early spring. As I slipped over the ridge that slopes steeply down to the brook, I tripped over a downed young tree. This was the tree that I used to grab to anchor my descent as I picked my way down the slope. Not only was this tree a casualty of winter, the whole hillside to my right was littered with the branches of larger fallen trees, some maybe 60 feet long with trunks as wide as elephants. My gargantuan varnish cap hemlock was drowning in the litter of other fallen behemoths.

Suddenly, I tumbled down the slope. For a moment I lay at the bottom, stunned, my kneecap throbbing. I pride myself on being a sturdy septuagenarian who knows how to test the ground with every step. I am not, I thought, a person who falls. But there I was, scraped, bruised and humbled, but otherwise OK.

Whoa! Nature is on the move! I continued carefully, looking for my familiar landmarks: the embracing trees, the swampy patch, the bank of the brook where tree roots entwined. I found many of them, relieved, yet nothing was the same. They were embedded in new growth or surrounded by once upright trees now lying tangled on the ground. So I was prepared to be surprised this morning, maybe even disappointed, that places I loved last fall were no longer lovable this summer.

But Lily and I set out hopefully, and within minutes, I saw a bright orange flash in my left eye. There, maybe 20 feet away, deep in the ferns, the wavy scalloped shelves of chicken of the woods blazed in the morning sun. Oh, my: They were young and sprightly and gorgeous, dancing in clusters along a hoary log, succulent itself with mosses and lichens — a sight for the eyes as well as a treat for the table.

First, to paint them: I circled the log, seeking a composition. Logs downed in the forest are horizontal on the ground, but viewed from an angle, I could see a more lively diagonal structure. A moss-covered branch lay across the log between two bright orange clusters, further enlivening the scene. Ferns unfurled through a thick leafy bed, interspersed with sticks and branches — way too complicated, of course, but I’d give it a try.

I unfolded my stool; unsnapped my fanny pack; opened the water jar and lay it on the ground; fished out my mechanical pencil and No. 12 travel brush from a plastic sandwich bag; opened my plastic paint box pallet and lay it on the ground next to the water jar; and last but certainly not least, pulled my moleskin watercolor notebook from the pack and opened it on my knee. I began to draw, first the branch across the log, and then the log and the mushroom clusters on the log. I followed my eye down from the end of the branch to draw the ferns beside the log and a three-leafed plant beside it. When I finished the fern and the leaves, I realized that there was no room on the page for the other ferns that ranged along the log. I had drawn them much too big!

At this point I gave up drawing, reached for my brush, and began to lay in yellow and orange color about where I thought the clusters should be. From there, it was more instinct than observation, more emotion than technique. As I painted I thought I was making a mess, but kept at it, laying in green fronds here, rusty reds and mossy greens on the logs, trying to carve out the suggestion of dried leaves on the ground.

Lily bolted around for a while, but then mostly sat quietly while I painted. Occasionally she would wander off, and twice jumped on the log right in the middle of my mushrooms. By now I’ve learned to just stay calm and wait for her to jump down, which she always does. Sometimes the sun came out, blinding me so that I couldn’t see the paper. I stayed calm and waited for it to go behind a cloud.

Time disappeared. Then Lily started to whine. I looked at my paper, glistening with wet paint. I lay it over my fanny pack on the ground, praying that Lily would steer clear; folded my stool and glided it into its sleeve; poured out the dirty water from my jar; screwed on the lid and placed it into the fanny pack under my still-wet painting. My paint box was covered with puddles of mixed paint, but I just folded it up anyway; returned my traveling brush to its sheath and into the plastic bag, slipped it with the painting notebook back into the fanny pack; and while holding up the wet painting with one hand, snapped on the pack, put one arm at a time through the two cords on the nylon covering for the stool, picked up my hiking pole, and, while carefully holding the still-wet painting aloft in the air, trudged through the forest toward home.

At home the clock said 11. I had been painting for more than two hours.

I stood my painting on the counter and stepped back. It was bright, lively, abstract, loose and unmistakably chicken of the woods mushrooms growing abundantly on a mossy log. Two miracles in one day: the marvel of the mushrooms; and the alchemy of paint, paper, heart and mind somehow coming together to create an image that can take us into the incandescent forest early on an August morning.


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